Category Archives: In Memoriam

Elizabeth Taylor and the American Century

Elizabeth Taylor

Elizabeth Taylor at 15 in 1947. Photo by Bob Landry for LIFE

Elizabeth Taylor‘s death last week made me sad, but not for the reasons I expected. I wasn’t sad for her; by all accounts, she lived a long and fulfilling life, brought joy to millions through her movies, and did enormous good through her philanthropy and activism. Rather the sadness came from the sense, as it did when her friend Michael Jackson died, that a more blissful era had passed.

The day Taylor died, I began working on a project for LIFE, captioning photos for an upcoming book commemorating the photojournalism magazine’s 75th anniversary. Poring through LIFE‘s archives, I was reminded again what a repository of our shared cultural memory it has been. So many familiar images — the sailor and nurse kissing in Times Square on V-J Day, Jackie Robinson stealing home, the Beatles frolicking in a swimming pool during their first visit to America, a naked Vietnamese girl running down the road, a student at Kent State screaming over the body of a classmate killed by National Guardsmen, the Zapruder film — all of them encoded in our DNA and burned into our retinas as if they had happened to us, even if we’re too young to have been there.

There were Hollywood pictures, too, of Marilyn Monroe in thoughtful repose, James Dean walking down a rainy street, and many pictures of Taylor, including the one at the top of this post, taken in 1947, when she was just 15 but already impossibly beautiful, already a star, yet with a lifetime of tumult and triumph and endless scrutiny still ahead, about to crash over her like an ocean wave. Who could have imagined it? And yet, she looks prepared and unafraid. Continue reading

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Filed under Arts, Books, In Memoriam, Movies

For Ted Kennedy, a ‘Ray of Hope’

Ted Kennedy endorses Barack Obama for president in January 2008. Photo by diggersf, licensed via Creative Commons

Ted Kennedy endorses Barack Obama for president in January 2008. Photo by diggersf, licensed via Creative Commons

Most of us in America, including me, are too young to remember the Camelot era firsthand, so we hold little brief for the Kennedy mystique. Many of us wonder how he got re-elected to the Senate, term after term, for 47 years, despite his well-documented failures of character. Surely there had to be more to it than his name.

Well, one reason might be the long parade of stooges who were his opponents. During the few years I lived in Boston, I was privileged to vote for Kennedy just once, when he ran against a hairdo named Mitt Romney. I remember thinking that Kennedy, then 62 years old, seemed enervated and out of touch until the debates, when the old lion roared back to life, fought with vigor, and easily wiped the floor with his empty-suit rival. This is why I voted for him, and why Massachusetts citizens kept doing so: he never stopped fighting, fighting for us, and fighting against those who did not have our best interests at heart.

I’m glad to see that, despite his death last week, the fight continues for causes he believed in, particularly for universal health care. After all, his opponents didn’t waste any time after he died trying to recast his legacy as one of compromise (Kennedy was, indeed, known for reaching across the aisle to befriend and make deals with Republicans, but he compromised only on means and tactics, never on ideals or policy goals), or shrugging that his absence from the Senate chambers in recent months is the reason Republicans have yet to be presented with a health care bill they can sign off on (as if Kennedy’s recent absence, after 40 years of fighting nonstop for health care reform, were the reason, rather than Republican intransigence and bad faith), or threatening that to urge passage of health care reform as his dying wish was to crassly politicize his death (as if to argue against reform would not be an even more crass politicization of his death). Kennedy’s dying wishes on the matter were pretty clear, as he laid out in this Newsweek essay a month before he died: he wanted universal coverage and a government-run public option so that individuals who can’t afford or obtain private health insurance can still get affordable coverage. (Note to Blue Dog Democrats: Passing a health bill with Kennedy’s name on it that pays lip service to reform while not actually including a public option that would make coverage affordable for everyone is no tribute at all.)

One more way to remember Senator Kennedy, courtesy of the Rascals, after the jump. Continue reading

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Filed under Feuds, Health Care Reform, In Memoriam, Music

Michael Jackson: Have You Seen My Childhood?

Photo: Anwar Hussein/WireImage; courtesy of Life.com

Photo: Anwar Hussein/WireImage; courtesy of Life.com

I’m sad, but not that sad, about Michael Jackson’s death. To me, it seemed like he’d passed from us a long time ago. The Kane of Pop had long since retreated into his isolated Xanadu, a bubble that not even massive debt, legal ordeals, and endless tabloid scandal could penetrate. His chart-topping years as the world’s favorite entertainer had long since segued into self-inflicted freakishness and cultural irrelevance. When he announced in March a long-running comeback engagement in London scheduled to start in July, his reappearance seemed that of a vampire or a ghost, hovering on the fringes of fame, hoping to drain one last bit of energy from a pop world that he had helped create but which had long since abandoned him to the wax museum.

But, oh, to think of him back then, back when he was remaking both music and television in his image, via the singles and videos from Thriller. The man’s ubiquity was rivaled only by that of the Beatles and his one-time father-in-law Elvis in their day. Lots of mourners have referred to Jackson’s music as the soundtrack of their youth, but in his case, it’s not a metaphor. For about two years in the early ’80s, you couldn’t turn on a radio anywhere in the world without hearing a snippet of a single from Thriller. (How cruel that Farrah Fawcett should die on the same day; if Jackson’s music was the soundtrack to our youth, Fawcett’s poster was the wallpaper.) It was a rare moment of cultural unity, one of the last ones before cable TV, the Internet, and the culture wars fragmented us into a billion different niche audiences. As Lester Bangs noted when Elvis died, what we’re mourning is not really the loss of the man or the artist (like the King of Pop, the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll had long since become a reclusive travesty of his former self by the time of his early death), but rather, the loss of our childhood, and the loss of our connection to each other. Continue reading

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Filed under In Memoriam, Music, TV

The Grammys: ‘Conservative’ art vs. conservative art

As Sunday’s Grammys proved again, the Recording Academy isn’t the most forward-looking institution. While it wrings its hands about piracy, even as the music industry crumbles all around it, the Academy lavishes honors on the retro pairing of metal dinosaur Robert Plant and bluegrass craftswoman Alison Krauss — just as in recent years, it’s chosen Herbie Hancock, Ray Charles, Steely Dan, the O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack, Santana, Tony Bennett, and Natalie Cole (her Unforgettable duet with her late father took Album of the Year in 1992, when Nirvana’s earthshaking Nevermind wasn’t even nominated). I don’t mean to slight Plant and Krauss’ Raising Sand, an album I really enjoyed, but the Grammys have a long history of not recognizing the most innovative new music until the train has long since left the station. For anyone who was paying attention, last year’s most notable efforts in new music were Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter III and Radiohead’s In Rainbows; at least both got nominated for Album of the Year.

It would be easy to conflate the Grammys’ aesthetically conservative taste with politically conservative taste, had not the fish in a barrel over at Big Hollywood reminded us a couple of times last week how absurd that path is. First, there was the post “Republican is the New Punk,” which tries to claim everyone from Johnny Cash to Johnny Rotten for the right, and which is historically wrong in about 563 different ways. Then there was the fine eulogy for Cramps frontman Lux Interior, a guy few conservatives had anything nice to say about when he was alive. In the comments for that item was the suggestion that punk is conservative because it was the back-to-basics reaction to the excesses of pretentious hippie art-rock (which, of course, came to call itself “progressive rock”). Here, the Big Hollywood folks are confusing aural conservatism (little “c”) with ideological Conservatism (big “C”). Of course, prog owed much of its artsiness to old-world modes of classical music, while punk’s shock came in part from its building on the experiments in noise and feedback launched by the Velvet Underground. Which genre, then, was really more innovative? About two minutes of listening to one of the Clash’s reggae-based numbers should be enough to disabuse any thinking, listening person of the notion that punk was conservative or reactionary in either its sonic palette or its politics. Still, the notion persists that there must be some correlation between forward-looking music and forward-looking ideals. If anything, the BH response to punk, like the Grammys’ response to today’s innovative music, shows that that correlation doesn’t exist.

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Filed under Grammys, In Memoriam, Music

David Letterman Makes Amends to Bill Hicks

Not sure why this didn’t make a bigger splash, but Friday night, David Letterman owned up to a big mistake and tried to rectify it. Approaching the 15th anniversary of Bill Hicks’ death on Feb. 26, Letterman acknowledged for the first time his own responsibility for censoring the last of the comic’s many appearances on his show, having cut Hicks’ routine in its entirety before the show aired in October 1993. Letterman was brand new to CBS at the time, and material that might have passed muster when the scabrous political comic had appeared on his 12:35 NBC show suddenly spooked the host when he worried how it might play at 11:35 at his new workplace. According to Hicks, Letterman’s producer blamed the CBS censors for the drastic chop, but as Letterman acknowledges (in the clip below from Friday’s show), the decision was really his own.
Letterman did not know at the time that Hicks, 31, was dying of pancreatic cancer, and that there would never be a chance for Dave to make amends. He tried to do so belatedly on Friday, having Hicks’ mother on as a guest and finally airing, for the first time, the entire censored routine, which you can watch after the jump.
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Filed under Censorship, In Memoriam, TV

Updike Fan Bids Id Adieu

Photo by John McNab at Flickr, licensed via Creative Commons

Photo by John McNab at Flickr, licensed via Creative Commons

John Updike’s death yesterday has spawned numerous tributes bemoaning the void he leaves on the literary landscape. I will not add to those, save to note that what I think we are all really mourning is a kind of literary life, of which Updike may have been the last great practitioner. There used to be a time in American letters (or so it seems in retrospect) when a writer could flow easily between novels, short story collections, nonfiction books, and magazine articles. Or maybe only Updike himself could manage that juggling act.  For the past half century, Updike’s prodigious output included roughly a book a year and articles and short stories for many magazines, including 800 bylines in the New Yorker. While he’ll be best remembered for his novels of suburban ennui and adultery, he stretched easily to other topics, from baseball to fine art, from witchcraft to third-world politics.

Along the way, he attracted criticism (some deserved) that he had no business, as a WASPy Harvard alumnus, to appropriate the narratives of characters from backgrounds distant from his own. His imagination may occasionally have failed him, but as an artist, he certainly had the right to try. Literature is about empathy, and like Terence, Updike found nothing human was alien to him.

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