Sunday, December 30, 2012

R.I.P. 2012


It was John Lennon who had the reputation as the "witty Beatle." Having been so preoccupied with Eastern mysticism, George Harrison seemed to lack a sense of humor. After watching Martin Scorsese’s recent Harrison documentary, I learn that the “quiet Beatle” was a pretty funny guy, even when the subject was as serious as the death of fellow Traveling Wilbury Roy Orbison. Calling Tom Petty to tell him the news, Harrison said, "Aren't you glad it wasn't you?"

That may be why I’ve always enjoyed reading obituaries. Better you than me, eh? You’re dead. It doesn’t matter what kind of life you lived, you’re dead and I’m still breathing.

Back in my college days when I alternated courses in Journalism and Art before embracing English, I thought I might end up writing for a newspaper. It was never my goal, and now that newspapers are heading the way of silent movies I'm glad of that, but it was more attractive than a lot of the alternatives. If there was one newspaper job that I would have preferred above all others, it would have been writing obituaries. When your subject is dead, you’ve got the beginning, middle, and end of the story. Perfect!

Death is also the perfect subject to dwell on as we shovel the dirt on another year.

I’m not going to pretend to give a shit about Neil Armstrong. Yeah, yeah, my heart goes out to his family and all the usual clich├ęs, but I don’t care that he walked on the moon. If my memory can be trusted, I was watching Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi in The Invisible Ray on an independent UHF station that summer night in 1969 when Armstrong planted the American flag in all that dust and uttered those famous words about one small step for man, blah, blah, blah. If Boris and Bela weren’t commanding my attention, something else was, but it sure wasn’t Armstrong. Nobody I knew at the time seemed to care about “this moon thing,” as an equally unimpressed Nick Tosches called it, and I don’t care about it now. So, goodbye Neil. R.I.P. And goodbye to Marvin Hamlisch, Art Modell, Nora Ephron, Sally Ride, Angelo Dundee, Ravi Shankar, Tony Scott, the Reverend Moon, and all those other famous people who died this year. They may have made their mark on the world, but they didn’t leave their mark on me.

Here are some of the people who I will remember with various degrees of affection:

George McGovern suffered the most humiliating defeat in the history of presidential elections, losing in an historic 1972 landslide to incumbent Richard Nixon. McGovern deserved better than that, but once Nixon stepped down in the wake of Watergate, McGovern looked like the winner by default. He never said “I told you so.” The headlines did it for him. He was one of the few politicians of either political party who I considered worthy of admiration (McGovern himself might have been appalled to know that the others included Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan). McGovern also wrote a touching account of his daughter’s ultimately tragic battle with depression.

What will we do without Gore Vidal? Who can fill the void he leaves?

You didn’t have to like science-fiction to like Ray Bradbury. If Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is, as someone once noted, the favorite book of people who don’t read much, Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 may be the one science fiction novel read even by those who don’t like science fiction. I was one of them until I began teaching. Since then, I’ve read dozens of his short stories to students intrigued enough by Bradbury’s vision to wait until the story’s over before pelting me with erasers.

Mike Wallace did a little of everything in television including game shows before finding his niche as the muckraker on 60 Minutes. He raked a whole lot of muck, and seemed to love doing it.

Andy Griffith is beloved for the 1960’s sitcom bearing his name. Sheriff Andy Taylor of Mayberry is the role for which he’ll be remembered, and Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd is there to remind everyone that Griffith was also a fine dramatic actor. But in 1958's No Time for Sergeants, Griffith is PISS IN YOUR PANTS HILARIOUS! If you haven’t seen it, I recommend that you do.

Ernest Borgnine got his big break in Hollywood as a heavy. He beat the crap out of Frank Sinatra in From Here to Eternity and was one of the roughnecks who gave Spencer Tracy that Bad Day at Black Rock. Then he won an Oscar for his heartbreaking portrayal of the lonely bachelor in the film version of Paddy Chayefsky’s Marty. Soon, he was starring in a sitcom, McHale’s Navy. Thankfully, his redemption was short-lived. Why let such malevolence go to waste? Borgnine’s most horrific heavy may have been the vicious train conductor in combat with Lee Marvin’s locomotive hopping hobo in Robert Aldrich’s little seen Emperor of the North from 1973, but if one of his movies stands above the rest, it has to be Sam Peckinpah’s 1969 masterpiece, The Wild Bunch.

Anyone who watched television with any regularity in the 1960s and 1970s is familiar with William Windom. He was in dozens of TV series and made for television flicks, including 1968’s Prescription: Murder which marked Peter Falk’s debut as Columbo. Windom’s most affecting performance may have been in “They’re Tearing Down Tim Riley’s Bar,” a segment of Night Gallery that was a sort of bookend to The Twilight Zone’s “Walking Distance” in that it once more found Rod Serling writing about a man yearning for a simpler, idealized past.

James Farentino was another familiar face on the tube during the same era. As a co-star of “The Lawyers” segment of NBC’s The Bold Ones and later the high-priced private eye of Cool Million, he was more pretty boy than actor. In 1977’s Jesus of Nazareth, however, he was powerful as the Apostle Peter and stole the show from Laurence Olivier, Anthony Quinn, and even the guy who played Jesus.

And then there was Jack Klugman who I eulogized along with Charles Durning the other day.

Dick Clark was also a TV star, though his strongest association is with rock ‘n’ roll. Except for Elvis, just about everyone who hit the top of the Billboard chart appeared on American Bandstand during its lengthy run. Clark also produced such schlocky movies as Psych-Out and Killer’s Three (in which he also played one of the killers) before producing schlocky TV shows like New Year’s Rockin’ Eve (Guy Lombardo for young folk), the Golden Globe Awards (bargain basement Oscars), the American Music Awards (imitation Grammys), and game shows.

Long before I listened to jazz with any regularity, I knew the name of Dave Brubeck, and his signature hit, “Take Five,” was lodged in my brain.

Hal David was a songwriter (“Look, look, my heart is an open book”) best known for his lyrics. He provided some great ones for Burt Bacharach, including "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," “Trains, Boats, and Planes” and “I Say a Little Prayer.” He also collaborated with the late John Barry on two songs for the soundtrack of 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (“We Have All the Time in the World” and “Do You Know How Christmas Trees Are Grown?”).

Donna Summer also left us this year. One of her hits was “Hot Stuff,” and she was for a time.

Whitney Houston was a bigger star than Summer and had more powerful pipes. I wouldn’t call myself a fan, but she delivered the goods on power ballads like Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” and “Where Do Broken Hearts Go.”

I must have been all of nine-years-old when “She” by the Monkees played on the clock radio that woke me up every morning for several weeks when I was in fourth or fifth grade. Mickey Dolenz was the lead singer on that song, but Davy Jones had the best voice of the pop quartet and sang lead on their biggest and most enduring hit, John Stewart’s “Daydream Believer.” Jones, who started out as an actor, once lamented that The Monkees ruined his career. It also made him a legend.

Finally, there was Andy Williams. In my youth, I was more partial to rock ‘n’ roll than middle of the road balladeers, but I always liked the guy. President Reagan was correct in the early ‘80s when he said that Williams’ voice should be declared a national treasure. This was the voice, after all, that owned “Moon River,” the song whose indescribable magic haunted me then and haunts me still. Whenever he sang that line about "My huckleberry friend," I pictured Huckleberry Hound - the cartoon character - floating over the river in question and I know I'm not the only one. It may not have been the image that Johnny Mercer had in mind when penning the lyrics to Henry Mancini’s melody, but . . .

I love the song, and so does Bob Dylan who rhapsodized about it in Chronicles and even sang it once on stage, dedicating it to Stevie Ray Vaughn who had died in a plane crash earlier that day.

I love ya, Bob, but the song belongs to Andy. You can see him performing it on You Tube.

R.I.P. 2012

P.S. How could I have forgotten to include Levon Helm of the Band? "The Weight," "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," etc, but most significantly, at least to a Dylan fan like myself, one of his accomplices on several legendary tours (1965-66 and 1974) and, of course, on The Basement Tapes. Ye Heavy and a Bottle of Bread to you, Levon.

And Judith Crist, whose “This Week’s Movies” column in TV Guide introduced me to film criticism.

Most of all, there was Marilyn Szalay, a brilliant artist and the best teacher I ever had.

© 2012 Brian W. Fairbanks

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