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.
Yeah, this song is pretty reviled. Billy Joel tries to summarize four decades of history in roughly four minutes. As an accurate portrayal of the complexities and contradictions of the second half of the twentieth century, it fails miserably. (The 1970s especially get the short shrift, summarized with “Watergate, Punk Rock.” Yeah, that’s it.) As a catchy trip down memory lane for Baby Boomers, it does okay. I’ve always kind of liked it. Some of Joel’s choices of historical events are interesting; they reveal much more about what events and people mattered to him than anything else. (I’m a little curious about why the “Starkweather homicide” stuck out to him.)
The video is notable for a weirdly cast Marlee Matlin as the teenage daughter and some cool period sets and decorations. And while the history isn’t perfect, he at least gets the timeline correct.
Why am I bringing up history? Because today was my first day volunteering at the Historical Society of Long Beach. It was fun. I learned a little about their cataloguing system and got to chat with some visitors. (It was a nice, if unseasonably warm, day and I know people were out enjoying the weather.) I spent the afternoon surrounded by some of Long Beach’s lovely architectural history in the form of a number of houses designed by Miner Smith. Hurry down there if you want to see that exhibit, because it’s coming down after next Friday.
“I’ll Be Home for Christmas” is one of those Christmas standards that I don’t think everyone thinks about too much anymore. To most of us, it’s just a sweet, kind of sad song about longing for home during the holidays. And it is. But let’s put it in context.
Released in 1943, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” is written from the point of view of a soldier serving in WWII. (If you don’t already know about that subject, then maybe you should start taking some History classes. Quickly.) The war was raging, and so many men (and women) were very far from everyone and everything they loved. The ache in this song is so palpable that I can’t listen to it without crying, and it hits home for me even harder now that Daddy’s gone.
This is, of course, Bing Crosby’s song, and I thought it was best to use his version for the post. It was the original, after all. But I am personally partial to Leon Redbone’s version, so here’s the link in case you want to hear it, too. It’s not really that different, but the sadness is softened a bit. Have some Kleenex handy either way.
Ready for a little history lesson? No? Too bad.
In 1969, just a few weeks before we landed on the moon, the Cuyahoga river in Ohio caught fire. This was not, apparently, the first time the Cuyahoga caught fire. There was a much more damaging fire in 1952, and fires on this particular body of water date back as far as the 1600s (thanks Wikipedia). It sounds like a contradiction in terms, the ultimate oxymoron, burning water. To be fair, it wasn’t exactly the water that caught fire. It was all the pollution in the water. Everybody knew it was disgustingly polluted, but little had been done to change it. This was the Rust Belt, the industrial heart of America at the height of its economic and manufacturing powers. People calling for clean up and regulation were considered a bunch of looney hippies at this point.
Then Time magazine reported on the Cuyahoga river fire in 1969, and brought this environmental atrocity to national attention. And that attention led to, among other things, the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. There was a movement to clean up the river, to clean up all rivers and lakes and oceans. While I am proud that this movement continues today, it makes me a little sad that it does still continue. Don’t you think by now we could have figured out how to keep this disgusting crap out of our water? Not as long as corporations are considered people, I suppose.
Randy Newman wrote a tragically lovely song about the incident, which appeared on his 1972 masterpiece Sail Away and was later used as the opening theme to Major League, a very funny movie about the Cleveland Indians. There really isn’t much to say about it, since it speaks for itself very nicely. Newman is one of the finest, funniest, most acerbic and articulate songwriters there is. Long may his creative fires burn.
Be kind to the water out there, boys and girls. Be kind to all the animals and plants. Do as little harm as you possibly can. And someday, maybe, songs like this will be nothing but amusing historical artifacts.