Nothing lasts and nothing can hurt me



“I was thinking about how nothing lasts, and what a shame that is.”

The other night was one of those where the old favorites come off the DVD shelf and fill up the TV with something familiar to pass the time. In this instance, it was The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a movie with its detractors, to be sure, but with all due respect I can’t understand that and I’m not one of them.

Without resorting to spoilers, the unifying theme of the movie is one of love and loss, and how our life is a series of joyous happenings undercut by mortality and the inevitability that, as Mr. Button laments, nothing lasts. Every one of us, good and bad, no matter how much we give to the world or take from it, are going to be shown the door, and we don’t have a say when that is.

That theme came up again the very next night, when I rented Nothing Can Hurt Me, the documentary by Drew NeNicola and Olivia Mori on Big Star, a band who flashed through the mid-1970s, never found their mark commercially and disappeared, only to reappear as a forceful influence on some of the greater artists to follow in the decades to come.

Chris Bell, the ghostly presence over all their best music, died behind the wheel in 1978. Their leader, Alex Chilton, succumbed to a heart attack in 2010, and bass player Andy Hummel followed him later that same year. Big Star is mostly gone, with only their brief catalog and drummer Jody Stephens remaining as powerful reminders of what they created. And in watching their story, the more characters that popped up to sing their praises and carry on in their memory, the sadder it felt.

Their music is here, thankfully, but they’re ultimately reminders of the people who made them, aren’t they?

The notion of non-permanence has never jived with my natural tendencies towards filing and archiving every bit of art and memorabilia that I encounter. Without slipping into clinical hoarding, I try to preserve as much as I can; I keep and file notebooks, I organize music, I save knick-nacks and scraps and bits and tokens from my life. They’re all stuff, and I could live without it, but keeping it all close by is comforting. It keeps reality simultaneously accessible and at bay.

But that reality is impossible to ignore for long, no matter how much is saved and sorted and preserved.

It was a little while after the movie came to an end, after a little noodling around on the guitar, that I started zipping around YouTube and I found an intimate little clip of Elliott Smith covering “Thirteen” in 1996. It was a snippet of time that perfectly crystalized the profound, lasting impact that Big Star’s music had on some of the more influential folks to come around and commit songs to plastic and the airwaves and our memories.

But it was bittersweet, because here was another ghost. Smith left us far too soon, leaving all his beautiful songs behind along with the tormented thoughts of what could have been and what could have been done to save him.

And he’s not alone. Just a quick scan of my record collection reveals so many brilliantly talented souls who disappeared while they still had so much to offer. Just spinning my desk chair around immediately reveals Duane Allman, Richard Manuel, Otis Redding, Andy Wood, Kurt Cobain, John Bonham, Brian Jones, Janis Joplin, Keith Moon, Danny Whitten, John Lennon, Joe Strummer, Jimi Hendrix, Layne Staley, John Coltrane, Jeff Buckley, …

It’s a list that would only get longer if I started pulling out sleeves and scanning my library. Listening to music and letting that path and time of discovery take hold can be a sobering experience. And it can be a brutal experience; it’s a constant reminder that we’re not here forever. It’s a reminder that everyone leaves, and there’s no telling when that might be.

It’s not an idea unique to him, but I’ve heard Ryan Adams discuss the notion that it’s the work that matters. That’s partially true; certainly, the relationships we forge with the people around us is likely to have the longest-lasting impact, and it’s those people who will mourn us and remember us after we’re gone, if we’re lucky.

But some people get to be remembered by people they never met, because of the work they did and the lives they touched. Everyone mentioned above, and so many more, helped someone along in a terrible situation with their music, more than we can ever know. We all have to leave and nothing lasts, but the thought of an artist helping someone and keeping a small part of life going, long after the expiration date passes, is a comforting one. It could be a painting, or a photograph, or a story, or a song, or a memory.

Big Star, then, did their work, and they left an impact on their fans and the ones they loved, who in turn took that work and made it their own, while respectfully acknowledging the weight of the source material. They’ve done their part to save a little bit of what was here for as long as possible. And it keeps going.

We don’t live forever. We’ll see the people closest to us leave or die, and they’ll watch us as we walk away or disappear. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a tangible impact. Nothing lasts, unless it matters.

July 30, 2013

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