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By Talking About Death, We Realize We’re Not on Our Own

It was early in the evening of Sunday, November 4, 1984 when my future wife and I, and two very good friends, were allowed in the south side ground-floor door of Rec Hall. The door was serving as our own personal handicap entrance since my future wife was on crutches and unable to navigate the stairs required to use the main Rec Hall entrance. It was one of the two friends with us who was able to arrange this semi-surreptitious side-door entrance because, well, he knew and was liked by everyone in town.

Once inside Rec Hall we maneuvered to our seats in the first row of the south bleachers. We took off our coats, used them for seat cushions (wooden Rec Hall bleachers!), and my wife leaned her crutches on the gym floor behind our legs. Our reason for being there that night? The Cyndi Lauper concert. 

Our seats were close to the south corner of the stage, meaning we wouldn’t have any trouble hearing the sound. All these years later I can’t recall if the sound company that night had “flown” the speakers above the stage, but in my mind I picture stacks of classic Clair Brothers S-4 cabinets on either side of the stage, powered by more stacks of Crown DC-300 amps behind the speakers with their little red lights glowing. A concert nirvana.

The crowd that night was a mix of young kids, college students and middle-aged people. The decision to go see Cyndi Lauper that night was primarily made by the two females in our party of four, as we two males, envisioning ourselves as mature adults, were a bit reluctant to be seen among what we expected would be primarily teeny-boppers. But, go we did and fun we would have. 

It had been just over a year since Lauper had released her debut album, which was a worldwide hit. She became the first female artist to have four consecutive top-five hits from one album. She won MTV’s inaugural Best Female Video award, appeared on the covers of Rolling Stone, Time, Newsweek and People magazines, and would win the Grammy Award for Best New Artist the following year. In other words, she was popular, and this was a major concert “get” for Penn State and Happy Valley.

The opening act that night was a group called the Bangles, who in a little over a year would become immensely well-known when they released a single titled “Manic Monday” that would reach #2 on the U.S. charts. Interestingly, “Manic Monday” was written by Prince (more on that in a bit).

But that night they were just an unknown warm-up act for a pop culture phenomenon. After they did their set, the Rec Hall lights came up while the crew and roadies changed the stage for Cyndi and her band. As is common between concert acts, there was taped music played over the speakers while the work on stage continued.

As the crew was clearly completing the stage change, doing final “check one-two’s” into microphones, anticipation was growing among all of us in the audience. As one innocuous song came to an end and the stage was empty the expectation was the feature act was about to go on.

And then these words came over the loudspeakers:

Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called “life.”
Electric word, life, it means forever and that’s a mighty long time.
But I’m here to tell you there’s something else, the afterworld.
A world of never ending happiness, where you can always see the sun, day or night. 
So when you call up that shrink in Beverly Hills, you know the one, Dr. Everything’ll-Be-Alright.
Instead of asking him how much of your time is left, ask him how much of your mind, babe.
‘Cause in this life, things are much harder than in the afterworld.
In this life, you’re on your own.

For those who don’t recognize them, they are the words at the beginning of Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy,” which had become the No. 1 single in America just two months before. And the crowd’s reaction to this? Well, we all went crazy! Be-bopping, jumping around and screaming the lyrics for the next four minutes.

Then, as the final guitar-solo strains faded from the speakers, Lauper took the stage to a massively energized Rec Hall, and opened “When You Were Mine” — a song that was written by, you guessed it, Prince. I’ve been to plenty of concerts before and since, and I’ve never seen an artist who transitioned from a stage change as well as Cyndi Lauper did that night. And did it by essentially propping a fellow artist, who in any other industry would have been seen as a competitor. An unusual move by an unusual artist. 

My purpose here today though, is not to talk about how unusual Cyndi Lauper was, or how much fun we wanted to, and did, have that night, but to dive a little deeper into those Prince lyrics in “Let’s Go Crazy.” It just turns out that night was the most powerful time I’ve ever heard them.

The lyrics are about life, and almost more importantly, death. He talks about the afterworld in glowing terms – “A world of never ending happiness” – which conjures up images that many of us would describe as heaven, nirvana, Elysium, kingdom come, Zion, promised land and others. So here was arguably the most popular musical artist of his time, and possibly the greatest musical artist of all time, talking about death in what could easily be described as a religiously positive manner. Which is a bit odd because in many ways in this country we tend to be a death-averse culture. 

Granted, there are parts of our media industries that embrace death as a tool. William Randolph Hearst allegedly coined, “If it bleeds, it leads” back in the 1890s. The death of a parent is a classic storytelling device used by untold writers and moviemakers from Bambi to Harry Potter. A 1998 study by the American Psychiatric Association found that American children will have seen 16,000 simulated murders by the time they reach age 18 – a number that has almost certainly increased in the decades since.

And in November 1789, Benjamin Franklin wrote, “Our new Constitution is now established, everything seems to promise it will be durable; but, in this world, nothing is certain except death and taxes.” He would die the following April, but his quote, “nothing is certain except death and taxes,” has lived on in our culture for more than two centuries.

So, it’s not as if we aren’t in many ways surrounded by death; it’s just that we don’t talk about it in any meaningful way. At the everyday family and work level of our lives, death is often a taboo subject. It seems that as far as death is concerned, Prince is right, you’re on your own.

Yet, most of us have known and had relationships with people who have died. Family members, friends, acquaintances, co-workers. People we have spent time with, had dinner with, worked with, gone on vacation with. People who were there, and then suddenly, they’re not. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 3,383,729 died in the United States in 2020. That’s an average of 9,270 people a day. Right around 1% of our population that year. Meaning if you know 100 people, there’s a chance one of them died. And the more people you know, the more who likely died. A chance that gets even greater if most of those people you know are older.

If you are reading this on Tuesday, July 26, 2022, it was one week ago today my sister passed away from cancer.

Although she was generally a private person, she was very generous and open about her last weeks of life. She gave us the opportunity to talk about what was happening and what would happen. 

But it was difficult and I can certainly understand most people’s inability or unwillingness to talk about death. We were gathered here today and I was expecting to say something useful about it, to provide some individual reflections and positive insights into this unmentionable topic. Yet I’ve written over a thousand words and am just now getting around to saying anything personal about it.

I guess the best I can do is to ask, or suggest, that you have the conversations. That conversations about death become something you can have with family and friends in the same way you discuss many other topics in your life. That the more final half of Ben Franklin’s two certainties gets at least as much family-and-friend time as the other. 

So that maybe we realize we’re not, as the lyric goes, on our own.