The hardest thing about getting old is seeing those dear to you leave.
Davin Seay’s death a week ago (July 15) was particularly hard for a lot of us, that is, everyone who knew him. The long thread of condolence posts on Bob Merlis’s Facebook announcement showed how loved Dav was, as a writer, friend, and person, and while he excelled as all three, maybe it was as the third that was most noteworthy.
“He was a guy absolutely incapable of artifice,” Bob wrote. “What you saw was always the real thing and his ‘thing’ was always heartfelt, genuine and enlightening. No two ways about it: This is a huge loss.”
Dav was Bob’s writer at Warner Bros. Records in Los Angeles for many years—and one of his closest friends. I was close enough that he gave me one of my best freelance gigs—a Bee Gees bio–when his own work schedule was too crammed to allow him to do it. It meant a trip to the Bee Gees’ compound in Miami Beach, where coincidentally, I did the first interview with them following the death of brother Andy Gibb.
In my own work, no one was more supportive than Dav, same with my eclectic music tastes. I especially appreciated that whenever I posted a polka video he was always right there to “like” it. Which reminds me of the time when we were at a black-tie Nashville BMI Awards dinner, when Davin, one of the few friends I know to have been religiously (but never insufferably) spiritual, referred to Steve Popovich, who turned me on to polka and whom Dav now joins among the handful of those dear ones I miss terribly, as the “divine afflatus”—afflatus, according to Wikipedia, being Latin for “inspiration,” and derived from Cicero’s De Natura Deorum, (“The Nature of the Gods”). He also designated both accordion-based polka and Cajun music as “The Accordion Grail.”
Davin, Bob, I and four other WarnRecs execs were also part of what Tony Pippitone, then president of Warner Special Products, called “The Magnificent Seven,” being that the seven of us always attended John Fogerty events whenever we were together. One of them, a Fogerty concert at the Ryman Auditorium, took place the same night as another BMI Nashville dinner, the one that bestowed upon Kris Kristofferson BMI’s ultimate Icon Award.
The dinner prior to the awards presentations had begun, and I was torn: I desperately wanted to be there to see Kris get his due, but I had to be at the Ryman with The Magnificent Seven for Foge. So before leaving, I interrupted Kris mid-bite, and apologized profusely for having to walk out and head over to the show.
at the Ryman?” Kris queried, then paused, eyes gleaming. “I’d rather be there
myself!” When I got to my seat just as Fogerty hit the stage, I was in the same
row as six others, likewise in tuxes, likewise BMI refugees. Davin, of course,
was among them.
For no one was more of a music person than Davin Seay–and I can’t say anything better about anyone. So it is with greatest sadness that I must try to process that we are now The Magnificent Six.
I was shocked, like many I’m sure, to learn, maybe around 2 a.m. this morning from a friend’s Twitter post and then from several obituaries, of Gary Stewart’s death.
I tweeted my own sadness and this excellent quote from Randall Roberts in The Los Angeles Times: “As a music enthusiast, Stewart advocated for lesser known, unjustly dismissed or overlooked music by artists including The Monkees, Love, Dionne Warwick, the Neville Bros. and hundreds of others, and in doing so helped reframe cultural conversations by bringing into the present recordings considered to be long past their expiration date.”
My tweet simply said, “Deeply saddened by the passing of Gary Stewart, head of A&R for the fabled Rhino Records at its height. Great friend to many, had a huge impact on keeping so much great music alive.”
I was going to leave it at that.
Went to the gym when I woke up and after the old man (my age) on the elliptical two over from mine who was singing “Heart of Gold” to his headphones so bad it would embarrass even Neil Young finished, had enough quiet in the otherwise deserted room to reflect more on Gary and all he meant to everyone–even L.A. Mayor Mayor Eric Garcetti, who tweeted, “Amy and I mourn the loss of Gary Stewart. He was our partner at @LAANE & @LibertyHill–one of the funniest, most humble people we knew. A true champion of justice. A model of modesty, and most of all, our dear friend. L.A. is better off for everything he did. We miss you, Gary.”
LAANE, I googled, is Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy.
As for Liberty Hill, it’s a foundation that works to build power through
grassroots organizing in communities across Los Angeles County. It tweeted,
with a photo of Gary speaking, “The Liberty Hill community is devastated to
learn that our dear friend and former board member Gary Stewart has passed
away. On behalf of the entire Liberty Hill family, we extend our deepest
sympathies to his loved ones.”
Gary deserved more from me, I acknowledged to myself on the
First, like everyone who’s commented on his passing has said, he was a great guy, and that counts for plenty. Second, like me and likely most of those who knew and worked with him, he was on the liberal side of the political spectrum, but more than me and most, backed his beliefs with social action, hence the Garcetti and Liberty Hill tweets. He even mandated that all Rhino employees set aside time each year for community service.
Like his email signature stated, “Gary Stewart—Opinions Galore,” and his opinions always jibed with mine.
But it was Gary’s opinions on music that impacted me personally more than anything, starting when I first made his professional acquaintance in the early 1980s, first as retail editor at the record business trade Cash Box, then as regular correspondent at Billboard. For me—and many other music journalists—Rhino, with its landmark reissues of the music we grew up with and forever loved, was the shit. I talked to him regularly for Rhino-related stories, and eventually wrote numerous liner notes for Rhino reissues.
“I think his true passion was for compiling, separating out the things he thought were important, the things that really mattered–the greatest songs, the greatest ideas, the greatest people–from the inessential stuff that he could safely leave behind,” music producer Andy Zax told the Times. Said Rhino co-founder Richard Foos: “I give him almost all the credit for overseeing everything. Approving every album, which were hundreds a year. He was probably the greatest, most moral, giving, loving person I’ve ever met.”
He definitely gave me one of my biggest honors in the
business when one day he said, “As long as I’m at Rhino Records, you’ll always
be on the mailing list!”
Of course, his long tenure at Rhino eventually ended, as did mine at Billboard. I still get Rhino press releases, but I don’t even bother responding to them: Years go by and you’re just a leftover name on an old contact list. It’s the nature of the business, the nature of nature. Yet those of us whose lives are music soldier on best we can.
Gary tagged a Joan Rivers quote, “It doesn’t get better—you get better,” onto his email signature, though I’m not sure how much better either of us got in the interim prior to my contacting Gary at the end of February for a comment on an appreciation piece I wanted to do on Peter Tork. I hadn’t been in touch with him for quite a while, I realized, as my first two email addresses didn’t work. I was able to get a viable one from a friend, and while Gary was happy to hear from me, he uncharacteristically obsessed over my message–after promising to come through with a thought or two: It wasn’t like the old days when he could easily give a quick phone response to a tradepaper question about an upcoming Rhino release. Now he needed a couple days to dwell on it, and I had to write back and ask him if he was still able to do it.
I also explained to him that I was writing about Tork because I appreciated him and The Monkees (and Gary), but that as the piece was for one of my sites (centerline.news) and that in all honesty, few people would likely read it, it was no problem at all if he couldn’t come through.
Besides, I added, I wasn’t getting paid anything. I write because I’m a writer.
“I only do things that are meaningful to me, either and/or the subject and the friends I can give recognition to,” I told him. He thanked me profusely for thinking of him, and I apologized just as profusely for not thinking of him right away! After all, no one had done more than Gary in reissuing The Monkees catalog, not to mention all the rest of the true “music of our lives,” as the oldies cliché goes.
The “wasn’t getting paid anything” part must have hit home,
for he asked me if he could chip in some money—which I gratefully declined. An
hour or so later I received an email that he had in fact donated to my PayPal
account—for which I now thanked him profusely.
I went ahead and wrote the Tork piece and quoted him, sent him the link, and never heard back. One thing that haunts me now is one quote I didn’t use: Tork, Gary said, was the Monkees’ “author in abstentia—not a ghostwriter but more of a ghost influencer”–key word now, of course, being “ghost.”
The initial reports indicated that Gary died by his own
hand. I have since heard that he had a life-threatening illness. He did mention
a “non-threatening medical thing,” but I didn’t press it.
And I won’t suggest anything further, as again, I hadn’t been in touch with Gary much over the last few years while our professional paths diverged. All I know is that anything can happen in life, good and bad, and that I was only glad—as was he—that The Monkees had brought us back together again. Sadly, it would be the last time.
There’s an old saying in the record business—and I have to call it that for context—said in reference to someone, usually male, who epitomizes the best of the business, and I can at least say with certainty that it most certainly applies to Gary Stewart: He was “a great record man.”
And it’s so ironic, yet karmically just, that today is
Record Store Day.
Roy Clark performs his hit “I Never Picked Cotton” on “Hee Haw”
I met Roy Clark a number of times, mostly on the Hee Haw set, where I was a regular during the fall and summer tapings—which coincided with what was then called CMA Week (the Country Music Awards show and attending performing rights organizations and awards dinners) and Fan Fair (now CMA Music Festival). I never really got to know him—not like I knew Buck Owens, Grandpa Jones and Minnie Pearl—but I do have a couple great personal memories, both from the early 1980s, soon after I came to New York and got a job with the music trade magazine Cash Box as Retail Editor.
As Retail Editor, I established relationships—mostly phone—with the key record stores and chains in the country. One of the biggest was the Ohio-based Camelot Music, which had 455 stores in 37 states when it was bought out in 1998. I attended two of their conventions in or around their North Canton headquarters while I was at Cash Box, and if I remember right (never a given), it was four days at a nice hotel, with lots of meetings and recreational activities for the key home office execs and store managers, along with the major label and distributor reps who serviced them.
They also had entertainment every night, usually baby bands supplied by the majors. I vividly remember seeing John Waite perform after his split from The Babys, probably in 1982 when his solo debut album Ignition came out on Chrysalis. Ivan Kral, formerly bass player with the Patti Smith Group, was on the record and in the band, as was drummer Frankie LaROcka, whom I’d met in Madison when he was on David Johansen’s first solo album and tour, and was great friends with until his untimely death in 2005.
But the show I remember most is Roy Clark’s.
Roy was sick that night, a bad–very bad–cold. So very bad that he’d pretty much lost his voice. In fact, it probably would have been better had he lost it entirely, for then he might not have felt obligated to perform.
But ever the professional, perform that night Roy Clark did. He apologized upfront, of course, then croaked out the song lyrics like he was a big, jolly old frog with a guitar—accent on “jolly.” To this day I can’t imagine Roy—or anyone—enjoying himself more on stage. He didn’t care at all what he sounded like—or if anyone else cared. He was indeed a pro all the way and was going to give his best to the people who made and sold his records, and have a blast doing it—and so did we all. Obviously, I’ve never forgotten it.
Around the same time I got one of my first—if not the first—freelance writing gigs in New York, for Guitar World, I think. They wanted someone to talk to Roy about Merle Travis, and knew I’d written about country music and was a knowledgeable fan.
So I did a phone interview with Roy, and we talked about Merle Travis and his influence on Roy and all guitar players. It was only proper, of course, that I also ask him about himself, so I ended by asking him how he saw himself in relation to Travis as a fellow guitar great.
Like the Camelot gig, I’ve never forgotten his most humble response.
“You know, there are a lot of mailmen out there who are better guitarists than I am,” he said, then added, “I’m just glad they’re mailmen!”
As, of course, are we all.
The last time I saw Roy was some years ago already, when he appeared at the Opry, probably during CMA Music Fest, for he was also in town to join other surviving Hee Haw alumni at a reunion taping that I also attended.
Starring with Roy on the Opry bill that night was Charley Pride, and the two old Opry stars and Country Music Hall of Famers greeted each other warmly before proceeding to one-up each other—or maybe one-down each other—with their physical ailments and illnesses. It was truly hysterical, but like that long ago gig in Ohio, I guess you had to be there.
They say there’s nothing like hitting a good golf shot, and I suppose they’re right–though having never hit one, I wouldn’t really know.
Come to think of it, I have hit one good one I can remember, a birdie putt on a Par 3, and I think it’s because we smoked a joint on the way to the green. It was like I could see a path in bluish green curling 10 feet from the ball to the hole and I just stroked it along the guiding line.
I guess it’s the intense satisfaction we get, maybe instinctive, when achieving something requiring a refined skill, like sinking a putt, swishing a basketball into the net, kicking a soccer ball or driving a puck into a goal, pitching a ball into a catcher’s glove, hitting a target with a dart, bow-and-arrow or firearm.
Or even fitting that final piece into a jigsaw puzzle. I’m reflecting on this now after seeing Puzzle, the wonderful relationship/self-discovery movie about a repressed Connecticut housewife who finds herself after getting a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle gifted to her for her birthday. Played beautifully by Scottish actress Kelly Macdonald of Boardwalk Empire fame, Agnes then visits the puzzle shop in New York City where it was bought and answers a plea posted at the counter for a playing partner for a champion competitive puzzler (the great Indian actor Irrfan Khan).
The remainder of Puzzle—which opened last week in New York and Los Angeles–deals with Agnes’s relationships with Robert (the Khan character), her family, and the puzzles that take her out of her safe but stultifying life via the self-awareness, expression, exploration, fulfillment and empowerment she gains from them, much as one gains from any artistic or enriching diversion. Of course in her case, it also leads to a lot of painful confusion, such that at a pivotal point of self-realization, Agnes demeans it—and by extension, herself and Robert–by calling puzzling “a childish hobby for bored people.”
No, says Robert, “It’s a way to control the chaos. Life is messy, it doesn’t make any goddamn sense. Sorry to break the news to you: Life is random—there’s nothing you can do to control anything…but when you finish a puzzle you know you have made all the right choices.” Even after making many mistakes along the way, “at the very end, everything makes one perfect picture.”
I used to love jigsaw puzzles as a kid. We had a big dining room table that was perfect for assembling them. Now, when I go to the annual Toy Fair trade show at the Javits Center in February, I always make a point of dropping by the puzzle suppliers.
Of course, there have been big changes in jigsaw puzzles in the last 40-some years since I’d worked on one, though basic ones are still the same—lots of little cardboard pieces in a box. But 4D Cityscape, for instance, makes these great three-dimensional puzzle maps of famous cities, where you locate and place key buildings on the maps. Nervous System, whose booth I visited in May at the ICFF furniture fair at Javits, showed its new Geode Puzzle: a jigsaw puzzle inspired by the formation of colorfully banded stone agates created by a generative computer design process that mimics nature in each unique puzzle’s variations in shape, pieces and image.
Ravensburger is one of the biggest puzzle players at Toy Fair, and a few years ago they showed an immense 32,256-piece (!!!) puzzle entitled New York City and featuring a panoramic view of Manhattan, from the top of Rockefeller Center, if I remember correctly. The pieces were packaged in eight separate bags altogether weighing 42 pounds and measuring 17 x 6-feet when completed, which at Toy Fair it was–and displayed in its own specially built room within the big Ravensburger exhibition area. Last time I checked, Amazon had one for $369.99 (and free shipping).
But at this year’s Toy Fair I became fascinated by White Mountain Puzzles, a company known among other things for its 1,000- and 500-piece “collage” jigsaw puzzles, new releases shown at Toy Fair including Things We Collect (everything from baseball cards to model trains and vinyl records), Betty Crocker Cookbooks and World War I Posters. They even have a “puzzle panel” of puzzle enthusiasts on Facebook and an email list, who submit ideas and participate in regular surveys to gauge the appeal of potential puzzle images.
A new series of White Mountain puzzles shown at Toy Fair was tagged “Seek & Find,” and using the example of the thousand-piece Retro Kitchen entry in the “Seek & Find” series, contained 22 “hidden” images in the puzzle that were not pictured on the box, that image depicting a well-stocked mid-20th century-themed kitchen in full party preparation mode (a list of the hidden elements–including a spatula and thermometer–was provided inside the box).
As these collage and “Seek & Find” puzzle examples suggest, many of White Mountain’s designs are nostalgia-related. They also have an “American Pop Culture” collage series, titles including Television Families (including the Flintstones, Beverly Hillbillies, Munsters, Simpsons and Bundys), Candy Wrappers (Cracker Jack, Mike & Ike, Sugar Babies, Jujubes), Fill Her Up—Old Service Stations (Texaco, Sinclair, Shell, Mobilgas) and Route 66 (vintage artwork of picturesque scenery along the historic highway).
But the American Pop Culture puzzle that caught my eye was The Sixties—my decade. Illustrated by artist James Mellett, the 1,000-piece, 24×30-inch collage had so many of my heroes, key events and cultural representations growing up: baseball card replicas of Hank Aaron and Sandy Koufax, Jack Nicklaus, a Green Bay Packers helmet, JFK, MLK, RFK, LBJ, Khruschev, Castro, The Beatles, Joplin, Jagger, Hendrix, Woodstock, drugs, Walter Cronkite, Johnny Carson, Rolling Stone, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Flower Power, Black Power, a VW bug and hippie van, the moon landing. Oddly, I had a hard time with two of the bigger likenesses, of two of my bigger heroes: Muhammad Ali and Clint Eastwood.
So I wrote a little piece about White Mountain and sent it to Sean Minton, one of the company’s partners, whom I interviewed, asking him at the same time if he might send me the Sixties puzzle—along with a bottle of puzzle glue and a frame. The puzzle and glue arrived a few days later, but not the frame, so I figured maybe I’d asked for too much.
Now I live in a tiny studio apartment, filled to the brim with the detritus accumulated after 40 years of freelance journalism. In other words, I don’t have any space for a dining room table—let alone a dining room. The best I’d be able to do would be to clear some space on the floor for the puzzle assembly, but that would have to wait until the day came when I’d buy a frame, and that day was far away.
But to get a head start I did go on Amazon to see what price they had on frames, only to find a whole lot of other puzzle-related accessories I hadn’t even imagined.
Besides various frames and glues there were sorting trays, roll mats and other devices for carrying or storing finished or unfinished puzzles, large Portapuzzle carrying cases that likewise keep pieces in place while providing a work station, spinning Lazy Susan puzzle bases, puzzle “work surfaces” with sliding storage drawers, even dedicated folding puzzle tables and tabletop easels. If only I had the room!
So all I could do was hold the Sixties puzzle box, unopened, and stare at the picture, until one day, some weeks later, I got a big, 24 x 30-inch box in the mail, maybe another four inches deep. I had no idea what it could be until I saw White Mountain’s return label. Sean had sent me a frame after all! Now what would I do?
I waited another couple weeks or so, getting more and more anxious over the prospect of actually putting it together—and how I could do it without realizing my greatest fear: losing pieces. Eventually I had to give in, and managed to create enough floor space to lay out the box that the frame came in, opening it up vertically to twice the frame size, then taping the four-inch flaps at the corners to contain the pieces. I opened the box, tore open the clear plastic bag holding the pieces, and dumped them into the center of the box.
It was like the beginning of an acid trip. Suddenly everything was blown apart and disjointed. Nothing made sense.
In the movie, Agnes can put a puzzle together easily in an afternoon. When she meets Robert, he shows her how to assemble a puzzle efficiently as a partnership: Sorting the pieces by color, he says, is “the Number 1 rule of competitive puzzling”–among other tried-and-true team strategies.
In my case, I probably didn’t do anything different from what I did the last time I did a puzzle some 50 years ago. While turning over the upside-down pieces I separated the border pieces, then did the same with the right-side-up ones. I then went ahead and constructed the border. All this took most of a Sunday afternoon, at least; Agnes would have had the whole thing put together by then.
But I really didn’t have enough space in the box to work with—though that wasn’t the worst problem, which was the tremendous pain in my knees from kneeling on the floor, not to mention my back and neck from hunching over the puzzle for many hours.
Once most of the border was done I could start dealing with the obvious and major images—Robert Indiana’s famous LOVE pop art image, for example, or the big “Top Songs of the 60’s” LP record or the many representative ‘60s buttons and badges (“Make Love Not War,” “Support Our Boys in Vietnam”)—working on several areas at once, forming floating “islands” within the borders that grew as more pieces were found and added, impinging upon others until that magic moment when the one piece was found that “anchored” the island to the border.
But “island” and “anchor” are my terms, same with “feet”—the varied appendages of pieces that I kept telling myself I was searching for during the endless endeavor to focus on specific shapes, with and without colors matching the holes they would fit in. After a day or so of said talking to myself it dawned on me that there must be a time-honored jigsaw puzzle nomenclature, and sure enough, I found online that what I called “feet” were also known as wings or ears, though there was no universally accepted comprehensive classification of puzzle piece shapes. Other terms for piece-parts employed by both manufacturers and puzzlers include, when paired, loops and sockets, knobs and holes, tabs and slots, keys and locks, and my favorite, denoting the knob that fits into the hole of the adjoining piece, “bobble.”
Besides the pain–which required regular breaks for stretching and repositioning–I was hindered by the lack of adequate space to spread out the many small “puzzles within the puzzle” with their presumed loose pieces, and since I didn’t have any of the sorting tray systems, I made one of my own out of the puzzle box and a couple plastic food containers. But there was no solving the other major problem: hopelessly lost track of time.
I was in the middle of auditing two college courses at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and I was able to pull myself away from the puzzle to go to the Monday and Wednesday classes. But that was it. I stopped going to the gym, stopped eating, stopped taking medication, answering the phones, returning emails, tweeting and facebooking. Forgot about the news online and TV and recording my usual shows and movies. Aching and exhausted, I’d finally lie down around 2 a.m. for a few hours, then bleary-eyed, resume my obsession.
The good part was that with every piece properly placed, there was one less one to find. And after so many hours—and days—of trial-and-error, I eventually started remembering where some of the unplaced pieces were, once their mates were in position—kind of like the old Concentration game show and card game.
But by now, totally addicted, I was having a hard time seeing straight. Luckily, pieces were starting to miraculously appear, and some that I picked that I though I knew where they went I suddenly found fit somewhere else. Everything was starting to speed up: As the acid trip started wearing off, the dust of the initial explosion settling, the slow rebuilding of consciousness and control gave way to clarity.
Still, there was one final, nagging fear, going all the way back to the last time I did a jigsaw puzzle at home on the family’s dining room table: Did I lose any pieces? This time there would be no cat or dog to blame if I had—only my nasty habit of setting a piece down out of the way amidst the surrounding clutter and forgetting where I set it. And the faster I was finishing it up, the bigger the empty spaces yet to be filled seemed to be.
I was sure I was missing anywhere from five to 20 pieces, yet lo and behold, when I put in what I thought was the final piece, I had one left over! By now I was both so exhilarated and delirious that I actually freaked out–to use another acid trip metaphor—then had to pore over the completed puzzle and finally run my hand on it slowly and methodically until I sensed the one missing hole.
I don’t know if it was joy or exhaustion, but I was drained emotionally upon completing the puzzle, incredibly, in only three days. I was just so driven to get it done and out of the way—and not lose any of the pieces in the process. Of course, it wasn’t over, even then: I still had to glue it—which wasn’t a problem after watching a few YouTube videos—and then get it into the frame, which was a problem in that even with all the glue, some sections popped out while transferring it to the frame and had to be reset.
As for the “problem” of the jigsaw puzzle pursuit as a whole, I found a pretty good quote while researching competitive puzzling, which I didn’t know even existed until seeing Puzzle.
“It’s a problem where you know there’s a solution. If you just work at it you know you can solve it and when you’re done you know you’ve solved it completely and correctly,” said Mike Helland of the championship four-person team The Collectors, to CBS Minnesota, on the eve of the St. Paul Winter Carnival, home of the country’s biggest jigsaw puzzle contest, in January of last year.
Or as Robert says in Puzzle, “What other pursuits can give you that kind of perfection? Faith? Ambition? Wealth? Love? No. Not even love can do that. Not completely.”
By this time in the film Agnes, by way of puzzling, has stepped out of her marriage and family, and has become so bold in her newly achieved sense of self that she even casts away Robert’s puzzle rules, and wins—with him—on her own terms.
As I always stay until the end of the credits, I was able to catch Sean Minton’s name in the closing thank-yous, along with another puzzle trade contact, Paula Jo Lentz of Ravensburger. And now I must note that while White Mountain doesn’t offer a golf puzzle as such, its Things to Do in Naples FL features a colorful road map with the location of things to do and places to see, bordered by 40 or so squares singling out posh resorts and popular attractions like The Caribbean Gardens Zoo, Everglades Excursions, and Naples Grande Golf Club–one of the top 100 resort courses in North America.
I met Ken Burns in Central Park at a kickoff event for his 2009 The National Parks: America’s Best Idea documentary series, which included performances from Jose Feliciano, whom I was so excited to meet, and my friends Alison Krauss & Union Station. Peter Coyote, the series narrator, was there, too, and it was great to meet him: I was a huge fan of A Grande Arte (US title: Exposure), a 1991 Brazilian film directed by Walter Salles Jr. in which he learned knife-fighting; I was training in Filipino martial arts, and knew that its knife fight-training and fighting scenes were unusually realistic.
Peter was impressed that I knew the film, which to my knowledge never came out on DVD—despite my efforts to convince Criterion and other companies to do so. He said it was one of his favorites, too.
But Peter is also the voice of Ken’s 18-hour The Vietnam War series, which concluded it’s two-week premiere run two weeks ago on PBS. I watched it with a dread shared probably by everyone of my generation, knowing that if I hadn’t lost it by the time it got to Kent State, I surely would then. Sure enough, my eyes moistened and dripped during the eighth of the 10 episodes when the indelible scenes of the May 4, 1970 Kent State killings were replayed. It brought back the never-forgotten memories of my moist and dripping eyes after being smothered by clouds of tear gas on the University of Wisconsin campus during the Vietnam War protest years.
I’ll never forget running up the parking ramp next to the McDonald’s at State and Lake Streets just a couple blocks from State and Park at the foot of Bascom Hill after a canister of gas was tossed or fired in my direction by the National Guard. I ran all the way up to the top of the ramp, only to realize, to my breathless horror, that there was no stairway*, and that I had to run back down, now into the clouds of gas that were billowing upwards and out into the ramp.
But I had it worse one night when a can of pepper gas exploded right in front of me and into my eyes. I was a bit lower on State Street, and I knew that the Hillel Foundation a block north on Langdon was a treatment center. I got there somehow and they flushed it out of my eyes and I was back out on the street. Like every other night of the many nights of Vietnam War protests on campus, I’d get home after and shower the gas out of my long hair and back into my eyes before rinsing it all out.
Once the gas came, the massive demonstrations, which would start in twilight and center at State and Park, would break up in all directions.
One time I was in a big group walking up Bascom Hill into the heart of the university. It got dark and there were police everywhere, and a National Guard helicopter overhead with a searchlight beaming down on small groups of demonstrators and lighting the way for arrests and/or police brutality. I hid in the bushes on the shores of Lake Mendota hoping to not get spotted. We called it “bringing the War back home.”
The Vietnam War brought it all back home, all right, including, of course, the music. Much of the soundtrack was ‘60s anthems, many of them war-related, like famous Dylan, Baez and Beatles songs. The Stones’ “Street Fighting Man” was used, and it was one of the songs that blared out of dormitory windows as we marched by—even though the words are really about the lack of street-fighting men in “sleepy London town.”
The other song I remember blasting out of the dorms made perfect sense, and should have been in The Vietnam War: Jefferson Airplane’s “Volunteers of America”:
Look what’s happening out in the streets
Got a revolution (got to revolution)
Hey, I’m dancing down the streets
Got a revolution (got to revolution)
Oh, ain’t it amazing all the people I meet?
Got a revolution (got to revolution)
One generation got old
One generation got soul.
Talkin’ ‘bout my g-g-generation.
Many years later, downstairs at Radio City at a reception after a Jefferson Starship show, I told this to Grace Slick. She laughed and said she’d heard that from a lot of people.
Over the years I got to meet and sometimes know a lot of the artists whose songs were part of the Vietnam War soundtrack, most notably including Dylan, Baez, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, Keith Richards and Charlie Watts, John Fogerty, Eric Burdon and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. CSN&Y, of course, consecrated Kent State with their hit “Ohio.”
Tin soldiers and Nixon coming,
We’re finally on our own.
This summer I hear the drumming,
Four dead in Ohio.
Add songs from the aforementioned artists and talk about “the soundtrack of our lives.”
I got suspended from James Madison Memorial High School in Madison, Wisconsin, for protesting the Kent State killings, along with 100 others. An underground paper called us “The Memorial 101.” I celebrated by getting tear gassed again downtown on campus that night.
There are four images indelible in my mind from Vietnam and I knew I’d see all of them in The Vietnam War.
First was the South Vietnames officer holding the pistol to the head of the Vietcong guy in Saigon and blowing his brains out.
Second was the little naked girl with her back burned off running down the road.
Third was the bodies lined up roadside in My Lai.
Fourth was the teenage girl, 14-year-old Mary Ann Vecchio, kneeling over the body of the student shot dead by the Ohio National Guard at Kent State, crying out in shock and anguish.
The dead boy was Jeffrey Miller. Killed, too, were Sandra Scheuer, William Schroeder and Allison Krause. Like I always say, “the other Alison Krauss.”
Four dead in Ohio.
I remember their names like I remember James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman—the three civl rights activists murdered by the Klan in Mississippi in 1964, and Viola Liuzzo, whose son I met in July in Milwauke at an Elvis Costello concert, she being the civil rights activist who was murdered by the Klan in Alabama in 1965. And now Heather Heyer.
A year earlier—the second Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam, Nov. 15, 1969—I was at St. Paul’s University Catholic Church, on State near Park and Bascom Hill, for a performance by Peter, Paul and Mary, all of whom I would later get to know. In fact, it was at Mary Travers’ memorial in 2009 where I met George McGovern, as great a man who ever served his country.
I had gone to the 1972 Democratic Convention in Miami Beach, where McGovern was nominated, disastrously. Can’t remember the name of the park where all us demonstrators gathered and crashed, though one night I wound up in some cool place in Coconut Grove. At the park I hung out with Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky, Abbie Hoffman and Germaine Greer. And I went to a screening of the documentary F.T.A. starring Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland (who were there) and the musicians and performers who accompanied them on their touring satirical revue staged at coffeehouse and parks near U.S. Army bases where soldiers against the war congregated–F.T.A. generally understood to mean “Fuck the Army,” or as was also stated in the film, “Free the Army.”
It was a wonderful film that was apparently yanked out of distribution immediately because Jane infamously went to Hanoi the same week it opened. I saw it again a few years ago when it came out on DVD and it really was great. It also starred folksinger Holly Near—whom I later got to know—and Len Chandler, the historic African-American folk/protest singer-songwriter from the Greenwich Village scene who influenced Dylan–and who I wish I’d gotten to know. He did an antiwar song in the film that I’ve searched all over for and can’t find, called “My Ass is Mine.” It went, as musicians often say, something like this:
First they draft your ass
Then they train your ass
Then they kick your ass
And then they kill your ass
Well they can kiss my ass
They can kiss my ass
They can kiss my ass.
I got drafted in 1971. They were using a lottery system and my birthday drew a low number, 100, I think, or maybe it was 90. I’d originally been given a 1-Y classification, meaning I was qualified for service only in time of war or national emergency. But I still had to get on a bus one morning with other draftees and ride to Milwaukee and take a physical exam. About all I remember is the shit box lunch they gave us and stooping down around in our underwear and doing the “duck walk.”
I was pretty confident of being disqualified for good, due to very real mental illness–not to mention bad asthma and feet flatter than a Vietnamese rice paddy. Sure enough, I was given the coveted 4-F classification–not acceptable for military service. Years later I was burning a big one with Ray Benson, the great frontman of the great western swing band Asleep at the Wheel. He suggested someone write a book about how famous people got out of going to Vietnam. I don’t remember how Ray got out, but I did have a high school friend who put a bullet in his foot claiming it was a hunting accident—which was epidemic at the time among draftees—and another who passed his physical, then told the draft board that he was gay, which he wasn’t. They punched him hard in the jaw and told him to get the fuck out of there.
Had I not got my 4-F I would have applied for conscientious objector status, though if I told the truth that I was atheist I might have been denied. So I would have gone to Canada, or jail, or Australia: I’d actually researched Australia at one time as they advertised for migrants in the classified ad section of The New Republic, then a genuinely liberal magazine, and I had a fondness for kangaroos and The Easybeats.
But I can’t remember if it was after all this or before, when I either saw Jane Fonda again or for the first time. But either way, it was pretty pathetic.
She was speaking on campus at some big, packed lecture hall just off State Street. At the end she took questions, and I desperately wanted to ask her something, just to have a personal exchange. I meekly raised my hand, stood up and started asking, and halfway forgot who I was and where I was and what I was doing, let alone whatever it was I was trying to ask. She was so beautiful, still in the Klute gamin haircut, and I was so starstruck. But she was so good: She knew what I was trying to ask, finished my question and answered it.
But it only got worse. I couldn’t control myself, and trailed her and a handful of other activists all the way down State Street to the State Capitol, where they met with a representative or two who were also antiwar. I don’t think I said a word the whole time.
So I had to laugh out loud when John Musgrave, a Marine and maybe the most eloquent and thoughtful Vietnam veteran appearing in The Vietnam War, acknowledged how Jane Fonda was everyone’s fantasy, so much so that he hated her when she went to Hanoi and became “Hanoi Jane.” But after stating this, Musgrave, who eventually turned against the war himself after returning to the States, paused and smiled, in spite of himself: “She was our fantasy,” he said, and even now, 50 years later, she still is.
A number of other Vietnam War vets, family members and other functionaries participated in The Vietnam War, and while most of them likewise looked back with some degree of regret if not shame, a few also stood out. These included Carol Crocker, who also turned against the war after losing her older brother Denton W. Crocker, Jr., known now forever to me and probably everyone who watched as “Mogie.”
While Mogie and John Musgrave were fighting the War in Vietnam, I and so many others in Madison and the rest of the country were fighting against it. But it was marred in Madison by the Aug. 24, 1970 Sterling Hall Bombing, which was intended to destroy the Army Mathematics Research Center that was housed in the UW building, but unintentionally took the life of university physics researcher Robert Fassnacht—whose name I still remember.
I still remember the names of the four bombers, too—Karleton Armstrong and younger brother Dwight Armstrong, David Fine and Leo Burt. I met the Armstrongs after they were caught and released from prison, and met David Fine after he was caught and sentenced, and trained briefly at the taekwondo school I attended before beginning his prison term. Leo Burt was never apprehended.
I was surprised, many years later, that Ethan Coen knew the names of all the bombers, who called themselves “the New Year’s Gang,” having failed in an attempt to destroy the huge Badger Army Ammunition Plant in nearby Sauk County by means of dropping homemade explosives from a stolen small plane on New Year’s Eve, 1969. But the Coens were from Minneapolis and no doubt went through the same shit as I did growing up, and had also lived briefly in Madison when their dad taught a semester at the UW. Their lesser-known 2009 movie masterpiece A Serious Man, while not concerning Vietnam specifically, delivers much of the flavor of being a kid growing up in the ’60s in the Midwest, using Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow album, which I knew by heart, for much of the soundtrack.
As for growing up with the War, this was documented in The War at Home, a documentary film of the Vietnam War years in Madison. And it all came back home to me while watching The Vietnam War. Then again, it never really left.
As Phil Gioia, U.S. Army, put it so well in The Vietnam War: “The Vietnam War drove a stake right into the heart of America. It polarized the country in a way that it had probably never been polarized since before The Civil War and unfortunately we’ve never really moved far away from that and we never recovered.”
I’m reminded of one of my favorite lines, the last line, in fact, of one of my favorite Clint Eastwood movies, The Outlaw Josey Wales, in reference to The Civil War, which had destroyed his family and turned him into an understandably vengeful but not unjust outlaw: “I guess we all died a little in that damn war.”
I always read the obituaries, mainly because the last thing I ever want to do is ask how someone’s doing and find out they’ve been dead since January–like I just did now.
I hadn’t seen my dear friend Sam Lovullo in a long time, but always called him when I visited L.A. as he lived in Encino, even though both our hearts were in Nashville. Sam, of course, was the longtime producer–24 years–of Hee Haw, while I was a longtime fan–24 years–of Hee Haw, and for the last dozen or so years up until its end in 1991, a friend.
Indeed, I was a regular on the set during its annual October and June tapings during those years, since I was in Nashville for the October “CMA Week” of Country Music Association and music performance society awards shows and June’s Country Music Fan Fair. As I was also a backstage Grand Ole Opry regular (Hee Haw was taped at the Opry House, in a studio behind the Opry backstage dressing rooms, with Sam and the production staff in a trailer just outside the building), I got especially friendly with Grandpa Jones and Minnie Pearl, the Hager Twins and Buck Owens, but I knew most everyone there, at least a bit.
And it really was thrilling, to get to be so close to my favorite country music stars–and actually stand in Kornfield Kounty! In fact, I was visiting John Hiatt one night in the dressing room at the Bottom Line, and he was blown away by my Hee Haw golf shirt and told me his dream was to be in Kornfield Kounty. Next day I got on the phone with Sam, explained who John was, and to his undying gratitude got him in a Kornifeld Kounty segment–and my picture taken with him there.
But I knew Sam best of all. The last time I actually saw him had to be one of the last times I was in Nashville, several years ago. I ran into him backstage at the Ryman Auditorium during an Opry show there. Charley Pride and Roy Clark were in the house, and they greeted each other warmly and exchanged complaints about their latest physical ailments.
I bet I was down there for CMA Music Fedstival–what Fan Fair evolved into. I was hoping to see Sam and sure enough he was there backstage, Roy being the longtime Hee Haw co-host with Buck. He told me there was a Hee Haw reunion show the next day–maybe it was a taping for a special–and I went and hung out with him and the surviving Hee Haw family members one last time.
In the last few years I’d either call Sam when I was in L.A. or when I wanted a memorial quote from him on a newly deceased Hee Haw cast member. We’d inevitably commiserate about how the business had changed and our respective places in it. He didn’t have to explain his regrets, nor did I have to explain mine.
And we’d reminisce a lot about the good old Hee Haw days, of course. He’d fill me in on the lives of those who were still alive, I’d let him know when I heard from Kathie Lee Gifford as I was lucky to get to know her, having been a huge fan ever since discovering her on Sam’s short-lived but brilliant Hee Haw sitcom spin-off Hee Haw Honeys.
People always think that country music is made by and for politically and socially conservative Americans, not without reason, obviously–think of Richard Nixon seeking refuge at the Grand Ole Opry House on its grand opening at the height of Watergate and taking a yo-yo lesson from Roy Acuff, whom I also knew from the Opry and the Hee Haw set–but as my own career began covering country music back in the late 1970s, I knew it was never so black-and-white.
Maybe my fondest memory of Sam was when I told him that when I first met him and the Hee Haw gang, my hippie-length hair was down to my shoulders. He was actually stunned, and couldn’t remember that at all. Not to suggest that he was or would have been prejudiced by my appearance, for he couldn’t have been more proud when I told him how I had met John Henry Faulk.
Texas folklorist, humorist, lecturer, and civil rights activist Faulk, friend of Alan Lomax and mentor to Molly Ivins, first found fame after World War II. He’d served as a medic and started writing radio scripts, and had his own radio shows in New York featuring his folksy characterizations. This led to TV appearances in the early ’50s, but he had also joined the American Civil Liberties Union and was blacklisted later in the decade. He then won a libel suit in 1962 after being labeled a communist by an organization led by my own Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy.
He was a semi-regular on Hee Haw from 1975 to 1982, starring in the “Story-tellin’ Time with John Henry Faulk” segment surrounded by most of the cast seated in an old country store setting.
Just before I moved to New York, John Henry participated in a folk arts festival at Madison’s Capitol Square. I figured that he wouldn’t expect a Hee Haw fan at this particular event, let alone anyone asking him about his friend Peavine Jeffries, a frequent subject of his Hee Haw stories. So I approached him as a stringer for Variety, which I was, and with the catch phrase often uttered by one of the cast at the start of “Story-tellin’ Time.”
“Hey, John Henry! I’m Jim Bessman with Variety! How’s old Peavine Jeffries?”
John Henry’s whole face lit up. “Jim, sweet Jim!” he said, beaming, then went into a warmhearted Peavine story.
John Henry died in 1990. Roy Acuff’s gone, so is ‘Pa, Minnie, Buck and both Jim and Jon Hager. But I know I could have got a whole lot of loving comments about you by those who are left had I known back in January. My apologies to you, Sam, that the only ones I can come up with now are mine.
There’s a line, one of many, that sticks out in my mind from having watched Clint Eastwood’s 1992 masterpiece Unforgiven so many times.
It comes near the end, after the Schofield Kid marvels, with surprised self-loathing, that they succeeded in their bounty hunter mission.
“Yeah, well, I guess they had it coming,” the Kid, rationalizing his killing, tells Eastwood’s Will Munny.
Munny’s stone cold reply: “We all have it coming, kid.”
I’ve seen some comments on social media from people who, while appreciating the horror of Houston in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, point to Texas Republican legislators who voted against emergency funds for New York-area victims of Hurricane Sandy and suggest that now they deserve same. Indeed, all but one Texas Republican in Congress voted just four years ago against $50.5 billion in relief funds for Hurricane Sandy and now New York and New Jersey lawmakers have rightly assailed them, especially Sen. Ted Cruz, for their hypocrisy.
Texas, of course, is a red state, and I myself might be tempted to say Texans got it coming for helping elect a man with such disdain for the law, women, people of color, science, safety regulations, environmental protection, and so on and on and on. But not only were they hardly alone, Harvey hardly cared who voted for who, and I’m sure all those who got hit the hardest were not unanimously of the Trump voter demographic and couldn’t afford to live on high ground, let alone get back on their feet without massive help from their more fortunate fellow Americans.
I’ll concede that it is getting harder and harder to feel part of the united states. But really, if you weren’t hit by Harvey, Sandy, Katrina or any other of the big bad names, not to mention devastating unnamed earthquakes, tornadoes, fires and droughts, it’s only a matter of time, so long as we all keep wasting it out of greed, irresponsibility, ignorance, and the same disregard if not utter contempt for nature and the planet that Trump and his supporters represent and promote.
I always come out to L.A. around third week of August, so it’s no big coincidence that I’m on the plane now, 9:10 a.m. ET, Aug. 22, six years to the day that I was flying back from L.A., during which time Nick Ashford died.
I knew it was coming, since Liz Rosenberg had called me before I left with the news that it was imminent. I’ve written about my thoughts on the flight elsewhere in this series, I’m sure–meaning, I’m pretty sure–and how when I called my voicemail upon landing was instructed to come straight to the house, which I did, in shorts and t-shirt, luggage in tow.
Every night of Aug. 22 now I tweet “Nick Ashford lives,” only this night, nine hours ago as I write this, just after midnight, I was immediately echoed poetically by Nicole Ashford, for whom her father was “always there in some form, always there pushing me on, never forgotten never gone.”
Accompanying her post was a photo of a joyful Nick practically dancing ecstatically behind toddler Nicole, gleefully riding away on her tricycle–so Nick: never happier than when beholding the happiness of others.
My eyes are welling up now, having gone back to copy those lines of Nicole’s and contemplate the picture some more. It only stands to reason that I love being around Nicole, and her mom and sister, of course. And other Friends of Nick. Such a wonderful thing to have in common, to cherish. To share.
At Five Points Academy, from left: Simon Burgess, Barry Danielian, Tim Waid, Grand Tuhon Leo Gaje and Eddie Hunt.
I went back to Madison last week in what has become an annual July visit to see my mother—she won’t read this so I can say she’s 95 and still driving—and celebrate my 65th and talk about old age with the few friends I have left there who are still alive.
Speaking of which, I drove to Milwaukee last Sunday to see Elvis Costello and had lunch with dear friend Jim Liban, the legendary blues harmonica player I haven’t seen in 20, maybe 30 years since he lived briefly in Nashville playing with David Allan Coe, who, coincidentally, I’d seen Thursday night in New York before flying out Friday morning. In catching up, Jim told me that his historic Milwaukee blues-rock band Short Stuff, which I covered extensively back in the late 1970s when I started writing, was recently inducted into the Wisconsin Area Music Industry Hall of Fame, and that when it came to getting together all the many musicians who’d played in the band over the years, it turned out that more of them were dead than alive.
“The fact that we survived in and of itself is quite shocking,” Jim said to me, and I needed no explanation.
Most of the people I know or like who die I find out about it on Twitter trends or Facebook posts. Earlier yesterday I saw Eddie Hunt’s name in whatever they call that column on the right of your Facebook page with a line or two encapsulating other people’s posts that I never look at and never turn on the chat function for–being surely the least social social networker. But I’d been thinking of Eddie just the other day and would probably have clicked on it eventually, except that sometime after 9 p.m. I noticed in my notifications one from Simon Burgess: “Simon Burgess shared a link: ‘View Edward Hunt’s Obituary and express….'”
Simon, among other things, is my martial arts teacher, specifically, the Pekiti-Tirsia system of Filipino martial arts. It’s a relatively esoteric art, suffice it to say it’s essentially combat-oriented, bladed weapons-based. Through Simon I met Eddie and numerous other teachers including Leo Gaje, the famed Filipino martial artist whose family originated the system and its grand master, and Tim Waid, who studied for years under Leo and heads the Pekiti organization that Simon is affiliated with at Five Points Academy in Chinatown.
Simon and Eddie were both certified Pekiti instructors under both Leo and Tim.
“Instructors and Friends, I have to sadly tell you of the death of Mataas na Guro [master instructor] Eddie Hunt,” Tim announced via Facebook, reporting that Eddie had been found dead early in the morning by his girlfriend. Speaking for all who knew him, he added: “I loved Eddie and he was my Brother. Right now I am at a loss of more words, I just wish I could have done something to prevent this way too early loss.”
Tim recalled how Eddie had actually introduced him to both Simon and Barry Danielian, another master instructor, not to mention a star jazz-pop trumpet player who’s worked extensively with everyone from Barbra Streisand to Bruce Springsteen. Barry’s was one of many personal messages rapidly filling the Facebook feeds from Pekiti-Tirsia family friends, feeds that kept filling out as the night wore on.
I messaged Barry directly immediately.
“Just gutted,” he responded. “Feel like someone punched me in the throat. Just spoke w him last week to make plans to hang next week.”
It was apparently heart failure, Barry said. Eddie was 54.
I should note here something about not only Eddie, but Barry, Simon, Tim and Leo—and all the many other martial arts masters I’ve met through them and Five Points. They’re the nicest, most caring and dedicated people in the world. What distinguished Eddie was his usual long hair and hangdog expression, though it was more of a big, weary puppy face, I’d say. Indeed, Eddie was far more likely to lick and slobber all over your face out of happiness to see you than rabidly bite your head off–which he most certainly could do just as easily.
But Tim really nailed what made Eddie the guy you counted on to be there at Tim’s seminars: “Those of you who knew him remember that he was truly the life of the party. He brought laughter like no one else, honest, fun laughter that was truly recognized when he was not with us at that moment.”
That was really it. No matter Eddie’s experience in martial arts and ability as a fighter, he was one hell of a funny guy, and to use an appropriate idiom, played it to the hilt. He’d stumble into Tim’s seminars late—he probably had a job, though I like to think he overslept—make a few frivolous comments and crack everyone up, Tim included.
Tim, by the way, is the most serious and focused martial artist and instructor, who can make mincemeat out of you if you’re dumb enough to blink. He’s also about the sweetest human being you can imagine, and clearly loved Eddie’s irreverent disruptions as much as the rest of us. Simon and Barry, of course, had trained with Eddie forever and had willingly resigned themselves long ago.
“Eddie introduced me to Simon Burgess, and Barry Danielian, and the rest is history,” Tim concluded. “Eddie will forever be missed, and never forgotten.”
Si posted an online obit link and said simply “sad day today”–three words that needed nothing further. My response was even more minimal: “No words.”
I went to the online obit and nodded at its depiction of “a beloved son, brother, uncle & partner [who] will be greatly missed, not only for his great big loving heart, but also for his sense of humor and generosity towards all he encountered.” Then I went back to Barry’s Facebook page.
“I’ve known Eddie for close to 30 years and have shared many laughs, sweat, bruises and busted knuckles with him,” wrote Barry, one of the most spiritual people I know. “He was one of the most real people I know. And because of that he had the ability to go into many different circles and people immediately loved him. He was all heart and if you were a friend of his you were a friend for life. In many ways he was a throwback to a type of person that is sadly very rare these days.”
Eddie’s “love of martial arts, history, the warrior ethic,” Barry added, “will continue to be an inspiration to me and to all of us that knew him. I will miss him very much.”
Barry concluded: “Tell the people you love that you love them….do this often. We never know when our last breath will be. Have a peaceful return to the Divine, my brother.”
And I’ll conclude by relating that Eddie and the rest are the kind of people who give the phrase “I have your back” a whole nother meaning. For they really do have your back, and most important, show you how to have your own when they’re not there—truly one of the most important lessons in life.
And there was one other thing about Eddie that I thought of, as I reflected back at the week just concluded at home with my mother and surviving friends—for Eddie had lost his mother not so long ago–that was expressed best by another Facebook friend of the late, great Eddie Hunt.
Pekiti-Tirsia, the friend wrote, had lost its often long-haired Wild Man of Borneo.
“Well, Brother, you’ve a new haircut when you reunite with your beloved Mother. You’ll be missed. Thanks for the laughs.”
I did in fact call my mother today, Barry, and told her I love her, as I love you and all my teachers, fellow students and friends.
Adam West’s death hit me harder than most, and I’m glad to see I was hardly alone. Indeed, even Nick Lowe raised a glass to West halfway through his Saturday night show at City Winery, and after the show gave me a few thoughts for the appreciation piece I put up yesterday at Centerline.news.
I’m not sure why—maybe because there’s always something to do with Batman going on—but I think of West not infrequently. His Batman portrayal truly was brilliant, what with his sober, deadpanned phrasing and seriousness in the most hysterically ridiculous comic book plots imaginable. But as Conan O’Brien stated, “Adam West gave probably the most inspired and ingenious performances in the history of television. He is revered by my generation of comic minds. He was also a sweet and lovely man, and it was a rare honor to know him.”
What West accomplished with Batman could only work, though, because it was so pure: West’s Batman really did believe in the basic goodness of people—and fickle as they always were, they never let him down, even in a two-part episode from Batman‘s second season–“Hizzoner the Penguin” and “Dizonner the Penguin”—when he ran for mayor of Gotham City against The Penguin. As Philip Bump wrote in The Washington Post just after the election last year, it had obvious parallels with the presidential campaign in that a dastardly villain used his celebrity and devious wiles to nearly steal an election from a qualified candidate, though in real life, sadly, he actually did.
But at least in the TV world of Batman, the good people of Gotham City came through in the end, justifying Batman’s faith in them. Going through old videos of Batman after West died, I came across a wonderful YouTube compilation, “The Complete Batman Guest Star Window Cameos,” in which Batman invariable addresses such celebs as Dick Clark and Sammy Davis, Jr., with utmost respect, as “Citizen.”
The citizen title was equally significant for President Barack Obama, and like West’s Batman, and in the face of unrelenting criticism if not outright hostility, he never lost his cool, and in his case, sense of humor. But Obama, also like West’s Batman, also never lost his unfailing positivism–for lack of a better word to denote his total lack of cynicism and unyielding trust in the goodness—and vital importance to society—of the average citizen.
“It falls to each of us to be those anxious, jealous guardians of our democracy, to embrace the joyous task we’ve been given to continually try to improve this great nation of ours,” Obama said in his farewell address as president. It was a return to a theme I heard him evoke several times in promising that he wasn’t going away, but proudly taking on a new office, i.e., the office of citizen.
“Because for all our outward differences, we all share the same proud title: Citizen. Ultimately, that’s what our democracy demands. It needs you. Not just when there’s an election, not just when your own narrow interest is at stake, but over the full span of a lifetime.”