Michael McKinney died yesterday. He was 55 years old. I knew him as Jack Whitebread, a moniker he brought with him when he moved to Chapel Hill in the mid-1980s. Sometime before that, when he lived in Bloomington, Indiana, he went by the name Rat Rondell.
Jack was not a man who was easily defined but he was also not easy to ignore. He showed up in town looking like a character straight out of a Jack Kerouac novel. He was tall and thin with deep set blue eyes and greased black hair. He was prone to wearing two-toned bowling shirts and skinny-legged pants. When I first noticed him, I thought he was just another poser in a town full of talented, artistic people.
But Jack was something different. He was a performance artist whose primary performance was living life on his own terms. And he had more than a few moments of sheer genius.
In the 1990s, he started a routine called the Neil Diamond All Stars. Jack, who had always been part of the music scene in Chapel Hill and Carrboro, assembled a group of the best musicians in town to back him up singing Neil Diamond tunes. Some people would call it a tribute band, but it was much more than that. Jack sang every word of every song at the top of his lungs, usually slightly off-key or out of tune. The band, though, never missed a note.
In the early days of the All Stars, he built a catwalk at the Cat’s Cradle and sashayed down it tossing out scarves and did a highly credible approximation of Neil Diamond. Women flocked to the stage, grabbing for the sweaty textiles. The whole place would sing along, especially on Sweet Caroline. It was brilliant and people loved it.
A friend of mine once said, “I could never see Neil Diamond in concert because I would only hear Jack.” It’s so true. Anybody who saw those shows thinks of Jack Whitebread when Neil Diamond comes on the radio.
Jack lived life by his own code of civility which made him a difficult person at times. He knew the rules of polite society but flaunted or disregarded them as he felt needed. He could be self-centered and rude, but he could also be caring and kind. It all came in the same package.
Jack was well-read, opinionated and argumentative. He came across as a jaded cynic but he was really an idealist. He went to the Moral Monday protests in 2013 and got arrested. Indy Week ran his account of the incident. In addition to everything else, Jack was a fine writer.
Jack’s final act was showing us how to die. He was open and honest about the cancer that killed him. He’d been complaining for months about being unable to keep any food down before he finally went to the doctor. He stayed away because he couldn’t afford insurance and was one of those able-bodied men who Republicans don’t think deserve Medicaid. Doctors finally diagnosed an inoperable tumor in his esophagus and Jack began preparations for dying.
He documented the progress of his disease and treatment on Facebook. He never tried to pretend he was going to somehow beat it. Instead, he planned a farewell party. It was a hell of a bash that attracted people from across the country.
He referred to his funeral as his Going to Ground party. Jack had a friend build him a casket and he lined up a burial plot on property of a friend who lives outside of town. One Facebook post asked for recommendations for a stone cutter.
Jack never made light of dying, but he also faced it with incredible grace and a sense of humor. And he never changed who he was. One of his last posts took on the Ken Burns’ documentary on country music. Jack let us all know there were better, more honest documentaries out there.
Early on, Jack decided who he was and he tried to be true to that person. He pushed social norms to the limit and could be short, uncompromising and even mean. He would also rise to the defense of people he believed wronged and he forgave and forgot petty grievances.
Jack’s one of the characters that makes the community here so special. He was given the space to be who he was and he was loved and appreciated for the art he created, whether on stage, in writing or at the back of the bar. The community rallied to him when he got sick and stuck by him until the very end. I’m proud of the way Jack handled his death and I’m proud of this community for allowing him to be who he was.
Thomas Mills is the founder and publisher of PoliticsNC.com. Before beginning PoliticsNC, Thomas spent twenty years as a political and public affairs consultant. Learn more >