The death of a public figure

Ask Arthur Anything response

Harvey Milk.George Moscone
Harvey Milk and George Moscone

For Arthur’s Ask Arthur Anything feature – I wonder where he got THAT idea? – I asked him one or two questions. One was “Other than Nigel [his late husband], whose death did you most mourn? Also what death of a public figure most affected you?” I’m going to focus on the latter.

Arthur wrote: “Two deaths affected me well afterward: Harvey Milk’s assassination in 1978 and Matthew Shepard’s murder twenty years later.” And it is true for me as well.

At the time, I thought Harvey Milk was the “other guy”, a city councilman killed along with San Francisco Mayor George Moscone by colleague Dan White. This happened only a short time after the Jonestown massacre, in which a large number of Bay Area residents died, traumatizing the community. Congressman Leo Ryan was also murdered in Guyana, tearfully announced by Moscone.

But by the time I saw the 2008 film Milk, I knew how important Harvey’s leadership was in LGBTQ+ rights. And that he went to school at the University at Albany.

I discussed Matthew Shepard in a comparison with Emmett Till, about whom I’ve written often. “Neither victim was a publicly known person; they weren’t activists in their respective civil rights struggles. Yet because Emmett’s mother had his battered body photographed in an open casket, because we saw the fence upon which Matthew was symbolically crucified, they were remembered nationally far beyond how the average murder victim is recalled.”

And yes, I protested in Albany against a certain ‘religious” Hate group, which came to town some years ago to complain about Laramie Project performances.

Dead musicians

Unlike John Lennon’s assassination, which hit me immediately, George Harrison’s death didn’t have the same instant impact. I knew he was dying. It was after 9/11; in fact, he was on the cover of TIME magazine in late November 2001, the first cover that wasn’t about 9/11 or Afghanistan in a couple of months. As I played George’s music, and later, when I heard the  Concert For George, his passing developed a greater resonance.

Sometimes, I’ll point out to Brian Ibbott, host of the podcast Coverville, which music stars had birthdays the following month that were divisible by five. I noted that David Bowie would have been 75 on January 8, 2022. Someone commented, “There hasn’t been a David Bowie cover story since the tribute in 2016. January 10 will also be the sixth anniversary of this sad day. So, please!”

Weird thing. I was recently watching that bit with Bowie and Bing Crosby on the latter’s holiday special. You know, the one with the fascinating dialogue. I was thinking, “Crosby died [on October 14, 1977] before that thing aired.” And suddenly, I realized, “Bowie’s dead too!” This is obviously something I knew intellectually since I had written about it more than once. Yet it took me by surprise and made me quite sad.

I’d count Prince, especially since my niece Rebecca Jade started singing with Sheila E. in 2017, and they cover so many of his songs. They both appeared in the televised Let’s Go Crazy — An All-Star Grammy Salute 2020, with Sheila as a musical director.

Martin

The person, though, whose death has hit me more at a later date is Martin Luther King, Jr. I remember when he died in 1968. However, I’ve learned SO much more about him subsequently. I’ve tried to make a point in the past decade to write about him every year around the dates of his birth (January 15) and death (April 4).

This is particularly true since certain people have hijacked his message into simplistic tropes. I wrote in 2013, What Would Martin Do, which is pretty representational of what I’ve been going for.

There are many others. For instance, several late entertainers and athletes I’ve admired, from Ella Fitzgerald to Hank Aaron, who had to endure Jim Crow.

Coincidentally, the very same day Arthur debuted the aforementioned post, Kelly shared For Carrie,  noting Carrie Fisher, gone five years. It’s worth checking out.

Author: Roger

I'm a librarian. I hear music, even when it's not being played. I used to work at a comic book store, and it still informs my life. I won once on JEOPARDY! - ditto.

One thought on “The death of a public figure”

  1. All these people affected my journey as well. When you’re a straight, cisgender woman who was raised in the suburbs, coming into “the wider avenues” takes a lot of work. Mom was devastated by Dr. King’s assassination. She didn’t know much about Malcolm, but three other assassinations of that era (Dr. King, John Kennedy, and Bobby Kennedy) laid her low. What I learned from her is that you don’t need to be a member of any particular club to take violence and the ensuing loss to heart and ACT on it. After Pres. Kennedy’s death, she campaigned hard for Bobby Kennedy. I wish I still had my clipboard with the Bobby Kennedy campaign sticker on it. I was in 6th grade in a Republican enclave, and I took heat from my friends.

    George Harrison, yes. No drama to his death, but what I learned about all the Beatles was that, although they all had friends, George’s collaborations were deep. The Traveling Wilburys’ song, “The End of the Line,” especially. And at the Concert for George, there was a guitar solo to end ALL guitar solos from Prince. He reminded everyone that George Harrison was not only a great guitarist: he wrote songs with great changes!

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