Willie Nelson is Dying … Again?


Perhaps a few readers (not counting my immediate family members or the conspiracy-theory dude who cussed me out in an email) will recall my December 2014 piece taking issue with ethernet paparazzi that repeatedly post false reports of celebrity deaths; in that instance, bogus announcements claiming Muhammed Ali had died.

Fortunately, those claims were just the latest in a long series of hoaxes generated by folks with too much spare time and too little cyber impulse control. The Champ was still this side of the grass. And would be for another 18 months.

Ali was, of course, just one of many ailing and/or aged celebrities prematurely buried in a segment of the public psyche. Over the years, household-names from Twain to Hemingway; Mandela to Pope John II, were famously rumored dead long before their tickets actually got punched. (Not to mention the epic 1966 urban myth alleging the death of a certain Beatle still roaming the Earth as I write.)

This rigor mortis underground (pun intended) has for the past few weeks been fixed on a familiar favorite: the oft-left-for-dead Willie Nelson. Seems the legendary musician, film actor, author and activist cut short a high desert concert due to a respiratory issue; and no matter the near-death denials issued by his staff — and in short order, the legend himself — within minutes of leaving the venue, Willie’s certain demise had gone viral.

As I suggested with Ali, the only upside of such moronic behavior is that we’re forced to practice for the day when the rumors are not rumors. The day when a genuinely unique if flawed icon passes from our midst.

When that time comes, Willie’s record sales will temporarily skyrocket as listeners old and young sample a catalog that tracks his many metamorphoses; complete with a few misses, but rife with bonafide candidates for some of the best cross-genre songs this country has produced.

The tributes will undoubtedly pour forth, some from unlikely places; for as with Cash before him, Nelson will die having appealed to as wide as any audience this side of Michael, Elvis and the Beatles. The sendoff will in turn be high profile.

But for all his talent, it’s the loss of Willie, the progressive populist (no pun intended this time) some of us will most grieve. His many personal screwups noted and be damned, we’ve taken solace knowing that at 84, he’s still getting it done: Still putting on annual benefits for family farmers; still advocating for common-sense marijuana laws; still donating time and money on behalf of LGBTQ equality, restoring the social safety net, fossil fuel reduction and the repeal of corporate personhood.

Still out there, still using his name and resources to advance the cause of liberalism in a most illiberal age. Still getting it done.

But not even heroes live forever. One day the rumors will be true. And we will be a little more on our own in this effort to prevail over the current madness.

So if the law of averages holds, I plan to be around the day Willie Nelson passes over. And I will take the time to cue up “Night Life” and “Hello Walls” and “Funny How Time Slips Away”. I’ll listen through all of “Phases and Stages” for the hundredth time. And I’ll see how far I make it through “God’s Troubled Child,” his most recent and at points darkest collection.

And then I’ll take as my benediction these closing lines from Willie’s autobiography, “It’s a Long Story: My Life”:

“On April 29, 2015, I turn eighty-two. That’s another blessing, longevity — one I never expected. It’s one thing to be eighty-two, but it’s another to have the energy to keep touring the globe. That energy isn’t fueled by anything I can generate on my own.

The fuel is love — love of people, places, animals, plants, water. Love of sound, love of space, love of fireflies and star-filled skies. Love of life. Love of home.

To some, coming home means the end of the journey. But to me it means the start of another journey, a journey without end.”

Don Rollins is a Unitarian Universalist minister and substance abuse counselor living in Pittsburgh, Pa. Email donaldlrollins@gmail.com.

From The Progressive Populist, September 15, 2017


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