You Just Never Know, Part 2

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I’ve written about the Beastie Boys several times, including here and here. The death of Adam Yauch in 2012 (a/k/a MCA) came as a shock, since he is the same age that I am now. In fact, I’m about the same age as he was when the cancer that did him in was diagnosed. And if that doesn’t grab my attention, not much will.

When the Beastie Boys released Licensed to Ill back in 1986, it offered lots of silly, goofy rhymes. No subject was too off-kilter, so long as it made for a rhyme with another, equally off-kilter topic. The very first song on the record had a rhyme that went “If I played guitar I’d be Jimmy Page/ The girlies I like are underage.” Having read Hammer of the Gods not too long before that, and knowing that Page had in fact engaged in such behavior, their words seemed brilliant and provocative at the same time. And there were many more where that came from.

The death of Abe Vigoda yesterday, at the age of 94, can linked to the Beastie Boys, if only in the most crazy, backhanded way. He was nearly 70 years old when MCA, at the age of 22, rapped “I got a girl in the castle and one in the pagoda/ You know I rhymes like Abe Vigoda.” I suppose admitting that Abe Vigoda has rhymes like yours wouldn’t help your rap career very much, would it?

So who would you expect to live longer back in 1986, the almost 70 year-old Abe Vigoda, or the still-in-his-early 20s Adam Yauch/MCA? You wouldn’t pick Vigoda, would you? And yet that’s what happened.

Llife can be painfully short, or surprisingly long. There’s no way of knowing just how much of a shelf life any of us will have. But if life is being enjoyed, that’s what matters the most. Everything else works itself out, eventually.

NOTE: This is a retread of a piece I wrote about Phyllis Diller when she died in 2012. The only differences are in bold italics for Abe Vigoda. Is this recycling? Of course it is. But the wheel of life–and death–keeps on turning, all the same.

Governor Snyder, you can’t fix this

When I think about what’s going on in Flint, Michigan, I get really angry. Whoever thought that giving poisoned water to the public–in order to save money over clean water taken from another source–needed to be reined in by the person who had the authority to do so, and in this case it was the governor of Michigan, Rick Snyder.

But Snyder let the deed go down, and the people of Flint have paid the price. A legionnaire’s disease outbreak has already killed 10 people, and everyone who drank or used that water–which had been tested at elevated levels of carcinogens–did damage to themselves that we won’t see for a long time to come.

We need water to live, and as citizens we have a right to expect our water to be safe to use. If government is to have any purpose at all, that’s one of them. And when the water is unsafe, those who approved of giving it to the people cannot be trusted to clean up the mess themselves.

Rick Snyder and anyone else who knew that Flint was receiving poisoned water–but did nothing to warn the people about its dangers–needs to be removed from office and prosecuted for a criminal act. Terrorists would love to poison a city’s drinking water, so why do the people who actually succeeded at doing so get a chance to “fix” their mistake? It won’t bring back those who have died, nor will it remove the nasty chemicals inside the people who drank or bathed in this toxic stuff.

The solutions to this situation are very pricey, and for a city and a state (and a nation, if we’re being honest about it) that doesn’t have the money to spare, things can look pretty dire. But as long as the governor who allowed this to happen remains in charge, nothing will truly get solved. Step one is to remove the present governor, and let someone else try to fix the damage from there.

May we never see anything like this ever again in an American city.

Rockers are mortal, after all

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It wasn’t always this way for me, but within the past couple of years the deaths of people I don’t know have taken on a whole new dimension. Whether I knew the person or not–and particularly if they were somebody famous for one reason or another– the first thing I want to know is how old the person was when they passed on.

Age is only a number, in death as in life, but it can serve as a measuring stick against our own mortality.  The wide majority of deaths in the news are still thankfully older than my age, as was the case with Glenn Frey’s passing today at 67. I’m still literally decades away from that number, so I can’t feel too bad for somebody who lived that long. And, to put a different spin on it, living one day as Glenn Frey must have been better than anything I could imagine, so spending a few decades in his shoes must have been out of this world.

But Frey’s death comes on the heels of David Bowie’s passing just a few days after his 69th birthday. Having been inspired by an article written by Neil McCormick about the inevitable passing of rock’s gods in the days and years to come, I looked at three groups of rock musicians:

  • Those who were born in the 1940s and were older than Bowie was when he passed away,
  • Those who were younger than Bowie but older than Frey when he passed away, and
  • Those who were younger than Frey but were still born in the 1940s, and are thus at least 65 years of age.

The findings were quite interesting. I’ve never inserted an excel spreadsheet into a post before, and I hope it works out. I’m going to insert the link to my findings after every paragraph, to make it easy for anyone who wants to see the full listing of musicians and their birthdays. The source of all birthdays is The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock, Third Edition, published in 2005. The list is not intended to be exhaustive, and in the event that I left out someone who belongs on the list, well, that’s what google is for. Birthdays before 1940 and after 1949 were not considered for this piece, so Tina Turner (born in 1939) and Peter Gabriel (born in 1950) are excluded.

First, the group that was older than Bowie has to be hearing the footsteps of Father Time, if they weren’t already. Living the life of a rock star probably has some multiplying effect that is impossible to quantify, but I can’t imagine that a year in the life of music legend is anywhere near the equivalent of 12 months for anyone else. It might seem to have a shortening effect on a someone’s life span, but Keith Richards is still going strong, so who knows what the story really is? And Mick Jagger’s onstage dancing have probably added years onto his life in exercise value, alone.

Rock Birthdays

But everyone who was 69 years or older when David Bowie passed away last week had to wonder how much longer they have left. For instance, Jimmy Buffet just turned 69 last Christmas, making him a couple of weeks older than David Bowie. The same can be said for Robby Krieger of the Doors, Bill Kreutzmann of the Grateful Dead, and John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin, all of whom reached age 69 in December of last year. David Bowie’s death has no direct bearing on any of their mortality, but I’m certain that each of these soon-to-be septuagenarians sat up and took notice, anyway.

Rock Birthdays

Others in the rock world who have reached 70 already include Bob Dylan (who will turn 75 in May), Paul McCartney (who will be 64 plus another ten years in June), Jagger and Richards (who are both 72), and Rod Stewart, Eric Clapton, Bob Seger, Pete Townshend, and John Fogerty. The rock pantheon is aging at the same pace as the rest of us, but their numbers will inevitably thin out over the coming few years.

Rock Birthdays

But those who are approaching age 69 later this year must have been thinking of their own mortality when Bowie’s death was announced. And now, the realization that Glenn Frey was even younger than they were must feel like a 1-2 punch. Many of them knew Bowie and/or Frey already, but they’ve now entered into what I call the Bowie-Frey Zone, which as of ten days ago didn’t even exist. They’re approaching their 69th birthdays–which is all the time that David Bowie got on this earth–with the realization that they’ve already outlived Glenn Frey by as much as a year and ten months.

Rock Birthdays

The names on the list of these rock stars is quite impressive:  Elton John, Queen’s Brian May, no less than three members of the Eagles (Don Henley, Don Felder, and Joe Walsh), Lindsey Buckingham, Mick Fleetwood, Stevie Nicks, Brian Johnson of AC/DC, Sammy Hagar, Meatloaf, Steven Tyler of Aerosmith, Robert Plant, and Jackson Browne. If David Bowie’s death didn’t rattle them–from a sheer numerical standpoint–it’s likely that Glenn Frey’s did.

Rock Birthdays

And the final group of musicians I looked at can take some comfort from the fact that Glenn Frey was older than them: Ozzy Osbourne, Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, Gene Simmons, Paul Rodgers, and both Hall and Oates. A majority of ZZ Top is on this list, as well.

Rock Birthdays

So what does all this mean? I’m not sure, exactly, but I can give one short story that seems a bit relevant here. Last summer, I was having some work done on my teeth, and as I was laying there with my mouth wide open, and nothing else to do, my mind started wandering to death and rock stars. I began with the Rolling Stones, and the death of Bobby Keys at the age of 70. He wasn’t officially in the band, but he played on some of their most well-known songs, and that’s a pretty significant thing.

I then started to mentally go through different bands, as bits of my tooth were flying through the air, thinking of who had passed on from each of them. I came to the realization that most bands have experienced death in one way or another, and that rock and roll does appear to extract a toll from those who live the life, whether onstage or out in the audience.

Neil Young once sang that it’s better to burn out than fade away, and after seeing him tear up the stage at Farm Aid 30 last summer, I can confidently state that he’s not fading away anytime soon. So maybe age is just a number, in some sense. It’s true that rock and roll can never die, but its principal practitioners aren’t getting any younger, either. I’m afraid that none of us are.

 

Life imitating Art

The death of David Bowie has continued to resonate with me this week. And an example of this came from an everyday incident that turned into a haunting encounter with his music in a Chicago cemetery.

I was driving south on Western Avenue yesterday, on my way to pick up my older daughter from play rehearsal. I had a bottle of sparkling water from our garage with me, to drink it along the way. As I pulled up to a red light, I twisted the cap on the bottle and things went dramatically wrong.

The bottle’s contents were in a semi-frozen state from being stored in the garage, and the act of releasing the pressure caused a spray all over the car’s interior. In an instant, I had drenched myself without intending to.

Fortunately, the light I was stopped at on Western Avenue  is the street that leads into Rosehill cemetery, which I’ve written about many times in this space. I decided to pull into the cemetery, get a blanket from the trunk to dry myself off, and use some wipes to clear off the car’s control panel. When the light turned green I signaled for a turn, just as David Bowie’s “Lazarus” came on my iPhone shuffle playlist.

Driving into the cemetery, the initial bars of the music spoke to me. The music is haunting and beautiful, and the wail of the horns reminded me that, like David Bowie, every one of the people who are buried here have already crossed over to the next world, whatever it is.

I remembered why I was there, but only just barely. I parked the car, and got out to witness a 360-degree panorama of death, in some ways similar to the one I had experienced on Halloween just a few month ago. But this time I had a musical accompaniment, and it made things that much more affecting.

Scanning the horizon, I saw graves with inscriptions for people I’ll never know. And I reminded myself, yet again, that my stay on this planet won’t be any more permanent than theirs were. Whether I will get 69 years and two days on Earth like David Bowie did still remains to be seen. But the time will come when I will have to return to the wardrobe, as Bowie does at the end of the Lazarus video.

Do yourself a favor and watch this, if you haven’t already. With 22 million views and counting on You Tube, it’s having quite an impact.

After the song was ended, I cleaned up the mess in the car and on myself that had led me to the cemetery in the first place. I then drove away with a new appreciation for the fleeting nature of life, and the astounding work of art that David Bowie created in his final days. And an understanding of gas trapped inside frozen bottles, as well.

2016 and the USA

 

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The upcoming presidential election is going to dominate the news, as it should. The person who emerges from the grotesque carnival we have constructed for this purpose will be able to make decisions that may seem important, but in the end life is going to move forward, no matter who it is.

I have my preferences, and I won’t be shy about sharing them here as the year goes on. But it’s not a process I’m going to want to watch too closely, because it seems to appeal to what’s worst in us, when it should be anything but that.

Yesterday my younger daughter was at the orthodontist’s office, and I was in the waiting room while they were doing what they do with her. Good Morning America was talking about the Republican debate from the night before, and they labeled it as “Showdown in South Carolina.” And the whole evening seemed to turn on Donald Trump and Ted Cruz and whether Cruz could serve as President because he was born in Canada. It made me sick to realize that the combative, frivolous nature of that moment was all that the media saw fit to show to We, the people. Grown men in engaged in a glorified schoolyard squabble. It made me ashamed for this country.

Republicans can say whatever they want to say, and do whatever they want to do. Unless they can cure cancer and bring David Bowie, Alan Rickman, and Dan Haggerty back for an awesome episode of Grizzly Adams on the run from Professor Snape with a cool soundtrack and cameo appearance from the Thin White Duke, I won’t be buying what they’re selling. But that’s beside the point.

The media can play this from whatever angle they choose to, but what they give us instead is “Showdown in South Carolina.” It’s a good thing that Montreal isn’t this country, because we would have had the “Brawl in Montreal” if it was.

Someone in the bowels of ABC had to think this one up, and they were probably very excited to see their idea up on the screen for the morning audience to absorb. But it’s a terrible reflection on us all that they feel empowered to give us that.

We deserve media coverage that befits our country, and if “Showdown in South Carolina” is truly what that is, we’re a global laughingstock for reasons that don’t have a single thing to do with ISIS or al Qaeda.

Rant over.

Art, Religion, and David Bowie

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 This is a tale about art and religion, with some David Bowie added in for good measure.

The story begins in a Catholic grammar school during the 1970s and early 1980s. The pastor of my parish was an elderly man who called every boy “Butch” and every girl “Sissy.” The priest’s name will not be used here since–as with most of my recollections–it’s not really germane to anything. But he was the leader of my church, and a figure that everyone in the parish was familiar with.

I never embraced Catholicism very much, and by the time I started high school in the early 1980s, I was going through the motions of going to mass every Sunday morning. I’d routinely find ways to get out of it, usually by claiming to go to Saturday mass instead and then driving around for an hour. My parents always went to mass on Sunday, and we (my brothers and my sister) went with them more often than not.

After I went away to college in the late 1980s, I found that even the pretense of attending mass was no longer necessary, so I stopped going altogether. My break with Catholicism was several years in the making, but by 1987 it was finally done. I became the “recovering Catholic” that I have been ever since.

In the summer of 1988, I attended a screening of Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ at the Biograph theater in Chicago. It played in very few cities, and on a very few screens, because of the controversial nature of the book that it was based on. In a nutshell, the movie plays out the story of Jesus’ life, and then adds a twist as he is nailed to the cross. He is offered a chance to live as others do, with a wife and children. And Jesus is shown with Mary Magdalene and a family. And that was more than some were ready to handle, including my old parish priest.

A week after seeing the movie, I went home to visit with my family before classes began again in the fall. And, as per family custom, we all went to mass on Sunday. I hadn’t gone in a long time, but I didn’t want to create a scene by refusing to go, and so I joined in.

The mass was the same old same old until the time came for the priest’s homily, and that’s when it got interesting. It turns out that he had an opinion about the movie, and he wasn’t afraid to share it, either. The very idea that the movie showed Jesus “fantasizing on sex” (an odd phrasing, but one that he kept repeating over and over throughout the sermon) was just too much. It was a reprehensible movie, in his view, and no one in our parish should go and see it.

After years of mass attendance, and hundreds of services, I had finally heard too much. It was obvious to me that the pastor had not seen the movie at all, and had only read or heard about it from someplace else. The very limited release of the film meant that anyone in his parish could not see the movie for themselves, absent a 400-mile round trip to Chicago. And nobody should ever go to those lengths to see a movie.

The movie didn’t show Jesus in the way that the priest was claiming. People might fantasize about something of their own volition, but temptation–as I understand it–comes from an external source. The devil in the movie holds out the possibility of a different life to Jesus, with the hope that he will find this way preferable to dying on the cross. But Jesus rejected Satan’s offer, and at the end of the movie he dies on the cross, instead.

The only difference between Jesus in the movie, and Jesus the way I learned the story in Catholic school, was that the fictional Jesus was tempted, unsuccessfully. The devil’s failure to persuade Jesus to give up his divinity for a domestic life instead was intended to challenge–but ultimately reaffirm–the traditional ideas about Jesus. Roger Ebert understood this, but it was somehow lost on my parish priest. Perhaps this is because Ebert had actually seen the movie in question.

I began writing this piece in the summer of 2013, to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the film’s very limited–and very controversial–release in theaters. Something came up on that day, and I saved a draft of what I had written, with the  intention of finishing it off and getting it onto my blog. It wasn’t until the death of David Bowie earlier in the week that I even realized this was still here, languishing in my Drafts folder. And at this point I’d like to pivot to Bowie’s involvement in the movie, in one scene as Pontius Pilate.

Bowie was certainly no stranger to the silver screen, and his list of film roles underlines what a screen presence he really was. I don’t like like writing about him in past tense, either, but that’s the way it has to be now.

So the film’s second-worst character (after the big serpent, of course) was filled by one of the biggest musical stars of the decade. If there was any sense that this could have been a hazardous or toxic role for Bowie’s career as an artist, it didn’t prevent him from brushing them aside and taking the role, anyway. And he nailed the part, playing a Roman official with a gravitas that made you forget about his Ziggy Stardust days and his jumping around with Mick Jagger in the Dancing in the Street video.

Art, such as the Last Temptation novel and the film it was later turned into, has the ability to challenge us, and make us question who we are and what we’re all about. It has the power to change us, if we want to be changed, and the power to reinforce things that we may already know. But art’s ability to do either of these things is limited to our willingness to expose ourselves to it in the first place.

I wouldn’t have allowed a priest to tell me I can’t see a movie, not in 1988 and certainly not today. And if I hadn’t already seen the movie when I heard that ill-informed homily back then, I would have missed an interesting film and a very credible performance from an artist who’s no longer with us. And that would have been very unfortunate, indeed.

David Bowie could do it all: sing, play guitar, write music, act, and look the part of a Roman with a style that nobody else had. Dusting off an old, half-finished idea from long ago and posting it online is a humble tribute to him, but one that I’m still very glad to offer here.

Art has always been made, and will always be made, and Bowie’s role in this process is worth remembering and emulating, whenever possible.

 

Powerball and the flip of a coin

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One time, just for fun, I found out what the actual odds of winning the Powerball are. Then I compared it to the real-world action of flipping a coin.

If you took a quarter and flipped heads (or tails, but I’m saying heads because it’s my example), you’d have to then flip heads another 25 times in a row, and you’d still be a flip away from getting there. My numbers may be off by a flip or two, but try flipping even seven or eight in a row and you’ll see how laughably improbable it is. Or, if you have more quarters than you do patience, throw a handful up in the air at once and see how they all come up. If the number is more than about three, they’ll have different results. No $1.5 billion  payout for you!

Yet some people (a lot of them, apparently) believe that the 27-straight-heads-flipper will be them. That’s some very wishful thinking, indeed.

A Farewell to David Bowie

 

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I’d be lying if I said I was a huge David Bowie fan prior to January, 2016. But the circumstances around his shocking death, two days after his 69th birthday, have forced me to re-evaluate things. The loss of Bowie is a reminder of his enormous influence on the world of music, fashion, cinema, and personal identity. There won’t be another one like him.

Today I downloaded Bowie’s final studio album, Blackstar, from iTunes, because I wanted to know what music a man puts together while staring his own mortality in the face. As I listened to it for the first time on my drive home, through a gentle snowfall in suburban Chicago, I was anything but disappointed. In fact, during a sax solo near the end of I Can’t Give Everything Away, I felt very privileged to experience such an extraordinary work of art. If I’ve ever felt that way before, I don’t know when it was.

Music is as old an art form as humanity has, but growing up I thought that art was limited to painting and drawing and perhaps sculpture. Things like music and dance and writing and photography didn’t fall into this realm. But Bowie presented us the whole package. To call his music and all his various personas art was exactly the point. He created his sound, and his look, and his words, and you either got them or you didn’t. That’s what art is, in whatever form it might take.

More than anyone else I can think of in my lifetime, David Bowie personified art itself. And until he died–and I considered all the ways that he had offered himself to us–I never understood this. But I get it now, and I’ll carry this new appreciation with me for as long as my body and my mind will allow.

As I mentioned earlier, David Bowie died two days after his 69th birthday. My father–who is as unlike David Bowie as anyone could be–will be 69 himself in about a month’s time. So in addition to expanding my understanding of art and how to appreciate it, Bowie has given me a much-needed reminder of how precious and finite life can be. Like everything else in the 18 hours or so since I learned of his passing, it is a reminder that I’m thankful to have received.

May we all go out with such a flourish.

Thanks to the President

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It’s clear to me that no amount of bloodshed or carnage would ever move Congress toward restricting guns in this country. Dead citizens are the price of having access to guns, in the minds of the people who make and sell guns. And the politicians who feed at the trough of their largess aren’t going to say otherwise.

So when Barack Obama–who could just be coasting to the finish line of his presidency, but is not–signs executive orders to close gun show loopholes and require background checks of people wanting to buy guns, that’s a ballsy thing for him to do. He knows the price that guns have extracted from our society, and he knows it’s too high.

There’s many Ammosexual types who get thrills from the power a gun provides. But they look the other way or shrug their shoulders when children are shot and killed. The never-ending gun violence in this country demands a response, but it will never, ever come from Congress.

Thanks for saying enough is enough, Mr. President.