O Captain My Captain
Robin Williams, 1951-2014
Robin Williams has been a constant artistic presence in my life for as long as I can remember.
When I was very young, Mork and Mindy was one of my favorite things on television. It ran from the time I was four until I was eight, which means I was the perfect age to revel in Williams’ madcap improvisational insanity. I used to sit on couches head-first, the way Mork from Ork would, and had the “nanoo-nanoo” handshake down before I was six. Watching Mork and Mindy is one of my earliest memories, in fact, which means that as far as I’m concerned, Williams has been making me laugh forever.
As I grew up, Williams’ performances seemed to grow with me. He was Popeye when I was six, and I caught it later on television, at the right age to find it screamingly funny. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen came out when I was 13, and could just begin to grasp the serious intent behind Terry Gilliam’s vision. And then, when I was 15, Williams took on the role of John Keating in Dead Poets Society, and changed my life.
Like many, I’m sure, I felt like Dead Poets Society was written specifically for me. It’s an absolutely beautiful, poetic film, and Williams shines as That Teacher, the one we all have, who recognizes our particular gifts hidden beneath our awkward exteriors and encourages them. (For me, that teacher was John Guevremont, and I try not to miss an opportunity to tell him so.) There are so many moments from Dead Poets Society that I have carried with me all my life, from Knox Overstreet’s wonderful first date to Charlie Dalton’s fist-pumping “dammit, Neil, the name’s Nuwanda.” I could probably recite it from memory, so embedded is this film on my soul.
Williams acted in many of my favorite movies from high school, showing those dramatic chops that he hid behind the mania. Awakenings still makes me cry, and Williams’ restrained, beautifully measured performance is one of the main reasons. The Fisher King continues to reveal new layers, even now – I remember when, in college, I realized that the Red Knight was Parry’s dead wife, haunting his memories. The ballroom dance scene in Grand Central Station is still one of the best movie moments I have seen. I even loved Toys, Barry Levinson’s sorta-failed thesis on warfare and innocence.
And when Williams voiced the Genie in Aladdin, I ended up enjoying and connecting with an animated film in ways I never really had. Looking back, Aladdin is just a very good example of the Disney formula, but at the time, it was revolutionary, and Williams’ mad improvisations brought it to life. I bet if I mentioned one of his lines – “Phenomenal cosmic powers, itty bitty living space,” for instance – you can hear it in his voice. Aladdin was the start of the modern celebrity voices trend in animated movies, which continues to this day.
I remember discovering Being Human, the 1994 film in which Williams plays five versions of the same character throughout five time periods. It’s remarkable, and I don’t know why it isn’t mentioned among his finest performances. I remember marveling at the fact that Williams could deliver a pitch-perfect comedic turn in The Birdcage one year, and an astounding dramatic one in Good Will Hunting the next. Good Will struck a particular chord with me, since it was written by a pair of then-hometown heroes, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon. Seriously, go look up Williams’ scene with Damon on the park bench, when he quietly and confidently tears the young man apart. It’s a masterful moment.
In recent years, I have enjoyed Williams’ dark turns in films like the underrated Death to Smoochy and the creepy One Hour Photo. Few saw Bobcat Goldthwaite’s wicked film World’s Greatest Dad, but Williams was excellent in it, as a frustrated writer who gets attention by penning a suicide note for a teen who accidentally died. But lately, I’ve been taking him for granted, perhaps waiting for that next role that impacted my life as greatly as his previous ones did. I regrettably never did watch The Crazy Ones, his TV show with Sarah Michelle “Buffy” Gellar, which was canceled earlier this year after one season.
I suppose, since he’s been a part of my life since my earliest memories, I simply assumed he would always be there. So when, on Monday, news broke that Williams had killed himself after a bout with depression, I found myself in a state of disbelief. Stories like this always seem to rock me – I have struggled with depression for most of my life, and hearing about other, far more successful people who lose that struggle tends to make the ground give way beneath my feet. I knew pretty quickly that I would have to ignore social media for a while, to escape think pieces about depression and suicide written by people with no idea. I kept seeing the same question: “How can someone who has everything decide to throw it all away?” That question makes me scream.
You know what most likely happened with Robin Williams? I’m fairly confident, both from my own experience and my extensive talks with others about this, that I know at least a little of what might have occurred, and I bet it came down to this.
He had a bad day.
If you have wrestled with lifelong depression, one bad day is all it takes to go from hopeful to hopeless, from knowing you have everything you need to believing, really believing, that you have nothing and no one. It really is that simple. Just one bad day when the dull buzz inside your head turns into a loud roar, so loud you can’t ignore it. One bad day when nothing you have, nothing you have done, can drown it out. I’ve had them, and they’re tough to ride through. That’s why stories like these always have an impact on me. It’s the same whenever anyone gives in to the bad days. I understand how easy it is.
I would never presume to know the mind of Robin Williams. Everyone’s struggle is different, everyone’s bad days particular to them. Here are a few things I do know this week. A man who has made me laugh and cry and feel since before I even knew what movies were is now gone. I will miss this man’s work very much. I am sad that the man who brought so much happiness to so many couldn’t do the same for himself. And I hope he rests in peace.
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You’ll forgive me if I am not in the right frame of mind this week to review music. I thought it would be fitting, instead, to present a quick look ahead. One of the ways I combat my own bad days is by having things to look forward to, even if those things are albums and movies and television shows. (Doctor Who, coming back a week from Saturday!) So here’s a quick peek at some of the records coming our way before the end of the year.
Next week, Imogen Heap’s fourth album Sparks finally hits stores. I’m looking forward to this as much as anything else this year. Heap is beyond brilliant, and what I’ve heard from this album (most of it, actually) finds her stepping out on a bunch of limbs, and truly advancing her work. It’s gonna be great. Also next week, the Flaming Lips’ side project Electric Wurms will drop a 30-minute slab of psychedelic weirdness called Musik, Die Schwer Zu Twerk. Yeah, that’s the real title.
August will ring out with a big week – new records from the New Pornographers, Basement Jaxx, Opeth and the Steve Rothery Band (Marillion’s amazing guitar player), as well as a host of reissues from M83, the Unicorns and the Kinks. Counting Crows roar back on Sept. 2 with Somewhere Under Wonderland, their first album of new songs in six years. Then, on Sept. 9, we get another huge week, with new things from Ryan Adams, Interpol, Robert Plant, Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Amplifier, the always-amazing Sloan, and, for the first time in a decade, Death From Above 1979. Whew!
September will also see new things from My Brightest Diamond, Shellac, Alt-J, Tweedy (Jeff Tweedy’s new band with his son), Weezer, Christopher Owens and Flying Colors. Also, we will get a pair of fascinating-sounding match-ups: a jazz standards album from Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga, and what will no doubt be a droning masterwork from Scott Walker and Sunn O))). That’s along with reissues from the Smashing Pumpkins, Wings and Oasis.
Highlights from October: Johnny Marr’s new solo album Playland; a new Godflesh at last, called A World Lit Only By Fire; a second solo album from Bloc Party’s Kele Okereke; a double record from Foxygen; a new Flying Lotus album; the Flaming Lips’ tribute to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band; and reissues of Led Zeppelin IV and Houses of the Holy. November’s only starting to shape up, but we know the new Foo Fighters, Sonic Highways, will be out, as will the new one from And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead.
Also coming soon is Transgressor, the fourth album from Quiet Company. I am, again, as excited about this as I am about anything. And Northern Records, the label that first introduced me to Quiet Company, is set to drop albums by Stranger Kings (featuring members of the Prayer Chain) and Low and Behold, the new collaboration between Jason Martin of Starflyer 59 and Ryan Clark of Demon Hunter. It’s way better than it sounds.
I’m assuming there will also be surprises along the way, because that’s what makes life worth living.
Thank you for your kind indulgence this week. Next week, Imogen Heap. And perhaps one or two others. Leave a comment on my blog at tm3am.blogspot.com. Follow me on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am, and Twitter at www.twitter.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.