David Bowie: The Man Who Owned the World (One Year Later)

david-bowie-1976-billboard-650-500x331

ONLY THE BEATLES. That’s the sole comparison that comes to mind when compelled to name a musical act with similar impact and importance. The Beatles, as we all know, changed each year during their still indescribable run, effectively owning the ‘60s. David Bowie, on the other hand, built an entire career on changes, even as he became the peerless satellite so many others orbited around.

Also like The Beatles, Bowie put in his time before lifting off and then, once he really broke through, he kept on breaking, and changing, and winning. A great deal, understandably, has been said about these changes, with inevitable if ultimately reductive words like chameleon and shape shifter tossed into every encomium. David Bowie elevated reinvention to an art form; he was a genius of changing.

About these changes. They weren’t simply haircuts and costume changes (hello, Madonna); they were entirely new identities. And yet and of course, every new character was thoroughly and undeniably David Bowie. This, among so many other things, was what enabled him to remain an innovator who couldn’t be imitated (how can anyone imitate you if you never imitate yourself?). Nor were any of these characters cursory; Bowie transformed himself as well as his music. Although diminished by comparison, none of his better-known acolytes, from envelope-pushers like Eddie Izzard to opportunists like Bono, could have conceivably negotiated their alternately awkward and unabashed milieus without the example set by the Thin White Duke.

Champions of the avant-garde are often bored with, even incapable of conventional thinking. Bowie managed to be several steps ahead of the avant-garde, probably because even he couldn’t have imagined where he was headed next. The thing is, when most artists make profound, if indulgent changes (think Neil Young in the early ‘80s), it alienates fans and inexorably seems either forced or facile. Bowie? He changed the world and took everyone with him, and he did it year after year. Even someone unfamiliar with the music need only look at the cover art from album to album. That’s the same person? Well, yes. And no.

What was that all about? It seldom seemed calculated or strained; indeed, it’s as though he needed to jump-start his own peripatetic sensibility, and these often eccentric, always endearing identities were delivery devices for the brilliance bubbling beneath the pin-up pretense. Red, bleach blonde or brown, his hair—although forever awesome—was window dressing, his clothes more a nod to his impeccable fashion instincts. Make no mistake, it was always about the music.

About that music. “Space Oddity”, “Life on Mars”, “Changes”, “John, I’m Only Dancing”, “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide”, “Aladdin Sane”, “Diamond Dogs”, “Rebel Rebel”…these aren’t merely songs, or even (merely) anthems, they are cultural signifiers, queer escutcheons that at once shield and embolden the outcasts and “others”. Bowie, being the Alpha Outsider, was brave and brilliant, and adamant enough to become The Other, and the changes that followed changed others, allowing others to become something other than the others they might have otherwise been destined to be.

There are so many wonderful illustrations, any of which could make a case for why Bowie was more than a pop musician, why he mattered and why he’ll be so desperately missed. For me, it’s a deceptively simple track—from what may be his most consistently satisfying album Hunky Dory—that encapsulates everything he managed to be. “Oh! You Pretty Things”, his little anthem to oddness (and the inevitability of ch-ch-ch-ch-changes) continues to delight, excite and inspire me, even today, as a middle-aged straight white male. I can scarcely fathom how many confused and scared souls Bowie salvaged and empowered. What an artist he was; what a hero he’ll always be.

Significantly, Bowie was not simply a front-man, although to be certain he was one of the incendiary stage performers of the last century. He was a musician. Yes, he could play multiple instruments and he could write the songs (nevermind the singing and lyrics, which we’ll never tire of extolling), but his acumen was unassailable, if unconventional. Consider two easily studied examples: the direction he gave Mike Garson for the title track of Aladdin Sane, or the story behind how his uncanny collaboration with Queen during the “Under Pressure” sessions.

About those lyrics. Yes, they’re sometimes inscrutable, endlessly open to interpretation (intentional, obviously), but there can be no question that multiple meanings are a result of the layers: he was easily one of the most intelligent—and articulate—wordsmiths of our time. A random sample from the top shelf: “And the stars look very different today”, “Take a look at the lawman beating up the wrong guy”, “We passed upon the stair, we spoke of was and when”, “Battle cries and champagne just in time for sunrise”, “In the year of the scavenger, the season of the bitch”, “The shrieking of nothing is killing”, “It’s the terror of knowing what this world is about”…

Debate can—and should—now rage forevermore about what Bowie’s post-‘70s legacy means: did he exhaust himself or continue to make boundary-breaking music? A bit of both seems the safest and soundest answer, but opinions and mileage will vary, as they should. Let there be no question whatsoever, though, that he was utterly locked in during the ‘70s. Did anyone own the decade like David Bowie? There were historic runs by Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin. The Who were going strong, at least until the air went out of the Moon; The Rolling Stones acquitted themselves nicely, for the most part. But from first to last, the string of masterpieces Bowie unleashed is unlikely to ever be equaled. Again, only The Beatles put out so many works with analogous import and influence.

Like The Beatles, Bowie didn’t only innovate; he wrought aesthetic and stylistic changes and, like an irrepressible Pied Piper, people followed him wherever he went. Secure prediction: time will only increase our collective appreciation for the extent of what Bowie achieved between ’70 and ’80. This music, for the most part, does not sound dated but remains utterly of its time—including the alternately surreal and intractable Berlin trilogy—and over time, it will define the times in which it was made, the way all our best art manages to do.

AS

Take “Aladdin Sane”, please. This miniature masterpiece employs everything brilliant about progressive rock (the musicianship, the audacity) and distills it into not only an accessible, but irresistible package. If one can hear Joy Division and Iggy Pop in the Berlin trilogy, it’s difficult to deny that many varied hitmakers were paying close attention to this uncanny freak with paint on his face. Prog rock started to wear out its welcome for a million mostly good reasons by mid-decade, but the wise ones, especially Ian Anderson and Peter Gabriel, were paying attention, if not taking notes. Across years and styles, it’s impossible to imagine groups (prominent in their own right) ranging from The Smiths and Pet Shop Boys to Duran Duran, onward to Radiohead and Lady Gaga, without Bowie’s blueprint.

Bowie was indefatigable and, seemingly, unconquerable. That’s why his death (from cancer, that most banal of diseases) not only astonishes, but offends. If Ziggy Stardust is mortal after all, heaven help the rest of us who may still be kidding ourselves. Where would-be epoch defining entities like John Lennon, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Kurt Cobain—all of whom forged specific connections with him, incidentally—didn’t have the luck or wherewithal to withstand Life on Earth, Bowie did: for himself obviously yet also, one suspected, because he understood it was all bigger than him. Remarkably, as beloved as he became, he got the joke and that was arguably the secret (so impossible, so perfect) to his longevity.

In our devolving era of social media attention spans and controversy stirred via electronic one-liners (often anonymous, natch), recalling the courage of Bowie’s convictions is instructive. First and foremost, the closet exodus heard ‘round the world: “I’m gay, and always have been.” That was 1972, and even if, in the moment, this was an act of calculated provocation, it’s the stuff revolutions are made of. Cheers to him for taking the piss out of Andy Warhol way before it was either safe or acceptable (much less imperative). Pivoting from glam to soul and becoming one of the first—and only—white artists to be considered cool enough to appear on Soul Train. Being brazenly ahead of the pack in calling out MTV for its congenital honky-itis in 1983. Appearing in movies by A-List directors like Scorsese (as Pontius Pilate (!) in The Last Temptation of Christ) and Nolan (as Nikola Tesla (!!) in The Prestige). And, all those years later, Bowie being Bowie while sending up an enchanted Ricky Gervais.

He was our Oscar Wilde, obviously. Or better yet, a postmodern Dorian Gray, through the glass brightly: bigger than Jesus and not dying for our sins but celebrating them, or else suggesting, quite convincingly, that there were no sins and nothing to be ashamed of. And speaking of shame, where the legions of imitators and fakers have gotten it wrong this millennium, mistaking shamelessness for substance, Bowie endures as s secular saint of the dispossessed. He will remain revered because he was unashamed, and encouraged others to be as well, whoever and whatever they might happen to be that particular day.

It’s sunrise and millions weep a fountain. The Black Star has returned to Space. Now he’s gone; now he’s immortal.

This article originally published at The Weeklings on 1/14/16.
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David Bowie: The Man Who Owned the World

david-bowie-1976-billboard-650-500x331

ONLY THE BEATLES. That’s the sole comparison that comes to mind when compelled to name a musical act with similar impact and importance. The Beatles, as we all know, changed each year during their still indescribable run, effectively owning the ‘60s. David Bowie, on the other hand, built an entire career on changes, even as he became the peerless satellite so many others orbited around.

Also like The Beatles, Bowie put in his time before lifting off and then, once he really broke through, he kept on breaking, and changing, and winning. A great deal, understandably, has been said about these changes, with inevitable if ultimately reductive words like chameleon and shape shifter tossed into every encomium. David Bowie elevated reinvention to an art form; he was a genius of changing.

About these changes. They weren’t simply haircuts and costume changes (hello, Madonna); they were entirely new identities. And yet and of course, every new character was thoroughly and undeniably David Bowie. This, among so many other things, was what enabled him to remain an innovator who couldn’t be imitated (how can anyone imitate you if you never imitate yourself?). Nor were any of these characters cursory; Bowie transformed himself as well as his music. Although diminished by comparison, none of his better-known acolytes, from envelope-pushers like Eddie Izzard to opportunists like Bono, could have conceivably negotiated their alternately awkward and unabashed milieus without the example set by the Thin White Duke.

Champions of the avant-garde are often bored with, even incapable of conventional thinking. Bowie managed to be several steps ahead of the avant-garde, probably because even he couldn’t have imagined where he was headed next. The thing is, when most artists make profound, if indulgent changes (think Neil Young in the early ‘80s), it alienates fans and inexorably seems either forced or facile. Bowie? He changed the world and took everyone with him, and he did it year after year. Even someone unfamiliar with the music need only look at the cover art from album to album. That’s the same person? Well, yes. And no.

What was that all about? It seldom seemed calculated or strained; indeed, it’s as though he needed to jump-start his own peripatetic sensibility, and these often eccentric, always endearing identities were delivery devices for the brilliance bubbling beneath the pin-up pretense. Red, bleach blonde or brown, his hair—although forever awesome—was window dressing, his clothes more a nod to his impeccable fashion instincts. Make no mistake, it was always about the music.

About that music. “Space Oddity”, “Life on Mars”, “Changes”, “John, I’m Only Dancing”, “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide”, “Aladdin Sane”, “Diamond Dogs”, “Rebel Rebel”…these aren’t merely songs, or even (merely) anthems, they are cultural signifiers, queer escutcheons that at once shield and embolden the outcasts and “others”. Bowie, being the Alpha Outsider, was brave and brilliant, and adamant enough to become The Other, and the changes that followed changed others, allowing others to become something other than the others they might have otherwise been destined to be.

There are so many wonderful illustrations, any of which could make a case for why Bowie was more than a pop musician, why he mattered and why he’ll be so desperately missed. For me, it’s a deceptively simple track—from what may be his most consistently satisfying album Hunky Dory—that encapsulates everything he managed to be. “Oh! You Pretty Things”, his little anthem to oddness (and the inevitability of ch-ch-ch-ch-changes) continues to delight, excite and inspire me, even today, as a middle-aged straight white male. I can scarcely fathom how many confused and scared souls Bowie salvaged and empowered. What an artist he was; what a hero he’ll always be.

Significantly, Bowie was not simply a front-man, although to be certain he was one of the incendiary stage performers of the last century. He was a musician. Yes, he could play multiple instruments and he could write the songs (nevermind the singing and lyrics, which we’ll never tire of extolling), but his acumen was unassailable, if unconventional. Consider two easily studied examples: the direction he gave Mike Garson for the title track of Aladdin Sane, or the story behind how his uncanny collaboration with Queen during the “Under Pressure” sessions.

About those lyrics. Yes, they’re sometimes inscrutable, endlessly open to interpretation (intentional, obviously), but there can be no question that multiple meanings are a result of the layers: he was easily one of the most intelligent—and articulate—wordsmiths of our time. A random sample from the top shelf: “And the stars look very different today”, “Take a look at the lawman beating up the wrong guy”, “We passed upon the stair, we spoke of was and when”, “Battle cries and champagne just in time for sunrise”, “In the year of the scavenger, the season of the bitch”, “The shrieking of nothing is killing”, “It’s the terror of knowing what this world is about”…

Debate can—and should—now rage forevermore about what Bowie’s post-‘70s legacy means: did he exhaust himself or continue to make boundary-breaking music? A bit of both seems the safest and soundest answer, but opinions and mileage will vary, as they should. Let there be no question whatsoever, though, that he was utterly locked in during the ‘70s. Did anyone own the decade like David Bowie? There were historic runs by Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin. The Who were going strong, at least until the air went out of the Moon; The Rolling Stones acquitted themselves nicely, for the most part. But from first to last, the string of masterpieces Bowie unleashed is unlikely to ever be equaled. Again, only The Beatles put out so many works with analogous import and influence.

Like The Beatles, Bowie didn’t only innovate; he wrought aesthetic and stylistic changes and, like an irrepressible Pied Piper, people followed him wherever he went. Secure prediction: time will only increase our collective appreciation for the extent of what Bowie achieved between ’70 and ’80. This music, for the most part, does not sound dated but remains utterly of its time—including the alternately surreal and intractable Berlin trilogy—and over time, it will define the times in which it was made, the way all our best art manages to do.

AS

Take “Aladdin Sane”, please. This miniature masterpiece employs everything brilliant about progressive rock (the musicianship, the audacity) and distills it into not only an accessible, but irresistible package. If one can hear Joy Division and Iggy Pop in the Berlin trilogy, it’s difficult to deny that many varied hitmakers were paying close attention to this uncanny freak with paint on his face. Prog rock started to wear out its welcome for a million mostly good reasons by mid-decade, but the wise ones, especially Ian Anderson and Peter Gabriel, were paying attention, if not taking notes. Across years and styles, it’s impossible to imagine groups (prominent in their own right) ranging from The Smiths and Pet Shop Boys to Duran Duran, onward to Radiohead and Lady Gaga, without Bowie’s blueprint.

Bowie was indefatigable and, seemingly, unconquerable. That’s why his death (from cancer, that most banal of diseases) not only astonishes, but offends. If Ziggy Stardust is mortal after all, heaven help the rest of us who may still be kidding ourselves. Where would-be epoch defining entities like John Lennon, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Kurt Cobain—all of whom forged specific connections with him, incidentally—didn’t have the luck or wherewithal to withstand Life on Earth, Bowie did: for himself obviously yet also, one suspected, because he understood it was all bigger than him. Remarkably, as beloved as he became, he got the joke and that was arguably the secret (so impossible, so perfect) to his longevity.

In our devolving era of social media attention spans and controversy stirred via electronic one-liners (often anonymous, natch), recalling the courage of Bowie’s convictions is instructive. First and foremost, the closet exodus heard ‘round the world: “I’m gay, and always have been.” That was 1972, and even if, in the moment, this was an act of calculated provocation, it’s the stuff revolutions are made of. Cheers to him for taking the piss out of Andy Warhol way before it was either safe or acceptable (much less imperative). Pivoting from glam to soul and becoming one of the first—and only—white artists to be considered cool enough to appear on Soul Train. Being brazenly ahead of the pack in calling out MTV for its congenital honky-itis in 1983. Appearing in movies by A-List directors like Scorsese (as Pontius Pilate (!) in The Last Temptation of Christ) and Nolan (as Nikola Tesla (!!) in The Prestige). And, all those years later, Bowie being Bowie while sending up an enchanted Ricky Gervais.

He was our Oscar Wilde, obviously. Or better yet, a postmodern Dorian Gray, through the glass brightly: bigger than Jesus and not dying for our sins but celebrating them, or else suggesting, quite convincingly, that there were no sins and nothing to be ashamed of. And speaking of shame, where the legions of imitators and fakers have gotten it wrong this millennium, mistaking shamelessness for substance, Bowie endures as s secular saint of the dispossessed. He will remain revered because he was unashamed, and encouraged others to be as well, whoever and whatever they might happen to be that particular day.

It’s sunrise and millions weep a fountain. The Black Star has returned to Space. Now he’s gone; now he’s immortal.

This article originally published at The Weeklings on 1/14/16.
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Don Cornelius: Rest in Peace, Love and Soul (Revisited)

2/2/12.

This hurts.

A genuine American icon has left the planet. (NYT obit here.)

People born during or after the ’80s might know Don Cornelius mostly from name-checks in interviews, songs and clips on YouTube. And there is nothing wrong with that. But for us older folks, we knew the man. Some of us grew up with him.

If a picture can sometimes speak more eloquently than words, a video can function as a truth bomb that tells you all you need to know. Check it out:

I only have a handful of comments. The Hair. The Glasses. The Shirt. The Pants (did you see those Liberty Bell Bottoms flowing when he moved up that line?). And The VOICE.

Simply put, Don Cornelius was a man who managed to do precisely what he was put on this earth to do. And better, he epitomizes the American Dream (the actual one, not the boilerplate that rolls so odiously off politicians’ tongues). If you read about his life, and you should, you’ll learn (as I did) Soul Train was entirely conceived and created by Cornelius, via a pilot that cost $400 of his own dough. Four hundred bucks to build an Empire. What a bargain. For him; for all of us.

From the NYT obit: “ ‘Soul Train’ was developed as a radio show on television,” Mr. Cornelius told The New York Times in 1995. “It was the radio show that I always wanted and never had. I selected the music, and still do, by simply seeing what had chart success.”

He said the show was originally patterned on Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand,” but with a focus on black music, fashion and dance. “There was not programming that targeted any particular ethnicity,” he told The Associated Press in 2006. “I’m trying to use euphemisms here, trying to avoid saying there was no television for black folks, which they knew was for them.”

That’s America.

Or, more to the point, that was not America. Don Cornelius helped bring the music to the masses. Art that transcends trends and time will eventually, inevitably find its way forward. But sometimes tomorrow, or ten years from now, is not soon enough. In this regard, Cornelius helped American music and culture advance and evolve. If this meant we had to suffer through opportunistic but plasticized parodies like K.C. and the Sunshine Band, it also meant our country got early reads on everything from the latest James Brown or Marvin Gaye, to a necessary platform for never-ready-for-Prime-Time (in Honky America) rap music. Cornelius cultivated, and maintained, a street cred and kept it real for several decades. Not many artists are capable of that; and here was Soul Train, dedicated purely to the proposition of exposing worthwhile artists to a broad audience. That’s it.

Dig this history lesson:

Here is what I had to say on the occasion of David Carradine’s death, wherein I fondly recalled how those Saturday afternoons in the late ’70s and early ’80s provided entertainment and insight (full tribute here):

I can’t say I’ve watched a single episode of Kung Fu since the early ’80s when it was syndicated on Saturday afternoons, just after Soul Train and just before Soccer Made in Germany. This was sacred stuff for me and my Pops: we hunkered down and got it on. And just thinking back, for the first time it occurs to me, thank God America was so much more of a melting pot in those days. Soul Train, Soccer Made in Germany and Kung Fu? That’s some serious, if appropriated, cultural import right there. And the point is, it wasn’t self-conscious or anything we were even cognizant of; it just was. I say this with a nostalgic twinkle in my eye, considering my understanding (and appreciation) of these shows might have been a tad different if, for instance, I had any clue what those cool sing-song chants the large crowds were singing (in German) actually meant, or the act that most of these hip dance moves were approximating. But even then, I knew it was a stretch, at best, and awkward, at worst, that in the Kung Fu show, Carradine was (of course) supposed to be half-Chinese, leading to many of the bigoted taunts his character suffered. It certainly strained credulity on one hand, but also tended to make the portrayal that much more human. Credit Carradine for managing to pull that off. Mostly, this was righteous Shaolin shit, and it was of its time (’70s) and I was its ideal target audience: a young Catholic who heard priests talk the talk each Sunday but appreciated seeing the message carried out, albeit funneled through a pseudo-mystic far-East-via-Hollywood filter.

Soul Train, Kung Fu and Soccer Made in Germany: a righteous trifecta that imparted some necessary non-WASP perspective. Who knows how much of that soaked through and influenced my artistic and sociopolitical sensibilities (I reckon that one answers itself), but this is one of the (many) reasons I love/d the ’70s and endorse, without irony, an era when freak flags were flown high and a sense of inclusion combined with the atrocious wardrobes, drugs, music and malaise to contribute to a vibe that has never been duplicated. Look at the most popular shows on TV right now and tell me if we are wiser, hipper or happier today.

Don Cornelius will be remembered –and should hereafter be celebrated– for giving a voice to Black America. He should also be acknowledged –and praised– for making White America less white. Trust me, this was a very necessary and very good thing. It still is.

And above all, as always: Love, Peace and Soul.

The world just lost some. And we need it more than we ever have.

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Don Cornelius, Cont’d…

I only have one more thing to add to yesterday’s tribute. WATCH THE VIDEOS CONTAINED IN THIS LINK.

Let’s run it down:

A young, beautiful Michael Jackson? Check.

A younger, leaner and meaner James Brown? Check.

Marvin and Aretha? Check.

Rick James? CHECK!

Barry White? Check (yourself before you wreck yourself).

My work is done here. Enjoy!

Love, peace, and soul.

 

 

 

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Don Cornelius: Rest in Peace, Love and Soul

This hurts.

A genuine American icon has left the planet. (NYT obit here.)

People born during or after the ’80s might know Don Cornelius mostly from name-checks in interviews, songs and clips on YouTube. And there is nothing wrong with that. But for us older folks, we knew the man. Some of us grew up with him.

If a picture can sometimes speak more eloquently than words, a video can function as a truth bomb that tells you all you need to know. Check it out:

I only have a handful of comments. The Hair. The Glasses. The Shirt. The Pants (did you see those Liberty Bell Bottoms flowing when he moved up that line?). And The VOICE.

Simply put, Don Cornelius was a man who managed to do precisely what he was put on this earth to do. And better, he epitomizes the American Dream (the actual one, not the boilerplate that rolls so odiously off politicians’ tongues). If you read about his life, and you should, you’ll learn (as I did) Soul Train was entirely conceived and created by Cornelius, via a pilot that cost $400 of his own dough. Four hundred bucks to build an Empire. What a bargain. For him; for all of us.

From the NYT obit: “ ‘Soul Train’ was developed as a radio show on television,” Mr. Cornelius told The New York Times in 1995. “It was the radio show that I always wanted and never had. I selected the music, and still do, by simply seeing what had chart success.”       

He said the show was originally patterned on Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand,” but with a focus on black music, fashion and dance. “There was not programming that targeted any particular ethnicity,” he told The Associated Press in 2006. “I’m trying to use euphemisms here, trying to avoid saying there was no television for black folks, which they knew was for them.”  

That’s America.

Or, more to the point, that was not America. Don Cornelius helped bring the music to the masses. Art that transcends trends and time will eventually, inevitably find its way forward. But sometimes tomorrow, or ten years from now, is not soon enough. In this regard, Cornelius helped American music and culture advance and evolve. If this meant we had to suffer through opportunistic but plasticized parodies like K.C. and the Sunshine Band, it also meant our country got early reads on everything from the latest James Brown or Marvin Gaye, to a necessary platform for never-ready-for-Prime-Time (in Honky America) rap music. Cornelius cultivated, and maintained, a street cred and kept it real for several decades. Not many artists are capable of that; and here was Soul Train, dedicated purely to the proposition of exposing worthwhile artists to a broad audience. That’s it.

Dig this history lesson:

Here is what I had to say on the occasion of David Carradine’s death, wherein I fondly recalled how those Saturday afternoons in the late ’70s and early ’80s provided entertainment and insight (full tribute here):

I can’t say I’ve watched a single episode of Kung Fu since the early ’80s when it was syndicated on Saturday afternoons, just after Soul Train and just before Soccer Made in Germany. This was sacred stuff for me and my Pops: we hunkered down and got it on. And just thinking back, for the first time it occurs to me, thank God America was so much more of a melting pot in those days. Soul Train, Soccer Made in Germany and Kung Fu? That’s some serious, if appropriated, cultural import right there. And the point is, it wasn’t self-conscious or anything we were even cognizant of; it just was. I say this with a nostalgic twinkle in my eye, considering my understanding (and appreciation) of these shows might have been a tad different if, for instance, I had any clue what those cool sing-song chants the large crowds were singing (in German) actually meant, or the act that most of these hip dance moves were approximating. But even then, I knew it was a stretch, at best, and awkward, at worst, that in the Kung Fu show, Carradine was (of course) supposed to be half-Chinese, leading to many of the bigoted taunts his character suffered. It certainly strained credulity on one hand, but also tended to make the portrayal that much more human. Credit Carradine for managing to pull that off. Mostly, this was righteous Shaolin shit, and it was of its time (’70s) and I was its ideal target audience: a young Catholic who heard priests talk the talk each Sunday but appreciated seeing the message carried out, albeit funneled through a pseudo-mystic far-East-via-Hollywood filter.

Soul Train, Kung Fu and Soccer Made in Germany: a righteous trifecta that imparted some necessary non-WASP perspective. Who knows how much of that soaked through and influenced my artistic and sociopolitical sensibilities (I reckon that one answers itself), but this is one of the (many) reasons I love/d the ’70s and endorse, without irony, an era when freak flags were flown high and a sense of inclusion combined with the atrocious wardrobes, drugs, music and malaise to contribute to a vibe that has never been duplicated. Look at the most popular shows on TV right now and tell me if we are wiser, hipper or happier today.

Don Cornelius will be remembered –and should hereafter be celebrated– for giving a voice to Black America. He should also be acknowledged –and praised– for making White America less white. Trust me, this was a very necessary and very good thing. It still is.

And above all, as always: Love, Peace and Soul.

The world just lost some. And we need it more than we ever have.

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Kwai Chang Caine, R.I.P.

While I could appreciate where Quentin Tarantino was coming from with Kill Bill and the ways he dutifully pays homage to old school pop culture icons, there were a couple of reasons that movie did not resonate with me. One, protracted and pyrotechnically-proficient fight scenes aside (for the record, Uma Thurman’s womano a womano brawls with Vivica A. Fox and Daryl Hannah were quite satisfactory; the over-the-top and ludicrous fight vs. the Crazy 88s not so much), it was a pretty medicore flick. Both of them. (But more on Tarantino’s general post Pulp Fiction irrelevance another time.) Two, for people of my generation, it simply wasn’t all that cool to see the great David Carradine ostensibly ressurected as Bill; sure, he had sauntered out of the limelight, but he did not seem particularly anxious to stroll back into it. In other words, his role was not the type of career-saving reclamation project as it applied to, say, John Travolta and Bruce Willis circa 1994. Carradine was what he was: an old school legend who had been there, done that. He was Kwai Chang Caine for Christ’s sake.

Anyone who hesitates for a single second, or even has to ask who that is, will be unable to understand why cats of my ilk (kids of the ’70s) identify Carradine with the role he was born to play: Kwai Chang Caine in Kung Fu. (Of course, this immortal, if somewhat short-lived TV show was namechecked not only in Office Space, but in the aforementioned Pulp Fiction, which in hindsight seems like an appropriately reverential bit of foreshadowing on Tarantino’s part.)

I can’t say I’ve watched a single episode of Kung Fu since the early ’80s when it was syndicated on Saturday afternoons, just after Soul Train and just before Soccer Made in Germany. This was sacred stuff for me and my Pops: we hunkered down and got it on. And just thinking back, for the first time it occurs to me, thank God America was so much more of a melting pot in those days. Soul Train, Soccer Made in Germany and Kung Fu? That’s some serious, if appropriated, cultural import right there. And the point is, it wasn’t self-conscious or anything we were even cognizant of; it just was. I say this with a nostalgic twinkle in my eye, considering my understanding (and appreciation) of these shows might have been a tad different if, for instance, I had any clue what those cool sing-song chants the large crowds were singing (in German) actually meant, or the act that most of these hip dance moves were approximating. But even then, I knew it was a stretch, at best, and awkward, at worst, that in the Kung Fu show, Carradine was (of course) supposed to be half-Chinese, leading to many of the bigoted taunts his character suffered. It certainly strained credulity on one hand, but also tended to make the portrayal that much more human. Credit Carradine for managing to pull that off. Mostly, this was righteous Shaolin shit, and it was of its time (’70s) and I was its ideal target audience: a young Catholic who heard priests talk the talk each Sunday but appreciated seeing the message carried out, albeit funneled through a pseudo-mystic far-East-via-Hollywood filter. Kwai Chang Caine walked the walk.


 

Later in life, when I discovered more adult-oriented entertainment, it was amusing to see Carradine as such a diametrically opposite character, in his brief but classic scene in Scorese’s Mean Streets (he appears at 1.33 but this entire scene is highly recommended for a variety of reasons):

 On the other hand, even though it was understood as pure fantasy, it was still a little painful to see Carradine cast as the bad guy in the sucktacular masterpiece Lone Wolf McQuade.


For more time than I’d care to consider, I’ve settled into the age where it’s inevitable to see several of my childhood heroes pass on each year: it’s been an especially painful twelve months for me, with Rick Wright, Mitch Mitchell, Freddie Hubbard and John Cephas all leaving us behind. There will be many more just around the corner, and it won’t be too long before real significant voices of my generation (no conjecture necessary; suffice it to say, they too will die someday) start passing on. For me, Carradine’s departure is not as immediately affecting, since he is inextricably linked to my childhood, and for better or worse, I put childish things behind me quite some time ago. (In other words, I mourned this man and that era long before he had his last splash in the celluloid sun, courtesy of Quentin Tarantino.) As always, the silver lining in these losses is that while the man might be gone, the character–in this case, Kwai Chang Caine–will remain a part of me until the unavoidable day my own reality show is cancelled.

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(Not) Sucking in the ’70s: Two Words & One Ampersand

The Captain: Women Want Him and Men Want to Be Him

The Captain: Women Want Him and Men Want to Be Him

A few thoughts before we roll the tape…

Jim Croce: Thank you for that song, and the inspiration.

Carly Simon: I wish the song was about me.

Who knew “Like a Rhinestone Cowboy” was actually an early primer for the GOP?

The world needed Soul Train, even when white people pretended to be black people, with lamentable results.

Two words and one ampersand:  Peaches & Herb.

A guy who looked like this could have a number one hit. And that was a good thing.

M-m-m-m-m…Mice Aroma?

Still not convinced? Do you want to tangle with this cat?

To be continued. Obviously…

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