I’m not sure how old I was when I started thinking about death regularly, but it picked up quite a bit after I had a heart attack at 57. It was mild as heart attacks go, one stent the fix, probably caused by stress and lack of sleep, but it made me pretty angry. After that I considered the possibility of checking out quite a bit. I may have thought occasionally about death prior to that, but I assure you it was only occasionally. I can’t remember to tell the truth. Aside from a few dark dramatic moments while traveling in my twenties I’ve always only thought about dying involuntarily. I would never kill myself I don’t believe, unless I knew I was losing my mind, because I would always look forward to my next meal.When you’re young you consistently equate death with old people, who die regularly. Perhaps young people now, what with terrorism, the opioid epidemic, and the dystopian pessimism going around think more about death than I did but I doubt it. I took a lot of risks which, if I thought I was going to die, I probably would not have. Death never crossed my mind when I was young.
It’s hard to avoid thinking about death now at 66, and impossible if you’ve lost a person you loved (a spouse, a sibling, a child). When friends or family experience the death of one they regard as impossible to exist without, we empathize in a chilling way. All we have to do is imagine losing a child, a wife or husband. As a young father I was once invaded by the thought of my infant daughter dying, for what reason I’ll never know. She was and is as healthy as a horse. I was driving at the time. I had to pull over I was shaken so badly.
It’s not long after we imagine the deaths of those we love that we finally picture our own. It’s a slap in the face. Not pretty. Optimistically, I picture my own death this way. 95, witty, still able to take nourishment and fairly mobile, I laugh out loud while looking up at a blue summer sky, step off a curb, and am hit by a speeding truck loaded with whiskey.“Poor Dave. He never knew what hit him.”
“Yep. The whiskey did kill him in the end, just like his wife said it would.”Pondering your death is as normal as getting up in the night to pee. You can’t help but do it, and there’s nothing wrong with it. Try not to share your thoughts too often though with young people, especially your children. They don’t like it. But don’t think yourself morose or depressed. It’s OK. Death, as they say, they being funeral directors, is part of life.
If nothing else thinking of death is a mathematical function that simply happens in your head. You’re sitting across the table from a friend much your senior, looking into his somewhat vacant eyes. Are they different than they were a year ago or is that me? Or is that blank look just because he isn’t wearing his hearing aids?“How old are you now?”
“What?”“HOW OLD ARE YOU NOW?”
“81.”I’m 66. That could be me in 15 years. Shit. Fifteen years is not long. I have to get busy.
And so ends the long introduction to my piece on Leo Kottke. My wife and I saw Leo Monday night at the City Winery. He was wonderful and so is that venue. We ate there with the kids before the show. A little pricey but SURPRISE, they picked up part of the tab. I never thought I’d live that long.We got married to Leo’s version of “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.” We listened to his Armadillo album till we wore out the grooves and lost it. I recently downloaded it and put it on a CD, and am wearing that out as we speak, or as I write rather. He’s unique. I have blogged about him before, two years ago on a drive down south in the Buick. (You can scroll down if you choose, January, 2016-Road Trip #11). Here's Leo Kottke when he was young.
Leo has had a hell of a good life, viewed from afar, and has been able I think to stay true to what he loves and is blessed with talent at doing, playing guitar. He came out on stage at the City Winery with two guitars, a 6 and a 12 string, sat down on a chair and played. In between he told droll stories. Even a hitch hiking story, always my favorites, from when he was a busker and played on the streets. Hitch hiking is all but gone. I wonder now if the young people among us can imagine what it was like.He still plays beautifully. The notes he gets out of his instrument are so clear and sweet they make me cry. He sang more than I anticipated, and played mellower versions of his mellower tunes. My wife asked nicely
“Weren’t you just waiting for him to break out into his really loud, hard driving stuff?”She was talking about Leo’s fast, frenetic playing, known technically as polyphonic finger picking, a complicated thumb and finger technique accomplished with thumb and finger picks. Tendinitis has forced Leo to give up on most of that stuff. My wife and I were longing for tunes like “The Driving of the Year Nail, ” the raw and raunchy counterpart to his beautiful slow stuff like Bach’s Jesu. He didn’t play it. I don’t think he can anymore.
He played beautifully and I was honored to hear him, the first time I’ve ever heard him live. When he walked out I felt weirdly like I knew him from somewhere. I completely agreed with him and his take on encores. The strange custom that we have developed at concerts where artists leave the stage, wait for the audience to clap and whistle, then come back on and perform more as if they were really going to leave. Leo simply announced his last tune as his encore, played it wonderfully, picked up his guitars and left the stage.
When he held his guitars up and gestured to the crowd, I thought I saw him rock forward slightly then regain his balance. That happens when you’re old.Leo is 71, five years older than me. I don’t know how long he’ll play, because playing is almost all he’s ever done, but nothing lasts forever. When it comes to individual performers that’s because no person lasts forever. I’m pretty sure no one’s going to play like Leo Kottke ever again. No Leo Kottke one man tribute band I’m thinking. He’s one of a kind. And then the thought crept in.
The thought began with a conversation about Gato Barbieri. I was talking to my friend Bill about Gato, one of his favorite jazz musicians, who plays the saxophone. Make that played.“I always wanted to see Gato, and I had a chance while I was in Rome a few years ago. Saw he was in town, bought tickets on a whim, went down to the hall, and the show was canceled. He got sick. Bad break.
Later he was scheduled in Chicago, and I was all set to order tickets, and damned if he didn’t die. I waited too long see Gato. Makes me mad. I’ve decided not to wait till the next time to see people I really admire. Hell if it’s not them it could be me.”I feel the same way about Bob Dylan. I’ve seen him a few times, been disappointed lately, but when I get the chance I’ll see him again. We grew up together in a way, but neither he nor I are going to last forever. Another friend said he saw Gordon Lightfoot perform not long ago, and he had to take a medical break between sets. Breathing treatment or some such thing. Go see your musical heroes perform while you (or they) still can.