Like many living people, many dead people make more than me

I have a good friend who organizes his extensive album and CD collection alphabetically, except that he has a special section for music from people who have died. Some of the music in Paul’s ‘Dead Zone’ obviously belongs there: Janis Joplin, Jim Croce, Jimi Hendrix and Townes Van Zandt. However, some require a little more thought.

John Lennon and George Harrison are in the Dead Zone for their solo efforts, but the Beatles as a group remain in the main music library. In contrast, Jim Morrison and the Doors are in the Dead Zone, because, Paul argues, the Doors are so associated with Morrison that it would seem somehow disrespectful not to include them in the Dead Zone, and you obviously can’t put Morrison with the living.

Paul includes Jerry Garcia’s solo albums in the Dead Zone, of course, but, oddly enough, he keeps the Grateful Dead among the living, a classification for which the living members of the band are undoubtedly grateful.

I was thinking about dead artists in general and dead musicians, in particular, the other day as I was reading an article in Forbes magazine that lists the top-earning dead celebrities of this past year. I didn’t read the actual article because I was too busy writing about it to read it, which I believe qualifies me to have my own show on Fox News. Besides, it’s depressing enough to know that so many living people make way more money than I do; I don’t need to be reminded that many dead people do as well.

Not surprisingly, this year’s top-earning dead celebrity was Michael Jackson. His estate raked in some $275 million last year following his sudden and untimely death. Jackson’s earnings last year were greater than the next 12 highest-earning dead celebrities combined, and more than the combined earnings of Lady Gaga, Madonna and Jay-Z for the same period, all of whom are very much alive and well, or, in the case of Lady Gaga, at least alive.

If you’re interested, Elvis Presley was second on this year’s dead celebrity earnings list with $60 million, which included both record sales and earnings from admissions to Graceland and royalties from a Cirque de Soleil show. I’m afraid I missed that show; it probably opened the night I was at the Captain and Tennille’s “Muskrat Love” Ice Capades Extravaganza.

The third-highest earning dead celebrity this year was J.R.R. Tolkien with $50 million, then Charles Schulz, whose estate brought in $33 million on the ageless backs of Snoopy and Charlie Brown, followed by Swedish author Steig Larsson ($18 million) and the late John Lennon ($17 million). Lennon would have turned 70 this year.

Presley, Tolkien, Schulz and Lennon all appeared on last year’s list as well. Last year’s highest-earning dead celebrity was fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent with $350 million, which seems like an awful lot of scarves and purses, no?

I’m as impressed with people who earn vast sums of money as the next guy, particularly those who earn it after they depart this mortal coil. For some reason, lists like this appeal to me more than they should. I think it’s just further evidence of our strange national obsession with celebrityhood. The newsstands and airwaves are overflowing with stories about people who are famous largely for being famous, or for being lucky enough to be fabulously wealthy, or, in some cases (Hi Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian!), both.

The list I really want to see someday is the list of those people who are neither wealthy nor famous nor aspiring to become so, but who nevertheless manage to live lives of quiet dignity, who randomly distribute kindness and compassion like it was Halloween candy, who lead lives of courage and conviction and generosity far out of proportion to their station in life and personal means. Now that’s a list to aspire to be included in, and you don’t even have to die to do it.

Tom Tyner of Bainbridge Island writes a weekly humor column for this newspaper. This, as the reference to the King of Pop suggests, is from his “Classics File” of columns written years ago.