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People Who Died

Our annual salute to the undersung lives we lost

Photo: Tim Hill, License: N/A

Tim Hill


For nearly 30 years, Don Van Vliet led a quiet life with his wife in a small California town, devoting himself to painting until his death from complications from multiple sclerosis Dec. 17. During those same three decades, hardly a peep was heard from Captain Beefheart, Van Vliet’s musical alter ego and one of the most unobtrusively influential musicians of the 20th century. The “unobtrusively” is warranted because Van Vliet’s albums never sold many copies, and few musicians of note tried to sound like him—fewer still could even attempt it. But the Captain’s utter unfetteredness, free from the constraints of polite consciousness, genre boundaries, and even simple Western meter, inspired untold thousands with its sui generis yawp. Despite his general obscurity, despite his generation-spanning retirement from music, music, and the world in general, are significantly different for his having passed through them. And that’s what our annual People Who Died feature is all about.

There was plenty of ink spilled and pixels lit in 2010 when, say, actor Dennis Hopper died, or singer Lena Horne, or reclusive author J.D. Salinger, or punk provocateur Malcolm McLaren, and there will be more written and said about their substantial lives and legacies as the year now comes to a close. Not every passing of a well-known person will be universally mourned (e.g. controversial Yankees owner George Steinbrenner), but such figures such as soul singer Teena Marie, diplomat Richard Holbrooke, fashion designer Alexander McQueen, MC Guru, comics writer Harvey Pekar, movie producer Dino De Laurentiis, or punk chanteuse Ari Up will get a few well-deserved column inches. Each year we try to focus on a handful of the recently deceased whose lives made some difference in our own, even if—especially because—their deaths didn’t bring Twitter to a halt and their legacies probably won’t inspire lavish year-end tributes elsewhere.

People Who Died 2010
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