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.
Ellas McDaniel is one of the handful of guys who invented the thing we now call rock ’n’ roll. If there’s a band in creation that hasn’t played his enduring beat, we’ve never heard of them. And with his cowboy hat, custom box guitar and sexually insinuating lyrics, he also helped invent the persona of the rock ’n’ roll badass. So it was only appropriate that, when Bo Diddley headed off to rock ’n’ roll heaven two weeks ago, Hard Rock, which owns so much of his stuff (including his first, homemade guitar, pictured above), put out a tribute ad. This is it, conceived and created by D/C.