Lange had promised to work late but he wasn’t in the mood. These obits were getting him down. After three hours at the typewriter all he had was a pile of notes on his desk and a wastebasket full of crumpled papers, each containing a sorry phrase that limped neatly toward profundity. He decided to look at the file.“Death, Airplane: Holly, Buddy… Redding, Otis… Richardson, J.P…. Valens, Ritchie…” Those were the easy ones. Familiar. “Cut down in the prime of life… tragic loss… never to be forgotten…” And morally immaculate. Ethically neutral. Lange had no use for clean myths.
“Death, Angels: Hunter, Meredith…” Hard to get a focus on that one. What kind of life was he cut down in the prime of? Lange didn’t have the slightest idea. “The spirit of Altamont,” he thought to himself. The Spirit of Altamont. It sounded too much like an airplane and he decided not to use it.
“Death, Automobile: “Cochran, Eddie… Fuller, Bobby (there was a footnote. Lange looked it up. “Murder,” it said)… Kidd, Johnny…”
“Death, Motel: Cooke, Sam… Out of place in the file. Not surprising, since the file had been worked over so much lately. Lange pulled the card and placed it behind the next, thicker set.
Death, Drugs: Epstein, Brian… Hendrix, Jimi… Jones, Brian… Lymon, Frankie…” He didn’t have a card for Janis Joplin. He hadn’t written the story yet. He kept thinking about the stories he was going to have to write next month, about how many times he would have to stand the old clichés on their heads. He thought about the omissions in the file, the victims of “natural causes.” They didn’t bother with those here. Anyone can die of natural causes.
Even me, thought Lange. I’d better go to a movie.
Lange locked up and stepped out into the street and walked the three blocks to the Cinema Maudit. On the way he ran into Catherine Deneuve, who was off to the Cinema Lumiere to see Stolen Kisses for the eighth time. “What are you going to see?” she asked Lange. Memo From Turner, he said. She’d never heard of it. Lange realized his mistake when he got to the theatre. Performance. He never got titles right. Catherine thought that was cute. Lange thought it was stupid.
The movie was extremely decadent. Lange wanted something so decadent he’d come out feeling vital and alive. It would have worked, except that the film ended with the death of a pop star. Lange felt like he was reading a card in the obits: “Death, Gun: Ace, Johnny… Turner…” He thought of Catherine at the Lumiere. There was some sort of death in that movie too. Very vague, silly, anguish easily erased. “When you take the sting out of death you take the sting out of life,” he thought. A good line for a story. He’d use it.
Lange stayed in his seat while the projectionist started the film again. The orgy of decadence began to resolve itself into an austere kind of quest. Turner died when his career was up, that was evident. Three ghosts in an old building meet another dead man from the other side of town. Together they play trivial lifegames, the cross-town boy waiting for death and Turner looking for a death that will satisfy him. Those old Mississippi blues kept sneaking into the house along with the poison mushrooms. “You may bury my body, down by the highway side, so my old evil spirit… Can get a greyhound bus and ride, that was it. Searching through the old Mississippi blues like a Satanist edging open the pages of forbidden books. Lange forgot his obits; he felt very close to death.
Turner was going to die anyway, when his records stopped selling. So he made a deal with his demon—they kept talking about his demon—and took that death before his time in order to prepare for one that truly suited him. “I got stones in my passway, and my road seems dark as night… I got pains in my heart, they have taken my appetite.” Turner was beginning to insinuate himself into the heart of that problem. It wasn’t a matter of figuring out what it meant; he’d known that since he’d been a schoolboy. Now he was on the edge of uncovering the proper form of his despair. The demon was pushing him and Turner played the blues one step ahead. When the form had set, Turner would recognize it. Lange heard the long thin lines of the blues guitar from Mississippi. Death! Death! My road seems dark as night… until I get satisfied.
Turner didn’t care whether English boys could play the blues. The question that interested him was whether they could die from them.
His demon wanted a greyhound bus and Turner left in a Rolls. The real British blues, thought Lange.
Lange walked out of the theatre and back to his office. He went straight to the typewriter and wrote out an obit so narrow and short it could have appeared in the city records.
At the moment, Lange didn’t give a damn about the necrophilia of the obit file. He had filled up the file with elegant funerals, and now, as he put his quarter-page of copy in the copy-box, he no longer felt the sexy power of big-time death. He respected it, but he didn’t like it. Turner’s blues had taken an event and transformed it into a presence. Lange was wearing it like a suit of clothes, but he was alive underneath. He was no longer writing pornography.
Pop death: punctuation. Where were you when you heard? It was better than a new album. The stores fell all over themselves re-ordering when the news hit on the latest pop death. Lange felt very much past all that.
Outside, he didn’t want much from the evening. Lange was beginning to recognize the stones in his own passway, and he needed a little grace to move on through. Robert Johnson Turner Johnson Robert.
Magic words, after a fashion.
Take One, Vol. 2, No. 11, 1971