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The Year of the Dead
By A. Lin Neumann
In Mexico, the annual celebration of the Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, on Nov. 1 pays tribute to one's ancestors and acknowledges the inevitable cycle of life with a national fiesta.
Skull-shaped candies and visits to the cemetery just to say hello may seem odd to those Americans who like to remove themselves from the immediate ghoulishness of life but there is a certain appeal to embracing the inevitable and turning it into a party. In fact, the concept went global in 1997. There were so many dead celebrities, dead events and dead-related things happening that the best way to cope was to do what the Mexicans do: celebrate. Welcome to the Year of the Dead--El Año de los Muertos.
If it was really big in 1997, it was dead. But there was one person whose demise rose--or perhaps fell--ahead of a very crowded field. And who's the deadest of them all? It is Diana, of course, Nuestra Señora de Celebritymania, the patron saint of fame for its own sake.
In a culture that confuses name recognition with accomplishment and celebrity with purpose, Dear Dead Diana, Princess of Wales, was lionized nonstop for having had her picture taken with starving children a few times. Did she feed the hungry, give her life to the poor, eradicate disease? Nope. As far as we can tell, she actually did nothing. Nada. Zip. She got married, got divorced, had her picture taken and smiled. This may be more than those stony faced royal in-laws of hers have managed but it hardly qualifies as a body of work on which to base immortality.
She may be the first ultra-huge, eternal and transcendent mega-celeb to have no real talent or wider purpose at all. Marilyn Monroe could act, John Kennedy was president, Elvis, Hendrix and John Lennon changed the face of the culture with their music. The only music associated with Diana is the dreadful "Candle in the Wind" tribute record, a drecky Elton John rehash that is now the largest selling single in history, a fact that seems to indicate that good taste also died in 1997.
Diana was born to privilege and married to still more privilege. All of you who wept and felt her pain, hey, get over it. She had nothing to do with you. She inhabited the planet Fame and her struggles were not the struggles of middle-class housewives with shitty marriages, no matter what Barbara Walters or Oprah Winfrey may say. But in keeping with the spirit of the year, she went out in a really big way, making her unfortunate demise the story of 1997. There were lots of deaths this year, but Diana's had it all. Royal lady. Sleazebag boyfriend. Fast car. Drunk driver. Evil photographers. The hideous twist and crumple of the ruined Benz drew us in with lurid fascination. We watched in droves, helpless, celebrating the power of tragedy.
No wonder Diana nearly pushed saintly Mother Theresa's death a few days later of old age in faraway India into an after thought. In normal times, the passing of a living icon of sacrifice like virtuous Mother T. is a slam-dunk. The networks and newspapers go into maudlin overdrive, the tributes flow like wine but this time around it was all a little strained and few were really paying attention. The world wanted Diana not Mother Theresa. Did too much Diana coverage equal too much Mother T. out of sheer guilt? How much is enough for a saint when a cover girl princess is non-stop, day after dreary day? In a year when there was almost too much human interest even by the low standards of American television, the poor old girl's timing was just all wrong. Sorry, Mother, but your reward is in heaven.
Then there were the Lunatic Dead ...
Early in the year, with the party just beginning, the spacemen knew where this thing was headed. Out in Rancho Whatever in perfect suburban San Diego, they strapped on their Nikes and matching black track suits and set sail for another universe. Marshal 'Herf' Applewhite and his merry band of 38 certifiable New Age wackjobs decided it was time to "leave their vehicles" and return to "the craft" for transport to faraway places. Most of us buy a plane ticket when we travel, these lunatics took some applesauce, a handful of barbiturates and a splash of vodka, stuffed a five dollar bill and some quarters in their pockets and blasted off. They spoke of angels and comets, Applewhite declared that he was from the "Evolutionary Level Above Human" sent here on temporary assignment. Time's up, Herf, someone must have told him, get ready to go home.
You do not want to think too long about this Heaven's Gate crowd. There are a lot of people out there caught up in mumbo jumbo, angel worship, UFO cults and the like. In case we thought it would pass unnoticed, the millennium is just around the corner and we can expect more of this sort of behavior. It would be great if they were right, of course. Imagine the clamor if this catches on: What fun! Spaceships for me and all my buddies, please. I want to go to the next evolutionary level on planet Gork before my hair falls out and the babes don't look my way anymore.
Speaking of spacemen, 1997 was the year Timothy Leary died on the Internet, live. His final request for "one last far-out trip" was fulfilled when he and fellow dead guy, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, had their cremated remains shot into space orbit along with 22 other space enthusiasts. "This was a very special day ... the families know their loved ones will now be passing overhead every 90 minutes," said Charles Chafer, vice president of Celestis, the Texas-based company that organized the world's first space funeral.
And somewhere in this mess of a year Dr. Jack Kevorkian found time to assist a few patients off the edge. Oh, and he's also an artist, exhibiting a collection of 13 ghoulish oil paintings in a Michigan gallery, including the aptly titled Very Still Life, which is also the name of his new jazz CD.
... And Assorted Dead
San Diego's place in the sun in a dead year was further assured by local boy Andrew Cunanan, gay hustler, bullshit artist and official crazed spree killer whose slaying of Gianni Versace--victim number five--in Miami seemed destined to increase the value of the fashion designer's overpriced label. Sister Donatella is carrying on the family business and presented a fall collection of rubberized gowns and leather shorts, proving that questionable taste and excess did not die along with her brother.
We still don't know who killed JonBenet Ramsey at the end of 1996 but the media-craze over her death is ever with us and is so in keeping with 1997's spirit of celebrity demise that she must be mentioned. Did you ever see so many pictures of one kid? Every day there seems to be another glamour shot on some tabloid. What the hell did they do with this child, keep her in a studio 24/7 just to fill up the portfolio with kiddie-cheesecake? Anyway, we all know this much: mommy and daddy are real rich and the police up in Boulder, Colorado couldn't find their butts with both hands. No suspects. No leads. No clue.
Speaking of children, a 14-year-old boy in West Paducah, Kentucky, got a little irritated with some of his classmates. So he packed a small arsenal into his lunch bag and opened fire killing three and wounding five just before the opening bell. Then there was 67-year old Carl Drega in Colebrook, New Hampshire, who waited for his golden years before snapping, He turned from town crank to headline lunatic when he killed four people, included a judge and a newspaper editor, before he was gunned down himself. He even left behind a house filled with explosives.
Notorious B.I.G., AKA Christopher Wallace, caught the zeitgeist of the year and joined his late rival, Tupac Shakur, in hip-hop heaven. He was shot and killed in his car near Beverly Hills. B.I.G.'s posthumous album, Life After Death, was a best seller and included such toe-tapping celebrations of the gangster rapper ethos as "Somebody's Gotta Die" and "You're Nobody ('Til Somebody Kills You)."
Everywhere you looked, death in all its "film at 11" local-news glory reared its head. On a stretch of freeway offramp in LA, Bill Cosby's son, Ennis, was killed for no apparent reason other than a botched robbery attempt. In New Jersey, Melissa Drexler, 18, was on the horns of a dilemma: it was prom night and the baby was due. No problem. A quick dash into the ladies room, toss the newborn in the trash bin and head for the dance floor. British nanny Louise Woodward captured our hearts and remote controls for a minute with her weepy explanations about the baby that died in her care. Yes, she shook him a little but, gosh, not that hard. Louise is lucky she found a sympathetic judge. Malcolm X's widow, Betty Shabaz died in a fire set by her obviously misunderstood grandson. John Denver crashed his ultra-light plane into the sea.
In Mexico, drug baron Amado Carrillo Fuentes died undergoing liposuction. Peruvian army commandos burst into the Japanese Embassy compound in Lima with guns blazing and freed 71 hostages while summarily executing all fourteen of the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement guerrillas, including four teenage girls who were trying to surrender. In Africa, one of the worst bloodfests in history came to some sort of conclusion when long-time revolutionary leader Laurent Kabila overthrew the dread Mobutu in Zaire.
Was there ever a less sympathetic defendant than Timothy McVeigh? This guy is the nightmare at the truck stop, a pin-headed loser who hates the guvmint. Nobody on that jury had any doubt that Tim drove the truck that held the bomb that blew up the federal building that killed more people at one time in one place than ever before in America. Next stop for McVeigh: death row.
In Sacramento, as the year closed out the jury was being selected for the Unabomer trial, sure to be 1998's first big courtroom extravaganza. A prediction: the more we learn about math-whiz gone hermit Ted Kasczynski, the more we are gonna really like this guy. The mail bombs are a problem, sure, but the whole technology thing works. In a world where nerds like Bill Gates rule, it's time for a big anti-techno backlash.
On other shores, 1997 was the perfect year for Pol Pot to face the cameras. Convicted in a show trial of being a very bad guy by his own Khmer Rouge followers, Mr. Pol Pot met with a journalist out there in Jungleville, Cambodia, for the first time in almost twenty years. Frail, shaking and ill, the greatest mass murderer since Hitler is evil incarnate. Watching him stagger into view on the evening news might have been the single most chilling media event of the year.
Everything legal wasn't strictly death-related, fortunately. There was the wrangle over the angle of the President's dangle in the prelims to the Paula Jones suit. Can't this just go away? In New York, some of the big city's finest used a toilet plunger as an investigative tool in the case of Haitian immigrant Abner Louima who was only guilty of being run in by some very bad cops in Rudy Giulliani's new zero-tolerance metropolis. And Marvelous Marv Albert went from middling sportscaster to national phenom in the flash of a few love bites. No way this should be news, no way.
But that didn't stop ABC News embarrassment-in-residence Barbara Walters from giving him a prime time platform on which to discuss his public humiliation and subsequent conviction on sexual assault charges. Congratulations, Barbara, you reached a new low in 1997.
OK, Let's Talk About Something Else
Dying may have been everywhere in the popular media but that didn't slow us down. The economy roared, America strutted its bad self and all those smartass Asian "miracle" countries headed for the dunce-corner quicker than you can say corrupt banker. Remember when Japan and Korea were going to bury us with Walkmans and hard work? Take that, Mr. Asian Values.
Still, a little global currency crisis doesn't mean we can't do business, especially with China whose staggering population keeps everybody from Microsoft to McDonalds giddy at the prospect of selling something, anything, to those one-billion-and-counting commie consumers. With longtime supreme leader Deng Xiaoping having expired early this year from complications as a result of being about two hundred years old, Jiang Zemin is now the uncontested boss of all of China. Pretty big job, huh? That must be why he was invited for a state visit to Washington in October. Human rights? Political prisoners? Tienanmen Massacre? Not a bother. Let's be friends.
One weird byproduct of Clinton's dollar diplomacy with his new-found Chinese buddy was that pretty-man actor and born-again Buddhist Richard Gere and Tibetophile Beastie Boy Adam Yauch led public protests and became the voice of America's conscience while Jiang was raising a toast at the White House. Meanwhile, Hollywood at least acknowledged a few, um, problems with China's human rights record in the films Red Corner (Gere as a businessman framed for murder by Beijing), Seven Years in Tibet (Brad Pitt as a good guy Nazi in Shangri-la) and Kundun (Steven Speilberg's blockbuster about the Dalai Lama). Never mind that all of these films strain credibility, it's a hell of a lot better than rolling out the red carpet with nothing but dollar signs for motive.
But of course the Nineties are about nothing if they are not about money, and 1997 was a golden year for the green. And while Wall Street sped along like a runaway bull, who was making the big bucks? Here's a clue: it was not the pimply-faced boy with the nose ring cranking out Frappucinos at the neighborhood Starbucks. The compensation for American CEOs reached record proportions in 1997, according to Business Week magazine, with the average big-company CEO's annual compensation hitting $5.78 million. That's a raise of about 54% over a year earlier. In comparison the average factory worker got a 3 percent raise and makes 209 times less than the top dog.
Good times or bad, the real goodies float right to the top of the bowl.
A Couple of the Living
Bob Dylan didn't die but damned if he didn't flirt with it in dramatic fashion before rebounding. Then he was back on the road, performing everywhere, promoting a new album, doing the whole rock god thing with a dignity that escapes aging dinosaurs like the Rolling Stones, Aerosmith and 70s' bores Fleetwood Mac.
Major image: Bobby and the Pope chilling at the Vatican, singing "Blowing in the Wind" to each other. It was enough to make Catholicism cool. Finally, he caps a great 1997 by releasing Time Out of Mind, the best Dylan album in years and one of the few records he ever made that actually spent time in the top ten. It's haunting, accessible, moody and raw, a reminder that we aren't ready to lose this guy, not yet, please. His genius lives.
Speaking of the non-dead, cocktail man Frank Sinatra is still breathing and his daughter got very irritated at reports to the contrary. When he turned 82 in December, Nancy "These Boots" Sinatra went on Larry King Live to hit out at tabloid and TV journalists who have reported the entertainer was near death. "What really angers me is the carelessness of TV journalists,"' said Nancy. "If Dad watches TV, he's liable to see something or hear something and that's not nice, it's not good and it's not fair." Too bad that all those twenty-something faux hipsters with their flavored martinis, cigars, overpriced cocktail lounges and spaghetti strap dresses couldn't have known Frank in his tuxedo-clad prime.
(By the way, a martini is a splendid cocktail made with gin, a tiny whiff of vermouth and an olive or a lemon twist. It should never be blue, pink or green and it does not contain flavored liqueur. Try a real one sometime, swinger. Do it for Frank.)
Two images dominate the year in sport. First, Mike Tyson bit off a piece of Evander Holyfield's ear in a move that demonstrated boxing's true appeal: blood. "I was just in a zone," explained Mike.
Second, Golden State Warrior bad boy Latrell Sprewell throttled the coach and threatened to kill him. Must have had something to do with Sprewell not getting the proper respect due a man-child who earns more money in a season than a villageful of mortals will make in a lifetime. Isn't it about time this whole sportsmania took a breather? Fans, don't watch. Screw 'em. The teams are greedy, the players are greedy and the whole big-time enterprise is designed to take your money and leave you feeling ripped off. That said, who do you like in the Super Bowl?
Dead Beats and Others We Miss
In keeping with the spirit of the year, a lot of notable souls passed into the ether in 1997 starting with the first day of January when Texas troubadour and songwriting legend Townes van Zandt died of a heart attack. A laconic performer and legendary drunk, Townes was a rare talent, a gifted wordsmith recognized by his peers as one of the best.
Influential Pakistani vocalist and Sufi mystic Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan died of heart failure in London. Singer Laura Nyro died of cancer at the age of 49. A soulful wrier and performer her work has been cited as an inspiration by Suzanne Vega and Tori Amos. In Lagos, Nigeria, AIDS claimed Feli Anikulapo-Kuti, a saxophonist, writer and political activist whose Afro-beat music inspired millions and frequently kept him at odds with the authoritarian rulers of his country.
Painter Willem de Kooning gave it up. Lead singer Brad Nowell of the band Sublime did the heroin chic thing, died of an overdose and then had a hit record. Chicago's first Bozo the clown died. Cool guy extraordinaire Robert Mitchum is gone, as is tough talking poet James Dickey. Even actor Jimmy Stewart is no more.
It was also, sadly, the end of the beats in the flesh. Poet Allen Ginsberg died in Manhattan at the age of 70 while in Lawrence, Kansas, novelist William S. Burroughs succumbed at age 83. One-time lovers and friends for half a century, these two guys challenged and chipped away at the culture with relentless energy and anger. Ginsberg's poem "Howl" and Burrough's most famous masterwork, Naked Lunch, are among the most important American literary works ever created. Both men were the subject of obscenity prosecutions early in their careers and both relentlessly disturbed the placid waters of American life in a way that made art matter.
As Ginsberg once wrote of his friend in the poem "On Burroughs Work":
A naked lunch is natural to us,
we eat reality sandwiches.
But allegories are so much lettuce.
Don't hide the madness."
Web exclusive to the December 24-31, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.
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