I certainly wasn’t intending to give the impression that I’m writing an “obituaries blog” but some very important artistic figures have died recently, and in the cases of Ricard and Hoffman, although I never met either personally, both took up a huge amount of space in my cultural imagination. Of the two, Hoffman would need little introduction for anyone remotely familiar with the last couple of decades of Hollywood cinema, and he is already being proclaimed as “greatest actor of his generation.” Such superlatives are meaningless, especially now, but I would agree with that assessment. I spent many hours wading through almost every movie he made over the years, even if awful, just considering that his mere involvement would likely make it worth my time. Ricard was far less known in the wider circles of popular culture but an integral figure in the New York art world as a critic and poet, and in more recent years as a painter who inscribed poetic phrases onto his canvases. His 1981 essay “The Radiant Child” is one of the most memorable pieces on artists Keith Haring and Jean Michel-Basquiat. I had the fortunate opportunity to write on Ricard for a catalogue of a 2005 exhibition entitled Sad Songs curated by artist Bill Conger and wrote: “These recent paintings are inscribed with breathless anecdotes, as if Haikus hastily scrawled in lipstick onto a bathroom mirror. While artists today are frequently at odds with painting, Ricard offers paintings at odds with themselves, as if deciding whether to be texts, images, or from a distance appealingly bright, monochromatic ciphers. … The poet has always been brutally confessional in his writings, but this approach is often leavened with an unlikely degree of tenderness. Ricard is often abrasive yet the confirmed aesthete.” Given the wild circles that Ricard travelled with over the years—Warhol’s Factory and the East Village Scene—his death of cancer at the age of 67 effectively means he outlived so many of his contemporaries, while Hoffman, purportedly dead of a drug overdose, at the age of 46 has died prematurely, terribly, and avoidably. Read Ricard’s writings, watch Hoffman’s filmography. Both are revelatory.


The great one-man folk music institution Pete Seeger died this past Monday at the ripe young age of 94. He was a powerfully significant individual in American culture, both in terms of his ideas regarding music and his lifelong dedication to progressive politics and activism. He was a friend of such musicians as Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly and in his group the Weavers was a pre-Rock and Roll pop star with recordings such as Goodnight Irene. He was blacklisted from broadcast media in the US from the 1950s well into the late-1960s due to his refusal to testify before Congress, to whom he stated: "I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this." Nevertheless his concerts remained popular and he appeared until the end of his life at rallies, protests, and benefits for countless causes. I saw him perform twice, once at a miniscule protest against Pinochet's Chilean government, and once at a considerably larger "No Nukes"  rally (both in Washington DC in the late 1980s). He was a stalwart civil rights supporter, popularized the banjo, wrote the song "Turn Turn Turn" which in The Byrds' version would become a classic rock staple, and in the 1960s, Seeger traveled widely, filming all manner of "world music" decades before the term was widely used (and abused). More recently Bruce Springsteen won a Grammy for one of his best records We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions (2006), inspired by Seeger's arrangements of traditional folk songs and ballads. You can read his obituary here, and the Pete Seeger Appreciation Page has a vast amount of material as well. I'm posting below a link to a very good 2007 documentary on Seeger's life and work. In the intro, Bob Dylan states: "Pete Seeger, he had this amazing ability to look at a group of people and make them all sing parts of the song. You know, make an orchestration out of a simple little song with everyone in the audience singing. Whether you wanted to or not you found yourself singing a part! ... and it would be beautiful." Rest in peace, Pete.