I remember overhearing a conversation in a coffee shop some years ago where a gentleman said something like this:
“I always have people ask me why I’m so serious. I often overhear people telling their friends not to take ‘this’ or ‘that’ too seriously. And I got to thinking about it. If we need to learn how to not take life so damn seriously, we ought also to learn to not take death so seriously.”
I’m not sure, but it stuck with me. A simple exchange, maybe a completely spontaneous thought from a total stranger I was eavesdropping on – but it stuck with me. I think about it often, especially after losing several friends, relatives, and acquaintances over the past several years. It’s unusual to me – at least intellectually – to be so incredibly afraid of something that literally every single living thing in the cosmos will eventually have to do, which is to die.
Different cultures treat death differently, but there are always common themes of loss, sadness, tragedy and redemption, rebirth, or some form of ‘life after death.’ I’ve enjoyed photographing various rituals and discovering some of the nuances of life and death celebrations in the American Southwest and Mexico.
It’s still hard to put into words when I look back on these two. I met the husband and wife musical duo at a 4th Avenue bar in Tucson, Arizona back in 2005 or 2006. The two were playing music in the bar lounge. It was a week night and there was no cover charge, which is really the only reason my girlfriend and I went out that night; we were both going to university and didn’t have a tremendous amount of spare cash, so free music and cheap happy hour drinks were always a solid draw.
I really enjoyed the music. Amy and Derrick always had magnificent chemistry. They always seemed happy and in love, and that came through in their music. They’d take breaks in between songs and interact with the crowd, ask questions, take requests, and make jokes. It was impossible to walk away and not take some of that joy with you. As relatively broke as I was, I had to buy one of their albums, and it become a regular part of my musical rotation.
Years down the road I secured a job in the old copper mining town of Bisbee, Arizona. With the mining operation all but shut down, the town had long-ago become a mecca for artists, musicians, drop-outs and various other vagabonds. It’s unique color and history also make it a draw for tourists, which sustain a healthy hospitality industry – restaurants, bars, and hotels abound in Historic Bisbee. As it turned out, Amy and Derrick called Bisbee their home; they played multiple sets at various venues each and every week. My favorite times were Wednesday nights at The Copper Queen saloon where Amy would play solo, seated behind her keyboards, and take requests from anybody who happened to be there – funny, improvised, and ingenious performances. I quickly learned, when dropping by Doug Stanhope’s Super Bowl party, that the couple actually rented a house from the comedian and lived adjacent to the Stanhope compound.
In a small town, everybody seems connected to everybody else in one way or another.
I could never boast a close, personal relationship with Nowhere Man and Whiskey Girl, but I always enjoyed their music and their kind, generous energy.
Amy Ross suffered from lupus and kidney problems. After spending more than a week at the Tucson Medical Center, she passed away at the age of forty. She’d been suffering from a blood infection and died shortly before a scheduled surgery. Derrick shot himself in the head in his home in Bisbee with a firearm he purchased shortly after his wife’s death. Amy’s death was announced on her Facebook page:
“Hey kids! Bad news! I died this morning and Derrick didn’t know how to tell you. I love you all and hope you go out and be nice to someone. Funerals are a bore so hopefully I don’t have one. Give Derrick some alone space…He stinks at this stuff so leave him be for now. Thanks for all the kindness…Please spread it around.
We learned shortly thereafter that the message was penned by Doug Stanhope after receiving permission and password information from Derrick.
It’s hard to tell if anybody had any idea that Derrick would take his own life. He’d mentioned that he might kill himself while speaking on Stanhope’s podcast before Amy’s death, but such a public proclamation – and on a comedy podcast no less – didn’t seem to bend too many ears, especially when speaking with a man known for humor that’s regularly pretty dark.
The whole town, still absorbing the loss of Amy Ross, was in shock after learning about Derrick’s suicide. A gathering of locals descended upon The Grand Hotel Saloon in celebration of the lives of Nowhere Man and a Whiskey Girl. Local musicians sang songs, covered tunes from the deceased couple, and many glasses were raised. The bar was packed with glassy-eyed locals, and I like to think that it was a decent send-off.
Today’s photograph was taken in the green room at The Bisbee Royale, a short-lived night club that is now home to the local radio station.
This is an image that I have always loved, and it was a happy accident. After traveling through Europe, I came home with a giant pile of film that needed to be developed. I was still in my early days with photography and most of what I brought home was absolute garbage – but I shot enough film that I ‘lucked’ my way into a few decent images.
While I was in the darkroom, drawing my first prints from the Paris Cemetery rolls, somebody came in and flipped the lights on, not knowing that I was there. When this happens while a print is being lifted, it can create an effect known as ‘solarization,’ where the light short-circuits the developing process because the printing-out paper is still light sensitive. That’s why the highlight areas of this image are a neutral gray with what appear to be glowing edges.
I can’t even recall whose tomb this is; I just remember that the carving grabbed my attention and I took a photograph of it. Maybe somebody out there knows – let me know in the comments.
“Riches do not exhilarate us so much with their possession as they torment us with their loss.”
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Crystal passed away a year ago. She was a genuine creature. Flawed and unpredictable, honest and bright. I am so terribly sorry for her husband’s loss, for our loss. She was a friend to everybody, specifically because she always spoke her truth and spoke it without fear. She was rude as hell, too. But fearlessness is a virtue few can boast. Crystal had it. And anybody who spoke with her for more than two minutes knew that, and remembered her.
I will always remember her. And now, even those of you who didn’t have the chance, please take a look at this face. The constant rebel, the rule-breaker who never took a second’s thought to ask “why.” No, no, no. Crystal, like all good thinkers, wasn’t too sophisticated to realize that the best question is never ‘why?’ The best question is ‘why not?’
I don’t make prints of this painting available for purchase because I refuse to profit from this kind of loss.
As I did last year, I offer to send a free card to anybody who would like a print. Send a message to my Facebook page with your name and address, and I will send you a small print to remember her by.
The wind came from the southwest yesterday afternoon, bringing with it the threat of colder days. Flags whipped their heavy canvas sounds into the air, popping in the sky, rattling the halyards. A cluster of dry, cotton candy clouds slid across the darkening landscape.
I took a walk out to Lenexa Cemetery, a small patch of land we used to drive past on our way to church every Sunday morning. I know a few people buried there, but I’d never walked the grounds – only driven past. It strikes me as odd, these cemeteries, tucked in, flanked on either side by apartment buildings, within eyesight of the Hy-Vee Supermarket, FedEx Office, the McDonald’s. I’ve grown used to cemeteries always being on the outskirts, but that model doesn’t work in cities like this, which continue to expand their circumference, slowly devouring the pastures that I remember from my childhood.
A murder of crows were perched on the mausoleum in the center of the yard. One would occasionally pop into the air, circle around fighting the wind, only to settle back down onto it’s original perch. As I approached, their rhythmic cawing rose. Their heads would shoot left, shoot right, cock to the side, as if considering whether or not to fly away from me and into the unforgiving wind.
Save for the sound of their cawing, the wind in my ears, everything seemed still, despite the tide-pool of traffic that circled around the cemetery. Life in the city continued to pulse forward – just not here, in the crunching yellow grass, amid the blackbirds and the headstones.