A fascinating series of articles has appeared on The Conversation, probing mortality among musicians. All written by the University of Sydney’s Dianna T. Kenny, the first compared the life expectancies of musicians and non-musicians (quelle surprise, musicians lost), and the second examined and debunked the “27 Club” phenomenon. But the third piece is a doozy—it breaks down musician deaths not just by age but by gender and genre. The article is worth reading—all three are, and actually, if you’re not reading The Conversation yet, just get on that already—but this chart sums it up very nicely for the tl;dr crowd:
Notice how there’s very little difference in life expectancy between genders among musicians, as compared to the notably higher life expectancy for women in the non-musician population? Also, can you help but see that HUGE spike in women’s favor correlating with musicians in that nebulously-named “World Music” genre? I can’t even imagine why that might be. I also noted with interest that blues, jazz, and country musicians tended to outlive non-musicians.
One could make all kinds of cracks about how the more socially-disreputable genres punk, metal, and rap/hip-hop have the lowest life expectancies, but recall that those genres haven’t really been around long enough to have all that many elders. Blues, jazz and country have existed long enough to see plenty of their practitioners die of natural causes before metal was even a thing, so that right there could tend to skew the chart in favor of longevity for musicians in the NPR genres. But then, once you get to the cause of death breakdown, you see that, utterly depressingly, homicide accounts for more than half of the deaths in the black genres rap and hip-hop, while the more typically white punks and metalheads’ tendency to die young is attributable to accidents and suicides. And unsurprisingly, musicians in the more venerable genres tend to be taken by diseases of aging.
This is a morbid thought, but this post is about morbidity, so I’m rolling with it: as I’m chiefly a fan of rock music, I was a little disappointed that those ultimate rock death clichés, heroin overdose and small aircraft crash, weren’t given their own categories. In Kenny’s study, overdoses and vehicular incidents both fall under “accident,” and excessive drugs and drink could definitely explain the high number of punk and metal musicians in that category. But back in 1995, in the wake of the Kurt Cobain suicide, that great fount of underground smartassery Motorbooty magazine published “The Rock Death 200,” which similarly (and obviously somewhat cheekily) broke down 200 dead rockers and proto-rockers by age and cause of death. I can’t find it online, and I don’t feel like digging through my basement for it (if memory serves, it was issue #8, and had a blue cover, happy hunting). HOWEVER, the good Christian folk at Dial-the-Truth Ministries have published a list with very similar data, likely as a caution to young members of the flock who may find themselves tempted into sin, debauchery, gambling, ouija boards, organic foods, lots and lots of super-crazy hot nonreproductive fornication, and primetime soaps by The Devil’s Music. Their data collection (and web design) seems to come to a screeching halt in 1998, but interestingly, heart attacks edged out drug overdoses, and cancer took out more rock musicians than plane crashes. Also, drowning > AIDS > fire > choking.
The comedy community of Los Angeles received a profound shock two weeks ago when Parks and Recreation actor and writer Harris Wittels was discovered dead of a probable overdose. Parks and Rec fans will forever remember Wittels as one of Pawnee’s two hilariously incompetent animal control guys. In 2012 he also published Humblebrag: The Art of False Modesty, a very sharp book based on a pretty genius idea.
I actually saw Wittels do standup once. It was 2007, he was just 23 years old, and he appared as part of a comedy show at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater in NYC called “Cavalcade” a friend of mine had organized—the show also featured Joe Mande, Jim Gaffigan, and Anthony Jeselnik. I don’t remember anything about his act. I confess that I found Wittels, as a comedian to follow, kind of confounding; in retrospect I didn’t catch him in his best contexts, and I mistook his giving-zero-fucks and deep hostility towards affectation and insincerity as a sort of laziness. On podcasts I was just beginning to tune into his deeply silly, low-key deadpan style when the news of his death hit the news.
One of the best episodes of any comedy podcast in 2014 came last November, when Wittels made his second appearance on Pete Holmes’ podcast You Made It Weird. After a half-hour of goofing around, Wittels suddenly revealed to Holmes that after “successfully” going through rehab a couple years earlier—which Holmes already knew about—he relapsed pretty badly and had to undergo a whole second, more serious round of rehab, which Holmes had not known about. That comment sparked a wild, hour-plus-long narrative of Wittels’ grueling second descent into addiction hell, a story that is (of course) made all the more powerful and moving because of Wittels’ passing.
Since his death I’ve become increasingly convinced, based on the testimony of Aziz Ansari, Dan Harmon, and others, that we did lose some kind of comic genius last month—one thing I never understand before was just how highly regarded his scriptwriting skills were. Sitcom director Rob Schrab did us all a favor by making a single video out of all of Wittels’ Vines—it takes just a few of the stupid things (there are dozens and dozens of them) to realize how brilliant, in an offhanded way, the guy was. He was clearly a master of the form, much as Humblebrag proves that he was a master of Twitter. Prepare yourself for a barrage of silly accents, facial expressions, loopy puns…. the man was truly a wellspring of cockeyed mirth, and he will be sorely missed.
I was looking through a stack of Fate magazines from the late 60’s and early 70’s that were collecting dust on a built-in bookshelf in my living room the other day when I came across a rather bizarre article about Sharon Tate and a dream she had. The strange anecdote came from Hollywood “man around town” celebrity columnist, Dick Kleiner. According to Kleiner, Sharon Tate had a prophetic dream of her brutal murder by members of the Manson Family at least two years before the tragic incident actually took place.
Now keep in mind if you’re not familiar with Fate that it’s the kind of publication that presents paranormal phenomena, alternative medicine, mental telepathy and the like. Other articles in the same issue are titled “Spirit ‘Possession,’ – Fact or Fallacy?” and “The Prophetic Day the Mirror Fell.” There are classified ads for a “UFO Diet” and a “Teenage Astrologer.” It’s not necessarily the resource you grab when you’re looking do research for your doctoral thesis, but nonetheless, the older copies are odd enough that my wife and I like having some around to pick up from time to time. Fun at parties and all that.
The May, 1970 issue of Fate
So you can make what you will of the story to come considering the source, but if it’s true it’s pretty creepy, and at the very least, a kitschy example of the kind of writing for which Fate is famous.
In the article, called “Sharon Tate’s Preview of Murder,” Kleiner, speaking in the first person, explains that he had interviewed Tate in the past and he planned on doing so again when he showed up on the set of a film (almost certainly The Wrecking Crew) where she was working on August 1, 1968, almost exactly a year before the Manson Family killings on August 9, 1969. Tate recognized Kleiner and invited him into her trailer for the interview. Among the other questions Kleiner asked that day was “Have you ever had psychic experiences?” apparently something that he brought up routinely with every celebrity with whom he spoke as these types of phenomena were of personal interest. Tate’s response, according to Kleiner, was as follows:
Yes, I have had a psychic experience- at least I guess that’s what it was- and it was a terribly frightening and disturbing thing for me. It happened a year or so ago. Maybe you can explain it.
At the time of the August interview in 1968, Tate had been married to Roman Polanski for several months, the two having tied the knot in January of that year. But in order to understand the context of the supposedly prophetic dream, we need to think briefly about Tate’s life at the time of the “mysterious vision.” It would have been sometime around the summer of 1967. At that point, Tate was in a relationship with famous Hollywood hairstylist, Jay Sebring who, not so incidentally, would also be killed in the Manson slaughter. When Tate had the dream, she was sleeping in Sebring’s house while he was away on business in New York. The house, located “right on Benedict Canyon, the street that parallels the canyon itself” (the street is actually called Easton Drive) had previously belonged to Hollywood agent, Paul Bern who was married in the 30’s to Jean Harlow. According to Kleiner, Bern had committed suicide in the house after Harlow left him in 1932, but the facts surrounding Bern’s death are cloudy and there is some debate about the real cause of his demise. Either way, the fact that Bern had died in the house would have been common knowledge in Hollywood circles in 1967.
So Tate, alone in the house and turning in for bed starts experiencing a “funny feeling” that is keeping her from sleeping, all the small noises in the dwelling startling her. She turns on the light in the bedroom and sees “a small man” moving clumsily around the room. She describes the man as looking like every description she had ever heard of Paul Bern. The unexplainable figure is not threatening to Tate, but its mere presence is terrifying to her. (Keep in mind that according to the article, Tate still feels like she’s awake at this point). Tate runs from the room and starts heading down the stairs, and this is where the supposed premonition takes place. From the Kleiner article:
“I saw something or someone tied to the staircase,” she said. “Whoever it was- and I couldn’t tell if it was a man or a woman but knew somehow that it was either Jay Sebring or me-he or she was cut open at the throat.”
At this point, according to Kleiner, Tate heads into “the playroom” looking for a much needed drink. She felt certain that Sebring would have kept liquor in the room but she didn’t know where. Tate senses something (she doesn’t hear a voice) telling her to open a shelf on a bookcase. Inside, she finds a button which she pushes revealing a liquor cabinet. She has a drink, tries to calm down and pinches herself. Upon feeling nothing, Tate, according to the account, is relieved to find that the whole awful experience must just be a dream.
Sharon Tate and Jay Sebring just before their shocking demise
In Kleiner’s retelling, Tate then experiences another sensation compelling her to pull away a strip of wallpaper at the bottom of the bar. Feeling silly, she does so, revealing a brass base. She pinches herself a second time, and she still feels nothing.
Tate, now a little more settled, decides to head back upstairs thinking that she could probably go to sleep. Again, this is supposed to be dream, so the whole thing is a little confusing. Regardless, she heads back upstairs, apparently past the apparition still “gushing blood” AND past the odd little man. Despite all of this, according to the account, she climbs into bed and falls fast asleep.
Cut to the morning when Tate is awakened by Sebring returning from New York. The two nervously laugh about the odd dream and then they have the kind of head-scratcher common to these stories of the “supernatural” when they walk back to the playroom to find the liquor cabinet open and “scraps of wallpaper on the floor.”
I typically don’t put a lot of stock into this kind of thing, but again, one has to admit that if the story of the dream is true it’s pretty strange to say the least. I had honestly never heard this story before, but it turns out that many have made a very big deal of it.
Sebring remained friends with Tate after their breakup and as I mentioned before, he was one of the five people killed by the Manson Family at Tate and Polanski’s rented home on Cielo Drive in 1969. Sebring was still living in the house where Tate’s dream took place at the time of his murder.
I’m not sure where the clip below is from, and the quality is not the best, but it discusses Sebring’s house and Sharon Tate’s dream. At around 3:23 you can hear Dick Kleiner recalling Tate’s recollection of what turned out in retrospect to be a rather chilling vision. After watching the clip, it appears that the Kleiner article had shown up in perhaps a different format in a different publication.
People who knew Don Van Vliet said he had strange gifts, and I’m not talking about his musical talents. Lester Bangs told this story:
Once in Detroit I walked into a theatre through the back door while he was onstage performing. At the precise moment I stepped to the edge of the curtains on stage right, where I could see him haranguing the audience, he said, very clearly, “Lester!” His back was to me at the time. Later he asked me if I had noticed it. I was a little shaken.
And the music historian and critic Robert Palmer reported:
Sitting in the Manhattan living room of the guitarist Gary Lucas, who is the Magic Band’s newest member, Don Van Vliet shut his eyes, squinted, and said, “It’s going to ring.” The telephone rang as if on cue. Mr. Lucas laughed nervously and said that sort of thing happens all the time.
Palmer was one of a number of journalists who met with Van Vliet at Lucas’ apartment in the autumn and winter of 1980. Van Vliet was giving interviews there on the night of December 8 when John Lennon was shot outside the Dakota. Lucas recalls:
In the middle of an interview, at eight or nine o’clock as I remember, Don said, “Wait a minute, man, did you hear that?’ He put his hand over his ear, but we didn’t hear anything. He said, “Something really heavy just went down. I can’t tell you what it is exactly, but you will read about it on the front page of the newspapers tomorrow.” We said, “Well, what?” and he said, “I dunno.” Then the guy left and another journalist came. We were in the middle of another interview and about eleven, the first guy called me and said, “Did you hear the news? Something just happened, John Lennon was shot.” And I couldn’t believe it. It really seemed like Don predicted this. So I told him and he just looked at me and went, “See? Didn’t I tell you?” That was really eerie.
Richard “Midnight Hatsize” Snyder, the Magic Band member who played bass, marimba and viola on Ice Cream for Crow, gave a similar account of that evening’s events in a 1996 interview:
While we were in New York, Don was being interviewed by some magazine on the night that John Lennon was killed. At one point during the interview, Don stopped speaking, closed his eyes and then opened them again, saying to the interviewer: “Something big is happening tonight—something horrible. You’ll read about it in your papers tomorrow.” Knowing full well that the doubting Thomases among you will say: “Ah, yes—but he wasn’t specific about the event. The way the world is, you could say something like that any day and still be right more times than not.” Nevertheless, it was the strangest coincidence—if indeed, that was all it was.
A Beefheart fan who was in the audience at the Captain’s Irving Plaza show the following night writes that Van Vliet opened the set with a soprano sax solo, which he dedicated to Sean Lennon: “That was from John, through Don, for Sean.”
For his part, Lennon was a fan of Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band’s debut album, Safe As Milk. Note the “Safe As Milk” stickers prominently displayed on the cabinet doors in the sunroom of Kenwood, the house where Lennon lived from 1964 to 1968.
Below, video of Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band’s set at the Mudd Club on December 10, 1980:
Bela Lugosi was perhaps the first Hollywood star to openly admit to his drug addiction. Lugosi had become dependent on drugs after being prescribed opiates for relief of painful sciatica in the late 1940s. As his habit grew, his career slid into shitsville Z-list movies and his dope fiend reputation kept producers from hiring the legendary actor. Lugosi was forced into making his money through repertory tours in the US and England and special guest appearances on late-nite TV and double bills at the local movie theater.
Living the junkie life in direst poverty, Lugosi was given the chance of a comeback by the infamous Ed Wood, who offered the actor work on Glen or Glenda and Bride of the Monster. Grateful for the chance to turn his life around, Lugosi checked himself into a rehab clinic, before moving onto the local hospital. Lugosi went “cold turkey” and spent three months (90 days was the state minimum) getting straight. When he left the hospital in 1955, he gave what is thought to be his last filmed interview, where he talked about his drug treatment, his plans for a new film with Ed Wood and how he felt like a million dollars. The feeling wasn’t to last, by August 1956, the legendary Bela Lugosi was dead.
Yesterday, the best-selling author and neuroscientist Colleen McCullough died at the age of seventy-seven. McCullough was one of Australia’s best-known and most popular novelists, whose success was firmly established with the publication of her second novel The Thorn Birds in 1977. It was later made into a highly successful TV miniseries starring Richard Chamberlain. McCullough followed on her success with a string of bestsellers including An Indecent Obsession (1981), The Ladies of Missalonghi (1987), The Touch (2003) and her Masters of Rome series of historical novels. McCullough’s books have sold in excess of 30 million copies.
But McCullough had originally studied medicine before successfully moving into neuroscience and becoming a respected teacher at the Department of Neurology at the Yale Medical School in New Haven, CT.
By any standard, most people would be content with just one of McCullough’s incredible careers, and one would think that a national newspaper like The Australian might write a glowing obituary, eulogizing this talented and brilliant Australian woman. Well, most of us would, but that’s not what The Australian decided to focus on when writing her obituary, instead they considered her most relevant attributes as being “plain of feature, and certainly overweight,” though she was also “a charmer.”
It’s dispiriting to think how this ever got past the paper’s sub editor’s desk—unless of course the paper is completely staffed by sexist idiots—which, who knows, perhaps it is? What is more disturbing and inexcusable is how a woman of such great achievement should be so casually demeaned and undervalued.
Thankfully, it’s not all doom and gloom as the stupidity of the Australian’s obituary has seen an amusing response from the Twittersphere, where people (including writers Caitlin Moran, Neil Gaiman, Joanne Harris and comedians Katy Brand and Craig Ferguson) have been tweeting their own mock obituaries (#myozobituary), which you can read below.
#myozobituary would be “Although she grew a disappointing arse, she nonetheless got laid & won awards."
If it’s true that all’s fair in love and war, then it’s the share of the spoils after death and divorce that cause the most problems.
When Charlie’s Angels actress Farrah Fawcett died in June 2009, her will donated all of her art collection to the University of Texas—her old alma mater where she had studied before becoming an actress. Amongst Farrah’s treasured possessions was a portrait painted by Andy Warhol in 1980. This was in fact one of two paintings Warhol had made of the actress—the second was very soon to become the focus of a trial between the University of Texas and Fawcett’s ex-lover, the actor Ryan O’Neal.
O’Neal’s claim to the second painting rested on his testimony that he had first introduced Farrah to Warhol and had asked him to paint Fawcett’s portrait. He also claimed he had asked Warhol to make a second portrait so he and Farrah could have one each.
Andy Warhol shoots Farrah Fawcett.
In 1997, Fawcett split-up with O’Neal after she caught him in bed with another woman. O’Neal kept his portrait of Farrah above his bed, but as his girlfriends found the picture a tad off-putting, he asked Fawcett to hold on to it for him.
This Fawcett did until her death, when O’Neal removed the 40-inch by 40-inch silkscreen from her house. This action led to a trial between O’Neal and the University in December 2013 as to who was the rightful owner of the Warhol painting.
During the trial lawyers acting on behalf of the University of Texas attempted to discredit O’Neal’s story by using an edition ABC’s 20/20 where Fawcett is apparently seen asking Warhol to paint her portrait and is later filmed by the ABC news crew as Warhol snaps thirty Polaroid pictures of the actress in preparation for making the portrait.
O’Neal did not dispute that one of the Warhol’s belonged to his former long-term partner, it was the second painting that he claimed was his. Without any evidence to dispute this claim, the University were unlikely to win the case. O’Neal upped the ante by telling the jury he spoke to Farrah’s portrait every day:
“I talk to it. I talk to her. It’s her presence in my life and her son’s life. We lost her. It would seem a crime to lose it.”
O’Neal was on an operating table having a skin cancer removed when he heard the jury’s verdict that he was the rightful owner of the painting by nine jurors to three. Though the painting has an estimated worth of $12 million, O’Neal said he would never sell the picture as it meant too much to him, and it will be handed-down to their son Redmond after he dies.
This is that episode of 20/20 which featured so prominently in the trial. Originally made as a profile of Andy Warhol this short documentary does give some insight into the pop artist’s working techniques and has some typically Warholian moments.
As astonishing awfulness goes, pet memorial videos from petphotofun.com have a TON of poor-taste bases covered, all crammed in to an uncomfortable interstice between bathos, death, and cute animal pics. Pet Photo Fun specializes in animating pet photos, so your adorable furry companion appears to be speaking or singing. They’ll do this with customized messages, so for example you can send your best pal a birthday e-card featuring his or her favorite quadruped companion singing a birthday tribute.
Prepare yourself for a gainer into a bottomless well of impossible mawkishness.
Ain’t that somethin’? The digital pitch-shifting applied to the “animal” voice just ramps the discomfort factor up through the roof. So take that level of delirious, treacly maudlinism and apply it to a creepily animated photo of a deceased pet delivering its lifetime human companion a message from beyond the grave. For $30, the pet will sing Pet Photo Fun’s purpose-composed and heavy-handed original song “Think of Me and Smile.” For $60, the song will be delivered with an additional personalized message.
I realize that as tacky and ghoulish as this all is, there are folks out there who’d be genuinely moved to receive one, and I wouldn’t dream of invalidating their grief, but all things being equal, when her time comes, I’d be perfectly happy with my dog’s picture just in a frame.
When Robin Williams died in August, one of the most unexpected eulogies came from JJ Burnel, the bassist and singer in the Stranglers, who says that he and Williams struck up a friendship in the early 80s. Burnel writes that Williams visited England in 1982 and stayed at the house of drummer Jet Black, where the Stranglers were rehearsing the songs for Feline. Williams then stayed at Burnel’s house in Cambridgeshire, where the comedian and his first wife, Valerie Velardi, reportedly conceived their son Zak. Burnel remembers:
It is with great sadness that I woke up on Tuesday 12th of August to learn of the death of Robin Williams, the actor, comedian, musician and all round genius.
The word genius is often too readily used but having known the man I can vouchsafe the term is appropriate in his case.
I met him through a girlfriend of mine in the early eighties. She had met him in Los Angeles through a film cameraman called Dave Stump, a friend with whom he played in a band. At the time he had just become famous through a tv series called Mork and Mindy and the film Popeye.
When the Stranglers were to play on the west coast of the US he had invited me to stay at his house on his ranch in the Napa valley. He was a wonderful host and I soon started to appreciate his fame when I went out to dinner with him in San Francisco and saw the effect he had on a whole restaurant when he entertained them as a distraction to afford us, his guests, a diversion from the attention.
I reciprocated the gesture when he flew over to Europe with his then wife Val and met him at Heathrow. The Stranglers were in the middle of preparing Feline at Jet’s house in the west country and he was going to hang out with us at Jet’s and then come over to my house in Cambridgeshire for a few days.
Every evening we would stop rehearsals to go down to a local pub before resuming work. He would come down with us and that was when we would discover the multiple personalities and the continuous flow of ideas and comic repartee that had us all in stitches. He would literally have conversations with himself and the other personalities he inhabited.
After a week at Jet’s I drove him over to my house. I would like to think that it was the laid back atmosphere on the Fens that allowed him to conceive his son Zak at my house in the summer of 1982. At least that’s what his wife told me later.
After that, as his Hollywood career took off, he would call me whenever he was in London.
Over the years we lost touch but I have nothing but very fond memories of a very talented and genuine person.
If it is true as to the way of his death it is only testimony to his great sensibility and humanity and the world is a much poorer place for his disappearance.
The Stranglers’ original vocalist and guitarist, Hugh Cornwell, devoted two pages of his 2004 book A Multitude of Sins to memories of encounters with singer Robbie Williams, drummer Robert Williams, and comedian Robin Williams. Cornwell’s account would put Robin Williams’ visit with the Stranglers about a year earlier than Burnel’s, but Zak was born in 1983, so Cornwell is either mistaken about which album they were working on or recalling a separate visit.
I’m jogging with Robin Williams in Gloucestershire. John Burnel has met him somewhere at a celebrity dinner and he’s come down to hang out with us while we rehearse before recording the La Folie album. He’s a lovely bloke and expresses a desire to come running with me first thing every morning. He’s in good shape and is keeping up with me, even though I’ve been doing it regularly. He’s a bundle of energy and constantly comes up with funny life observations. Jet’s got a souped-up Fiesta with lots of lights mounted on the front bumper and Robin asks me if he has to pull a trailer carrying a battery for the extra lights.
The emotional trauma caused by the death of a loved one can cause humans to grieve in some tragic and bizarre ways. I was once at a funeral where a distraught wife attempted to hurl herself on top of her husband’s coffin as it was lowered into the ground. This is nothing compared to the poor grief-stricken 55-year-old German woman who slept beside the mummified remains of her dead mother at their home in the suburb of Blumenau, Munich, for five years.
As The Local reports, neighbors became suspicious over the mother’s disappearance and contacted authorities. A local social worker then tried several times by telephone to arrange a visit to the daughter, but was fobbed off with various excuses. The social worker then decided to visit the apartment in person.
When the daughter wouldn’t open the door, he called the police. They and the fire service were able to get the door open and discovered the body inside in a double bed which the daughter had been sharing.
The daughter later admitted during questioning that her mother had died during March of 2009. She has been sent to a psychiatric institution.
An autopsy produced no evidence of foul play in the mother’s death.
Sleeping with the bodies of dead partners or relatives is not that uncommon. In 2013, New York police made a grim discovery when they visited the apartment of 28-year-old Chava Stirn, where they found the distraught young woman had been living with the skeletal remains of her dead mother. Stirn would sleep beside her mother’s remains she had placed on a chair. She would also lay the body on the table during meal times.
The body of Marcel H.
In 2013, Belgian police discovered a 69-year-old woman had been sleeping with the mummified remains of her dead 79-year-old husband, Marcel H. for almost a year. The woman had been too distraught to notify the authorities over her husband’s demise after an asthma attack and had kept him in bed. The police were only notified after the woman had failed to pay her rent.
Le Van, a 55-year-old Vietnamese man, exhumed his dead wife, wrapped her in a paper effigy, and slept with the corpse for five years.
Le Van and his dead wife.
In 2003, Xie Yuchen was found to have slept with his dead wife for eight years, after she died of a cerebral haemorrhage in 1995, while a woman in Argentina traveled to Mexico to sleep in the mausoleum of her dead husband. She told police:
“When you love someone, you do all sorts of things.”