Frequently, when a prominent person dies, the media proclaims they died too soon. Oddly enough, this strangely-worded praise--Has anybody ever died too late?--is almost always reserved for creative types--actors, musicians, writers. Nobody ever says, "You know, that guy that invented aluminum foil--gone too soon."
I'm guilty of that myself. In fact, I'm guilty of it right now. The following is a list of personal heroes of mine who passed away too soon, who left my world diminished by their passing. And yeah, they're all musicians, actors and filmmakers.
1. Peter Sellers
Anybody who knows me sooner or later gets my rant: The performance Sellers gives in Stanley Kubrick's 1962 film Lolita is, simply, the best thing any actor has ever done, ever. Given a juicy supporting role as a satyr-like intellectual preying on both a young girl and the hopeless sucker enamored of her, Sellers alternately overplays and underplays, cuts up and holds back, is hilarious and terrifying and unpredictable and even, at times, sad. Any actor could have played this part--Frank Langella did, in a terrible remake--but nobody could have found the bottomless layers of malice Sellers did.
He was a genius, no doubt--Inspector Clouseau, Dr. Strangelove, utterly original characterizations lesser actors continue to recycle to diminishing effects. But the fact is, as he became more famous, he made a lot of crappy movies, and by all reports was a largely unpleasant guy. But his late career performance as a simple-minded gardener, a non-entity, really, in the 1979 masterpiece Being There earned him acclaim he hadn't known in years, and would surely have led more directors to appreciate his skills as an actor, not just a comedian. Sadly, we'll never know. He died of a heart failure in 1980.
2. John Lennon
I don't even have to explain this one, do I? Just listen to It's Only Love, In My Life, Happiness Is A Warm Gun, Julia, Yer Blues, I Want You (She's So Heavy), Mother, Cold Turkey, Watching The Wheels...Seriously, go listen to them. Now.
3. Sam Peckinpah
Wildly boozing, sniffing up mountains of coke, going through whores like Kleenex--this is the legend of Bloody Sam, the wildman filmmaker whose best work was always emasculated by clueless producers and soulless corporate studio heads. In fact, the legend sells Peckinpah short. All that really counts is his work.
His 1969 Western The Wild Bunch revolutionized filmmaking technique forever, its breathtaking cut-to-the-frame editing still an MTV staple. He followed it with some of my favorite movies--Straw Dogs, Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid, Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia--profoundly disturbing visions of self-loathing and madness. His erratic behavior got him booted off some projects and he survived by taking crap that was beneath him.
He died prematurely in 1984, but I've always wondered what would have happened if he had lived to this post Quentin Tarentino world. Tarentino and his acolytes use many of the tropes and settings of Peckinpah's work, but have none of the soul. If only he was here to show them how it's done.
4. Phil Ochs
In the musical world, there is no greater tragedy than the life and career of Phil Ochs. A rich kid with a social conscience, he started out as a run of the mill folk singer, one of many who appeared in the wake of Bob Dylan's early success. But as a protest singer, Ochs had unusually sharp observational skills, and he didn't just preach to the converted, confronting his own leftish audiences with songs like Love Me I'm A Liberal and Outside Of A Small Cicle Of Friends, songs that hit them where they lived. His political anthems could be stirring, he could cut right to the bone, his powers of observation were astonishing. And Ochs was a committed radical, and was heart-broken by the direction the country took in the late sixties.
So he abandoned politics in his song writing and turned personal. His last album of original material, 1969's ironically titled Greatest Hits, was a tour of his personal demons, featuring the terrifyingly prescient No More Songs. In fact there would be no more songs for Ochs. He never wrote again, and though he stayed active politically, he also sank into madness. He silenced his own voice forever, commiting suicide in 1976.
But let's give Phil Ochs the last word here, from his exquisitely melancholy love song Changes:
Green leaves of summer
Turn red in the fall
To brown and to yellow they fade
And then they have to die
Caught up in the circle time parade