Text © Robert Barry Francos
Images from the Internet
As we swing towards February, Mercury is currently in retrograde. What this means to those into astrology is that this is a bad time for making life-altering decisions and signing contracts. In fact, I know of a famous musician who is putting off a big deal until the retrograde ends, after February 1. Astrology to me is one of those things that I find cool if it works for me, but I ignore if it is negative.
It seems an irony that retrograde ends at the start of February, because that is when I start to get a little bit nervous. Early in that month seems to have an air of fear and a hint of death. After all, lets visit this period for the past few decades.
On a very early cold Midwest morning, three musicians stepped onto a plane. They were on a grinding cavalcade bus tour, and the star decided he wanted to fly ahead to wash his socks and underwear.
Though the stories are numerous about how everyone ended up being on the small chartered plane, it crashed minutes after taking off. Along the with tales of how culture changed at that defining moment, there are even songs telling of “The Day the Music Died.”
On board were the prince of rock and roll, Buddy Holly (Charles Hardin Holley), rising star Richie Valens (Richard Steven Valenzuela), and one-hit-wonder disk jockey J.P. Richardson, known nationwide as The Big Bopper. One story was that at a certain point, session guitarist Waylon Jennings was also on board, but got off, with Valens taking his place.
Ten years later, it was February 2, 1969, and a British born/Toronto raised elderly actor named William Henry Pratt passed on. He possessed one of the most imitated voices in the history of cinema, and yet, again ironically, he started his career voiceless. His first film was in 1919, a silent film called “Her Majesty’s Service.” Pratt’s roles were mostly second-string, and though he made numerous films before the advent of sound pictures, he didn’t make enough to live on, so he drove a truck to fill in the gaps.
The change came indirectly at first, in 1930 (though it was actually recorded in 1929). The film Dracula was an instant success, making the actor who played the role, Bela Lugosi, famous. He had that melodious, mysterious voice, which he considered his trademark. When the next film at Universal Studios came up later that year, to be released in 1931, he turned down the role because it was non-speaking. The person who got the role was pretty much unknown, despite his years of the craft. When the film Frankenstein came out, the actor playing the monster was listed in the credits merely as “?” No longer Bill Pratt, “?” was now monikered Boris Karloff.
Paradoxically, Karloff had a much more varied and popular career than Lugosi, probably because the former was able to remove himself from his roles, where as the latter had too much of his life mixed with his mythos. Karloff used his roles to pursue the things that interested him, such as art collecting; Lugosi merely wanted the fame, the dames, and the intoxication. Because Karloff was such a kind man, he actually made a sideline of being totally against type, by recording albums of children’s stories (I possess one of them), and even playing the narrator and main character of the animated How the Grinch Stole Christmas.
Towards the end of his career, he made one phenomenal film, Targets, essentially playing himself in an early film directed by Peter Bogdanovich, before Boris drifting off into grade C Mexican horror films while confined to a wheelchair due to an extremely advanced case of arthritis. He died on February 2, 1969.
Ten years later, it goes back to a short, flashy life in music. Or, some people may argue, around music, considering the talent of the artist. There have been many interpretations and tales about the death of John Simon Ritchie, or as he’s commonly known, Sid Vicious. Or, just Sid, even though he was Sidney (or SID-nay) to John Lydon. I share the same birthday as Sid, May 10.
But first I must digress: I saw Sid once. In ’78, was at a crappy little club that lasted for two minutes near the old Bleecker Bob’s, when it was on MacDougal Street, near the Christian Science Reading Room. The show was over, and I turned the corner onto 8th Street, going toward the subway, and there was Sid, definitely wobbly with a bottle in his hand, kicking some unconscious drunken guy who was lying on the sidewalk near the curb and a pile of trash waiting for the garbage truck. Needless to say, I did not stop to chitchat.
Without saying whether it is true or not, here is the story that I heard about Sid’s death. After getting out on bail, he wanted to, well, let’s just say return to some old habits. He had his mother, who was in New York, head over to a dealer he knew in the then truly seedy Union Square Park. He told her, “Make sure it’s good stuff.” When his mom made the purchase, she asked the dealer what condition the condition was in, and he told her, “For Sid, I only give excellent. Just make sure he cuts it.” For those who don’t know (and as someone who has never tried the crap, I’m not even sure how I know), it means it’s pure and needs to have something added into it to dilute the potency.
When dear ol’ mum brought it back, Sid asked, “Is the stuff good? What did the guy say?” She told him, “He said something about it being cut.” Sid took this to mean that it had already been cut, and he OD’d.
That story may be pure fiction, I don’t know, I’m just the reteller of what I heard. Either way, he died on February 2, 1979.
In case the reader has not noticed, this was the first few days of February in three 10-year intervals: 1959, ’69, and ‘79. As far as I know, there was no cultural death-shift in 1989 or 1999, but I am still aware every first few days of that month. Perhaps I am going to be especially aware as it comes around this year, 2009.
POSTSCRIPT FEB 2009: Looks like this year proved to be another in the list, as Cramps front(wolf)man Lux Interior passed away on Feb 4, 2009. My blog about him is dated Feb 5.