Top 19 Dead People of 2010
The Rich, the Famous, the Dearly Departed.
Carl F Gauze
Another year passes. The older generation leaves for the take out window at the Golden Arches in the Sky, and a new one pops out of mommy, intended or not. It’s the two things we all have in common, and since I’m still here, let’s take a respectful walk past the tombstones of those who made something special for the rest of us.
I’m an unabashed geek, and Martin Gardner is one of my true heroes. Among many other accomplishments, he wrote the “Mathematical Games” column in Scientific American from 1956 to 1981 and sent me down a course of math and physics and all sorts of other truly weird and wonderful amusements. An expert on Alice in Wonderland and M. C. Escher and the SOMA cube, he made mathematics and cryptography accessible. Skeptical of religion, he vigorously fought against pseudoscience — telepathy, UFOs, Dianetics, and ESP were all in his crosshairs. After his “retirement” he dropped out of sight and many thought he had died. Upon hearing about his own death, he denied it vigorously and lived to the age of 95.
Another delight of geekdom opened to me when I moved to Florida several decades ago. Jack Horkheimer did an unintentionally funny closer for the local PBS station called Jack Horkheimer: Star Hustler. In five minutes he spun out more enthusiasm that you would think possible for the conjunction of Saturn and Mars or a meteor show you wouldn’t see unless you froze your butt off at 3 am in a distant cow field. He made me look up into the light-polluted Orlando sky, and now I can point to all those zeroth magnitude spots of light and say, “that’s not Jet Blue, it’s Venus.”
Rock and roll may never die, but the individual players typically don’t last long. Ronnie James Dio checked out early this year from stomach cancer at age 57. Besides kicking out assorted jams, he gets credit for the Devil’s Horn metal sign. Yeah, mom can’t tell your fashion sense from your religious beliefs, but the metal sign looks friendlier than the traditional middle finger you give the The Man. Turn it up to 11.5!
Talk about lucky. Or unlucky. Tsutomu Yamaguchi is the only person to survive not one, but two, atomic blasts in Japan. On a business trip to Hiroshima, he was just over two miles away from ground zero and was temporarily blinded, ruptured both eardrums, and was badly burned. He and his associates returned to Nagasaki, where he received medical attention and went back in to work. Bad timing of the highest order, but he was one tough guy, no question.
Everyone wanted a gig as an Oscar Meyer Weiner in the 1960s. Meinhard Raabe got the job as Chief Weiner Chef and rode in the Air Force One of promo vehicles, the Oscar Meyer Weinermobile. But he was already famous; he played the Munchkin coroner in Wizard of Oz. And he had a day job; he earned a Masters in Accounting and Business from the profits he made appearing in the 1934 World’s Fair. Small man, big impression.
“Art is what you can get away with” and no one in rock and roll exemplifies that better than Malcolm McLaren. He started designing fashion wear, managed the New York Dolls until they collapsed, and ended up selling bondage gear in the London glam days. There he met The Sex Pistols. His exuberant hyperbole and the Pistols’ loud, brash and snotty style propelled them to fame far beyond what their minimal musical skills could sustain. They, too, collapsed in a pile of smack and dead bodies, leaving McLaren to flog Bow-Wow-Wow and bring hip-hop to the UK. No question, this guy was a sleazy operator and a genius at manipulating the public. And we ENJOYED being manipulated by him.
Killed in a freak gardening accident? Yeah, that stuff really happens in Rock and Roll. Just ask Mike Edwards, cellist for the Electric Light Orchestra. One fine day he’s driving down a charming back road in Devon, and a monster runaway bale of hay rolls down a hill and crushes him. If you’ve been off the farm the past few decades, today hale bales are 20-foot tall cylinders weighing close to half a ton. Freaky. Edwards’ cello put the sound of 18th century classic music into disco, and we ate it up.
Nowadays cartoon actors are either CGI hairy blobs with marketing tie-ins, or snarky adult versions hoping to replace Mad Magazine. In a simpler age, you either had Fred Flintstone endlessly running past the same window until his monologue ended, or the gentle, positive, and creepy-cute Gumby. Arthur “Art” Clokey perfected claymation before Will Vinton trademarked it, and the soft adventure of a green gummy boy and his infinitely flexible horse was a favorite of mine. While not overtly religious, there was always a positive moral, and you could hum along to “A Mighty Fortress is our God” during the credits. Yes, this was a cartoon with its soundtrack written by Martin Luther.
Doug Fieger is one of the most sympathetic rockers to come out of the Punk/New Wave days. His earworm of a hit “My Sharona” broke the week I moved to LA, but after a month this clever pop tune was overplayed, over age, and despised by a public that had so recently adored him. He went from power pop god to pariah as “Nuke the Knack” campaigns spread across America. In a VH1 interview with him years later he said, “One day everyone loved us. The next they all hated us. What the hell did we do wrong?” Nothing man, it’s fame, and you can’t control it. But it’s still a great, chunky, clunky, lovable hit.
I’m throwing in Alex Chilton just because he inspired a Replacements song. Sure, he sang lead on “The Letter” and “Cry Like a Baby” and even “Soul Deep” but a passing reference in a minor hit made him a hipster touch stone. Oh, yeah, he was the main dude in the band Big Star, which made what might be the most influential rock album ever — that no one ever heard of.
Just a few weeks ago we lost Captain Beefheart, a.k.a Don VanVliet. There’s no way to compress his stormy and strained artistic career into a short paragraph, so I recommend a scroll through the 20-plus pages of material on everyone’s favorite cheat sheet. Capt. B released Trout Mask Replica in 1969 at the height of the psychedelic movement, and even people who were deeply influenced by it (including The Minutemen and cartoonist Matt Groening) regarded it as unlistenable, but today it’s elevated to “highly influential.” You’ll want a copy for display on the wall, but probably not on your iPod.
Nerds and geeks may have been derided in the ’50s, but once we took over the world with a nefarious plan called “The Internet,” we controlled from dual redundant underground volcano headquarters in Redmond and Palo Alto the future of the world. MWAHAHAHAHA. The stereotype flowed from the work of Arnold Stang, radio boy genius. A child star on CBS Radio’s Let’s Pretend, he played smart and social inept eggheads often called “Stanley” or “Seymour.” Stang did extensive voice work, including voices for Top Cat, a cartoon version of the old Phil Silvers Show. He died from pneumonia at 91.
Let’s talk porn. Today, it’s everywhere there’s a wireless hot spot, and sleazy sex helped settle the Beta vs. VHS and HD-DVD vs. Blu-Ray questions. Used to be you had to go to “that” part of town to get your fix, until Playboy came along and made sex classy. But it took Robert Charles Joseph Edward Sabatini, “Bob” Guccione to put the ovaries back in porn. His magazine Penthouse pushed the boundaries of news stand sex and made him as successful as Hefner. His later investments in Caligula and a nuclear fusion proved less profitable. After the sorts of legal disputes that publishing engenders, he died of cancer at the age of 79.
Harvey Pekar was one of those underground cartoonists bent on destroying America’s youth with liberal ideas and demon weed. A friend of Robert Crumb and Bob Armstrong, he wrote the autobiographical American Splendor, detailing his life on the margins of society. Crumb’s illustrations made the works very salable, and his storytelling was sadly gripping, yet led to a well-received film in 2003. He wrote about jazz and books, but his best topic was his own life.
If you’re a fan of sci-fi and fantasy (and you must be if you’ve read this far) you’ve seen the luscious covers Frank Frazetta produced for the Tarzan and Conan paperbacks. Musclebound heroes save well-endowed heroines from leopards and space aliens in a distinctive dreamy style. Frazetta mixed skilled composition and little regard for the story line to create classic illustrations. “I don’t have time to read this stuff” is a supposed quote, and I agree — the covers are MUCH better than the contents. Beginning as a cleanup artist for Al Cap, Frazetta did movie posters, album covers, cartoons, and rotoscoped animation with Ralph Bakshi. Frazetta had one guiding principle: ugly people and boring situations do NOT belong on a cover.
No one wants to be second banana, but James Gordon MacArthur was one of the best. You remember him as Steve McGarrett’s side kick Danny Williams on Hawaii Five-O. Adopted by Helen Hayes, his godmother was Lillian Gish and he played with Harpo Marx as a child. While he worked in dozens of films and television shows, he made his biggest mark on stage, where he won numerous awards. He even did the thunder effect backstage on a European tour of Skin of Our Teeth. But America remembers him best for his Five-O role as the guy who does the paperwork after his boss scarfs up the glory. “Book ’em, Danno!” was his call to action, and that never-filmed pilot for Police Administrator remains an item of mystery to the serious connoisseur of ’70s cop drama.
Before we had karaoke to embarrass ourselves with, there was Sing Along With Mitch. This early TV show featured Mitchell William, “Mitch” Miller guiding the audience through popular songs of the day. Lyrics appeared on the screen, and we were encouraged to “follow the bouncing ball” and sing along at home. This was wildly popular to the point that Miller was regularly parodied in MAD Magazine. Miller was a highly trained musician who played oboe for Leopold Stokowski and acted and was an A&R man for Columbia Records. He hated rock and roll, and didn’t sign Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly when he had the chance. While he annoyed many high profile artists, including Frank Sinatra and Rosemary Clooney, with his particular view of pop music, he had the best “hits to releases” average of anyone. Miller defined the sound of American popular music in the ’60s. He lived to 99.
Let’s all eat a chocolate chip cookie in memory of Barbara Billingsley, TV land’s bestest mom ever. Her 234 episodes raising “the Beave” in white pearls, high heels, and an apron set a standard few moms can live up to. The show started weak, but built an audience, and only ended when the entire cast decided to move on to other projects. In the case of Jerry Mathers’ character, he had to attend high school. After the show, Billingsley’s next big hit came in 1980’s Airplane! as the jive talking little old lady.
We’ll end on a literary note and mention the passing of Jerome David (J.D.) Salinger, one of the great 20th century American authors. Salinger might be the ideal mythic writer, with one glorious, earth-shattering novel (Catcher in the Rye) followed by increasingly difficult follow ups, a reclusive lifestyle, and an ongoing relationship with The New Yorker, bad blood with the film industry, and a reputation that only grew as his output diminished. Catcher in the Rye ranks with On the Road in summing up the post-war ennui of Western youth, and while it’s the most commonly banned book in America, it’s also the second most assigned one. He was 91.
That’s it for 2010 — tune in next year for an update. Live well.