2010: Time To Die (Part Two: July-December)

2010: In pace requiescat!

This one hurt. The spectacular career of Bob Probert had already ended; his life ended entirely too soon (at the absurdly young age of 45), on July 5 while smoke from the previous day’s fireworks still hung in the air.

Quick tally: #24, over 3,000 penalty minutes. Member, along with Joe Kocur, of the legendary “Bruise Brothers” tandem back in the days when the Detroit Red Wings were more feared for what they could do after the whistle stopped play. Participant in a handful of the all-time classic fights in hockey history. Man who inspired t-shirts that read “Give Blood. Fight Probert.” Simply put, if one were to try and create the ideal enforcer (especially for an era that may not have been the toughest or most iconic era but was one of the most enjoyable), one could hardly imagine a more suitable cartoon character than Bob Probert.

As The Kinks once sang, Let’s All Drink To The Death Of A Clown.

And lest anyone think I’m using the word clown carelessly or disrespectfully, it is in fact chosen with the aim of being both accurate and approbatory. (A Probie-tory, if you like.)

Think about what a clown does: he is the minor but essential character who shows up at a circus with the objective of instigating misconduct. Above all, his purpose is to entertain with a mixture of mischief and cheer. A superficial assessment might conclude that a clown is simply doing, in make-up, what any drunk idiot might do. But of course whether it is juggling, dancing or doing tricks, not just anyone could be (or would want to be) a clown. It’s a job.

Think about what a hockey enforcer (what we used to call a goon just like we used to call escorts hookers or stockbrokers sociopaths) does: he is the minor but essential figure who shows up in an arena with the object of instigating misconduct (hopefully without receiving a game misconduct). Above all, his purpose is to settle scores and entertain a crowd while uplifting his teammates. A superficial assessment might conclude that an enforcer is simply doing, in a colorful costume, what any drunk idiot might do. But needless to say, trading bare-fisted blows (sober or especially drunk) in a bar is considerably different than standing on skates and going toe to toe with an opponent who is well-prepared (and in some cases, well-paid) to kick your ass in front of thousands of people. Many people without athletic ability are very capable goons; only an extremely select group of individuals are able (much less willing) to abide by “The Code”. It’s a job.

A much longer appraisal of his life, and the odd algebra of hockey enforcement here.

The best hockey fight of all time (please appreciate the affectionate head-butt and head-pats at the end):

 

 

The dog daze of summer got a bit more unbearable with the passing of Harvey Pekar. I gave him as loving and thorough an appreciation as I could, and his loss can be summed up with the understanding that we won’t get many, if any, like him down here anytime soon.

And while Pekar was groundbreaking in a way for making the primary source of his subject material his own life, his life story is more remarkable than anything written by or about him. To go from a genuinely obscure misanthrope living in squalor to becoming the mostly obscure misanthrope living mostly in squalor…that’s America. It’s definitely the American Dream, through a broken glass darkly.

It’s almost impossible to envision now, with everyone’s daily trials, tribulations and ablutions the focus of a billion blog posts, or the solipsistic Greek chorus of the Twittering class, but what Pekar did, then, by pulling the soda-stained cover off his personal life in the service of art was a revelation. Certainly, the subject of our immortal Self goes back to cave drawings and Don Quixote, and only official autobiographies are truly fictional. But when it came to the more postmodern type of tilting at windmills, Harvey Pekar was the patron saint of the unshaven, recalcitrant crank (actually crank is too harsh by half; he was more misanthrope who looked at life the way a chronically ambivalent dieter regards that piece of cake: he knows better but he just can’t help himself).

With Robert Crumb’s divine (artistic) intervention, his efforts captured the disaffection of the underdog and gave words to the shmucks destined to be forgotten. To become a meaningful artist one must be intolerant of cliche. To become a meaningful human being one must be intolerant of untruth. Although it came at a considerable cost, Harvey Pekar was incapable of cruising along the soul-crushing streets of quiet desperation. In becoming the poet laureate of disinclined endurance he helped remind America that there is a splendor in our shared obsolescence.

In October we lost Barbara Billingsley. This was a rite of passage, however symbolic, for many people who remember black and white TV (and I don’t mean knowing about it, I mean watching it).

I don’t know about calling her “America’s mom”, as I’m sure many obituaries will claim, but she was inarguably the “sitcom mom”.

It’s funny. My peers and I (born in or around 1970) were, obviously, not around in the ’50s, but that earlier era loomed large in our lives. Let me explain: the people who raised us did live in that time, and they were invariably informed by the mores and cultural imperatives of that era. As such, many of our parents were either inculcating or reacting against the buttoned-down (repressed?), black-and-white (i.e., white) reality shows like Leave It To Beaver portrayed. Hence the hippie sensibility that at least had a fighting chance for a few years before the door slammed shut in the back-to-the-future adventure of the Reagan years.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Many of us watched syndicated repeats of shows like Leave It To Beaver at an age when the TV functioned as a stop-gap between swim practice and spending the majority of the day at the pool, or in between morning chores (remember those?). It was all about the escapades that Beaver and Wally got into, and Ward and June were, well, not older so much as ageless. Ward was kind of like God (a very white God): firm, upright, not one to be fucked with. But He brought you into this world and he always had your best interests in mind, even when you screwed up. Billingsley was, to the average eight year old (I’d imagine, unless I’m alone here), less a woman than a matron; equal parts perfect casting and appearance. She was kind of like Jesus (or Mary?): she helped hold down the fort and there was never any dissension in the Cleaver crib. But she was the (ahem) kinder, gentler hand, the one whose shoulder you could cry on and the one who would buck you up even if you let her down. That, after all, is what mothers are for. (The adult looking back on clips from that show can’t help but notice Barbs was a fine-looking woman indeed. One imagines that outside of the kitchen, once the boys were tucked in and a few very dry Martinis later, with Ward nodding off in his recliner after another heroin fix, our all-American mom was ready to party; let’s hope for all of our sakes this was the case. Just kidding, mostly.)

All of which, I guess, is one way of trying to articulate the obvious: if America needed a manufactured (but, according to colleagues, family and friends, more than half-genuine) mother figure to enshrine in sit-com heaven, we all could have gotten much worse than Barbara Billingsley.

A little over a week later we lost the great Gregory Isaacs, AKA “The Cool Ruler”.

A fond adieu to one of reggae music’s silken voices. Certainly not as known or celebrated as many of his peers, Isaacs has always been a reggae-lover’s reggae icon. Those in the know appreciate his understated charms and subtle mastery. Of the many artists we can –and should– say this about: Isaacs was meant to sing and make music, and we should be grateful to the forces of the universe (however fickle they might be, and however many other angelic voices they’ve not deemed fit to anoint) that the Cool Ruler was able to find his way onto record, and into our hearts.

The hockey world lost one of its heroes in November when cancer finally got the best of Pat Burns.

You have to hand it to Cancer. It does not discriminate: all it requires is a living body to inhabit and attack. That’s it. Certainly, if you are impoverished or unable to acquire adequate medical care, this disease will make quicker work of you. But even the wealthy, well-connected and powerful are ultimately susceptible to the Big C.

This week the universally despised and dreaded ailment claimed another influential life. And it proved that no matter how tough you are, it likes its chances if it can remain undetected long enough to get a head start. If there is any human whose prospects I’d wager on in a mano a chemo battle, it would be Pat Burns. (Decent overviews of his career and achievements here and here and especially here.)

This excerpt pretty much sums it up:

“As for my career,” he said at the arena ceremony, “I always said to my kids, ‘You don’t cry because it’s over, you’re happy because it happened.’ That’s the main thing. I’m very happy that it happened.”

A few weeks later, Mr. Burns said he could not imagine himself being anything other than a cop and a coach.

“No, that’s all I was,” he said.

November turned out to be a rough month indeed when we lost the inimitable Leslie Nielsen.

Anyone who can remember the era when Beta briefly held sway over VHS will surely remember seeing Nielsen in Airplane! (Don’t call me Shirley). Impossible as it might be to believe, nobody from this generation had any idea who he was, which only made him funnier. As in: who is that old guy and holy shit, he’s hilarious! And he was. I’m sure you’ve already read more than a few career retrospective/obituaries that detail his long, patient struggle to make a mark –meaningful or otherwise– in Hollywood. (If you haven’t, they won’t be hard to find). It was, clearly, as unexpected for him as it was for audiences all around America when he ended up stealing the show in that low-budget 1980 movie.

(It is both ironic and a tad eerie to see Nielsen pass a little more than a month after the other enduring scene-stealer from Airplane!, Barbara Billingsley. In fact, that movie was a vehicle to give America’s mom one last moment that lasted forever, while for Nielsen it served as the springboard that launched his most unlikely late-career ascent to superstardom.)

And aside from Airplane he’ll be best remembered for his almost too-perfect-to-be-possible role as the bumbling Frank Drebin in the Naked Gun series. (Nobody begrudged Nielsen milking that particular cow long after the udder ran dry, because the brilliance of the first film made up for the increasingly lame follow-ups).

For an extended appreciation of my favorite Nielsen work (hint: it’s not in Airplane! or The Naked Gun) check it out here.

December 7, 2010 had the dubious distinction of being the 30th anniversary of John Lennon’s death. I’ve written quite a bit about it, and him, in recent years, and you can find them here, here, herehere, here, here and here.

Some samples are below:

It was thirty years ago today…

John Lennon’s death, not too many people would debate, was our generation’s JFK. I think people my age might more easily remember where they were when the Challenger blew up on that frigid day in 1986 (or the aforementioned Len Bias tragedy, which still manages to shock, in June of the same year). But the murder of Lennon (like JFK), by gunfire, was the same brutal, irrevocable blow that never really registers. We do our best to make sense of what we’re left with, but the act itself is never really reconcilable or, in many regards, believable. I still can’t quite believe John Lennon was killed, right outside his home, a few weeks before Christmas (and less than a month after the release of what turned out to be his last proper album, the remarkable return-to-form Double Fantasy).

Lennon, despite the perfectly legitimate and understandable lionizing he was subject to during –and especially after– his life, was, arguably, the most human Beatle. Ringo and Harrison were more down to earth (partly because their abilities, frankly speaking, kept them more firmly grounded), and McCartney has always seemed a genuinely friendly fella (his long and by all accounts happy relationship with wife Linda until her death speaks eloquently of the superficial Sun-King entitlements he was able to avoid or eschew, to his considerable credit). But Lennon, ever inscrutable, bigger than life –and Jesus–(he said, he said) and impossible to pigeon-hole, must be, in the final analysis, the most easy to understand, on human and artistic levels.

It didn’t need to end; it had to end. How could they keep going; they kept going.

Of course, as the ‘70s showed, (not unlike Cream before them, or Pink Floyd after them) no one amongst the Fab Four came close to making music on their own equal to the work they did together. (The people who think Imagine and Plastic Ono Band are superior to any proper Beatles albums, aside from outing themselves as “John people” — not that there’s anything wrong with that — are arguably not true Beatles fanatics. And there is certainly nothing wrong with that).

In short and in sum: John needed Paul, and Paul needed John. It’s as simple as that, and I’ve yet to hear a compelling argument to the contrary — and I say that as someone who accepts the fact that the break-up was probably inevitable, in the grand scheme of things. Mourning what could or should have been seems churlish, like wishing Shakespeare had lived a bit longer and written another half-dozen plays. With an embarrassment of riches like this, it’s insane to quibble (and, in a confession that marks me, for better or worse, as a Beatles fanatic, I find much to enjoy in all of the solo albums: as always, Ringo is best in small doses and each other member indulges a tad too much in their obsessions for my liking. In closing, they needed each other, perhaps more than they ever realized).

As anyone who reads this blog well understands by now, The Beatles are, for me, like the mafia was to Michael Corleone; every time I think I’ve said all I can (should) say, they pull me back in. And if I’m going to be pulled back, I’d better Get Back.

Finally (I hope, as we still have a few days left in 2010), just before Christmas the cruelest blow of all: Don Van Vliet thumbed his nose at the planet, cosmically speaking.

To say Don Van Vliet was unique is rather like saying the sun radiates heat: it doesn’t quite capture the enormity and impact of the subject. To assert that he was brilliant would be almost insulting, if that is possible. A genius? Let’s just say that if he wasn’t, then no other pop musician has ever been either. Even that is not quite right, since pop refers to popular and Captain Beefheart was anything but popular. He was highly regarded, and always will be, but the circle of aficionados who gravitate to his uncanny catalog is likely to get smaller, not bigger. Also, it just doesn’t work to call what he did pop music; he was an artist. Literally. When he walked away from music, forever, in the early ‘80s, he concentrated on his painting and made far more money from that. (Calling to mind another eccentric genius, Syd Barrett, who turned his back on the scene and quietly tended to his paintings and his plants.)

So, sui generis? For sure, but even that won’t suffice. You almost have to make up words, so I will. Don Van Vliet was Chop Suey Generis. You need not hear a single note to be smitten; just consider some of the song titles: “Grown So Ugly”, “She’s Too Much For My Mirror”, “Steal Softly Thru Snow”, “Grow Fins”, “My Head Is My Only House Unless It Rains”, “Her Eyes Are A Blue Million Miles”, “Woe-is-uh-Me-Bop”, “The Clouds Are Full of Wine (not Whiskey or Rye)”, “Cardboard Cutout Sundown”, and, of course, “Zig Zag Wanderer”.

But then there is the music. And that voice. When doing his gruff, evil blues, he sounded more than a little like Howlin’ Wolf, but he wasn’t mimicking so much as channeling him (yeah, I know…), and it came out through his soul sounding like a narcotized sci-fi monster with an ashtray heart of gold. Add the lyrics (they range from simple to impenetrable but are always original and clever to the point of being intimidating) and you have a result that, love it or loathe it, could not in a billion years be imitated or even approximated by anyone. “High voltage man kisses night to bring the light to those who need to hide their shadow-deed” he wails on “Electricity” –a song that anticipates punk as much as it exhausts the possibilities of the avant-garde. Speaking of Howlin’ Wolf, this sounds like the great Chester Arthur Burnett cloned as a machine, doused in Lysergic acid and forced to stick its finger in a light socket.

In the end, Van Vliet’s obscurity tends to confirm many things we know about the way art is created and received, especially in America. If music like this was successful it would almost cause us to question the calibration of our planet. Besides, Beefheart had as much of a chance at being understood as Jesus Christ at the trading floor on Wall Street. The message was sent, and it’s still out there for anyone who cares to hear it. The biggest blessing is that we can listen to this magical music and be reminded that it’s real, it happened. He happened, and some of us will spend the rest of our lives trying to figure out how we managed to get so lucky.

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Gregory Isaacs, Cool Ruler R.I.P.

A fond adieu to one of reggae music’s silken voices. Certainly not as known or celebrated as many of his peers, Isaacs has always been a reggae-lover’s reggae icon. Those in the know appreciate his understated charms and subtle mastery. Of the many artists we can –and should– say this about: Isaacs was meant to sing and make music, and we should be grateful to the forces of the universe (however fickle they might be, and however many other angelic voices they’ve not deemed fit to anoint) that the Cool Ruler was able to find his way onto record, and into our hearts.

Gregory Isaacs medley:

Night Nurse:

Mr. Cop:

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Mary Travers, R.I.P.

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From today’s NYT:

Mary Travers, whose ringing, earnest vocals with the folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary made songs like “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “If I Had a Hammer” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” enduring anthems of the 1960s protest movement, died on Wednesday at Danbury Hospital in Connecticut. She was 72 and lived in Redding, Conn.

Their sound may have been commercial and safe, but early on their politics were somewhat risky for a group courting a mass audience. Like Mr. Yarrow and Mr. Stookey, Ms. Travers was outspoken in her support for the civil-rights and antiwar movements, in sharp contrast to clean-cut folk groups like the Kingston Trio, which avoided making political statements.

Peter, Paul and Mary went on to perform at the 1963 March on Washington and joined the voting-rights marches from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., in 1965.

Over the years they performed frequently at political rallies and demonstrations in the United States and abroad. After the group disbanded, in 1970, Ms. Travers continued to perform at political events around the world as she pursued a solo career.

mary2

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