Thursday, November 29, 2012

Around the World with Bob Marley

The past two days I had the pleasure of watching Marley, a 2 ½ hour documentary about Bob Marley. I was familiar with his music and influence, and his lamentable death at the age of 36 from melanoma. But I didn’t know the total history and this documentary covers everything so well and so thoroughly that I will listen to Marley’s music and look for his worldwide influence afresh now.

Marley brims with concert and interview footage of the man, interviews with his children, wives/lovers and band members, and even Jamaican political leader Edward Seaga. This article is an exhaustive look at the movie’s content. What did I learn? Well, everything:
  • His father, Norval Sinclair Marley, was white and born in Jamaica in 1885. Norval’s mother, Ellen Broomfield, was Syrian Jewish. Norval served in World War I and was not a factor in Marley’s life, although the Marley’s family businesses appear in a key scene in the documentary.
  • Marley lived in Wilmington, Delaware, where his mother had immigrated, and he worked on a Chrysler assembly line.
  • Marley’s shows primarily attracted white audiences in the U.S. One music promoter wanted him to be the opening act for the Commodores as the only way to draw a crowd.
  • Marley was an intense performer and never phoned in a gig, based on the footage. He was always on, always giving it his all.
  • Despite an estate valued at $30 million, Marley refused to write a will, owing to his Rastafarian beliefs. The movie lightly touches, in a humorous way, on Marley's lack of estate planning. In reality, families members have been waging bitter court fights over trademarks and business rights for the past 30 years, a tragic aftermath that would make a fascinating documentary on its own, the temporal flip side of love and peace.
Marley came close to being assassinated in 1976 during political turmoil in Jamaica. He was scheduled to play at the Smile Jamaica concert, and, despite some wounds, he did indeed play. The film captures all the electricity and emotion of the concert. I was particularly struck by Marley bringing on stage the two main political rivals in the country, Michael Manley and Edward Seaga, and he embraced both of them in a plea for unity and reconciliation. The moment showed Marley as a man who truly put his philosophy ahead of politics.

The scene made me think – could there be a U.S. performer or personality with the vision, message and respect who could make that kind of gesture? Who could bring political rivals together for a heart-felt moment? Bruce Springsteen comes to mind as a possibility. Oprah Winfrey? Both seem too politically obvious and not likely to embrace somebody they see as afflicted with GOP cooties. After much thinking, the one performer I can see uniting different schools of thought would be the Man in Black, Johnny Cash. His was a hard-bitten, compassionate message from a man who had seen the dark sides of life. He could appeal to anybody. But, unfortunately, he’s dead. Merle Haggard's got the world view and he's still alive, but I can't see him with national appeal. B.B. King? An icon of the blues, world respected, but not exactly a philosopher king.

The film included a striking bonus feature about the impact of Marley’s music worldwide. It’s one thing to say the music still lives, but it’s quite another to concretely show people using the music as the basis of social and political action. That’s what Marley does, brilliantly. Segments from Jamaica, Brazil, Japan, Tibet, India, Kenya and, most tellingly, Tunisia at the start of the Arab Spring, show the power of Marley to get people moving. The range of social situations is amazing, from the violence and poverty of Brazil to the sterile, uneasy prosperity of Japan. In the Tunisia segment, protesters daub song titles on walls and demand their civil rights and free speech with the colors of Jamaica prominent in demonstrations.

What prophet could ask for more?

Friday, November 09, 2012

Giants in Their Days, and Ours

A few weeks ago, I learned of the passing of James Miller of Mission, Texas, the father of my best friend growing up and an anchor of Mission’s civic life since the early 1950s. He was 93 years old.

This news came the day after I finished reading the book Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand, about the extraordinary life of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic runner who survived a Pacific Ocean plane crash and horrific treatment by the Japanese as a prisoner of war, and then a post-war descent into alcoholism. He not only survived but underwent a moral regeneration and continues to enjoy life daily – to keep up with him, just visit his website.

The book and the passing will forever link James Miller and Louis Zamperini in my mind. They grew up in the 1920s and 30s, served their nation ably, took what life dished out and bounced back up. I know other men like them, in their late 80s and early 90s now, who returned from the Pacific and Europe to build families and businesses, contribute to their communities, enjoy their grandchildren and appreciate every day of life.

They’re modest about what they do. One man I know, Eric Leiseroff, had the last bar mitzvah in Dresden, Germany in 1938, just before Kristalnacht. He and his mother left Germany on what might have been the last train out to Portugal in mid-June 1941, arriving in New York after the Germans invaded the USSR. Three years later, Leiseroff returned to Germany in the US Army, where his native German speaking skills made him a valuable intelligence GI. After V-E Day, he joined a team hunting down and interrogating members of the SS. After declining an offer to remain in Germany under cover as a spy, he returned to the US, found a job as a paper salesman that he held for 57 years and married. He and his wife just celebrated their 62nd anniversary.

“I had a boring life,” he says. And yet for members of my generation, an incredible one.

I last saw Mr. Miller and his wife Mrs. Miller (Esther by first name, but they were ALWAYS Mr. and Mrs. Miller to me) when I returned to Mission for my 35th high school reunion on June 2011. A trip to the Millers’ home always highlighted my journey to the past. I usually took a spin through Mr. Miller’s office, where pride of place went to a portrait of him as a Coast Guard officer in World War II. We’d drink tea, nibble on cookies, catch up on the news of the sprawling Miller family, of five children and enough grandchildren and great-grandchildren to populate a small village. My adventures in the Northeast always interested and amused the Millers. During one visit, I said, “I hope you don’t mind that I put a ‘Hillary for President 2008’ bumper sticker on your car,” I joked, and they responded with mock indignation. We’d take photos, say good-bye and I’d leave, always admiring the Texas sunlight filtering through the sturdy mesquite trees in the front yard.

For all their modesty, these are tough old guys, survivors of times and challenges I can barely imagine. No human should endure what Louis Zamperini did, years of abuse followed by years of self-destruction with liquor. How he survived and how he ultimately—and abruptly—conquered his demons was so mesmerizing that Unbroken renewed my often-flagging faith in the power of reading books. The older I get, the more I skate through books, struggling to emotionally connect with either novels or non-fiction. Especially in novels, I often can barely care about the characters. The characters don’t matter, the books’ style and trendiness count for more than coherence or basic readability (perhaps I should take more care in my reading selections). But Hillenbrand writes with total clarity. Every sentence makes sense; every sentence relentlessly propels the story ahead with Dickensian cliffhangers that dared me to not immediately read the next chapter.

Now I’ll try to put the reading lessons to work on a real writing project. I’m signed up November’s National Novel Writing Month event. I’m already way behind – easy rationalizations include weather, no power, other work commitments, need some more excuses? – but I’ve got ideas in my head and I just need to push them through my fingers. If Laura Hillenbrand, who suffers from a severe case of chronic fatigue syndrome, can writer an incredible book about Louis Zamperini, who beat everything that King Neptune and the Japanese Empire could throw at him and keeps chugging along in his mid-90s, then I can surely rouse myself to pound out some pages. These old guys knew how to keep going, maybe I can draw some inspiration from their examples.

Car Stories

[For an open-mic performance of this essay, follow this link .] My name is Van. I’m named after a car, the 1950s British racecar called ...