Monday, January 2, 2017

2016: In Memoriams, Part One

A few times I have started a year (or ended one) by writing a piece about people who died in the twelve months that just ended. Needless to say, this year presents a dilemma because of how many titans crossed the Rainbow Bridge.

It feels like I could spend all of 2017 writing about nothing except those who passed away in 2016. Therefore I am going to chop my "in memoriams" up into a few posts, yet I still fear I am going to fail to mention everybody. Anyway, here goes, and I am going to start with...

Prince Rogers Nelson might not have been the most pivotal or influential person to reach eternity in 2016, but he was definitely the most individual, and that is one helluvan important thing in this age of tribalism.

It seems like everywhere you look, people put themselves and others into some kind of box and base their identity not on their own traits but on whatever group they think they "belong" to, be it racial, sexual, political, or whatever. Fortunately, Prince refused to have any of that. He simply was who he was.

What genre does his music belong in? It's hard to say because it's funky without being funk, soulful without being soul, and a bit rockish without being rock. Plus, it's worth noting that he did not generate hits by merely programming synthesizers, for real instruments were played on his recordings and sometimes they were all played by him. On "When Doves Cry," Prince's guitar work manages to bring both Jimi Hendrix and Curtis Mayfield to mind.

When he was 18 he drove all the way from Minnesota to LA and successfully pitched himself to Warner Brothers execs by getting them in a studio and, in the words of Jeffrey Blehar, "laying down an entire song, instrument by instrument, from start to finish in less than two hours to prove he could self-record his own album on the cheap." In other words, he had a keen business mind to go along with his keen musical mind.

Prince's tunes were sincerely felt and well thought-out. Some who criticize him fixate on the fact that some of his songs seem sex-obsessed (if you think the little red Corvette was a car, you haven't listened) but those critics fail to notice that he regarded sex as something that is important and not just for sport. Going back to the song I just alluded to, consider the lyrics: "...I felt a little ill / when I saw all the pictures / of the jockeys that were there before me... Little red Corvette / you need to find a love that's gonna last... Move over baby, gimme the keys / I'm gonna try to tame your little red love machine... Babe you gotta slow down / 'cause if you don't, 'cause if you don't / you're gonna run your body right into the ground."

Prince had religion (he was a Jehova's Witness) and when asked about social and political issues he gave opinions that might surprise you (he was against gay marriage). But you probably didn't know any of that for the blessed reason that he never threw his views into anyone's face. Wouldn't the world be a better place if more of us took a cue from him in that regard?

David Bowie
Many of the things I said about Prince could also be said about David Bowie. An eternally creative native of London, he had a virtuoso edge and sense of theatrics and couldn't care less what people thought about him. Like Prince, he had a businessman's mind and was shrewd enough to raise money by issuing Bowie Bonds in 1997 (investors who bought the bonds were guaranteed a return by being awarded a share of his royalties for the next 10 years).

Bowie began his professional music career at the age of 16 and first reached international stardom at the age of 25. That was when he released his album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, for which he got into costume to dress for the androgynous role of the title character. Looking back, it's amusing how many people were driven to speculate about his sexuality because they couldn't separate the stage character from the man playing it.

Bowie's list of songs includes such classics as "Space Oddity," "Fame," "Changes," "Modern Love," "Under Pressure," "Dancing in the Street," and "Rebel, Rebel" -- and it's interesting how many good songs are his that you don't realize are his until you Google who sang or wrote them.

Bowie managed to keep his cancer a secret until after he died in January, two days shy of his 70th birthday. His final video, which shows him dressed dapper to the end and being creative to the end, is especially spooky when you view it and its denouement and ponder that he knew he was dying when he filmed it... and when you consider that the song is called "Lazarus."

Merle Haggard
In reality, Haggard wasn't from Muskogee and wasn't even an Okie. He was born in Southern California less than 5 miles from Bakersfield and less than 100 from Hollywood -- but his blue collar rearing and country attitude were one hundred percent authentic, and serve as reminders that there is more to Cali than Tinseltown and Frisco.

Merle Haggard was only 8 when his father died of an aneurysm, and his years from junior high through young adulthood were those of a delinquent. By the age of 16 he had already logged six stints in juvenile detention centers for crimes ranging from shoplifting to battery to escape. At the age of 20 he was sent to Bakersfield Jail for robbery, and after escaping from there was sent to San Quentin. While at San Quentin he spent time in solitary confinement after being caught drunk on booze he made with his cellmate to sell and barter to other prisoners.

Obviously, he wound up turning his cart around. While working as a ditch digger after his release, Haggard began performing, got some recording work, and in 1964, at the age of 27, released a cover of Wynn Stewart's "Sing a Sad Song" that became his first song to receive national airplay. One year later he scored his first Top 10 hit with "(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers," and one year after that he scored his first #1 with "I'm A Lonesome Fugitive."

From there he became a force on the music scene, and although his sound and outlook were undeniably country, he was highly regarded by artists in others genres. Among those who recorded his songs were Dean Martin, Joan Baez, and the Grateful Dead.

"Okie from Muskogee" and "The Fightin' Side of Me" will always be the tunes most people associate with Merle Haggard. But my favorites will always be "Big City" and "I Guess He'd Rather Be in Colorado." When I hear him sing those tunes, I envision myself trekking across sagebrush-strewn wild lands with the Rockies in front of me.

Muhammad Ali
He was born as Cassius Clay in 1942 and started going by Muhammad Ali in 1964, but never actually changed his legal name... and there is simply no good way to write briefly about him because there are too many traits you feel compelled to mention, and too many contradictions and evolutions you feel compelled to examine.

He was a professional fighter, and yet an avowed pacifist. He very publicly adopted Islam as his faith, yet rarely spoke about it (despite his love for the camera and mic). At one point he supported the Nation of Islam's black separatist goals, but eventually removed himself from the NOI's thrall and became an advocate of racial reconciliation.

Ali was far from the first athlete to boast, but he was the first to turn trash-talking into an art form that bordered on poetry, such as when he quipped "float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, the hand can't hit what the eyes can't see" shortly before entering the ring for his first bout against heavyweight champ Sonny Liston. Still Cassius Clay at the time, he proceeded to pull off the upset by beating Liston to claim the belt for himself.

Ali's gift for words left an imprint on the very names of some of history's most famous boxing matches. His third bout against arch rival Joe Frazier, staged in the capital of the Philippines, was dubbed "The Thrilla n Manila," while his fight against George Foreman in Zaire was called "The Rumble in the Jungle."

But let's face it: All that personality was secondary to his boxing prowess, for it took the latter to make him a public figure in the first place. Heavyweight boxers tend to be known for their punching power alone, which means there usually isn't much else -- which helps explain why so many heavyweight fights are 90 percent slow and boring. Ali was a different breed because he had feline quickness and fought with cunning and strategy, meaning there was nothing dull about his fights. And as a multiple-time champion who was named Fighter of the Year by Ring Magazine on six different occasions, there is no doubt that his boxing was about substance and not just pizzazz.

Unfortunately, Parkinson's disease robbed Ali's body and tongue of their dexterity for the last few decades of his life. It might be a blessing that his spirit was freed from its bodily cage when death came calling on June 3rd.

Alan Rickman
A graduate of the UK's Royal Academy of Dramatic Art who cut his acting teeth on stage, Rickman was unknown to American audiences until he appeared as the villain Hans Gruber in 1988's Die Hard. His portrayal of Gruber was so masterful that Rickman quickly became a hot commodity and was cast as the bad guys Elliot Marston in Quigley Down Under and Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.

For millions of movie viewers and book readers, he will always be remembered for bringing Severus Snape to life. Snape was the dark wizard and potions teacher who served as the somewhat mysterious antagonist through most of the Harry Potter series, and there is not an actor on Earth who could have done a better job than Rickman at transferring Snape's complexity from the paper page to the silver screen.

Pancreatic cancer claimed him last January at the too-young age of 69. It is good that he won a BAFTA Award for his turn as the Sheriff of Nottingham and that he won a Golden Globe for his portrayal of Rasputin, but it's almost a crime that he never won an Oscar: Count this as a situation where the public knows better than the academy.

Carrie Fisher
The daughter of superstars Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher, she was seemingly born in the stratosphere. But her parents' very public divorce, which stemmed from her father cheating on her mother with one of her mother's best friends (namely, Elizabeth Taylor), left scars and ensured that the road she walked would not be easy. As an adult she struggled with bipolar disorder and drugs and booze -- and, to her credit, she was open about them and overcame them.

Carrie Fisher will always be best remembered as Princess Leia from Star Wars. She earned that role at the age of 19, and played it to perfection in four films about things that happened a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. However, she was more successful as an author than as an actress. Over the years she churned out a list of bestsellers that included Postcards from the Edge, Wishful Drinking, and Shockaholic, to name just three.

While flying from Britain to California on December 23rd, she went into cardiac arrest 15 minutes before the plane landed and never regained consciousness. On December 27th she passed away at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center at the age of 60.

And then...

Debbie Reynolds
Oscar-winning screenwriters couldn't have scripted it any "better." The day after Carrie Fisher went to the afterlife, her mother joined her there.

Debbie Reynolds obtained silver spoons but was not born with them. An El Paso native whose father was a ditch digger and mother was a clothes washer, she summed her childhood up by saying: "We may have been poor but we always had something to eat, even if Dad had to go out on the desert and shoot jackrabbits."

Her family moved to California when she was a schoolgirl and she won the Miss Burbank beauty pageant in 1948, at the age of 16. Scouts from Warner Brothers and MGM were at the pageant and were so impressed they both tried to sign her. She went with Warner, but switched to MGM two years later because Warner stopped making musicals.

Reynolds's big break came when she was cast as the female lead opposite Gene Kelly in Singin' in the Rain. Released in 1952, that film became a classic and made Reynolds a star. She then used her acting and singing ability to remain active and relevant for years, earning an Oscar nomination for her performance as the title character in 1964's The Unsinkable Molly Brown.

She also recorded songs (three of which were Billboard hits), performed on Broadway and in Las Vegas, and remained vibrant into her eighties. Debbie Reynolds will be missed. 

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