Icarus Played a Fender Stratocaster
I walked into my uncle’s room. This was two years before he died of a heroin overdose.
Usually his door was locked but that day it had been left ajar.
Inside, he was lying face up on the bed. The curtains were drawn but there was some half-light seeping through the cracks and it meant that I could have a good look and see what was left of him.
There wasn’t much left of him.
His skin, once a deep hue of golden brown, had by that point faded to a sickly and brittle yellow. His cheekbones, as sharp as razors, were on the brink of stabbing their way out of his ever-shrinking flesh in a morbid bid for freedom.
He was only twenty-five, and yet to look at him. Jesus. It was like looking upon the face of an Egyptian mummy. Fresh out of the sarcophagus after three thousand years, unwrapped for all to see.
And the smell. Rotting flesh and rotten food, intermingled to become one terrible super-scent.
I was ten years old.
His lunch tray sat on the floor beside the bed, cold and untouched. Chilli Con Carne with extra beans and for dessert, a small mountain of pancakes topped with peanut butter and syrup. Commander-in-chief downstairs – aka my grandmother, his mother – was busy at work in the kitchen, supplying protein bombs and carb rockets three times a day. Her mission? To reclaim the spirit of her youngest son. It was Apocalypse Now, junkie style, and Granny was Captain Willard sailing downriver to terminate (with extreme prejudice) the Colonel Kurtz living in her son’s head.
I said hello. My uncle said nothing. I said hello again.
Like something out of a horror movie, his eyes rolled back in his head and all of a sudden he was looking at me. For a split second, his eyes lit up as if he recognised me. But it was no more than a moment’s glance, an involuntary reaction perhaps, muscle memory, and then it was gone and I was a stranger again.
He tried to talk, but the words got stuck in his throat and he sounded like a lizard-man gargling violently with mouthwash. He kept trying to say something, to force it out, but it only led to another one of those violent coughing fits. Dear God. Ever since my uncle had taken refuge in Granny’s house, those spontaneous coughing fits had become the stuff of legend.
Teacher says every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings. Well I say that every time a junkie coughs, a demonic motherfucker gets its wings.
Can someone die from coughing? ‘Cos that’s what it looked like was about to happen. His face blew up and turned purple. I was scared. So scared that I turned around and ran out of the room and just left him there, all alone.
Even now, I can’t handle the sound of coughing.
He’s not a bad man, is he? I said this to my dad that night. No son, Dad said. He’s your uncle, and he’s just sick is all.
His was a beautiful funeral.
It took place in an old church surrounded by acres of green pastures and rolling hills. That morning, our car pulled up outside the church gate and as it did so, I peered through the window at the tall grass of the churchyard, swaying in the breeze to the piper’s lament.
We – the family – stepped out of the stretch limo. There were crowds lining up everywhere on all sides of the little road that ran alongside the church grounds. My uncle’s most devoted fans had come from all corners of the earth to say goodbye. There were thousands of them. It was like watching an alien invasion on a bright summer’s morning. Aliens dressed in black, with long hair and tattoos with uncle’s lyrics inscribed upon their skin, the message passed on with the intent to forever.
Dad told me to wave back to the fans to show our appreciation. And when we waved, the crowds burst into a spontaneous round of applause, holding their banners aloft, banners that that read ‘The King is Dead’, ‘The Day The Music Died’, and many others like that.
And they were singing his songs too. Always, there was the singing.
The fans kept a respectful distance throughout, unlike the majority of press photographers who on several occasions had to be dragged back from the church door by security.
We – the family – were hurriedly escorted from the car into the church, with the television and press cameras bearing down on us. Man, it was surreal but for a few seconds there I had a glimpse of how my uncle had lived the last ten years of his life. And it was exhausting, I can tell you. Just ten seconds of it was enough for me.
The eulogies were fitting. He was a great singer, musician, and songwriter. He was the spokesman of a generation. The next Jimi Hendrix, they’d called him as a teenager, said dad with a heartbroken smile.
Dying at twenty-seven, he got that bit right. Now he’d joined a club that not only included Hendrix, but also Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Brian Jones, Kurt Cobain, and Amy Winehouse.
That’s how it was. Friends and colleagues took to the pulpit and told happy stories about my junkie uncle. Bullshit, every last word of it. But that’s how we do it. We’d rather build a mythology over a rotten corpse than tell the truth. So instead, they talked about the musical legacy and the multiple Grammy wins. They called him Icarus and said that in life, he’d flown on melting wings.
Nobody spoke about heroin or the fact that we were celebrating a wasted life.
None of those people had smelled the air after one of his coughing fits.
But I had.