People who died too young

in mostly roughly chronological order:

B. Kliban (death 1990, age 55), best known for his half-insane drawings of cats, but who also produced an array of fully insane cartoon drawings that make no sense whatsoever, but make it in such a way that they leave you shrieking with the kind of laughter that makes anyone listening think you’ve just been informed of the death of your worst enemy.

We’ve been getting Kliban’s recycled single panels every day (except Sunday), along with other cartoons from gocomics.com, for over a decade, and that time there has been only one repeat that I’m aware of – this, from a dead author.

I know he put out a few books, but there must also be a hidden treasure treasure-trove of his material that he churned out, day after day and probably chucked in various desk drawers, all of it formed by a mind that could juxtapose any two concepts, no matter how unlikely the match. Some of his stuff seems impossible that any human being could come up with, as though the unconscious of the entire universe has been tapped and put to use.

Judy Roderick (1992, age 49), the best white blues singer I’ve ever heard. Her early ’60s album, Woman Blue, is the closest thing to total musical perfection I own – each song perfectly realized, the entire record immaculately constructed. Her first album, Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues, is excellent also, and her much later albums of merged Western swing and blues are fine. But for any one of us to have produced a single artistic effort in our lives like Woman Blue – pretty damned unlikely.

[You can get it on CD or mp3, but with 4 songs added. Each of the additions is fine in and of itself, but it’s the usual mistake with CD reissues. It ignores the superb balance of the original. Don’t fuck with perfection, guys.]

Ralph Rinzler (1994, a few days short of age 60). Rinzler was the mandolinist in the iconic trio of the Greebriar Boys in the 1960s. Most of the attention paid to this marvelous bluegrass band went to lead-singer and guitarist John Herald or the prize-winning banjo work of Bob Yellin, but watching them live, I felt that Rinzler’s understated musical line may have been the cement that held it all together. And though he seldom sang, I loved his smothered-gravel voice. 

He left the band fairly early (before their last album) to follow his first love, folklore, by heading up the folk department at the Smithsonian, and the band disbanded in 1967, a fairly sort-lived but stunning stint.

John Herald (2005, age 65). I’m stepping out of the chronological order here because the Greenbriars’ Herald committed suicide after too many years of being unable to form another solid, working band. I only saw one of those groups, and only once. It was a good enough knock-together outfit, with nothing like the dynamics of the Greenbriars. 

Steven Holtzman (1999, age 43). Hard to imagine such a stunning, incisive mind gone at so early an age. I can’t recall how I came to buy his book, Digital Mantras, about music, sound and the call of the spiritual, but it left me happily wrung out (I don’t have a copy at the moment because I’ve twice given it away – that happens with all my favorite books).

He never sold himself as a Great Mind, but his offhand comment about being able to pick out the individual calls of crickets while sitting on a mountainside turned on my awe button right away. And I stink at musical theory, but his discussions of 12-tone and serial music almost made me understand that odd sound universe of the mid 20th century. He put out at least one other book which… I’ve been almost scared to pick up because what if it doesn’t have that same effect on me? (OK, I’ll buy it when I order my third copy of Digital Mantras).

Holtzman was also a composer. I wrote to him expressing an interest in his “tunes” that were determined by the internal racket of computer processing, and damned if he didn’t send me two of his CDs. He was that kind of mensch. Did I like the CDs? Well… not that much. But I treasure the fact of them.

Richard Thompson (2016, age 58), not the musician from Fairport Convention, but the creator of the comic strip “Cul de Sac,” still available online. Cul de Sac is the small-town home of the Otterloop family: rampaging 5-year-old Alice, who is half-loved but more feared by her classmates at Miss Bliss’s Blisshaven pre-school; 11-year-old Petey, who reads Little Neuro comics where nothing happens and reacts to adversity by trying to chew his arm off; father Peter, who sings duck songs; mother Madeline, who seems level-headed… until to listen to what she’s actually saying; the grandmother who covers the dining room table with old magazines and is owner of Big Shirley, the worlds largest dog (except for Clifford); and the half-insane kids at Blisshaven. Thompson died of Parkinson’s, having turned much of the last year’s production over to fellow cartoonists who tried to but couldn’t match his expressive yet minimalist style or the eruption of his volcanic mind.

Now, to more personal deaths…

Dave Liberman (1990s, age 50s), a roommate in the house on 34th St. in Philly where I lived in the mid-‘60s [you’ll hear much more about this place later, or if you were on the original ruminations list, you’ve already heard tales of The House]. A math genius, he was in his senior year at Penn when me met, came in first in his class while spending much of his life on his back in bed staring at the ceiling (assembling new math proofs, I guess). I was best man at his wedding. (The marriage went sour.) Visited him later while he was living in Boston or thereabouts, driving a taxi.

About a decade ago, I tried to track him down online. What I found was his funeral notice. I didn’t copy it (fool) and now can’t drag him our out from the proliferation of other David Libermans, or even get access to the Penn alumni site without some sort of token I haven’t the foggiest how to obtain. Dave was a gentle, delightful human being with an underlayment of intense anger. He could have been, should have been, almost anything. He became Dorsal  in my novel No Bike.

Chris Hessert (2001, age 59?). I said enough about Chris earlier. He was equal amounts joy and cynicism. He was the only rich guy I know that I liked, because he really didn’t give a damn.

And finally, those who should never have died…

Joe and Mimi Colonna (Joe, 2016, age 74; Mimi, 2019, age 82). Yeah, they lived to decent ages, but once we came to know them we wanted them to stay forever. They owned the home down by the pond, and Joe was the best neighbor anyone could possibly have. He plowed up to our bridge when it snowed, invited us to all their barbecues with the old South Philly gang (he had taken over his father’s stone-mason outfit on Washington Ave. before himself retiring), and could be depended on for anything and everything that we might even hint at needing. Mimi was…South Philly to the core, which means loud, generous to a fault, funny, opinionated, with a bedrock sense of right and wrong. 

More (much more, likely) about them at a later date.

Roddy Davis (2001, age 41, of heart attack), my brother Rod’s only child and the center of every family gathering, especially the annual Thanksgiving and Christmas bashes. Funny as hell, with a way of weaving his threads of humor into tapestries, he turned the point of these meals from the food to waiting for his jokes and impressions (especially of the pig that provided a boneless ham). Like too many of our family, he was alcoholic, racked up at least three cars, joined a Jews-for-Jesus outfit but had no quarrel with anyone’s belief system. He had terrible taste in women, intent on finding the most hopeless and trying to help them salvage their lives when, so often, they had no desire for such salvation. He and his father and mother were the most tightly bound trio I’ve known. A sterling human being for the ages.

Rod Davis (2009, age 84), my big brother, the elder of two big brothers. To continue the “salvation” shtick, I think Rod was the salvation of my empty childhood – though he was in the Navy during much of WWII. That I couldn’t love my parents was more my fault than theirs (if any fault involved, which I decline to believe), but I loved Rod, just did. He shepherded and protected me in ways I wasn’t aware of, effectively the Good Uncle – someone it was always a personal joy to be near. His end was heart failure, which I think will be mine. Now it isn’t so much that I miss him (at his funeral I said that there was nothing to regret in his life) as that I have question I want to ask him that no one alive can answer.

But that’s the way of it. Maybe it’s the real reason I’ve continually championed the cache of oral histories that Sullivan County has the immense good fortune to possess. I know what it’s like to lose that voice, that knowledge.

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