Monday, August 31, 2009

Good Guy/Bad Guy

I received an e-mail from an old friend today (no, seriously...he's old. As in 90+ years old) regarding Senator Edward Kennedy. The e-mail was filled with the usual screed about what a jerk Kennedy is...a liar, a cheat, probably a murderer, a misogynist, and a general all-around cad.

Whatever.

No, I'm serious. Whatever. I'm was no fan of Kennedy's personal life. I tend to agree that a lot of what was written in that letter was true. The Kennedys were a bunch of spoiled little rich kids that benefited from the Holy Trinity of good luck: They were rich, they were white, they were born into a family of influence in America. It doesn't get much better than that (unless you also happen to be male, in which case you can only fail if you're caught naked on the street getting a blowjob from a $2 hooker while you shoot an illegal immigrant in the head with an assault rifle and choke a dog. Even then, don't be so sure).

So why do I say, "whatever"? Because none of that mattered to Kennedy's constituents, who kept sending him to the Senate over and over and over. He might have been a cad, but he was also an effective Senator who authored or was a signatory to nearly every major piece of civil rights legislation during his tenure. He may have been a colossal jerk, but he forged partnerships across political lines in a way that simply doesn't happen any more. He may have been a drunken fool, but he was a political genius who confounded his enemies, leaving them with nothing but personal attacks to make their point in fundraising letters.

I don't hold Senator Kennedy up on some pedestal. I think that he was a product of his upbringing and his era. He was a child of privilege, and he used that status to push a political agenda that I believe he truly and sincerely felt was the right direction for his constituents and his country. He was relentless in that goal. Love him or hate him, you have to respect that.

And if you don't? Then you ought to look in the mirror, or take a hard look at your own political heroes (the wealthy child of privilege GW Bush comes to mind) and ask yourself if you've looked beyond their flaws simply because you happen to agree with them politically.

Chances are you have. Let's let Ted rest in peace. God will sort it all out in the end.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Genius

I wanted to write about the death of Les Paul, but others (including some readers of this blog) wrote much more eloquently than I about his passing.

Still, it infuriates me that words like "genius" are floated around in relation to a minor talent like Michael Jackson and true genius—like that of Les Paul—gets nary a mention in the popular press. The day after Les Paul died, "Entertainment Tonight" devoted more than half their show to discussing the disposition of Michael Jackson's body.

Let's be clear as a bell, shall we? Michael Jackson was talented, but he was not a genius. He had great people working for him (including Quincy Jones, who probably qualifies), some great promoters, and an adoring public that doesn't realize they're being manipulated like puppets on a string (whoever insisted that MTV refer to him as the "King of Pop" should get a freaking marketing medal of some kind). He was a great vocalist, a good dancer, and a smart marketer. He was also a walking freakshow, and he doesn't pass my "princess test" (i.e., would I leave my daughter alone in a room with him?).

Les Paul, on the other hand, truly qualified as a genius. Again, let's be perfectly clear: Modern music as we know it would not exist if it weren't for Les Paul. Period. Full stop. End of discussion.

Can you say the same for MJ?

Aside from the guitar that bears his name, Les Paul pioneered multi-track recording. That seems so obvious today, but at the time, his technique was a revelation. Can you name two more important contributions to modern music than multitracking and the electric guitar?

And aside from that, he was a master guitar player, pioneering modern jazz techniques, swing, country/western and improvised soloing...the list goes on and on. And in 2005, at the age of 90, he became the oldest living individual to have a record debut on the Billboard Hot 200. The man was relevant long after his contemporaries were forgotten. He was no flash in the pan. Les Paul was a genius.

A friend of mine is a local musician of some note, and he told me a story recently about playing on stage with Les Paul. As he told it, he was with a friend at a table in a small club where Les Paul was playing, and the friend got rather drunk and obnoxious. He started hollering out at the stage, "Hey, you should let my buddy John sit in with you! He can play!". John tried to quiet him down, but the friend kept it up. So Les and the band invited John onstage. Expecting the worst, John meekly approached, picked up a guitar, and after agreeing on a song they both knew, he began to play with the master.

As John tells the story, it took him a minute or so to catch on to Les' groove, but soon they were jamming like old friends. He stuck around for a couple more songs, and was invited backstage after the gig.

"I was worried that I wasn't good enough for him," John told me. "I said that to one of the band members, and they told me that this kind of thing happens all the time. People want to play with Les, and sometimes he brings them up as a challenge. Believe me, if you weren't good, he would have kicked you off right away."

John tells me he had a wonderful conversation with Les Paul. They discussed vintage gear, how they modified certain amplifiers to get a certain sound, and chatted about music in general. John told me that even at Les' advanced age, he was a gracious and kind host.

Clearly, Les Paul was a class act. That's more than I can say for most celebrities these days. At the risk of sounding like an out of touch curmudgeon, there's nothing about Michael Jackson that inspires me to want to emulate him in any way, shape or form. On the other hand, I'd be blessed to have a life like Les Paul. Talented, respected by his peers, gracious in his elder years, and dying a peaceful death surrounded by loving family and friends. Who could want more?

Rest in peace, Paul. There will never be another one like you.



edit
: You can't make this stuff up. After I published this post, look at the graphic that came up: