Michael Jackson was only 50 when he died on June 25. Claude Lévi-Strauss was 100 when he passed on October 30. Jackson was undoubtedly the more famous of the two, a household name all over the planet. Anthropologist Lévi-Strauss's name is known to a small fraction of the planet's better-educated citizens, but few 20th-century thinkers have as profoundly influenced the way we understand ourselves as a species. Can it be said that one or the other's influence was greater, or that their life mattered more?
Maybe it could, but we're not gonna start that argument here. The point is, fame does not necessarily equal influence in the grand scheme of things. Plenty of people who were famous in one way or another died over the course of 2009 with all the fanfare befitting their Q ratings. But we want to remember a few of the less celebrated citizens of the world who helped shape it in a way disproportionate to the size of their renown. They each deserve a public RIP in some way, and here it is.
Most writers would gladly settle for one great book. Yeah, yeah, yeah — it'd be great to have a long and prosperous career, cranking out celebrated genre works that get adapted into movies — and maybe even write a movie yourself. But if you get right down to it, any writer wouldn't mind creating one novel featuring one character who becomes unforgettable from the first page.
Donald Westlake had audacity to have both those careers. Westlake — who passed December 31, 2008, in Mexico, en route to a New Year's Eve dinner at the age of 75 — cranked out crime stories at a pace that should make most writers hate him. From 1960, when his debut, The Mercenaries, was published through to his death, Westlake cranked out more than 90 novels and an untold number of short stories, some under his own name, some under one of his many pen names. Most of these were crime/mystery stories — for which he was eventually awarded three Edgar awards — although, like many genre writers, he also dabbled in other forms like sci-fi. One of his most accessible serial creations, the comically bumbling criminal planner John Dortmunder, became the source of seven screen adaptations. Westlake himself even got a chance to write a screenplay, adapting Jim Thompson's The Grifters for director Stephen Frears' 1990 movie, earning an Oscar nomination in the process.
Born in Brooklyn, Westlake spent most of his life in upstate New York. The Dortmunder series became known among mystery writers and readers as one of the funniest in a genre better known for cold-bloodedness. Marrying wisecracking humor with meticulous plotting, Westlake finely honed the idea of screwball noir. And from the many interviews he gave over the course of his career, the man comes off as an instantly likable and gregarious talker — the ideal interview subject.
All of which makes Westlake's most indelible creation so fascinating. In 1962, Westlake, under the pseudonym Richard Stark, created one of the most compellingly repugnant characters in contemporary fiction. In The Hunter, an amoral criminal known only by the name Parker is left for dead by his double-crossing partner Mal. The entire novel is Parker's methodical, almost stoically self-righteous bloody path up through the ranks of a New York crime outfit to get back the $45,000 he feels he's owed. Parker is not a verbally gifted or especially likable main character, more this unknowable blunt force who knows what he wants and will stop at nothing to get it.
Parker became the recurring character in a Stark series, but none of the subsequent novels pack The Hunter's brutal precision, ingenious structure and circuitous moral clarity. It's so well plotted it's been the source of two entertaining screen adaptations — John Boorman's 1967 Point Blank with Lee Marvin is the most cinematically arresting — and so tightly conceived not even Mel Gibson could muck it up when he starred in 1999's Payback. Parker is the sort of character who brands himself onto the reader's brain, and The Hunter is that sort of one book on which a literary reputation can hang. Westlake, bless him, had five careers' worth of output still in his tank. — Bret McCabe
NEVER GIVE UP
In 1951, while American fight fans argued about whether Ezzard Charles or Rocky Marciano was the world's greatest fighter, a 5-foot-9, 160-pound Brazilian named Helio Gracie made fight history by losing badly to a Japanese judo champion named Masahiko Kimura, who weighed about 180.
Kimura had told all of Brazil that if Gracie could withstand even three minutes in the ring with him, Gracie should be considered the winner. And, as Gracie admitted more than 40 years later, Kimura did render him unconscious almost immediately. "If Kimura had continued to choke me, I would have died for sure," Gracie told a 1994 interviewer. "But since I didn't give up, Kimura let go of the choke and went into the next technique. Being released from the choke and the pain from the next technique revived me and I continued to fight. Kimura went to his grave without ever knowing the fact that I was finished."
Gracie went 13 minutes and got his arm broken, but it was his older brother, Carlos, who stopped the fight.
As a slight, thin boy, growing up in his older brother's shadow in Rio de Janeiro, Helio Gracie adapted Carlos's jiujitsu techniques to require the least amount of power, in a bid to allow the weak to beat the strong. His techniques, combined with an indomitable spirit, distilled into a fighting system now known worldwide as Brazilian jiujitsu. From the start, he aimed for fame, deploying both technique and temper. In 1932, at age 19, he brutalized a famous wrestler who insulted him; he was imprisoned for assault, only to be pardoned by the president of Brazil. Gracie's challenge matches against practitioners of other fighting styles, begun in the 1950s, birthed the modern sport of mixed martial arts and the billion-dollar brand name we call Ultimate Fighting Championships, launched by Helio's son Rorion and an ad man named Art Davie in 1993. They sold the franchise in 1995.
The Gracie family's legend eventually outgrew their deeds. In martial-arts circles, stories still circulate claiming that Helio Gracie arrived in the United States in the early 1990s with $1 million challenge for anyone who could defeat one of his sons. The actual scenario — a $100,000 wager that former kickboxing champion Benny "the Jet" Urquidez could not beat Royce Gracie — never came off. Another challenge from then 80-year-old Helio to "Judo" Gene LaBell was scuttled when LaBell, who was more than 60 years old and 200 pounds, said he could not trim down to Helio's 140-pound weight class.
Braggart, showman, sometime brawler, Gracie polarized opinion, first in Brazil and later in the United States, where his son Royce became the first Ultimate Fighting Champion. Gracie's wife Vera and his nine children carry on the family name and traditions. He died January 29. — Edward Ericson Jr.
SHE'S WITH THE BANNED
If you've read The Catcher in the Rye or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, you might have librarian Judith Krug to thank. Hell, if you've used the dictionary — which has actually been removed from school library shelves for bad language — you should light a candle for Krug, the patron saint of not caving to censorship.
Krug, née Fingeret, grew up in the Pittsburgh area with parents who didn't believe in stifling children's interests. When her mother found a young Krug reading a book about sex with a flashlight in the dark, she simply requested Krug turn on the light so she didn't hurt her eyes. She married in the early 1960s and had two children of her own, to whom her anti-censorship stance also applied. "I didn't care what my kids read as long as they were reading," she told the Chicago Tribune in 2002.
Krug became the director of the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom at its founding in 1967, and two years later helped create the Freedom to Read Foundation, an independent group that provides funding for legal aid in First Amendment cases. For the next 40 years, Krug fought tirelessly to block censorship at every turn.
It may not seem like such a big deal — who bans books these days, right? It turns out a lot of people try. In 1982, as the evangelical Christian group the Moral Majority came into prominence, there were more than 1,000 attempts to remove books from libraries every year; the number is currently around 500. But it isn't just the Christian Right that wants to take books off the shelves. The left has complained about the use of the n-word in Huckleberry Finn and the misogyny of American Psycho.
Some of the books that people have tried to ban include the Harry Potter series, Of Mice and Men, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Brave New World. Krug even got a complaint about a sewing pattern book called Making It With Mademoiselle, because the title sounded dirty. In 1982, she founded Banned Books Week to promote awareness and celebrate the fact that these and thousands of other books are still available.
Keeping books on shelves wasn't Krug's only fight. She stood up against a 1996 attempt to censor the Internet in libraries, seeing the medium's importance at a time when only about 20 percent of households in the United States had access. The fight went all the way to the Supreme Court, where a statute prohibiting "indecent" materials from being transmitted online was struck down, though a later battle against filters blocking objectionable materials on library computers was less successful. And when the Patriot Act was passed in October 2001, Krug and her fellow librarians stood up and said no — and not in a quiet library voice, either — insisting that the government should not have access to library records.
Krug died on April 11 from stomach cancer at age 69. Hopefully, others will fight as hard and as successfully as she did, because the right to free speech is under-appreciated and frighteningly fragile. As Krug told The Washington Post in 1981, "I hate to say it, but I'm not sure we could pass the First Amendment today in this country." — Anna Ditkoff
A DIFFERENT DRUMMER
Backing up a legend is a sure-fire road to obscurity. That's where drummer Rashied Ali found himself in the mid-1960s when he started playing with John Coltrane, taking over the drum stool previously occupied by Elvin Jones, who since 1960 had anchored one of the most innovative and celebrated quartets in jazz history.
Born Robert Patterson in Philadelphia in 1935 to a musical family (his mother and four sisters played piano; his father's cousin is drummer Charlie Rice), Ali honed his chops while playing through his stint in the Army. Back home, he worked with early R&B and blues acts like Dick Hart and the Heartaches and Big Maybelle before hooking up with other with Philly-based jazzmen like trumpeter Lee Morgan and organist Don Patterson.
By the early 1960s, Ali started forging his own vocabulary, an open and propulsive sound, and after moving to New York in 1963, he spent the decade gigging with some of the players who would open up jazz idioms into freer forms: Albert Ayler, Gary Bartz, Paul Bley, Marion Brown, Don Cherry, Bill Dixon, Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp and James Blood Ulmer.
It was with Coltrane, though, that Ali's approach fully bloomed. Ali played with Coltrane only during the last two years of the saxophonist's life, 1965-67, but those were arguably two of the most prolific and probing years of any 20th-century artist's career: a flabbergasting 23 albums date from this period. Not all were released during Coltrane's lifetime, and Ali played on only nine, but those albums —like Meditations and the epic Live in Japan — document a consistently progressing artist at his most experimental. Ali didn't swing like Jones — nobody could swing like Jones — but his multidirectional drive and responsive ear made him a sympathetic partner to this period in Coltrane's work, when music from other cultures was influencing the saxophonist's approach and he embraced a more internally investigative attitude in his soloing.
Interstellar Space, a 1967 duo recording between Ali and Coltrane that wasn't released until 1974, captures their musical relationship, as this suite of cosmic recordings mines an imaginative territory of breathtaking emotional ambition. It was this torch — jazz as spiritual exercise — that Ali carried until a heart attack claimed his life August 12 at the age of 74. Not for nothing was Ali often tapped by reedsmen for their heavyweight odysseys; check out Charles Gayle's 1991 Touchin' on Trane or David Murray's 1993 Body and Soul — and Ali's skillful presence powered such exploratory groups as Phalanx, By Any Means, Prima Materia and, most recently, his own Rashied Ali Quintet. He never tired of giving himself to the music, and his exploratory sound continues to open third eyes. — McCabe
AMERICA'S HARDCORE SWEETHEART
Long before Paris Hilton or Pamela Anderson gave their first video blowjobs, there was Marilyn Chambers. She scandalized pre-Internet America and will be remembered as porn's first and arguably best-known mainstreamer.
Born Marilyn Ann Briggs in 1952, Chambers aspired to be a model and actress during her Connecticut childhood, a dream her parents neither supported nor encouraged. She scored her first big modeling gig posing as a young mother for the packaging of Ivory Snow detergent. After landing bit parts in the utterly forgettable 1970 Barbra Streisand vehicle The Owl and the Pussycat and the indie nudie Together, her parents still were not impressed. Artie and Jim Mitchell, however, were apparently impressed enough to offer her a non-sexual role in their ambitious 1972 art-porn film Behind the Green Door. As filming progressed, Chambers was enticed to take her clothes off and change her life forever for $25,000 and a promised one percent of the film's earnings.
Chambers' appeal wasn't so much that she had the all-American or girl-next-door look; it's more like she was the first in the industry to not look like she belonged in the industry. Today, it's difficult to imagine what it must have been like seeing a face found in every grocery store in the country — wholesome, holding an infant — suddenly appear on adult-theater screens doing full-on, rape-fantasy, interracial porno. But Behind the Green Door was a smash, as men (and women) were drawn to check out the new wave of artistic porn. The film eventually earned a reported $50 million, and by 1981 it was playing in VCRs across the land. (Predictably, Chambers saw little or none of her cut.)
Chambers was among the first actresses to attempt — and fail at — the transition out of porn. In 1977, filmmaker David Cronenberg, unable to get his first choice, Sissy Spacek, tapped Chambers for the lead in his second low-budget feature. Her performance in Rabid, a body-transformation/zombie thriller, earned her some good reviews and the respect of her director, but it didn't win her more straight-film parts.
In the early '80s, in between filming hardcore, softcore and the occasional non-sex role, Chambers was harassed while performing her live nude act at the Mitchells' O'Farrell Theater by then-mayor of San Francisco Diane Feinstein, who was on a bender to rid the city of strippers. Her Feinstein run-in may have inspired her performance in her 1999 comeback, Still Insatiable, in which she plays an anti-porn crusading senator who ends up sucked into the world she's crusading against.
Though angry that her straight career never took off and out of hardcore by 2001, she would still attend adult-film awards events. But when asked in 2004 if she would recommend working in porn she said, "Absolutely not! It's heartbreaking ... It leaves you kind of empty." She died on April 12 of a heart-disease-related aneurysm, 10 days before her 57th birthday. — Joe Tropea
Most of the time, people show up in these year-end obit round-ups because of something they've contributed to the world. Allen Klein is notable in large part for what he took from it. As an accountant and manager for 1960s soul and pop acts, including Sam Cooke, the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, he proved himself a tough negotiator on his clients' behalf. At the same time, he sometimes wound up owning the rights to the work they created, and often left strife and lawsuits in his wake. What he gave was the archetype of the grasping, shady manager.
Born in Newark in 1931, Klein spent much of his childhood in an orphanage. After earning a degree in accounting, he set his sights on the entertainment business. His early specialty was combing through record companies' ledgers and finding money owed to artists, which won him grateful clients like pop singer Bobby Darin and gospel-turned-soul star Cooke. The latter took on Klein as his manager and was rewarded with an unprecedented record deal. (Klein's company, ABKCO, purchased the rights to Cooke's music after the singer's 1964 death.)
Already working with British pop acts, Klein landed the Rolling Stones as management clients in 1965. Impressed by the burly, unpolished Klein's reputation for toughness, and by the fat paydays he'd won for the Stones, John Lennon suggested he take over the Beatles' finances after longtime manager Brian Epstein died in 1967. Paul McCartney was against the idea, but the other two Beatles sided with Lennon, sealing the deal and driving a wedge. People may believe Yoko Ono broke up the Beatles but blaming Klein makes more sense.
The Stones, distrustful of Klein's own accounting, eventually tried to extricate themselves and ended up in a lawsuit that won him rights to all of the band's music recorded before 1971. While he wound up with no Beatles rights himself, Klein uncharacteristically failed to secure for Lennon and McCartney the up-for-grabs rights to their early songs — the lucrative publishing eventually snapped up by Michael Jackson. After Klein helped ex-Beatle George Harrison organize the charitable Concert for Bangladesh in 1971, questions arose about his handling of the proceeds, leading to a brief prison sentence for tax evasion.
All the legal wrangling cooled Klein's management career, but he remained a formidable force through rights controlled by ABKCO. He kept the music of '60s pop label Cameo-Parkway — artists ranging from Chubby Checker to ? and the Mysterians — out of print for decades. He prevented the release of legendary 1968 concert film The Rolling Stones' Rock and Roll Circus until 1996. After funding Alejandro Jodorowsky's 1973 cult classic The Holy Mountain, Klein feuded with the director and withdrew all of Jodorowsky's early films from circulation until 2004. A snippet of a Stones tune that wound up in the Verve's 1997 song "Bitter Sweet Symphony" led to a legal battle that won ABKCO 100 percent of the royalties from the international hit. ABKCO sued rapper Lil Wayne over a similar Stones bite in 2008
Klein died of complications from Alzheimer's Disease on July 4, but ABKCO, now reportedly run by Klein's son Jody, still controls an enormous chunk of rock-era creativity. And Klein might ultimately be best remembered by the various bits of rock-era creativity that seem to revile him, usually created by artists he represented. "Well, your teeth are clean but your mind is capped," John Lennon sang in his song "Steel and Glass." "You leave your smell like an alley cat." — Lee Gardner
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