Where Aren't They Now? 10 Overlooked Deaths of 2014 (Part 2)
Note: This is Part 2 of our annual death list, click here for Part 1 from yesterday.
It was an awful year for great talents dying before their time, from Phillip Seymour Hoffman to Robin Williams. But in between those headline-grabbers, we lost other great and fascinating people who you knew when they were famous, but whose deaths probably didn't trend on Twitter for more than a few hours. So, every year at this time, Cracked likes to stop and memorialize the less famous deaths that probably flew under your radar:
June 2: The Godfather of Psychedelics
Alexander Shulgin was basically the Willy Wonka of drugs. After graduating from Harvard, Shulgin developed the world's first biodegradable pesticide while working for Dow Chemical Company, but in his spare time he "pursued his own research" experimenting with psychoactive compounds. He tested out his creations on himself, and invited friends to join him on these experiments. And you thought having a friend with a hot tub was awesome.
"This test tube just had a question mark on it, so your guess is as good as mine!"
During the '60s, he tested hundreds of concoctions, and after a decade or so came across a compound similar to what we now refer to as MDMA, aka ecstasy, aka disco-biscuits, aka cuddle powder. Once he fine-tuned his recipe, rigorously testing it out on himself again and again like any good, thorough science-martyr, he introduced the chemical to psychologist Leo Zeff. He used small doses in his practice as an aid to talk therapy, and introduced it to hundreds of psychologists across the U.S.
"For 40 years, working in plain sight of the law and publishing his results, Shulgin has been a one-man psychopharmacological research sector. (Timothy Leary called him one of the century's most important scientists.) By Shulgin's own count, he has created nearly 200 psychedelic compounds, among them stimulants, depressants, aphrodisiacs, 'empathogens,' convulsants, drugs that alter hearing, drugs that slow one's sense of time, drugs that speed it up, drugs that trigger violent outbursts, drugs that deaden emotion -- in short, a veritable lexicon of tactile and emotional experience. And in 1976, Shulgin fished an obscure chemical called MDMA out of the depths of the chemical literature and introduced it to the wider world, where it came to be known as Ecstasy."
The drug of choice for people who enjoy both rampant, anonymous sex AND lockjaw.
They make the guy sound like a freaking wizard. And by the way, if you're asking yourself, "How is this dude not in jail?" Well, that's the point -- he was able to make brand new drugs, which means nobody had a chance to declare them illegal yet. That's a hell of a loophole for anyone who happens to be a genius in chemistry and has an intense desire to trip balls just, all the time.
June 4: The Last Navajo Code Talker
Chester Nez, one of the Navajo code talkers (who were fictionalized in the Nicolas Cage movie Windtalkers).
If you avoided the horrible Nicolas Cage movie on this subject, we're happy to catch you up: In 1942, Chester Nez was among 29 members of the Navajo nation recruited by the U.S. Marines to create a code the Japanese could never break. Why them? Well, Navajo is an unwritten language with syntax and dialects that make it nearly impossible to learn. It has no alphabet or symbols, and is spoken only on the Navajo lands of the American Southwest. So while any code can be broken, nobody can learn Navajo unless a member of the tribe spends years teaching their ass. And there, uh, weren't many Navajo living in Japan.
"But sir, there aren't any--"
"I SAID SEARCH THE BUFFALO PLAINS!"
Just the explanation of how this process worked kind of hurts our brain:
"When a Navajo code talker received a message, what he heard was a string of seemingly unrelated Navajo words. The code talker first had to translate each Navajo word into its English equivalent. Then he used only the first letter of the English equivalent in spelling an English word. Thus, the Navajo words 'wol-la-chee' (ant), 'be-la-sana' (apple) and 'tse-nill' (axe) all stood for the letter 'a.' One way to say the word 'Navy' in Navajo code would be 'tsah (needle) wol-la-chee (ant) ah-keh-di- glini (victor) tsah-ah-dzoh (yucca).'"
That sounds like a pain in the ass. But then they also had to invent a whole range of words, hundreds of them, for military terms that didn't exist in Navajo at all -- "besh- lo" (iron fish) for "submarine," "dah-he- tih-hi" (hummingbird) for "fighter plane," etc.
Curiously, there was already a Navajo word for "atomic bomb."
As for Chester, at a time when relations between the Navajo nation and the U.S. government were, let's say, strained, he lied about his age to enlist in the military, not telling any of his family. After the war, he then had to stay quiet about his work for nearly two decades, until the information was declassified in 1968.
In 2001, all 29 code talkers were given the Congressional Gold Medal, so we assume getting the 2002 Nic Cage movie made about them was just part of the standard compensation package the government gives out (also see: The members of the 103rd "Ghost Rider" brigade).
June 6: The Man Who Gave Us Spot
Eric Hill, creator of Spot the Dog. You know, this thing:
At age 86, due to that ubiquitous lethal menace known as "a short illness."
Where's Spot, a book written to entertain Eric Hill's young son, was published in 1980 and was the first to feature the interactive lift-the-flap concept (which Hill devised after he noticed a flap design on an advertising flyer).
Spot doesn't give a leg-humping fuck about a bear at the door; there's food to be found.
He would continue to crank out additional Spot books and spawn a multimedia empire that would see adaptations into a BBC TV series, music albums, and educational computer games. The books would sell 60 million copies and would get translated into 60 languages -- Spot is also known as Dribbel (in Holland), Tippens (in Sweden), Bolinha (in Portugal) and Tassen (in Norway) and "Christ I don't want to have to read that aloud again just get to fucking bed I love you but goddamn" (parents everywhere).
June 17: An Artist Whose Work You've Seen Hundreds of Times, Without Knowing His Name
Anthony Goldschmidt, movie poster artist extraordinaire.
Regardless of how you feel about the Steven Spielberg film A.I., the poster was cool as hell:
If you haven't seen it, just imagine someone stapled a bag of crap to the end of this perfectly good, self-contained poster.
That was from Anthony Goldschmidt's company, Intralink Film Graphic Design, which is responsible for some of the most iconic movie poster images of our time:
The fact that Goldschmidt wasn't responsible for The Dark Knight Rises poster describes the trilogy rather well.
In an era when unique poster design is kind of a dead art, Goldschmidt's team always tried to find that cool, simple image to capture the audience's imagination. For example, back in the 1980s, they had to design the teaser poster for E.T. with no idea what the movie was even about -- the film was still in production. Spielberg just showed them what the alien's hand looked like, and they came up with this:
"Well shit, now we have to make his finger glow. THAT'S NOT IN THE BUDGET, ANTHONY!"
Simple, intriguing, poignant. It makes the film seem both intimate and larger than life -- the blockbuster with heart they were blindly hoping Spielberg was out there filming. Everybody should be this good at their jobs.
June 23: Oskar from Hey Arnold!
Steve Viksten, voice actor and writer.
Heart attack, at age 54.
Nobody gets less credit for what they do than voice actors -- how many members of the Simpsons cast could you spot on the street? Well, for those of you who grew up on the 1990s cartoon Hey Arnold!, Steve Viksten was the voice behind this sad bastard:
We're pretty sure this is an offensive stereotype, we're just not sure how.
But behind the scenes, he helped develop the show and wrote 23 of the episodes (including the early ones that really established what the show was about), and also wrote the feature film that came out in 2002. He worked on a few other animated shows here and there, but Hey Arnold! was clearly his baby. As a legacy to leave behind, that's not bad. Pet the kitty, Oskar!
July 11: The Last of The Ramones
Tommy Ramone, of The Ramones.
Bile duct cancer at age 65. That's our sixth cancer victim on the list so far; somebody really needs to cure that shit.
You may be surprised to learn that The Ramones aren't just a T-shirt. They were a real punk band that played music a lot. In fact, they toured virtually nonstop for 22 years, becoming a household name despite never having any huge commercial hits.
Despite their numerous anesthesia endorsements.
Tommy Ramone was originally the band's manager, and Joey Ramone was the drummer. Then Joey realized he couldn't play drums fast enough, but Tommy could. Hell, he even played the guitar solos on some of the albums.*
*We should note for the novices that no one in the band was actually named Ramone, and they weren't related -- that was just a gimmick (Tommy's actual last name was Erdelyi, for instance).
Yeah, we would have gone with "Ramone," too.
Anyway, Tommy also wrote many of the band's early hits, and after being replaced by Marky Ramone on drums in 1978, Tommy kept on managing and producing for the Ramones and other acts. And then, everyone died -- Joey in 2001 (lymphoma), Dee Dee in 2002 (drug overdose), Johnny in 2004 (cancer). So making it to 65 was something of an accomplishment for Tommy, though even that is much shorter than the average male life span in the U.S.
Wait, is this ... a thing? Like we knew that rock stars are at risk of going out early due to drugs and alcohol and living the hard life on the road, but does playing rock music every night give you cancer? Eh, probably still worth it.
"Who's ready to spread to my lymph nodes?!"
July 31: The Street Art Skeletor to Banksy's He-Man
King Robbo, famed graffiti artist, nemesis to Banksy.
King Robbo was a famous London graffiti artist who had an ongoing feud with Banksy. No one is suggesting Banksy put out a hit on the guy like in some East vs. West rap feud, so please just forget we mentioned it.
We're sure Suge Knight has a perfectly reasonable explanation for why he was in Robbo's apartment building.
So what could two famous graffiti artists possibly have against one another? Were they competing for the same pristine corner of a warehouse somewhere? King Robbo tells the tale like this:
"I was at a place called the Dragon Bar on Old Street. I was introduced to a couple of guys who were like 'whoa it's nice to meet you!'. When I was introduced to Banksy, I went 'Oh yeah I've heard of you mate, how you doing?' and he went 'well I've never heard of you' ... he dismissed me as a nobody, as nothing. So with that I slapped him and went 'oh what you ain't heard of me? You won't forget me now will you?' and with that he picked up his glasses and ran off."
Ironically, the slap gave Banksy retrograde amnesia.
Yes, that's right -- Banksy wears glasses.
Anyway, there's this one famous piece that Robbo painted in 1985, at a spot in London that's only accessible by water. In 2009, Banksy painted over it with a stencil of a workman pasting wallpaper. Robbo responded by altering Banky's work so that the workman now appeared to be painting the words "King Robbo".
Twenty-four years isn't an unreasonable amount of time to hold a graffiti artist grudge at all.
Banksy then added the letters "Fuc" in front of "King" -- and on and on, until Banksy presumably had him killed.
Related: Ugh. Not Now, Banksy
October 19: The Man Who Played the Most Famous Saxophone Riff of All Time
Raphael Ravenscroft, "Baker Street" saxophonist.
Even if you care nothing about music, you'll recognize this snippet of smooth, sultry sax that's shown up in all sorts of movies and TV shows, as well as a shitload of commercials -- it starts 26 seconds in:
That's Raphael Ravenscroft playing the sax on Gerry Rafferty's 1978 hit "Baker Street," which turned Ravenscroft's playing into legend overnight. And why wouldn't it -- that's the only part of the song anyone remembers. Foo Fighters have even covered it.
So that legendary solo must have made Ravenscroft's career and set him up for life, right? Sort of, in the sense that the opposite thing happened -- he was working as a studio musician when he did it, and got paid a whole 27 pounds for the session (some say the check bounced, but that appears to be an urban legend). Meanwhile, the guy who sang the song was enjoying annual royalties of around 80,000 pounds a year for it. Every time some ad or movie borrowed that sexy saxophone riff, he was the one who got paid, not Ravenscroft.
"Sometimes life blows harder than you can."
Ravenscroft did go on to have career, playing with Pink Floyd, Abba, Marvin Gaye, Daft Punk and Duffy. Oh, and in 2011, he recorded a tribute for Rafferty's funeral. It was called "Forgiveness." Aww.
November 9: The Creator of Choose Your Own Adventure Books
Age 78, cause undisclosed. Choose your own.
R.A. Montgomery was instrumental in the creation of the Choose Your Own Adventure series of kids books, and wrote more than 50 of them himself. That's a lot, considering that writing these branching pathway books must have been confusing as hell.
"No, they can't get killed by the minotaur's dick; that already happens on page 58!"
Monty must have made some pretty clever choices himself, by the way -- after getting kicked out of Yale for truancy, he somehow ended up as assistant dean of faculty at Columbia only five years later. As the founder of CYOA, he was entitled to use ghostwriters and put his name on the cover, but instead he published each book under the real author's name -- thereby launching several young writers careers. He also dabbled in educational software -- a couple of the books were turned into Atari games back in 1984.
Unfortunately Montgomery didn't live to see the first Choose Your Own Adventure movie, which is currently in development at Fox. If you think that sounds like a stupid idea, turn to page 4.
December 6: The Inventor of the Video Game Console
Ralph Baer, the inventor of the first video game system.
If you think about it, our culture has a really weird relationship with inventors. Some of them become superstars (Steve Jobs, Thomas Edison, the Wright Brothers), while the vast majority fade into obscurity, and it seems to have nothing whatsoever to do with how widespread their invention was. Do you even know who invented, say, toast? Or the toaster? Or toaster strudel? Was there a guy named Toast? We don't know, and neither do you.
Everyone knows that it originated as a threatening gesture between rival bread makers.
Likewise, you would expect the Cracked demographic to be in collective mourning over the death of Ralph Baer, but we're guessing virtually none of you had heard his name until we said it 17 words ago. He was the engineer who way back in the 1960s thought it would be cool if people could play games on their televisions (and keep in mind, this is back when most TVs didn't even have color yet). On a budget of a few thousand bucks, Baer spent the mid-1960s making a prototype based on a simple but world-changing idea: That electronic home entertainment didn't have to be passive.
He shopped his design around to several companies (including General Electric and Motorola) who thought it was cool, but couldn't figure out why customers would want to buy it. Finally Magnavox bought the design and turned it into the Odyssey, in 1972. The games involved just moving white dots around a black screen (Pong would follow soon after) but that was enough -- the world was hooked on video games. And while he presumably didn't spend the 1960s thinking, "Is there a way to turn this white dot into a hooker the other dot can murder?" he got to see his invention, and the creative medium surrounding it, evolve in mind-boggling ways.
It's hard to be surprised when the end game for every piece of electronics has been boobs.
If you want to draw inspiration from his story, there you go: Just look at the Magnavox Odyssey and compare it to your PlayStation 4, then imagine what the next 40 years could bring.
Lisa-Skye is Australia's favourite Sparklepuppy comedian. Find more of her on Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Facebook. Paul Rasche does Twitter things sometimes, and his novel Smudgy In Monsterland is ju-uuu-st about to be published, honest.
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