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The Big Sleep

Villains or heroes, those remembered in the pages of the Weekly made a difference. Some excerpts from 20 years of obituaries:

John Lennon, 1940–1980

(December 12, 1980)

In addition to being a great artist, he was a great man. He went the distance from a teenager who beat up on his girlfriends to a 40-year-old man who had the courage to register every vulnerability. For integrity, the pure heart-fire of integrity, the clarity that is the ultimate purpose and gift of integrity, the only public male who can stand with John Lennon is Malcolm X. (Malcolm X who, like John Lennon, was only shot after he had conquered the violence in himself, making speeches about ballots instead of bullets.) . . .

There is what used to be called a dialectic afoot in the country again. And the eulogies of Lennon — even from heads of state, I can’t get over it — the eulogies of Lennon have in a single night legitimized once again a mix of memories, emotions and ideals that have lately been disdainfully dumped as "the ’60s." There is a quiet fierceness to the mourning, and it is a celebration of discarded, discredited values. Values much needed, especially now. Right now. For our hearts have been wrenched, and the feeling is not all bad, not at all. We are coming together in a common memory — even people too young to remember are getting the memory through this, but really feeling it. We’re feeling like family again.

And it’s too late to worry about the price.

—Michael Ventura

Darby Crash, 1958–1980

(December 12, 1980)

The self-inflicted death of Darby Crash this past Sunday has sent major shock waves through the remnants of L.A.’s original punk community. In its effect, it is comparable to the shock people are feeling about John Lennon’s assassination. Though the comparison might seem preposterous to some, Darby was a definite figurehead, a symbol to a lot of kids in much the same way James Dean was a symbol to a generation of frustrated teenagers, a person who was struggling to find his way out of the void even as he fell deeper into it. Those who grieve for Lennon mourn the passing of a poet, the voice of a generation. Those who grieve for Darby mourn an anti-poet for an anti-scene, and the passing of a major writing talent that had only started to show its full potential.

Most of Darby’s friends don’t want to talk about him right now — it’s as if there’s an unspoken conspiracy of silence. Mainly, they don’t want him exploited or manipulated by a media they felt never understood him or his band, the Germs, in the first place. Some people are paranoid because his death did involve hard drugs, and they fear police interrogation. Whatever the reasons for silence — respect of privacy, paranoia, grief — the fact remains that 22-year-old Jan Paul Beahm alias Bobby Pyn alias Darby Crash has died, and that his death is symbolic of the passing of the initial L.A. punk rock scene.

—Craig Lee

Abbie Hoffman, 1936–1989

(April 21, 1989)

First, and most simply, Abbie was the one who was known. More than anyone else, he made the anti-war movement the TV show that everyone watched. If this sounds shallow, think of what might well have happened if the anti-war movement had not become a TV show. So long as politics is just politics, most people can avoid it. Abbie was the fusing figure who linked the New Left’s ideological principles with the counterculture’s pleasure principle — endowing one with imaginative expansiveness, and the other with unexpected purpose. But beyond that, Abbie the media-age native son, in love with the incongruities, shock effects and shared languages of democratic culture, also found for left politics a serendipitous paternity in pop culture in general, which is to say, in the Amercian mainstream.

—Tom Carson

Craig Lee, 1954–1991

(October 18, 1991)

Lee, a Weekly writer and music editor, and co-author of Hardcore California: A History of Punk and New Wave, died of an AIDS-related illness.

He was a Hollywood kid whose office wall bore a movie still of his B-movie actress mother aiming a ray gun. Born in Ventura County, Craig was educated at Interlochen Academy in Michigan and later at CalArts. But his real education was in the world of punk bands and dark motives that once was the L.A. punk scene. The environment was one of an outrageous, pre-viral party of innocent decadence, of sex and drugs and rock & roll on a scale that makes today’s Strip rockers look like they’re out on a Sunday-school picnic showing their little tattoos and piercings to everyone in the park. In a milieu of dark clothes, dark humor, dark music and parking-lot parties — amid the sometimes poetic, more often crude and stupid shock of punk — Craig was a familiar sight, his expression one of bemused, furrowed puzzlement, like a punk cartoon of Charlie Brown.

 

—Brendan Mullen,

Stuart Timmons

and Geza X

Bette Davis, 1908–1989

(October 13, 1989)

Those huge, baggy, dark eyes, sullen lips and that moonlike face made Davis, along with Joan Crawford, the campiest of screen beauties (she’s been mimicked, quoted and lampooned endlessly over the years). And with her drawling, sardonic voice, she could easily tailor her screen persona to villainous roles, which she was far from reluctant to play. This Massachusetts Yankee, tart-tongued and imperious both on and off the screen, understood that evil women got the meatiest scripts, and she played them all with palpable appetite, from the brutal waitress Mildred in Of Human Bondage, to the manipulative matriarch in The Little Foxes, to the crazed Hollywood has-been in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? She was the very embodiment of a woman with power and resources.

—Ella Taylor

Cesar Chavez, 1927–1993

(April 30, 1993)

For many Americans — Latino or not — Chavez was the first Chicano: the dark brown skin of the farm worker, the accent of a first-generation immigrant, the militancy of a young man ready to overcome the acquiescence of generations past. And because of his nonviolent philosophy, Chavez, unlike the Brown Berets, was afforded political space in the dialogue. The famous photograph of Bobby Kennedy sitting alongside Chavez in ’68 was the epitome of the promise of the era — that liberals and progressives of all colors would unite and change history.

Despite its wane in recent years, the UFW’s successes will stand out in history: the first contracts with growers, the ban of DDT and other crop pesticides, the political voice won by a voiceless underclass. Yet the death of Cesar Chavez marks the end of an era of organizing. The UFW wasn’t the only union hard hit by the union-busting ’80s. Nationwide, labor’s influence has diminished dramatically; working conditions have worsened for campesinos and urban workers alike. The question is who will speak for them.

—Rubén Martínez

Kurt Cobain, 1967–1994

(April 15, 1994)

After leaving the park where mourners had gathered near Cobain’s house in Seattle, Gina Arnold went to the top of the Space Needle to observe the scene.

Meanwhile, down in the fountain, shirtless boys, their skin covered in candle-wax decorations, and wet-haired girls, oblivious to the weather, stood on the structure in the center, holding their candles aloft and chanting, defiantly, at the pain of this tragic life. And what did they chant? That should be obvious. They chanted, "Asshole, asshole, asshole, asshole, asshole, asshole, ASSHOLE." You could hear their gleeful voices all the way up on the ä observation deck of the Space Needle. They sounded like a prayer.

—Gina Arnold

Richard Nixon, 1913–1994

(April 29, 1994)

In life the single most prolific source of sententious horseshit in American politics, Richard Nixon in death has become the occasion for sententious horseshit in others. Above all, his revisionist defenders miss what was most distinctive about the man: a genius for divisiveness that coarsened American political discourse and has crippled government to this very day.

—Harold Meyerson

Jac Zinder, 1961–1994

(December 9, 1994)

Zinder, a Weekly writer, died in a car accident on Thanksgiving night.

My friend Jac Zinder lived on a level that didn’t intersect with conversations about immigration, citizenship, nativism. And if you asked him what the Korean comedian he was urging you to check out was saying, he’d snort and answer, "I don’t fuckin’ know!" But he could give anyone around him, just by talking, a lesson in how to open yourself up to the city. Here was a man for whom the Thai Elvis meant more than the real one, for whom Rudy Ray Moore was a prophet and Harout the deliverer of souls.

That was the public Jac. As writer, fan, musician, DJ, club organizer, guest on radio shows, he championed a collage of cultures that was never supposed to be good for you. He thought if it turned you upside down it was probably art, and that art was out there, somewhere far from home. Here was a model of how to pursue other people’s cultures: like a fiend, with a sincerity and — ouch — a sense of mockery that denied much boho self-satisfaction. That model is still alive.

—RJ Smith

Tupac Shakur, 1971–1996

(September 20, 1996)

What made Tupac important and forged a bond with so many of his young black (especially black male) fans was that he was a signifier trying to figure out what he signified. He knew he lived in a society that still didn’t view him as human, that projected its worst fears onto him; he had to decide whether to battle that or to embrace it. Embracing it gets you acknowledged; embracing it gets you paid. But where his detractors sneered at the pose, I suspect a lot of his fans identified with it. Even black folks don’t wanna know you if you’re not playing the part.

 

—Ernest Hardy

 

Kathy Acker,
1947–1997

(December 12, 1997)

This country sneers at its artists, at their foolhardiness for having thought there could be any true happiness in such a profession. Diverting that sneer is a big nasty job: It is a military enterprise. Acker was equal to it and she scared a lot of people.

—Diamanda Galás

Sam Yorty, 1909–1998

(June 12, 1998)

The decorous thing to do at this juncture would be to describe Yorty as a historic artifact — the last leader of all those Midwestern provincials who flocked to L.A. in the first half of the century and lost control of it somewhere during the second half —and let it go at that. Sam Yorty, however, was not merely a product of history but a maker of history as well, and no one in the past half-century made the history of this city as bitter, contentious and divisive as he.

—Harold Meyerson

For all the occasional scurrilousness of his mayoralty, Yorty was probably at his lifetime worst as a 1950s legislative redbaiter. Indeed, the files of his Sacramento committee were reportedly so libelous that they remain closed. I asked Sam about this, and he allowed he’d maybe gone a bit overboard. But, he confessed, this was due to a major trauma in his own life. He told me quite seriously that in the 1930s a prominent, unnamed communist had tried to recruit him.

The approach, Yorty said, had been made in a Main Street Mexican restaurant. The operative allegedly promised the legislator a key role in the Revolution. Yorty said he turned him down.

Now I wonder. Had Yorty really sought to subvert this city, what with the legacies of Watts, plus his 1960 recycling ban that’s filled our canyons with refuse, could he have done a better job?

—Marc B. Haefele

Tom Bradley, 1917–1998

(October 2, 1998)

Give the man and the moment their due: Bradley’s election was a groundbreaking achievement in American race relations — and in small-d democratic politics. No nonwhite had ever been elected to govern so many whites. If ever Angelenos had had occasion to feel pride in themselves, that was the time. Bradley had no great rhetorical skills; there was no dazzle about him, just sheer, unyielding diligence. He had put himself through UCLA, risen through the ranks of a racist Police Department and won election to the City Council with biracial support — the first elected black council member in the city’s history. With a determination as raging as it was quiet, he had built a base in black L.A., forged ties with non-black L.A. when many black activists scorned such connections, and overcome, with his characteristic dignity, the calumnies that Sam Yorty had heaped upon him. That first, bright period of Tom Bradley’s administration was one of the few instances in modern urban history where a mayor made his city look — and feel — good.

—Harold Meyerson

What we’re left with now is the memory of the Bradley paradox: an aloof, solitary and determined man who somehow brought this city’s populations together as never before. Or since.

—Marc B. Haefele


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