The following essay was first prepared and presented for the Universal Dawn reading and performance series at SappyFest in the summer of 2012.
It has recently come to my attention that some people regard me as a reliable online resource for celebrity death news. A few weeks ago, someone said as much on my Facebook wall because when a celebrity dies, if I have even a slight affinity for them, I will send out a “R.I.P.” notification. A recent example of this was a message I posted on Twitter and Facebook that said, “R.I.P. Sherman Hemsley.” Was I ever a massive fan of George Jefferson? No. But I did see the show and I respect its place as one of the first popular sitcoms starring black characters, so this felt significant. Plus, he died. And I needed to let people know this.
I don’t take particular pride in this habit of mine but it did make me stop and think about where this impulse might come from. First off, I still love the internet. The first time I used it was in Grade 6 at Manchester Public School in Cambridge, Ont. Our teacher’s son was in the military and he had a setup in his house where he could instant message with his fellow soldiers. One day, he and his dad hooked up a modem and a computer so we could chat with him from our classroom and he and I exchanged messages. He mentioned that I was a really fast typer, which was the first time someone tried flirting with me online.
Mortified, I didn’t go online again until my last year at Glenview Park Secondary School when our librarian, Mr. Love, got an internet hook-up happening in 1995 or 1996. He was very proud of this and I remember taking to it right away and even teaching him some things about how it worked somehow. That curiosity and interest carried over into my first year at the University of Guelph when I got an email address and tried to figure out whether Lycos, AltaVista or Ask Jeeves was the most efficient search engine.
In November of that first semester, my friend Steve Lambke (of Constantines and Baby Eagle), his parents and I went to Massey Hall to see Johnny Cash play what ended up being his last Toronto show. We had crazy good seats, like third row or something maybe, and, as mesmerized as I was by seeing one of my all-time heroes, I kind of studied Cash that night.
I remember him coughing a bit and drinking water because he said the air was dry in the hall and when the light shone through his dyed black hair, it looked blue. He’d play four or five songs in a row and then leave the stage so that June Carter Cash, their son John Carter or his piano player could sing some songs and give Cash some rest. It was real show biz and I’d never experienced that kind of thing before. After one such break, Cash burst back onstage and gleefully yelled out “Train time!” before blowing through an amazing version of “Orange Blossom Special.”
A couple months later, Cash announced that he had something called Shy-Drager syndrome, a debilitating ailment with similar symptoms to Parkinson’s disease. Turns out this was a misdiagnosis and he actually suffered from automatic neuropathy, an offshoot of his diabetic condition, but the end result meant he couldn’t tour anymore so he concentrated entirely on making those Rick Rubin records for which he’s now maybe best remembered.
In this period, I would often read news reports online about Cash’s ill health; he’d be in the hospital for pneumonia, end up in life-threatening comas and frequently seemed to be on the brink of death. But he always rallied somehow, his body as sturdy and strong as his distinctive voice always was.
By this point, I’d settled on Yahoo as my go-to search engine and homepage, not just because it seemed to generate the information I was looking for but because they would flash news headlines in a little box in the top right of their screen. I can honestly say that every single day from 1997 to 2003, I would open up Yahoo with a sense of dread, expecting to read a headline that Johnny Cash had finally died. I never met the man but I’d been listening to him since I was a little kid and he meant the world to me.
Then, on Sept. 12, 2003, it finally happened. Cash was gone, and, after I took some calls from friends about it, I saw it reported plainly as a headline on Yahoo.
So because my earliest connection to being online had something to do with the health and ultimate demise of a celebrity I admired, I think I still use the internet as a tool to let everyone know that someone has died. Of course, I find Yahoo.com completely depressing now so I use Google for everything. It’s pretty good.
Follow Vish Khanna on Twitter: @vishkhanna
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Joanne Cash on growing up with Johnny Cash and rebuilding their childhood home
We Walk the Line, Johnny Cash celebration, to be released Aug. 7
on Feb 26, 2013