Moore was “our” James Bond for those of us growing up in the 1970s and early 80s, an impossibly suave and arch version of Ian Fleming’s iconic super spy. Taking over the role at 45 from the great Sean Connery and Aussie George Lazenby, who flamed out after one very good outing (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service), Moore slowly moved the portrayal of Bond away from the super macho style that Connery personified and into a more self-aware, almost ironic approach. With his first two outings as Bond, the very good blacksploitation hybrid Live And Let Dieand the rather less effective The Man With the Golden Gun, Moore seemed to be trying to split the diferrence between his own mischievous personality and the hardness of the Connery era, including slapping women around nonchalantly. But as two-time Bond movie alum Maude Adams famously remarked that was simply not Roger. And as the movies became more gadget driven and wilder in concept, culminating in the very wacky Moonraker that tried to capitalize on the Star Wars craze by putting Bond into space, Moore’s self-aware bemusement served the ever more hyperbolic franchise well. Even if today’s pundits are quick to dismiss the Moore era as lightweight and his portrayal of Bond as lacking in gravitas this misses the zeitgeist of when his films were made. The 70s were not a time of gravitas but rather The Me Decade, a time of partying down and sexual abandon, of thinking less and doing more. And so Moore’s Bond was simply suitable to the times. He seemed to recognize that his perfect features constituted the most important weapon in Bond’s ultimate pursuit, the conquest of women while in the service of the Queen. It’s certainly no accident that he essayed the role 7 times over 12 years, even if by his last outing in 1985’s A View To A Kill his knees seemed to be showing their 57 years more than that well-tanned face. Yet he still managed to take on the Amazonian Grace Jones and a very nasty Christopher Walken, as well as bed Tanya Roberts in the process, so you could say Moore’s Bond retained the good stuff even in his swan song.
Moore had been a major international TV star before being cast in Live And Let Die in 1973. His big break came when he took over from James Garner as his British cousin on Maverick in the early 1960s after working regularly in other action roles on American television. Most importantly, he played Simon Templar in The Saint from 1962 to 1969, a cultured thief who only steals from other criminals. The series was a huge hit both in England and in the US and probably put Moore on Albert Broccoli’s radar as a potential future Bond. He was also immensely enjoyable as one half of the wealthy oil-and-water crime fighting duo in The Persuaders!alongside a manic Tony Curtis, bickering and galavanting their way through jet set Europe and generally having a ball. While the series was not the big hit in the States that the producers hoped it remains a very enjoyable cult classic and peak super suave Moore (check out his very early-70s self-designed wardrobe as Lord Brett Sinclair). After his time as Bond, Sir Roger became a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador due to the example and influence of his friend, Audrey Hepburn. He was knighted by the British Empire in 2003 for his years of service doing that worthwhile charitable work and his special focus on helping children in the developing world.
Roger Moore liked beautiful women, finely tailored clothes, good cigars and good drink and most of all pleasant company. He loved playing James Bond and never struggled with being strongly identified with the role, as so many of the other actors have (with the notable exception of Pierce Brosnan). For him, Bond and his ever wilder and more humorous adventures were all great fun to be approached with a raised eyebrow and a good quip but not too much perspiration. There was never any doubt he was going to accomplish his mission, kill the villain and sleep with the girl. He made the James Bond movie a terrifically enjoyable experience during a time when the films were real blockbuster summer events. His was an angst-free Bond for a hedonistic era, helping perfect an over-the-top formula that simply worked like a charm nearly every time. If tastes have changed and authenticity is now the new fetish that is no fault of Moore’s. He had the light touch at the right moment and his films remain the most consistently and purely fun of the franchise’s epic run. So godspeed to Sir Roger Moore and may he rest in peace. He brought the world a lot of joy and entertainment and did a lot of good work in his long time on this earth. He is the first cinema Bond to pass on and certainly one of the most loved. But even with that towering cinematic accomplishment he’ll be even more fondly remembered as Roger Moore the kind, funny and very generous human being. Just read this great anecdote from a fan who met him as a child and then again as an adult for proof of that.
The sad and shocking news that Chris Cornell, founder and frontman of both Soundgarden and Audiosoave and one of the most gifted rock vocalists of his generation, has died at the age of 52 is still reverberating around the music world. He was found dead in his hotel room in Detroit on May 17th while on tour with his re-formed original band, the great grunge pioneers from Seattle, an apparent suicide. Cornell’s loss as an individual and his loss to rock music as a whole is hard to fully process. Our sincere condolences go out to his family and friends.
Searching With My Good Eye Closed – Badmotorfinger (1991)
Unlike their local peers Nirvana and Pearl Jam, with whom they are most closely grouped, Soundgarden was less true “grunge” than an extension of classic 70s hard rock, albeit with sophisticated lyrical themes and innovative musical techniques. While initially satirizing the over-the-top nature of metal at the time they began in the late 80s — see “Big Dumb Sex” for the apotheosis of this in your face, on the nose send-up of hardcore metal misogyny — Soundgarden quickly graduated to a more lyrically complex, more darkly psychedelic metal sound that was uniquely their own. Their real breakthrough was Badmotorfinger, one of the seminal albums of the 90s in any genre. A borderline concept album, Badmotorfinger was inestimably weird and powerful, featuring guitarist Kim Thayil’s patented Drop D tuning on several hard-hitting classics like “Jesus Christ Pose,” “Outshined,” the soaring & ominous “Searching With My Good Eye Closed” and the punishing and mystical “Room A Thousand Years Wide.” Another track from this awesome album, “Mind Riot,” seemed to point in the direction that Cornell and the band would take in future: hard-edged, certainly, but with an almost ballad-like emotional intensity and strikingly original lyrics of searching strangeness and loss.
I was crying from my eye teeth and bleeding from my soul
And I sharpened my wits on a dead man’s skull
I built an elevator from his bones
Had climb to the top floor just to stamp out the coals (I’ve been caught in a mind riot)
Candle’s burning yesterday
Somebody’s best friend died
I’ve been caught in a mind riot
Mind Riot – Badmotorfinger (1991)
After the explosion of Grunge as a distinct genre onto the national scene, fueled by their own success and that of Nirvana, Pearl Jam and the Screaming Trees among others, Soundgarden followed up Badmotorfinger with an even bigger hit, Superunknown. The new album was characterized by a subtle shift away from pure heavy metal and more emphasis on mystical guitar driven psychedelia. Propelled by the huge MTV hits “Black Hole Sun” and “Spoonman,” the album also featured other classics like the title track and the propulsive “My Wave.”
Superunknown – Superunknown (1994)
The band also honed their penchant for extreme pessimism with the beautiful downers “The Day I Tried To Live,” “Like Suicide” and the very heavy “Mailman” and “4th of July.” Continue reading →
John Surtees, the racing legend from Formula 1’s greatest era, passed away last weekend at the age of 83. Surtees earned the 1964 F1 World Championship and was also an extraordinarily accomplished motorcycle rider. He remains the only man to win world championships in both F1 and Moto GP. In fact Surtees was arguably a better motorcyclist than auto driver, with 7 overall championships on 2 wheels between 1956-1960 for the great Italian MV Augusta factory team in both the 350cc & 500cc classifications. When Surtees decided to make the jump to four wheels in 1960 he spent three years apprenticing in up-and-coming British makes like Lotus, Cooper and Lola, learning technique to go along with his fierce competitiveness and borderline brutal driving style. By 1963 the diamond in the rough had been polished enough for him to be offered a factory drive for Scuderia Ferrari and the Englishman responded with his first Grand Prix win at the Nurburgring in Germany, beating out Jim Clark’s Louts on that legendarily daunting circuit. Though he would not get any more points that season Surtees still finished fourth in the F1 Championship. Come 1964, car and driver were to be even better.
In the new V-8 powered Ferrari 158 Surtees was dominant when the car was reliable, taking podiums in all 6 races he finished with victories at the Nurburgring again, as well as in Italy at Monza. It all added up to 40 points and the 1964 World Championships in both the Constructors and Drivers competitions and the Surtees-Ferrari partnership looked like promising even greater things to come. But problems lay just around the corner in 1965 for the man affectionately dubbed “Il Grande John” by the tifosi. First, the Ferrari 158 and its successor, the flat 12-cylinder powered 1512, were not as good as the rapidly improving British marques. The season saw Lotus and Jim Clark prevail, followed by BRM and Brabham-Climax, with Ferrari stuck back in 4th. Worse still, Surtees suffered a severe accident while driving a Lola sports car at Mosport Park, Canada in September when a wheel failed and sent him catapulting through a barrier and down an embankment. The shunt left Surtees with a broken back and pelvis, as well as internal bleeding from ruptured kidneys. Though Surtees miraculously pulled through the initial accident and subsequent surgeries, he faced months of agonizing rehabilitation to his misaligned lower torso and to regain strength enough to return to racing.
Even after overcoming those awesome physical challenges to return to the cockpit, Surtees’ relationship with Maranello remained damaged. An outspoken and hard-nosed man, Surtees had always clashed with team boss Eugenio Dragoni and chafed at what he saw as the ridiculous political machinations and infighting inherent in driving for Ferrari. It all came to a head before the start of the 1966 Le Mans 24-hour race. Despite a strong good results in his return to the Scuderia after his devastating injuries, with a win at treacherously wet Spa-Francorchamps in the second F1 GP of the 1966 season, Surtees was passed over for the opening stint at Le Mans in favor of an Italian, Ludovico Scarfotti. Scarfotti also happened to be Fiat boss Gianni Agnelli’s nephew and at the time Agnelli and Enzo Ferrari were in negotiations for a formal partnership between the two auto manufacturers. Feeling that it should be he starting the critical opening laps against the fearsome challenge of the ascendent Ford GTs, Surtees let Dragoni have it for what he saw as a weakening of their overall strategy for victory at Le Mans. Dragoni in turn told Surtees he was not fit enough to for a full run at the famed 24-hour race and laid down an ultimatum to follow team orders or get out. In the end, the combative Surtees told Dragon to stuff it and walked out on the team. It was the end of Surtees’ Ferrari career and likley cost both team and driver more F1 Championships and perhaps even a chance for victory at the 1966 Le Mans.
Surtees jumped to Cooper to finish out the ’66 F1 campaign and showed well in an unreliable car, with 3 podiums out of 7 races entered and a victory in the season finale in Mexico. In a massively tumultuous season, Surtees finished second overall in the 1966 Drivers’ standings splitting his drives between two utterly different manufacturers. While Surtees soldiered on for several more seasons until 1972 with solid results throughout, first for Honda and then running his own chassis with Ford Cosworth power, Surtees would never again scale the Olympian heights that he reached during his controversial time with Ferrari. But for his 1964 World Championship, his hard-charging style and his remarkable accomplishments on two wheels as well as four, the legend of Il Grande John will always live on.
When the great comic actor Gene Wilder passed away on August 29th at the age of 83 due to complications from Alzheimer’s it felt just as though a favorite eccentric uncle had died. (The New York Times obituary is here.) For those of us who grew up in the late 1960s, 70s and 80s Wilder left an indelible impression. If you enjoyed funny movies in the least (and really, who doesn’t?), Wilder was one of the joys of the cinema during that period, all the more so because there was nobody before or since who quite possessed his unique blend of neurotic mania and soulful mensch-ness. Even when Wilder was portraying a character a little bit naughty, like Leo Bloom in the original The Producers, the unpredictable Willy Wonka of chocolate factory fame, a descendent of Victor Frankenstein compelled to pursue the same macabre obsessions as his infamous grandfather or a wrongly convicted con alongside his great comedy partner Richard Prior in Stir Crazy, Wilder always seemed to juxtapose a sweetness with his delightfully manic outbursts.
After studying acting at the Old Vic in England and the HB Studio in New York, the Milwaukee-born Wilder first came to wide attention with a small but impactful role in Warren Beatty and Arthur Penn’s seminal Bonnie and Clyde (1967), interrupting the film’s otherwise grim narrative with a burst of humor as a rather eager and happy hostage. But his major breakthrough came a year later in Mel Brooks’ all-time classic, the hysterically funny The Producers. As the nebbishy and neurotic Leo Bloom, Wilder was perfectly matched with the bigger-than-life, morally bankrupt has-been theater producer Max Bialystock, played to the hilt by the peerless Zero Mostel. Amidst the side-splitting opening sequence, as Bloom is abruptly initiated into Bialytsock’s crazy world when he comes to do the producer’s accounting books, it is Bloom who conceives of the idea of raising much more money than needed for a production so bad that it is doomed to close on opening night, thereby allowing the surplus cash to be kept. Bialystock runs with it, coercing Bloom to be his accomplice. They then find a fantastically wretched play called “Springtime for Hitler” and the rest is cinematic comedy history.
His next major role was as the title character in 1971’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Though not a major hit at the time it became a cult classic with some likening it to a latter day Wizard of Oz, a film that works as both a kids’ movie and something more profound, and Wilder’s influence can be seen throughout in his unique bits of improvisation and inspiration. Johnny Depp was good in the remake but it’s hard to think of anyone other than Gene Wilder as the definitive Willy Wonka, especially when delivering his unexpectedly poignant song, “Pure Imagination.”
He was drafted again by Brooks, as a last minute replacement no less, for 1974’s screamingly funny Western satire, Blazing Saddles. Against type, Wilder played a laconic gunman with a drinking problem given renewed purpose by his fast friendship with the town’s besieged new black sheriff, played by Clevon Little. As if that wasn’t enough comedy gold, that same year Brooks and Wilder collaborated on the brilliant Young Frankenstein, a masterpiece that was Wilder’s concept and that he co-wrote. Filmed in beautiful black and white as an elaborate sendup of 1930s Universal-style horror, Young Frankenstein became a classic in its own right with an unparalleled ensemble cast — including Cloris Leachman, Teri Garr, Madeline Kahn, Kenneth Mars and newcomers Marty Feldman and Peter Boyle — and pitch perfect direction and screenplay. It stands as one of the great collaborative movies of all time and is arguably both Brooks and Wilder’s best work.
1976 saw a magical bit of good casting as Wilder was paired with Richard Pryor for the first time in Silver Streak. Alongside the wonderful Jill Clayburgh in this very good, very funny comedy-thriller about murder and mayhem aboard an LA-to-Chicago train, the two men made cinema history as the first bi-racial comedy duo and audiences loved their unlikely, yin-yang chemistry. As a result, Wilder and Pryor would make three more films together, 1980’s excellent prison comedy Stir Crazy(directed by Sidney Poitier!), the underrated See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989) and finally Another You in 1991 when Pryor was already greatly diminished by multiple sclerosis.
Wilder found another impactful partnership when he met Gilda Radner on the set of 1981’s Hanky Panky. The two became comedy royalty when they married in 1984. But the relationship ended tragically when Radner passed away in 1989, a victim of ovarian cancer. This loss inspired Wilder to establish an early detection center in Los Angeles, as well as co-founding Gilda’s Club in New York City, a non-profit support group for cancer patients and their families that now has branches throughout the United States (where it is now known as the Cancer Support Community) and Canada. Wilder found love again when he met Karen Webb while working on See No Evil and they married in 1991. They remained together until his death, a much longer if less romanticized relationship than his union with Gilda Radner, so spare a thought for Ms. Webb at this sad time as well.
Though Gene Wilder had largely retired from acting since the early 1990s, instead concentrating on writing, the importance of his best work grew over the years as his special films became part of the greater pop cultural and comedy firmament. That makes it extra difficult to lose such an original actor who got the laughs because he played his characters so truthfully, one who was always so audaciously alive and vibrant on screen. For those of us who grew up with his movies it feels as if we’ve lost a very funny older friend, one we could turn to for a guaranteed laugh no matter how the world was treating us. But we must also remember that Gene Wilder lived a wonderfully full life, was a truly good man and left a massively joyful contribution to the world that survives him via his films. And if we’re being just a little sentimental, it’s not hard to imagine Gene reunited with Richard and Gilda and Marty and Peter and Kenny and Madeline someplace special, cutting up with them all again, his explosive, utterly contagious laugh ringing out through the ether in the company of fine old friends.
The Greatest has left us. Muhammad Ali passed away late Friday evening, succumbing to a severe respiratory infection after years of struggling with boxing-induced Parkinson’s. The great fighter and one of the most iconic and polarizing figures of the 20th Century was 74. The New York Times obit is here.
It’s easy to forget that, as Ali gradually transformed in his years after the ring into a sweet natured shadow of his former fiery self, what a wonderfully brash and divisive figure he was in the prime of his remarkable boxing career. Born Cassius Clay in Louisville, Kentucky, Ali spent his formative years in that racially divided Southern city, becoming a champion amateur fighter and winning gold as a light heavyweight in the 1960 Rome Olympics. You’d be hard pressed to find a more suitable symbiosis between personality and decade, as Ali became one of the most compelling and archetypal figures of the tumultuous 1960s, joining luminaries like the Beatles, the Kennedys and the NASA astronauts among the towering figures of that time. After his gold medal triumph, Ali returned home to open racism in his hometown but also a consortium of white businessmen dedicated to promoting his career. He discovered a bastardized version of Islam, patented his trademark rhyming patter and eventually earned a title shot against the heavily-favored Sonny Liston. In what would go down as one of the great upsets in boxing history, the lightning fast Cassius Clay floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee, driving the hulking Sonny Liston to quit in the 7th round, having punched himself out trying to keep up with the precocious youngster. As he roared to a bemused Howard Cossell, Ali truly had “shook up the world!”
The iconic first-round knockout from the second Ali-Liston fight.
He would continue to shake it up. The very next day he announced his intention to rid himself of his “slave name” thanks to the advice of his new friend and mentor Malcom X and a few weeks later he was forevermore Muhammad Ali. Already alienated by his brashness, for much of white America this bewildering and unsettling transformation was a bridge too far and Ali would come to be loathed by many as a malcontent, an “uppity Negro” with a big mouth. Even more defining and defiant, in 1966 Ali was made eligible for the draft for the escalating war in Vietnam but was clear in his reluctance to fight, saying “I ain’t got nothing against them Vietcong.” When drafted in 1967, he refused to serve. He was subsequently denied conscientious-objector status and convicted of draft evasion, lost his boxing titles and was banned from the sport. Ali lost more than 3 prime years in the ring and probably millions of dollars for standing up for his principles and not to fight in what he saw as an unjust war against poor people in a poor far away country. Again, this made him a hero to many in the emerging counterculture and anti-war movement and a pariah to more conservative Americans who steadfastly believed in “my country right or wrong.” But whatever one thought of Ali’s stance on the war, one had to give it to the Champ that he had the courage not only to talk the talk but also walk the walk.
After seeing his case go all the way to the Supreme Court in 1971 and having his conviction overturned there due to the draft board’s arbitrary refusal to consider his conscientious-objector status, Ali pivoted from that moral victory and returned to his violent and lucrative vocation. He resumed his career with a series of tune-up fights in anticipation of a title shot against the fearsome Philadelphian southpaw, George Frazier. The eventual trio of Ali-Frazier fights would become some of the most compelling in boxing history, a worldwide obsession and a racial psychodrama between the handsome, light-skinned and eloquent Ali and the darker, more rugged and plain spoken Frazier. Ironically, Ali became the hero to Black America even as he taunted Frazier for looking like a “gorilla,” while Frazier drew the support of working class whites who wanted the uppity, draft dodging Ali put in his proper place.
Ali lost an epic and punishing 15-rounder to Frazier in March of 1971, suffering a broken jaw but hanging on to the end in what was called simply “The Fight.” Despite the loss The Champ was clearly back. He fought brilliantly in more than a dozen more contests, including beating Frazier in a rematch in 1974. That set him up for the legendary “Rumble In The Jungle” in Zaire to try to regain his title against the imposing knockout specialist George Foreman, who had pummeled Frasier to grab the championship belt. We may think of Foreman as a smiling, grandfatherly presence now hawking his grill on TV but in 1974 he was as serious as a heart attack. Many feared that Ali would be injured against the overpowering Foreman. But as he had done against Liston all those years ago, only taking it to an even more highly polished level, Ali “rope-a-doped” his way through 7 rounds, staying just at the outside of Foreman’s punches by dancing and using the springy ropes to duck, dodge and evade the worst of the bigger man’s punishing blows, often absorbing them with his elbows and shoulders. By the 8th round Foreman was gassed and Ali used an ultra-fast combination to chop Foreman down like a mighty oak. Ali was once again The Champ and the way that he had seduced most of the African continent and turned them against the sullen Foreman with his charisma, coaxing them into giving him the psychological boost of their unbridled affection — “Ali bomaye!” — was arguably one of the most brilliant acts of gamesmanship ever seen in sports. Not only was Ali one of the most gifted athletes of his time but he was clearly also one of the wiliest.
But no boxer can last forever no matter how blessed or brilliant. Ali fought Frazier for a third and final time in 1975, the oppressively hot “Thrilla in Manila,” with the fighters doling out punishment to each other. Ali won on a TKO in the 4th round when Frazier’s eye closed but it’s safe to say that both men would carry the effects of their legendary trilogy of no quarter asked hand-to-hand-combat for the rest of their lives. In ’78 he lost and then regained his title to Leon Spinks but then in 1980 his old sparring partner Larry Holmes battered the noticeably slowing Ali into submission to take his title away for the last time. Ali closed out his career, already with signs of slurred speech and some tremor, with an ignominious defeat to journeyman Trevor Berbick in 1981. For most of Ali’s millions of admirers and even many of his detractors, the end of Ali’s boxing career, belated as it was, came as a welcome relief. It was simply too painful to watch the once-great warrior fight any more.
Of course it was already too late and the damage to Ali’s brain had been done. But for the remainder of his life, Ali became one of the great retired athletes of his time, right up there in terms of activism and charity with Jackie Robinson. Remaining a devout but now-mainstream Muslim, Ali did Herculean work for charity and traveled the world working for good causes. As his physical capacities diminished, one still had the sense of that agile mind floating like a butterfly slyly behind the slow-blinking eyes and the trembling hands. His rough edges were smoothed off, the controversies largely forgotten and he became something like an American legend, a beneficent but remote presence, there always around us but somehow elusive and receding. In our mind’s eye we saw one of the most vibrant athletes ever to grace the ring with personality as magnetic as any movie or rock star, nicknamed “The Lip” for his upstart self-promotional pronouncements. But in his long, last chapter Ali was a slow-moving man of peace and few words making impactful but dwindling appearances like that of his touching torch lighting at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. It was as if his prodigious energies had been well and truly spent, leaving him running on dwindling reserve power inside his prison of a body until this last, final moment of release.
But too often we obsess over a person’s sad last days and those tend to take on disproportionate significance compared to the entirety of their lives. In the two decades of his prime and the time of his greatest impact on sports, on the nation and on the world, Muhammad Ali was both pretty and a baaad man, a beautiful, graceful athlete and proud black man, a speaker of hard truths and always of his own mind, a genius inside the ring and out. He was one of the greatest boxers of all time in the latter part of a century where boxing was one of the marquee sports. At a time when we’re often unable to name the current world champion amongst all the different belts and mediocre pugilists, it’s hard to recall just how big a deal being Heavyweight Champion of the World was back then, every bit as big as being the College Football Champion, the Super Bowl winner or the victor in the World Series. People lived and breathed boxing and Ali was the successor to other legendary heavyweights like Jack Johnson, Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano. But he was so much more than just a boxer. Ali dovetailed so beautifully with the emerging zeitgeist of Black Power, Sports as Entertainment and Sports as Symbolism that if you wrote him as a character you’d never get away with it — he would’ve been too outrageous, too perfectly well-spoken, poised and self-assured, too victorious. But Muhammad Ali was just that perfect a fit for his tumultuous times even with his flaws taken into account. Love him or hate him, you could never ignore him. He was a titan of sport, pop culture and, in fact, social change. His message, implied or stated bluntly, was Yes We Can to African-Americans and religious minorities, to the poor, the Third World and the downtrodden. When James Brown wrote “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud!” he might’ve written it with Ali in mind. Ali gave hope, light and heat to the world. As the Spanish say, he was simply muy hombre and to conceive of anyone being quite like him again in an age where athletes rarely go out on a limb for fear of alienating their sponsors seems impossible. His echo lives on in a million boasts and taunts on the court and in the field and in the ring. But everyone else is imitating him and their predictions and preening seems more like ritualized kabuki than those of true conviction and zest for the battle. Ali nearly always delivered on what he promised and by doing so he was able to make pronouncements about issues far beyond a simple sporting event. With his mouth and his mind, his brains and his guts, his speed and his strength and his unwavering sense of self, Muhammad Ali really did shake up the world. And the world’s been vibrating from the aftershocks of his impact ever since.
2016 has officially become one of those singularly awful periods in Rock history, like 1959, when Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper all died in a single plane crash. Or that fateful stretch from 1970 to 1971 when Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison all OD’d. Continuing this year’s traumatic trend, the world lost the whirlwind musical talent known as Prince this past Thursday, April 21st. The Purple One joins his fellow chameleonic, gender-bending artist David Bowie, as well as Eagles co-founder Glenn Frey among the colossal figures in the Rock pantheon who’ve passed away this year. (Another we lost in 2016 is fabled Beatles producer George Martin, who thankfully lived to the ripe old age of 90).
It’s easy to forget with the passing of time what a controversial figure Prince was when he broke onto the scene in the early 1980s. But then, with album titles like Dirty Mind and Controversy he made it clear he was courting it. It was the Reagan era, a promised return to straight-laced, wholesome American values after the free-love 1960s and the if-it-feels-good-do-it pre-AIDS 1970s. Yet here was this diminutive, light skinned African American emerging fully formed from Minneapolis of all places, dressed like an English dandy and singing some of the dirtiest come-ons ever put to vinyl. A wonderfully unusual lover man — handsome yet pretty, satyr-like but delicate and petite with his pencil thin mustache, long hair and soft speaking voice belying his powerfully expressive singing style — it wasn’t hard for the manly men and hair metal rockers to make fun of Prince. Except that while they and their buddies were down at the local watering hole drinking Buds and listening to Slayer, Prince was systematically bedding their women and bringing those lucky ladies to previously undreamed of paroxysms of ecstasy.
With his utterly unique musical gift for passionate eclecticism, effortlessly blending Soul, R&B, Funk and Rock into one heady hedonistic potion with which to intoxicate listeners, he wasn’t just upsetting to uptight macho guys or self-appointed moral police like Tipper Gore’s dumb Parent’s Music Resource Center. Prince was downright revolutionary, challenging the established musical order of that era. A light-skinned black dude who could shred on guitar like a latter day Hendrix or Ernie Isley while simultaneously promising to ravage America’s daughters of all colors — was he an R&B/Funk sensation or a crossover artist like Michael Jackson, another rare performer who couldn’t be contained or labeled by the then-prevailing radio segregation between “R&B,” “Pop” and “Rock”? Was he just a borderline obscene libertine provocateur or in fact a sensitive sensualist poet-prophet for a new generation? The answer to all of those and many more questions about Prince was invariably Yes.
Prince was aided and abetted in his cross-cultural takeover by the coincidental rise of an even greater societal force, MTV, becoming one of the budding video network’s omnipresent early stars with his seminal (literally) video for the double-entendre filled “Little Red Corvette.” 1984 saw the culmination of Prince’s conquest with the spectacularly popular, semi-autobiographical film Purple Rain, the massively successful album of the same name and its host of high-charting hits, not least of them the gospel-infused title track, which became as close to a theme song as the ever-changing Prince ever had (or maybe it was really “Dirty Mind”). As someone who went to that movie upon its initial release in a small-town theater while away at school, I can testify to Purple Rain‘s impact on a bunch of horny teenaged white kids, even if today we might look back and see nothing much more than a long form video with a typically 80s outsider-makes-good storyline. With the United States still very much on Cold War footing with the Soviet Union and the threat of nuclear annihilation pervading the darkest corners of our young minds, when Prince sang “We’re all excited/But we don’t know why/Maybe it’s ’cause/We’re all gonna die!” on “Let’s Go Crazy” it was pure catharsis. Not to mention a fine excuse to live it up to the fullest right freaking now.
If Prince would never achieve those Olympian heights again his place in the pop music firmament was nonetheless firmly enshrined. He dabbled with Bowie-esque gender bending, as on the especially erotic yet thoroughly empathetic “If I Was Your Girlfriend.” He went through backing bands like Kleenex and collaborated with other artists with a similarly hyperactive drive, writing hit songs for the Bangles, Sinead O’Connor, Stevie Nicks and many others, while also shepherding new acts like Vanity, Bria Valente, Morris Day and the Time and Sheila E. He split from his record label, self-released his music and changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol, then returned to a major label and started using Prince again. All the while, as he cranked out a ton of amazing music with or without further chart success, it was clear that he was not only his own unique phenomenon but also the spiritual heir to all those great musicians who merged the sacred with the profane, from the Delta bluesmen to Ray Charles and Sam Cooke to Sly and the Family Stone, James Brown, Marvin Gaye and Rick James. In the process he created an unsettling, stimulating, booty shaking mix of something close to sexual Gospel music for the modern age.
Most of all, Prince refused to be pigeonholed. He was simply the greatest singer/producer/arranger/guitar player/keyboardist/multi-instrumentalist and showman of his time, the fantastic culmination of 20th century African-American music in one diminutive, hyperkinetic package. In the end there was no one like him, before or since. The purple light’s gone out all too prematurely. But we can thank the heavens for his tragically brief but utterly amazing 57 years on this humdrum planet. Because the eternal soul of Prince will always be here to guide us, his dearly beloved mere mortals, and help get us through this thing called life.
Maurice White had a composer’s sense of musical innovation, applying highly advanced theories to the rapidly evolving R&B of the late 1960s and early 70s to create a funky, sometimes disco-y but always feel-good stew that was also pleasantly steeped in astrology and ancient Egyptian mythology. Along with their contemporaries Parliament/Funkadelic and Kool & the Gang, EWF made the 1970s one of the most exciting decades for innovative and creatively satisfying African-American music with immense multicultural crossover appeal. Even the band’s more disco-fied hits like “Boogie Wonderland” were undergirded by an intellectual and musical rigor that allowed Jazz, Funk & Soul influences to bubble to the surface, subtly contributing to the overall vibe of ecstatic rejoicing.
Always focusing on the positive and the uplifting, Maurice White was committed to using the power of music for spiritual explorations and personal growth and seeking to put in sonic form the transcendence that comes from a profoundly positive shared experience. EWF’s live shows were legendary and remained inspiring right up until the end, a great multihued dance party for all their fans old and new. Earth, Wind & Fire incorporated African instruments such as Mr. White’s signature kalimba along with a killer horn section and the most up to date electronic keyboards. And then their songs were elevated to the stratosphere by the soaring falsetto vocals of Philip Bailey, as well as Mr. White’s own excellent vocal contributions. Truly, the best of Earth Wind & Fire inhabits a plane of musical excellence that moves both the booty and the spirit. If you could sum up Maurice White’s philosophy of self-improvement and spiritual nourishment through the power of music in one short phrase it would have to be “Keep Your Head To The Sky”. You’d be hard pressed to find a negative, downbeat sentiment in any of EWF’s extensive canon. Even their sad songs raise the spirit. And to pull that off without devolving into sappiness and pap takes a rare skill.
Maurice White surely exhibited that skill with a rare deftness and proficiency, the kind that seems effortless but is the product of countless hours of practice and study, of drilling a large crack ensemble, all while pushing musical boundaries and laying down a challenge to his peers to raise their game or get left behind. Go back and listen to Earth Wind & Fire’s best music and you realize how beautifully well crafted and elegant this alleged “pop” dance music is. it is one of the sins of omission in music criticism that R&B music rarely gets tagged with the “art” label. But certainly the seminal performances of EWF’s best recordings rise to that level, no matter how pleasing to the ear and the pelvis they are. Sadly, the genius behind so much of their tremendous success is gone now. But the music will live on as long as we’re capable of playing it. And when we’re looking for uplift and positive vibes, as well as rump shaking good times, there are very few other bands that will satisfy quite like Earth, Wind & Fire. That’s about as great a legacy as I can imagine anyone leaving behind for the world.
Glenn Frey, one of the founders of the Eagles who, along with Don Henley, was a core member for the band’s entire existence, has passed away. He was 67. The NY Times Obituary is here.
Below are some of the most Glenn Frey-centric Eagles hits. Yes, they’re certainly straight ahead Album Oriented Rock that you’ve probably heard 8 million times by now. But they exhibit pretty damn good musicianship, wonderful harmonies and the hooks still catch 40 years on. There’s also a certain 70s zeitgeist infusing the music that few other bands have retained without seeming terribly dated or bombastic.
Frey served as singer, songwriter and guitarist for the Eagles, one of the most successful Rock acts of the 1970s, a radio staple and still one of the biggest selling bands ever. Frey, a Detroit native, and Henley, a Texan, apprenticed in the burgeoning early 1970s California singer-songwriter scene, including stints together in Linda Rondstadt’s backing band, before striking out on their own and founding the Eagles. Their genius was to mainstream Gram Parson’s “Country Rock” fusion and turn it into Top 40 radio gold. Frey admittedly learned much of his songwriting craft from Jackson Browne, perhaps the ultimate singer-songwriter of that period, famously living above him in LA and absorbing his hard working compositional technique, which featured endless repetition on piano and endless cups of tea. The two would later go on to co-author one of the Eagles biggest smashes, “Take It Easy”.
What hasn’t been said about the Eagles already? For one of the best documentaries on their big time Rock ‘n Roll lifestyle, as well as the particular disfunctional dynamics of their ever-changing membership through the years, check out the epically comprehensive History of the Eagles. And for one of the funnier and most obsessive analysis of any documentary you will ever read, check out the great Bill Simmons take on History of the Eagles over at his Grantland site. His OCD dissection of the film and the band is the definitive take and probably one of the most enjoyable pieces of Rock journalism that I’ve read in a long time, even if it is all vicarious.
So another Rock ‘n Roll great has exited the stage. Even if the Eagles divided critical opinion back in the day, with New York and Mid West-based pundits regularly bashing them for their slickness, perceived sexism and very California-ness, such arguments seem quaint in era where a music magazine like Rolling Stone regularly puts American Idol winners on its covers. Take away the carping of the critics and the band controversies and the music remains solid, well made and enjoyable because it’s generally not going for grandeur just excellence. It survives and still thrives on its own merits and a greatest hits compilation belongs in any serious Rock fan’s collection at the least. Looking back, the Eagles go down as one of the very best of their hedonistic and slightly paranoid era and if they had only made “Hotel California,” actually an atypically dark and cryptic song for them, they would still have an entry in the Book of Rock. But they had a ton more hits and great tunes and so they’ve surely earned their own chapter. And Glenn Frey was a big, big part of that.
Still missing the man but reveling in the music. Here’s to a life well lived and a true Rock ‘n Roll innovator determined never to repeat himself. Now that he’s gone I think we can really see his impact on our culture at large was even more important than was generally thought on a lot of levels.
The great Rock ‘n Roll icon David Bowie has passed away at the age of 69 after a year and a half battle with liver cancer. Somehow this feels liken an especially shocking and premature death. Bowie represented youth and eternal transformation for so long it doesn’t quite seem possible that he embarked on his final journey and left the rest of us behind to face a duller, grayer world without him.
Though one couldn’t say he had been a major musical force for over a decade, Bowie always seemed omnipresent in the ether of Rock music and pop culture. He was so far ahead of the curve in terms of gender bending, performance art and sonic experimentation that the public and critics never really had time to catch up with him before he was on to the next thing. This made high critical praise somewhat scarce in his most productive period of rapid-fire evolution during the 1970s but his legion of fans almost always loved his chameleonic ways and rewarded him with a lot of big hits. From his breakout “Space Oddity” where he jettisoned his folk rock persona in favor of cryptic, beautifully operatic sic-fi, which perfectly dovetailed with the zeitgeist of the Space Race; to his first really fully realized persona, the androgynous Ziggy Stardust on the amazing Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars that helped move Glam to the forefront of Rock styles for a time thanks to Mick Ronson’s sizzling guitar licks on such high octane classics as the title track, “Suffragete City” and “Starman”; the less popular but still very good follow-up Alladin Sane, which featured the swinging “The Gene Jeanie” and the scorching “Panic In Detroit”; Bowie’s prescient farewell to Glam, Diamond Dogs with the immortal “Rebel, Rebel” and searing title track; and Young Americans, creating a chapter unto itself by putting Ziggy to rest and delving deeply into R&B and Soul by recording the album at Philadelphia’s Sigma Studios with a large backing band of Rhythm & Blues aces — it produced the two classics that bookend the album, “Young Americans” and “Fame”. Looking back, any critic worth his salt would have to conclude that after all the typical handwringing during those days over what was or wasn’t “authentic” Rock ‘n Roll this amazingly productive period goes down as some of the best and sonically well made music of that or any other era. Listen to it again now and I think you’ll find that most of it hasn’t dated at all. There is a crispness there, a clean feel in production and arrangement, in lyrical content and vocal delivery that just doesn’t age. It’s youth, it’s sexuality, it’s euphoria, it’s empathy. In short, it’s immortal.
For another artist, this prime early-mid 70s period would have been enough and they would have been satisfied to coast and tour on these hits for years to come. But Bowie, like all the greats, had more to give and more skins to shed. He donned the mantle of the Thin White Duke for 1976’s Station to Station, a sort of continuation of the extraterrestrial persona he created in Nicolas Roeg’s cult sic-fi classic, The Man Who Fell To Earth. But he was also battling a serious cocaine addiction and Bowie’s behavior became increasingly erratic. So despite the success of hits like “Golden Years” and “TVC15” Bowie abandoned the problematic Thin White Duke and made an unexpected physical move, first to Switzerland and then to West Berlin to get clean and get away from the hothouse environments of LA and the UK. He subsequently entered what could arguably called his most fascinating period. Collaborating for the first time with Brian Eno, as well as his most regular producer Tony Viscointi, Bowie produced Low in 1977 and then rapidly followed that up the same year with Heroes and finally Lodger in 1979. These formed his “Berlin trilogy” and while the hits were harder to come by due to the challenging nature of the music — “Sound and Vision” on Low, the title track from Heroes — they are astonishing breakthroughs in Rock music. Low and Heroes in particular are of a part of the best Alternative music of the 1970s: uncompromising, innovative in production and arrangements and appropriative of percolating musical trends — in this case, the synthesizer revolution being spearheaded by Krautrockers like Can and Kraftwerk — in the finest sense of those words. It is also fair to say that Bowie would never reach those kinds of creative heights again.
But, as such a visually trendsetting and provocative artist, Bowie remained more than relevant at the dawn of the MTV era, with the heavily played videos for “Let’s Dance, “China Girl” and “Modern Love”, all from Let’s Dance (1983), co-produced with Bowie by Chic’s Nile Rodgers. In fact, Bowie was an inveterate collaborator producing and gaining inspiration from Iggy Pop and Lou Reed — on the latter’s Transformer (1972) it was difficult to tell who had influenced who more. And in the 80s Bowie made a veritable fetish of collaboration: “Under Pressure” with Queen in 1981 then a string of pop hits with Tina Turner, Mick Jagger and Pat Metheny. It was almost as if he were now relinquishing any dominant persona whatsoever and preferred to be just part of a team of players, not the star. His decision to be in the band Tin Machine but not as the true frontman seemed to confirm this new reluctance to put himself forward, carve off new facets and expose himself in the highly Brechtian manner of years past.
Even past his prime, Bowie remained exceedingly active with a mania to create and work on art, film and music with other artists. But it is for his amazing achievements of the 1970s that Major Tom, Ziggy, the Man Who Fell to Earth, The Thin White Duke and the Berlin Lodger will always remain in our collective cultural consciousness. It is a result of those indelible, seminal creations and the vibrant music that emerged from his constant pushing and probing that Bowie’s passing seems so very abrupt and shocking. The characters he birthed remain alive in our minds today even if he sloughed off those particular personas years ago. Driven to create, Bowie could not help but become restless with his creations and retire them in favor of something and someone new. The pace of his self-reinventions during the decade of the 1970s is head-spinning when viewed in retrospect. Perhaps he got tired of always portraying “the other”, some kind of semi-alien creature, a product of but not a part of our society as a whole, reflecting back at us like a deliciously distorted mirror. Eventually I imagine he just wanted to be David Bowie and maybe even just David Robert Jones, an artist yes but a flesh and blood human being with “regular” tastes and moods, a two-time father and a more down to earth bon vivant with a supermodel wife. But by playing out his artistic impulses prior to that in a very public, very theatrical way, Bowie managed to fuse Rock ‘n Roll with performance art to create something that was both sonically and visually new, exciting and ultimately extremely satisfying. He seemed like nothing so much as a one man self-propelled cultural explosion for a while there, where he might baffle you with his choices but it would always be imperative that you keep up with whatever Bowie was doing, wearing and singing.
And so the best of his work still remains. The great artist leaves behind the works he has created for the masses to enjoy even as he himself must inexorably move on to the next phase of his creativity driven not to repeat himself. But the works remain for our enjoyment, the same as a given period of work for Bruce Nauman or Richard Serra or any truly innovative fine artist. David Bowie created more than his fair share of genius works through pain, experimentation, self-exploration and pop culture telepathy. The best of what he leaves behind can only be called great art. To listen to the best of Bowie is to be transformed and swept up, not just to a time or place in our past but to timeless moods and the very vibrations of life itself, and that’s why it doesn’t really age. It just keeps orbiting the Earth and dropping in for occasional visits, a transporter beam to sonic bliss, vicarious thrills and unconditional understanding of our own unique strangeness and individuality. Just like Major Tom, David Bowie is still out there somewhere and always will be.