Saturday, February 18, 2012

Carter Scott-Heron Hitchens Joe Pa St. Houston

A Scattering of Deceased Celebrities
For this post I wanted to comment on the passing of several noted individuals in recent days/weeks/months. I searched in vain on Google for a collective noun used to refer to dead people: there was one suggestion, by a Krishaan13, for "an edward cullen of dead". I had a feeling my teenaged offspring would know WTF this might be: their response was "are you kidding? He's a vampire in 'Twilight'".

I don't want to give any publicity to "Twilight", but Krishaan13 has a point: the only real collectivities among dead would be vampires and zombies (undead, really, but that's nitpicking). Still, I'm opting for my own word choice of "a scattering". There are many things we do with dead people: embalm and bury, cremate, (to be crude) dismember, leave out for the scavengers (the Zoroastrian way), but they all have the effect of scattering--ashes of the cremated being the clearest example.

The individuals I will discuss briefly in this post went their separate ways, as one would expect of such a scattering. All of them have in common fame through the arts or sports, so they have won their celebrity by doing something which has contributed to our culture of discretionary activity. I will try to strike the right balance of respect and judgement, relying upon (or hiding behind) the fact that I never knew any of them personally.

Let's Start with The Kid
Of all these, I see Gary Carter as being the one who most successfully achieved harmony between his fame and successful expression of his talent. He played baseball well and with great enthusiasm, smiled a lot on and off the field, and generally did things right. He was a jock who didn't pretend to meddle beyond his game, but clearly he was a pretty smart jock--his position was catcher, the on-field general (when done well), and he taught himself French when he was drafted by the Montreal Expos to help him fit in better.

There is one memory above all else with Carter, who was known always as "The Kid" for the simple joy he showed. 1986 World Series Game 6, bottom of the 10th inning, the RedSox had taken a 5-3 lead against his Mets in the top of the inning (homerun by Dave Henderson). Carter came up with two outs, nobody on, and got a clean single. OK, the most he could contribute physically was one run, but it was his attitude which showed his teammates, the world (and his opponents?) that the Mets still believed they could do it. And, three or four batters later, Carter having already scored, Mookie Wilson hit his unforgettable grounder through Bill Buckner's legs and the Mets were still alive (they would win Game 7 the next day).

Carter had a long, successful career. He was known for his bat (a power hitter, with adequate batting average) more than his glove (and he had running speed well below average), but he had a good arm when young and was always considered a good defensive catcher and in-game adviser to pitchers. He had a good long career; he was sometimes overshadowed by other catchers of that era (Johnny Bench and Carlton Fisk), but eventually had no problem being inducted into Baseball's Hall of Fame. He never got to manage in the big leagues, and brain cancer took him out before his time, but there are no blemishes on his life record.

Gil Scott-Heron: Tall Shoulders
The recording artist Gil Scott-Heron died last May, but I have failed to comment previously. There is no doubt that Scott-Heron helped to lay the foundation for the hip-hop movement which followed. His raps had style, wordplay, rhythm, and--what's largely missing today--musicality. Probably the closest among today's artists to his approach is Kanye West--too bold, too creative, insufficiently respectful toward the powers that be.

Gil Scott-Heron is remembered most for a mistaken prophecy: "The Revolution Will Not
Be Televised." Depending on your perspective or the context you choose, it may or may not have happened, but surely it includes cameras and it will be broadcast (or narrowcast, but most likely both). He didn't anticipate the democratization of TV-ready, hand-held cameras, but his real point was that the revolution will come from the grassroots, and events (thinking of the fall of the Iron Curtain, the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement, and other recent political developments) have proven him right in this regard.

My favorite piece by Scott-Heron was "Living in a B Movie" from the "Reflections" album in the early '80's. The theme was a hard-hitting attack on Ronald Reagan, a B-movie President "when what we really wanted was John Wayne." Now, I never wanted John Wayne for anything, much less President, but he is accurately expressing the nationalistic longing which led to Reagan's election.

Gil Scott-Heron mostly disappeared from about 1990 on, emerging to produce an album shortly before his death. It turns out he had major drug problems--getting busted repeatedly--and poor health. Unfortunately, his art has largely faded from public consciousness, and it was too topical for all the references to be understandable to young people today, but give it a listen, to hear how well his early rap blended spoken lyrics, jazz, and blues.

Christopher Hitchens: Proud Iconoclast
British-turned-American critic and author Hitchens died in December from complications of throat cancer. He lived hard, wrote hard, and, apologies to Bruce Willis, died hard. He admitted that it was a lifetime of drinking and smoking that did him in, but he didn't regret that lifestyle, nor did his fervent advocacy of atheism change on his deathbed. Unlike some of the others in this post, I think he had his problems before he was ever famous.

Hitchens reliably produced bold and outrageous arguments, over a very wide range of topics, extremely well-written and researched, which made him popular with his editors. Not so much his opponents, and he made a lot of them. I would say that his thinking was more strenuous than coherent. For example, he favored the Iraq invasion of 2003 for humanitarian reasons. A reformed Trotskyite, he opposed socialism but favored Marxism. Politically, he was basically unreliable: he favored Nader in 2000 and Bush in 2004: I'm sure he had his reasons, but I doubt that they made sense to anyone but himself.

He had a lot of good qualities, too. For me, the best was that he was an expert on George Orwell, whom he admired greatly. Except for a soft spot around the Russian Revolution and the early Soviet Union, he was a consistent opponent of all totalitarianism and a strong believer in democracy and liberty, especially the American brand of it. From what I've seen, I would rate him as an excellent literary critic. He will be missed.

Paternal Respect
Joe Paterno was one of the greatesst college football coaches, but he stayed around just a little too long (or maybe way too long). He didn't know how to quit, and he eventually had to be forced from his job at Penn State by the scandal. The medical report will say he died of lung cancer, but I would say that it was the shame and humiliation that killed him. It turns out he was never a smoker; the exposure to some poison happened perhaps sometime long in his past, but to me it is clear that it was the emotional injury which caused his disease to rise up and defeat him.

He was not charged, could never have been charged, much less convicted, but he was guilty--of silence in the face of credible, horrendous allegations--in the minds of those who were not diehard fans. He may have done his duty to report, but he put up with no action being taken, and for many that was too much.

Certainly by the end he was something of a figurehead as a coach, but his teams were always formidable: disciplined, full-sized, well-prepared on offense, and gamebreakers on defense. The list of top pros who came out of his teams, at every position, is nearly endless. He gave the game a lot, but the lesson of his career is that college presidents should beware of a sports coach becoming too much the symbol of their school.

No Saints Here
Certainly not Whitney Houston, the most celebrated of these recently departed (the reference above takes Paterno's nickname--"Joe Pa"--and expands him to the status of a state icon, "Joe Pa St.") Houston had a talent, which was taking the phrasing and styling she learned as a gospel singer and bringing that, with passion, to pop music.

I will say that she has had a major influence on the genres of pop and R&B, seen in such as Mariah Carey, Christina Aguilera, Beyonce, and, of course, Jennifer Hudson. One technique in particular that she popularized, rolling notes up and down on a singular syllable, has been replicated frequently in recent years, given the fancy name "melisma", but really in my book of music it's just slurred notes.

Anyway, she was said to have a generous soul, but she had a messed up life. I feel sympathy for her, but I regret that she got the Michael Jackson treatment in her afterlife. It's a bit embarrassing.

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