Ever since humans noticed there are years, and that one ends and another begins, often figured from around the winter solstice, they have felt the need to mark the occasion with solemn rites suitable to a death and joyous ones appropriate to a birth.
The Romans’ Janus looked forward and backward, and ever since we do the same. We sing “Auld Lang Syne” and miss those far away and gone forever. We make forward-looking resolutions we will break by January 2nd. It’s a weird time of year.
Newspapers, magazines, and TV and radio shows review the big stories of the waning year and anticipate coming events. Lists are rampant of best and worst movies, books, songs and persons of the year. And always there’s a roll call to honor the dead.
I have to say I like this sort of thing. Though often mocked, I like the “In Memoriam” montage at awards ceremonies each year. We’re all brief candles, and pausing annually to remember a few that burned brightly strikes me as fitting and proper.
The father of a high school friend who had the voice of Gregory Peck was tolerant of his son’s friends making his house a clubhouse, but on work nights when we were in college and stayed up late, he would toddle off to bed by saying it was time to indulge in some intro- and retrospection. To me, this bit of wit never got old. And I think New Years’s justifies a little into- and retrospection.
Many entertaining things are at an end. There was a changing of the guard in late night. Leno left early in the year. This month Colbert signed off with a witty group sing of “We”ll Meet Again” and Craig Ferguson with a rousing “Bang Your Drum.” Check YouTube if you missed either. Shows I liked a lot or a little bit the dust. In descending order of fondness, I will miss “Justified,” “The Bridge,” “The Killing,” “Treme,” “Warehouse 13,” “Boardwalk Empire,” “Newsroom.”
And one can’t help but be moved by the long procession of those who passed from life, beginning with echoes of the long ago black-and-white era of our fathers. Among those who left in 2014 were Mickey Rooney and Shirley Temple, members of the Waffen SS and a Japanese Imperial Army officer involved in biological warfare, David Greenglass the atomic spy and Lauren Bacall who starred with Bogie in “The Big Sleep,” “Key Largo” and “Dark Passage.”
The era of early televisions was represented by Sid Caesar, Ephrem Zimbalist Jr. from “77 Sunset Strip,” Polly Bergen who was witty on quiz shows and menaced by Mitchum in “Cape Fear.” And then there were the sounds of the late 50s and early 60s, members of Bill Haley and the Comets, Jay and the Americans, Paul Revere and the Raiders.
We will remember Phil Everly whose harmonies with his brother echo in Simon and Garfunkel and Lennon and McCartney — “Bye, Bye Love,” “When Will I Be Loved,” “All I Have to Do is Dream,” “Love Hurts,” “Let It Be Me.” And Gerry Goffin whose Brill Building songs with Carole King summed up an era — “Natural Woman,” “Take Good Care of My Baby,” “One Fine Day,” “Don’t Bring Me Down.”
Survivors of the Kennedy Cool era came next, men with narrow Mad Men ties: Frank Mankiewicz, Bobby Kennedy’s press secretary who announced his death, Joe McGuinness who chronicled “The Selling of the President” in 1968, Mike Nichols who made neurotic hipness funny with Elaine May, Jackie Cain who with Roy Kral sang infectious bebop vocalese and whose pure voice made ballads heart breaking, and Ben Bradlee who helped put the Washington Post on an enemies list and chased the scandal that doomed a president.
The soundtrack for some of this was furnished by Ian McLagan of Faces, Jack Bruce of Cream, Pete Seeger who inspired so many, Jimmy Ruffin — “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted,” and Joe Cocker — “Feelin’Alright,” “Delta Lady,” “Unchain My Heart.”
We are edging into the 1970s when cinematographer Gordon Willis made indelible films like “The Godfather,” “Annie Hall,” “The Parallax View,” “All the President’s Men” and Paul Mazursky began to cast an ironic eye on his times in “Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice,” “Harry and Tonto,” “An Unmarried Woman,” “Moscow on the Hudson,” “Down and Out in Beverly Hills.”
This year we lost men with fortunes: Karl Albrecht who created the Aldi’s chain, Nelson Bunker Hunt who used oil wealth to try and corner the market in silver, James Stowers who began the 20th Century funds, William Clay Ford — the last surviving grandson of Henry — who made the Detroit Lions a contender.
Greats from sports included Chuck Noll and Tony Gwynn, writers Maya Angelou, Peter Matthiessen, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jonathan Schell who warned about “The Fate of the Earth” and P.D. James who made murder stylish.
A few survivors of the jazz era left the scene, hard bop’s Horace Silver and the ubiquitous Charlie Haden whose collaborations with artists as varied as Hank Jones, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Pat Methany, and Quartet West were always elegant.
We laughed thanks to Robin Williams, Harold Ramis and David Brenner and were entertained by actors Phillips Seymour Hoffman, Maximilian Schell, Elaine Stritch, Bob Hoskins, Richard Attenborough and Eli Wallach.
But any such grouping falsifies the record and betrays our narrow perspective. These are names I know. But pick any day of the year at random and you will find mourned the passing of people you didn’t know, but who made a footprint on the sands of time. These are from January 11, 2014: an Australian orchestra conductor, a Bangladeshi judge, an Azerbaijani chess champion, an Italian film actor, a Hungarian mathematician, a Taiwanese politician, a Ukrainian Olympic swimmer and a South African journalist.
In 2014 Sherwin Nuland, who wrote ‘How We Die” died. So did people as diverse as the elegant Oscar de la Renta, the evil “Baby Doc” Duvalier, and the loved and hated Ariel Sharon. If you’re reading this, you didn’t. There’s still time to make your obituary contain something to be proud of.