Tuesday, January 1, 2008

The Departed 2007

It's a roll call you can't quite believe. We already knew it was a bad year; our 401(k) report told us that; so did our neighbor's house where the FOR SALE sign put up months ago gets more tattered every day. And now, reading the names of those we lost this year, we're stunned into silence. The hurricane of weather we managed to avoid was replaced by a hurricane of mortality that caught up to many of our best and brightest.

Practitioners of the painted word were among the year's disappeared. We lost Norman Mailer and Kurt Vonnegut, Grace Paley and Elizabeth Hardwicke, lions of American letters all; Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., the Pulitzer-winning historian and Kennedy administration "court philosopher"; Mark Harris, the novelist whose Henry Wiggins books made baseball the stuff of literature; and David Halberstam, the Pulitzer-winning reporter who made journalism much the same.

The house band in the next world got exponentially better this year. We lost Max Roach, a fountainhead of jazz innovation, and Oscar Peterson, a pianistic stylist and improviser without parallel. Mstislav Rostropovich, the master cellist whose irrepressible celebration of life dovetailed with a passion for the rights of Soviet-era dissidents.

Joe Zawinul, the jazz keyboardist and co-creator of Weather Report, whose fusion of jazz and rock broke new ground in the culture. We said goodbye to Bobby Byrd, the longtime collaborator with James Brown and co-founder of the Famous Flames, the band with the sound that started America off on the good foot.

Karlheinz Stockhausen, the avant-garde German pioneer of electronic music, died. So did Sekou Sundiata, poet, recording artist, exited, as did Zola Taylor, one of the Platters ("The Great Pretender") and Porter Waggoner, staple of country music for two generations, and Dan Fogelberg, whose plaintive melodies formed a foundation for the soft rock of the '70s.

We lost Ike Turner, an innovator of rock whose version of "Rocket 88" is still held by many to be the first rock record ever released. Don Ho, the Hawaiian crooner whose "Tiny Bubbles" was a pop-culture staple for decades. And Lee Hazlewood, the singer-songwriter who produced Nancy Sinatra's "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'." Hilly Kristal, the founder of the legendary CBGB nightclub and one of punk music's early, fervent evangelists, checked out too.

And no matter how bright they turn up the lights at La Scala, it'll never be the same without Luciano Pavarotti, titan of the opera -- the tenor for our time (some will say for all time) -- and Beverly Sills, the diva's diva, with none of the diva's trademark attitude.

There's empty seats in the movie screening room that weren't empty when the year started:

Ingmar Bergman, the Swedish master of film who blended the autobiographical and the phantasmagorical inrto a style of filmmaking all his own. Michelangelo Antonioni, the Italian director who broke with conventional film narrative in a series of motion pictures that continue to challenge filmgoers everywhere.

Roscoe Lee Browne, Emmy-winning actor whose regal bearing and commnanding voice served him in a variety of film, stage and television roles. Laszlo Kovacs, the cinematographer whose signature style more or less transformed American film in the '70s and '80s. Mel Shavelson, a screenwriter-director twice nominated for best-screenplay Oscars. Deborah Kerr, the versatile, magnetic Scottish-born actress whose beachside kiss of Burt Lancaster in "From Here to Eternity," and whose dance with Yul Brynner in "The King and I" gave modern film two of its most iconic scenes.

Jane Wyman, who won the Oscar for her role as a deaf rape victim in "Johnny Belinda." Freddie Fields, the flamboyant Hollywood agent, producer and studio exec. Percy Rodrigues, Barbara McNair and Calvin Lockhart, black actors whose roles in films and television helped advance black participation in the most popular art form in the world. And Solveig Dommartin, the passionate French actress whose passing Jan. 11 in Paris at the obscenely young age of 45 made mortality all too sudden, all too real again.

Gian-Carlo Menotti. Anna Nicole Smith. Joe Hunter. Stanley Myron Handelman. Merv Griffin. Brooke Astor. Robert Adler, the co-inventor of the TV remote, first used on the 1956 Zenith Space Command. Johnny Hart, the famed cartoonist whose "B.C." strip made the Stone Age improbably laughable. Tom Snyder, TV talk show host extraordinare. Arthur Jones, inventor of the Nautilus exercise machine and, by extension, the gym-rat culture that emerged in the decades since.

Walter Turnbull, who founded the acclaimed Boys Choir of Harlem. Madeleine L'Engle, 88. beloved author of children's books. Bill Flemming, veteran ABC Sports broadcaster. Roger M. King, the television industry executive who helped make Oprah a household name. Tammy Faye Messner, who with her former husband parlayed the Ameican preoccupation with faith into an evangelism empire, then watched it implode in controversy. Richard Jewell, the tarnished but ultimately vindicated hero of the Atlanta Olympic Park bombing.

And we remember a former colleague, Thomas Morgan III, former NABJ president and editor at The New York Times, a black journalist who made a difference in an industry still predisposed to ignore the African American experience, a man who passed from a heart attack at age 56, on Dec. 24, Christmas Eve.

And there were others, of course. Just as tragically, and more so, we lost Americans who died defending America. Nine hundred and one died in the Iraq war in 2007, and another 111 in Afghanistan. And the year was the deadliest in more than a decade for journalists, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Sixty-five were killed in direct relation to performance of their work in 2007.

We measure the gravity of events in terminal degrees. What we are is diminished by what we've lost. Our institutional memory, our social and cultural hard drive, took a big hit in '07. What remains for the living is the usual -- the ritual, the habit: Watch the million-strong throng in Times Square and pray everything goes smoothly. Resolve to do better, to be better. And right before the clock strikes twelve in whatever your time zone is, break out your chosen libation and propose a toast of thanksgiving to being above ground one more day.

Time to reboot. Here we go again. Our personal Gods willing ... here we go again.
Image credits: Pavarotti: Pirlouiiiit, Marseilles. Dommartin: From Wings of Desire. Joe Zawinul: Unknown (possibly Zawinul himself). Stockhausen: edvvc > Flickr: Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0. Roach: Ozier Muhammad, The New York Times.

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