Saturday, December 31, 2016

R.I.P. 2016: Remembrances

All I can add by way of tribute are random recollections of where these famous people and their work intersected with my life and sometimes my work.  Often that was during a brief period, though I did follow some over years.

For example, I attended to Alan Rickman's work as an actor and movie director over several decades, and wish I'd had the opportunity to see his theatre work as actor and director.  My appreciation of him just after his death is here.  Reading about him at that time and watching tributes by his peers preserved on YouTube proved he was an even more admirable person than I knew.

But two legendary pop music figures who died this year had mostly brief hold on my consciousness, long ago in the 1970s.  I became aware of Prince when most of the world did, with his Purple Rain movie and album--when he had the #1 film at the box office, #1 single and album simultaneously. (Dorin Thorin, cinematographer for Purple Rain, also died this year.)

 I was intrigued by Prince's musical versatility, stage presence and the unique mix of styles that characterized his music.  But as he shifted his persona I lost interest, and can't at the moment summon a single melody of his in my head.  Well, maybe "Little Red Corvette".

I became aware of David Bowie in the early 70s, this time before most of America.  His classic album Hunky Dory was not a hit in the US, but it was in Boston where I was writing on rock music and other topics for the alternative weekly Boston After Dark/Boston Phoenix.  I remember that our music editor, Ben Gerson, was much taken with Bowie.  Wish I had those pieces he labored on.

Hunky Dory remains the album that I remember, though I can conjure up a number of other Bowie hits in my head, recorded after and also before.  But I didn't follow his subsequent work all that closely--I wasn't so taken with the theatrics of the Ziggy Stardust and subsequent personae.

I admired his acting in The Man Who Fell To Earth and The Hunger, but again I lost track of his subsequent films.  I've got a lot of catching up to do.  Reading his extensive wikipedia bio, I got exhausted just trying to follow his activities through the 1970s.  I do recall reading a story a few years ago about his successful marriage to Iman, a beautiful woman who fascinated me as a model and delighted me as an actor opposite William Shatner in Star Trek VI.  I've noted that some younger folk were much taken with his last album Blackstar, in which he dealt quite consciously with his impending death.

My interest in the music of Bowie and Prince in the 1970s was largely supplanted when I got absorbed in the Asylum Records era--Linda Ronstadt, Jackson Browne, John David Souther, Chris Hillman, American Flyer, etc. and especially the Eagles.  This must partly have been because I could play and sing some of their songs, and I did, and occasionally still do. I think my version of "Peaceful Easy Feeling" has actually improved.

That was one of many Eagles songs written or co-written by one of its founders, Glenn Frey who died in early 2016.  I saw the Eagles live once, along with Linda Ronstadt and Jackson Browne, at a Jerry Brown for President fundraiser in 1976 in Washington.  They had reunion tours and albums in 1994 and 2007.  I should catch up with that music, too.  President Obama honored the group at this year's Kennedy Center honors.

The musicians I listened to but who survived their initial fame are dying off in droves now (Paul Kantner of Jefferson Airplane, a group among those that define 1967-68 in my memory, and both Keith Emerson and Greg Lake of Emerson, Lake & Palmer, though I barely remember them) and the musicians like George Michael who I didn't listen to are joining them.  I wonder how long I'll have the energy to notice, which is not as cynical as it may sound.

2016 saw the end of Muhammad Ali's long sad decline.  I remember watching the 1960 Olympic boxing match in which commentator Howard Cosell extolled the merits of the young amateur American fighter Cassius Clay.  He won that first fight and went on to win the Gold Medal.  He turned pro the same year and began his incredible career.  His name change, rapping persona, and especially his draft resistance in the late 1960s were inspirational and changed the culture.

Another hero of the 1960s was astronaut John Glenn.  His three-orbit ride in 1962 as the first American to orbit the Earth made him an instant hero. He became a personification of the JFK years, an apple pie American who was also a Kennedy Democrat. Towards the end of a distinguished career as a U.S. Senator, he became the oldest American in space when he returned to orbit as a member of the Space Shuttle crew in 1998.

Of course, the most current news is about the deaths of Carrie Fisher and her mother, Debbie Reynolds, within 48 hours.  Carrie Fisher's feisty Princess Leia changed how women appeared in action movies, but I especially admired her writing.  Postcards From the Edge remains a special book.   And I was a Debbie Reynolds fan from childhood.  Her performance in Singing in the Rain, surely one of the most joyous musicals ever made, was brave and indelible.  It looks great on DVD.

Gene Wilder is known as an actor, notably in Young Frankenstein and a segment of Woody Allen's Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex, but earlier this year I discovered how instrumental he was as a writer in that classic Young Frankenstein film.  Though director Mel Brooks gets the credit, the initial idea and much of the story came from Wilder. (Brooks attention to black and white visual style however is essential to the movie's quality.)  It remains a classic film comedy.  I remember I first saw it with Pat Mitchell, then an entertainment reviewer for WBZ in Boston, later head of PBS.

Besides Jim Harrison and Edward Albee, writers I read who died in 2016 include Umberto Eco, whose work I have mixed feelings about, and W.P. Kinsella, whose novel was the basis for the classic movie Field of Dreams. Gabriel Garcia Marquez himself gave major credit to Gregory Rabassa for his English translation of A Hundred Years of Solitude and other of his works that established his reputation in North America.  Rabassa died in 2016, as did  British "Angry Young Man" playwright Arnold Wesker, Italian political playwright and Nobel Prize winner Dario Fo, and author of the most beloved American novel of my time, To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee.

Besides record producer George Martin, Beatlesland lost Al Brodax, producer of the film Yellow Submarine as well as the earlier Beatles TV cartoon series, the animation director of Yellow Submarine Robert Baiser, and press officer Tony Barrow. 

Actor Robert Vaughn costarred with David McCallum in the 60s TV series Man From UNCLE.  Others I remember fondly who died this year include the excellent PBS news reporter Gwen Ifill, golfer Arnold Palmer who came from my part of western PA and returned there after utterly transforming professional golf into the major sport it is today, pioneer news broadcaster Morley Safer and pioneer baseball broadcaster (and Pittsburgh Pirates catcher) Joe Garagiola.  The world we know now is due partly to their unique presences.

Among the lesser known figures I want to recognize are journalist Ben Bagdikian, who covered Civil Rights in the 50s and was the reporter to whom Daniel Ellsberg passed the Pentagon Papers.  Bagdikian became a journalism educator and author.  Robert Stigwood was the impresario that made the Bee Gees prominent, through thick and thin and thick and thin and thick.  Pat Harrington, Jr. was one of Steve Allen's original Man on the Street gang, and among his many later roles was the unforgettable man from the Phone Company, revealed to be running the country in the 1967  movie The President's Analyst.

Bob Elliot of Bob and Ray died at age 92.  Alvin Toffler was the author of Future Shock that popularized the 1970s future studies movement.  Whatever happened to that, the future?  And yunz Pittsburghers will remember Chilly Billy Bill Cardille, host of Chiller Theatre, who memorably appeared in the burgh classic, Night of the Living Dead.

May they all rest in peace.  Their legacy and their work lives on.

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