by JIM KNIPFEL
January 10, 2016
A Bad Year for Drummers, Bad Taste, and People Named Brown: The Dead Celebrities of 2015
In terms of dead celebrities, 2015 may not go down as one of the most memorable of years. After all, we didn’t lose any monumental international icons. There were no dead Elvises, Sinatras, or even Michael Jacksons—no singular figures whose passing blew all the other news off the air and dominated the public consciousness for weeks, let alone even a couple of hours.
Oh, we lost some big names, people who were enormously talented and popular, but to a limited audience. Call it Genre Mortality. What is lacking in shocking star power though is more than made up for in sheer volume. Dead celebrity-wise, this was one of the most prolific years in recent memory, but the people we lost were, for the most part, folks you’ve never heard of, whose work nevertheless made a quiet and forceful impact on our lives and the culture.
As ever, the Reaper did some serious plucking from the music industry. That’s more than a little disheartening, considering that as these talented musicians are being taken from us, they’re being replaced these days by what? Vocorders and computer programs like Garage Band.
Although we didn’t lose another Elvis, we did lose Elvis’s band leader Joe Guercio, as well as Sid Tepper and Roy Bennett, both of whom wrote songs for Elvis movies. We also lost Grand Ole Opry star Little Jimmy Dickens, who had a big novelty hit with “May the Bird of Paradise Fly Up Your Nose,” and gospel singer Andrae Crouch. Tim Drummond, who played base for both Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and Neil Young kicked, as did, coincidentally and ironically enough, Dallas Taylor, who was Crosby, Stills and Nash’s drummer.
Kim Fowley, who not only wrote songs for the likes of Alice Cooper and KISS, but also managed the Runaways, croaked this year, as did legendary songwriter Ervin Drake, the man who gave us “It was a Very Good Year”; rapper A$ap Yams; Tangerine Dream founder Edgar Froese; Bay Area rapper Dominic Newton (aka The Jacka); Buddy Holly bassist Joe B. Mauldin, and Visage lead singer Steve Strange.
It may still have been Leslie Gore’s party this year, but other people were doing the crying. Others (or maybe the same ones) were mourning the loss of Janis Joplin guitarist Sam Andrew; Duke Ellington and Tonight Show trumpeter Clark Terry; Australian rock legend Stevie Wright; Nashville songwriter and studio musician Bobby Emmons; blues guitarist Robert “Wolfman” Belfour; Charmayne (Maxee) Maxwell of the Nineties R&B group Brownstone; Grammy-winning jazz producer Orrin Keepnews; surf guitarist and “Pipeline” co-writer Brian Carman; R&B singer-songwriter Don Covay; Blood, Sweat and Tears trumpet player Lew Soloff; Three Dog Night’s co-founder Cory Wells and keyboardist Jimmy Greenspoon; Toto bassist Mike Porcaro; Free bassist and “All Right Now” co-writer Andy Fraser; The Left Bank’s songwriter and keyboardist Michael Brown; Twisted Sister drummer A.J. Pero; Molly Hatchet drummer Bruce Crump; Skynrd’s first drummer Robert Burns Jr.; Motorhead’s drummer Phil “Philthy Animal” Taylor; The Specials’ drummer John “Brad” Bradbury; and John Renbourn, the folk guitarist and founder of The Pentangle Quintet.
Three members of Khaotika and Wormreich died in a, well, khaotik van accident while on tour and are now, um, feeding the worms. Another Ray Charles bit the dust this year, but this one was the Grammy-winning composer of Easy Listening music and the Three’s Company theme. Jeremy Brown, who played guitar for Scott Weiland & the Wildabouts, stopped breathing this year, and wouldn’t you know it? So did Scott Weiland!
Tony Bennett pianist Ralph Sharon has left the building, and so have “When a Man Loves a Woman” singer Percy Sledge; “Stand By Me” singer Ben E. King; blues legend B. B. King (coincidence?); Austin City Limits founder Bill Arhos; Lois Lilienstein of Sharon, Lois & Bram; pioneering country singer Bonnie Lou; R&B singer Johnny Kemp; the great Jack Ely, whose semi-coherent vocals on The Kingsmen’s seminal (so to speak) “Louie, Louie” sent parents everywhere into paroxysms of fear and dismay; Pulitzer-nominated composer Ronald Senator; “You Sexy Thing” singer Errol Brown; R&B singer Ortheia Barnes-Kennerly; Sly and the Family Stone’s trumpet player Cynthia Robinson; famed New York Philharmonic conductor Kurt Masur; and record executive Bruce Lundvall, who resuscitated Blue Note records back in the 1980s.
Make your own “grave” joke here, but jazz trumpeter Marcus Belgrave died this past year, which leaves him in the same fix as folk singer Jean Ritchie; The Weavers’ Ronnie Gilbert; Will Holt, the folk singer who wrote “Lemon Tree” and a couple of Broadway shows; visionary jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman; pop singer and pop singer daughter Natalie Cole; The Grand Ole Opry’s Jim Ed Brown; singer Monica Lewis, best known as the voice of Chiquita bananas; R&B singer Wendel Holmes of The Holmes Brothers; legendary New Orleans musician and composer Harold Batiste; legendary New Orleans musician and composer Allen Toussaint; Gunther Schiller, the composer who fused jazz and classical decades after Ellington and Gershwin did pretty much the same thing; Yes founder and bassist Chris Squire; country singer-songwriter Red Lane; and Michael Masser, who did just fine for himself writing songs for Whitney Houston and Diana Ross.
Well, it seems the fat lady has sung for tenor Jon Vickers. She’s also belted out a few tuneful dirges for Chicago rapper Capo; Brooklyn rapper Sean Price; Grammy-winning Mexican balladeer Joan Sebastian; “Always on My Mind” songwriter Wayne Carson; “I Never Promised You a Rose Garden” singer Lynn Anderson; British singer and actress Cilla Black; country songwriter and producer Billy Sherrill; record producer Bob Johnston. who worked with Dylan and Johnny Cash; REO Speedwagon guitarist and songwriter Gary Richrath; one of Gladys Knight’s longest-serving Pips William Guest; Fifties singer Frankie Ford, best known for his hit “Sea Cruise”; and musician Ben Cauley, who was the sole survivor of the plane crash that killed Otis Redding. Until now, anyway.
Phil Woods, a jazz sax player who played with Quincy Jones, has wrapped his last gig, as have Motown Records’ first publicist Al Abrams; amplified vibraphonist Dave Pike; Camera Obscura keyboardist Carey Lander; pop country singer Billy Joe Royal; jazz singer Mark Murphy; Prom Kings founder and MTV reality show star Chris Carney; country singer Tommy Overstreet; The Beatles’ second drummer Andy White, who only appeared on their first single; country music traditionalist Ramona Jones; and timeless songwriter P.F. Sloan, who among other things gave us “Eve of Destruction” and “Secret Agent Man.”
Whew, huh? but we’re only getting started here. The movie and TV industries were hit just as hard as the music industry, leaving bodies scattered all over Los Angeles.
I tell you, losing The Beverly Hillbillies’ Donna Douglas was no way to start the year, especially when you recall Max Baer is still alive. But that was just the beginning. Rod Taylor of The Birds and so many other memorable pictures opted to take a dirt nap himself, as did James Bond and Star Wars vet Khan Bonfils. And get this—both studio execs Samuel Goldwyn, Jr. and Roger L. Mayer died this year, and both were eighty-eight years old. MGM actress and dancer Sally Forrest ain’t what she used to be, and neither are Lady in a Cage and Columbo director Walter Grauman; former Miss Sweden and La Dolce Vita actress Anita Ekberg; influential Hollywood publicist Murray Weissman; Wayne Rogers from MASH; comedian Taylor Negron from Fast Times at Ridgmont High; Brian Clemens, who wrote TV’s The Avengers, together with Avengers star Patrick Macnee; Reality TV performer Gregg Plitt, who did us all a favor when he got himself hit by a train; British soap actress Anne Kirkbride; former Columbia Pictures executive Alan Hirschfield; and Mortal Kombat actor Darren Shahlavi, who took an overdose.
Sixty years later, the Rebel Without a Cause curse rolls on. You’d think James Dean, Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo, Jim Backus, Dennis Hopper and Nick Adams would have been enough, right? But the madness is ongoing, as this year the curse claimed actor (and later editor) Frank Mazzola and Rebel screenwriter Stewart Stern.
Anime creator Monty Oum died this year, likely in some ultraviolent way that made little logical sense. I’m guessing things were a little less violent for Geraldine McKuen, who played Miss Marple on the BBC; Holly Woodlawn, the actress who inspired Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side”; Mary Healy from The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T; film noir femme fatale Lizabeth Scott (whom I never liked) and film noir good girl Colleen Gray (whom I have a crush on); Dynasty writer and producer Edward DeBlasio; Louis Jordan, the suave star of Gigi and Swamp Thing; Mexican soap actress Lorena Rojas; and Parks and Recreation writer and producer Harris Wittels, who took an overdose.
Marlon Brando’s second wife, actress Movita Castaneda, is pushing up the proverbial daisies, as is actress Anna Kashfi who, as it happens, was, well, another Brando ex-wife. June Fairchild, an actress who appeared in Up in Smoke, died on skid row. Brilliant documentarian Bruce Sinofsky, whose Paradise Lost films about the West Memphis Three actually made an impact, succumbed to the inevitable, and so did the even more brilliant documentarian Albert Maysles who gave us Gimme Shelter among many other things; American Horror Stories obligatory midget Ben Woolf; American Horror Stories’ obligatory legless sideshow freak Rose Siggins; classic porn director Lasse Braun; Daniel von Bargen, a character actor who appeared in Seinfeld and Silence of the Lambs; Oscar-nominated costume designer Patricia Norris; Simpsons co-creator Sam Simon; burly beer commercial actor Windell Middlebrooks; Richard Glatzer, who co-directed the Oscar-winning Still Alice; filmmaker and Playgirl centerfold Dirk Shafer; and Gene Patton, who won hearts the world over as Gene Gene the Dancing Machine on The Gong Show.
If you think it’s just people connected with Rebel Without a Cause who have reason to be worried, just pray you never had anything to do with the original Star Trek. Oh, we all heard plenty about it when Leonard Nimoy performed that mind meld with oblivion, but who could’ve guessed producer Harve Bennett, actor Bruce Hyde, pilot screenwriter George Clayton Johnson, and Grace Lee Whitney, who will forever be remembered in the annals of geekdom as Captain Kirk’s assistant, would all try the same trick with the same results?
Radio legend and TV producer Danny Schechter made his long goodbye, as did Robinson Crusoe on Mars screenwriter Ib Melchior; TV actor Ralph Taeger; Plan Nine From Outer Space’s Gregory Walcott; famed cinematographer Haskell Wexler; Canadian TV actress Alberta Watson; B film star Robert Z’dar of Maniac Cop and many, many more; B film star Tom Towles of Night of the Living Dead and many, many more; Oscar-winning cinematographer Miroslav Ondricek; Marjorie Lord of Make Room for Daddy fame; James Best, who played the sherrif on Dukes of Hazzard; the great Geoffrey Lewis, a character actor who was inescapable in the Seventies and Eighties: the equally great and equally inescapable character actor Richard Dysart; Paul Almond, who directed the first of the Seven Up documentaries but never received the credit he deserved; Anne of Green Gables star Jonathan Crombie; Ben Powers of TV’s Good Times; and Everybody Loves Raymond’s Sawyer Sweeten.
TV producer and Last Tycoon screenwriter Don Mankiewicz went toes up, joining the ranks of TV actress and Steve Allen widow Jayne Meadows; The Partridge Family’s Suzanne Crough Condray; annoying actress and heiress Betsy von Furstenberg; Babe and Lord of the Rings cinematographer Andrew Lesnie; Oscar-winning Dances With Wolves screenwriter Michael Blake; screenwriter William Bast, who for some reason didn’t win an Oscar for Valley of Gwangi; The Graduate and 9 to 5 actress Elizabeth Wilson; artist and filmmaker Prashant Bhargava; Marty Pasetta, director of seventeen Oscar telecasts as well as Elvis’ Aloha From Hawaii; actress, comedian, and Jerry Stiller’s wife Anne Meara; movie memorabilia dealer and ubergeek Eric Caidin; syndication king Michael King of King World Productions; Betsy Palmer, who played Jason’s mom (and the real killer) in the original Friday the 13th; Gunnar Hansen, who played Leatherface (and one of many killers) in the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre; and Wes Craven, who directed all sorts of movies about all sorts of crazy killers, from Last House on the Left to Nightmare on Elm Street.
Martin Brooks, who played Rudy Wells, the doctor who saved both the Six-Million Dollar Man and the Bionic Woman, couldn’t save himself in the end, and neither could Oscar-winning costume designer Julie Harris, who dressed James Bond and The Beatles; Game of Thrones visual effects designer Kate Chappell; character actress Mary Ellen Trainor of Lethal Weapon and The Goonies; Oliver’s Fagin Ron Moody; Rocky and Raging Bull producer Robert Chartoff; Woody Allen’s long-time producer Jack Rollins; character actor Rick Ducommun from The ‘Burbs and Groundhog Day; iconic Italian actress Laura Antonelli; incredibly boring and therefore incredibly popular film composer James Horner; the underappreciated Dick Van Patten of Omega Man, Violent Midnight, and some insufferable TV series; one-time child actor George Winslow, who appeared in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes; Karate Kid producer Jerry Weintraub; Can’t Buy Me Love star Amanda Peterson; Disney animator and sculptor Blaine Gibson; and Irwin Keyes, who played villains in all sorts of delightful pictures like House of 1000 Corpses;
Toward the end of The Godfather, Moe Green (Alex Rocco) takes a bullet through the eye while getting a massage. One can only hope Rocco himself, who had a long and illustrious career after that, went in an equally dramatic, slo-mo way this past July. Omar Sharif, meanwhile, likely went in some debonair fashion a few days later. Broadway and TV actor Roger Rees ran out of time, along with screenwriter James L. White. who penned that Ray Charles biopic; British television actor George Cole; Hollywood stuntman Shawn Robinson; John Culhane, the Disney historian who inspired Mr. Snoops; Gerald S. O’Loughlin, best remembered for his role on The Rookies; TV producer-director Bud Yorkin, who worked on All in the Family among other things; From Hell It Came star Mark Sheeler; Joyce Ingalls, the model turned actress who appeared in Paradise Alley; F Troop’s Melody Patterson; and Yvonne Craig, who played Batgirl in the final season of the sixites Batman TV series. Even if as characters go she was almost universally despised, she nevertheless inflamed many a confused nine year-old’s libido. To fans of the show, though, a much bigger loss was George Barris, the man who designed the Batmobile.
For awhile there, Dean Jones was synonymous with Disney live action films. You simply couldn’t get away from the son of a bitch. Well, now he’s dead, and so are early soap opera director Lela Swift; the great Martin Milner, that peripatetic clean-cut beatnik Todd from Route 66; Laugh-In’s “Sock It To Me” girl Judy Carne; Godfather casting director Louis DiGiaimo; Hollywood helicopter stunt pilot Alan Purwin; Jack Larson, who played Jimmy Olsen on the original Superman TV series; Lord of the Rings and X-Men producer Nancy Bernstein; Oscar-nominated Save the Tiger screenwriter Steve Shagan; recent child actor Ross Grskovic; Twin Peaks’ beloved and confounding Log Lady (and David Lynch favorite) Catherine Coulson; underrated but well-compensated Towering Inferno and King Kong director John Guillermin; Belgian feminist filmmaker Chantal Akerman; that sniveling little brat in Old Yeller Kevin Corcoran; costume designer Gene Allen, who won an Oscar for My Fair Lady; and High Sierra’s Joan Leslie.
By this stage of the game, you pretty much expect anyone connected with The Sopranos to die at any time, so it was no real shocker when both former boxer and Sopranos actor John “Cha-Cha” Ciarcia and former boxer and Sopranos actor Frank Albanese went down for the count. But my god, will those poor Our Gang kids never catch a break? You can’t turn around without one or two of them dying on you, and this year was no exception with the loss of both little Jean Darling (age 93) and little Dickie Moore (age 89).
Petticoat Junction actress Pat Woodell is now wearing a new shroud, as are Bad City Blues producer Michael Stevens; legendary Hollywood actress Maureen O’Hara; Ralph Richeson, who played the retarded cook on Deadwood; Happy Days’ Al Molinaro; former senator and Law & Order actor Fred Thomson; TV actor Greg Palmer; E.T. and Black Stallion screenwriter Melissa Mathison; remarkable production designer Robert Kinoshita, who created the iconic Robbie the Robot for Forbidden Planet; Chariots of Fire screenwriter Colin Wellan; All My Children actor David Canary; One Life to Live actor Nathaniel Marsden; One Life to Live actress Patricia Elliott; beloved Japanese actress Setsuko Hara, who worked with Ozu and Kurosawa; Nebraska co-star Angela McEwan; game show host Jim Perry; one-time teen actor Joshua Shintani; Navajo Joe co-star Nicoletta Machiavelli; model and Lost Boys actor Brooke McCarter; and the not-always pleasant Scarface and Lost Highway actor Robert Loggia.
Not even counting the beheadings, it was a relatively rough year for journalists as well, many (but not all) of whom died with their heads still attached to their bodies. Wall Street Journal reporter David Bird was found in the waters off Brooklyn a year after he went missing. Bob Simon of 60 Minutes fame died in a car accident. Times media columnist David Carr (a former colleague of mine) filed his last story, as did ESPN anchor Stuart Scott; NBC foreign correspondent Ned Colt; ABC news anchor Lisa Colagrossi; Time magazine film critic Richard Corliss; Marlene Sanders, America’s first female nightly news anchor; and former Fox News producer Phillip Perea, who shot himself in the head on the sidewalk outside the NewsCorp building in Manhattan.
I know nobody much cares about writers anymore, but I still do, and damn it I’m still sad to see them go. Some of them, anyway.
In 2015 we lost National Book award winner and Dog Soldiers author Robert Stone; Polish filmmaker Tadeusz Konwicki, whose greatest fame came with his book A minor Apocalypse; Algerian writer Assia Djebar; Oxford writer and Iris Murdoch widower John Bailey; Colleen McCullough, author of the insanely bestselling The Thorn Birds; former poet laureate Philip Levine and, ironically enough, Rod McKuen, the worst poet of his or any other generation.
Prolific fantasy author Terry Pratchett ran out of fairy dust and orbs of breathing, and so, it seems, did Norton Anthology editor M.H. Abrams; British mystery novelist Ruth Rendell; the brilliant E.L. Doctorow, who should be remembered for more than Ragtime; true crime writer Ann Rule, who hit it big with her Ted Bundy book The Stranger Beside Me; self-help guru Wayne Dyer; Gabrielle Burtin, the feminist who wrote a few books about the Donner Party for some reason; cheap and sleazy and therefore hugely popular hack Jackie Collins; Rick Cluchey, the ex-con playwright inspired by Samuel Beckett; Swedish novelist Henning Mankell, author of the oddly popular and morose Wallander mysteries; poet and American Indian activist John Trudell, best known for taking part in the Alcatraz occupation; and the wise, razor-sharp and extremely talented Oliver Sacks, who approached his own impending death with a calm rationality that can only be admired.
Well, it happens every year I guess, but it’s always a little sad to note that like Freddie Prinze, an armload of comedians can’t hear the laughter anymore, among them Borscht Belt comic Jack Carter; Firesign Theatre’s Phil Austin; wicked satirist and writer Stan Freberg; top comic manager and producer Larry Brezner; comedian and Shirley Jones’ husband Marty Ingels; Canadian funnyman Dom Harron; Reynaldo Rey, who appeared in Harlem Nights; and the great Tom Koch, a personal favorite, who wrote material for Bob and Ray and MAD magazine.
Before they became living action figures and comic book characters, time was professional wrestlers were just burly middle-aged men in swim trunks. We lost two giants from those classic days, and ironically two giants who were bitter rivals throughout their professional careers. I don’t know how many times I saw Dusty Rhodes grapple with Nick Bockwinkle, but it was a bunch—usually in tag team matches with their longtime respective partners Ivan Putski and Ray Stevens—but it was always a heck of a show that could go either way. This time around I guess it’s a draw.
In other sad news from the world of professional wrestling (though from a few years later) we also lost the great Rowdy Roddy Piper, who traded in his trunks for an acting career, appearing in everything from John Carpenter’s dystopian sci fi classic They Live to Hell Comes to Frogtown.
It’s only a small hop from wrestling fans to comic book geeks, but like fans of classic pro wrestling, comic book geeks are in mourning following the loss of Marvel Comics artist Norman Lee; famed postwar Japanese manga artist Yoshihiro Tatsumi; and Hulk and Wolverine artist Herb Trimpe. There might, however, also be some quiet celebrating going on to mark the passing of Dondi creator Irwin Hasen and Marmaduke creator Brad Anderson. (God I always hated that fucking Dondi!) And for those few who still give a damn about Art-art, we also lost Los Angeles-based conceptual artist Chris Burden; abstract painter and sculptor Ellsworth Kelly; and reknowned Austrian painter Ernst Fuchs.
Ah, but even after all that rampant dying, that flood of corpses, there are still the stragglers, those notable figures who don’t fit easily into any specific category, no matter how broad. They were unique individuals who carved out their own niche in life, something that made their deaths worth noticing.
Like former New York governor Mario Cuomo, perhaps the last intelligent, erudite, and funny politician the country will ever know (despite those rumored mob connections).
We also lost Darrell Winfield, another Marlboro Man, if you can imagine that; famed Vegas booking agent and celebrity manager Stan Irwin; Dr. Charles Townes, the physicist who invented the laser; Carl Djerassi, the biochemist who helped develop the Pill; Moishe Cohen, founder of the East Village’s still amazing Economy Candy; Italian candy maker Michele Ferrero, who created Nutella; marine biologist, shark specialist, and my one-time hero Eugenie Clark; J.C.X. Simon, one of the notorious Zebra Killers, who terrorized San Francisco in the Seventies; Harlem Globetrotters legend Meadowlark Lemon; and oil fortune heir Andrew Getty, who died under decidedly icky and hilarious circumstances.
John Lennon’s first wife (and Julian’s mother) Cynthia can’t buy anybody’s love anymore, and neither can Frank Zappa’s widow Gail, or Norman Mailer’s ex-wife (the one he stabbed) Adele Morales Mailer. Gently spoken and filthy rich televangelist the Rev. Robert Schuller may or may not be playing lawn darts with Jesus right now, which is also true of noted Chicago chef and restauranteur Homaro Cantu; famed Cajun chef and bestselling cookbook author Paul Prudhomme; Weight Watchers founder Jean Nidetch; Mary Doyle Keefe, the model for Norman Rockwell’s Rosie the Riveter painting; brilliant and schizophrenic mathematician John Nash, subject of A Beautiful Mind; female impersonator Jim Bailey; burlesque dancer and walking political scandal Blaze Starr; famed San Francisco stripper Carol Doda; Disneyland’s first Snow White JoAnn Dean Killingsworth; Nintendo president Satoru Iwata; former football star and sportscaster Frank Gifford; beloved baseball icon and inadvertent quipmaster Yogi Berra; tattoo artist Scott Marshal; former Bartles & Jaymes pitchman Dick Maugg; and Sam Sarpong, the model and MTV host who perhaps understandably jumped off a bridge;
In terms of what we are and what we were as a culture, special pause should also be taken here to remember the Father, Son and Holy Ghost of kitsch and bad taste: Morris Wilkins, inventor of the heart-shaped hot tub; Gary Dahl, who gave us the Pet Rock; and Donald Featherstone, who created the plastic pink flamingo lawn ornament.
Finally, as per usual I’d just like to take a moment here at the end to offer a few personal comments about some figures who died this year who meant something to me, well, personally.
As part of Negativland, Ian Allen and Don Joyce were sonic outlaws, artists and musicians who flaunted copyright laws long before it was a common and thoughtless practice. Difference with Negativland is that they did it with purpose, as a way of satirizing, critiquing, and dismantling the dominant culture. It got them into a shitload of trouble with Casey Kasem and those fuckers from U2, but they marched on nevertheless, bless them.
Joe Franklin was sadly the last of his breed, a tried and true old school New Yorker who populated his long-running talk show with forgotten character actors and aging crooners, anecdotes about Jerry Vale, insane novelty acts, and clumsy on-air plugs for his sponsors. Over the years he also gave the first television exposure to countless future stars (like Bill Cosby, but oh just shut the hell up about Bill Cosby). Watching his show was a bit like watching a condensed version of the Jerry Lewis Telethon every night, and what could be better than that? Now his show and the Telethon are both gone, and the culture is much, much poorer for it.
I never met Jeremy P. Tarcher persnally, and from what I know of him I doubt we’d see eye to eye on most any damn thing, but his imprint at Penguin Putnam was the first publisher to sign me, releasing all three of my memoirs. Few publishers have ever treated me better, and I am deeply grateful, even if he was one of those New Age crackpots.
To most, former L.A.-area drive-time disc jockey Gary Owens will always be remembered as the on-air announcer for Laugh-In, but to me he will always and forever be Roger Ramjet, ”that All-American Good Guy and Devil May Care Flying Fool,” the clumsy, none-too-bright superhero who had to depend on drugs to save the day by the end of every crudely animated five-minute episode. As Roger, Owens had a knack for spouting the most absurd dialogue with solid, straight-faced conviction, and he made that gloriously dumb, hyperkinetic and madcap show one of my all-time favorites.
German novelist Gunter Grass is one of the few writers in recent memory who actually deserved his Nobel Prize. I can’t even begin to describe the impact his sprawling, absurdist, anarchic, hilarious and troubling novel The Tin Drum had on me when I first read it in junior high. That impact echoes to this day, as does the impact of his other works, like The Flounder and Show Your Tongue. He was a rare and remarkable talent.
When I first started writing at The Welcomat in Philly, there was another columnist named Patrick Hazard. It took me a long time to get a handle on him. His columns seemed to fall into three categories: dry, academic literary criticism, intellectualized conservative rants against gays and feminists, and a third batch that at first glance just seemed to be gibberish. But in time I saw it was gibberish with purpose, that each line was adding something, building toward something, and what it was building toward was a complex but really awful pun in the closing line. That took some doing and some smarts, and I developed a real respect for Patrick. I also admired anyone who could write something that would prompt the local branch of Queer Nation to storm the paper’s offices and trash the place. He was a strange, smart, and funny man, as well as an inimitable talent. He died in Berlin earlier this year at age ninety-three.
Vincent Bugliosi was an asshole, no two ways about it. A nasally, righteous asshole who made a career of the fact he’d prosecuted the Manson Family. But you know, for all his shrill demonizing of Manson, his tireless whoring, he kept Manson’s image alive in the public consciousness, and in that I dare say he profited more off the Tate-LaBianca murders than anyone else. So who’s the real demon here? Just glad to see him go before Charlie.
A deeply wise and famous man once asked me, “What’s the difference between Lemmy and God?” The answer was simple: “There is no difference—Lemmy IS God.” As mentioned above, Motorhead drummer Philthy Animal passed away earlier this year, which was bad enough, but to close the year with the loss of the legendary metal band’s founder and frontman Lemmy Kilmister is almost too much to bear. Lemmy was one of those rare individuals who crossed all genre and tribe lines. Everybody loved Lemmy. The punks and the metal kids and parents alike. He was just so damn charming and hilarious and smart, fronting the Loudest Band in the World, appearing in B films, even penning his recent memoirs. I have far too many Lemmy stories to tell here (we were in a movie together!), but let me leave it at this—he was a singular performer and human being, a rare and wild bird whose likes will never be seen again. But his legacy will live on, considering a few years ago a biologist named a newly-discovered species of prehistoric worm after him.
And finally, I just wanted to note the passing of the Great, Great Christopher Lee. There’s never been a screen presence quite like him, and likely never will be again. Although he will sadly be remembered pretty much only for having played Dracula in the Hammer films, Lee appeared in over three hundred films of every imaginable type. He worked with Nicholas Ray, John Huston, Orson Welles, and Raoul Walsh. He was a James Bond villain. And he was still working steadily even as he entered his eighties and nineties, closing out his long and illustrious career making a string of films with Tim Burton, as well as appearing in blockbuster franchises like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. Like his counterpart Boris Karloff (with whom he worked several times) he was an erudite, cultured, well-spoken man who was a consummate professional, giving it his all every time, no matter how miserable a film. And in good films, like The Wicker Man, he was simply remarkable. Only sad thing is that so few people ever gave him the chance to sing and dance.
All these hundreds of people (well, most of them anyway) did their part to make the world a little better, a little more entertaining and interesting, at least for a little while, and with their passing it’s become a little less so. So here’s a toast and a tip of the hat in their memory, with some heartfelt thanks.
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