Saturday, June 26, 2004

FEEL THE PILLOW WHERE YOUR BABY USED TO LAY: We woke up one morning and found Ray Charles was gone. He was a titan of American music, a true pioneer, blazing through boundaries among styles and genres, redrawing the map for the artists who followed him.

His music married emotional abandon with precision, an honest and searching heart with soaring ambition and a formidable will. In the studio and in his career moves, Brother Ray knew what he wanted and generally got his way. He held the upper hand in most of his relationships: with women, with fellow musicians, with business managers and record labels. He lived life on his terms.

He had a sappy side—one has to admit this about an artist who recorded a version of “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean.” But many of Charles’s best songs are bracingly unsentimental and concrete. The lyrics are about love won and lost, of course, but also about work, and about money (“Busted,” “Greenbacks,” “Blackjack”), and the interrelatedness of these elements. Love is not mystical or magical, it simply offers shelter against life’s hardships. Doing right by your mate means making her comfortable. You got no money, you just ain’t no good, complains Margie Hendrix of the Raelettes. Love is a bargain; it’s not a job for Cupid’s arrow; it’s a matter for negotiation and give and take. Come back, baby / Let’s talk it over one more time.

Charles sometimes confounded the expectations of liberal whites and movement blacks in the ‘60s and ‘70s, avoiding bold statements about race, choosing the “wrong” anthems to sing, “America the Beautiful” instead of “We Shall Overcome” (not to denigrate his powerful rendering of “America the Beautiful”). His perspective was well-earned, as a black man raised in the Jim Crow South who fled its regime at a young age. And taking a contrarian stance was perfectly in character for Charles. But he was not immune to black political yearnings, merely attuned to the downside risk, the threat of a white backlash obliterating black gains. The advance of freedom is not inevitable, nor orderly. This sense of forboding permeates Charles’s 1961 recording of the Percy Mayfield composition “The Danger Zone.” He sounds a note poised between hope and worry:

My love for the world is like always
For the world is a part of me
That’s why I’m so afraid of the progress that’s been made
Toward eternity

Charles hit his stride in 1954, the year of Elvis Presley and Sun Records, and Brown v. Board of Ed., and Willie Mays’s great catch in the Polo Grounds. In a couple of hastily arranged recording sessions squeezed into his tour schedule—one in Atlanta, one in Miami—Charles recorded a series of songs, his own compositions, that flirt with sappiness, but transcend it on the strength of intensity, suppleness, and skill. This is my favorite “moment” in his career. In these songs Charles’s singing is a wonder; every whine and crack in his voice is purposeful. His band operates like a fine-tuned luxury automobile, supplying propulsion and grace in whatever combination the song needs. “Come Back Baby” is fascinating for its shift in tone and address: the singer first pleads to his lover, then preaches to his listeners about all he would do to win her back, then in the end speaks to the woman defiantly, warning her not to take him for granted. “I Got a Woman” clips along joyfully—the luxury car is at highway cruising speed here—as Charles alternates stanzas of praise and gratitude with sly, confidential boasts about how good he has it at home.

The down-tempo number “A Fool for You” conjures up a slow solitary walk, and a man’s imaginary conversation with the object of his heartache. She has broken it off, she has a new man, but he can’t accept his fate. The band shifts gears; the cadence is more urgent. Another shift in address as the singer seeks communion with his audience: Did you ever wake up in the morning / Just about the break of day / Reach over and feel the pillow / Where your baby used to lay. It’s a universal lament. We seem to be witnessing a slow-motion nervous breakdown. In the end we’re left with a simple yet unanswerable question: I want to know what makes me be a fool for you.

Tuesday, June 15, 2004

PISTONS IN FIVE?: The Detroit Pistons have got the Los Angeles Lakers on the ropes, three games to one, in the NBA Finals. They’ll probably deliver the coup de grace tonight. Fine with me; I’m not much of a Pistons rooter, but I’m a longtime Lakers detractor. (I sometimes feel like a fraud as a sports fan because my rooting interest is often negative-—I’m pulling for somebody to lose—-but that’s a story for another day.) But regardless of that, the series is an interesting spectacle.

Shaquille O’Neal is the most unstoppable force in basketball. He gets 30+ points and 20+ rebounds at whim. But he has a couple of Achilles’ heels (a mental block about shooting free throws, for one), the Lakers can never find him at crucial moments of the game, and it’s always his much smaller, much less talented Detroit counterparts making the big plays in the final minutes.

It’s a recurring theme in the history of basketball: Nobody loves Goliath. First Wilt Chamberlain, then Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, now Shaquille O’Neal-—each one struggled with his status as the biggest, most dominant center in the game. That status brings a heavy physical toll, game after game, from being double-teamed and cheap-shotted by overmatched opponents. It also carries unreasonably high expectations, a lack of appreciation (i.e., his success is genetically preordained), and just plain boredom: How many times do I have to prove that these Lilliputians can’t stop me?

Wilt repeatedly and rather neurotically remodeled his game in response to criticism. (You say I shoot too much? Okay, how about I resolve to be the league’s leading passer and virtually refuse to shoot?) Kareem, although he maintained his cold logical efficiency, suffered a mid-career doldrums when, he once commented, he just showed up at the gym to shoot a few skyhooks. Kareem got a kick in the pants when Magic Johnson joined his team, and the two of them modulated their egos and shared the load of stardom.. They had a long and profitable run together.

When Shaquille got together with Kobe Bryant, they got their championship rings, eventually, but it has never a harmonious union. Neither is a very generous teammate. Shaq struggles with the free-throw shooting bugaboo, with his weight, with foot and leg and abdominal injuries. Kobe obviously has his personal problems these days, but they don't mitigate the fact (you might even say they underline the fact) that he's a prima donna, a lone ranger, brilliant but undisciplined. Kobe craves the spotlight, so much so that he may willingly leave the Lakers for a crummy team where there'll be no question who The Man is.

When Gary Payton and Karl Malone signed with the Lakers, leaving money on the table for a chance to cap their long careers with a title ring, it was clearly a now-or-never strategy. That, plus Kobe’s legal jeopardy, plus Kobe’s and Phil Jackson’s looming free agency, plus the continuing Shaq/Kobe rivalry: it’s just too much drama. The strain began to show in Game 4, with the Lakers bitching at the refs and at each other late in the game. And Malone and Payton have nothing left physically.

Detroit over L.A. would be the biggest, maybe the only, Finals upset in a long, long time. Also, it’s a real rarity for the team without the best single player to win. The Lakers have four Hall of Famers on their team; the Pistons probably don’t have any.

But Detroit deserves lots of credit. They’re balanced; they can hurt their opponents in a lot of different ways. The Pistons were so shrewdly put together. Obviously I haven’t been paying enough attention until recently, but I see lots of reasons why they shouldn’t be all that good. It rather astonished me to watch Ben Wallace shoot a wide-open 12-footer, and airball it, as I think, He’s their best player. Darko Milicic, the third player drafted in 2003, should be a contributing player as a rookie; instead, he’s glued to the bench. Chauncey Billups and Rasheed Wallace always seemed to have talent, but several teams failed to get it out of them before they landed in Detroit. Rip Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince are both skinny and “soft” by current NBA standards. Detroit acquired Ben Wallace as part of a trade for Grant Hill; few suspected at the time that Detroit got the better end of that deal. But that’s the name of the game in all the pro team sports nowadays: identifying undervalued commodities. And whaddaya know, it’s still a team sport after all. The Pistons match up well against the Lakers, they work hard, they accept leadership, and they don’t seem to care who gets the credit, as long as they win.
A LATE POST ABOUT THE LATE RON: So Ronald Reagan died, and while I dithered, absurdly, over whether and what to post, the commentariat turned inside out and back again, with Reagan hagiographies, then the anti-hagiographic backlash, then the anti-backlash backlash, etc.

Writers’ use of the Reagan legacy is contaminated by the emotional heat of the present election season. I liked what Frank Rich had to say about Reagan and Bush Jr. What follows here are some superficial but honest personal recollections of Ronald Reagan.

My high school broadcast Reagan’s first inaugural speech over the intercom system. I was sitting in calculus class, immediately in front of the teacher, Mrs. McNally. She was a large presence (literally and figuratively) in this school, dreaded by students but bolstered by seniority. Mrs. McNally was unpleasant, unkind, unreasonable, and given to playing mind games with her young charges: she’d be merely stern and cold some days, but shrill and hectoring on others. I can say nothing in her favor, except that years later I realized I’d learned quite a lot of math in her classes.

Teaching was on hold until Reagan finished speaking, when McNally said, her cigarette-ravaged voice full of pride, “Well, I don’t think I can follow that.”

So McNally, my inscrutible arbitrary martinet of a math teacher, was a Reaganite! Can’t follow that? Oh, give it a shot, I said to myself, with a big inward smirk and roll of the eyes—-and from that day forward, that teacher, whom I had allowed to make me miserable for two years, never cost me a minute’s worry, never laid a psychic glove on me.

A couple of months later, I was at home one day lounging on the living room couch. (Was I sick? Was it spring break? Not sure.) The phone rang, my mother answered it, and a moment later cried out, “Oh my God, is he dead?” She sounded so shocked, for a long moment I was sure my father or my brother had been in a terrible accident. In fact, President Reagan had been shot. I haven’t heard any pundit remark in the last week, in explaining Reagan’s popularity, how much sympathy and good will he gained simply for surviving Hinckley’s assassination attempt. The political killings of the ‘60s were still fairly fresh in people’s minds, and there had been John Lennon’s murder just a few months earlier. For Ronnie to have a brush with violent death, but recover, and give us a wink and a quip while he did it—-people were simply grateful for that.

Flash forward to fall 1984. I was a college senior, eligible to vote for President for the first time. On the night of the last Reagan-Mondale debate, the dean of students reserved one of the union lounges for a debate-watching party, and invited a handful of students whom he liked and knew to be of liberal leanings-—a minority subset of the campus population. I was there. The handwriting was on the wall that Reagan would win going away, unless he utterly collapsed in this night’s debate (and he had stumbled badly in an earlier one). So we drank soft drinks and ate potato chips and milled about, and occasionally heckled Reagan’s image on the big screen. But he wasn’t collapsing; he gave a sound Reaganesque performance. After awhile I sat down in the back of the room and filled out my absentee ballot for Walter Mondale, full of my 20-year-old’s smug certitude, congratulating myself on my symbolic gesture, confident that my man would lose.

Memory is such a tricky thing. It’s difficult to reconstruct what we thought or felt 25 years ago, “bracketing out” what we know of the intervening years. I rather respect the conclusion of the liberal blogger Apartment 11D that, through the lens of happy high school and college years, her view of Ronald Reagan is a rather fond one. I can’t say the same, though. I became aware of Reagan in ’76, when he challenged Gerald Ford for the Republican nomination, and my 12-year-old’s conception was that next to Ford, Reagan was flashy and smooth-talking but vaguely untrustworthy. I never quite took the man seriously, never took him at face value.

Of course, I have plenty of fond memories from the Reagan years, set against the haze of happy complacency that I associate with the man. One of my regrets from college is that I passed up a chance to ride to Washington and take part in a US-Out-of-Central-America march. Because I think it would have been a hell of a fun road trip, and because as it is I have no sense of participating in the social and political ferment of the era. But at the time, on that sleepy campus, it just didn’t seem urgent to me.

Peter Manseau has an excellent recent essay about the apocalyptic dread that he associates with Reagan. The sentiments he describes ring plausible to me, and I certainly felt Reagan was inflammatory and reckless in some of his anti-Soviet rhetoric—-yet I didn’t really fear nuclear war. It was the complacent haze, I guess. To the extent I thought about the issue, I reasoned that somebody would have to be the first to push the button, and nobody would. Our leaders (including the Soviets) were often silly and misguided, but not crazy or evil.

I do, however, remember my friend Steve R. wondering out loud over beers one night if we were going to war with Libya. The government (Carter, actually, I believe) had reinstituted mandatory draft registration, and being sent on some damn-fool military excursion seemed well within the realm of possibility. Not that I would die, just that the country and I might waste a couple of valuable years.

During that Mondale campaign I had a copy of a book titled Reagan’s Reign of Error. It was the 1984 counterpart to Bushisms, a collection of Reagan gems like trees causing pollution, the man collecting welfare under 27 different names, and the rest, with the compilers citing each Reagan quote then reporting the facts of each case, always quite different than what Reagan stated or implied. My roommate and I would read bits of it aloud to each other. Why can’t every American read this stuff? Nobody would vote for that clown! Mine was the only copy of the book I ever remember seeing.

Here’s what Reagan meant to me: The haze. A large gap between appearance and reality. The birth of a cynic. The habit (pathetic) of cherishing my private political wisdom in the face of mass electoral delusion.