In his suicide note, rocker Kurt Cobain, quoting Neil Young, said “it’s better to burn out than fade away.” I imagine it’s nice to catch alight at all. I’d rather almost anything but fizzle out, but then whoever lived up to expectations?
I’ve always hated the 19th century Romantic poet John Keats. If he isn’t it, he’s at least in the conversation of greatest English poets. “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” and “The Eve of St. Agnes” are really good stuff, by any measure, and “Ode on a Grecian Urn” gave us one of the handful of all time wonderful poetic lines: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty – that is all ye know on earth and all ye need know.” He died at 25 and has haunted high school students and their exams ever since.
Twenty-five! And famous forever. How could you not hate him?
But his legacy is built as much on what people imagine he would have done as what he did do. “If only he’d lived to be 70, what might he have accomplished!” literary folk will ask.
A better question is what would we think of Orson Welles now if he’d died at 25? Killed in a car accident after finishing “Citizen Kane,” driving the nation into a frenzy with his radio broadcast of “War of the Worlds” and wooing the intellectual elite with stage productions like “Macbeth” in Harlem when he was just 20. He would be, without serious objection, the most brilliant creative mind of the 20th century and possibly the greatest American artist ever.
Instead he became a bitter, bloated old man forced to hawk fish sticks and frozen peas to pay bills. A has-been whose zenith was a half-century before his death.
If Mike Tyson goes to jail before his fight with Buster Douglas, if Tom Brady blows his knee out in the first quarter of the Super Bowl against the Giants, if “Lost” is canceled after its first season, if George W. Bush is assassinated in late 2003, they are the best ever, just this side of deified.
I don’t exaggerate.
John F. Kennedy bungled everything but the Cuban Missile Crisis, gets all the credit for LBJ’s successes, shoulders none of the blame for Johnson’s failures and gets all his personal and physical shortcomings swept under the rug. He was shot in 1963, at the height of his popularity, and some historians sincerely and stupidly rank him among the best presidents over.
It’s only natural.
You don’t know what’s enough until you know what’s more than enough, and when something great hasn’t reached its limit, it seems limitless. The difference between James Dean and Marlon Brando is one died a symbol of rebellious youth and we watched the other grow ridiculous and old.
“Is it better to burn out or fade away?”
It’s a legacy question, more than anything else, I guess. Which is a silly thing, but when you can’t take it with you, the stuff you leave behind matters quite a bit. There’s a certain appeal in kicking the bucket at 27, still promising future greatness, but given my druthers, I’d die disappointing at 92. Legacy isn’t a thing; it’s a perception of a thing and, like nostalgia, works the best when it’s inaccurate.
Most of us, frankly, will do nothing worthy of a legacy beyond immediate family and friends, but if we’re lucky, we’ll live long enough to do all we’ll ever do and be able to look back without regrets of what might have been.
In the end, burn or fade, we all wink out, anyway.