Tuesday, January 1, 2008

People Who Die

New Year’s resolution: If I am ever stricken with terminal cancer, I’m taking a few of my enemies with me.

When my buddy Gray Morrow (67), that wonderful artist and human being, realized he was in the grips of something modern medicine couldn’t cure, he did the honorable thing and put a bullet in his head, rather than drag his wife Pocho through a prolonged and expensive ending. I know there are people with the audacity to judge that harshly but that’s because they are selfish cowards or religious fanatics. Or don’t own a gun.

Looking back on 2007, I lost more friends than enemies. Dave Cockrum (63) died in late November, 2006, but that’s close enough. My Fraternity Brother Joe Vitolo (41)—who appears in several of my “fictional” pieces as “Shaky Joe,” died in April, 2006, but that was close too. But actual ‘07 death toll stats include Hilly Kiristal (75), founder of the New York punk mecca CBGB. I didn’t know Hilly beyond a few phone calls that finally landed my band The Orphans a gig at his joint. That was 1984 when I still thought I had a better chance of survival when surrounded by people who could play instruments. Hilly was, by all reports, a glum bear of a guy, and his club was the single most important shithole on the planet.

Evel Knievel
(died November 30, 2007 at the age of 69) and I got drunk together at the Essex House Hotel in Manhattan in 1986. I liked the guy. He walked like the Frankenstein Monster but if you had that many pins holding you together, you would too. The cat broke every bone in his body at least twice, which is what you get for trying to jump over big objects with a Harley. Evel told me the story about promoter Shelly Saltman’s book—how he’d taken an aluminum baseball bat to Saltman in the parking lot of the MGM Grand for writing that Evel abused his wife and kids. “He was a Jew like you, Clifford, but he didn’t have the guts to wear one of those beanies on his head like you do. Hell, I respect you.” Maybe it was the beer talking. Maybe it's because I'm a better fighter than he was. Evel regretted beating Saltman half to death then spending six months in jail for it. “I shouldn’t have gone after him,” he told me. “Next time, I’d send somebody.”

Brad Delp (died March 9, 2007 at the age of 55), lead singer of Boston, sang the songs that formed the soundtrack of my early freshman year at Morris Hills High School. I saw the band perform at Madison Square Garden that year and arrived early enough to find Brad restlessly strolling around the first few rows of the orchestra. Most of the people sitting there were oblivious to his presence.

Norman Mailer (died November 10, 2007 at the age of 84) forged an early path for authentic American cultural criticism. Sadly, I didn’t read him until much later in life when my professor Bill Zander shoved a copy of Armies of the Night in my direction. Never met Norman either, but there’s a lot of people I’d rather see dead.

Kurt Vonnegut (died April 11, 2007 at the age of 84), perhaps the most important novelist and essayist of the last half-century, was one of my dozen or so REAL heroes, the list of which includes Meir Kahane, Mordechai Anielewicz and Batman. Kurt gave this young writer some help as well as such a harsh critique of my first novella that I didn’t know what to do with myself and needed Walter Cummins to talk me off the ledge (explaining that Kurt was only raising the bar for me and, “don’t think for a second that he takes this kind of time for every young writer who comes down the pike” and “get off that ledge and come back in here before you catch cold.”) Years later, I had lunch with Kurt above the Harley Davidson Café in NY City and interviewed him for Barnes and Noble’s new on-line site. He was one of the few people who could write anyfuckingthing and whether I agreed with him or not, all I could hear was that sensational voice. And usually I agreed. He was that impossible hybrid of great artist and good man.

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