For the ones we lost (in their own words).
A brief goodbye to a few people this year took from us.
I used to carry around a notebook in my early twenties. It was a black Moleskine and on the cover I’d spray painted crisp, red quotation marks. I kept it in my bag and whenever one of my friends said something that struck me, I’d pull it out and write it down in there. Sometimes the quote was an inadvertently profound gem and other times it was bafflingly dumb late-night babble. One night I shared bunk beds with my friend Gregg while he was tripping on mushrooms and I almost filled the entire book. Whatever its intent, if it moved me, the quote went into the notebook. The less context, the better.
Thinking back on it now, this sounds annoying and intrusive of me, like an invasion of privacy. But it actually had the opposite effect—it bonded this friend group together. The notebook became a fixture among us. When my friends saw it come out, they knew they’d just said something worthwhile, as though we were constantly playing a game and they’d just notched another point in their column. It became a reference log for our time together. “Hey, what was that funny thing Nina said on the train last week?” Then we’d flip through the pages until we found it and laugh all over again. I’d even let them borrow the notebook for a while. The book would spend a few days in the life of someone else and come back with new quotes in it, like stamps in a well traveled passport.
I suppose what I do now as a writer is just a professional version of carrying that notebook around. I’ve made a career out of asking people the right questions—questions I hope are insightful enough to elicit a response worth writing down. Maybe it’s something sage or something funny. Sometimes even a combative answer makes for a memorable one. I’d never thought much beyond that, though. They were always just words on a page to me—a document of this back and forth between myself and another person. Ask a question, earn a quote, move on.
I’d never considered the long-term importance of writing people’s words down until these past two years. It was only recently that I started viewing the words as a permanent record of that person’s earthly existence. It’s not hard to figure out why this newfound perspective suddenly dawned on me. I, like everyone else, started thinking more about collective mortality and the unpredictable nature of the universe as Covid bore down on us and made the future less certain.
As far as notable deaths go, this year felt more brutal than most. The grim reaper was especially cruel to those with a gift for words. From Didion to DMX, Babitz to Biz, Ferlinghetti and Giancarlo, bell and Rice. All of them meant different things to different people, but it was their way with words that connected them to their audiences. Whether they were capturing the hedonistic Los Angeles high life or the bleak struggle of the Yonkers’ projects, their words opened people’s eyes to new worlds or helped them understand what it meant to exist in them.
We lost three people this year whose work held significance to me. Gared O’Donnell of Planes Mistaken for Stars, Jack Terricloth of the World/Inferno Friendship Society, and comedian Norm MacDonald. All very different artists, but they were cosmically connected in my mind. All three created work that was often misunderstood and overlooked. Many would call them cult artists, those committed to making art not for fanfare but to fulfill their own inborn desire to walk their own path.
I’d followed each of their careers for, in most cases, about two decades. When I learned of their respective passings, I couldn’t help but go back and read through the quotes they’d given me on the occasions when I was fortunate enough to speak to them.
The first one happened on May 13. I was turning in for bed when I learned that Jack Terricloth had passed. The interview I’d done with him in October of 2018 was the kind I live for. He picked the place—the darkest corner of the darkest bar in Brooklyn, a place where the bartenders knew him by name. We were on his turf and he felt at ease, so we just talked and talked. He filled the conversation with sharp-witted responses, these brilliant little quirks, the kinds of things I would’ve written down in my quote book. And he had that famous mischievous grin, his one trait about which words did no justice.
The interview was primarily about Jack’s many albums, but given that the World/Inferno Friendship Society was known for their legendary live show, I asked what he’d most like to be remembered for. “I will die eventually. I’d prefer the albums to last,” he said. “To be fair, people do seem to enjoy the live show more. But in the end, the albums should stand out more, and I guess time will tell.”
This is what Jack’s words taught me—that art is eternal. That art will stand the test of time if it means something to someone. That art has the power to outlive its creator.
Norm MacDonald died next, on September 14, of leukemia. I learned of his death the same way everyone else did: through shock. He had apparently kept that diagnosis a secret for years. I’d fulfilled a personal dream when I interviewed him back in 2017. It wasn’t the greatest interview. It was noon where I was on the East Coast, and he sounded like he was just waking up on the West Coast. Still, we discussed his approach to comedy and his tendencies to go against the grain. What instilled that mindset in you, I asked him.
Norm said: “I remember Sam Kinison, when I first started doing stand-up, he told me, ‘You can do anything you want.’ It was so simple of a thing to say, which I didn't realize at the time because I was so stupid and I was always trying to do jokes for an agenda of some sort, either to get on TV or to be a crazy, I’ll-say-anything guy. But from then on, whenever I thought of something that interested me, I would try to work that into my act.”
After I re-read the piece, I went back through my notes, looking for quotes I didn’t end up using. At one point I’d told him that unlike his fellow comedians who are often best known for a singular thing—a hit movie or TV show or character—his career had been a hodgepodge of legendary talk show appearances, offbeat standup specials, and unexpected turns. So, I asked: What do you most want to be remembered for? (I seem to have a compulsion to ask this question.)
“When I was younger I wanted to be the best standup ever,” he told me. “And I don’t know anymore if it’s really possible to be literally that, because people always [differ on] what they think standup should be, more than other arts where you can prove it more. That was my goal before. Now, I just have a few things I want to produce that are funny.”
“A few things that are funny.” It was so obvious, but it fully conveyed his life’s objective, even when facing down the disease that would kill him—to keep creating. It reminded me of my favorite Cat Power song, whose lyrics I have written down on a Post It note on my fridge. (As I said, I am fond of writing quotes down when they stir something inside me.) “Once, I wanted to be the greatest / No wind or waterfall could stall me / And then came the rush of the flood / Stars at night turned deep to dust.” She once called this “an homage to humanity,” a song about “trying to stay alive and have respect for yourself.”
This is what I learned from Norm’s words—that art requires ego death. It is not wanting to be the best, but wanting to be your best. Not striving to be the greatest, but striving at all.
Most recently, on the night before Thanksgiving, I learned that Gared O’Donnell passed away at the age of 44. I’d had a great chat with him in May of last year, right before he was diagnosed with the esophageal cancer that would eventually take him. Gared was a frontman I’d always found intimidating. When Planes Mistaken for Stars rolled into town, they looked like a band of marauders. Greasy, sweaty, unwashed. It was hard to tell whether they were going to play music or rob the place. But not only was the man behind the strands of long black hair surprisingly sweet and good-hearted, he was thoughtful and effortlessly eloquent. He spoke about the music he’d created with such sincerity and devotion.
“With every record, I want to be a little more accessible, but never enough that I’d pander to an audience. That would be boring,” he told me. “I do feel like all the stuff we’ve done over the years, whether you like it or not, it is uncompromising. I think that’s one of the reasons we never achieved large commercial success, because we didn’t play games.”
This so perfectly explained Gared’s approach to music and the ethos behind Planes, a band that would rather exist on the fringes than exist by anyone else’s standards. But the quote that hit me hardest was one that closed our correspondence. He signed off his final email to me with three words that have been rattling around in my brain for weeks now.
“Everything with intent.”
I wrote this down on a Post It note, too. I think about it every day when I walk past it. It’s a brilliantly concise mantra, such a poignant statement with which to casually close an email. I feel its power in full every time I see it.
Everything with intent.
This is what Gared’s words taught me—that art is uncompromising. That art doesn’t pander. That art should have purpose.
I don’t want these people to be forgotten, so I’m writing their words down here, again, for the same reasons I passed that notebook around. If a person’s words are remembered, maybe a small part of them will stay alive, too.
For Gared and for Jack and for Norm. Rest easy.