Last summer more than a hundred people attended the funeral of a young man from Dokkum in the Dutch province of Friesland and now you can too. His parents have posted a highlight video online. That this most private of moments from a far-off stranger's life could be put on display in such a manner may seem perverse, but for hundreds, maybe thousands of people around the world, watching this footage is a sweet and tearful conclusion to an odd sort of friendship made possible by the Internet and a shared love of music.
Dirk Sietse Gjaltema died last August 1 before reaching his 20th birthday. On a Thursday in late March 2006, he started a blog called Cities on Flame With Rock and Roll on which he posted downloads of his favorite albums paired with charming and impassioned descriptions of them. Though the majority of his posts presented Japanese music—in June '06, he added a download of Anthology of Japanese New Folk, a terrific marathon premium from WFMU's Janitor From Mars—his adventuresome taste led readers through the acid folk, garage rock and psychedelia of Turkey, Korea, Brazil, his native Holland and many other wide-ranging outposts of progressive sounds. In early September, Dirk promised to put up a download of the rarity Zeer Oude Klanken En Heel Nieuwe Geluiden by the Dutch three-string guitar masher Eddy van der Meer, but the following post instead contained this stunner:
dear music friends i wont be posting new music for at least two weeks because i am in the hospital , i need a operation for my legg , becauce it is very bad with my legg a car hit me, and hurt my legg very badly, it would be very nice iff you send me a postcard.
Back home a few days later, Dirk dutifully posted the album while also happening to mention that an MRI on his damaged leg revealed a tumor and he was due back in hospital for tests since "they don't know yet if its a good one or a bad one." Well, the tumor turned out to be Ewing's sarcoma, an aggressive form of bone cancer.
Over the next several months, checking in with Cities on Flame With Rock and Roll became increasingly harrowing as Dirk's posts alternated between impassioned offerings of obscure musical treats and matter-of-fact descriptions of what was happening to his body. One week you'd learn about some trippy Chilean hippy band, and the next get an unvarnished chronicle of a post-chemotherapy puking session. And yet each installment, no matter how bright or how grim came from Dirk always in the same unnervingly upbeat, enthusiastic tone.
On more than one occasion, Dirk's parents posted updates on his condition. Often they were just awful accounts of operations and bleeding and, ultimately, the amputation of Dirk's leg. And yet, through it all Dirk's irrepressibly cheerful nature would overshadow the ugliness. His post from November 24 reads
i got back home Tuesday / everything is going good / the tumor seems to be getting smaller!,wich is a good thing. / eating is going good again / i dont need to get the food from the tube anymore / my 3rd chem0 session starts the 28th / but now some music by american (psychedelic?) rock band The Nazz
Through February 2007, Dirk's blog posts were more musical and less medical, with only occasional and more hopeful-sounding updates. At the end of the month he even speculated he may be cancer-free after tests revealed no signs of metastasis. He announced with a grin, "the stump looks great / most of the time i don't have that much pain / only phantom pain" with a link to the Wikipedia entry on "phantom pain."
More posts of blissful recordings came throughout April and May, among them albums by the Japanese quartet Happy End and Anatolian rocker Baris Manço, as well as a Korean cover of "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida." At the end of June, Dirk announced that he'd aced a school exam he finally was well enough to take, but that would be the last real bit of good news. His last music post came on July 24, serving up a "Beatlesesque psych pop" platter from the Singaporean band October Cherries. Then, three days later in a post titled "See You All Again Friday," Dirk shared that he wasn't feeling so well. He had his next-to-last chemo treatment scheduled for the following day, but it never took place. An examination revealed a new tumor and his mother, Janny, posted a message saying "there is nothing they can do for him anymore. At the moment it's going very fast, day by day he is getting worse." She continued,
Dirk asked me to tell you this, and that when he passes away, he wants the comments to be used as a memorial register, and then the blog will be closed. It will stay as a memorial in loving memory of Dirk.
Though not unexpected, Dirk's death, eight days later, was a shock. All the more so because accompanying Janny's brief, mournful announcement were two snapshots of Dirk—a bracing first look at the bright, smiling face behind all the joy and sadness. Outpourings of appreciation and condolence flowed in to Cities on Flame, as Dirk had requested, and the mass of his expansive community of readers, like the young man in the photos, suddenly became visible.
Last September, on the six-month anniversary of Dirk's passing, Janny posted on Cities on Flame a long and heartbreaking letter to her boy. (As with her prior posts, she used his account, so the letter disconcertingly carries his own "posted by Dirk" tag at the bottom.) At the end of the letter Janny announced the creation of a new blog Heaven to Earth With Angel Dirk, that will keep alive the memorial tribute. Earlier this month, videos of Dirk began to appear, including the footage from his funeral.
Cities on Flame With Rock and Roll—and its many earthly treasures—continues to exist. And so, too, in such a strange and wonderful way, does its now heavenly creator.