Muhammad Ali

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I’ve been thinking about Muhammad Ali all weekend.  His death, while not entirely surprising, was still pretty stunning.  The man was a cultural icon, and for people who were kids in the 70s, he was something of a superhero.  He was quite literally everywhere.  He was more animated than most of the cartoons we watched.  He was charming and charismatic and he never, ever talked down to children.  Of course we loved him.

But we didn’t know that much about him.  Unless we had older relatives who liked boxing, we didn’t know much about the Rumble in the Jungle or the Thrilla in Manilla beyond the catchy names.  We didn’t fully understand that he beat other men up for a living (more on my feelings about boxing in a moment).  We didn’t know about his name change or conversion to Islam, and we certainly didn’t know about his association with the Nation of Islam or his defiance against the draft (unless we had older relatives who were passionately on one side or the other of that debate).  We just knew he was cool and funny.

Ali was cool, but he was also revolutionary.  He dared to fight being drafted into Vietnam by declaring himself a conscientious objector; his Islam was a religion of peace, and as a Muslim he would not kill people who had done nothing to him.  (I’ve got to note here that my admiration of Ali’s resistance has no bearing on my respect for the young men and women who did go to Vietnam.  They did what they believed was the right thing to do, just as Ali did, and they sacrificed so much in their battles over there.  The blame for Vietnam will always belong to the politicians and military brass that dragged us into an unwinnable mire.)  Ali’s beliefs and actions were unheard of at the time.  He didn’t lie or run away.  He stood up and said “No.”  For a black man in the 1960s, that took undeniable strength and courage.

Muhammad Ali mattered less for what he did for a living than for what he did as a man.  His resistance of the draft caused him to be stripped of his title and more than three years in the prime of his athletic life.  He made that sacrifice willingly, knowing he might never go back to the ring, because he believed he was right.  Some might call that egotistical, even hubris.  I call it being a righteous human being.

I think boxing is barbaric.  Not the part about two guys beating the hell out of each other; I can almost understand that.  The barbarism comes in with the crowd cheering it on.  (There is a lot to be said about the racial and class aspects of boxing, of how most fighters are lower class and people of color and how most of the promoters and audiences are higher class whites, but that would take a whole book to unravel adequately.)  But Muhammad Ali brought an artistry to fighting that no one else has been able to replicate.  He brought a showmanship and personality to a sport that was frankly pretty bereft of both.  He won Olympic gold and the championship title three times.  It wasn’t always pretty, and the beatings Ali took in the ring led to the Parkinson’s that ultimately took his life.  No, I don’t like boxing at all.  But I think Ali was a pretty damn good fighter.  In all ways.

“Le Freak” Friday!

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I’m not doing regular Freaky Friday posts anymore*, but I felt the need for a little freak out anyway.  What better to do that with than Chic’s great Disco classic “Le Freak.”

Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards famously wrote “Le Freak” after being denied entrance to New York’s famed disco Studio 54, even though they’d been invited by the famous Grace Jones (who neglected to add them to the guest list).  The song’s famous chorus of “Freak out!” was infamously originally supposed to be two other words beginning with F and O.

Am I throwing a little too much fame around this fire?  Well, “Le Freak” is in a sense about fame.  Notice that even though the title is supposed to be a dance, no one ever does any specific moves in the video, and nothing in the lyrics describes how to do this nominal dance.  Rule number one of writing a song about a dance craze you want to invent is that you need to tell/show people how to do the dance.  There is no dance called “Le Freak,” at least not that I know of.  This is about the freak show of fame that was Studio 54 in the seventies.

And it was a freak show.  Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager made sure the cream of the celebrity crop was there, and filled in the rest of the space with only the best looking and most depraved unknown sycophants they could find.  If you weren’t on the list and you weren’t gorgeous, scantily clad, or somebody’s dealer, you didn’t get in.  The stories about what went on in Studio 54 are legendary (google it and see what you find, aside from a not-so-great movie in the 90s).  I suspect that the immorality and amorality of the disco are somewhat overstated, but probably not by that much.  There was a lot of money and drugs in that place, and the management went to great pains to make sure their guests had as much privacy as they needed to do whatever they wanted.

Mostly what people wanted was to be seen at Studio 54.  It was the hottest disco on the scene, so everyone who was anyone had to be witnessed going in, coming out, or enjoying themselves in (obviously) staged pictures inside.  It wasn’t about dancing or music, like many other discos; it was about being famous.  And like all fads, it was doomed to die an ignominious death.

After the club was raided by the Feds, and Rubell and Schrager did time for tax evasion, Studio 54 was essentially dead.  It closed briefly in 1980 and reopened in 1981, but it was never the same.  The shine had worn off.  Even though it served as a launching pad for many successful 80s music stars, no one really cared about what was going on at 54 anymore.  Freak out, indeed.

*Beware, though!  Freaky Friday could return at any moment, just when you least expect it.

“Beautiful Dreamer”

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I got to this song because I was thinking about posting some of the music from the Warner Brothers Looney Tunes cartoons.  The connection is that the first time I ever heard “Beautiful Dreamer” was in a Bugs Bunny cartoon.  As a result, it’s forever linked in my mind with childhood and happiness.

It’s not really a very happy song, though.  It was published after Stephen Foster’s death, but it was probably written a couple of years before the composer died.  The beautiful dreamer the song is addressed to may in fact be dead; it wasn’t unusual for Foster to write about young women who were no longer among the living.  It also wasn’t unusual for his songs to show up in Warner Brothers cartoons.  Foster’s music is among the most popular American music ever written.

But I wonder how many young people still know it.  Pete Seeger sang many folk standards, and made it a point to have his audiences sing along.  There was a time when most people knew the same songs.  Now I can understand that many of these songs have fallen out of fashion, and that’s fine.  Styles and tastes change.  But there is no longer a common musical language.  In fact, there really isn’t a common cultural language anymore. My generation might have been the last to have a single defining cultural moment, with the release of Star Wars in May 1977.  Today, there is more choice and diversity–which is good.  But it means that people have fewer touchstones in common.  The old songs don’t get passed on the way they used to.  There’s a new blockbuster movie breaking records every summer.  Television has so many channels and viewing modes, that the idea of discussing “Who shot J.R?” while waiting for the new season is completely alien to today’s audiences (FYI: it was Kristen).  Come to think of it, the Fall television season is also nothing more than a quaint notion these days; no one gets summer reruns anymore, which would mean shows like All in the FamilyM*A*S*H, and Hill Street Blues never would’ve found audiences.  With everyone expecting immediate gratification/results these days, those shows would’ve been cancelled after a couple of episodes.  Everything is about niches these days, which has its advantages.  But we lose something wonderful in the process.

I’m the first one to admit that I buck pretty much every trend there is.  But just knowing about the same music and movies and television creates a commonality and community with the rest of the world that I think is pretty valuable.  We don’t have that anymore.  And while it’s fun to have little cultural references that only members of the clique will understand, it’s amazing to have something in common with just about everybody else.  It brings people together, and that’s something we could use a little more of these days.