Sunday, January 7, 2018

2017: In Memoriams, Part Two

This is the second in a series of posts about major figures who passed away last year. The first can be read here.

Glen Campbell
He was the rhinestone cowboy who made his mark in country music but also spent some time as a member of the Beach Boys... and who in 1967 made history by winning Grammys in the same year in both the country and pop categories.

Glen Campbell was born in Arkansas during the Great Depression, one of twelve children in a farming family whose house had no electricity. He said that in order to get his hands on more money than they could produce tilling their own land, he also worked for other farmers and "picked cotton for $1.25 a hundred pounds. If you worked your tail off, you could pick 80 or 90 pounds a day."

When he was four, his uncle gave him a guitar from Sears and taught him the basics of how to play. As Campbell grew to adoloscence he could not afford lessons, but developed his playing skills by listening closely to the radio and records, citing jazz legend Django Reinhardt as a major influence.

At 17 he moved to New Mexico, married a 16-year-old, and joined his uncle's band. At 21 he formed his own band, the Western Wranglers, before eventually packing up again and heading to LA in 1960.

During his early years in California Campbell worked as a session musician and performed on the albums of an eclectic variety of big names: Bobby Darin, Ricky Nelson, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Jan & Dean, and the Monkees, to name a few. For obvious reasons this opened doors for him to record under his own name, but three years after doing just that for the first time, his biggest "hit" was his rendition of "Universal Soldier," which peaked at only #45; displaying a clear sense of aggravation over his career's trajectory, when Campbell was asked about that song's pacifist-sounding lyrics, he retorted that "people who are advocating burning draft cards should be hung."

But his trajectory turned upward in the Summer of Love, when he scored major hits with "Gentle on My Mind" and "By the Time I Get to Phoenix," the tunes for which he won the aforementioned Grammys. He followed those up one year later with the hits "I Wanna Live" and "Wichita Lineman." Then came the 1970's, when he lit up the charts with a series of tunes capped off by "Rhinestone Cowboy" and "Southern Nights."

Glen Campbell conquered drinking and cocaine habits by stopping altogether in 1987 and remaining clean the rest of his life, other than a brief relapse in 2003. And he never stopped recording good music, finishing his half-century career with 70+ albums and 80 songs that hit the charts (29 of which made the top ten and nine of which went #1).

In 2010 he recorded what was intended to be a farewell album, Ghost in the Canvas, and later that year was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. Still functional, he embarked on a farewell concert tour, with three of his kids in his backup band so that they could tell the signs and help him out if and when the "brain fog" struck during performances.

After the tour he went to Nashville and recorded his final album, Adios. And after that, in January 2013, he recorded his final song, "I'm Not Gonna Miss You," which contains excruciatingly knowing lyrics: "I'm never gonna hold you like I did / or say I love you to the kids / You're never gonna see it in my eyes / It's not gonna hurt me when you cry / I'm never gonna know what you go through / all the things I say or do..."

Campbell went into a nursing home in 2014 and died last August at the age of 81. His body is now buried at his family's cemetery in the unincorporated community of Billstown, in southwestern Arkansas.

Roger Moore
He famously played James Bond, British Secret Agent 007, in seven movies from 1973 to 1985. In portraying Bond, Roger Moore did not project the same rock-ribbed masculinity as Sean Connery or cold-blooded danger as Daniel Craig, but he also did not project the absurd softness of Timothy Dalton. What Moore brought to the role was an air of debonair perfection, transforming Bond into a middle-aged playboy who could beat the crap out of roided-up young men while wearing a tuxedo that somehow didn't get wrinkled or turned askew in the process.

That version of 007 was of course ridiculous, unrealistic, and quite unlike the character in Ian Fleming's novels. In Fleming's hands, 007's womanizing was depicted as a character flaw that enemy spies sought to exploit in ways that could put free societies in jeopardy. In Moore's hands it came off as the ultimate of cool, and teenage boys (including yours truly) fantasized about being like that themselves. That is a major disconnect and not a positive one, but it's hard to fault Moore -- it was the directors who wanted that kind of Bond at that point in time, and as the actor they chose, he delivered it better than anyone else could have done.

The only child of a London police officer, Roger Moore was conscripted into the British Army at the age of 18, rose to the rank of captain, and commanded a depot in West Germany. His first television appearance came in a small role during a live broadcast of The Governess in 1949. He moved to the United States in the early 1950's and made his first big screen appearance in 1954's The Last Time I Saw Paris, but for years his main splashes remained on the small screen as he had prominent and leading roles in The Alaskans, The Roaring 20's, Maverick, and most famously The Saint, which ran from 1962 to 1969 and aired in more than 60 countries.

In other words, Roger Moore was not a one-trick pony. But the role of James Bond was clearly the biggest and flashiest pony he ever rode and the one for which he will always be remembered, and that ain't bad. In the end, Bond always defeats the bad guys and saves the free world after skiing off an Alpine cliff and surviving the 3,000-foot fall by deploying a Union Jack parachute right when all seems lost. And nobody does it better.

Jake LaMotta
When I was a kid, my grandfather talked about how his favorite boxer from his younger days was a tough-as-nails middleweight champ from the Bronx who could take a punch better than anybody and still keep coming. He talked of how that man was more street brawler than technical boxer, and how he would eventually prevail by out-enduring opponents and finally beating them with merciless barrages of in-close punches, no matter how many blows they had managed to land on his iron chin.

Giacobbe "Jake" LaMotta was born in 1922, to a US-born mother and a father who immigrated to New York from Sicily. His childhood was rough, as his father forced him to fight other children in makeshift rings with grown-ups watching and placing bets on the outcomes. When he won, his father pocketed the cash and used it to pay rent. It should not come as a surprise that when your dad treats you like a cockfighting rooster you develop your street tough instincts honestly -- and your alcoholism too.

LaMotta won 83 professional boxing matches, fighting both as a middleweight and light heavyweight. Unsurprisingly, given his reckless style he also lost 19 (five to Sugar Ray Robinson alone) and had four finish as draws. After his boxing days were done he lived a life of booze and crime, serving six months on a chain gang and later admitting to a rape for which he was never charged.

Eventually LaMotta mended his ways and became an actor and stand-up comic, once quipping that "my wife never knew I had a drinking problem until one night I came home sober." Robert DeNiro won the Best Actor Oscar for portraying him in the 1980 film Raging Bull, a Hollywood classic whose accuracy gave LaMotta mixed emotions because, in his own words: "I was a no-good bastard. It's not the way I am now, but the way I was then."

Impressively, Jake LaMotta retained his mental faculties to the end despite all those blows to the noggin and all those years of hard living. He performed in an Off Broadway play at the age of 90, and was 95 when he died of pneumonia in September.

Y.A. Tittle
Like Jake LaMotta, Yelberton Abraham Tittle Jr. was born during the 1920's and became a world class athlete, but their upbringings could not have been more different. As a child in Marshall, Texas, Tittle lived in the same neighborhood as his idol, NFL quarterback Slingin' Sammy Baugh, and this fueled his youthful desire to be a quarterback when he grew up: He spent hours on end honing his passing skills in his yard by throwing a football through a tire swing, and eventually this paid off when he earned a football scholarship to LSU.

Tittle's college career was prolific as he was named MVP of the 1947 Cotton Bowl, was twice named First Team All-SEC, and set multiple school passing records that were not broken for more than 25 years. However, it was his pro career that made him a national rather than regional figure as he played from 1948 to 1964; made seven Pro Bowls; was a four-time All Pro; thrice led the league in passing touchdowns; and was league MVP at the very seasoned age of 37. Plus, he was the first pro football player to make the cover of Sports Illustrated and is believed to be the first person to use the phrase "alley-oop" as a sports term, after devising a jump ball kind of passing play with receiver R.C. Owens in 1957.

He played the bulk of his NFL career with the 49'ers, for whom he was a superstar. Believing him to be old and washed up, they traded the 34-year-old Tittle across the country to the New York Giants shortly before the 1961 season -- and he proceeded to lead the Giants to the NFL Championship Game for three consecutive seasons, break the NFL record for touchdown passes in a season, and re-break it again. When the Giants established a franchise Ring of Honor in 2010, he was named to it in its first year, even though it had been 46 years since he played and you would expect recency bias to work against him.

Y.A. Tittle came from a different era, back when the NFL wasn't a huge deal and players needed to work other jobs during the off-season to make ends meet. He did that as an insurance salesman, and after retiring from football he founded an insurance and financial services agency of his own. In his final season, 1964, during a game against the Steelers at since-demolished Pitt Stadium, he was hit and concussed by Steelers' lineman John Baker while throwing a pass that was intercepted and returned for a touchdown. This photograph of Tittle at the conclusion of that play, bloodied and kneeling on the turf with his helmet off, will forever be one of the most iconic images in the history of American sports. He died in October, 16 days before his 91st birthday.

David Cassidy
He considered himself rock star material from the same cloth as Hendricks and Jagger, and he desperately wanted the public to see him that way as well. But David Cassidy had androgynous babyfaced looks and became famous by starring in the schmaltzy sitcom The Partridge Family, so instead the public viewed him as the inoffensive teen heartthrob next door. And he detested it.

Cassidy made a point of mentioning that when he was still a minor he had hitchhiked to San Francisco and "up to Haight-Ashbury," where he was deeply aligned with "the music, the culture, the behavior" and where "I did a lot of fucking around, experimenting -- not smack, but grass and speed and psychedelics." In 1995 he told the LA Times: "It seemed whenever I'd read my name, it would be David 'former teen idol sex symbol' Cassidy. I used to think, well, I guess I'm going to have to do something more significant in my life, like David 'convicted felon' Cassidy or something, anything that would erase that convenient label."

I don't know whether his revulsion against his image counted as self-hatred or self-love, but it was definitely a sad case of a person being unable or unwilling to appreciate good things when they are happening. Cassidy made a fortune recording music and was adored by girls all around the globe (his records usually sold even better overseas than they did here) but for decades he never seemed to realize how good a life that was.

Fortunately, that seemed to finally change in his later years. As Cassidy approached and passed the age of 60, he seemed to understand that he had been given a blessing and not a curse. In concerts he started engaging with audience members by dong question and answer sessions, and he exhibited a peaceful air regarding himself that previously he had not.

In 2011 he recorded a PSA to support research and prevention of Alzheimer's disease. But life can be a cruel SOB, for in early 2017 he forgot lyrics during a couple of concerts and he released an announcement in February disclosing that he himself, only 66 at the time, had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's. Cassidy stopped performing and withdrew from the public eye. Multiple organ failure landed him in the hospital in November, with liver failure claiming his life on the 21st.

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