Holding On to Dreams


Dolores O’Riordan, the Cranberries Singer, Dead at 46 (Rolling Stone)

Kurt Cobain’s body was discovered on the final Friday of my last spring break in high school. I can still remember waking up late that afternoon (it was spring break, after all), and turning on MTV when they were supposed to be airing their daily top ten video countdown. They were in the middle of Nirvana’s Unplugged performance of David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World,” which was certainly a great song and video, but it had dropped out of “top ten” rotation months earlier. After the video ended, John Norris came on the screen to inform everyone that Cobain’s body had been found earlier that day, and the network was preempting all its usual shows to cover this breaking story.

The news definitely took me aback, although I wasn’t exactly a huge Nirvana fan at the time; I owned a copy of Nevermind, but that was practically a requirement for teenagers living in the early nineties; although I appreciated Nirvana’s music for what it was, there was no question that I was neck-deep in the resurgence of folk-rock back then. Still, even if I didn’t identify with Cobain or his music all that much, I was all too aware of the importance of Cobain’s death, and how it was likely to affect my generation. I stayed tuned to MTV for most of the following weekend, as my parents recounted how they were impacted by the early deaths of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, and I even cried a little when MTV aired Courtney Love reading her husband’s suicide note aloud to a group of mourning fans.

I was four when John Lennon was assassinated, and it’s the first death I remember experiencing, if only for how it devastated every other member of my family. I knew who the Beatles were, of course — I had a very strong attachment to “Here Comes the Sun” in my early youth — but I was far too young to understand what Lennon’s death meant to the nation, and the world, as a whole. I don’t think I understood the importance of Marvin Gaye’s murder a few years later, either. Cobain’s death may have been the first, at least of a musician, where something in my brain went, “Whoa. This is big.”

This isn’t to compare Cobain to Lennon, or even to imply that Cobain was my generation’s Lennon; even if I felt qualified enough to make those kinds of statements (and I don’t, because I’m not), I wouldn’t feel comfortable making them. What I can say, though, is that Cobain’s death was a very consequential moment for my generation, and especially for those of us who were teenagers when it happened, it’s one of those moments where most of us can recall just where we were, and what we were doing, when we got the news.

As the years have passed, we’ve lost even more iconic musicians from that glorious period of music, from Shannon Hoon to Scott Weiland. It’s often hard for me to separate my love of nineties music from broader cultural interpretations — I think most people form strong personal attachments to the music of their youth, although I’ve also spoken with enough of my students about music to feel that there’s a general consensus that nineties music just plain kicked ass –and even if music hadn’t been such a strong force in my life from as far back as I can remember (as it continues to be to this day), I think these musicians would still feel like a significant part of my own identity. That’s probably why Cobain’s death affected me so strongly, even though I didn’t have more than a passing appreciation for Nirvana at the time.

When Leonard Cohen suddenly died a few weeks after Mom passed away in 2016, it felt even more like the ground beneath my feet had collapsed. Even though Cohen wasn’t exactly a nineties music figure — I’ve never really connected with the music he released in my early years, and didn’t develop a real love for him until I was exposed to his first albums, long after the nineties had passed — he did eventually become another musician I felt a strong connection to, and because Mom felt the same way as well, to lose him so soon after Mom’s passing just gutted me. Add in the post-election haze that I was still fighting my way through, and I just felt adrift there for a long time afterwards.

Really, every death I’ve experienced since Mom’s passing has hit me a lot harder than those that came before, and Dolores O’Riordan’s is no different. Just as with Cobain’s death, though, I’ve never felt any real affinity for her music; although the Cranberries’ sound was kind of close to the folk-rock I adore, it just wasn’t the same, and as much as I may identify with the themes of “Zombie,” the nasally tone O’Riordan takes on the high notes just totally turns me off of the song. I hadn’t even been aware of what O’Riordan, or the Cranberries, had been up to after their initial wave of success when I was still in high school, and as curious as I get about the musicians of the era, I don’t think I’d ever bothered to research what happened to them.

O’Riordan’s death was still difficult for me to deal with, though, and I think a lot of that has to do with how I’ve been coping with death as a whole since Mom passed away. More than with anyone else, before or since, Mom’s passing felt like it left a hole in me, a part of me that will never be full again. I don’t think anyone was, or even could be, as integral to my life, to my sense of self, as Mom was, is, and probably ever will be. She’s pretty much the sole reason why I was able to work through all the adversities I faced in my early life, and how I learned to use those experiences as fuel to keep me pushing forward here, and to enable me  to devote my life to helping others the same way that she helped me. Even though I still feel her presence in my life every day, I can’t deny that I miss her physical presence, to say nothing of her love and wisdom, especially as I’ve faced so many troubles these past fifteen months.

I guess that what I’m feeling with O’Riordan’s death is another hole in my life, albeit a much smaller one. Even if I wasn’t a big fan of the Cranberries, there’s no denying that they were a part of my young life, and a part of that nineties music scene that remains a huge chunk of my identity to this day. Just as with Cobain, and Hoon and Weiland (and so many others), these deaths feel like they’re leaving a hole in me. No matter how much good music I find now, I still have times when I remember that these pioneers are no longer living, and that always makes me feel very, very sad.

There will more deaths to come in the years ahead, of course, including those of the musicians whose songs and messages and examples mean more to me than any other musicians I’ve written about here. After dealing with O’Riordan’s passing these past few days, I can tell that those deaths will leave even bigger holes in me, and make me feel even sadder. I want to think that I’ll be able to move on, but just as with all the other setbacks I’ve been dealing with, that’s going to be exponentially harder without Mom around to help me get through the difficulties I face.

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