If you’re a lifelong sports fan, you end up having a lot of “favorite players.”
Al Kaline was my first.
Who knows why?
I wasn’t from anywhere near Detroit where he spent his entire 22-year career (which by the way wasn’t nearly as common in the pre-free agent era as some people would have you believe). I’d never even been north of the Mason-Dixon line. I was Scottish, but I didn’t know “Kaline” was, and it wouldn’t have made much difference if I did…being Scottish in America isn’t like being Jewish or Mexican or Irish or African-American.
If somebody had asked me to explain, my ten-year-old self probably would have said something like “I like how he plays the game.” Heady, controlled, hit to all fields, quiet, not flashy. As someone who got benched when I was eleven (after going 5 for 12 in four games with two doubles and two triples) because my manager knew I wouldn’t bitch to my parents about playing time and later got very used to coaches telling me, “I didn’t know you were having that good a year,” whenever the first batch of league-wide stats came out and I was hitting north of .500, let’s just say I related to the not-flashy part.
When people talked about Al Kaline they talked about his fundamentals, his lack of weaknesses, his consistency, week-to-week, month-to-month, season-to-season. That was the way I wanted to be talked about and the way I wanted to play. He set the model in my own mind for the athletes I would admire most (Chris Evert, Henry Aaron, Pete Sampras, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Glavine, Walter Payton, Tim Duncan) the ones who, at least as they played their sport, would best embody what I believed then, and believe now, are sport’s highest ideals of stoicism and courage, in all weathers.
Kaline never spent a day in the minors, still holds the record as the youngest American League batting champion, was a 15-time All Star and a 10-time Golden Glove winner, hit .379 in the only World Series he played in (one of only two Series the Tigers have won since 1945). He passed away this week after 85 years on this mortal plane, 66 of which he spent married to the same woman, 67 of which he spent working for the Detroit Tigers, who I haven’t specifically rooted for since the day he retired.
That’s another lesson I took to heart.
It’s not the uniforms that matter. It’s the people inside them.
Bill Withers sprang from, and came to epitomize, one of America’s great under-sung traditions, a style of laconic expression (see Arthur Alexander or Bobby Hebb or even Mississippi John Hurt) that Black America kept close to the vest until the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement made permanent middle-class respectability seem like more than a pipe dream.
I’m not sure how much of that aspiration-fueled ideal really exists anymore despite considerable economic progress. Money’s a start, but it’s far from everything. But in the moment when progress felt not necessarily real but certainly within reach, Bill Withers was a–perhaps the–key player. He wasn’t just the poor boy made good, or even the coal miner’s son come to conquer the city. He was the one who did all that by honoring tradition without letting anyone fool themselves into thinking he had gone any way but his own.
His voice, whether singing, writing, or playing, was warm without being sentimental. You always knew you were in the presence of someone who saw clearly and had parlayed that clarity into a life that most people who wanted to climb to the middle of the ladder (no further) from the bottom had to lie, cheat or sell their souls for. He made it on talent and, as they say, the content of his cantankerous character.
For about five years in the 70’s there was no one like him. When the business demanded for too long that he go with the rest, he left the business and lived out his days as a kind of Grand Old Man figure.
He passed away this week at 81, with the fight he put up–the fight to be judged by a new ideal–long lost for any but the grifters.
We should not forget how it might have been….what the Revolution was like in his hands.
My father, John Howard Ross, Sr., would have been one hundred years old today. He left way more than a hundred stories so I’ll tell one of my favorites:
First, some background:
In 1993 we went to Alaska. He hadn’t been there since 1946. He was fresh out of the U.S. Army then (on a Section 8 at least according to one of the stories he told–he pretended to be crazy for a Stanford medical experiment and then pretended to cure himself in order to shave six months off his service, which had been spent fighting forest fires in the Rockies because his Conscientious Objector status had been rejected by the Draft Board after Pearl Harbor and they didn’t want him spoiling the morale in a combat unit) and spent a season panning for gold and helping paint the Hurricane Gulch Railroad Bridge.
There were a wife and child waiting back in the lower 48 so he and his partner (Hugh, whose last name has since escaped me–a shame since some of the best stories came from Dad’s time with him, though not the one about Myrtle McSpadden and the Wrestling Bear or the one that ended with “My Son, do you by chance have any Jewish blood?” a question my Dad considered the greatest compliment of his life) left with the intention of returning the following Spring.
Complications set in. My brother ended up with his maternal grandparents in Massachusetts (my father’s parents had died before he was five). The wife (my brother’s mother) ended up on the FBI’s wanted list, Top Ten to hear Dad tell it, though that may have been projection. He ended up on the wanted list himself after he kidnapped my brother from Dad’s foster parents in Tennessee. How my brother is saner than I am, I’ll never know.
Anyway, Dad got divorced, became a Carny, went on the road for over a decade, met my mother, married her and settled down. The most life advice he ever gave me all at once was when I was twelve years old and we stood in front of our house just north of Cocoa, Florida, looking up Spring Street at U.S. 1, which I understood went all the way to Maine, and he pointed back at the house and said: “Son, I’ve seen everything there is to see…and there’s nothing that compares to this.”
By then he was an ordained Baptist minister. Within a few years he had a degree from a Bible College and was, along with my mother, being appointed a Southern Baptist Home Missionary specializing in prison ministries.
By the time we made Alaska in 1993, my mother had passed away and Dad had (very reluctantly) retired from mission work, having been aged out at 69.
He wanted to travel and we took several epic journeys together, with Alaska being the most epic of all.
He drove from Florida to Montana and I flew out to meet him. His 1968 VW Microbus (with 250,000 miles on it when the trip began) broke down in small town Missouri somewhere. Engine wouldn’t start. After consulting with a local mechanic who assured him it would take at least three days to get the part he needed he said, well I have to meet my son in Montana the day after tomorrow so that won’t do.
Being my dad, he didn’t do what just anybody would have done, which was swallow and accept his fate. He prayed (which some might have done). Then he got an eight pound mallet out of his my-life-goes-with-me Microbus (I think he kept it next to the guns I’m damn sure we weren’t supposed to be transporting across international borders) and walked around to the rear end where that particular vehicle houses its engine. Then he opened up the lid and gave the engine a couple of good whacks.
Started right up.
If you’ve ever ridden the Al-Can highway in the pre-cell phone era, with its long stretches of being a hundred miles from the nearest gas station, you’ll understand why he didn’t bother to share this with me until we got home.
I was nervous enough about the guns.
Anyway it was a fine and spectacular trip with one caveat.
Ten days. No showers.
Well, actually we had one at a truck stop on the second day. After that, no showers.
The catch to going on a trip with my Dad when you had no money of your own was that you were traveling by his rules.
Those days, as has often been the case since I decided time, including the time I spent with my Dad, was more important, I had no money of my own.
I traveled by his rules.
One of his rules was there was no sense staying in motels or hotels when you had a perfectly good VW Microbus with plenty of room to stretch out in the back. Heck, Dad had been doing it for years and never been arrested once. He had a love affair with Wal-Mart–plenty of security, good lighting, open all night. Stay quiet, nobody bothers you.
The Al-Can highway was even better. Truck stops!
Once we got to Alaska it was back to shopping centers and the like. But no hotels!
Now to tell the truth I can go a week without a shower. It’s not something I ever made a habit of, but I had reason to know that I’m one of those people who can go a week without a shower and nobody’s the wiser.
As long as I don’t sweat.
Let me tell you something about Alaska in the summertime. The sun goes down for about two hours. And it gets hot as blazes.
It wasn’t Oklahoma mind you–I found out about that in 1996 when Dad and I took our last epic journey and I was still broke.
But it was bad enough.
Did I mention the 1968 VW Microbus did not come with an air conditioner?
Maybe somebody’s did. Not my Dad’s.
We spent ten days sleeping in the back, head-to-foot, me smelling his feet and him smelling mine and, hey, I didn’t mind. I always had the ability to project, to think about what a great story this would make some day–probably got that from my Dad.
But at the end of the ten rough-and-ready days there came a matter of the plane ride home.
My work schedule dictated that I couldn’t be gone much more than ten days. I had to fly back. Anchorage to Seattle to Denver to Atlanta to Tallahassee and God forbid if I missed a link anywhere.
As we drove around Anchorage on the final day I realized I had to put my foot down.
“Dad, I’m not going to spend twenty hours in airplanes and airports when I haven’t had a shower in over a week and I’ve been sweating like a hog.”
He pursed his lips–his version of biting a bullet–and nodded his head.
We would look for a truck stop.
Problem was, we weren’t on the Al-Can highway anymore. Alaska proper is not loaded with truck stops, at least not within the limits of its major cities. If there was one to be found, nobody we asked knew about it.
Next stop…the Y.M.C.A.
In 1946, when my Dad knew everything about everywhere, that wouldn’t have been a problem.
In 1993 the Y.M.C.A. had a fee. I don’t remember how much it was, but it was something like a day long membership fee and, whatever it was, it was more than Dad was willing to pay for a shower.
We drove around, looking for a cheap motel.
They were cheap…but they weren’t cheap enough. The promise of a night in bed wasn’t going to lure my Dad any more than the promise of hot running water.
A longing look.
“Dad, I’m not gettin’ on a plane without a shower or a bath. I’ll just have to eat the price of the ticket and go back with you.”
The thought of wasted money. That was the one thing bound to make him persist.
I didn’t put my foot down very often. I was known for not putting my foot down, so when I did, he knew I meant it.
Stumped, stumped, stumped.
For a pretty good little while.
But not forever.
As we drove aimlessly on–his Scottish soul set on a price, mine set on a result–hopelessly deadlocked, until the answer at last arrived…in the form of a sign pointing to a campground.
$19.95 a night.
If we had seen it first, he would have rejected it out of hand.
Since we saw it last it was just what the doctor ordered if not an explicit Answer to Prayer.
We pulled in, we paid the fee, we parked.
And I know you forgot there was one by now but….
Therein lies the story.
I kept waiting for the catch, but none appeared.
Dad paid the fee. We parked. We hooked into whatever you hook into in those places.
There were copious signs pointing to the showers.
You couldn’t miss them.
All the hard battles had been fought. Heck, now that we were here, Dad had decided a shower might not be such a bad thing after all.
He’d take his right after I took mine.
We didn’t want to leave the vehicle unattended and sure didn’t want to have to keep track of the keys while we were both in the shower.
He knew about these places.
Keep that in mind.
We had each been given a towel and washrag. Free with the price of admission. We had been told that soap was available in the shower room.
It seemed I had everything I needed.
I headed for the shower room.
With my shoes on.
And then the adventures began.
It was mid-to-late afternoon by then, probably around 4:00. Weirdly, given that we were in the Land of the Midnight Sun, I remember the shadows being long.
Not so long I couldn’t see. The place was empty and the sunlight was shining through the high windows of the shower room at the Kamanawanalaya Campground** in Anchorage, Alaska. The interior lights were shining.
I could plainly see that most the floor was standing in about three inches of water.
I hiked back to the Micro-bus and took off my shoes and socks and pitched them into the back.
“Lotta water on the floor,” I said.
My Dad looked puzzled and then nodded. No comment.
It had been an edgy day. We weren’t on the easiest of terms.
I hiked back to the shower room, still dressed except for my shoes and socks.
When I got there it was still empty and the water was still covering most of the floor. I banished all thoughts of foot fungus, reminded myself I was the one who had pushed for this, and waded in.
There was a row of sinks to my left and toilets to my right. Above the sinks was a long shelf and mirror that ran the length.
Beyond that were a set of four shower stalls separated by single-width brick partitions painted vomit yellow, each stall covered by a curtain that fell to the height of a grown man’s knees. Call it Block A.
On the back wall, well off to my right were a matching set of four more stalls. Call it Block B.
In no stall of either Block was there anything like a step-over to block the water at the bottom from flooding out. Whatever didn’t go down the drain in the shower ended up on the floor of the main room.
Hence the flood. All the drains were inside the showers, but there was nothing to prevent most of the water from flowing out onto the main floor, where there were no drains.
Once I recognized that, I felt a bit more at ease. I was sure I knew the worst of it.
The water level seeming a bit less toward the back there, I headed for the back wall. Remember now: Block A, Left Wall; Block B, Back Wall. Got it? You’ll want to keep the geography in mind.
I had left my clothes and glasses on the shelf near Block A. When I reached Block B, I chose the third stall. I looked around for a bar of soap and there was none, so I went wandering around for a bit and found one next to the sinks. To this day I wonder if it was really anyone from the campground who left it there.
Once I had waded back to Block B, Stall 3, soap, towel and washrag now safely procured, I proceeded to place myself under the shower head and reached up and turned the nozzle.
A spray of water along the lines of what might be expected from a Force 3 Hurricane immediately shot out of the spout of Block A, Stall 1, thirty feet away, the stall closest to my casually strewn clothes, resting on the shelf above the row of sinks. The nozzle had evidently been pointed at the inner wall, because the stream of water, bounced off that wall, blew past the knee-length curtain, which flew up to head-height to let the stream pass and soak my clothes.
I got the nozzle of Block B, Stall 3 turned off as quick as a man in my now brain-dead condition could.
Then I said a few choice words. Then I just stood and stared for a while.
Then, slowly, very-y-y-y slowly, I emerged from what I would soon learn to think of as “my” stall.
I described everything above as it happened, but, believe me, it took longer than a few seconds for me to piece together exactly what had happened.
Once I did I began to wonder if the place came with instructions.
Here’s the weird thing. It did!
On the wall between Block A and Block B was a rather nondescript chart, designed as if it were meant to be ignored, like a No Swimming sign in a place that, after all, held no more than six inches of water. If one waded back to the shelf where one’s clothes–and glasses–were, and if one could find something dry to clean the water off one’s lenses, (no small task) and then waded over to the chart, one could find, and barely read, the designations for which shower nozzles went with which shower stalls.
Honestly, it seemed a relief at the time.
It took some doing, memorizing the chart sufficiently well to learn that if I went to Block A, Stall 2, and turned on the nozzle there, water would flow in Block B, Stall 3, where I was still set up and all ready to go!
Reader I went there. I went to Block A, Stall 2, and with only a moment’s hesitation, turned the nozzle. And I was rewarded…
With another Hurricane 3 blast….
From Block B, Stall 1.
After watching the water blow across the floor for a bit–who knows how long–I slowly, wearily, tuned off the nozzle in Block A, Stall 2.
So much for the Chart.
You know the rest of the story, though even I couldn’t tell you how long it took for me to conduct the trial-and-error experiments that led me, at last, to whichever Block and Stall actually turned on the nozzle in Block B, Stall 3.
Yes, I know I could have rushed over and retrieved my towel, washrag, and soap from Block B, Stall 3 and relocated, adjusted the nozzle in Block B, Stall 1, and gotten the job done in a shorter time.
But my Scottish soul had come too far and suffered too long for me to settle for that. Block B, Stall 3 it was to be, else I would bathe in the fungus-filled water collected on the shower room floor of the Kamanawanalaya Campground in Anchorage, Alaska.
Long story short, I showered, I sort of dried myself off (all the adventurous paths hurricane force water was taking in that place, you don’t really think there was a dry towel left now do you?). I dressed, all but my soaked undershorts. I left my soaked towel and washrag in the shower room.
I took another shot at drying off my glasses.
I walked, clean except for the grass clippings sticking to the damp soles of my bare feet, back to the VW Microbus, feeling like a man who had escaped Dante’s Inferno, wondering if Noah had gotten it backwards, lived through a fire and promised it would be the water next time.
I didn’t care then, and don’t care now, that the Hurricane 3 water pressure, once I finally stood under it, nearly scalded my skin, or that I point blank refused to go in to the individual stalls and at least point the nozzles, which all seemed to have been set at right angles to the floor, toward the drains that existed right beneath them and nowhere else.
Let others suffer as I had suffered.
I was in a very Old Testament mood when I reached home base and was met by my father with the words:
“Well I was about to send out a search party.”
I didn’t say a word. I couldn’t. I took the microbus keys from him, noted that he had taken off his shoes and socks and crawled into the front seat and threw my head back.
Off he strode and I was glad to see the back of him.
One word from me and we might have come to blows.
I had taken a vow of nonviolence when I was nine years old. If was going to break it, I didn’t want to break it going after my old man.
By then, the shadows had surely grown long, and not only in my mind.
And what happened after?
Suffice it to say, he was gone for a long time.
I did not consider sending a search party.
I was very interested in what his reaction would be when he returned.
And when, after a very long time, he did return, his reaction was thus.
He shook his head despairingly and said:
“John, I believe that place must have been designed by a pure genius, because no ordinary man could have done it.”
I collapsed with laughter. The anger and petulance of the long day vanished.
I laughed the way I laughed at my first Marx Brothers movie–the one my Dad told me to watch.
And I always liked that he understood why I hadn’t warned him.
To this day, I meet people who are convinced they’ve had more fun than me in this life.
All I can do is smile and think.
Because, remember, that’s just one story, and there were way more than a hundred.
Thanks Dad. Thanks for all of it. Let all the world say what they may. I know how it really was, and if God was only going to make one of you, I’ll never be more grateful for anything than that he made me your son.
(NOTE: My Dad was sucker-punched in a high school fight, knocked unconscious. Though he otherwise recovered, he lost his ear for music. The rest of his life, the only music he ever really heard was my mother’s singing voice and early New Orleans jazz. I don’t have the means of transferring the one tape I have of my mother to a computer format. Dad’s favorite musician will have to do.)
**No, Turtles’ fans, it wasn’t really called Kamanawanalya Campground. But it should have been!
People did not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenger her father’s blood but it did not seem so strange then, though I will say it did not happen every day.
(True Grit, the beginning)
With Harper Lee, one of exactly two modern American writers I wouldn’t have minded knowing. Like her, a writer who detested fame and headed for shelter.
Ports wrote five fine novels. One of them, True Grit, has a claim on being that elusive thing: The Great American Novel. Anyone who has formed their impressions from either or both of the two fine movies made from it knows less than half the story. There are things film cannot catch, though Portis was one of the few post-war writers who actually understood and exploited this.
True Grit actually is the novel the crit-illuminati always wanted Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to be, with all the latter’s acerbic wit (and then some–Mattie Ross was a good deal tougher and more articulate than Mark Twain, never mind Huck Finn), and none of its rambling, episodic plot line. It’s a masterpiece of narrative as well as tone, a combination American novelists have so often striven for and so seldom achieved. You can feel how big the country is for once, and how wild, without losing track of the characters’ inner lives, all the more impressive for being given to us entirely through dialogue and first-person narration.
Arkansas native Portis reportedly got the idea for the narrator’s voice from his time as a Fayetteville newspaperman in charge of an editorial desk that specialized in trimming stories turned in by stingers from the outlying counties. Most of the interesting ones came from sharp-minded older women who had been raised on Shakespeare, the King James Bible, and Victorian language and manners. Portis became frustrated by his boss’s insistence that he leave their most interesting stories and piquant turns of phrase on the cutting room floor. True Grit was, more than anything, his homage to them and his recognition that they were a fast-vanishing breed, without which, our big, wild country was already becoming lesser by the time he brought the novel to market in the late 60’s.
Good (and hilarious) as his other novels are, it was True Grit, and its two now near-iconic central characters, Mattie Ross and Rooster Cogburn, that vaulted him to the rank of a writer who could stand next to giants, If you want to count the Americans who have written a novel as good or better, you won’t need your second hand (and that’s even if you include not-really-Americans like Henry James and Vladimir Nabokov).
He passed from complications of Alzheimer’s and Dementia this week, at 86, after decades of turning down interviews and being tagged “recluse.”
Really, though, I suspect some piece of him left a long time ago, when he wrote the finest ending of any novel I know and unless you’ve tried your hand at serious fiction, I don’t think you can realize just how hard it is to achieve perfection…or how empty the world can become once you have.
Time just gets away from us. This ends my true account of how I avenged Frank Ross’s blood over in the Choctaw Nation when snow was on the ground.
Turns out he wasn’t quite immortal after all, except, of course on the screen. I mean, gee, what’s left now?
Out of the Past, Ace in the Hole, Paths of Glory, Lust for Life, Seven Days in May, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Spartacus, The War Wagon, Last Train From Gun Hill, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Young Man Without a Horn…and that’s just a few of the ones I’ve seen.
He was that rare leading man who was equally at ease with the hero, the villain, the sidekick or the prestige acting job, the popcorn movie or High Art. Come to think of it he might have been the only one. Much as I love his competition–Glenn Ford, Lee Marvin, Robert Mitchum, Richard Widmark–I can’t imagine any of them, or even Burt Lancaster, making a credible Vincent Van Gogh or Bix Biderbecke.
He outlived them all, too. Come to think of it, he outlived everyone except Olivia De Havilland. Proof, I guess, that dexterity and eclecticism are signs of an active mind. Not to mention a healthy soul.
Don’t worry brother. You stayed big. It was the world that got small.
Though his family moved to Detroit when he was ten and he made his mark as a unique voice in rockabilly and later country, Jack Scott (born Giovanni Scafone, Jr.) was the first true Canadian rock and roll star. He was both more rock and roll and more Canadian than Paul Anka, who was headed to Vegas wherever he was from.
And he was a great one, racking up 19 chart hits in 41 months, a feat matched in the Rock ‘n’ Roll era only by Elvis, the Beatles, Fats Domino and Connie Francis. More importantly, he was a musical and spiritual godfather for the Band (whose original leader, Ronnie Hawkins moved from Arkansas to Canada, reversing Scott’s journey), the Guess Who, Randy Bachman, Neil Young and anybody else who made rock and roll out of Canadian roots. On the American side, he was also the first serious white rocker out of the Detroit that would produce Mitch Ryder and Bob Seger among others.
He died this past December after having a heart attack on my birthday. He left here an unjustly forgotten pioneer who worked until the very end and was more deserving of a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction than any of the acts or businessmen whose inductions were announced the month after his death.
One of Rock and Roll America’s receding ironies, once well-known, these days increasingly reduced to a secret, is the multi-racial nature of its blackest music: The southern soul and funk of the 1960s. The number of white people who signify their righteousness by preferring the “real” black music of Memphis and Muscle Shoals to Detroit’s Motown is…amusing. (For the record, actual black people have always preferred Motown.)
Amusing because the key Memphis band, Booker T and the MGs was split down the middle and the key Muscle Shoals band, the Swampers, was almost entirely white.
Except on record, it hardly made for Utopia. Aretha Franklin found her sound at Muscle Shoals, but left after a few days because her then-husband was accusing every white boy in the place of chasing her (with what credibility no one ever seems to have figured out).
She brought the musicians to New York to finish her first Atlantic album anyway.
They were the sound, not the place.
Two of the most prominent Swampers, keyboardist Donnie Fritts and ace guitarist Jimmy Johnson, passed away within a few days of each other in the past two weeks. They eventually wore many hats, including writing and producing. Listing their major accomplishments would take days.
Maybe all you really need to know is that Donnie Fritts wrote this (Elvis took a shot at it in 1973 and, by consensus of those present, was too overcome with emotion to finish it):
And Jimmy Johnson, doubling with Chips Moman (who also did a few other things), played guitar on this, ensuring it would be a massive hit and the era’s most enduring shout of freedom before the singer sang a note:
Their music is the closest we ever came to finding the real American Dream…and the only way back.
A documentary filmmaker is never better than his subjects. Sometimes he’s worse. When D.A. Pennebaker had great subjects he made great films. I’m not sure about the rest. Those great subjects happened to be Bob Dylan in the mid-60’s and the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967.
To be fair, the only other film of Pennebaker’s I’ve seen is 1993’s The War Room, about Bill Clinton’s successful campaign for the presidency the year before. The skill was there, and the subject was, too. But Pennebaker missed it. He treated the campaign the way the campaign wanted to be treated and since it was obvious, even a year later, that the campaign was made up of craven phonies, beginning at the top, it’s an empty exercise. A great artist would have sensed the opportunity to expose all that, and done so at any cost.
So let’s not call D.A. Pennebaker a great artist.
But he was an enormously skilled craftsman and that skill won him the opportunity to capture two signature events in the decade that marked the American Experiments greatest opportunities for both success and failure. That the latter has swamped the former in the decades since was not the fault of Pennebaker or his subjects. To judge how fortunate we are to have had him at the helm of Don’t Look Back and Monterey Pop, you don’t need to look any further than Martin Scorcese’s The Last Waltz, where what might have been an electric event was turned sodden by Scorcese’s choice of distancing the audience from the performers.
Maybe you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. But you need somebody with a sense of the moment to capture the moment.
D.A. Pennebaker sensed the moment that mattered. After that, he was blown away by the wind.
Then again, so was Bob Dylan. What you can sense, in both Don’t Look Back and the incendiary performances etched on the national memory by the soon-dead Janis, Jimi, Keith and Otis across the long weekend at Monterey, is that no one was going to get out intact, even in the unlikely event they got out alive. You can still feel it whenever and whatever those films play.
Thank Donn Alan Pennebaker for that. Left in anyone else’s hands, a lot that we can see and feel and hear from the decade we’ll still have to understand if we’re ever going to get out of this alive ourselves, might be left to our imaginations. Which could never match this:
Pace John Keats, on earth, for at least two generations of aspiring baseball players, the final line of Jim Bouton’s classic account of a year spent trying to hang on with the hapless Seattle Pilots was all we knew and all we needed to know. The strange, unique ability of sport to bind us will never be put better than by someone with whom I could not otherwise have had less in common, including Major League ability, and nonetheless recognized as a brother:
“You see, you spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time.”
It’s appropriate that he died in the shadow of a cultural giant like Doris Day. He was always the other guy.
The other guy who always stole the show. Without cracking the smile he wore so easily when he wasn’t “on.”
He was easy to take for granted. I know, because I always did. When I was a kid, I just assumed there would always be funny people on television, that people like Tim Conway were the main reason television existed.
Then I grew up and grew old and grew to understand that everything and everyone I really liked came out of a time and place that was vanishing faster than the Old West, to be replaced by things and people–some still call it “culture,” the closest to a good belly laugh you’ll find these days–which vanished even faster.
I wonder did he notice? I wonder did he think: “Maybe I’m not good for another thousand years after all?”
Well, if he’s not–and you know how I feel about where we’re headed–it’ll be the silly future’s loss, not his.