On The Record: What's The Good Of A Statement, Really?
This wasn't why I enrolled in Music Journalism Summer Camp way back in '96. Writing about rock and roll is supposed to involve complaining, nitpicking and allowing petty jealousies to seep into record reviews, not calling burn centers in Augusta, Georgia, waking up publicists to inform them that their clients may be dead, or writing apologetic-yet-persistent e-mails to bandmates seeking comment on their critically injured friends.
And yet, that's how I spent my weekend — and the majority of this week — in the wake of the jet crash in Columbia, South Carolina, that injured Travis Barker and DJ AM and killed four others, including Barker's assistant Chris "Lil Chris" Baker and security guard Charles "Che" Still. It's been 96-plus hours of calling and e-mailing and basically feeling like a huge, insensitive jerk, five days spent doing horrible, decidedly morbid — yet in some ways necessary — work. I imagine this is just part of the game for the real, time-hardened reporters of the world. There is a reason I am not in that line of work.
I knew Chris Baker, at first only through e-mails and phone calls. He was a genuinely sweet guy, joking that I called him so much on his cell phone that I should give him my number. When I finally met him in person — backstage during the Roots' Grammy party last year — I offered to do just that, telling him that he could call me at 3 a.m. if he wanted to. He declined, then offered me a beer.
Everyone I've spoken to about him tells me the same thing: He was a good-hearted man, a practical joker, a guy who loved to laugh and looked out for those closest to him. Reporting on his death has been very, very sad ... the decided opposite of what music journalism should be. Thankfully, I've only been down this road three times previously: in December 2004, when "Dimebag" Darrell Abbott was shot onstage in Columbus, Ohio, and then last year, when Casey Calvert died from a fatal combination of medications and Pimp C overdosed. I hated my job each of those times too.
As was the case in those situations, the routine is slightly morbid yet always the same. You try your best to put personal feelings aside. You call publicists, you e-mail managers. You offer your condolences, you share brief stories about the deceased. You try to be polite and understanding yet, at the same time, firm. You are required to get information, track down bandmates, press just enough to get the story before anyone else does. Most of the time, all you get are statements — typed remembrances and memorials from bands who shared beers and backstages with the recently dead — which you compile into a story. You repeat this process the following day. And possibly the day after that. Then, more than likely, you move on.
It's always seemed odd to me that we care so much about the statements. They are little more than the sidebar to the main story, words e-mailed by publicists or posted on MySpace pages. They are often interchangeable: "We are deeply saddened," "Our prayers go out to____," "____ was a great friend and will be deeply missed." They most certainly cannot undo what has been done or bring comfort to those hurting from the unexpected loss of a friend or loved one. They are, at the root of all things, essentially worthless.
Except, to most people, they are anything but. In fact, they might just be the most important part of the grieving process ... if only because they reveal so much more about the living. After Abbott was killed, former bandmate Phil Anselmo famously issued a rambling statement about the loss of his "best friend," one that also included insinuations that he was kept away from the funeral by Dimebag's family. The statement proved that some rifts — in this case, the long-standing feud between Anselmo and Abbott's brother (and former Pantera drummer) Vinnie Paul — were too wide to ever be closed, even by tragedy. It was ugly and unfortunate, and everyone who ever worshipped at the altar of Dimebag knew it.
And this brings up one rather glaring thing about the Barker and AM situation ... and the very nature of statements themselves. In the hours following the crash, tributes poured in not just from the worlds of rock and hip-hop, but Hollywood too. Everyone from the Game to Cobra Starship to Lindsay-freaking-Lohan issued a statement about the incident, because they all knew it was the proper, right thing to do. They realized their position in the world and that their fans — and fans of Barker and AM — rely on their statements to help them make sense of tragedy and get through the tough times. This may seem a tad bit bizarre but, if you think about it, isn't the entire concept of fandom (and, for that matter, of mourning those you know solely though music or movies) equally odd?
Regardless, it wasn't the outpouring of statements that makes this tragedy particularly noteworthy; it was the complete lack of statements from two particular camps. I'm not going to name either of them — because, really, issuing a statement (or not) is their prerogative — but suffice to say, if you are in anyway familiar with Barker's musical career, you know who I'm talking about. A statement from each of them might be forthcoming, it might not be. All I know is that it's been five days since the accident, and we've still heard nothing from either of them, leading many to believe that — like the Abbott situation — old wounds cannot be healed. And that, given the entire situation, seems pretty lousy.
I, for one, am conflicted. On one hand, their silence strikes me as being incredibly odd, if not somewhat coldhearted. After all, how difficult is it to release a statement? All it takes is a few lines on a MySpace page or a personal Web site ... just a couple of words to let fans know that we're all in this together, or that, yes, "Lil Chris" was a good guy and he will be missed. You know, just some common decency.
On the other, that same silence also reminds me that these two individuals are, in fact, just human. They have every right to ignore the media requests and to grieve in private, at their own pace. They have every right to do so. Think about it: If your best friend were killed, would you want to get on the phone with a reporter asking for a comment? Would you feel like updating your blog? Probably not.
Then again, if I've learned anything in dealing with these situations, it's that being human somehow goes right out the window. When terrible things happen, we turn into robots, we struggle with ways of expressing our emotions, because finding the right words is tough. Which is why we're reduced to statements. Because words are necessary. They help us heal and, often, they're all we have. It's stupid and unfair but necessary. Just like death.
Questions? Comments? BTTS@MTVStaff.com.