When former Beatle George Harrison passed away on Nov. 29, media outlets near and far bled ink and airtime in tribute and sympathy. When Aaliyah's plane went down near the end of a Caribbean runway on Aug. 25, MTV, BET and radio stations everywhere led the nation in public grieving. Entertainment reporters were only too happy to give Jack Lemmon a bittersweet send-off after his final bow June 27. Even the death of influential but relatively obscure composer/guitarist/crank John Fahey Feb. 22 drew respectable coverage in the organs of the demimonde, as well as the margins of major publications. But few columnists or commentators seemed to have noticed when, say, Fred Neil headed off for somewhere where the weather suited his clothes on July 7. And where was the newsprint wreath for Jeanne Loriod, or Ed "Big Daddy" Roth, or James Carr?
We certainly have had enough of death in the past year, or at least more than we are accustomed to in the United States. But, we decided, there were just too many great recently deceased artists and culture heroes whose claim to posterity might be in danger if someone didn't take a stand and offer a reminder of who they were and why they are worth remembering. So welcome to our subjective Hall of Fame for the Not Very Famous, our own version of the kids' table in cultural Valhalla. These are some people who died in 2001.
At the drive-in
Samuel Z. Arkoff, 1918-2001
Samuel Z. Arkoff didn't get a "spiritual executive producer" credit on the film "American Pie," but he probably should have. It sounds like an Arkoff clip job from the git-go: Find a titillating topic (teen sex), fill out a script with outrages (spunk-guzzling and pie-porking will do nicely), hire cheap nobodies to star, spend next to no time or money making it, and sit back and reap the outsized return of teen dollars. What do the chin-stroking critics and the guardians of decency say? Who cares? Onward to a string of even schlockier sequels and spinoffs, until the audience's patience (and payments) dries up.
The cigar-chewing B-movie mogul, who died on Sept. 16 at age 83, wasn't just a master of teen exploitation -- he practically invented it. For 25 years, the logo of Arkoff's American International Pictures functioned as a sort of Good Housekeeping seal of disapproval, the mark of a film sure to enthrall any 14-year-old and appall any parent. Arkoff had no agenda, wasn't interested in capital-A art; he was a businessperson. But his vampiric hunger for allowance money led to a vibrant, gloriously kitschy body of work some 500 films strong that boasts many of the dirty-little-secret cinematic loves of two generations.
Despite a middle-initial/last-name combo that made him sound like a sinister mastermind from one of his own flicks, Samuel Zachary Arkoff was a cornfed Midwesterner, born in sleepy Fort Dodge, Iowa, in 1918. A regular reader of Variety by his late teens, Arkoff served as an Air Force cryptographer during World War II, came home and got a law degree on the GI Bill, and hung out a shingle as an entertainment lawyer in Hollywood. After a few toe-dipping deals, he joined forces with fellow Tinseltown toiler James Nicholson in 1954 to form the production/distribution company that would become American International two years later.
Arkoff and Nicholson's genius was to aim AIP product at a then-ignored demographic -- the Clearasil set, just coming into the postwar parental largess that would come to be called disposable income. While the big studios lost much of their adult audience to the new medium of television, AIP packed in the kids with lobby posters promising lurid thrills they wouldn't see on the small screen: "The Beast With a Million Eyes," "I Was a Teen-age Werewolf," "Girls in Prison," "High School Hellcats," "The Brain Eaters." The movies themselves were financed in five figures, shot in a week or two, and rarely as good as the posters, but it hardly mattered: Arkoff and Nicholson reaped exponential profits and happily churned out more double-feature fodder.
As adolescent tastes moved away from atomic creatures and juvenile delinquency, AIP mutated as well, spawning a series of atmospheric Edgar Allan Poe adaptations starring the likes of Vincent Price and Boris Karloff, kicking up sand with the Frankie Avalon-Annette Funicello beach movies, and cashing in on crazed '60s culture with films such as "The Wild Angels" and "Wild in the Streets." By the early '70s, Arkoff had recognized another "underserved" market and moved into blaxploitation: His Russian surname pops up in the credits of everything from "Blacula" to "Coffy" to "Cooley High." Along the way, Arkoff and AIP gave early gigs to many of the young turks who would go on to finish the studio-system demolition job he gets little credit for starting: Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, Jack Nicholson (no relation to James), Robert De Niro.
James Nicholson died in 1972, taking with him the more creative hemisphere of the AIP brain trust. And, by the mid-'70s, exploitation films were a booming industry to which even the big studios were party. Arkoff seemed to forget his own commandment that "Thou shalt not put too much money into any one picture" and rounded out the decade with such relatively high-end fare as the Burt Lancaster-starring "The Island of Dr. Moreau" and the smash hit "The Amityville Horror." But AIP struggled financially, and Arkoff sold out to Filmways in 1979. A handful of final Arkoff projects made the rounds of the few remaining drive-ins in the early '80s, but cable TV and home video undermined him just as surely as he once undermined MGM.
American teen-agers are now the most hotly coveted moviegoing demographic in the known universe, and Arkoff's oeuvre has enjoyed re-evaluation as boffo, unpretentious popular art. There is, after all, something appealing and durable about the idea of cheap thrills. This past fall, HBO and Cinemax rolled out "Creature Features," a series of straight-to-cable remakes of Arkoff's old horror flicks, co-produced by his son, Lou. While the 2001 versions of "She Creature" and "Earth vs. the Spider" may be "better" than the originals, quality isn't really the issue. Fun is. And it's a good bet no one's going to lose money on them either.
The art of living
You think the Brooklyn Museum had trouble with elephant dung on the Virgin Mary? The European painter Balthus entered the art world as notoriously as did any of that "Sensations show's" provocateurs, and his works didn't come wrapped in wry conceptual conceits. At his 1934 debut solo show at Paris' Gallerie Pierre, Balthus displayed a series of figurative paintings of young girls at puberty's dawn, in various states of undress. Most scandalous -- even mounted in a back room and hidden by a curtain -- was "The Guitar Lesson" (1934), which depicted a young female student and her female teacher. They are clearly engaged in a lesson of some kind, and it most definitely has nothing to do with the guitar.
Not one of the paintings in that show sold, and in the ensuing years Balthus would be pilloried for those works in much the same way Vladimir Nabokov was chastised for "Lolita." But the artist, who died Feb. 18 of an undisclosed illness at his chalet in Rossiniére, Switzerland, soon learned that ill repute wasn't necessarily harmful to one's life or career. Balthus -- or, as he preferred to call himself, Count Balthazar Klossowski de Rola, a sham title -- was famously arrogant, condescending and roguish. He courted intrigue as assiduously as he disinterestedly deflected attention.
Born on Feb. 29, 1908, to expatriate Polish and Prussian parents, Balthasar Klossowski grew up moving from Paris to Switzerland to Berlin and back, drifting through the bohemian subculture of between-the-wars Europe. After his parents separated in 1917, his mother befriended painters Pierre Bonnard and Æ?douard Vuillard and poets Paul Valery, Antonin Artaud and Rainer Maria Rilke (who later became her lover, and who wrote the preface to the 14-year-old Balthus' illustrated picture book, Mitsou le chat). Balthus' older brother, Pierre -- who also passed away this year -- became a noted novelist and intellectual. Though his family lived modestly, Balthus grew up surrounded by artists and thinkers who encouraged untamed imagination as well as serious aesthetic pursuit, wild cards who never let annoying discrepancies between fact and fiction get in the way of a creative spirit.
The budding painter took their lessons to heart. Throughout his life, Balthus did undertake intensive artistic study, but he was also prone to inventing a life story even more colorful than the truth. (See Nicholas Fox Weber's exhaustive if vindictive 1999 Balthus: A Biography for more details.) From the 1930s through the early '50s he bounced between Paris and Switzerland, marrying, separating and making a living on commissioned paintings and theatrical costume design. He also became the familiar of a number of noteworthy artists, Pablo Picasso and Alberto Giacometti among them.
By the close of the '50s, Balthus' notoriety was evolving into fame. He exhibited at New York's Museum of Modern Art and had his first Italian shows in Turin and Rome. By 1961, he had amassed enough of a reputation and social network to be appointed director of the Academy of France in Rome by France's Minster of Culture, the writer André Malraux. By that decade's close, he had established such an enigmatic persona that he had no qualms about telling a journalist that "Balthus is a painter about which nothing is known."
Pioneering as he was in the realm of chameleon-like celebrity, though, Balthus remained single-mindedly devoted to his artistic muse. From his emergence until his death, seven decades that saw the seismic shifts of modernism, Balthus continued to apply his idiosyncratic, mannered style to passé genres -- landscapes, portraiture -- defiantly rejecting the au courant abstraction that gripped European and eventually American artists. His highly stylized realism gave his work a palpable psychological edge even as it remained informed by the grand masters, preparing contemporary audiences for the riffs on realism the postwar art world hatched. You can see it in Francis Bacon's carnal forms, and in Lucian Freud's unflinching, intimidatingly matter-of-fact nudes. You can see it in the combination of the mundane and the intimate that fires the more recent figurative work of Eric Fischl and the female nudes of John Currin and Lisa Yuskavage. Balthus' influence is especially noticeable in photography, where artists have built entire careers on confrontational compositions.
As with other artists whose lives are as constantly honed as their works, it's easy to dismiss Balthus as a minor painter who worked on his public image more than his canvases. But as an artist who maintained his vision in the face of fashion's follies, he was truly an original. And those are too few and far between.
No big eyes
Jane Greer, 1924-2001
Before the character Kathie Moffat even appears on screen in director Jacques Tourneur's gripping 1947 film noir "Out of the Past," viewers suspect that she's trouble incarnate. Oily, high-rolling gangster Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas) hires private eye Jeff Markham (Robert Mitchum) to track down Kathie, who was Sterling's girlfriend -- until she fired four shots at him (one finding its mark in his gut) and took it on the lam with $40,000 of his cash. "She must be quite a dame," Markham's PI partner notes laconically, "a wild goose with 40 G's." A dead-on assessment, as the audience will soon discover, the hard way.
When Markham catches up with Kathie in Acapulco, she first materializes in a stunning tableau, strolling into a cantina through cascading light and shadow, an incandescent presence dressed entirely in white. But as portrayed by actress Jane Greer, Kathie is no cookie-cutter noir firebreather; instead, Greer defies genre expectations by rendering her character as an utterly convincing damsel in distress, a wounded victim of the evil Sterling. She proceeds to play hard-boiled paramours Jeff and Whit for chumps through the rest of the film, lying, seducing and inveigling her way out of one predicament after another, a raven-haired dazzler who never for a moment betrays her true nature. Which, of course, makes her even more deadly, especially when she's clutching a revolver.
"Out of the Past" proved to be the apogee of Greer's modest Hollywood career, but her Kathie set the standard against which all future noir femme fatales would be measured. When Greer died of complications related to cancer at the age of 76 this past August in Los Angeles, no one had yet surpassed her as Queen Viper. "I was believable," the actress once explained, "because although my character Kathie was a bitch, a liar and a killer, she looked soft and innocent." Director Tourneur laid out the role for her: "He said to me, 'First half of picture, Good Girl. Last half of picture, Bad Girl. No big eyes.'"
Born Bettejane Greer in Washington, D.C., in September 1924, she was thrust into show business at an early age by her mother, entering child talent shows and beauty pageants, modeling professionally at age 12, and then dropping out of high school in her senior year to sing in a pair of popular local big bands. Her big break came when her mother, an employee of the War Department, secured Bettejane a job modeling uniforms for a recruitment poster for the Women's Army Corps. When the resulting photo showed up in a June 1942 issue of Life magazine, it caused many hearts to flutter, among them those of two particularly powerful men.
Movie-studio mogul Howard Hughes responded most ardently not long afterward, summoning Greer to Los Angeles, where he signed her to a personal contract. But it was bandleader and crooner Rudy Vallee who successfully wooed Bettejane, and they married in December 1943, infuriating Hughes. Divorced from Vallee the following summer, Greer moved in with Hughes and, finally, embarked on a motion-picture career, debuting in the low-budget 1945 melodrama "Two O'Clock Courage," making a minor splash in the next year's "The Falcon's Alibi," then attaining demi-stardom in 1947's "They Won't Believe Me." The latter role catapulted her into "Out of the Past" and subsequent noir iconography.
Greer went on to illuminate a handful of other movies, notably director Don Siegel's tense 1949 The" Big Steal" (also with Mitchum) and 1950's soapy "The Company She Keeps," before temporarily retiring in 1953 to raise a family with a new husband. She worked intermittently from the late '50s through the '90s, surfacing in 1984 to play Kathie's mother in "Against All Odds," an ersatz remake of "Out of the Past," and guesting with Mitchum on "Saturday Night Live" in an "OOTP" spoof -- a certifiable signifier of the film's (and her own) mythic status.
"How could I fail?" she recalled later in life. "It's the kind of part where people are talking the character up in such intriguing terms for the first reel of the picture -- 'quite a gal,' et cetera. And for my first appearance, I walk into the saloon out of the sunlight wearing a big picture hat while soft, romantic music plays on the soundtrack. I was in."
Living in darkness
James Carr, 1942-2001
Whoever gave James Carr the title "The World's Greatest Soul Singer" was not doing him any favors. These are fighting words. You could make airtight cases for Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Al Green, Wilson Pickett, Solomon Burke. You might even pipe up for minor-but-memorable shouters like O.V. Wright or Garnet Mimms. You could bring up Otis Redding and be accused of cheating; Redding, who shared a manager with "The World's Greatest Soul Singer," lived less than half as long as Carr, who died Jan. 7 at age 58, but left more than five times as many recordings.
Don't blame Carr. It's a good bet that some rock critic saddled him with that nickname. Critics overhype talent when it's coupled with dysfunction, believing an artist's gifts are more precious when they're delivered through pain. And Carr's story offered plenty of evidence that his God-given talent was no match for his earthly troubles.
Born to a Baptist preacher's family in rural Mississippi in 1942, Carr began singing as nearly all the great R&B vocalists of his generation did -- in church. He was working in gospel groups and making tables on an assembly line in Memphis when he began recording in the mid-'60s for Goldwax, a puny crosstown rival to the mighty Stax. He first hit the R&B charts in 1966 with "You've Got My Mind Messed Up." A year later, he recorded his signature tune, Dan Penn and Chips Moman's "The Dark End of the Street," and continued making minor R&B-chart hits until Goldwax went bust in 1969.
After that, Carr scuffled along the edges of the music business, at times around the edges of society itself. A resurgence in interest in his music, spurred by his portrayal in Peter Guralnick's 1986 book "Sweet Soul Music," helped land him some gigs and got his vintage recordings back into print. But he was never able to capitalize on the attention, either in recent years or in his short-lived heyday. Carr was a man overwhelmed by even the simplest demands of not only show business, but also life. He reportedly wrestled with a host of demons: illiteracy, drug and alcohol abuse, bipolar disorder. Frequently broke and transient, sometimes institutionalized, he was known to withdraw unexpectedly into wordless trances during recording sessions and even on stage.
None of that matters, because during those minutes when Carr did rouse his rolling-thunder baritone, for "Pouring Water on a Drowning Man" or "That's the Way Life Turned Out for Me" or especially "The Dark End of the Street," he just might have been the world's greatest soul singer after all. As writer Robert Gordon put it in a 1992 Q magazine profile, Carr sings his best songs "not like his life depended on them, but like what his life depended on was gone and these songs were what was left."
In the canon of '60s R&B, there's nothing as poignant and chilling as "The Dark End of the Street." A quiet tremolo guitar chord announces the tune, and the band locks in at a slow, stately march behind Carr. The lyrics tell a tale of a pair of forbidden lovers, "living in darkness to hide our wrongs." They fear discovery, but there's a suggestion that the revelation may liberate them. "They're gonna find us, Lord, someday," the singer warns on the bridge, his regal but aching voice rising in a mix of dread and hope. He is resigned to facing the consequences: "We'll have to pay for the love that we stole." The details of their liaison are left cryptic -- we don't know, for example, if their sin is adultery. All we know is that they expect to be punished for their pleasure.
It's a song so adult and somber, so close to deep gospel, that it's nearly impossible to imagine it playing in a TV commercial, or alongside "Soul Man" and "Mustang Sally" on oldies radio. And that's why its singer should never be forgotten.
Catch a wave
Jeanne Loriod, 1928-2001
Seventeen years ago, in London, after a rehearsal for a BBC-sponsored performance of composer Edgar Varése's "Ecuatorial," a ham-fisted stagehand dropped the ondes Martenot (one of two featured in the piece) played by Cynthia Millar, effectively putting the instrument out of commission. Given the scarcity of the decidedly peculiar electronic keyboard (fewer than 300 have been produced, all handcrafted by its inventor, Maurice Martenot, who died in 1980), BBC officials openly fretted about securing a replacement. Not to worry, Millar's co-ondist, Jeanne Loriod, said when informed of the dilemma -- she just happened to have another in the trunk of her car. "I always have a spare one," Loriod asserted. "You never know what can happen."
That Loriod should tool around with an extra ondes Martenot (translated from French: "Martenot's waves") in her car should come as no cosmic slap upside the head: Over a half-century, she became singularly identified with the obscure instrument, not only as its unrivaled master player, but also as its tireless cheerleader, relentless commissioner of works, foremost instructor and authoritative textbook writer.
A complex mechanism that, outwardly at least, looks as if it would be equally at home in the hands of an electrical engineer as a conservatory-trained pianist, the seven-octave ondes Martenot is powered by a pair of high-frequency oscillators that transmit sound through a trio of separate, mounted "diffusors": one palm-shaped, webbed on either side by a network of guitarlike strings; one gong-shaped; one a conventional loudspeaker. Seated at the keyboard, the ondist produces pitch with the right hand, while the left hand determines volume, filter settings and speaker selection via a control-panel drawer located in the instrument's extreme left-hand corner. Rocket-ascending or meteor-descending glissandi are created with a metal ring grasped in the right hand. A skilled player can coax a panoply of sounds from the ondes, from a ghostly quaver to a mournful warble to a thunderous blast. No one mastered its nuances like Loriod.
The instrument and the musician seemed destined to coalesce from birth. On April 20, 1928, Martenot unveiled his invention when he premiered Greek composer Dimitrios Levidis' haunted "Poéme symphonique" at the Paris Opera; less than three months later Loriod was born in Houilles, just west of Paris. She followed her older sister Yvonne to the Paris Conservatoire, where both studied piano. In 1947 Jeanne signed up for a class taught by Martenot, quickly became bewitched by his ondes and three years later joined an ondes quartet led by Martenot's sister Ginette.
Loriod devoted the rest of her life to the instrument, expanding its repertoire, resurrecting its forgotten pieces and teaching its perplexing idiosyncrasies. While she performed ondes works written by various established modern composers -- Varése, Arthur Honegger, Darius Milhaud, Charles Koechlin, Florent Schmitt, André Jolivet, Jacques Ibert -- she became most associated with several created by Olivier Messiaen, principally his dynamic and challenging "Turangalîla-symphonie," which she recorded a half-dozen times, often accompanied on record and in concert on the piano by her sister (who, not incidentally, married Messiaen in 1961). Messiaen appreciated the innate sonic possibilities of the ondes, characterizing what emanated from its loudspeakers as the "impalpable sounds of dream." Specifically for Jeanne, he included a trio of ondes parts in his opera "Saint François d'Assise."
With the intention of reanimating Messiaen's early works, commissioning new material by a passel of contemporary composers, and writing some of her own, Loriod founded the Jeanne Loriod Sextet in 1974. Ultimately, her repertoire ballooned to 300 pieces with concertante parts for ondes, 250 chamber works and 15 concertos, not to mention her ondes contributions to Maurice Jarre's soundtracks for the films "Lawrence of Arabia" and "Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome." And when she drowned in August at the age of 73 after suffering a stroke while swimming near Antibes on the French Riviera, talk had been circulating about a Loriod/Radiohead collaboration.
That seemed reasonable because Loriod, irrespective of genre, intuitively understood the sometimes nebulous components of musicianship. In "Technique de l'onde électronique type Martenot," her definitive three-volume 1987 teaching text, she wrote that her particular instrument required "talent, indiscriminate and inexplicable ... the mysterious alchemy between the innate and the acquired ... conscious thought and physical mastery working simultaneously."
Fred Neil, 1936-2001
Fred Neil was a Brill Building music-industry hustler who wrote tunes cut by Buddy Holly and Roy Orbison and did guitar work on a demo by Bobby Darin. Fred Neil was the king of the Greenwich Village folk scene in the early '60s, a guy whose liquid, bass-baritone voice and rolling 12-string guitar melted the hearts and thighs of waitresses in the pass-the-basket joints around Bleecker and MacDougal streets. Fred Neil was an out-of-control junkie who lied, used people and had all the discipline and integrity of a colicky 2-year-old. Fred Neil was the sweetest guy imaginable, befriending young musicians like David Crosby, giving them a place to crash and getting them their first paying gigs. Fred Neil wrote "one of the seven most-played popular songs," according to John Sebastian, who has written a few popular songs himself. For 30 years, Fred Neil seemingly wrote nothing. Fred Neil was Bob Dylan's mentor. Fred Neil opened for Lenny Bruce on the night Bruce got busted for obscenity in Chicago. Fred Neil was obsessed with dolphins and worked tirelessly to save them. Fred Neil dug the lowlife of the nation's biggest cities. Fred Neil was only comfortable bumming around the Florida Keys. Fred Neil in his prime was skinny, freckled, sandy-haired -- obviously Scots-Irish. Fred Neil was a southern boy steeped in African-American gospel music. Fred Neil wrote the theme song for an Oscar-winning movie and cashed in by walking away from the music business.
There, now. Do you get the idea that Fred Neil was one contradictory cat? When he died in Key West on July 7 at age 65 after a long bout with cancer, he got small obits in major papers. But interest in his work was building to a level not seen in three decades, so naturally Neil had to check out permanently. He made only two fully formed solo studio albums in his career -- Bleecker and MacDougal for Elektra and Fred Neil for Capitol -- and both were finally available on CD, albeit the former as a Japanese import and the latter as part of The Many Sides of Fred Neil on the Collector's Choice reissue label. Three weeks before he died, the official Web site went up -- www.fredneil.com.
It's all of a piece. Neil could easily have gone the way of his fellow singer/songwriters, the terrible Tims, Hardin and Buckley, who died much too early due to hard drugs. After all, he more than dabbled in dope himself, becoming such a fuck-up that his producer at Elektra, Paul Rothchild, flat-out vilified Neil in Richie Unterberger's book Urban Spacemen and Wayfaring Strangers: Overlooked Innovators and Eccentric Visionaries of '60s Rock. (Rothchild was also the producer for the Doors, so you know he had to have a pretty high tolerance for bad-boy behavior.) Yet instead of becoming another dope casualty of the early '70s, Neil got 30 more years, most of which he devoted to the Dolphin Research Project, which he founded with marine biologist Ric O'Barry in 1970. He played a few gigs over the course of the next decades, almost always benefits for marine research, and lived quietly in Florida, perhaps on royalty checks.
Certainly, that one song of his must have earned a bundle. "Everybody's Talkin'" -- unfortunately recorded by Harry Nilsson, not Fred Neil, for the soundtrack of 1969's Midnight Cowboy -- has been covered by dozens of artists and is an elevator-music favorite the world over. No matter how often you've heard it, you haven't really gotten to the tune's heart until you've heard Fred Neil, his voice languorous with melancholy and longing, declare:
I'm goin' where the sun keeps shinin', through the pourin' rain,
Goin' where the weather suits my clothes.
Bankin' off of the northeast wind,
Sailin' on a summer breeze,
Skippin' over the ocean like a stone.
The smell of the grease pit
Ed 'Big Daddy' Roth, 1932-2001
Even if you never burned rubber, painted a pinstripe or "accidentally" got high from model-airplane-glue vapors, Ed "Big Daddy" Roth still may have phenomenologically insinuated himself into your subconscious via his "Rat Fink" creation, kinda the way Andre the Giant, in the de facto employ of Shepard Fairey and his posse, has been doing for the past several years.
In the early '60s, some Californian freaks were making surfboards out of fiberglass, but 6-foot-6 motorhead Ed Roth was pioneering its use as a lightweight auto-body building material, creating such custom Frankensteinian car classics as the Outlaw, the space-age Mysterion and the bubble-topped Beatnik Bandit. He became a regular on the auto-show circuit, augmenting his means (when he wasn't snoozing in a trailer near one of his cars to prevent its theft) by airbrushing T-shirts, an evolutionary step up from his early professional pinstriping days. The lines were usually longest at Big Daddy's stall.
He only built the cars one at a time and was usually reluctant to part with them, but he could knock out hundreds of personalized T-shirts featuring slobbering, bug-eyed monsters jamming gears on fanciful Ford, Chevy or maybe even Mopar-based custom street rods. BD's signature monster was Rat Fink, a mangy, slime-tailed anthropomorphic rodent Roth claimed he created after pondering on the parentage of one Mickey Mouse. As for Roth's rods, many were eventually distilled down from their original chrome-and-fiberglass states to more accessible Revell-Monogram polystyrene scale models for the younger set (that's where the airplane glue comes in). The folks at Revell liked Roth's monsters as much as his motorcars, so they cashed Big Daddy in on monster-inspired model kits and figurines, too; and by the early '60s Rat Finks were being mass produced.
After the Serious Money started coming in, Big Daddy lived too hard, hanging out with Hells Angels and doing a lot of damage to his personal and professional lives. (Revell didn't feel very comfortable selling model kits for a guy who knew then-notorious head Angel Sonny Barger.) In the early '70s, Roth sold 15 of his custom cars for $5,500 and, in an all-too-American sign of bottoming out, he had a religious experience and became a Mormon.
The tenets of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had a salubrious effect upon Roth, as did the attention of hipsters and design geeks too young to experience Rat Finkery the first time around. Favorable thematic association, if not philosophical agreement, with Kustom Kulture kontemporaries such as Coop, Robert Williams and Von Dutch caused the Fink star to rise again in the 1980s and '90s in the form of custom Rat Fink Fonts typography and reissued model kits from Revell-Monogram. (Nobody knows who Sonny Barger is anymore.)
These days, we've got lovely "outsider art" museums, but Ed Roth was outside when outside wasn't in, making cars and art out of personal compulsion. He never stopped going to car shows, contributed regularly to Cali car mag Drive!, kept on wearing that goofy top hat and shades, and planned to tour a new car in 2002. In 1997, he told the Associated Press, with maybe just a bit of a wink, "My fanaticism with cars has just destroyed my personal life. It's an obsession, an addiction. Every day, I pray to God, 'Release me from my calling!'" This past April 4, God listened. Big Daddy's heart quit on him, at the age of 69. But Rat Fink, Mr. Gasser and Drag Nut will never die.
Do the math
Iannis Xenakis, 1922-2001
Xenakis means "little stranger" in Greek. Likewise, Iannis Xenakis, who died on Feb. 4, was a school of one. His "stochastic" music, a paradigm of composition that he developed in the mid-1950s, was a unique and inspired outgrowth of and reaction to developments in so-called avant-garde music during the 20th century. He continued throughout his life to create insightful and intuitive music while remaining outside of any camp. His tent was pitched in the elsewhere reserved for strangers and geniuses.
In Xenakis' music, clusters of sounds break open and regroup, shining in the listener's mind like the evening sun on the surface of a lake, shadows and reflections interchanging even as they arise and fade with the breeze. He likened his sounds to hard rain, lawns full of cicadas and, most tellingly, to the chanting of political protesters. Although Xenakis made no ideological claim for his work, the political turmoil of Europe during his youth changed him permanently, and his music carried the force and gravity of machine-gun fire, revolution, genocide, and world war.
Born in Romania of Greek parents in 1922, Xenakis joined the communist resistance in Athens during World War II, fighting first German then British occupation of Greece. A shell fragment from a British tank destroyed his left eye and severely scarred that side of his face. (Photos almost always show him in profile, right side only.)
A former engineering student, Xenakis joined the celebrated modernist architect Le Corbusier's firm and also studied composition with Olivier Messaien. Messaien, who had himself been a prisoner of war in a German concentration camp, accepted Xenakis as a student despite the latter's lack of formal training in musical theory. The teacher suggested Xenakis employ his technical background in his compositions.
Dissenting radically from the then-contemporary style of serial composition, Xenakis arranged sound masses by mathematical models, employing probability, game theory, group theory, set theory and Boolean algebra to move through fields of sound. For Xenakis, mathematics was "a cultural issue" and the most sophisticated method available to him for the construction of his music. John Cage had Zen; Sun Ra had space myths; Xenakis had ideal mathematical constructs to describe natural and social situations as they permutate from moment to moment. Two years after his first composition in this style, 1954's "Metastasis," he labeled his music "stochastic," adopting the term from the field of statistics. His compositions, laid out as graphs, were sound architecture, spaces in which musicians moved indeterminately but irresistibly through his pieces as stars through a galaxy.
Perhaps his most radical music, though, was his work with tape and electronics. The small body of tape music Xenakis created in the late '50s contrasts sharply with the quasi-classical sound poems being created from recordings of trains and squeaky hinges by disciples of composer Pierre Schaefer at the same time. The two-minute miniature masterpiece "Concrete PH," a multilayered recording of burning charcoal that crackles and sparkles in the air as a static mass, foreshadowed minimal music and sound-field composition with its radical de-emphasis on developmental form, use of spatial effects, dazzling density and invocation of naturally arising patterns. Plus it sounds really, really cool.
As with other recently deceased avant-garde lions Conlon Nancarrow, David Tudor and Sun Ra, Iannis Xenakis' legacy will trickle -- has trickled -- down among musicians, but even among denizens of the compositional fringe there seems to be no one to continue his work. Yet, Xenakis' gift -- to hear by force of intellect what no one else could -- has, for those who heard him, changed the conception of the structure of music, and the structure of sound itself.
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