Not to be Taken Away

On the front cover of Who Are You, the last worthwhile album by the British rock band The Who, bandmembers pose before a stack of bulky cables, plugs and massive electrical equipment that could be the back of their concert gear. Their different clothing styles are supposed to demonstrate divergent personalities on an over-produced recording (too many string sections!) padded with songs so weak that, with the exception of the sensational title track, are indications of band that has run out of things worth saying.

Pete Townshend, the band’s blues-infused songwriter, confesses as much on “Guitar and Pen,” about the frustrations of writing anything meaningful–a fitting lament for a band that had begun to take itself too seriously. “Sister Disco” and “The Music Must Change” are pathetic, rock mockeries of musical styles that, with punk rock and new wave, would render irrelevant much of adolescent alienation and geeky humor that had made the band’s “rock opera” Tommy and the fragments of its sequel, Lifehouse, on Who’s Next, so powerful.

And then the album ends with “Who Are You,” a thundering triumph of alienated anger made even more notorious by singer Roger Daltrey’s inclusion of the f-word in the lyric. I remember when the song came out and ruled “album-oriented-rock” FM radio, American stations played a version with the f-word edited out.

But to a generation that equated music with rebellion, excess, freedom, gratuitous destruction–the band no longer smashed their instruments at the end of their concerts, as shown on the first Woodstock film, but drummer Keith Moon, was still famous for vandalizing of hotel rooms and swaggering defiance of social norms, hearing Daltrey yell “who the f— are you” was proof that in-your-face exuberance of rock ‘n’ roll was still alive, though, as we were to find out, about to leave us.

Shortly after the Who Are You album was released, Keith Moon died of an overdose of a drug that was intended to blunt the symptoms of alcoholic withdrawal.

On the album’s cover, Keith Moon sits on a chair in dressage riding gear, as if he’s an English aristocrat who has just come from the stables after a day at hounds.  The chair is turned around, and on the chair’s back is a painted sign: NOT TO BE TAKEN AWAY.

I thought of that sign yesterday morning when my brother called to tell me that my step sister had died.

Townshend, eventually replaced Keith Moon with the less interesting. far less destructive Kenny Jones, but the driving, thundering, defiant rock ‘n’ roll energy in Moon’s drumming was gone. In 2002, bassist John Entwhistle died of a cocaine overdose in a Las Vegas hotel room. Townshend, who was nearly deaf from playing too loud, and politically conservative from watching so much of his royalties taxed away, broke up the band, a second career as a book editor and memoirist. He also came out as bi-sexual. He and Dawltry continue to tour, playing the music that still thrills their aging fans, who call them affectionately  “the Two.”

My step sister and I were always pleasant with each other, but never close. In the last year, I tried to change that.

I don’t “do” death well. Ever since I lost my grandfather at age 11, the passing of those close to me throws me into an emotional whirl. I become cynical, reckless, angry, despairing and very sad. When I was a child, my father told me outside the cemetery, that I did not have to go to the grave site, that I could sit in an idling car and watch people in dark clothes walk among the tombstones and trees, gather somewhere in the distance, and walk back. He said this to spare me, in a voice that suggested that funerals were for other people, and I would be better off by myself. Later, as a man with my cousins at the graveside funeral of my uncle, I saw my father refuse to get out of the car, claiming that because he was a kohain, a descendant of Jewish priests, he was forbidden to be in proximity of the dead, much less enter a cemetery. He had aged awkwardly. What was left of his personality would disappear in the angry blur of Alzeimer’s Disease.

I am also a kohain. On that day, I had no problem setting my face to the cold wind blowing off the Hudson River, scouring the graves as I followed my uncle’s coffin to the opening in the ground. I dropped dirt on the casket. I washed the dirt off at the spigot sticking out of the wall of the cemetery’s office. What sustained me was the wordless cry I had heard from the cantor at my uncle’s funeral. The song, if I can call it that, seemed to open a hole in the sky. For a moment, I thought I could peer through that hole and see the sacred.

When my father died and I went back to the cemetery, I could not say anything. My relatives were offended. Why didn’t I show some respect and say a few words? It did no good to tell them that, having not forgotten what I had seen, and heard from him two weeks ago in the hospital, I could not speak. A year after that, at the unveiling of his tombstone, I found some words.

In addition to my uncle and my father, I have lost all four grandparents, my mother, my stepmother, my father and mother in law, a brother in law, family friends, some that I knew as kids in high school, colleagues in teaching, publishing and writing.

And now, my step sister.

Our spirit is burnished over the years. We’re supposed to learn from, or, at least, remain resolute when confronting failure and loss, so that we can push forward, find purpose and, as we age, be an example for our kids and those who are momentarily lost.

Today I found some words. I can speak. I can think of things that are not to be taken away, but find ways to leave us.

But I am not any better at “doing” death.




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