Monthly Archives: January 2006

Dead Folks 2006

Dead Folks 2006

A look back at the notable names and personalities who called it quits last year.

January 26, 2006The Icons

Johnny Carson


Johnny Carson

Let’s concede that Johnny Carson had no competition when he took over the nation’s bedrooms back in the ’60s. Now that we’ve spent more than a decade with Letterman and Leno, there’s little doubt that Carson would still be our first choice from 300 channels of late-night diversions. “The Tonight Show” had been around long before his long hosting stint began, but Carson elevated the art of the celebrity interview. Carson represented millions of befuddled Americans as he steered his couch through the social upheavals of the ’60s and ’70s. He was relentlessly polite while constantly testing the shifting boundaries of double entendres—and his younger guests’ gullibility, as best illustrated when Carson tried to gently inform Susan Sarandon that her guru probably didn’t really live on oxygen, and likely occasionally snuck away to get something to eat.

The power of Carson’s nightly monologue has been exaggerated over the years, but he still famously created a panic when joking about a toilet-paper shortage. Still, none of his imitators could ever create memorable characters like movie host Art Fern and psychic Karnak the Magnificent. His floundering during the 1980s couldn’t be blamed on declining talent. Instead, he—along with network brass—made the fatal error of trying to phase out reliable older guests in favor of younger talents who were effectively nonentities. Carson didn’t seem like an antiquity because he was out of touch; he seemed like an antiquity because he was feigning interest in celebrities who were already damn boring while still in their 20s. At least Carson was spared talking with contestants from reality shows when he retired in 1992. America was still grateful that Carson got more than a decade of proper rest before his death at the beginning of 2005. —J.R. Taylor

Richard Pryor

There weren’t many great meetings of minds back in the ’60s. One of the most important occurred when famous folkie Phil Ochs went to a posh fundraiser in Beverly Hills. A young black man in a waiter’s uniform brushed past Ochs while muttering about how all the good guilty liberals could “at least pay the help.” Then the waiter went straight up to the podium and continued his complaints in the form of a vicious stand-up routine. Ochs would later commit suicide as he grew weary of addressing leftist hypocrisy. Richard Pryor was just getting started.

The holy trinity of controversial comics will always consist of Pryor, Lenny Bruce, and George Carlin. Of those three, only Pryor rates proper respect. He’d already scared enough Hollywood figures to be denied the lead role in Blazing Saddles after co-writing the screenplay back in 1974. (To be fair, Clifton Davis was probably the smarter choice as a comedic leading man.) Pryor would have to wait until 1976 before he finally broke through with Gene Wilder in Silver Streak, and only became a proper movie star when the pair returned for 1980′s Stir Crazy. In the meantime, his turns on “Saturday Night Live” and his own short-lived NBC series—along with 1979′s Live in Concert—were legendary comic encounters that, sadly, would be censored today as contrary to good leftist sensibilities.

Then things fell apart. Pryor quickly lost control of the weak grasp he had on reality and succumbed to a wide assortment of vices. By the release of 1981′s Bustin’ Loose, his confused state and resultant debts had already made him a willing pawn of the film studios. A series of lame comedies and indulgent projects squelched Pryor’s rising star—and nothing had changed when Pryor attempted a comeback in useless vehicles such as Critical Condition and Moving. In the end, Pryor’s legacy is that early stage work. The first few comedy albums are still out there, and Pryor remains untouchable as a truly original angry comic. —J.R.T.


Richard Pryor (click for larger version)


Pope John Paul II

Nobody lets a Pope pass without plenty of attention. Still, let’s take the time to celebrate Pope John Paul II—born Karol Wojtyla—as the first Pope who spent his career as a pop-culture icon. Over the course of his 26-year reign, he would release CDs, have his early plays performed, and star in his very own comic book. He’d also be played by Albert Finney in 1984 and Jon Voight (in what would became a posthumous salute) last year. Don’t forget the accessories, either. John Paul’s bulletproof Popemobile became an iconic symbol after an assassination attempt, and his face adorned such fine Popeabilia as neckties and waterproof digital watches. He also appeared with Bruce Willis in 1998′s Armageddon. Pope Benedict XVI already has a hard act to follow. —J.R.T.

Rosa Parks

Fed up with being pushed around by white people, a weary 42-year-old Rosa Parks told a white man “no” when he demanded that she surrender her seat to him on a Montgomery bus in 1956. She was fined $10 for refusing. Within days, Parks’ simple but courageous stance launched a bus boycott in the city.

Her later years found a more litigious Parks. In 1999 she sued the band Outkast for using her name without her permission in the song “Rosa Parks.” After having the case initially thrown out, she later hired famed attorney Johnnie Cochran. The case was eventually settled with Outkast paying an undisclosed sum. The 2002 film Barbershop featured Cedric the Entertainer as a cranky barber who argues that Parks was not the first to refuse to give up her seat and had received the notoriety because she was an NAACP secretary. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton led a boycott of the movie until NAACP president Kweisi Mfume said he thought the controversy was blown out of proportion. An irate Parks skipped the 2003 NAACP Image Awards, hosted by Cedric the Entertainer. —Ed Reynolds

Dead Folks 2006 (Part 5)

Dead Folks 2006 (Part 5)

A look back at the notable names and personalities who called it quits last year.

January 26, 2006

Film and TV


Virginia Mayo


Virginia Mayo

Peaches-and-cream complexion, mega-watt blonde hair, and a five-star pair of legs made Mayo a second-tier pinup gal behind Rita Hayworth and Betty Grable. Often cast as a chorus girl or a can’t-bring-her-home-to-Mom date, Mayo probably typecast herself with an excellent performance in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). Playing the wife of a bomber pilot returning from the war, Mayo must have infuriated World War II-era viewers by registering, in no small way, her disappointment at finally seeing the flyboy out of uniform. She was not really dangerous, but never dependable, the type of gal who always stood by her man—until distracted by a diamond necklace, a shiny car, or a night on the town.

She also scored a knockout role opposite James Cagney in the insanely brutal crime thriller White Heat. She was Verna, the deceitful wife of homicidal thug Cody Jarrett. As an out-of-control hoodlum, Cagney was a blazing inferno, but audiences also noticed that the scheming blonde was no slouch at generating heat either. Did she really leap piggyback onto Cagney and ride him upstairs to the bedroom? Could you do that in 1949? —David Pelfrey

Sheree North

Bona-fide babe with a few miles on her—that’s probably the best way to describe the type of women North portrayed at the peak of her career in the late 1960s and early 1970s. North’s start in show business had something to do with her having a striking face and precisely the same “dimensions” as Marilyn Monroe. Fox studio bosses hired North as a threat to hold over an increasingly troublesome Monroe, so naturally the va-va-voom replacement got roles in such hubba-hubba foolishness as Living It Up; How to Be Very, Very Popular; and The Lieutenant Wore Skirts.

Her “look” during the 1950s was the Buxom Blonde Bombshell, but North actually looked better, and leaner, as she entered her thirties, probably because her features were better suited for the earthy, Ventura Highway, older-broad-next-door type (flowing mane, cutoff jeans, open blouse). She was in every medical, Western, and crime television drama you can name, but her best work is on the big screen in Charley Varrick, The Outfit, and other vulgar crime thrillers for which early ’70s Hollywood is notorious. That’s North, by the way, as Lou Grant’s girlfriend on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and as Kramer’s mom on Seinfeld. —D.P.

Paul Winchell

Winchell first gained notoriety as a ventriloquist behind dummies Jerry MaHoney and Knucklehead Smiff. A prolific inventor, he held 30 patents, including one for an artificial heart he designed in 1960. Winchell was also the voice of Tigger in the animated Winnie the Pooh. —Ed Reynolds

Mitch Hedberg

My friend was doing acid, and he said, “Man, the woods are really trippy, aren’t they?” And I said, “Maybe the woods aren’t trippy; it’s just our perception of them that’s trippy.” And then I realized I should have just said, “Yeah!”

That’s the quintessential Hedberg gag: drug reference, 1970s-era lingo, and stoner logic. The standup comic’s shoulder-length shag, blue-tinted shades, and platform shoes reinforced the ’70s vibe, but the soundness of his logic somehow made his jokes a lot funnier than they might be in a less elegant form. Elegance, after all, is any mathematician’s or philosopher’s goal when crafting a logic equation. Hedberg surprised audiences with the speed and concision with which he made his numerous, hilarious deductions, and because surprise is a key element of humor, Hedberg was always halfway home to cracking us up in the first place. Nonetheless, the crucial factor in Hedberg’s humor was that his logic, surprising or not, was unassailable.

Due to a confused, brink-of-disaster delivery, those loopy observations invariably sounded like pot-induced epiphanies, but in Hedberg’s case it’s as though he got so high that he bypassed stupid and came all the way back around to wickedly insightful.


Mitch Hedberg

Sometimes my club intro is, “You may have seen this next comedian on ‘David Letterman.’ A better intro would be: “You may have seen this next comedian at the store.” The audience would go, “Why, hell yes I have! He likes kiwi fruit.”

To open one of his many Letterman gigs, Hedberg once briefly scanned a slip of paper and declared, “Okay, I’ve got 13 jokes, ready to go!” That got a big laugh. I asked him in a 2002 interview why such a straightforward statement was funny, and his response was even funnier: “Well, it is true that there were 13 jokes in that set. Maybe audiences just aren’t ready for the truth. They laughed because they were suddenly nervous. But that’s very strange, because they would not have known the absolute truth until I reached the 13th joke and then stopped.”

I also asked him why he laughed so much during his gigs. “That’s a good question, because the jokes are not cracking me up. As you may have surmised, I am already familiar with the material.”

Not enough people were familiar with Hedberg’s material, unfortunately, because apart from a few appearances on “That 70’s Show,” he was resolutely committed to the stand-up circuit, as opposed to the celebrity status that television specials and sitcoms bring comedians these days. Further hampering his rise as the Next Big Thing was his reputation as an unreliable abuser of substances. (In Hedberg’s mind, that would technically mean that he couldn’t be counted on to abuse drugs.)

That’s a shame, since he was the only genuinely innovative thinker in the comic realm of the past ten years. Jon Stewart, thanks to a team of writers, can mug for the camera and win points doing political satire. Ray Romano can be charming and amusing. Dave Chappelle is merely a one-man series of SNL skits, the punch lines of which are telegraphed far in advance. Lewis Black’s fury lasts only so long. Jimmy Kimmel is, well, he’s involved with a very hot Jewish gal who happens to be the funniest woman on earth. Chris Rock has simply updated Richard Pryor, as though both were some kind of hardcore software.

Mitch Hedberg, by way of strong contrast, stood on the stages of forlorn comedy clubs in Houston and San Diego and Birmingham, reeling off dozens of surreal, absurd, and inventive truths. There was one unassailable bit of logic that seems to have escaped Hedberg, or perhaps it was just that fourteenth joke he didn’t get around to telling until it was too late—that drug and alcohol abuse can destroy careers and kill people at a very young age. On the other hand, it could be that his jokes were not that funny, and perhaps his logic was not that sound. Maybe it was just our perception of his . . . never mind. Ponder these classics and decide.

I read that MTV’s Real World got 40,000 applications. That’s amazing, such an even number. You would have thought it would be 40,008.

I never joined the army because “at ease” was never that easy to me. It seemed rather uptight still. I don’t relax by parting my legs slightly and putting my hands behind my back. That does not equal “ease.” “At ease” was not being in the military.

This one commercial said, “Forget everything you know about slipcovers.” So I did, and it was a load off of my mind. Then the commercial tried to sell slipcovers, but I didn’t know what they were!

I got a belt on that’s holding up my pants, and the pants have belt loops that hold up the belt. What’s going on here? Who is the real hero?

A mini-bar is a machine that makes everything expensive. When I take something out of the mini-bar, I always plan to replace it before they check it off and charge me, but they make that stuff impossible to replace. I go to the store and ask, “Do you have coke in a glass harmonica? —D.P.

John Fiedler

As the voice of Piglet in the Winnie the Pooh cartoons, Feidler’s face is probably best recognized as the nervous, henpecked patient in group therapy on “The Bob Newhart Show.” Oddly, Feidler died the day after Paul Winchell, the voice of Tigger. —E.R.


John Fiedler

Sidney Luft

There are really only two kinds of Hollywood legends: those whom everyone reveres, and those whom everyone ridicules. Sidney Luft, Judy Garland’s third husband, falls into the unhappy second category. His marriage to the movie icon led almost immediately to a series of funny, not to say cruel, one-liners, such as studio boss Jack L. Warner’s zinger that “Sid is one of those guys who promised his parents that he would never work a day in his life—and he made good on the promise.”

That’s not the meanest thing anybody ever said about Sid Luft, and it isn’t entirely fair, either. Throughout his hectic and financially troubled life, Luft could often be found busting his ass—only busting it in all the wrong ways. The tough (and volatile) amateur boxer was a test pilot for World War II aircraft, managed a fledgling custom automobile outfit in Beverly Hills, and, after dabbling in horse racing, he produced a couple of B-pictures. His big project was Judy Garland’s “comeback,” which involved, well, getting married to her. It also involved the rather savvy business of transforming the drug-addicted, emotionally unstable movie star into a world-class torch singer, which was a crucial move considering that MGM, who was responsible for Judy’s condition in the first place, had basically dumped her onto the side of the road. Luft also produced the 1954 remake of A Star is Born, Judy’s comeback picture that was art imitating life in all kinds of ways.

Touring major venues around the world and hosting television variety shows ought to have made the Garlands—er, the Lufts—a wealthy couple, but something about bad accounting, mishandled expenses, and lawsuits over contracts had the notorious pair living paycheck to paycheck. Complicating the contactual disputes was Judy’s tendency to go on a binge for a series of no-shows. Even worse, sometimes she did show up. In 1965, Garland divorced Luft and moved on to one Mark Herron, whom she divorced after learning that he was gay, unfaithful, and involved with song and dance man Peter Allen.

That tawdry fiasco isn’t actually a chapter in Luft’s story, but it does earn him the distinction, shared with composer David Rose, as one of Judy Garland’s heterosexual husbands. After all, before Luft came along, Judy was married to Vincente Minnelli (Liza’s dad), and it certainly wasn’t predicted that Minnelli would ever be anyone’s dad. The director of musicals and sensitive melodramas was, as they phrased it in those days, musical and sensitive. This leads to the wittiest thing anyone ever said about Sid Luft. Canadian writer Mark Steyn, in his disturbingly thorough obituary for the former Mr. Judy Garland, described him as “an all but unique figure: a rare friend of Judy who wasn’t a Friend of Dorothy.” —D.P.

Ismael Merchant

The BBC’s online obituary for Ismael Merchant was followed by letters from around the globe expressing sympathy, loss, and fond memories of the legendary producer. An Irishman living in Cape Town thanked Merchant for a recipe for “chicken dijon in clove sauce”; an Indian man in Sheffield recalled his interview with Merchant during which the visibly exhausted producer exhibited much patience in “the hot Calcutta sun.” Another Indian man in New York recalled Merchant’s warm praise for director Satyajit Ray at a retrospective in New York City. The tributes ran for some length. Based on that outpouring, one couldn’t help suspecting that, irrespective of the Merchant Ivory Productions’ contribution to cinema, we had lost a bona-fide gentlemen whose influence on those he met extended far past their appreciation of his work.

That may be because the aptly named Merchant—the money man on the Merchant Ivory team—was by all accounts a charmer when it came to the art of persuasion, as contrasted with the standard film industry hustler. His handsome face and ready smile (in early years, many acquaintances and contacts assumed the Bombay native was a Bollywood idol), along with a knack for conversation and considerable culinary skills, could turn a pre-production meeting into a very pleasant and memorable evening. On a more practical level, it took some time for Merchant to convey fully his daunting knowledge of production design, period costume, and his fondness for literary heavyweights such as E.M. Forster and Henry James. Having investors sit down for a five-star curry dinner that Merchant himself prepared was the producer’s version of what Donald Trump calls “the art of the deal.”

But apart from all that, Merchant loved the hands-on, collaborative process of making movies, and teaming up with director James Ivory and writer Ruth Prawa Jhabvala in 1961 for a decades-long filmmaking venture (the longest partnership in the industry) was his way of proving it. The early productions were often good-to-excellent films that had limited distribution and success, but by the time of The Europeans, Maurice, The Bostonians, and A Room With a View, the phrase “Merchant Ivory” entered the lexicon as a term that described a certain kind of film, rather than merely indicating who made it.


Ismael Merchant


Dead Folks 2006 (Part 6)

Dead Folks 2006 (Part 6)

A look back at the notable names and personalities who called it quits last year.

January 26, 2006 


Jim Capaldi (2nd from left) with Traffic. (click for larger version)


Robert Moog

We could have a discussion about Attack-Decay-Sustain-Release envelopes, waveforms, voltage-controlled oscillators, and other stuff that fellows with PhDs in engineering physics like to talk about. After all, Robert Moog (rhymes with “vogue”), creator of the Moog Synthesizer, had several degrees in physics and electrical engineering, and he certainly knew his stuff. But let’s avoid getting bogged down in technical details and consider the larger story instead, which begins just after the Bolshevik Revolution.

In 1919, mad Russian physicist Lev Sergeivich Termen, aka Leon Theremin, created a musical instrument that generated between two antennas a radio signal, the frequency and amplitude of which a “player” could control by hand, sort of like playing a violin without touching it. An ever-deluded Vladimir Lenin sent Theremin on a global tour with this minor novelty, primarily to show off the amazing avant garde technology that the new worker’s paradise was ostensibly making available to greedy, behind-the-curve capitalists. One of those capitalist outfits was RCA, who purchased manufacturing licenses for the bizarre instrument in the late 1920s. Two decades later the Theremin’s spooky sound was de rigueur in radio and film scores for mysteries, crime dramas, and—most prominently—science fiction thrillers and horror movies (see: The Day the Earth Stood Still and Forbidden Planet.)

Enter Robert Moog, a teenager light years ahead of his schoolmates and neighborhood chums, who in the early 1950s began making and selling Theremin kits as a hobby. For about 50 bucks, Moog’s astonishingly elegant sets allowed anyone with rudimentary skills in electronics to construct their very own instrument. Moog and his father sold about 1,000 kits in 1960. Building a Theremin, however, was a snap compared to playing the thing. Moog was already looking down the road for something even more elegant.

Enter Raymond Scott, a wigged-out composer, swing-band leader, electronics wizard, and studio engineer who may have been from another planet (some of those wild scores heard in Warner Bros. cartoons and “The Ren & Stimpy Show” are Scott originals). Moog and his father popped into Scott’s mammoth “lab” one afternoon and observed, among other wonders, a Moog theremin set that had been reconfigured by Scott into a type of keyboard instrument he called the Clavivox. “I have seen the future,” mused Moog, “and it is the keyboard interface.”

What followed was the creation of the Moog Synthesizer in various forms, but at a fraction of the cost of the big non-interface synthesizers made by universities and electronics companies during the early 1960s. Integrated circuits changed all that, and pretty soon Mellotrons, Arps, and Rolands were competing with Moog’s devastatingly efficient Series 900.

Nonetheless, it was with one of the 900 Series modular systems that the world got switched on to electronic music. In 1968, pianist Walter Carlos (later Wendy Carlos, thanks to gender reassignment therapy) released an album of Bach compositions played on the Moog. Switched-On Bach, one of the best-selling classical recordings of all time, went platinum. Pretty soon everybody was switching on. The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and sundry other pop bands dabbled, but by 1970, artists such as Keith Emerson, Rick Wakeman, Stevie Wonder, and just about every member of Genesis were getting very serious. Then came the soundtrack to A Clockwork Orange (another Walter/Wendy Carlos effort), and Tangerine Dream, and Kraftwerk, and so on to digital synthesizers and computer sequencers, which the Moog synthesizer definitely is not. To get that space age, bachelor-pad sound that Stereolab is known for, you must use an analog device. Just ask Brian Eno.

This makes Robert Moog essentially the father of electronic music as it is made, purchased, and listened to today, even if he was not a composer or player; “I just make tools for others,” he often stated. He’s wrong about that, but physicists do tend to be reductionists at heart. Moog was actually a major catalyst in a quantum shift in modern culture and science. The story in which he had a key role has a parallel narrative, such that the relationship of these cosmic counterparts matches in strangeness the interplay of subatomic particles. Just as Moog and Raymond Scott and other guys in lab coats and crew cuts tinkered with waves and oscillations, so earlier did Edward Teller, Albert Einstein, Robert Oppenheimer, and colleagues manipulate previously unknown/unseen objects and energies to render forth nuclear energy.

The men in both narratives had an affinity for the new and improved, fully understanding the inevitable evolutions of the Kitchen of Tomorrow and the Car of the Future. They listened to swing, but it was the electric, atomic-age swing of the Les Paul guitar. They were squares, nerds, and horn-rimmed geeks that the girls secretly dug (recall Marilyn Monroe’s fascination with Albert Einstein). Their relationship with the enemy had its own curious waveform. Had it not been for the Soviets, Theremin might not have brought electronic music to our side of the globe. But then, without the Soviets, atomic weapon research would not have continued at its frantic pace. Without so many tests in the desert, there might not have been so many giant creatures emanating from Hollywood, but the electronic music team supplied the soundtracks just the same. There might not have been a space “race” either, in which case the space-age sounds of lounge music masters, minus the urgency, may have developed at a slower, less vulgar pace.

Either way, the research teams in both narratives were all about electrons; Raymond Scott’s most famous and instantly recognizable composition is “Powerhouse.” The business of energy entails positive and negative charges, and the two stories are charged with comparable symmetries. These mid-century brainiac physicists instigated a fascination with two things, one that we think we can’t live without and another that we can’t live with: Hi-Fis and Hydrogen Bombs. The space-age bachelor pad becomes the Home of Tomorrow, with a Philco or RCA Victor Hi-Fi in the den and a fallout shelter just south of the patio. The makers of The Bomb worked on the Manhattan Project, the key instruments of which were Uranium 238 and various synthetic elements; Robert Moog and Raymond Scott started their projects in basements in Manhattan, the end result of which was a synthetic instrument.

Polarities evolve from those symmetries. The atom bomb was a fission device; the H-bomb is a fusion device. The bachelor pad becomes a home only after the owner finds his counterpart. Robert Moog’s invention, a thoroughly modern device built for the future, reached the world only after it was used to make a best-selling record of classical compositions from the distant past. The performer on that album was a man who later became a woman.

The H-bomb geniuses and the electronics wizards invented things with properties and behaviors that modern physicists now say might not be correctly understood, if they exist at all. But until we learn for certain, let’s relish the fact that the very first nuclear events in the universe can be observed today in the form of radio signals. The term “radioactivity,” as the synthesizer band Kraftwerk pointed out decades ago, is a cosmic bit of double entendre. –David Pelfrey

Johnnie Johnson

Chuck Berry has for decades performed with no interest in whoever’s backing him on live dates. Berry simply shows up with his guitar and plays with whatever junkies have been corralled by the promoter into being his backup band for the evening. In his defense, though, Berry’s probably aware that he’ll never replicate his luck in hooking up with Johnnie Johnson. Johnson didn’t need Berry when the guitarist joined up with his Sir John Trio in 1953, but the pianist immediately saw that Berry’s tunes were future hits. Johnson’s arrangements became a vital part of developing what became Berry’s biggest songs. Johnson’s own part in rock history was revived when he joined the all-star Berry band assembled for Taylor Hackford’s concert film Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll. Johnson would go on to perform well into the ’90s. He put on much better shows than Berry, of course. —J.R.T.

Danny Sugerman

He was the manager of The Doors, but that was after Jim Morrison’s death. Still, Danny Sugerman built himself a nice career as the ultimate Doors fan. He began answering their mail when he was just 14 and would go on to chronicle the band’s exploits in plenty of books. His own autobiography, Wonderland Avenue, would turn out to be the most interesting. At least Sugerman lived long enough to see The Doors reunite—which, in the band’s current incarnation, has probably hastened the death of many Doors fans. He was survived by wife Fawn Hall, who enjoyed some ’80s notoriety for her role in shredding documents as Oliver North’s secretary during the days of the Iran-Contra scandal. –J.R. Taylor


Johnnie Johnson (click for larger version)


R.L. Burnside

February 2 marks a decade since a capacity crowd crammed into The Nick during a snowstorm to see the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and 69-year-old opening act R.L. Burnside. Spencer obviously dug how Burnside, a Mississippi hill-country blues man and erstwhile sharecropper, was the real deal. The next morning, the Blues Explosion headed to Holly Springs, Mississippi, to back Burnside for what became the A Ass Pocket of Whiskey album (reportedly recorded in a mere four hours). Though it received mixed reviews, the album became the best selling of Burnside’s career and paid for a new roof on his home. He had been recording since the late ’60s, and it must have had him scratching his head to see young, indie-rocker types suddenly turning up at his shows. He recorded a few more albums on the Fat Possum label, including the 1998 album Come On In. His 2001 album Wish I Was in Heaven Sitting Down was aptly named for a man who preferred to remain seated onstage. He died in Memphis. —Paul Brantley

Harold Leventhal

Anyone interested in booking prominent folk music stars 40 years ago usually rang up Harold Leventhal. He was the man responsible for Bob Dylan’s first major concert appearance in 1963 at Town Hall in New York City. Leventhal handled folk stars such as Dylan, Joan Baez, the Weavers, Woody Guthrie, and Peter, Paul, and Mary, as well as pop and rock acts such as Harry Belafonte, Johnny Cash, the Mamas and Papas, and Neil Young. He also produced the Arlo Guthrie film Alice’s Restaurant. —Ed Reynolds

Jothan Callins

A student of Amos Gordon at Jackson Olin High School, Callins went on to a career as an educator when not playing trumpet and keyboards with Stevie Wonder, The Lionel Hampton Orchestra, B.B. King, Max Roach, and many other jazz greats, most notably Sun Ra, for whom he also served a stint as music director. In 1978, Mr. Callins became the first jazz Artist in Residence for the Birmingham Public School System and helped found the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame. (He was later inducted there, as well.) He led his own Sounds of Togetherness, with which he toured internationally, founded The Birmingham Youth Jazz Ensemble, and authored more than 500 compositions. Explaining jazz improvisation to schoolchildren, Callins once put it this way: “Everybody gets to play. It’s like being at church and having testimony time. We all get a chance to say our piece.” –Bart Grooms

Ibrahim Ferrer

As a member of The Buena Vista Social Club, Cuban-born Ferrer became an international star and was featured in Wim Wenders’ documentary of the same title. –B.G.

Jim Capaldi

Drummer and lyricist for Traffic; he co-wrote most of their songs with Steve Winwood. –B.G.

Jimmy Smith

He radically redefined jazz organ in the mid-’50s, making it a bona fide solo instrument and influencing every jazz and rock player who came after him. Eschewing the tremolo typical of the organ sound of his day, Smith used the newly introduced (1955) Hammond B-3 and played lines based on the ideas of his favorite sax players (Coleman Hawkins, Don Byas), not keyboard men. He made numerous recordings, especially for Blue Note. Miles Davis, on first hearing Smith: “Man, this cat is the eighth wonder of the world!” –B.G.

Vassar Clements

Fiddler extraordinaire who played with Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys and Jim and Jesse McReynolds, then later sat in with the likes of Paul McCartney, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Johnny Cash, The Grateful Dead, Hank Williams, Jr., even Woody Herman; he can be heard on more than 2,000 albums. He combined the bluegrass of his background with jazz and seemed to fit in anywhere, even alongside Jerry Garcia and David Grisman in the hippie bluegrass quintet Old and in the Way. ––B.G.

Shirley Horn

One of jazz’s most sensual vocalists, Horn was both a protegée of and an influence on Miles Davis. Horn was also an accomplished pianist whose playing and singing meshed elegantly on her trademark ultra-slow ballads. Close Enough for Love (1989) is a fine first place to hear the woman who influenced Diana Krall and many others. –B.G.

Spencer Dryden

You’d imagine that the members of Jefferson Airplane are doing well. Some of them are still along for the ride playing as members of Starship, while fringe figures such as Jorma Kaukonen remain respected guitar masters who run their own pleasant rural empires. Property values in San Francisco stayed on the rise, too. Yes, it’s good to be a former member of Jefferson Airplane—unless you were Spencer Dryden, the veteran Airplane drummer who was living in a miserable place that hardly counted as a shack.

Not privy to publishing rights or particularly adult decisions, Dryden was a classic hippie casualty whose induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame couldn’t even rate him a cup of coffee. To be fair, the band had originally lost interest in the guy after he began carrying around a gun in the aftermath of Altamont. Not too coincidentally, Dryden had joined the Airplane as a replacement for original drummer Skip Spence, who would go on to cultish fame as another legendary acid-rock nutcase. At least Dryden benefitted from a 2004 fundraiser that was meant to help him with hip-replacement surgeries and other medical problems. It was still a bizarre end to a weird life—which included an idyllic Hollywood childhood under the auspices of his uncle, Charlie Chaplin. Most telling quote regarding Dryden, courtesy of an ex-wife: “He was so quirky, and he never intentionally hurt anyone.” —J.R.T.

Willie Hutch


Spencer Dryden (click for larger version)

He stepped in to finish up “I’ll Be There” for the Jackson Five, and that pretty much guaranteed Willie Hutch any number of production jobs during the ’70s heyday of Motown. He was a natural purveyor of chart hits, too, having already made the adjustment from backwoods Texas soul to writing songs for The Fifth Dimension. However, Hutch would really make his pop-culture breakthrough with his film scores for The Mack and Foxy Brown—both of which were grandly intrusive experiments in funk and soul. (In the tradition of Curtis Mayfield’s work on Superfly, “Brothers Gonna Work It Out” continues to matter far more than any scene from The Mack.) Hutch was always welcome in the studio during the ’80s and ’90s, as well, and was still releasing strong work right up until 2002. Hutch also stayed around long enough to hear his “I Choose You” backing up the action in this year’s critically acclaimed pimp epic Hustle & Flow. –J.R.T.

Hasil Adkins

Wearing wraparound sunglasses and beaming a toothless grin as he danced in the audience to his own opening act (Southern Culture on the Skids), Hasil Adkins was clearly enjoying himself as he waited to go on stage. Minutes later Adkins was on stage alone with an acoustic guitar, singing in a captivating yet disturbing tenor that occasionally broke into a bad, but hypnotic, falsetto. He broke a string and smashed his guitar against the wall behind him without even bothering to turn around, then calmly asked to borrow someone else’s instrument. After the show, a roadie acquaintance told me that Adkins’ lunch routine was a pint of vodka and five cans of chicken noodle soup eaten straight from the can. He also consumed two gallons of coffee daily.

Adkins was the consummate hillbilly singer, the original madman who inspired The Cramps and other warped devotees of Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis to concoct a musical genre called “psychobilly.”

He claimed to have written more than 7,000 songs (with titles like “Boo Boo the Cat” and “Chocolate Milk Honeymoon”), and in 1970 he began mailing out thousands of tapes in an effort to secure a record deal. U.S. Senator Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia gave one of Adkins’ tapes to President Nixon; the President responded to Adkins on White House stationery: “I am very pleased by your thoughtfulness in bringing these particular selections to my attention.” Adkins was found dead at his crudely constructed West Virginia shack at age 67 of as yet undetermined reasons. Foul play was ruled out. —E.R.

Baker Knight

Knight wrote hits for Ricky Nelson (“Lonesome Town”) and Elvis Presley (“The Wonder of You”) as well for Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Perry Como, among others. Knight was born in Birmingham, spending much of his 72-year life here. In 1956, he had a strong regional following with his band Baker Knight and the Knightmares. Ricky Nelson recorded 22 of Knight’s songs. —E.R.

Bobby Short

Singer/pianist whom The New Yorker called “one of the last examples (and indubitably the best) of the supper club singer or ‘troubadour;’” he worked at the Café Carlyle on Manhattan’s Upper East Side from 1968 to 2005. –B.G.


Bobby Short (click for larger version)


Little Milton Campbell

Blues singer, guitarist and songwriter (“The Blues Is Alright,” “Your Wife Is Cheating on Us”). –B.G.

Paul Peña

Folk/blues singer; he wrote “Jet Airliner,” which was a hit for the Steve Miller Band, and was the central figure in the remarkable documentary Genghis Blues. –B.G.

Chet Helms

Chet Helms produced the first psychedelic light shows at the Fillmore West in San Francisco and staged free concerts in Golden Gate Park (when not fighting with promoter Bill Graham over whether to charge admission). “Chet was a hippie,” Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart said. “We were all hippies. He hated to charge for the music.” The story goes that he traveled to Austin, Texas, where he convinced Janis Joplin to hitchhike back to the West Coast with him. Helms was managing Big Brother and the Holding Company at the time and brought Joplin in to propel the band to stardom. Helms died at 63 of Hepatitis C complications. —E.R.

Jimmy Martin

A 1950s member of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys, Martin was an ornery man with a high, lonesome whine and a distinctive, fast-strumming rhythm guitar style. He’s probably best known for giving Mother Maybelle a run for her money as the show-stopper on the immortal 1970 album Will the Circle Be Unbroken?, a record that forced rednecks to forgive hippies for long hair and compelled hippies to forgive rednecks for not liking loud music. The two polar-opposite cultures admitted that they were really quite fond of each other, despite what Merle Haggard sang.

The Grand Ole Opry was too terrified of his reputation as an unpredictable drunk to invite Martin to join. He never got over the rejection; he often drove to the backstage of the Opry in a limo he owned (the license plate read KING JIM) on Saturday nights to drunkenly demand that he be allowed to perform. Martin died of bladder cancer and congestive heart failure at age 77. —E.R.

Dead Folks 2006 (Part 7)

Dead Folks 2006 (Part 7)

A look back at the notable names and personalities who called it quits last year.

January 26, 2006 Authors/Illustrators

Arthur Miller



Arthur Miller

What was the difference between the McCarthy hearings and the Salem witch trials? There weren’t any witches in Salem. Ignore that, though, and maybe you can find some meaning in “The Crucible” and the other writings of Arthur Miller. He hadn’t written a successful play since 1968, but Miller’s passing was still celebrated as an important event. This wasn’t because he was an important playwright. It’s because all of today’s good leftist playwrights have to celebrate Miller for bringing his absurd politics into high schools all over America. Fellow playwright Harold Pinter even tried to pretend that Miller was some kind of blacklisted figure.

Miller’s own leftist contemporaries, unsurprisingly, never considered him to be of much importance. “Death of a Salesman” wasn’t bad, but it still can’t compete with anything by Rod Serling or Paddy Chayefsky. At least Miller could proudly claim to have married Marilyn Monroe—but that achievement was pretty much ruined in the wake of “After the Fall,” a stage chronicling the marriage that was a pioneering masterpiece in midlife self-absorption. It helps to bear in mind that Bebe Buell once attributed her lust for Elvis Costello to “Arthur Miller Syndrome.” His final play would be yet another rehashing of having sex with Marilyn, so at least Miller had an understanding of his ultimate place in pop culture. –J.R. Taylor

Stan Berenstain

Plenty of parents and former children became very nostalgic when Stan Berenstain passed away. His wife Jan had been his partner in almost 40 years of Berenstain Bears books, as the clan’s illustrated adventures showed kids how to clean around the house and get ready for trips to the dentist—along with weirder stuff, as the Berenstains began to address issues such as drug abuse over the decades. The Berenstain Bears also made the inevitable transition to animated adventures and a bigger world of merchandising. However, all of this was pretty baffling to kids who’d first stumbled across the Berenstains’ hilarious early work as chroniclers of suburban angst. Racy paperback collections such as Baby Makes Four suggest that they could have been Erma Bombeck for those parents who’d just missed living by the Playboy Philosophy. —J.R.T.

Ed McBain

Fans of detective novels and mysteries are familiar with the 50-odd novels in Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series. Fans of Hill Street Blues, Law & Order, Homicide, Police Story, and dozens of other television detective series are indirectly acquainted with McBain; his novels were the blueprints for a now well-established genre—the ensemble detective story. Ed McBain is a pseudonym, among others, for Evan Hunter, an amazingly successful mystery writer whose first novel was the controversial Blackboard Jungle. Based on Hunter’s experiences teaching at a vocational school in a rough urban environment, the book was adapted for a sensational motion picture starring Glenn Ford and Sidney Poitier. His screenplays for the “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” television series led to Hunter’s screenplay for Hitchcock’s The Birds. —David Pelfrey

Frank Kelly Freas

Anyone who so much as passed by a bookstore or newsstand in the last 50 years has seen an illustration by Kelly Freas. That’s his work on the covers of countless Ballantine, Avon, Signet, or DAW publications. From 1957 to 1962 Freas drew many of those hilarious, but amazingly realistic, fake ads for MAD Magazine, and provided Alfred E. Neumann’s moronic visage for their covers. Freas’ regular gig was creating otherworldly illustrations for works by such science-fiction legends as Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and Arthur C. Clarke. The insanely prolific Freas earned 10 Hugo Awards for his work in the science fiction and fantasy field. He did real science, too; his illustrations for NASA missions hang in the Smithsonian. The cover illustration for the October, 1953, issue of Astounding Science Fiction (for whom Freas worked for 50 years) depicts a very troubled and puzzled giant robot holding a mortally wounded human in his hand. This legendary image became the album cover art for Queen’s News of the World. –D.P.




Leo Sternbach

In the 1950s, pharmaceutical prospects for relieving anxiety were few: Barbiturates were highly addictive and easily overdosed on; “major tranquilizers” such as Thorazine had emptied mental hospitals but were instruments too blunt for everyday anxiety; and the only “minor tranquilizer,” Miltown, was weak in regular doses and toxic in high ones. What was needed was a drug that relieved anxiety safely and without overt sedation.

Austrian-born Jewish chemist Leo Sternbach, working with a couple of other chemists at Hoffman-La Roche Labs, serendipitously concocted just such a substance in the compound chlordiazepoxide, marketed under the name Librium in 1960. Librium was the first benzodiazepine, but its more potent successor, Valium, would change the face of American culture. It ultimately proved to be addictive, but Valium’s ability to take the edge off of daily stresses with surgical precision, plus its relative safety (you’d have a hard time killing yourself with Valium alone) made it the most-prescribed drug from 1969 to 1982. It was even immortalized in The Rolling Stones’ hit “Mother’s Little Helper.” Such a level of popularity can probably be explained in part by the fact that, for some, it was a readily concealable alternative to alcohol abuse. Sternbach also invented the drugs Dalmane, Mogadon, and Klonopin. –Paul Brantley

Robert Kearns

Robert Kearns invented intermittent windshield wipers, which allowed pauses between swipes during light rain. Ford and Chrysler implemented Kearns’ idea, and Kearns, often acting as his own attorney, successfully sued the automobile corporations in 1978 and 1982, respectively, for nearly $20 million. He had previously shopped the idea to automakers but could never reach a licensing deal. Lawsuits against General Motors and foreign automakers were dismissed. Kearns died of cancer at 77. —Ed Reynolds

Charlie Muse

Half a century ago, baseball players were real men who didn’t bother with helmets when batting. In 1952, a Pittsburgh Pirates executive named Charlie Muse forced his team to wear batting helmets despite taunts from opponents that the Pirates were “sissy.” Slowly, opposing teams began to adapt, and in 1954 the Braves’ Joe Adcock credited the helmet with saving his life after being knocked unconscious while batting against the Brooklyn Dodgers. The next day, the Dodgers began wearing helmets. —E.R.

George Mikan

The first “big man” to dominate the game of basketball, the 6-foot, 10-inch Mikan would simply stand beneath the basketball goal of opponents and swat their shots out of the rim. Mikan’s advantage forced the sport to outlaw “goaltending,” where a ball is deflected away once it begins its downward trajectory to the basketball goal. —E.R.

John Ebstein


George Mikan (click for larger version)

In 1962 John Ebstein created the first airbrushed rendering of Studebaker’s ridiculous-looking Avanti, the ugliest sports car ever. With its extended underbite front end, the Avanti appeared to have lost the futuristic design war that the Corvette Sting Ray had easily won. Hideous though it may have appeared, the Avanti nevertheless turned heads just as the DeLorean once did. Ebstein also designed the Lucky Strike cigarette package and Greyhound buses. —E.R.

George Atkinson

A former Hollywood stuntman and occasional actor, George Atkinson didn’t need Grauman’s Chinese Theater to leave his imprint on the film history. Atkinson pioneered the home video rental industry. In 1979 he turned a 600-square-foot store into a goldmine called Video Station by charging $50 for a membership card and a $10-per-day rental fee for any of 50 available titles. Scoffing at earlier entrepreneurial notions that people would buy movies, Atkinson summed up his business philosophy: “You listen to Beethoven or The Beatles over and over again. You don’t watch Burt Reynolds over and over.” Currently there are more than 24,000 video stores around the nation. Atkinson died at 69 of emphysema. —E.R.

Joseph Owades

Weight-conscious beer drinkers can thank Joseph L. Owades for inventing the first low-calorie beer. Miller Brewing Co. acquired the rights to the process Owades invented and launched Miller Lite in 1975, spawning the phrase “you might as well drink horse piss,” which was almost as popular a slogan as “tastes great, less filling.” —E.R.

Dead Folks 2006 (Part 8)

January 26, 2006

Politics/World Affairs

Joe T. Smitherman (click for larger version)




Simon Wiesenthal

There are militant Jews, and then there are insanely militant Jews—the latter of which were probably best represented by the NYC group that loved to dismiss Simon Wiesenthal as “Weaselthal” for using legal channels to pursue former Nazis. (They didn’t like his support of Kurt Waldheim, either.) To normal human beings, though, Wiesenthal was a dashing figure as the Holocaust survivor who understood the importance of ensuring that no German monsters got to enjoy their forced retirement. His work in the aftermath of the Nuremberg trials facilitated the capturing of many notorious creeps, and the Simon Wiesenthal Center continued to extradite Nazis while also stopping the pensions of former SS officers. He was also father to a slew of ’70s paperback thrillers that drew upon his pursuits. The covers for a lot of these depicted the White House with a swastika in the background. —J.R. Taylor

Joe T. Smitherman

For years my mother refused to vote for Joe Smitherman, mayor of Selma from 1964 to 2000, because his quick-draw tongue flippantly and all too frequently tossed off racial slurs. (Smitherman can be seen in a 1960s Civil Rights documentary referring to “Martin Luther Coon.”) Nevertheless, our family continued to buy washing machines from his appliance store on Broad Street. He was quite a charmer, a good-looking guy who sort of resembled Johnny Carson.

Smitherman finally accepted that segregation had been declared illegal in Selma—except for the churches and country club. Despite his loose tongue around the neighborhood, as a city councilor he broke ties with white opinion and supported paving the dirt roads on which most of Selma’s black residents lived. He was re-elected every four years for 36 years by wooing black voters. It was never lost on Joe T. Smitherman that Selma’s black population was increasingly outnumbering the whites.

The town’s (whites only) public swimming pool that Mayor Smitherman closed to prevent blacks from swimming with whites became a symbol of Selma’s stubbornness and stupidity. There the pool sat unused for years, filthy and creeping with algae, the water a dismal blend of green and brown slime. Smitherman’s closing of the pool, however, launched a minor boom in the swimming pool industry in Selma. White residents combined resources to construct neighborhood “members only” pools. The one in our neighborhood was less than a hundred feet from Smitherman’s back door. He lived two blocks from our house (as kids we’d yell “Citizens’ arrest!” every time Joe T. ran the stop sign on our corner), and his home was often the target of Civil Rights marches during the mid-1960s. As my parents scowled, my siblings and I would cheer wildly whenever our house appeared on NBC’s “Huntley-Brinkley Report.”

Several years ago, I was in Joe Smitherman’s office, where a Confederate battle flag flanked his desk. He bragged about Selma’s then-recently appointed first black police chief, told me that the city had a couple of Jewish mayors in its history, and then pointed to a photo of himself sporting bright red wax lips once made at Selma’s now-defunct American Candy Company factory. Laughing, he quipped, “I look like a damn New Orleans queer, don’t I?” —Ed Reynolds

James Stockdale

It’s a shame that Admiral James Stockdale, who was Ross Perot’s 1992 running mate, is remembered for opening the vice-presidential debate by asking, “Who am I? Why am I here?” These words were seized upon by the media as possible evidence of senility (Phil Hartman parodied Stockdale on “Saturday Night Live” with Dana Carvey as Perot), but they in fact reflected Stockdale’s deep philosophical bent. His study of the Stoic philosopher Epictetus helped Stockdale endure repeated torture at the hands of the North Vietnamese throughout his seven and a half years of captivity as a P.O.W. His stoicism was resolute: He mutilated his face to foil his captors’ efforts to have him appear on camera for propaganda purposes and slit his wrists to demonstrate that he’d rather die than give in to their demands. These acts of defiance earned him several decorations and brought about better treatment of P.O.W.s by the North Vietnamese. —Paul Brantley

Rosemary Kennedy

Need further proof of how the Kennedy Empire has fallen? Consider that there was a time when Rosemary Kennedy was regarded as the most embarrassing member of the clan. As the retarded sister of JFK and RFK, Rosemary was hidden away after patriarch Joseph P. Kennedy decided that she was best dealt with by administering a lobotomy. The adoring media obligingly ignored Rosemary’s existence for decades. She lived to a ripe old age, too, most likely because she was blissfully unaware of how her brother Teddy had ruined the family name. —J.R.T.

Shirley Chisholm

Emilio Estevez once mistook a poster of Angela Davis for Shirley Chisholm. That’s okay, though. A guy from Mötley Crüe thought it was a poster of Clarence Williams, III. At least Emilio’s mistake was the result of a good leftist upbringing where Shirley Chisholm was an important feminist icon. She made history as the first black female ever elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1968. She promised fireworks and quickly rebelled once the Brooklyn gal found herself being shuffled off to the Agricultural Committee.

Chisholm would go on to co-found the National Organization of Women, which today might very well have less members than the total number of women who’ve ever posed for Playboy. Chisholm’s run for the 1972 presidency was pure showmanship, but she paved the way for genuinely legitimate contenders such as Barbara Jordan. —J.R.T.




Shirley Chisholm





Domino Harvey

The amazing movie star Laurence Harvey left a bizarre legacy, what with sickly sophisticated turns in films such as Walk on the Wild Side and A Dandy in Aspic—not to mention a creepy turn as a “Columbo” villain. Still, Domino Harvey almost topped all of her father’s incredible excesses. She initially took over the international scene as a stunning model, which seemed natural enough for the offspring of Harvey and model Paulene Stone. Then, however, Domino had to become a genuine character by ditching her glamorous world to become a bona fide bounty hunter. She tossed in the added allure of being a lesbian, although that fact was pretty much ignored when director Tony Scott made the big-screen adaptation of her life. Keira Knightley made for a nice Domino in Domino, but the film itself was a hyper-stylized mess—with its storyline further complicated when Domino died of a drug overdose before the 2005 production was even released. —J.R.T.

Ray Holmes


Domino Harvey (click for larger version)

In an incident that was reportedly caught on film, British Royal Air Force pilot Ray Holmes saved Buckingham Palace from almost certain destruction in 1940. The Hurricane fighter plane he was flying had run out of ammunition, so Holmes rammed into a German bomber, slicing off the tail as it headed towards the Palace. Holmes parachuted to safety. —E.R.

Philip Klass

With an exacting, detail-obsessed mind and the skeptical outlook of an unwavering empiricist, it was inevitable that electrical engineer and aviation expert Philip Klass would occasionally irritate his peers. He didn’t merely know everything about aviation technology; he usually knew it first. During the 1950s, he wrote the very first articles on secret inertial guidance technology, infrared missile guidance and detection, and microelectronics. Klass’s book, Secret Sentries in Space (1971), was the first to deal with spy satellite technology. He coined the term “avionics” and in the process created his 34-year position as senior avionics editor of Aviation Week and Space Technology.

But if his colleagues were sometimes miffed, his opponents were constantly infuriated. That’s because a sideline of his research led to Klass becoming the foremost debunker of UFO reports. Klass always offered an unassailable rationale for his investigations: “My sole objective is to either find a credible, prosaic explanation for a UFO report, or, if that isn’t possible, then to write the most important story of my life—about a visitor from another planet—and win a Pulitzer Prize.”

What galled the UFOlogists, “abduction” victims, and conspiracy theorists is that Klass consistently found a credible explanation. Apparently, a lot of amazing things take place in the atmosphere (plasma formations, radar temperature inversions), but the truth about such phenomena is here on Earth, not “out there.” Throw in a few elaborate hoaxes and pretty soon the X-files are rudely supplanted by the ABCs of basic scientific inquiry. That’s no fun.

His research was made public at the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), which Klass helped establish in the mid 1970s, and at SUN (Skeptics UFO Newsletter), a bimonthly publication that Klass operated himself. This information in turn formed the basis of what are generally considered to be the best books on the subject: UFOs Identified, UFOs Explained, and The Real Roswell Crashed-Saucer Coverup.

That last title placed him on the enemies list of major UFOlogists, many of whom describe Klass as a “disinformer” probably working for the government. The book had turned the tables on one of the world’s most durable conspiracy theories. According to Klass, it wasn’t the U.S. government that was involved in a coverup at Roswell and Area 51. It was the pseudo-scientists and tourist attractions who were “lining their pockets” by maintaining a popular myth. —David Pelfrey

John DeLorean

Let’s note that he was acquitted—but John DeLorean still became a major ’70s icon while being videotaped by the FBI discussing how cocaine was going to be the savior of his automobile empire. It wasn’t just excess that he represented with his car line, although those stainless steel cars with the elevating doors would certainly go down in history as a pre-yuppie status symbol. DeLorean the Man was even more of a spectacle with his three-piece suits and aging good looks worthy of a model in a J.C. Penney layout. He would later be usurped by Moammar Gaddafi in the annals of stylish creepiness.


John DeLorean (click for larger version)

In his defense, DeLorean had created the Pontiac GTO, and his jet-set ways allowed him to raise money from the likes of Sammy Davis, Jr. (There would be a Pontiac GTO named “The Judge,” in tribute to Davis’ routine from “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.”) DeLorean even had the hot wife who was ready to ditch him once the going got tough. Anyway, DeLorean’s alleged big drug deal never happened, but he still staved off bankruptcy until 1999—and certainly was far from the flophouse when he suffered a fatal stroke in early 2005. —J.R.T

Also Dead . . .

Ed Masry, partner of Erin Brockovich, played by Albert Finney in the film; Eddie Bunker, Mr. Blue in Reservoir Dogs, and real-life criminal; screenwriter Ernest Lehman; Henry Corden, voice of Fred Flintstone; Elmer “Len” Dresslar, voice of the Jolly Green Giant; Thurl Ravenscroft, voice of Tony the Tiger; Musicians Chris LeDoux, Chris Whitley, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Luther Vandross, Justin Hinds, Laurel Aitken, Paul “Wine” Jones, Son Seals, Lucky Thompson, Percy Heath, Tyrone Davis, Link Wray, and Martin Denny; Senator Howell Heflin; O.J. lawyer Johnnie Cochran; architect Philip Johnson; Actors Barbara Bel-Geddes, Mason Adams, and Sir John Mills; Authors John Fowles, M. Scott Peck, Saul Bellow, Hunter S. Thompson, and Shelby Foote; Myron Floren, Lawrence Welk’s “Happy Norwegian”; Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist; Gen. William Westmoreland; feminist Andrea Dworkin; Eugene McCarthy; anchorman Peter Jennings; Prince Ranier; TV host Ralph Edwards (“This is Your Life”) &


City Hall — Kincaid Expresses Doubt About Police Roadblocks


January 12, 2006

Approximately five years ago, Birmingham police routinely set up roadblocks at various intersections to check driver’s licenses, verify vehicle tags, and, presumably, scrutinize drivers who might appear intoxicated. Oddly, as soon as thriving business establishments opened at two of the several inspection points, roadblocks stopped. Eventually, other roadblocks ceased after former police Chief Mike Coppage left the city to go to work for the state.

With the city of Birmingham’s 2005 homicide rate nearly double that of 2004, and the number of muggings and armed robberies in the Southside and Lakeview districts (some in broad daylight) on the rise (police and city officials dispute that armed robberies and muggings have gotten worse), roadblocks would seem to be a common-sense approach to perhaps getting control of an ever-present danger.

The first two days of 2006 included two more homicides, and police have recently been quoted as saying they have no control over what people who carry guns do with them. Mayor Bernard Kincaid has noted on several occasions that most of the homicides are domestic-related and questions whether police can deter disputes that occur in homes between acquaintances. “Some of the issues seem to be beyond our control,” Kincaid said at a January 3 press conference. “The chief [Birmingham Police Chief Annetta Nunn] reports to me that there were two phenomena that characterized what happened in 2005. First of all, the crime rate in the city was down at last report. Secondly, that homicides went up, and there were two disturbing factors about that: The large percentage of those homicides were black on black. And that they were acquaintances, they were not strangers killing strangers. If any intervention is sought, it has to deal with interpersonal relationships—anger management and conflict resolution.” Kincaid said Nunn is currently working on a proposal that will be unveiled the second week of January.

When asked if roadblocks would ever be brought back into regular use, Kincaid said probably not. “That’s fraught with a lot of issues that I wouldn’t want to sanction at this point,” explained the Mayor. “The issue of whether roadblocks are deployed becomes an issue of whether or not it’s the beginning of racial profiling. All of that issue came up before. The negative side of that seems to outweigh the positive benefit. We have things like project ICE—that’s ‘Isolate the Criminal Element.’ Stiffer penalties are attached to gun crimes and that kind of thing, the illegal possession of guns.” Kincaid added that the city has also been working with the Drug Enforcement Agency to see what the city’s role should be in conjunction with the DEA and other task forces. &

City Council Imposes Fee for Fence Erections

City Council Imposes Fee for Fence Erections


January 12, 2006

On January 3, the Birmingham City Council passed an ordinance requiring that permits be obtained before landowners construct fences and walls in their front yards. A $25 fee will also be required. As Councilor Valerie Abbott put it, “Right now [the fence ordinance] has a lot of holes in it.” Abbott, who chairs the Council’s zoning committee, cited the large number of violations regarding the heights of fences, especially those with towering decorative items placed on posts at gate entrances. “We wanted it to be a very low fee so that anyone could afford to do it,” said Abbott. “We’re expecting that, for the most part, the fence companies will be paying that fee. But every once in a while an individual will put up their own fence.”

She failed to add that the cost of a permit would simply be passed on to the consumer. The ordinance increases fence heights to a maximum of four feet, while posts can now be up to five feet tall. The councilor added that currently no permit is needed to put up a fence, and a fee is necessary to handle the legal process residents will be forced to go through, which includes a fence inspector. Landowners can currently be cited for having front yard fences too high.

We are only talking about $45,000 generated for the city from fence fees. There is nothing that we can do with $45,000 for the city.” —Councilor Roderick Royal

Councilors Joel Montgomery, Miriam Witherspoon, and William Bell all support the regulation of fence heights but did not vote for the ordinance due to their opposition to the fee. “I can’t support this ordinance. I have no problem with any part of it except the $25 fee. If someone wants to put a fence on their property, I think we have inspectors that can go out and do that without charging our citizens an additional $25,” Councilor Montgomery said.

It lets us get to the installation before the fact,” explained Planning, Engineering, and Permits Department chief Bill Gilchrist. “Once a fence has been installed that’s out of code, out of ordinance, it’s very difficult to get it back in line.” Mayor Bernard Kincaid added that the ordinance is not a revenue-generator but merely offsets, in part, expenses incurred by inspectors who have to go out and examine the fencing.

Noting that $25 was a lot of money to some, Councilor William Bell was worried that the fee could become a revenue-generating issue as opposed to an enforcement or compliance issue. “I don’t want to be perceived as the Council putting a hidden tax on people out there in the community,” said Bell. Councilor Roderick Royal disagreed, arguing that the fee should not be a problem. “I don’t know how we can manage to turn something simple into a complicated matter . . . We are only talking about $45,000 [generated for the city from fence fees]. There is nothing that we can do with $45,000 for the city.” Royal said he had a relatively small fence installed that cost $900. “If you’re going to put a fence up, chances are you’re going to have $25 . . . If the word ‘fee’ bothers you, let’s just change the word.”

Councilor Carol Reynolds expressed disgust over the unsightly fences she has observed while riding through neighborhoods. “You see everything from sheet metal to chicken wire. It’s phenomenal what is out there. I understand the need for fencing. But I also understand that we are a Council that has made a commitment to be proactive in our decisions rather than reactive.” Reynolds said it would be cheaper for residents to simply pay a $25 fee rather than having to dig up the fence later to get into compliance. &