BY STEVEN ROSEN
Special to the Los Angeles Times / Sept. 10, 2007
For Baby Boomers it’s a concept that’s inevitably coming into focus – the final frontier as it were. Like every other milestone in their lives – from drugs, sex and rock n’ roll to parenting to AARP membership — Boomers are embracing the concept of their own demise with the kind of single-mindedness that characterized their generation.
As recent examples in popular culture, journalism and the business world show, death can be something that creates curiosity about life’s lessons and goals — not to mention excellent marketing opportunities. Krishna Andavolu, the editor of the new and online-only (for now) Obit magazine (obit-mag.com), believes that Boomers are the driving force behind this changing approach to death.
“It was a generation looking for personal meaning in things an older generation did out of familiarity, and now it’s looking at death,” he said by phone from his Brooklyn office. “They’re making it a point of discussion rather than a point of mute acceptance.”
Andavolu sees a wealth of raw material to draw from in the lives of people who made an impact, however briefly, during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Then, a mass-media revolution coincided with the birth of new political and cultural movements that affected society from the bottom up. As some pass on, others try to remember them meaningfully – using new tools like the Internet as well as old ones like drama.
“It’s not just pop culture that happened with the Boomers, it’s also progressive culture,” says Andavolu, who’s only 24. “So we’re trying to show either through the Baby Boomers we feature – or the generation before that influenced them – how their life helped shape the culture we now know today.”
The magazine was started by J. Robert Hillier, a Princeton, N.J., architect, with his wife, Barbara. (They also are part owners of a Princeton weekly newspaper.) According to Obit’s initial press release – from Feb. 15 – he got the idea after seeing a woman in an airport reading an obituary for Bob Keeshan, better known to kids of the 1950s and 1960s as TV’s Captain Kangaroo. (He died in 2004 at age 76.)
In response to an E-mail query, Hillier said he has invested about $500,000 to date in Obit. Andavolu says the Web site draws about 5,500 readers a day.
Obit has plans to publish a print edition at some point and is already selling subscriptions. It has put prototype covers featuring Susan Sontag and Gordon Parks on its Web site. One reason for the delay may be competition from traditioonal media: obituaries from major newspapers and other sources are available instantaneously these days, often enhanced with photos, video clips, and links to writings, speeches, paintings or songs by the newly deceased. The Internet is an especially active place with Web sites, blogs and discussion groups like alt.obituaries, Writers We’ve Lost and Even the Great Must Die. (Obit offers links to several.)
Because pop culture is so huge, even relatively lesser figures can get an amazing amount of instantaneous Internet space devoted to their deaths, especially if they had anything to do with rock ‘n’ roll – the great passion of Boomers. When singer-songwriter Lee Hazlewood died this month at age 78, for instance, alternative-rock site Pitchfork.com linked to videos on YouTube; NPR.com encouraged its readers to sample his songs with and without Nancy Sinatra, and omnibus pop-music guide allmusic.com assembled a multipage tribute peppered with access to songs, videos and a chart of Hazlewood’s five greatest productions.
In trying to find its own way, Obit has been resourceful in trying to expand death coverage by digging deeper, so to speak. A recent Web site lead story, for instance, was devoted to the passing of Dr. Art Davis, a jazz bassist who played for Dizzy Gillespie and John Coltrane and later became a practicing psychologist. He died at 72 in late July.
It has a weather map-like feature called “Mourning Obits” that links to newspaper obit sections throughout the country. Some of its offbeat stories include a look at dog-walking at Washington, D.C.’s, Congressional Cemetery and an analysis of the end of “The Sopranos.” Also, it analyzes the coverage of death in the media.
“Death is a point of discussion rather than a point of mute acceptance – that’s the hallmark of the Baby Boomer legacy we’re trying to capture in our magazine,” Andavolu says. “We’re discussing death in a frank and open way that has this range of emotions from very personal and profound to even being lighthearted.”
But while Obit is trying to make death as interesting and compelling to its target generation as the Grateful Dead once was, it isn’t alone in its vision. Setting the tone was Alan Ball’s influential “Six Feet Under” TV series, about an unusual family of undertakers for whom the line between life and death was nervously fluid.
In 2003 came Mark Romanek’s video for Johnny Cash’s “Hurt,” an unsentimental, death-staring elegy for the aging but (at the time) still-alive singer. And a popular film at this year’s Los Angeles Film Festival, Stephen Walker’s “Young @ Heart,” features a mortality-cognizant elderly chorus singing songs like the Clash’s “Should I Stay Or Should I Go,” Talking Heads’ “Road to Nowhere” and David Bowie’s “Golden Years” in order to uncover a poignant new layer of meaning to rock music. Fox Searchlight has acquired it for theatrical release.
One strikingly successful, if inadvertent, example of this new ways to think about death trend has taken on a life of its own. Patricia Schultz’s “1,000 Places to See Before You Die” travel book from Workman Publishing has sold 2 million copies worldwide since debuting in 2003. It’s still on The New York Times list of paperback advice books after a long run at the top along with it just- released sequel, “1,000 Places to See in the USA and Canada Before You Die.” Among its spin-offs are calendars, journals and a TV series.
Naturally, there have been many imitators: A rival “1001…You Must See Before You Die” (or “Hear”) series has issued books on movies, paintings, gardens, albums and natural wonders and has volumes coming on buildings, classical albums, foods (“You Must Eat”) and wine (“You Must Taste”).
A visit to a bookstore or bookselling Web site will find plenty of other similar titles either in stock or coming out soon: “Unforgettable Places to See Before You Die,” “101 Things Not to Die Before You Die,” “”Fifty Places to Sail Before You Die,” “Epic Spots: The Places You Must Skate Before You Die,” “Fifty Places to Go Birding Before You Die,” “Unforgettable Walks to Take Before You Die,” even “101 Things to Do in Alabama Before You Up and Die.” The only thing missing (so far) is “’Before You Die’ Books to Read Before You Die.”
It’s even moved beyond books: A current Visa Signature card print ad campaign has a list of “Things to do while you’re alive.” In one, featuring Elvis Costello, the last item is “Find peace, love and understanding,” a reference to a rock song written by Nick Lowe and notably covered by Costello.
Workman, which has trademarked the “1,000…Before You Die” title, has its own volumes coming on music, books and food.
“The imperative of that title is very compelling,” said music journalist Tom Moon, who has been working for three years on Workman’s upcoming “1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die.” “A lot of people don’t confront mortality ever.”
Schultz, the 54-year-old travel writer who kicked off this avalanche, believes Boomers were a significant factor in the first book’s success.
“They really have considerable budgets and are aware that there is no dress rehearsal after seeing the 43-year-old fellow on Wall Street succumbing to a premature heart attack,” she explains. “That jolts you into an appreciation of life when you still have your health and have the curiosity. You’ve arrived at a certain period in your profession where you’ve gotten where you need to be, but there’s a certainty that there’s more out there.”
Schultz was hired to do the book in 1995. At the time, the name being bandied about was “100 Drop Dead Places to See.” It changed almost as an afterthought early on, she explains, as company chairman Peter Workman and art director Paul Hanson were experimenting with possible covers. They liked “1,000” rather than “100” and “Before You Die” rather than “To Die For.”
The first change meant she had years to go see the world and work on her book. The second, the impact of which wasn’t realized at the time, made the book as much about the reader’s goals and priorities – like “The Road Less Traveled” – as about its own subject matter.
“I think it was a wakeup call, a carpe diem, to sit up and take notice,” she said of the “Before You Die” aspect. “The years pass you by, you’re not 20 anywhere, get going.”