Aretha Franklin Dies
Long Island -- And Beyond -- Says Goodbye to Lil Peep, the Outsider Star Who Rejected 'The Box'
“He was Lil Peep to the world, but to us, he was Gus.”
That statement, from producer Dylan “Smokeasac” Mullen, read by George Astasio, as much as anything that was said in a ballroom of a beachfront hotel in Long Beach, New York, on Saturday (Dec. 2), summed up what a very special afternoon titled “The Fascinating and Colorful Life of Iconic Gus Åhr” was all about: a remembrance of, and a farewell to, Lil Peep, a talent who left the world at only 21 and had only begun to touch the possibility of global music stardom, but who was also — as far as many in the room were concerned — an outsider Long Island kid made good.
Gus — Gustav — Åhr, died in Tucson, Arizona, on Nov. 15, but he could hardly have been more alive than in this space at the Allegria Hotel, full of friends, fans and family, both blood and musical. Lil Peep’s signature colors, pink and black, were everywhere— in the room, in the flowers on the tables and in the clothes and hair of the many Peep faithfuls who made it in. (While it was a public event, the indoor portion of the afternoon, due to capacity issues, could only admit a portion of Peep’s legion of fans.) It is, of course, those fans who connected with Lil Peep in a way that anyone who’s ever appreciated emo understands that put him on the map. And it’s those fans that Gus Åhr’s grandmother, Jenny Kastner, who began the afternoon, acknowledged, in reading fan messages sent in the wake of their hero’s untimely death.
“He was a gift from God that was handed down to us for a short period of time, to change the world for the better,” wrote one of them. “His big brown eyes and contagious smile will forever have a part of my heart.” A message from Jake in Pensacola, Florida, took issue with a popular characterization of Peep: “He wasn’t the ‘modern day Kurt Cobain,'” Kastner read. “He was the first and only Lil Peep.”
What the two icons shared was a no-fucks-given outsider sensibility. The kid from Long Beach — much like the kid from Aberdeen, Washington, a generation earlier — high-tailed it out of this most middle class of New York suburbs at age 17, in search of something more, and different, as his favorite high school teacher Maria Hartmann recounted. “I remember the winter of his senior year, Gus couldn’t wait to finish high school. It was frustrating. He felt his creativity was being stifled. We had long talks about his dream to move to L.A. and make music. I asked him if he was afraid to move across the country by himself. He said, ‘No way, and my mom totally supports me.’”
His mom: Liza Womack. Anyone who even casually knew Lil Peep’s story knew that there was no more important person in his life. Not surprisingly, there was no more affecting speaker on Saturday than Womack. She shared a quote from a book by author Kate DiCamillo that she read to Gus when he was a child and recalled the morning after her son died, only 17 days earlier, as she went for a walk with her other son, Oscar. “We hadn’t really slept, but we knew we needed to get out of the house and into the world for comfort,” she shared. “One of the things Oscar said to me was, ‘Mom, just think of what he accomplished in barely 21 years. He traveled to England, Russia, Belgium, France and even El Paso. I’ll probably never go to El Paso in my entire life!’ Gus lived his own life on his own terms. He was a stubborn, driven, crafty, observant and tender young man.”
You’d be hard pressed to find anyone who disagreed with that assessment, in this room or far beyond. Peep was certainly embraced by the fashion world — that much was evident in a video loop that preceded the memorial. His talent was recognized by stars of hip-hop, rock, pop and more: tweets of sympathy appeared on screen from Post Malone, Diplo, Alice Glass, Ty Dolla Sign and Charli XCX. An entire side of the room was populated by Peep’s creative partners, the Goth Boi Clique — none more significant than Lil Tracy, whom Peep collaborated with numerous times. And Gus’s profound roots in emo were underscored in the interstitial music: Blink-182’s wrenching “I Miss You," Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Snow (Hey Oh)," My Chemical Romance’s tour de force “Welcome to the Black Parade” and finally — brilliantly — a live performance video of Good Charlotte covering Peep’s own heart-on-the-sleeve anthem “Awful Things." It could not have been more perfect, and hopefully the Maddens will consider making the song a permanent part of their set, in tribute to Gus.
What more could I hope for, as something of an outsider attending a tribute like this, than to learn something about the young man being remembered? And so I did. I learned from Hartmann that Peep, like so many of us before him, took to Catcher in the Rye. “I like him," he told Hartmann, referring to the book’s main character, Holden Caulfield. “And that’s when I when I learned that Gus was connecting with a fictional character who was a little lost in his current setting,” his teacher said. His former girlfriend Emma Harris explained that if Gus was not always the most reliable boyfriend — “we’d date for a month, then not speak for two” — he once told her they would always be “family." It wasn’t until recently that she understood what he meant. And for all his love of punk and hip-hop, Peep, it turns out, was also a Sinatra fan. “You may be surprised to know that he and his housemates had a weekly Frank Sinatra night,” his mom explained. “His favorite song was ‘Fly Me to the Moon’ — and he was fucking good at singing it!”
After this personal and public (it was live streamed) remembrance concluded, we decamped outside to the Long Beach boardwalk, where hundreds more Lil Peep fans were waiting. The GBC got a rousing welcome, and there was a spontaneous sing-along of Peep and Tracy’s “Witchblade," with its poignant hook, “When I die, bury me with all my ice on.” Then the crowd, pink and red roses in hand, made its way to the beach. There was more music, one hardy polar bear stripped down and jumped in the December water, and one by one, pink and red roses were thrown in the Atlantic in memory of Gus Åhr.
Lil Peep’s mother Liza used part of her remarks on this emotional day to call out those among us who would judge another by their tattoos, disconnect with school or dirty nails. “If you had seen Gus at night walking down the street, you might have been put off, scared even. You might have thought, ‘What a loser,’” she said. “If you had made these judgments about this teenager, about this young man struggling on his own to find meaning as a man, then I ask you to use this moment, right now, as a time to reflect on your actions. Ask yourself these questions: ‘Do I really know this person? Have I sat down face to face and asked to tell me about himself? Do I know what matters to him? Do I know what he values?’ Please do not make assumptions about people, or events, in ignorance. Try to step outside of your own box, and open your mind to new ideas. Must everyone fit into the box? Why must we have a box? My sweet little Peeper is gone, but he has surely left us a lot of wonderful material to review and consider. He has left me with new people to know. I am so proud of him. You have no idea.”