Tag Archives: eulogies

James Brown

I cannot say I learned to dance,
although at times I was inspired;
and with each wrong note, took a chance
that in his band, I might get fired.

Precision: like a jeweler’s saw
he cut through space and time
with life in rhythm, bold and raw.
In one small couplet’s rhyme

he could encapsulate a mood,
a generation’s groove;
and for the soul, he gave us food,
and brand new attitude.

An icon, teacher, yet a man
whose troubles, too, were large;
Yet It seemed, standing at the mic,
he was alone in charge.

An acrobat, a poet, too,
a dynamo of sound,
who could with one hand get us up,
and help us to get down.

One of the first ones with the dream,
a mighty architect;
whose building not just brought us hope,
but helped us stand erect.

So many rise and fall today
in shadows that he cast:
The cape now hanging in the wings
has left the stage, at last.

25 DEC 2006

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Eulogy on a Blank Canvas

I was born; that’s not quite news,
nor is the sequence of events
that followed closely there behind
of much import, or consequence:

like Isaac, most of my short life
falls into sets of seven years,
some uphill climbs, some downhill coasts,
some trouble shifting between gears.

The details need not be disclosed;
suffice to say, I learned
the difference between being hot
enough to cook, melt, fry or burn.

What grave errors in judgment!
What missteps, what great falls!
What joy in fleeting, desperate moments!
Well, to sum it all:

I’ve done what I’ve done, good or bad,
and often wasted time;
I’ve squandered talents given me
and stumbled, laughed and whined.

They say that it’s the squeaky gear
who gets the lion’s share of grease;
I’ve been both rusty and well-oiled,
and found in neither full release.

Accomplishments? Not much of note.
It seems like a great nothing
that seemed important at the time,
or might amount to something.

I write, and sing, and listen to
the universe as best I can;
where books and music lead me
often I don’t understand

but those who love me see the nothing
that I’ve been and done
as important; worth recalling
when my race is run.

11 May 2005

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Goodnight for Gonzo

for Hunter S. Thompson

A life in isolation breeds its own brand of malaise,
that the respected classes just ignore
and seek instead on worthless causes to heap shame or praise,
with their good sense, naming such moods a bore.

The paranoia of the underdog they call a sham,
not worthy of their time, a waste of ink;
the causes that disturb the peace are just not worth a damn,
or dangerous, if they make people think.

And who would dare innoculate the tough, unfeeling side
of such a beast, except a man possessed
with his own brand of madness and a sense of civic pride,
when noticing the emperor’s undress?

Beyond the limits of good sense, and often at great risk
(where reputations are built on mere whim)
who is to say where genius crosses into wild hubris?
The line between the two is faint, and slim.

But madmen are the world’s redemption; there amidst the cracks
in grand facades, under its public face,
they toil to bring to our ennui the honesty it lacks,
and see beyond our masks, to our disgrace.

When leaders bend reality to disguise or deceive,
cloak their ill intentions with a winning smile,
despite volumes of evidence they cannot be believed,
are any sane who hold back on their bile?

Too many sane, respected souls stand silent and do naught,
while freedom, trust and liberty are sold.
It is the madmen, in these times, whose minds cannot be bought,
that shock us into breaking from the fold.

They ask why should such things take place, in language coarse and rough,
and whisper their dissension in our ear.
What’s more, they make us wonder if we’re paranoid enough,
or numbed by false pretense and hollow fear.

Truth lies somewhere past the lines that we’ve been taught to see,
those boundaries of someone else’s dreams.
Too often, we accept as gospel such insanity
that even madness is not what it seems.

21 FEB 2005

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Artie Shaw

By the time I got to it,
the clarinet was odd;
a quaint small instrument for guys
who never got the girls
(even the ones who played
and sat in the same orchestra rows
day and day, year after year),
who shuffled in the back
behind the trumpets
and saxophones.

It wasn’t really a manly thing
at nine or ten years old
to play.
But that was after Artie
set it down, and Benny
stopped “Flying Home”.

Used to be the clarinet was king —
and guys who played it
led the bands that fellas killed
to get into. Not the “sweet” bands
(although even Miller’s band cashed in
on clarinet by chance, with
Moonlight Serenade, and Welk’s band
was the only place you’d see a closeup
on those nickel keys)
or the “money” bands, per se,
but the bands where you had to be
great to even get a note in.

To me, that was the reason why
I played that black and silver stick:
because of Artie Shaw
who even out swung Gene Krupa.

30 DEC 2004

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Too much of what the world has been,
and is, and still might be,
has as its limits what we call

We reign imagination in
and relegate its course
to doomsday visions, worst-case scenes,
and dissipate its force.

But the first step in making change
is picturing it grow;
if we cannot imagine it,
we cannot make it so.

When Lennon said, “Imagine”,
it was not just empty talk,
but an instruction to our souls to crawl,
then try to walk.

Imagine that your point of view
is not all that there is
(to living, love or existence)
and you will learn just this:

That brotherhood and peace and love
were with you all along;
and required only listening
to one another’s song.

28 DEC 2004

for John Lennon

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The last of the icons remaining to us
whose methods have become the norm,
whose portrait of rebellion created the fuss
that pushed us from the eye to the storm

and in just a few lines, or gestures, inspired
a lost generation to gather, and name
its enemies. He watched, and grew tired
of pale imitations, but never blamed

the audience, who were not born to follow,
but rather the great machine churning out trash;
recognized his own failing, too — that hollow
morality that could not refuse the cash.

The greatness of men is found in their flaws;
there is no perfection that can so inspire,
if only because how we deal with the raw
and festering wounds in our lives, and aim higher

than mere entertainment, or paychecks, or fame
and are willing to risk all of that, for some cause
(which although perhaps shallow or just some wild game,
is the crucible in which our apathetic ice thaws).

So ramble on, mumble on, show warts and all;
The goal is not merely to light up the screen,
but more than that, to illustrate that a fall
is a clear testament of an effort, unseen

to claim an authentic soul, one not for sale
at any price, and through the feral and wild lands
of our dreams, to be willing although sometimes frail
to grasp at a greatness with your own hands.

02 JUL 2004

One of the ways you could describe James Dean is as a figure standing with both arms outstretched, one side Marlon Brando saying, “Up yours,” and the other side, Montgomery Clift saying, “Help me.” — paraphrased from The Mutant King: A Biography of James Dean, by David Dalton

Kowalski was always right, and never afraid. He never wondered, he never doubted. His ego was very secure. And he had the kind of brutal aggressiveness that I hate. I’m afraid of it. I detest the character. — Marlon Brando on Stanley Kowalski

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Ray Charles: Eyesight From the Blind

In one of his early 70s comedy routines, Flip Wilson imagined a conversation between Christopher Columbus and Queen Isabella of Spain (and I paraphrase, as the album Cowboys and Colored People is long out of print and my vinyl is lost to the ravages of time):

Queen: Well, what’s in America, Chris? What are you going to find there?
Columbus: Ray Charles.
Queen: Ray Charles is in America?
Columbus: Damn right, woman. Where do you think all those records come from?
Queen (excited): Chris gonna find Ray Charles, Chris gonna find Ray Charles!

At this point, Queen Isabella promptly handed Chris a check, which he took down to the local Army-Navy store, obtained three used ships, four cases of rum and a couple of rashers of beef jerky. The rest, as they say, is history.

Humorous as this interpretation may be, it highlights a very important point: Ray Charles was America. And a lot more, as well. Never mind the fact that without Ray Charles, it’s probable that Van Morrison would still be an unknown skiffle player; or that Joe Cocker might never have been inspired to damage himself in service to a song. Never mind that legions of artists, stretching back in time from Elvis and Aretha (herself touted as the female Ray Charles early in her career) to Stevie Wonder, would not have had a figurative leg to stand on without him.

The fact is that Ray Charles represents the ideal of America, as expressed in Music. That ideal is that what makes us different, what gives us strength of character, is how we are able to use what is formative in our lives to create a personal interpretation of our reality that illustrates not so much who we are, but what we are capable of.

Ray Charles, although blind, saw something more clearly than others who retained the ability to “see”. It is apparent to me in the large body of work he did as a solo artist, but comes absolutely into focus when you examine the duets he performed with other people: Joe Cocker, George Jones, Willie Nelson and so many others were touched by the “Genius” of Ray Charles, and learned, I think, one important lesson: that Music really is the universal language, and it doesn’t matter what anyone says about which genre you should limit yourself to or what type of Music is “appropriate” for you to perform. What is essential to living life to its fullest, to experiencing, not only the depths of sadness, but the elevated heights of joy, is not so much picking the song. The song itself is secondary in this process (although the song, to be truly universal, has to have certain basic qualities).

What is essential, sang Ray Charles in a lesson to us all, is to sing with your whole being, to find yourself by embracing not the preconceived notions of what a song has been, but what it could be. Where it could go; and by extension, where we as human beings can go if we dare to venture outside the safe, accepted boxes in which society so desires to put each of us.

Ray Charles singing “America the Beautiful” is a revelation about America. Because it poignantly illustrates not only the absolute love of what America is supposed to stand for, but the heart-wrenching sadness of how far from that goal we are at present. Ray Charles knew that America was not, in practice, about brotherhood. But it SHOULD be. It COULD be.

Ray Charles almost single handedly changed American Music, taking from its isolationist parts and creating a homogenous, harmonious and soulful whole. He created “American” Music from southern gospel, northern Appalachian, western swing, eastern cool and midwest and Delta blues.

American Music. The Music of not white, black, rich, poor, ignorant, educated, simple, or complicated.

The tragedy is that with his loss, we may forget how to sing it.

Ray never ratted out a friend
because they leaned far left;
the communists had great songs too:
from all, Ray learned, and wept.

Instead of Johnny One-Noting
like some are wont to do,
Ray reached inside, and realized
that all is part of you

America, Ray never saw
but took its dreams on faith:
that each could find their own ideal
despite their flaws, or race

Ray Charles sang of America,
its separate, equal parts,
and wove them in a tapestry
of soul, belief and heart

From east and west and north and south
the pieces he combined
Constructing Musically the nation
that he hoped to find

A silent moment, now, we share
now that his voice is stilled;
and promise, though some would forget
that song, we never will.

11 JUN 2004

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