Lives We Miss and Have Missed
Unlike the death being impersonated by both Frederich March and Brad Pitt in the movies “Death Takes a Holiday” and “Meet Joe Black,” death does not go on vacation, wondering why folks fear him.
His work is continuous and non-stop. In the results, we hear music, loss, grief and full lives. And in those stopped abruptly, shockingly, we hear and think of thousands of words, and note achievements and those left behind and the legacies of lives lived. Searching through the paper snowdrifts of the names of the dead in the historical record for 2012 (newspapers, Wikipedia, video vaults) is an endless task best not taken. It makes you yearn for the sound of voices you’ve never heard, faces you’ve never seen, stories not yet told except in some small spot on earth.
On one such search, we found Paddy Pecker Dunne, died in his 80th year Dec. 19, in Killimer, County Clare in Ireland, where he lived with his wife and four children. Before you smile at the noticeable whimsy in the name, you might also notice that he was generally acknowledged to be one of the finest banjo players in all of Ireland and was adept with the fiddle, the melodeon and guitar, not to mention the owner of a voice that stirred anger and broke hearts, it is said. Dunne played everywhere. He was often singing in the streets for causes and melodies, otherwise known as buskering, a term we heard once from a woman who’s now a noted jazz singer. He appeared with the Dubliners and was in a movie with Richard Harris called “Trojan Eddie." He once met Woody Guthrie.
In the Belfast Telegraph obituary, a gentleman by the name of Kieran Hanrahan, artistic director of the Tradfestival, said that “The Pecker mastered the art and craft of many an instrument, the mandolin, the fiddle and the banjo… He was distinctively known for his most precious of gifts, his voice, and what that voice could deliver. It was the envy off some of the world’s renowned rock, pop, folk and traditional singers.”
Dunne lives on on the Internet—there are dozens of videos of him playing, singing—at home, surrounded by family, on the fiddle in a room where a couple is dancing, surrounded by a wall full of old photos and instruments, or on the street, his face prophet like, white beard of winter, sweeping voice, singing “Whiskey in the Jar.”
I didn’t know Mr. Dunne, but my running across him makes me miss him, illustrating the true fact that grief and loss and remaining memories are worldwide conditions, both universal and strangely particular.
December was a cruel month for many, and we all lost persons we did know. In our neighborhood in Adams Morgan, for instance, we lost Jacques Morgan, the one-of-a-kind, book-smitten, opinionated, sometimes querulous owner of the Idle Time Book Shop, which he ran with his wife Val Morgan. Morgan, according to friends, was the kind of proprietor who did not suffer fools or sports fans gladly, even and especially when encountered among the used books and periodicals and knick-knacks of the store, which is an Adams Morgan treasure.
Morgan, 62, died of colon cancer. The book store, as far as it is known, remains. It is the kind of store which reflects Morgan’s eclectic tastes, abundant in books hard to find, but even more surprising to discover—that includes Three Stooges fan magazines found in New Zealand. In a current atmosphere where bookstores (and real books) are on a perpetually alarmist endangered species list, it is also a kind of safes house for book lovers and mavens. "Maven" is, of course, not a word you would have called Morgan to his face.
We also lost Larry L. King—not to be confused with the former CNN talk show host—who was most famous for writing the book for “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,” an enduring Broadway musical constantly revived, trailed fecklessly by the movie version, starring Dolly Parton and Burt Reynolds.
“Whorehouse,” a word which really shouldn’t appear too often in a man’s obituary, but King probably wouldn’t have minded. It came from an article about a real such place in Texas, where patrons included politicians but was run out of business by local moralizers. It was probably King’s most rewarding work, but not his best—books about his good friend, the writer Willie Morris, were much better, as were plays like “The Night Hank Williams Died” and “The Golden Shadows Old West Museum.”
We met King, a thin, talkative, friendly guy with a beard, on the occasion of a production of “Golden Shadows” locally. He was naturally garrulous, a story-teller with a run of wistfulness in him, and tall tales about his drinking days, which by that time had ceased. I remember that I liked him a lot, instantly—I have no idea why Texans cast such an easy shadow but are, according to legend, hard to live with but also fun around a jukebox and a pool table.
King’s death came after Signature Theater once again took out the formidably likeable and appealing “Whorehouse” to much success. I remember seeing “Whorehouse” (there it goes again) in its road show re-incarnation, starring Ann Margaret at the National Theater. We ran into him at a cast party, surrounded by young cast members. He raised a glass—presumably non-alcoholic. I remember his warm voice now, telling stories.
Charles Durning, considered by many to be our best character actor on stage and in film passed away, too at the age of 89—he happened to be in the movie version of “Whorehouse.” Being a “character actor” is a role in which you are not the star, but you can feel free to steal the movie or the stage from the nominal star. It was a kind of theft Durning, portly, funny, who could turn a waddle into a menacing move on a dime, committed often. I saw Durning at Zenith—comporting on the stage with Julie Harris in “The Gin Game,” two great stars of the stage dancing around each other in the mine-layered territory of old age.
Here are more noteable passings.
Chuck Brown died in the spring, and his death completed a truth not always noticed throughout our whole city: that this man’s music, jaunty, driving, endlessly delirious and rhythmic was a Washington, D.C., treasure that could be shared by all of its citizen, and his passing was a real loss. Old-school D.C. politicians, such as Marion Barry and Mayor Vincent Gray, felt the loss keenly at his funeral. I remember when I saw—felt him—for the first time at an outdoor, free concert at Strathmore, go-go and funk on the stately lawns of greater Bethesda, the then 70-year-old playing like a truck driver high on the road.
Outer space got fuller with the permanent arrival of Sally Ride, America's first female astronaut, and Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first human on the moon.
I miss Gore Vidal for the simple fact that he won’t write another book. I love his essays, his historical novels, “Burr,” “Lincoln” and “Washington, D.C.”—and his unrepentant, pugilist paganism and not always justified sense of superiority.
Speaking of books—all hail to the prophet of a future he anticipated and did not like when it came—Ray Bradbury of “Fahrenheit” fame also penned “The Martian Chronicles” and brawling tales of brawling Irishmen and small town wonders. He wrote the screenplay for John Huston’s “Moby Dick” and titled a book “Something Wicked This Way Comes.” A giant.
We lost Arlen Specter, the sometimes quixotic, often confrontational, but always, in his own way, true to the stature of his standing, which was being the senator from Pennsylvania, until the rise of the Tea Party—and then, Sen. Daniel Inouye, a true larger-than-life ennobler of his home state, Hawai'i, and his institution, the United States Senate.
Speaking of quixotic, another senator, George McGovern, best known for his devastating, muddled presidential loss to Richard Nixon, proved a prophet in many ways—about opening the Democratic party, about Watergate. Asked at a press conference on presidential politics about what it was like to get over losing a presidential race, McGovern replied, “I’ll let you know when it happens.”
The stars we lost and the curious spectacle of celebrity deaths all came together in the passing of flamingly incandescent—once—Whitney Houston who died under questionable conditions in a hotel room on the eve of the Grammy Awards, making the awards seem weird, and the loss even more difficult, she singing her note-holding anthem “I will Always Love You” seemingly everywhere on television on the net, in our memories.
Other pop music losses: Ravi Shankar—who, with the help of Beatle George Harrison, brought the sitar within sight and sound of the world; Donna Summer, the unchallenged queen of disco; “Daydream Believer” and Monkee star Davy Jones; rock-and-roll pied piper Dick Clark and his African-American counterpart on “Soul Train,” Don Cornelius.
We also mourn writer Paul Fussell and his histories of modern war; critic Robert Hughes, who entangled and finagled us into an appreciation of the big themes in art; Mike Wallace, who really was “60 Minutes.”
Last but certainly not least—and always—those we lost Dec. 14 in Newtown, Conn.:
Charlotte Bacon, 6
Daniel Barden, 7
Rachel Davino, 29
Olivia Engel, 6
Josephine Gay, 7
Ana M. Marquez-Greene, 6
Dawn Hochsprung, 47
Dylan Hockley, 6
Madeleine F. Hsu, 6
Catherine V. Hubbard, 6
Chase Kowalski ,7
Jesse Lewis, 6
James Mattioli, 6
Grace McDonnell, 7
Anne Marie Murphy, 52
Emilie Parker, 6
Jack Pinto, 6
Noah Pozner, 6
Caroline Previdi, 6
Jessica Rekos, 6
Aveille Richman, 6
Lauren Rousseau, 30
Mary Sherlach, 56
Victoria Soto, 27
Benjamin Wheeler, 6
Allison N. Wyatt, 6