A music-flavored anecdote from my youth:
When I was a kid, time in the car with my parents was spent listening to WLTY*, the “lite” radio station that played ’60s, ’70s and ’80s music, with a little ’50s thrown in. (This is probably where I get my lifelong affinity for sappy songs. You will pry my copy of History: America’s Greatest Hits from my cold, dead fingers, if that.)
Sometimes WLTY would play Richie Valens, and Mom would say, “He was so good. It’s a shame there won’t be more music from him.” Valens, of course, was dead.
Sometimes they’d play Jim Croce—actually, often they’d play Jim Croce—and again: “He was so talented. It’s a shame there won’t be any more music.” Jim Croce, as you probably know, is also no longer with us.
Sometimes they’d play “American Pie” or “Vincent” by Don McLean, and my mother would say exactly the same thing…
You can see where this is going, can’t you? To me being the only person struck with eldritch terror upon finding out Don McLean was playing Harborfest in 1990, that’s where.
Our house had an open-plan kitchen/living room. I was on the sofa. “Mom?” I called out.
Mom, cooking dinner: “What?”
I cleared my throat meaningfully. “It says here Don McLean’s playing in Norfolk this weekend.”
Nothing. If he weren’t a zombie, wouldn’t she express some interest since she loved his music? Then again, if he were in fact a zombie, she should definitely express some interest. I tried again.
“But isn’t he, you know…”
She did not know.
Thinking a musician from times past is dead is a normal mistake (especially in 2016). That’s the point at which a normal human being would have looked at the news and concluded that they’d misinterpreted what might be called Mom’s Standard Eulogy For Musicians. I’d love to say I have no idea what I was thinking, but I do. I was thinking GHOSTS AT HARBORFEST!, and for some reason couldn’t be deterred from thinking it.
What was even less normal, in retrospect, was the way I not only brought it up but backed gently into the idea, as if I were actually going to find out that Don McLean was a revenant, but only if I asked in just the right way so as not to alarm the ‘rents.
Eventually my mother stopped laughing at me…for this particular incident, anyway.
And I have never, in the intervening decades, been in any doubt as to whether Don McLean is alive or dead. In fact, every time I tell this story I seem to gain yet another person who will personally call me on the phone if and when the sad news ever breaks.
I can’t say I actively recommend the “embarrass yourself horribly” method of remembering whether a given famous person is alive or not, but I do know it works like a charm.
*I see that the WLTY call letters are now used by a station in Cayce, SC. The mystic Edgar Cayce used to live in…the Tidewater area, where I grew up! Coincidence? You bet.