Just like regular guys in real-life, celebrities are reported dead all of the time. How these deaths are reported is a fascinating subject in and of itself. For instance, when Frank Zappa died from complications of advanced prostate cancer in 1993, the “oh, by the way” manner in which his death was reported by the media outlets available to me at the time rocked me to the core. I was absolutely perplexed because they were talking about a man whose music continually said to me “it is not just okay to think, it is your civil duty“ in such an off-hand, who-cares way.
Two people who made big impressions upon me during my childhood have died in the past week or so. In order of their deaths, the first was Jerry Nelson. Jerry was one of the puppeteers who worked on The Muppets and their related shows. Specifically, he was the puppeteer and voice of Sgt. Floyd Pepper, Robin The Frog, Camilla The Chicken, and the one he is getting mentioned in conjunction with the most now, Sesame Street character Count von Count.
Count von Count was a bit unique in the cavalcade of characters I was exposed to during my early childhood. Most of the characters that I paid attention to were concerned more with literacy than numeracy. In fact, a lot of the programming I watched as a child was more about literacy than numeracy. Or maybe I am just remembering it that way because my brain naturally gravitated towards literacy. Either way, the fact that Count von Count was so concerned with numbers as a character trait, and yet I still paid attention to him, should tell you something about both the character and the manner in which Jerry Nelson made him come to life.
One of the things that programs like Sesame Street had that a lot of its competition during my childhood is that everyone watching it could get something out of it. In fact, there were lessons to be learned that one had to be an adult, and not just in the legal sense, to get. Count von Count was an expression of that. Children would have no idea what Obsessive Compulsive Disorder was, but an intelligent adult could watch Count von Count’s routine and see that, oh my god, I am looking at an example right now! That, when combined with the fact that this extremely compulsive felt-based puppet impersonation of Béla Lugosi was teaching their children basic numeracy in a manner that they enjoyed so much that they often kept coming back for more, shared a lesson that many adults, despite whatever status or power they attain, still fail to learn.
Can I make this any plainer? Neurodiversity is not a recent thing or movement that just popped up out of the blue. As shows like Sesame Street and Jerry Nelson‘s contribution to it demonstrated, it has been right in everyone’s face since before I was born. But during the 1970s and 1980s, the peak of the Muppets’ popularity as entertainment and education, it did not need a name.
But by far the character that had the most impact upon me as a child from those performed by Jerry Nelson was Mr. Snuffleupagus, the giant mammoth-like creature that Big Bird often interacted with. Snuffy gave me the impression that although big creatures were often frightening, size alone was not an indicator of what kind of person a person really was. Both Snuffy and Big Bird were enormous as the puppets on Sesame Street went. But their gentle and child-like demeanour imparted the lesson that just because one is frightened by an external entity does not necessarily mean that the external entity is not also frightened of the beholder.
I personally feel that every loss of an individual who worked on The Muppet Show or its derivatives during the 1970s and 1980s is a great loss to the world. As inevitable as it is, the death of each of these individuals is in itself a tragedy. Not because they are gone. Hopefully in this day and age of media semi-permanence, we will always have a record of how Jerry Nelson contributed to the growths of children all over the world for numerous years. In fact, through that, there is a possibility that he can continute to do so for long after his death.
No, the real sad point of Jerry Nelson‘s death is that, in spite of how badly our world presently needs it, nobody is coming to take his place. Whilst nobody can accuse the 1970s or 1980s of being decades known for their incredible levels of innovation, what has come to replace the output of that time appals me. But I will get into that elsewhere. The point of all this, of course, is that somewhere in the cosmos, Odin is listening with rapt interest as Jerry describes what he learned during his lifetime.
The other man who died very recently after years of having helped to make an impression upon me is none other than Neil Alden Armstrong. Armstrong was many things during his lifetime, but you would be hard-pressed to find a more accomplished pilot than him. His peak came in 1969, when he was in command of a mission that some have since derided as being purely a publicity stunt, that had one very specific public objective: land a specialised craft on the surface of the moon, collect some samples for scientific study, and successfully return the craft to Earth. Given both the experimental and highly dangerous natures of the mission, that they chose Armstrong to command the mission speaks to his excellence as a pilot. That he succeeded speaks to not only his excellence as a pilot, but also that of his crew and the numerous engineers at NASA who assembled, tested, and designed the equipment he used.
My birth was nearly a decade after the Apollo 11 mission, but when I began to read about things like it, I felt at the time blessed to be living in these times. I still do to an extent. To be born just after a time in which the frontiers of Human knowledge were not merely being pushed back, but knocked back as if with a giant hammer, well, I hear people go on about wanting to live in prior times, and I have always thought one thing. Namely, what the fukk is wrong with you? Those romanticised portrayals of people living in colonial times like Kings on their own happy little ranch or like Skywalker-style mini-gods? They are exactly that: romanticised. Which is a polite way of saying bullshit.
The fact that my sister’s children are able to meet and interact with the one remaining great-grandparent they have on her side? Thank science. The fact that becoming ill with a virus is only very rarely a death sentence unless one is very young or very old? Thank science. The fact that people born with heart defects can often have the problem corrected with a little surgery? Thank science. Hell, the fact that diabetes is not a death sentence of cruelty that Homo Sapien can never match? Again, thank science. That is what Neil Armstrong represented to me. He was like the G.I. Joe of science.
Whilst reading an article about Armstrong, I was fascinated by the text stating that for a while, press photographers could not get a clear shot of his house because admirers were lined up outside of the house in such copious amounts as to block the view. That is basically what I am talking about when I use the word celebrity. Neil Armstrong was a celebrity on a magnitude similar to The Beatles or Elvis for a time.
Like Nelson, Armstrong can say that he led a full and interesting life that he wished he could pass the resulting wisdom from on to the entire Human collective. Whether he cares to enlighten us about the physics of flight, the collective fascination with idols that we have, or the toll that age still takes, I wish I could be in a position to sit down and listen. That is why I talk so much about how certain peoples’ deaths are tragedies because there will be nobody to step up and take their place. If there were even one person lining up to be the next Neil Armstrong, I have no doubt that science in general would benefit greatly.
One other celebrity has died in the past week that, whilst having done nothing that has really had a big impact on my life, is worth talking about as a point of contrast. Tony Scott, the younger brother of Ridley Scott, died this week after committing suicide. Speculation had it that he did this due to an inoperable brain tumor. However, his widow has told investigators that this claim was absolutely false. However, it would have explained a lot. Why a man who has several films to his credit that were financially successful would do this without such a strong motive has me completely baffled.
Tony Scott‘s work can best be summarised by the fact that one of his best-known films was a little star vehicle from the mid-1980s called Top Gun. It was the highest-grossing film of 1986. Do I revere Tony Scott‘s directorial efforts like I do many of his elder brother’s? Hell no. But as I have said, it would take a lot to explain to me why a man who can direct a film and have it gross the better part of two hundred million dollars in the media-circus worldwide market would take his own life unless he had a very strong motive.
What could that motive be? Who the hell knows. Again, that is something that in my mind, Tony Scott is sharing with Odin right now. It could well be that those stories of a brain tumor that his widow has decried as being false are, in fact, true. Or partly factual in the sense that he might have been suffering from something else that was terminal. Because as I said, when a man has as much as Tony Scott did, that is the only motivation I can see as sufficient to end one’s life.
It was, in fact, some of the comments posted by online authors that led me to write this article in the first place. Several writers in comment sections such as that on Dinosaur Dracula have stated that it is like little by little, the world they grew up in is being whittled away. I have one thing to say to people who say things like that. Get over yourselves. Not only are we in the same boat, but stop and think for a moment about how my grandmother, who is eighty-three years old, must feel. Very few things that are specific to the era in which she grew up would remain, and I have reason to believe that many of those would have had at least one new face put on them during the intervening years. So the world of the 1980s has become a slightly intangible memory viewable only through photographs and recordings? Well boo hoo. Because as someone who suffered mightily as a consequence of some of the policy decisions made during that time, I can tell you that my feelings about the 1980s are doubtlessly similar to my grandmother’s about the 1920s or 1930s. Do not bring them back, they are gone and you should start trying to build something for now.
In fact, this reminds me of a quote from the artwork inside a solo album project by DarkThrone drummer Fenriz. No, Fenriz is not dead, although given how quiet he tends to be between DarkThrone releases, you might be forgiven for thinking otherwise. But in the minimal booklet for the second album of his solo band, Isengard, you will find a quote that is popular just about everywhere: Death is certain, life is not.
If you think that is a peculiar track to go down given the way this writing started, consider the following. Jerry Nelson was 78 years old when he died. Neil Armstrong was 82. Tony Scott was 68, an age we consider relatively young to die at these days. But the titular subject of Scott‘s 2005 film, Domino, died from an accidental overdose of fentanyl at the grand age of 35. And there are people even today who die earlier than that. In some sad cases, much earlier.
I do not believe a lot that I have not seen, either with my own eyes or through mountains of second-hand evidence for. For instance, I believe very much in the Holocaust because the amount of evidence preserved by those who succeeded its perpetrators is amazing. But one thing I believe that some will see as irrational is that at the ends of our lives, we are asked to share our reflections and observations about our lives with at least one consciousness that listens to our words and somehow tries to apply them in nature. I believe that Jerry and Neil will have some very fascinating things to share with that entity. Scott will, even if it is to a lesser extent.
But where does that leave us, the people who are left behind and have to deal with the void left? How do we pass on what they have given us to those who never got to see them during their lifetimes?
I guess it was best said by a man who has now been dead for twenty-one years: yes, we’ll keep on trying.