Poet Laureate for the Plural Generation Gustav ‘Lil Peep’ Åhr caught XanaxAir off the planet at the tender age of 21, leaving behind a catalog of raps about depression, dope and suicide. As his fans struggle with the loss, the silver lining is there’s a tad more air on Earth for everyone else.
By Mark Cromer
I am getting old.
Most days I accept this pleasantly enough, comforted in my dotage with the knowledge that I’ve had a fine run of it, but other times begrudgingly as the sciatica kicks in with a vengeance and sometimes just a little more cynically as I indulge the generational tradition of viewing the up n’ comers through a jaded lens of life with an aperture set at f/8 that provides a piercingly grim depth of field of what’s over my shoulder.
Which is to say I feel a little more like Rooster Cogburn everyday.
It’s funny how the innate anger of youth is celebrated as some sort of romantic rebellion while the informed hostility of the aged is dismissed as crotchety and perhaps a precursor of dementia. It’s counterintuitive, and so I suppose apropos for this era of ours. I might have mistakenly thought I knew enough about life to be energetically pissed off in 1981, but in 2017 I find myself thankful that I made it this far and now feel much more secure in the vantage point that informs my general misanthropy.
In 1981 I was young and lean; I could take my shirt off with cold confidence in front of chicks at Newport Beach and I looked at the years ahead of me like they were the fat bank accounts of the trust fund kids I knew: a rich balance that stretched over the horizon.
Now in the twilight of 2017 I know I have arrived at my own event horizon.
I have to make a point of walking, riding my bike or, God help me, going to the gym three or four days a week in what I tell myself is a Kamikaze effort just to hold the waistline at the disgrace of 36-inches or perhaps return it to a more modest impairment of 34-inches, only to surrender to the almighty ‘ah, the hell with it’ and go out for a seared steak with all the trimmings and a Russian-scale ration of proper vodka while giving the dessert menu its due consideration before the night is over. The Newport days of my youth are long gone (as is the Newport I once knew) but now I savor wild beaches in the Pacific Northwest where there are precious few fellow humans at all let alone anyone taking their shirt off even as I see the old ghost of a younger me in the crashing waves and appreciate how lovely this long from then to now has been in such a sublime way.
And I know the days ahead of me drip like sand ever faster through an hourglass that I cannot break nor stop—as it should be. But it makes me wonder about the generational gap that has yawned so wide now between most of us born at the end of the ‘Baby Boom’ and those that have been emerging from the womb on the planet since the Bush-Clinton era.
I was reminded of this again a couple weeks ago while settling into my Maxwell House morning routine and signed onto AOL News fully expecting to find that another 63 women had ‘come forward’ in the past 24-hours to declare that Republican Alabama Senatorial candidate Roy Moore had asked them out for a snow cone and some go-kart racing before a nice dinner at Sonic and a moonlight walk under the Interstate overpass back in 1977 during their sophomore year in high school, but instead along with millions of other readers was greeted with the news that someone called ‘Lil Peep’ was dead.
While I might have moved right along to check the weather report and my email before landing at the table for my conventional breakfast ritual with the print editions of The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times in search of actual news that I need to know, I was admittedly struck by the mug of the deceased, juxtaposed as it was against the headline announcing his death. A young man sporting a jubilant smile, at first blush he appeared to have been a test template for Dave Navarro’s long-running Ink Master during a workshop that the show had put on for 5th grade students thinking of becoming tattoo artists, his face spackled with prison-grade noodling that ranged from broken hearts, stars, illegible lines of script, flowers, a large cursive line that appeared to read ‘Cry Baby’ and an Anarchy symbol. There was metal lodged in his nose that suggested perhaps a nasty fishing mishap and on his throat one could make out the proverbial ‘Mom’ amid a jumble of other images and an inverted cross on his left arm—so a little something for everyone.
Though I’ve long thought AOL News has unintentionally become The Onion’s main rival (The Onion’s satirical humor is by well-crafted design whereas AOL News has Mr. Magoo’d its way into the same genre by pure incompetence), this appeared to be the sort of NASCAR-grade car wreck that magnetically prompted me to look, click, read and then look for a little more about the dearly departed Lil Peep.
It seems the artist now destined to be forever known by his comic book name was born Gustav Åhr in that long ago of the middle eight of the Clinton Administration to parents with Harvard degrees, though his Ivy League pedigree didn’t stop him from dropping out of high school in Long Island and splitting to Los Angeles in 2013 to make it big in music. And by all accounts he did—at least in death—as Åhr’s stage moniker and his gleefully defaced visage was suddenly everywhere for more than fifteen minutes and proved to be yet another stark reminder of a parallel universe that exists around the rest of us that aren’t eating opioids for breakfast and busy writing the podcast of our suicide.
Åhr was touring his first album that had just been released only three months ago when he went to sleep in his tour bus in the hellhole of Tucson, Arizona, and never woke up. (Note: On the metric of hellholes, this writer has found Tucson to be an El Paso, San Bernardino or Fresno-class shit pit, but municipal toilets are admittedly something akin to bottles of wine: it’s mostly subjective.) Yet there seems to have been some question in the immediate aftermath of Åhr’s death as to whether he actually wanted to wake up at all after his 16th birthday. According to a news report published by The Guardian, Åhr had been posting to his social media accounts detailed descriptions of his drug ingestion in the hours prior to his forever rap nap; ingredients that included psilocybin and high-dosage THC as well as ‘bars’ of Xanax. Plus whatever he was drinking. Plus whatever wasn’t caught on his camera. Plus…
The British daily also noted that Åhr was prone to bust rhymes (do they still put it like that these days?) that veered from “I hear voices in my head, they telling me to call it quits, I found some Xanax in my bed, I took that shit” to “Smokin’ propane with my clique and the bad bitches” to “Gettin’ high ‘cause my life don’t mean shit to me” and so on and so forth. Åhr’s debut album, entitled Come Over When You’re Sober (and I’ll seriously raise a glass to that one line that he apparently came up with that has a near universal reach) included delightful little ditties like “Better Off (Dying),” “Awful Things” and “Problems.”
I had to laugh.
It all reminded me of Eugene Levy’s character Mitch Cohen in Christopher Guest’s epic 2003 mockumentary A Mighty Wind, who after leaving the hit folk duo Mitch & Mickey cut two solo albums that captured his despair of quitting not only the duo but his forever love of Mickey (portrayed by the exquisite Catherine O’Hara). His first solo foray Cry For Help, the cover of which depicted Levy’s Mitch institutionalized and sporting a straight-jacket, was followed by the definitive Calling It Quits that had Mitch peering out from a cemetery grave he’d just dug for himself.
But while Guest’s A Mighty Wind was a brilliant send-up of PBS via the aging folk music scene, Åhr’s ‘Lil Peep’ was nothing less than a Polaroid of the now. And as such it was clearly the sly subtext of Åhr’s work that packed the punch, the subtle nuance of it all.
No word yet whether the raps Åhr was working on for his follow-up sophomore effort included even more mercurial titles like “Dear Mom & Dad, Just Be Thankful I Didn’t Kill You Too” or “Manic Depression Isn’t As Bad As It Sounds” and “The 12-guage Or The Needle? Cobain or Joplin? Decisions! Decisions!”
But then again there is a lot now we’ll never know about Åhr and the future that he might have had pursuing his persona as Lil Peep.
When considering what was next for his musical career in today’s age one can’t escape the fact that there was still enough room on his face for more ink and shiny shards of metal jabbed in randomly for at least two more albums. America may have missed the true evolution of an artist that spoke so candidly of the angst harbored by a generation doomed to never flip burgers in high school or wait tables through college or dream of a future beyond the room-service their parents provide for them but instead surrender to the temptation of their mother’s anti-anxiety medication not in lieu of a plan but rather as the plan while waiting for their permanent disability status to be approved.
Lil Peep’s passing must be a heartbreak indeed for those music critics that wonder where it all may have been leading. One hates to project, but perhaps self-cutting, branding and scarification would have been Åhr’s musical precursors to his Sgt. Pepper moment for Lil Peeps’ peeps, that day when LP dropped the ultimate joint: Big Stump, an album that celebrated his decision to go all the way and no longer be defined by the body he was born into, exuberantly marring it as he had been.
The liner notes (assuming there were any other than hieroglyphic symbols) might well have carried a declaration heralding Lil Peep’s watershed transition. Based on his actual lyrical cache, it’s not difficult to imagine it reading:
“Yo, what up fuckers?! Ya’ll think Lil Peeps be defined by bullshit constructs like arms and legs?! Yo! I’m woke, ya’ll! Lil Peeps be more than the sum of his parts. Think I’m playin’? Ha! Yo, for real! I unpacked my arms and legs, ya’ll, I shed the constraints of the limbs that were forced upon me! Know what I sayin’?! They wasn’t nothin’ but chains that was holding me back! So I had the surgeons saw that shit off. Oh, snap! Emancipation Proclamation time, fuckas! Lil Peep is dead! Big Stump here in yo face! Word!”
The record label (another assumption of a past enterprise still existing) would then rush out Åhr’s new video for the first single, ‘Straight Wormin,’ featuring a rapping Lil Peep-turned-Big Stump swaddled in a graffiti-splattered papoose that matched his ink-covered face as he serenaded the OD crowd with lyrical gold like: ‘You know I be straight wormin’, my wiggles so hard ya be squirmin’, dropping bombs on ya like I’m German, go ahead bitch, call me Hermann cuz I’m gonna frame ya like I’m Fuhrman…’
After that, who knows? Perhaps being fired from a canon onstage into the crowd?
But as I delighted in momentary post-mortem mockery of the sheer self-indulgent, nihilistic idiocy of Åhr framed as musical talent by a segment of a generation and its consumer culture suitors, I had to pause to consider my own rock history and the musical indiscretions if not outright crimes that littered it. There were more than a few exhibits that brought a smile to my face.
In the mid-1980s I watched David Lee Roth ride a surfboard across the ceiling of The Forum and indulge more wardrobe changes than Cher, proving once again that post-Woodstock any tomfoolery wouldn’t just be indulged in the twilight of rock n’ roll, but handsomely rewarded. And in those days I saw some of rock’s finest theatre of the absurd play out like a long run on Broadway; from KISS at the Universal Amphitheatre playing on a tank with a pivoting turret during their Creatures Of The Night Tour to Motley Crüe’s drummer Tommy Lee and his kit rotate to 180-degree inversion while he flailed away at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium on the band’s Shout At The Devil tour and I watched Ronnie James Dio risk death by runaway mechanical demon onstage back at The Forum during his The Last In Line tour.
And I cheered all of that and much more.
Ah, what days they were.
In the era of Diamond Dave—who thankfully sang more about pussy and booze than depression and death—twenty bucks bought you a ticket for a couple of hours of collective hedonism that was a momentary break away from whatever drudgery, be it academic or menial labor or both, that could surface while reaching to an actual future—a future.
Back then rock was a launching pad or a vacation home, but surely not a crash and burn site, for most of us.
Thirty-three years ago I spent the summer tripping around Europe and bookended my tour across that continent with two pilgrimages to Jim Morrison’s gravesite at Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, my own double-bottled Hajj to a rock Mecca. I remember each time it was a scene of hippie girls and stoners and freaks and heads and during one of the two occasions me and my Irish hoodlum-poet pals got rousted via teargas by the Paris coppers that decided to clear the site, but all that really meant was we had to catch a cab back to Pigalle to unwind in the sex shows that we had discovered as young degenerates serious about learning from the old pros. But now I also remember something else, that during my first conclave with my pals at Holy Jim’s gravesite I did my duty and defaced the walls of an adjoining crypt with graffiti—which was the rock rite at the time—and just what was my brilliant offering?
“Morrison lives on!” It was actually so juvenilely vapid it has haunted me ever since. But what rock legacy was I honoring (however embarrassingly bad) at Morrison’s grave back in that fateful summer of 1984 that is so different than those young fans mourning Lil Peep’s early departure in 2017?
A lot, actually.
Morrison touched base with rock n’ roll before he split the planet and took his time in doing so; transforming from the moody college grad fronting The Doors in the fall of 1965 to his seductive bullshit persona of ‘The Lizard King’ sporting a snakeskin suit throughout his shaman dance to burning that down in a long bonfire of booze that saw him transform from the Key Auditorium in Miami that fateful spring of 1969 all the way to his bathtub exit in Paris, July, 1971.
As David Dalton wrote in his 1991 work Mr. Mojo Risin’: Jim Morrison The Last Holy Fool, Morrison’s long send-off was heralded by his many appetites, that road of excess to the palace of wisdom. As Dalton put it: “What had taken Elvis 15 years, Jim managed in three.”
But Morrison’s boozed-out bloated float downriver reflected a last surrender, a final capitulation, that only came after a brilliant charge through life that the caricature Lil Peep never came close to accomplishing. Morrison and his bandmates wrote about life in all of its glory; from the undiluted thrill of a woman’s charms that course through songs like ‘Twentieth Century Fox’ and ‘Hello, I Love You’ to the collective dread of war and looming doom that can be heard in tracks like ‘When The Music’s Over’ and ‘The Unknown Soldier.’ On The Doors debut album Morrison rolls from the opening track ‘Break On Through’ into ‘Soul Kitchen’ and then ‘The Crystal Ship,’ a trifecta of tunes that announced a stunning arrival, not a pathetic departure. Those three songs in succession still stand as a mile-marker from four cats who were happy as all hell to be able to plant it there for everyone else to dig—or not.
Lil Peep’s truncated life looked and sounded more like an unscripted television show, where dysfunction disguised as diligence was painted on his face for those who missed the suicidal greeting. It was cheap, in an obvious sort of way.
The Doors’ 1970 album Morrison Hotel (eponymously dubbed for an old skid row joint in LA at 1246 South Hope Street) featured Jim’s famous taunt on its opening track ‘Roadhouse Blues’:
“Well, I woke up this morning and I got myself a beer
I woke up this morning and I got myself a beer
the future’s uncertain and the end is always near…”
Why did I find that devil-may-care attitude admirable in my own youth but Lil Peeps bleeps about killing himself worthy of little more than a sneering chuckle?
How different is Morrison’s perspective of the ever-present prospect of death from Åhr’s signature lyric of “My life don’t mean shit to me?” Wasn’t Lil Peep just following the generational trend line of being more succinct these days, the musical equivalent of a text message or a Tweet? Where Morrison’s howl on ‘Light My Fire’ in 1967 had turned to a weary growl on ‘Roadhouse Blues’ three years later, hadn’t Åhr just taken a shortcut, skipped the plodding pondering of it all and got down to business by scrawling tats across his mug and dispensing with any lyrical mystery or legacy and doping himself to death while broadcasting on social media instead of a long-play vinyl platter?
But see, it is different.
While Morrison checked out as a member of the 27 Club (along with Jimi, Janis & Jones), he had jammed enough life under his expanding beltline to approach it honestly and with more integrity than the cold approximation that history has so often granted other artists that have left here still young.
Åhr did not. Not even remotely close.
Listening to Morrison in 1969 or ’70 or ’71 one can sense he was slightly mad, indeed crazed at times. Listening to Lil Peep in 2017, one understands he was simply mentally ill. Again, there is a difference, though acknowledged ever less these days of late.
So I’m not entirely sure what to make of the brief life and the (sort of) sad fate of Åhr, other than it’s a shame I suppose the kid didn’t stick around a little while longer to see what the tide might bring tomorrow, and the nausea that rises as Lil Peep is suddenly heralded as the Sam Cooke of the Robitussin and Codeine-adled ‘emo-rap’ crowd.
“One of the most promising musicians of the SoundCloud generation,” wept the The New York Times. Now there’s a damning eulogy for a generation.
Amid such post-mortem tributes I pondered Lil Peep’s funeral and couldn’t help but think of Will Farrell’s character ‘Chaz’ in Wedding Crashers and his over-the-top graveside performance. It’s not difficult to imagine Lil Peep’s sycophantic cadre circling his casket as the Chaz-like agents, publicists, managers and other professional nodders shriek “Ahhhhh gawd, Peep! Why?! Damn it, Peep, why?! Ahhhh, Peep! No! No! Damn you, Peep! Damn you!”
Lil Peep is gone, leaving behind an evermore clogged and choking planet.
Which reminds me of another moment with Chaz in Wedding Crashers, when he settles back into his chair, his face dancing between delight and disgust as he considers that J-Bone is getting married, only to suddenly declare: “What an idiot! Good! Good! More for us.”
That seems about an appropriate eulogy for Åhr, as those of us still here could use the oxygen.
Yeah, I am getting old.
And for that I am thankful.
It’s a late autumn evening and as November crumbles away into 2017’s December finale I find myself at The Huntington in Pasadena with a longtime lady friend of mine just to take in the crystalline azure of Southern California skies while strolling the sweeping grounds of the grand old hotel. Later, we take our drinks onto the veranda for a smoke and to catch the Golden State’s nightly light show flicker across the fine lawns that bleed through the palms into San Marino.
We talk quietly to each other about life, but can’t quite escape the dialogue between two Young Turks that’s broadcasting across the terrace. They’re smoking cigars and playing ‘Entourage’ dress-up, but it’s their banter that catches my attention.
“Fuck, dude, I was like fuckin’ I gotta get the fuck outta here. But Angie was there, so I’m all fuck! Dude! What the fuck! So I’m all ‘fuck it’ and I just get up and fucking go. You know, fuck it!”
“Dude, no fucking way! You fuckin’ walked out?! You just fuckin’ walked out?”
“Fuckin’ right I did. Fuck that shit.”
There seemed to be more ‘fucks,’ ‘shits’ and ‘dudes’ in their conversation than anything else—not really my kind of recipe to begin with—though apparently there was a chick named Angie and an abrupt exit that was somehow noteworthy that ended up buried in that avalanche of incomprehensibly profane drivel.
My friend grinned at the disgust she sensed radiating from me.
“We were young once too,” she finally said.
“Yes we were,” I replied. “But I don’t think we ever sounded so stupid trying so hard to sound cool.”
Looking back into her Bloody Mary she thought about it for a second before offering “Probably not.”
Lil Peep definitely had a future role in the days yet to come, if he only he had wanted one.