A titan of motorsports and a tireless innovator for more over 60 years, Gurney survived the most dangerous era of Formula 1 in the 1950s and 60s and not only lived to tell the tale but thrived. Gurney participated in 86 Formula 1 Grand Prix and took victory four times, most significantly at the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps in 1967, where he drove a car of his own design and construction, the beautiful Eagle Weslake, to become the first and still only American to win as both constructor and driver in F1. If that wasn’t enough in that banner year for Gurney and the USA, he had only a week earlier triumphed in the 24 Hours of Le Mans with co-driver A.J. Foyt in a Ford GT, again becoming the first all-American team to achieve that illustrious feat at the most famous 24-hour race in the world. It was on the Le Mans podium that a delighted Gurney first sprayed champagne on his teammates and the crowd after victory, something that instantly became a permanent tradition across all forms of motorsport.
Of course the podium celebration was not the brilliant Gurney’s only lasting contribution to racing. Blessed with not only movie star good looks but also an engineer’s keen mind, Gurney devised several technical improvements for racers and their cars that are still used today. Unusually tall for a driver at 6′ 4,” the big American became one of the first high level competitors on four wheels to adopt a full helmet and perspex face shield similar to that of those worn by dirt bike racers back in his Southern California home. He debuted the protective helmet designed by Bell at Indianapolis in 1968 and soon thereafter it became standard equipment for all drivers. In 1971 he came up with the now de rigueur Gurney Flap, a small right angle lip at the edge of the rear wing to increase rear downforce by creating vortices that enhance the airflow coming off the wing. In the early 1990s Gurney’s All American Racers team came up with a radical design for their IMSA Prototype entry that featured not only a small 2.1 liter 4-cylinder turbo engine by Toyota capable of producing a whopping 750 horsepower but also a monocoque chassis made entirely of carbon fiber, a radical proposition at the time, especially in sports cars. The AAR car also featured built-in aerodynamic assists from the front air intake holes and superior ground effects beneath. The result was the Eagle Mark III, a beast of a car that won the 1992 and 1993 IMSA drivers’ and constructors’ championships going away, including a streak of 17 wins in a row.
To the very end Dan Gurney was still utilizing his prodigious gifts as a designer and innovator, playing a key part in the radical Delta Wing project and even helping design and fabricate the carbon fiber landing legs for the reusable Space X rocket. But he shone brightest as a driver. In his heyday he won races in Formula 1, Indycar, NASCAR and sports cars. Only the great Mario Andretti and Juan Pablo Montoya have posted such a display of victorious versatility in all four major automobile racing categories. He survived several crashes in the unsafe cars of the 1950s and 60s, the second in a BRM at the 1960 Dutch Grand Prix that killed a spectator. It was then that Gurney remarked to legendary journalist Robert Daly that racing “is a cruel sport.” And yet even with a young wife and growing family Gurney persisted. Even through the deaths of his rivals and friends on the track over his long career — Wolfgang von Trips, Swede Savage, the Rodriguez brothers, Jimmy Clark, Bruce McLaren and Jo Bonnier — Gurney persisted and kept his foot down. He had full faith in his ability to delineate a necessary risk from a foolhardy one and when he started designing his own cars in the late 1960s he finally had full faith in his equipment, as well. A wonderful story teller, a survivor of a deadly golden era, a rarely matched driver and innovator and an all-around gentleman, Dan Gurney lived a true racer’s life from his teen years as a hot rodder in Riverside trying stay one step ahead of they cops to his discovery by Ferrari’s man in America, the brilliant Luigi Chinetti, to his remarkable, decades-long career full of victories to his final moments on the Earth just a few days ago. As the Spanish are fond of saying about a truly exceptional person — ¡Qué Hombre!
We here at Man’s Fine Life are deeply saddened by the untimely passing of Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Tom Petty at the age of 66 after a cardiac arrest at his LA home on October 2. The Rolling Stone obituary is here.
Tom Petty was one of the best of the straight-ahead American rock ‘n rollers to come out of the 1970s, arguably forming a triumvirate with Bruce Springsteen and Bob Seger that spearheaded a rebirth of singer-songwriter rock with a gritty edge characterized by narrative lyrics about the common man and impeccably crafted tunes played by top notch bands. It’s easy to forget just what that meant at a time when it looked like conventional blues-based rock was on the wane due to the onslaught of Disco, Heavy Metal, Wus Rock (Firefall, Dan Fogelberg, Bread, et al) and Punk. But like Springsteen and the E Street Band and Seger and the Silver Bullet Band, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers recaptured traditional fans of rock and made legions of new ones with whole albums full of catchy singles suffused with the passion of the true believer in the redemptive power of Rock.
Petty and the Heartbreakers started off with a bang way back in 1976 when they had Top 40 hit with the sinuously assertive “Breakdown” and a very influential non-hit with the Byrds-inflected “American Girl” on their eponymous debut album (legend has it that people were calling up Roger McGuinn to see if it was his new single). With Petty’s oddly effecting trademark nasal delivery and 12-string Rickenbacker, Mike Campbell’s stinging lead guitar, Benmont Tench’s pivotal swirling organ adding uncommon depth and the rock solid rhythm section of the late Howie Epstein on bass and Stan Lynch on drums, the original lineup seemed to emerge as a finely tuned outfit from day one and never took their foot off the gas for the next few years. Their consistently excellent efforts culminated in one of the decade’s best albums, Damn the Torpedoes, in 1979. With such all-time classic as “Refugee,” “Don’t Do Me Like That,” “Here Comes My Girl” and “Breakdown,” Torpedoes was an artistic and commercial smash, going 3-times platinum with over three million in sales.
The band entered the 80s with two more fine releases — Hard Promises (1981) and Long AfterDark (1982)– that, while not as successful as Torpedoes, still solidified their rep as major hit makers and one of the most important acts around. Then came Southern Accents in 1983. A beautiful album with a very troubled recording process — Petty broke his hand badly punching a wall in frustration during the mix of the lead single “Rebels” — Southern Accents was originally conceived as something of a concept album by way of an exploration Petty’s “red neck” Florida roots. Other than a general thematic similarity the songs on Accents do not quite add up to a concept album, perhaps because it was trimmed down from a double LP. But it is beautifully produced, significant for its lyrical ambitions and ultimately lovely and artistically satisfying. It hit platinum and so was also successful commercially. But Petty considered it a noble failure and for him the album never quite lived up to the magnum opus that he had in his head when he conceived it.
Southern Accents and the strains of making it marked a true turning point and after that Petty and the band changed subtly but significantly, as if the reach for something grander and more profound had led instead to a sort of artistic burnout. After Petty’s rehab and recuperation from his self-inflicted wound, as well as drug issues which would continue to plague him in the years to come, the music became much simpler and more stripped down if no less radio friendly. On the full band’s Let Me UP (I’ve Had Enough) (1987) and Into the Great Wide Open(1991), as well as Petty’s smash solo album Full Moon Fever (1989), the narratives became more detached, the characters observed from a distance for the most part rather than from within their skins as had been the case on the band’s earlier material. The songs seem more programmatic, more LA and less Gainesville, and frankly, from an artistic standpoint, less interesting. There’s a less nuanced, less bluesy feel overall that sacrificed some complexity for a more universal “rock” sound, which ironically hasn’t aged as well as the earlier hits. If it marked a return to the basic pleasures of the straight-ahead 3-minute single the updated style clearly seemed to abandon much of the passionate involvement of the earlier 1970s music.
His work with the enjoyably light supergroup The Traveling Wilburys, where he teamed up with other legends like Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, George Harrison and ELO mastermind and super producer Jeff Lynne, to create one of the surprise hit albums of the late 1980s seemed to confirm that Petty was done taking things too seriously and suffering for his art. From here on out it would be all rock, no angst, jamming with friends, playing the hits live and just generally enjoying being one of the world’s most successful rock musicians. Petty evolved into a wryly funny wise old hand with hooded eyes and his trademark deadpan drawl, almost a different person from the strangely sharp featured, almost androgynous angry young rocker of the early days.
And who could blame him for that transition from hot blooded rebelliousness to satisfied professionalism? Taken in its entirety the music is still good and highly enjoyable in the later 80s and 90s. But that earlier stuff is where the magic still shines and resonates in a timeless way. Those first 9 years were a remarkable run and stand up with the creative output of pretty much any Rock artist of any era over that kind of sustained period of time. Of course there are probably fans who fall into the other camp and prefer the later, lighter stuff. But for me I’ll take the music up to and including Southern Accents as peak Petty. It’s the music I grew up with and the music I still reach for and play with pleasure.
Personal preferences aside, one thing’s for sure — Tom Petty was a great rocker and well deserving of his Hall of Fame status. He was a music giant who will be sorely missed and the world is poorer for his passing. But the gift of his music lives on as one of the real high water marks in Rock & Roll because Petty was one of the genuine originals in a genre where that’s about as rare as hen’s teeth. Godspeed, Tom, and thanks for the terrific tunes.
When Hugh Hefner, the maverick founder and publisher of Playboy, died last week at the age of 91 it was tempting to say that it marked the end of an era. But in truth that era ended long ago, perhaps as far back as the 1990s and the birth of widespread internet access with all the instant onanistic delights that would bring. It wasn’t hard to see that his death was treated as the passing of a retrograde dinosaur by the gleeful way so many piled on, tamping the dirt down on poor old Hef before the body was cold or the last period was put on his New York Times obituary.
The first Playboy cover in 1953
Hef was called a creep, a pervert, an exploiter of women, a pimp, a lonely old loser. Great claims were made about how he had single-handedly degraded the sexual culture of the United States and done us all irreparable harm. That these claims were primarily made by women on the left of the political spectrum, as well as a few pearl clutching conservative men, made me wonder if Hef wasn’t lying bemused there in his special crypt in Westwood Memorial Park — a final resting place that he purchased so he could spend eternity next to his feminine ideal and also the ticket to his success as a publisher, Marilyn Monroe. It almost seemed as if Hefner’s sexual revolution had turned back on itself and become a new puritanism despite — or perhaps because of — the unlimited, undreamed of access to the multifaceted turn-ons of the cyber universe, a time where most if not all sexual imagery is debated as someone being exploited and all nudity, artfully shot or otherwise, is once again shameful “pornography.”
Hefner’s legacy is an understandably complex one. But of course judgements from the distance of 2017 on men who made their fortunes in the mid-20th Century amidst its highly sexist, highly male-dominated society are rarely going to be favorable. That Hefner made his particular fortune on the naked bodies of nubile young women would make him a polarizing figure no matter when he did it. That very first coup of the Monroe nudes that instantly propelled Playboy to a must-buy men’s publication — photos which mortified Marylin but which she also admitted helped her career — illustrated the dichotomy of Playboy in a nutshell, the opportunism and panache, the exploitation and pitch perfect taste. In future all the other models would be willing participants, paid certainly, but also unashamedly showing their naked bodies at the peak of their sexual attraction — young, fit, and airbrushed to perfection. It’s true that Hefner was selling the idea of “sexual liberation” and revolt against puritanism. But of course it’s also true that he saw it exclusively through the male lens of available sexy college coeds and girls next door to perfectly compliment a swinging bachelor’s lifestyle filled with little black books and a pad decorated with Eames and Saarinen furniture with a premium Hi-Fi system playing Miles Davis and John Coltrane on quarter inch reel-to-reel tape.
But then, this was a men’s magazine back when such notions were not yet vigorously contested. The barbershop, the pool hall, the club and especially the board rooms were almost exclusively men-only (and white men only, at that). In publishing a racy magazine for men in the 1950s how much could we really expect Hefner to cater to an equal-opportunity female perspective? He had no interest in that whatsoever and he never really would. But as time passed and Playboy became an American institution like Coca-Cola and Lucky Strikes, Hefner pushed the intellectual boundaries that could be intertwined with such a publication. If sex was undoubtedly still the main selling point he wanted something that was worth discussing after orgasm filling the pages of his life’s mission. So alongside Miss July one could find minor (and sometimes major) works by literary giants like Ian Fleming, Arthur C. Clarke, Roald Dahl, Ursula K. LeGuin, Jack Kerouac, Ray Bradbury, Alex Haley, Vladimir Nabokov, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and even feminist icon Margaret Atwood, among many others. And Hef put his considerable fortune not only into his famously cheesy Playboy clubs with its parade of tightly corseted, cotton-taled Bunnies (blisteringly exposed by a young, undercover Gloria Steinem in “A Bunny’s Tale”) but also groundbreaking television shows, Playboy’s Penthouse and Playboy After Dark, which featured swinging, fantastically hep soirees with entertainment by the leading black, white and Latino performers of their time, a quietly revolutionary fully-integrated scene in the 1960s.
He was also a staunch advocate for free speech, civil rights and a woman’s right to choose (though obviously feminists will say that last one was completely self-serving, as do, ironically, staunch conservatives). The Playboy Interview series had some of the better in-depth conversations with stars of sport, politics, technology, music and film. The interview conducted with Jimmy Carter while he was running for president where he admitted that he “lusted in his heart” is probably one of the most famous ever given by an American politician, while future Roots author Alex Haley’s chilling interview with American Nazi leader George Lincoln Rockwell in 1966 was another of many important groundbreakers that put a spotlight in American race relations, a long-time Hefner concern.
So yes, it’s a complicated legacy. Like a lot of the greats he peaked after an extraordinarily fertile period and then rode his fame and stereotype to ever-diminishing returns. If he somehow opened the door to the pornographic free-for-all that some perceive around us now it’s also true that he never capitulated to hardcore and gynecological close-ups like his main competitors, Bob Guccione’s Penthouse and Larry Flint’s execrable Hustler (Flynt may be a fee speech hero to some but his magazine is absolute garbage). Although Hef did try to have his cake and eat it with the quiet purchase and publication of the more explicit Oui magazine, over at Playboy even pubic hair was a long time coming. As swinging and revolutionary as it had been in the 50s and 60s, by the late 1970s amidst the tumult of the real sexual revolution that it had arguably uncorked, Playboy was actually reactionary in its “wholesome” approach to the female nude. And by the time of the internet explosion Playboy was more of an American fixture like a Chevrolet or a ranch house than any kind of avant grade trendsetter or integral part of a happening zeitgeist. It’s what respectable people read when they wanted a little titillation and perhaps an interesting article or interview. Sure it was cringe-worthy to see Hef still walking around in pajamas and squiring a rotating harem of identical perfectly proportioned blondes in their 20s preaching the gospel of Viagra. But that was the image Hef had created for himself and he was unable or unwilling to slough it off despite his advancing years. What did we really expect this ultimate adolescent-cum-swinging bachelor to do after all these years, stop living his fantastical dream, settle down and grow up? From a marketing perspective, if Hef and Playboy were essentially the same entity how could this aging Don Juan possibly change himself as the embodiment of the Playboy lifestyle that he so enthusiastically promoted?
In some of the fierce critiques that have emerged in the short time since Hugh Hefner’s passing there has been an effort to tarnish him with the tragic death of Dorothy Stratton in 1980, as if her introduction to and promotion to stardom by Playboy had been responsible for her murder rather than her scheming, scummy, murderous husband. I would only answer that with a question: how many murders have occurred among employees of other “respectable” businesses during all the years Playboy has been published? A hell of a lot more than one, that’s for sure. There is also a concentrated effort to portray Hefner as the ultimate exploiter of women, somehow luring them to bare their flesh for his personal profit and satisfaction. This seems to me to be one of the more ironically antifeminist positions, as if the countless models and centerfolds of Playboy did not have any choice in the matter. True, they did not make the money that Hefner made off of their labors. But what employee makes the same money as the CEO? Many former playmates wound up working for the company and many were happy with their nude photo shoots. I’m sure some were dismayed in retrospect but again, in what employment transaction is satisfaction 100% guaranteed? The idea that these literally thousands of women were exploited against their will seems like utter nonsense. It’s much less condescending to think that they knew what they were doing and perhaps had a plan for what they would do with money they were being paid to better their lives. It’s a distinct possibility that many of the models actually enjoyed the prospect of being desired by millions of men and perhaps look back now when they are older at their youthful images with pride. If that’s a sick proposition to some it may be time to re-examine just where exactly the border lies between exploitation and willing sexual participation, of human desire and fantasy, of lust and admiration, of voyeurism and necessary physical gratification. And to the critique that Playboy presented an unrealistic vision of perfect women that warped the boys and men exposed to it I’d just say this: look at the millions of boys and men who read Playboy at some point in their lives. As one of them I can tell you the boys were certainly ecstatic to finally find out what grown-up women looked like under their clothes and what to look forward to when they grew up to be men. And the vast majority of men understood the idealized nature of the images and simply settled down to perfectly normal marriages and relationships undamaged by such visions of All-American Aphrodites no matter how much they may have enjoyed them and, like President Carter, lusted in their hearts.
Hef’s last laugh on us all may just be how far we’ve regressed as a society where to be successful at what Hugh Hefner and Playboy did 50-60 years ago involves exponentially more debasement and exponentially less aesthetic and intellectual veneer, where pundits knowingly reference PornHub but turn around and excoriate Hefner and Playboy. You can lay the blame at Hefner’s feet for the fact that there’s a strip club in every town and endless porn available on the internet if you like. But better to look at our own human needs and weaknesses to find the real answer to the question of just why that is so. If men didn’t want it and women weren’t willing to participate in it Hugh Hefner and Playboy would’t have been the massive success that they were. He sold an openly sexual dream world at a time when Americans were desperate for it and people bought it in spades for decades afterwards. So tell me how exactly did he corrupt such willing consumers? You can shoot the messenger if you’re uncomfortable with that. But I’m afraid he and his silk pajamas have just left the Mansion.
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 →
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.
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.