Sunday, January 29, 2023


Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia

Look closely at the hand above, see how it is pulling on the bed covers? It appears to have a death grip on the sheets. This is a fairly common sculptural element in cemetery art. It’s impact was rather lost on me until I made this photograph. Well, not exactly when I MADE it, more so when I reviewed the images on my phone the next day. Why? Mainly because it reminded me of a Cemetery Traveler blog I had written some years ago. 

As I described in my June 17, 2020 post, “Johnny Thunders Dead in New Orleans,” (link below) I described how the guitarist formerly of the New York Dolls had a death grip on his bed covers when the hotel caretaker found his lifeless body. This was at the St. Peter Guest House – a rooming house - in New Orleans, in 1991. Thunders’ death grip may have looked just like what you see carved in this statue.

So, what exactly is a “death grip?”

 “Death grip: A cadaveric spasm described as an instantaneous tightening of the hand or other body part at the time of death, the mechanism of which is unexplained.”

Woodlands Cemetery, Philadelphia

At some point back in 1999, I spent a couple days photographing New Orleans cemeteries. As I described in the blog post mentioned above, I also visited the St. Peter Guest House, being a New York Dolls fan. Johnny Thunders died here. The Dolls were a flamboyant glam rock punk band that came into being in 1973, the mechanism of their popularity being also largely unexplained. Back then, you would rarely admit in public that you listened to glam or punk. Now, of course, their music is almost considered “classic rock.” I doubt the Dolls would have expected that their music would be listened to FIFTY years later!

By the same token, I certainly did not expect to be talking to the man who found Johnny’s body when I visited the St. Peter Guest House. As I have previously written, “Royce found Johnny on the floor next to his bed with the bedsheets crunched in a deathgrip by his stiff hands.” I invite you to read my account of this adventure here.

It is odd how things you see, smell, hear, and taste can remind you of a past experience. Often, the memory jumps to the forefront of our consciousness without warning. This is actually a good description of the New York Dolls themselves. In 1973, they jumped to the forefront of the music world’s consciousness without warning. 

In the same way as the death grip adds a stark, mortal detail to the serene form of these statues, we can be reminded of how Johnny Thunders and the Dolls added a stark, mortal detail to music’s serene form in 1973. The Dolls were scraping, clutching their way toward stardom, in the midst of the serene popular music hits of 1973. Take a look at the list below to see what they were up against. We always need someone to continually claw at the sheets of complacency.

Top Songs of 1973  (

1 Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree - Tony Orlando & Dawn

2 Bad, Bad Leroy Brown - Jim Croce

3 Killing Me Softly with His Song - Roberta Flack

4 Let’s Get It On - Marvin Gaye

5 My Love - Paul McCartney & Wings

6 Why Me - Kris Kristofferson

7 Crocodile Rock - Elton John

8 Will It Go Round in Circles - Billy Preston

9 You’re So Vain - Carly Simon

10 Touch Me in the Morning - Diana Ross