The great Patti Page died today at age 85. She was a singer I loved, whose albums on Mercury are mainstays in my easy listening, and whose song “Let Me Go, Lover” changed my life one night on 960-KABL AM while driving back from San Francisco at 1:45 in the morning.
So it warmed my heart tonight, while searching YouTube for later-era live performances, to find this footage of Patti Page singing “Tennessee Waltz” for a group of seniors in 2010. (It appears to be her latest-uploaded live clip, just after this appearance on Eat Beluga, a television show from the Philippines.) Here she is, a legend who sold millions of records, who would have accepted a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award next month, who could easily rest on her laurels, and instead she’s bringing some sunshine to people who surely remember her in the twilight of their own lives.
Last week, famed bandleader Pete Rugolo died at the age of 95. A brilliant arranger and progressive composer, he brought a decidedly modernist touch to big-band jazz, most famously with his work for Stan Kenton. He worked with Nat King Cole, Mel Tormé, June Christy, Harry Belafonte, the Four Freshmen, Peggy Lee, Billy Eckstine and many, many others.
Interesting to locals: Pete Rugolo grew up in Santa Rosa, graduating from Santa Rosa High School in 1934.
Though he eventually recorded under his own name (and specialized in fun, lively cover art), the album that introduced me to Pete Rugolo is still my favorite: the June Christy album Something Cool, a jazz-vocal landmark. Rugolo had been rearranged, tinkered with and sent back to the rewriting board by his previous employers, but as he recalls in this interview at age 84, “I did the album Something Cool, and everything I wrote, they never changed a note. They just loved all my work.”
It shows. Listen to “Something Cool” below, and pay attention in the bridge, when Christy sings about going to Paris in the fall—Rugolo answers with a jubilant three seconds of music that evokes, well. . . Paris in the fall. It’s a classic Rugolo touch that I’ve always loved, and the rest of the album’s arrangements are equally sophisticated and ahead of their time. Enjoy the song.
Dickie Peterson, the bassist and singer of Blue Cheer who spent a lifetime oversaturating amplifiers in underrated glory, has died at age 61. There is no way to go back in time and listen to Blue Cheer devoid of their subsequent context—Black Sabbath, prominently; Sleep, the Melvins and Sunn 0))), less prominently—but it doesn’t take much imagination to recognize that Peterson and his trio were on some heavy shit way before the world was on some heavy shit.
Of course, Blue Cheer played extensively in the Bay Area, including the Santa Rosa Fairgrounds in the 1960s right after Vincebus Eruptum came out, but had even more recent ties to this area. I met Peterson a few years ago when he was living in West Sonoma County, of all places, and playing the occasional blues show at the Forestville Club. He looked exactly like an unsung pioneer of heavy metal, with long hair, a denim jacket and imposing heft. I guess he didn’t stay here long—he died this morning in Germany, presumably of cancer. May he be remembered.
Anthony Williams, a.k.a. DJ Roc Raida, has died. Even if you are not a fan of DJing, watch the clip below to see what the world has lost. I was amazed when the X-Ecutioners came to Future Primitive in S.F. and blew everyone’s mind with their choreographed acrobatics. Lots of people on the West Coast dismissed ‘em as “trick DJs,” and that’s legitimate, but tricks are entertaining and they were entertaining as hell. Rest in peace, Raida.
There are certain deaths whose sting of importance have always stayed with me. I heard about Kurt Cobain on TV, inside a Tower Records in London. Jerry Garcia, on tour driving through Kentucky, on the van radio. Joe Strummer, on a computer.
I was born in 1975, and Michael Jackson was the first superstar I ever loved. His was also the first death I watched unfold slowly online, in a sterile, digital environment made suddenly alive by speculation. During the purgatory of truth, when TMZ had the story but no reputable news sources could confirm, I, like the rest of the world, went to about 10 different news sites which had nothing—and then to Facebook, which had even less. A Twitter search for “Michael Jackson” turned up countless entries, and after a mere 30 seconds went by, the mind-boggling message: “There have been 5,675 new entries since your last search. Click here to refresh.”
Upon finding the L.A. Times confirmation, I swallowed a hard lump in my throat. I’d been joking about it with my co-worker, suspending just enough disbelief to make light of the situation, but I’ll admit it: I was sunk.
I lament the demise of the superstar from time to time, but what I’m really pining for, personally, is to have another Michael Jackson. To have another icon so completely capture the world’s attention, without any haters or snark. That such a thing will never happen is as much a statement on Michael Jackson’s greatness as it is on the changed landscape. The entertainment industry was far more consolidated in 1983, and one’s choices were either Michael Jackson or Black Flag, with not much in between. Now there’s a million options, and a million opinions, and an internet to dilute it all and to serve as a platform for information and negativity instead of knowledge and hope.
But also, sure. I was 8. At Mark West Elementary School, where I loyally wore a white sequined glove most days, Michael Jackson was king. No one questioned his superiority. It seems incredible to have once been in an environment where I agreed with everyone’s musical tastes, and perhaps this is part of the idyll of Michael Jackson. Nowadays, we pay $50 to share an experience with like-minded people; in 1983, we just had to go to the playground and there’d be a group of kids surrounding a flat piece of cardboard practicing the moonwalk.
But after a while, I woke up one day and Mark West Elementary had decided that Michael Jackson was a fag. The worst insult stopped being “You shop at Kmart” and instead became “You like Michael Jackson.” This was a sad and confusing day for me. I tried to tell everyone they were wrong, that Michael Jackson was the best. Thinking about it now, my campaign was worse than unsuccessful—it actually completely decimated what little social standing I’d managed to acquire.
“If you love Michael Jackson so much,” one particularly knuckleheaded bully demanded, “then why don’t you go out on a date with him?”
“I would go on a date with Michael Jackson,” I replied, and, further twisting the knife on my own suicide, added, for reasons unfathomable to me now, “In fact, if I had a piece of his poo I would keep it in a jar by my bed.”
I got beat up a lot in the next five years.
Why would I say such a thing? I’d like to think I was keenly reacting to unfair treatment of a genuine talent with theatre of the absurd, or that I was presaging the vicious cycle of celebrity at work and wanted to monkeywrench its purveyors. But basically I said it because it was the truth. I loved Michael Jackson’s music, but I loved even more what Michael Jackson gave me: a sense that I was really a lot cooler than I really was.
If I could just master the moonwalk, I‘d think to myself, incessantly rewinding the Motown 25 special we’d taped on the family VCR and scrutinizing Jackson’s every step in slow-motion. If I could just wear my pants high, or memorize all his songs, or play them on the piano, or get that red jacket, I could have a piece of what he has. Such innocence is as tragic on the outside as it is triumphant from the inside, but it wouldn’t have been right for someone to tell me that Michael Jackson couldn’t solve all my problems. Foolish innocence has to run its course naturally and brutally.
In the next year or so, I got into Herbie Hancock, the Force M.D.s and Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam. Then Run DMC came along, and everything changed. Michael was still great, but he wasn’t the only great. In the shadow of rap music, his tough-guy act in the corny video for “Bad”—all eyes glued for the world television premiere—was unconvincing. The album was good, but it was 1987, I was 11, and I’d discovered other good music. How can a kid actually worship Michael Jackson after discovering the Smiths?
Dangerous was an afterthought; the party was over. Michael Jackson’s music entered that weird area occupied by the Beatles and Huey Lewis—music that I loved and memorized by heart and that I never needed to hear again. I discovered punk rock and criticized the corporate music industry and its sinister star system, and I turned my back on its most successful product. Plus, when Jackson started getting weirder and weirder, I was ashamed that all those years ago, Mark West Elementary was sort of right.
My story isn’t far different from anyone else’s. We all watched him slide, and we all groaned at the late night TV jokes, and we all shrugged our shoulders. What good would worrying about his well-being do? He lived on another planet, one where talent was processed by his lungs and where shame was used as currency. One where real money was used to recreate Graceland’s gaudiness and to buy the Beatles’ catalog from under McCartney’s nose, and where laughably unrealistic confidence in Invincible caused him to lose everything.
Watching the events unfold online yesterday, the quip I saw repeated most was that “the real Michael Jackson died a long time ago.” But the real us died a long time ago too. We all got so callous and sure and filled with judgment that the part of us once able to be spellbound by an intoxicating pop song and an unbeatable performer died, and we failed to realize the Dorian Gray effect of his deteriorating face reflecting the grotesque nature of the world.
And still, from inner-city nightclubs to suburban wedding receptions, his music never failed to fill the dance floor.
I don’t have my sequined glove anymore, or my sheet music to “Say Say Say,” or my demographic-assured allegiance to Pepsi. I have not listened to one note of his music since he died yesterday. Gravity tore us apart. But I cannot deny what he once meant to me, and how he once gave me hopes and dreams far beyond reality in a distant world completely different than the way we know it now.
As I write this, TMZ is reporting that Michael Jackson has died.
While I, like the rest of the world, keep refreshing the New York Times and CNN for a more reputable confirmation, I share a piece of my discussion with Kate, the Bohemian calendar editor.
“What if,” I posited, “he wasn’t actually dead? I think that’d be crazier than him actually dying—if TMZ jumped the gun and got it wrong.”
“Yeah, right,” Kate replied. “Like, wouldn’t it be awesome for Michael Jackson if he actually wasn’t dead?”
She paused. “I mean, other than he’d get to be alive?”
(Update: He’s Gone.)
Yeah, sure, the first time I saw I Am Trying to Break Your Heart I thought, “Ha, ha! What an annoying guy! How brave they are to kick him out of the band!”
Then I went back to the theater a few days later and watched it again, and I realized that I had been 100% wrong, and that what I was watching was a completely one-sided story, and that basically, I Am Trying To Break Your Heart is a propaganda film for Jeff Tweedy.
The only good Wilco albums are the ones Jay Bennett played on. I always thought he got a shitty deal from Wilco, and was actually glad when he filed suit against Tweedy last month. They may not have gotten along, but his influence made that band magical and unpretentious.
So long, Jay Bennett, you died in your sleep last night. I stood up for you. No doubt history will conveniently rewrite itself and give you the credit you so desperately deserved while you were here. You died too soon.
Earlier this year I saw Freddie Hubbard, one of the world’s greatest trumpet players, at Yoshi’s in San Francisco. It was a living, breathing disaster. If you’d like, you can read about the show here, but if you ever listened to this man and felt the transport in his trumpet playing, I warn you—it will only make you sad.
In his prime, Freddie Hubbard’s solos were the very definition of speaking through playing. His notes were words, his runs long sentences. He was sad, funny, and fearless, all without opening his mouth. I have spent cumulative hours with my eyes shut listening to his solos, being taken on beautiful journeys no oral storyteller could match.
There are so many amazing albums that Freddie Hubbard played on I don’t know where to start. I also keep discovering them in my own collection. The hallmarks: Oliver Nelson’s The Blues and the Abstract Truth, Herbie Hancock’s Maiden Voyage, Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch. The standards: John Coltrane’s Olé, Art Blakey’s Mosaic, Tina Brooks’ True Blue, Wayne Shorter’s Speak No Evil. The big-band avant-garde: Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz, John Coltrane’s Ascension. His own: Open Sesame, Hub-Tones, The Artistry of Freddie Hubbard and yes, Red Clay. All of them superb.
Freddie Hubbard died today at age 70, a month after suffering a heart attack. He had a really terrible curtain call in life, and it was torture to watch someone whose playing I loved so much struggling so viciously. It was worse that he was so cantankerous and volatile—just truly heartbreaking. Here’s hoping he found some peace. He’s still my pick over Miles Davis any day, hands down.
A memorial tribute for Freddie Hubbard is planned next month in New York City. In the meantime, here he is with Art Blakey, Wayne Shorter, Curtis Fuller, Reggie Workman, and Cedar Walton, in 1962. He always blasted hilarious grand entrances in his solos when he was able, and this one’s no exception.
She was a bad-ass who didn’t complain very often but also didn’t take any shit. Fled the States. Demanded equal treatment for women in the industry. Got stuck with some industry-branded Cruella DeVille-type nympho image. An incomparable cabaret singer.
“There’s no cabaret around the world that I know of,” she said in a recent interview. “It’s all gone the way of business, too much business, therefore the soul of the business has gotten really very lost. Greed is so destructive. It destroys everything.”
She taught James Dean dance lessons. Stood up to Lyndon B. Johnson over Vietnam at the White House. Was spied on by the FBI. Orson Welles called her the most exciting woman in the world. When asked which records she’d want on a desert island, she always said her own.
Eartha Kitt died today, joining an esteemed list of other entertainers who shuffled off on Christmas Day: W.C. Fields, Charlie Chaplin, Dean Martin and James Brown. So long, sweetheart. We’ll spin “I Wanna Be Evil” over Tofurky and pumpkin pie tonight.