Tuesday, April 21, 2020

The Paradox of Time and Memory

I am older than John Lennon or Kobe Bryant will ever be. Lennon was 40 when he was shot to death in front of his apartment building in 1980; Bryant was 41 when he died in a helicopter crash earlier this year. They are gone too soon, but also forever young.

You don't feel the passage of time until it slaps you in the face. Watching the first two episodes of ESPN's "The Last Dance," I realized that most college students today were not even born when the events depicted in the film took place. That time when the Chicago Bulls won six NBA titles during an eight year span felt so exciting, so vibrant, so electric--but it is history to today's young adults, much like the Beatles or the Boston Celtics' 1960s dynasty are history to me and to members of my generation.

Someone who watched John Lennon and the other Beatles during the 1960s did not think of Lennon at that time as a tragic figure whose life would be cut short--but members of my generation had barely learned who he was before he died, and thus the international outpouring of grief that followed his death is inextricably connected to my thoughts and memories about his life. As a child, I was struck by the cruelty of Lennon being killed in the prime of his life shortly after he had released an upbeat song titled "(Just Like) Starting Over." I knew that Lennon had been in the Beatles, and I had some idea of who the Beatles were, but I didn't feel the Beatles the way that I would later feel Prince. Put another way, I did not have the illusion of knowing the Beatles the way that I had the illusion of knowing Prince; after all, Prince--through his songs--accompanied me in real time through a wide variety of life experiences spanning over 30 years.

I lived through the Kobe Bryant era, even participated in it as a writer/interviewer, so when I think of Bryant I think of the best player of the post-Michael Jordan era--the player who came closest to matching up with Jordan (you can disagree with that assessment, but that does not change the way that I personally experienced that era). Interviewing him in Cleveland, or in Indianapolis, or during NBA All-Star Weekend, I could never have imagined that he would be frozen in time as forever young--but children now, and children yet to be born, will perceive Bryant not as a living person, but as a historical figure who died young, like Dr. King and John Lennon. Dying young is an inescapable part of their legacy.

You can learn history, but no matter how much you know, no matter how empathetic you are, no matter how sensitive you are, it is difficult to feel history the way that you feel the life you live, the events that impact you in real time. Every time I hear Dr. Martin Luther King's famous "I've Been to the Mountaintop" speech I cry, but those are tears spilled because I already know how the story turns out; if I had heard that speech when he gave it, I would have felt inspired instead of tearful--and if I had been alive when he was assassinated, the immediate, visceral feeling of loss would be different than the feeling one gets from learning about Dr. King's life, and finding out for the first time how he died.

Dr. King had a vision that he might not be destined to have a long life, and he shared that vision with his followers in "I've Been to the Mountaintop." Lennon had no visions of personal martyrdom; in fact, he sought to avoid that fate, once telling an interviewer, "It's hard to be Gandhi or Martin Luther King or to follow them. I don't admire politicians particularly, I think they're showbiz people, but people who put their thing on the line, like Gandhi, and threw the British out by not shooting anybody...those are the political people I admire. But I don't want to be shot for it like Gandhi, and I don't want to be shot for it like Martin Luther King. I don't want to be a martyr. I don't believe in martyrs, but I admire their stance." Those words sounded one way to a listener in real time, but they sound different when you read them after Lennon was shot--just 12 years after Dr. King was assassinated.

Lennon also said, "If I'd conveniently died in the mid-70s after the Rock 'n' Roll album or Walls and Bridges, they'd all be writing this worshipful stuff about what a great guy and wasn't he funny with a Tampax on his head [during Lennon's infamous "Lost Weekend" period]. You know, all that stuff, it's all right when you're dead. They'd all be saying, what a great guy, and wonderful, wonderful. But I didn't die, so that infuriated everybody, that I would live and do what I want to do. Which is look after me and the family--that was the central concern--to be a family and not lose that was more important than the creation and records and rock 'n' roll and being in Billboard."

Lennon was dead two months after he uttered those words, leaving behind his widow Yoko Ono, their five year old son Sean, and his 17 year old son Julian (from a previous marriage).

Lennon appreciated the past, and his past, but he did not find it productive to wallow in nostalgia:
The adults that were the 20-year-olds in the 60s have all turned into what we were supposed to saving ourselves from: asking for the 60s to come back with the Beatles and the Kennedys--they probably even want a war so's we can have an anti-war movement...We don't need the 60s and we don't need the Beatles we don't need the Kennedys. Let's leave them where they are, in a nice memory...I don't hate the 60s--I have great memories. When the 60s music comes on the radio I enjoy it. Same thing when the 50s music comes on--it takes me back to being 15, [the] 60s takes me back to being 20, the 70s take me back to being 30, and the 80s are going to take me back to being 40. But nostalgia is fine on Sunday, not every day of the week.
Michael Jordan does not seem like a nostalgic person--he has too much confidence in what he can do right now to spend much time dwelling on what he did in the past--but it is interesting that "The Last Dance" footage languished in the proverbial vault for two decades before Jordan gave his approval for the film to be made and to be publicly distributed. Jordan embraces living in the moment, but at some level he is also thinking about how he will be remembered--and possibly controlling that, to the extent that he can control it. Of course, Jordan has every right to shape how his story is told, and I agree with Sam Smith that it is great to hear from Jordan talking about the past after so many authors--including Smith--provided their takes on Jordan's career.

I often think about the "Wiseguy" episode "How Will They Remember Me?"--and it is hard to believe that the episode first aired over 30 years ago! Vinny Terranova found his father's old journal, and reading his father's thoughts long after his father had passed away brought to the surface a full range of emotions for Vinny about his childhood, his relationship with his father, and his current occupation as a government agent tasked with infiltrating the mafia. Vinny's father desperately wanted to leave something behind for Vinny to remember him by, he wanted Vinny to be proud of him, and he wanted to control how he would be remembered--but we cannot control how we will be remembered, or if we will be remembered at all. If Dr. Martin Luther King, John Lennon, Prince, or Kobe Bryant had died at a much younger age--before they became famous--none of them would be remembered at all (from a historical standpoint), but if they had lived to be 80 or 90 then each would almost certainly be remembered differently, because they would have become elder statesmen in their fields instead of icons who are forever young. Would the passing of time change them, or change us?

That is the paradox of time and memory.

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