No More Musicians are Allowed to Die, Ever
2003-09-15 - 8:05 a.m.
I officially decree that from now on musicians must have my signed approval in order to die. Way too many of them have decided to do take their final bows this year and go on to the big stadium tour in the sky, where no one has to have soundchecks or corporate sponsors. I am not having this anymore, and I fully intend to lodge a formal complaint with whoever the Hell is in charge here.
This year, three super-badasses have been taken away from us, and the world is all the worse off for it. I want them back. I want them to keep singing and I want to see them live. I just got into one of them this year, for fuck's sake! I should be allowed more time before I have to go into mourning.
So, today's entry will be a tribute, although a not too serious one, because I think that all of these singers would rather that their funerals be big blowout parties than somber processions and dirges. These are people you gotta walk up the stairs (anyone who's ever seen a Penn Glee Club show knows what I'm talking about). However, I think more than anything, these three people would want to know that their music was going to live on long after they died, and while this will be the case whather I talk about them or not, I figured that, since at least one person has turned on to a singer after I went into mourning for them, a little tribute might inspire other people to share my wish that these singers had stuck around a little longer.
The first nasty knock for me came in April, when Nina Simone died. If they ever do a Biography or an E! True Hollywood Story for Nina Simone, it should have the subtitle "When Bad Movies Happen to Good People." Because this woman's music has been in some BAAAAD movies. I first encountered her when I was 13 and I saw Point of No Return, which is relatively good when you're thirteen, although I'm sure Anne Bancroft must have gone on a five day drinking binge after she realized what she had gotten herself into. In this movie, the sociopathic, ex-druggie assassin played by Bridget Fonda (let that sink in a second--sociopathic, ex-druggie assassin played by BRIDGET FONDA) has a thing for Nina Simone. She asserts that, when Simone sings "I want some sugar in my bowl" she means, "Oh baby, stick it in me twice a day and I'll do anything for you. I'll lick the ground you walk on." For some reason, this stuck in my thirteen year old head. I wish the music had instead, but it wouldn't be until years later, when Simone's "Love Me or Leave Me" was used to advertise Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss (which starred Sean Hayes before he became the sexless monkey that he portrays on Will and Grace--why that show hasn't just retitled itself "Karen and Rosario" I will never know), that I would discover the true genius of this woman.
Nina Simone has the ultimate blues contralto. It can go down into the Old Man River-depths of sorrow and can rise up only to break in yearning. One of my favorite covers of hers in "Here Comes the Sun," and when she barely hits those notes you know it's because the night has been full of shit that would break you in half, and the sun's been a long time coming. THAT is a blues voice, ladies and gentlemen. As if that weren't enough, she can set a piano on fire with her playing, and everyone knows I have a thing for pianists. She was also enough of a badass to record songs like "Mississippi Goddam" and "Young, Gifted and Black" for the civil rights movement. When you have a voice that strong in a woman that's down for the struggle, you know asses will be kicked.
Go online and try to find her versions of the aforementioned songs, as well as "I Think It's Gonna Rain Today," "I Put a Spell on You," and "Don't Explain."
And what Bridget Fonda said about "Sugar in My Bowl?" Very apt.
An even nastier blow came two months ago, when every gay Latino fell into grieving hysterics (as only gay Latinos can do) upon hearing about the death of Celia Cruz. A lot of non-Latinos have no idea who this woman was, and I feel sorry for those people. Basically, what Maria Callas was to opera and what Aretha Franklin was to pop, Celia Cruz was to latin music. Or, to put it another way, Celia Cruz could blow her nose and the kleenex would have more charisma, soul, talent, and power than three Shakiras. And I like Shakira.
Again, movies exposed me to Celia. Unlike Nina, she was actually in the movie I first saw her in. She played a woman who was probably based at least partly on herself (even though she didn't really take off until after the time period the movie was set in) in The Mambo Kings. I couldn't help but notice, when I first saw her, that this woman was, to be charitable, not terribly attractive. Granted, she was already well into her sixties during filming, but she also had a gap in her teeth and a big ol' honker of a nose. But then this woman smiled, and then this woman sang, and she became the classiest, sexiest, most incredible thing this little Latin gay boy had ever seen. With only a few bars of "Guantanamera," she could turn any room into a hot, sultry, smoky Cuban nightclub. There was rum and cigars and sex on a Carribean beach in this woman's raspy, dark voice. Sure, she looked to be 548 years old. Sure, she dressed like a Brazillian drag queen on acid. But without her, there would have been no salsa, no rumba, no comparsa. When she left, all of Latin America wept, and then went out that night and danced and drank and laughed had lots and lots of sex, all in her honor.
Go get her latest CD, Regalo del Alma. The last track is a version of "I Will Survive" rewritten in Spanish for La Celia. The lyrics have been changed so that Celia can sing about how her music will survive in the blood and soul and feet of her people. I listened to it in Borders and had to hold on to the cd rack to keep from dancing like a freakshow. It has yet to leave my car. Sometimes it makes me cry. Usually, it makes me want to find a really hot guy and show him why the Latino reputation is entirely deserved.
Viva la reina de la salsa, que viva!
Finally, we come to the man who prompted this entry, who's death, while neither shocking nor necessarily untimely, was nevertheless painful. I am speaking, of course, of the one and only Johnny Cash. I only got into Mr. Cash last year, when I burned a copy of his VH1 appearance with Willie Nelson.
Now, I need to say a little something about country music. When I grew up, I hated it. I identified it with people who voted Republican and owned confederate flags. I hated the twang. I like Dolly Parton, but only because she was in 9 to 5 (one of the great comedy classics of all time). Country was inescapable growing up in Texas, and I have to admit I was surprised when I went to school up north and met people who didn't know "I Got Friends in Low Places" and "I Like It, I Love It, I Want Some More of It," which were fixtures of high school parties and dances. It wasn't until later that I began to discern the different kinds of country. You see, there's the Garth Brooks, Tim McGraw mainstream stadium country. I hate that crap. Then there's the Dolce and Gabbana country, as practiced by Shania Twain and The Dixie Chicks. I can stomach it in small doses, but I'm not going to own one of those cds. Then there's Old Skool country, a genre that has mutated into alt-country. The practitioners in this genre include Willie Nelson, Hank Williams, Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton (who has returned to this genre after a few years in the stadium country abyss), Lucinda Williams, and Lyle Lovett (sometimes). Thes songs are simple, and often very beautiful. And at the center of this country oasis was the Man in Black, Johnny Cash.
I purchased "Live at Folsom Prison and San Quentin" this year at a garage sale, and it was love at first listen. He sang songs to prisoners and criminals about prisoners and criminals. There was no condemnation, there was not even judgment. There was empathy, and respect, a sense that these men knew that they had done wrong, that many of them had committed horrible acts of violence, but that they still had their humanity, and deserved to have that recognized. You could tell that all these men would remember songs about executions and failed jail breaks and listening to the sounds on the other side of the wall, and that would help them survive.
Like Bob Dylan, whose songs Johnny Cash recorded before most people had ever heard of him, Johnny Cash was a working-class hero who became adopted by the intelligentsia. Lately, there's been a big interest in Johnny Cash among the hipster crowd. He played into that, to a degree, when he recorded "Hurt" by Nine Inch Nails. However, when you see the video you could tell that he was doing it to acknowledge Trent Reznor's own skill as a poet, and because it was simply the only song that could do justice to the pain he felt at the end of his life, when he looked over at his sins and mistakes and his couldashouldawouldas. But when he finally left us, everyone I knew in Texas, even people who hate country music more than I ever will, were hanging their heads and asking for whisky.
Few people have that kind of a legacy. Few people have left an album as powerful, as thought provoking as his prison album. If you don't have it, go buy it as soon as you can.
I've become a believer in reincarnation over the years. I like the thought of life never being over, of being able to come back and have a new experience after this one is over. However, I have an image in my head of Johnny Cash waking up in front of pearly gates last Friday, with his beloved wife, June Carter (who, it seemed, Johnny Cash had been waiting eagerly to see again), waiting for him. I imagine him being led by his wife to a great stage, where two beautiful black woman, one dressed in a wig ostentatious enough to make RuPaul faint, are waiting for him to get onstage so they can get the show started. I imagine Johnny Cash turning to see an audience made up of everyone that has ever lived, all waiting eagerly for him to pick up the guitar and start playing. He smiles his little smile, utters a curse word or two, and begins, and three deep, rich, bourbon soaked, chocolate covered voices make heaven a little more heavenly.
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