No matter what you think, it’s not a sign of age. I’ve been devotedly reading the New York Times obituary pages since I was a lot farther from kicking the bucket than I surely am now. My long-lived mother, who also reads the obits every day, calls them “the Irish funny pages,” evidently because the Emerald Islanders carry an innate affinity for tales of the recently departed. So perhaps, being half-mick, that’s where I get it.
Just to clarify, I’m not merely a connoisseur of individual obituaries. My first assessment, as I flip from the headlines to page 32 (or thereabouts) each morning, is of the whole page, the morbid gestalt. And that is based on the quantity of the day’s obits, the quality of the memorialized (a function of their celebrity, historical prominence, quirky expertise and the like) as well as the interplay of the different stories. And once every year or two, there is an obituary page that really stands out — a juxtaposition of unusually compelling biographies or simultaneously dead celebrities or stories that perfectly dovetail with your own interests. Or just some really good writing.
And sometimes it’s a single story so epic it carries the day by itself. And frequently, I’ve noticed, those are about World War II combat veterans. My all-time fave is of a US bomber pilot who was just about to drop his lethal load on Germany when he himself was accidentally bombed from above by one of his own compatriots. The explosions almost destroyed the plane — and him — but, bloodied and broken, he continued on to his target and then managed to head home, where he survived a spectacular crash-landing. It’s cinematic heroism of a sort we lily-livered contemporary paper-pushers can barely imagine. Tragedy, and a little bit of comedy, too. And, as obituary, unbeatable.
Well, this stand-out day is not that. This one’s more about the interplay, the randomness and weird symmetry — the harmonic, necrophilic convergence, if you will — and the dovetailing with personal interests. The interest is music, of course. The convergent dead are Elmer Valentine and Admiral George S. Morrison.
Admiral Morrison commanded the US fleet in the Gulf of Tonkin at the flashpoint of what would become the Vietnam War. Reports of a North Vietnamese boat attacking a US Navy ship was just the pretext that President Johnson had been looking for to get Congress to authorize a combat commitment, to get beyond the euphemistically named “military advisors” who were there fighting already and turn the conflict into a full-fledged war in all but name. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was 1964’s version of the vote to allow Bush to invade Iraq, and almost as phony. In any case, Admiral Morrison — who, coincidentally, had flown combat missions in World War II — was there.
He was also the father of Jim Morrison.
Elmer A. Valentine commanded the Whisky a Go Go, the nighclub he started in the early ’60s on the Sunset Strip and that within a few years was arguably the most famous club in America — and certainly the flashpoint for the ’60s rock revolution, Los Angeles division. The Byrds, Love, Buffalo Springfield, Frank Zappa, the Mamas and Papas, Sonny and Cher and Johnny Rivers all played the Whisky (as they called it, and he spelled it). And Elmer, a self-described “crooked cop from New York” (as the obit had it), became a rock ’n’ roll character himself, of a distinctly unsavory sort. I remember one rock biography describing the backstage scene where a band held court and a longhaired old gargoyle sat listening with an impossibly pretty 15-year-old groupie on his lap. That gargoyle was Elmer. And the band in the story and the longtime house band at the Whisky — the place that was both their finishing school and launching pad — was the Doors.
With lead singer Jim Morrison, the Admiral’s son.
(Curiously enough, as the obit recounts, Elmer fired the Doors the first time they played “The End,” which he judged to be obscene.)
So, Elmer Valentine meet Admiral Morrison. Turns out, you two have a lot in common.
Update: OK, so I’m not the only obituaphile who noticed this particular “convergence.” That’s exactly the word the Times’ Notebook blog used when they wrote it up a few days later. But I’d already done this by the time I saw that and maybe that just proves my point anyway. Whatever that is.