Spike Lee couldn’t anticipate Derek Chauvin’s depravity

Life imitates art imitates life. I was thinking of that on Tuesday as the three guilty verdicts were being announced in the case of Derek Chauvin, who killed — and we can now definitively say murdered — George Floyd.

Last summer, as part of a series of discussions our church was holding on racism, we watched “Do the Right Thing,” Spike Lee’s classic 1989 movie about race, police brutality and so much more. It is a great film. We saw it when it first came out, and it was a revelation to view it again more than 30 years later, with its rich depiction of life in Bedford-Stuyvesant and the uneasy truce between the white pizza shop owner and his Black customers.

But the climactic scene — the killing of Radio Raheem at the hands of a police officer — shows that Lee’s imagination did not anticipate the depravity of Derek Chauvin. Raheem is killed in a moment of panic as chaos erupts at the pizza shop. Chauvin deliberately jammed his knee into George Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes until his victim was good and dead.

Did Chauvin mean to kill Floyd? No one can know exactly what was in his tiny heart. But I’m guessing that the answer is yes. Maybe not before. And certainly not after, if only because he had to realize he’d just gotten himself into a world of trouble. But during, as he felt the power surge through him while Floyd gasped for air and called out for his mother? Yes. He had to know what he was doing. How could he not?

If you’ve never seen “Do the Right Thing,” well, do the right thing and watch it. And think about how little has changed over the past three decades. The Floyd family received some measure of justice, but it’s difficult to imagine what the outcome would have been if not for the video shot by Darnella Frazier. Or maybe it’s not difficult to imagine.

Pulsing throughout “Do the Right Thing” is Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.” The fight isn’t over by any means.

Why you should watch Netflix’s Joan Didion documentary

Joan Didion in 2008. Photo (cc) 2013 by David Shankbone.

There is a moment in the Joan Didion documentary “The Center Will Not Hold” that says a lot about Didion, about writing and about journalism. The filmmaker, her nephew Griffin Dunne, asks her about a scene in her 1968 essay “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” (included in a collection of the same name) in which she describes a 5-year-old girl who’s tripping on LSD.

Didion thinks about it for a moment, her arms in motion from Parkinson’s disease, and then replies: “It was gold.” And so it was. Horrifying though the scene may have been, any journalist wants to be able to witness such things and tell the world about them. Didion’s account of 1967 Haight-Ashbury remains definitive, and it’s because of her eye for detail. Here’s the scene in question:

When I finally find Otto he says “I got something at m place that’ll blow your mind,” and when we get there I see a child on the living-room floor, wearing a reefer coat, reading a comic book. She keeps licking her lips in concentration and the only off thing about her is that she’s wearing white lipstick.

“Five years old,” Otto says. “On acid.”

The five-year-old’s name is Susan, and she tells me that she is in High Kindergarten. She lives with her mother and some other people, just got over the measles, wants a bicycle for Christmas, and particularly likes Coca-Cola, Marty in the Jefferson Airplane, Bob in the Grateful Dead, and the beach. She remembers going to the beach once a long time ago, and wishes she had taken a bucket. For a year now her mother has given her both acid and peyote. Susan describes it as getting stoned.

I start to ask if any of the other children in High Kindergarten get stoned, but I falter at the key words.

“She means do the other kids in your class turn on, get stoned,” says the friend of her mother’s who brought her to Otto’s.

“Only Sally and Anne,” Susan says.

“What about Lia?” her mother’s friend prompts.

“Lia,” Susan says, “is not in High Kindergarten.”

This is writing of the highest order. The documentary is on Netflix; I first watched it a couple of years ago and then again recently because I had assigned it to my opinion journalism class — along with her brilliant 1961 essay “On Self-Respect.” The documentary is flawed but riveting, mainly because Didion herself is riveting. She has been an icon for much of her career, and she still is. It is astonishing how many photos of her have been taken over the years.

In Googling around, I see that Rebecca Mead latched onto exactly the same scene when she reviewed the film for The New Yorker. How could she not? Since Mead was taking notes, here is Didion’s full quote: “Let me tell you, it was gold. You live for moments like that, if you’re doing a piece. Good or bad.”

Of course, there has been a lot more to Didion’s career than her description of Susan. She has a new collection out. She has written compellingly about the deaths of her husband and her daughter. She reported from El Salvador, which she says in the film was a terrifying experience, and on the Bush-Cheney White House. She was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama. Now 86 and frail, she is nevertheless still very much with us.

If you’re looking for something to watch on Netflix, you can do a whole lot worse than “The Center Will Not Hold.” Highly recommended.

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Revered, yet today largely unheard: The life and career of Duke Ellington

Duke Ellington performs for patients Nov. 3, 1954, at the KFG Radio Studio for Fitzsimons Army Medical Center in Aurora, Colorado. (U.S. Army photo)

Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker are often described as the three founding giants of jazz. Parker’s music comes across as modern and accessible to those of us listening today, though too modern and inaccessible when he arrived in the 1940s. Armstrong seems like an artifact from the distant past. That leaves Ellington, generally regarded as one of the great geniuses of 20th-century music but not often heard anymore unless you seek him out.

I had long wanted to know more about Ellington and his music, so I recently listened to the audio version of Terry Teachout’s 2013 biography, “Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington.” I learned a lot. But I wish, instead, that I could have listened to a series of lectures with examples from Ellington’s music. A nearly 18-hour biography of a musician with no music felt like a lost opportunity. I also would have liked a more generous telling of the Duke’s life.

One aspect that especially impressed me was that — unlike Armstrong (the subject of an earlier Teachout biography) — Ellington was largely able to elude the racist stereotypes of the day. From the earliest years of his career, Ellington was presented as an artist who came about as close to transcending race as was possible at the time. (And no, it’s still not possible today.)

Part of it was because of his manager, Irving Mills, who deserves a great deal of credit even if he and Ellington eventually had a falling-out. (Among other things, Ellington discovered Mills had lied to him about how much he’d spent on a coffin for Ellington’s mother.) Part of it was because Ellington came from a middle-class Washington family with bourgeois aspirations; Ellington was ever-conscious of acting as a Black role model. And part of it, Teachout acknowledges, is that Ellington was light-skinned.

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My problems with Teachout are three-fold. First, he dwells at excessive length on Ellington’s voracious sexual appetites. Second, he dwells at even more excessive length on Ellington’s habit of lifting what he’d heard from other musicians without giving credit. Music, and jazz in particular, is a collaborative art, and it seems to me that the point could be made without driving it home over and over. It has to be said, though, that Ellington went too far at times, so much so that he broke the heart of his closest collaborator, Billy Strayhorn.

Third, Teachout’s analysis of Ellington’s music strikes me as oftentimes pedantic and obscure. Teachout believes that Ellington’s genius was in making three-minute records, and that his longer pieces fell short because he had never studied the European classical composers to learn how it’s done. But is that really a fair criticism? Ellington was a Black composer working in an African American idiom. Maybe his longer pieces came out just the way he wanted them to.

Even so, I learned a lot. Right now I’m listening to “Never No Lament: The Blanton-Webster Band,” recorded between 1940 and ’42 and regarded as the height of Ellington’s career. And Teachout includes a lot of fascinating details, including Ellington’s receiving the Medal of Freedom from Richard Nixon at a White House reception at which Nixon sat at the piano and played “Happy Birthday” for the Duke.

In a New York Times review, James Gavin called “Duke” a “cleareyed reassessment of a man regarded in godlike terms.” Despite its flaws, I found it to be a valuable guide to a the life and work of a genius who, today, is known mainly for being well-known. It’s time to listen to Ellington anew.

The philosophical difficulties of Thomas Moore’s ‘Care of the Soul’

Thomas Moore. Photo via YouTube.

The first time I read Thomas Moore’s “Care of the Soul,” nearly 30 years ago, was because our minister was enthusiastic about it. Other than recalling that I didn’t get much out of it, I hadn’t given it much thought in the intervening years.

Then, recently, Matthew Dowd started touting “Care of the Soul” on Twitter. Dowd, a former George W. Bush strategist and Never Trump conservative, was until recently the chief political analyst on ABC News. His Twitter feed is surprisingly spiritual and inspirational.

Well, I read it again, and I’m still struggling with it. I’d call it a hard book — not because it challenges and pushes you, which would be hard in a good way, but because it’s difficult to understand and make sense of. Some of it is clear enough — the importance of ritual, of the outdoors, of living a purpose-filled life. But too often Moore, a psychotherapist and former Catholic monk, throws us into the deep end without any preparation.

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His method is to examine psychological problems such as depression and narcissism and try to help us understand what they are teaching us. These chapters are accompanied by extensive discussions of Greek and Roman mythology that are supposed to illuminate our path. But even though I moved through these sections slowly and tried to absorb what Moore was writing, I mainly came away scratching my head.

Other Moore-isms are simple enough to resonate. For instance:

Another aspect of modern life is a loss of formal religious practice in many people’s lives, which is not only a threat to spirituality as such, but also deprives the soul of valuable symbolic and reflective experience. Care of the soul might include a recovery of formal religion in a way that is both intellectually and emotionally satisfying. One obvious potential source of spiritual renewal is the religious tradition in which we were brought up.

As a skeptic who nevertheless has been attending church for most of my adult life, I found that to be a powerful affirmation. Moore also given some thought to the caricature of religion that is marked by dogmatism and the rejection of anyone who doesn’t believe the right way. He writes: “When spirituality loses contact with soul …, it can become rigid, simplistic, moralistic, and authoritarian — qualities that betray a loss of soul.”

I highlighted this as the quote that best sums up the entire book: “Wisdom is the marriage of intellect’s longing for truth and soul’s acceptance of the labyrinthine nature of the human condition.” Yet, in looking at it now, it strikes me that it’s difficult to make more than aphoristic sense out of it without truly understanding what Moore is driving at. Which brings me back to the difficulties I mentioned higher up.

What’s frustrating is that there really does seem to be deep wisdom in “Care of the Soul” that would make sense if only I could find my secret decoder ring. I’d be interested in knowing whether any of you have tried to make sense of Moore and what you took away from it.

When the Duke met Dr. King

I’m listening to the audio version of Terry Teachout’s 2013 biography of Duke Ellington, which has led me to seek out some Ellington rarities. One that I stumbled across is a 48-minute BBC documentary called “Reminiscing in Tempo,” which was first released in 1994. Apparently this is the second half. I don’t know if part one is available anywhere or not.

Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, so I was especially taken with a story about the first time Ellington met Dr. King. Apparently each was awestruck by the other. It’s a nice story. And the film is terrific, with lots of archival footage. The video is pretty rough in some parts, but the audio is fine throughout. Just close your eyes.

“Reminiscing in Tempo,” by the way, is the name of an extended piece that Ellington recorded with his orchestra in 1935. Teachout doesn’t think much of it, but Ellington considered it one of his masterpieces. Give it a listen.

I also learned from the Teachout bio about “Black and Tan Fantasy,” a 1929 fictional film starring Ellington and one of his many paramours, Fredi Washington. It’s 15 minutes long and is absolutely wild. The video and audio quality are excellent once you get past the opening credits.

Update: I left out the link to “Black and Tan Fantasy,” but it’s now fixed.

Phil Spector dies in custody

Phil Spector died Saturday in custody, right where he belonged. His last great album was George Harrison’s “All Things Must Pass,” released 50 years ago. He threw it all away.

Album #2: Bruce Springsteen, ‘Born to Run’

This was a difficult choice. Last spring, when I took the Facebook challenge, I chose Bruce Springsteen’s “The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle” (1973) as my number one.

But that was supposed to reflect music that had influenced you the most, and yes, it sure did. “The E Street Shuffle” changed the way I thought about rock and roll. It changed what I was looking for in music.

“The E Street Shuffle,” though, wasn’t Springsteen’s best album. That would be “Born to Run,” the 1975 album that landed him on the cover of Time and Newsweek, establishing him as a star who remains productive and relevant to this day. Springsteen famously got bogged down in the studio, and I remember waiting for “Born to Run” with anxious anticipation. It turned out to be a considerable departure from “E Street” — the multiracial ensemble approach had given way to the Great White Rock Star, a move I resisted at first.

But “Born to Run” includes perhaps the best song he ever wrote (“Thunder Road”), his best recording (the shimmering “Backstreets”) and his anthem (the title track). Combine it with the glorious excesses of “Jungleland” and a few lesser but still terrific songs, and it adds up to Springsteen’s masterpiece.

Springsteen once said that he wanted “Born to Run” to sound like Bob Dylan had written it, Phil Spector had produced it and Roy Orbison had sung it. Well, he came close. After “Born to Run,” he moved into more conventional hard rock.

Now, a word about Springsteen’s career. After a so-so debut album, “Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.” (1973), he tore off five consecutive albums that are as great as any achievement in popular music during the past half-century. His growth as a lyricist from album to album is astonishing.

Take, for instance, “Racing in the Street,” from 1978’s “Darkness on the Edge of Town.” It’s a fine song about coming to terms with the reality that love doesn’t conquer all. But it depends on assertion rather than storytelling. He revisits the same theme in the title track from “The River” (1980) — only this time he approaches it with more maturity, specificity and emotional investment. I’m still blown away when he sings,

Now those memories come back to haunt me
They haunt me like a curse
Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true
Or is it something worse
That sends me down to the river
Though I know the river is dry

Springsteen finishes this five-album run with “Nebraska” (1982), stark, creepy, dangerous and beautiful. He’s never quite attained those heights since then — “Born in the U.S.A.” (1984) turned him into a megastar, and megastars rarely make great music. But he’s kept at it and maintained both his integrity and his dignity. He’s still a top-notch live performer, and his last two albums (“Western Stars,” 2019, and “Letter to You,” 2020) are better than most of his post-“U.S.A.” output.

It was “Born to Run,” though, that made Springsteen who he is. “It’s a town full of losers, and I’m pulling out of here to win” remains one of the towering statements of purpose in rock and roll — even if he spent most of the rest of his career telling us that you really can’t leave it all behind.

By the way, I see this is the first time I’ve added to the list since late October. One more to go — and I’m still trying to decide between two albums.

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Album #3: Miles Davis, ‘Big Fun’

At some point toward the end of my senior year of high school, I acquired a bootleg of the Beatles’ 1965 concert at Shea Stadium. I was not happy with my purchase — it was unlistenable, with screaming fans all but drowning out the music.

Fortunately my friend Jim was a Beatles collector, and he suggested a trade. He’d give me his new copy of Miles Davis’ “Big Fun” in return for the Shea Stadium album. Figuring I had nothing to lose, I agreed. I had heard of Miles, but I didn’t know anything about him except that he played trumpet. “Big Fun,” released in 1974, proved to be life-changing.

Before I get to the music, let me try to describe how cool the packaging was. The front cover featured a nude woman in front of a horn. The inside gateway was given over to a massive photo of Miles, looking down slightly, wearing a serious expression, wraparound sunglasses, a sparkly top of some sort and a polka-dot kerchief. He was holding his trumpet, to which was attached a pickup and a cord. All of this made a huge impression on 17-year-old me.

And the music lived up to the packaging. “Big Fun,” as I now know, was a hodgepodge, pieced together from several sessions over the previous few years. But what a hodgepodge. The original album comprised four tracks, one on each side (the Spotify version features extra tracks). Two are absolutely brilliant.

“Great Expectations” is a riff on “Thus Spoke Zarathustra.” It is repetitive and trance-like, with a huge band anchored by Harvey Brooks on bass guitar and Billy Cobham on drums. There’s not a lot of improvising as Miles tries out different sonic approaches to the same theme. That segues to an entirely different passage as things slow down, Ron Carter takes over on bass (in fact, the track is a spliced-together pastiche) and Miles plays a melody that’s been altered so that it almost sounds like two trumpets, one slightly behind the other. The percussion in the background sounds like someone crying. Although the liner notes don’t say so, this is actually a different piece, Joe Zawinul’s “Orange Lady,” also recorded by Zawinul’s band Weather Report. Trust me: Miles’ version is much better, deeper and more keenly felt.

The other highlight is “Go Ahead John,” featuring guitarist John McLaughlin. In some ways this is a real period piece: Jack DeJohnette’s drums and McLaughlin’s broken-speaker solo are both processed through what you might call extreme stereo, with the audio switching back and forth between speakers. But the piece is so great that it transcends such touches. What’s more, the entire middle part consists of Miles playing a gorgeous two-track solo. This is astonishing music.

OK, I know what you’re thinking: “Big Fun” isn’t Miles’ best album — although I do think it’s better than “Bitches Brew,” his 1970 album that gave birth to the jazz-rock genre. I still love “Big Fun” and listen to it after all these years. And even though I later came to appreciate just about everything Miles ever recorded, “Big Fun” remains an underrated classic from a career that extended from the 1940s to his death in 1991.

Although it’s hard to choose, I think my other favorite Miles album is “’Round About Midnight,” released in 1957 with his classic quintet of John Coltrane on tenor sax, Red Garland on piano, Paul Chambers on bass and Philly Joe Jones on drums. Two years later a slightly different lineup of musicians would release “Kind of Blue,” still the best-selling jazz album of all time. But “Midnight” has more variety to it — and the title track, by Thelonious Monk, is simply the best version of that song ever recorded.

I had the privilege of seeing Miles twice — at Paul’s Mall in 1974 with the aforementioned Jim (we got to shake his hand!) and then at Kix Disco with my wife, the first show of a 1983 comeback tour. Miles didn’t play much at Paul’s Mall, even leaving the stage when he wasn’t soloing. But he was Mr. Entertainment at Kix.

He was a great artist, one of the towering geniuses of 20th-century music. You can listen to Miles endlessly and never get to the bottom, always surprised and delighted by new discoveries. Lately I’ve found myself thinking there’s a decent chance that the trumpet solo on “It Never Entered My Mind” is actually the voice of God. I’ll let you know if I find out.

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Album #4: The Rolling Stones, ‘Exile on Main St.’

If this isn’t the greatest rock-and-roll album ever recorded, it’s pretty damn close. Disdained at the time of its 1972 release, “Exile on Main St.” today is regarded as the Rolling Stones’ best work — a chaotic double-record set comprising a few classic songs and a jumble of bits and pieces. There’s a lot of filler on “Exile” — but it’s great filler.

Now for a controversial assertion: “Exile” is not only the Stones’ best album, but it’s so much better than anything else they’ve done that you’re left gaping in wonder. I’ve said that about two other albums on the list — Derek and the Dominos’ (i.e., Eric Clapton’s) “Layla” (No. 6) and Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks” (No. 12). But I think most people would agree with me in those cases. Making that same argument about any album by the Rolling Stones, though, flies in the face of classics like “Beggars Banquet” (1968), “Let It Bleed” (1969) and “Sticky Fingers” (1971) — not to mention the live “Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out!” (1970), my second-favorite Stones album, largely on the strength of Keith Richards’ amped-up guitar.

Well, I’ll stick with it. Mick Jagger has a reputation for being a control freak, and the other albums, for all their raw power, are just a little too perfect. “Exile,” largely recorded while the band members were literally tax exiles holed up in France, is right on the verge of veering out of control, more Keith than Mick. Not to glorify drug use, but Richards had a raging heroin habit at the time, and that led to some weird lineups, such as guitarist Mick Taylor playing bass on “Tumbling Dice” instead of Bill Wyman.

Let me linger on “Tumbling Dice” for a moment, because I think it’s the Stones’ single greatest song — which is saying a lot. It opens with a classic Richards riff and features a gospel choir, supposedly inspired by Jagger’s attending the concert at which Aretha Franklin performed the songs that became her album “Amazing Grace” (No. 22). There are little touches that kill me every time I hear them. Charlie Watts marking time during the outro, only to come crashing back in. Keith’s now-you-hear-him-now-you-don’t harmonies. Mick’s wail seguing perfectly into a slide guitar. Something magical and desperate was captured that night. I’ve only seen the Stones once, but I’ve listened to “Tumbling Dice” on several live albums, and it’s flat and uninspiring by comparison. That’s really saying something for a band whose songs usually sound better live than in the studio.

Beyond that, it’s hard to pick favorites. “Rocks Off” for the great line “The sunshine bores the daylights out of me.” “Happy,” maybe Keith’s best vocal performance. “Hip Shake,” “Casino Boogie,” “Torn & Frayed,” “Turd on the Run,” “Ventilator Blues,” “Just Want to See His Face” — what we used to call deep album cuts, with a ragged, not-quite-finished quality. “Black Angel,” “Loving Cup,” “Let It Loose” and “All Down the Line” are all melodic and beautiful while still rocking hard.

The Stones recorded some fine albums after “Exile,” most notably “Black and Blue” (1976) and “Some Girls” (1978). And they’ve remained an excellent live band, not to mention a vibrant cultural force well into their 70s. From “Satisfaction” to their COVID song, “Living in a Ghost Town,” they have been a welcome presence in our lives for more than 50 years.

On “Exile,” though, they achieved something higher: transcendence.

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Album #5: McCoy Tyner, ‘Enlightenment’

I knew right away what I wanted to play Sunday morning as I thought about the life and death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. McCoy Tyner’s “Enlightenment” is one of three spiritually intense albums on this list, and it’s the one that speaks most directly to me. Recorded live at the Montreaux Jazz Festival in Switzerland in 1973, it consists of four great musicians addressing the Almighty in as direct a way as you are likely to hear in this plane of existence.

Tyner, who died earlier this year, was one of the leading pianists of the 20th century. He was, among other things, a key player in John Coltrane’s classic quartet — the one that recorded “A Love Supreme” in 1964. I imagine Tyner saw “Enlightenment” as his own answer to “A Love Supreme” — and, truth be told, he doesn’t quite manage to equal Trane’s towering accomplishment. Who has? But I’m going with Tyner because I was introduced to “Enlightenment” when I was a teenager, and thus it resonates with me in a way that goes beyond “A Love Supreme.”

How to describe “Enlightenment”? It’s impossible, really. The bare-bones rundown is that the album comprises the three-part “Enlightenment Suite” plus three additional tracks — “Presence,” “Nebula” and “Walk Spirit, Talk Spirit.” Tyner is all intensity and dense chords. The other musicians, saxophonist Azar Lawrence, bassist Joony Booth and drummer Alphonse Mouzon, are collaborators rather than accompanists — full participants in a common purpose.

Booth’s solo between “Nebula” and “Walk Spirit, Talk Spirit” is astonishing. At the beginning, he sounds like he’s groping for something that’s eluding him. But then he finds it, and what he plays is the closest to singing that you’ll ever hear on an upright bass. Much of the concert is available on YouTube; here are parts one and two. They are well worth watching to get an idea of the level of concentration and sheer physical effort that the band brought to bear.

(By the way, the other spiritually focused albums on the list are Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks,” No. 12, and Aretha Franklin’s “Amazing Grace,” No. 22.)

I had the good fortune of seeing Tyner perform twice in the 1970s, at Paul’s Mall and the Paradise. He was a great soul whom we’ll all miss, but he left a legacy that will endure. I know that Justice Ginsburg’s tastes tended toward opera. But I’m sure she would recognize the brilliance and the connection to the infinite that Tyner, Lawrence, Booth and Mouzon made in Switzerland one day 47 years ago.

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