Sunday, August 21, 2011

Wesley Willis (1963-2003)

In the late 90s all of us wannabe hipster types were crazy about a 6'5" 300 pound musician named Wesley Willis. It's hard to explain exactly what his music was like. Imagine Biz Markie as a homeless person shouting about public transit (or the "joybus", as Willis dubbed it) and you have some idea. You have to experience it for yourself, and there is plenty to experience as he released some fifty albums during his relatively short musical career. Many of his songs were inspired by popular culture, but the cultural elements were wrenched from their original contexts and recycled in incomprehensible ways. His songs usually ended with the couplet "Rock over London/Rock on, Chicago," followed by a random advertising slogan, like "Polaroid. See what develops."

Willis was the son of a Chicago street hustler. He was a paranoid schizophrenic and heard voices ever since a night in 1989 when he was robbed at gunpoint by his mother's girlfriend. With cheap keyboards, he started his musical career, which took off when Jello Biafra's label Alternative Tentacles released a couple of his albums, and toured frequently, sometimes fronting a punk band. He seemed to hit all the buttons: punk, outsider art, dadaist anti-art, ironic pop culture. However, his popularity made some think the crowds were there for the wrong reasons. Okkervil River frontman Will Sheff wrote that the "Periodic appearances for crowds of jeering white fratboys evoke an uncomfortable combination of minstrel act and traveling freak show."

In late 2002, he was diagnosed with leukemia. He died on August 21, 2003.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Robert Novak (1931-2009)

Robert Novak was a rumpled, absent-minded political reporter in the late 50s and early 60s, frequently seen forgetting to shave or tie his shoes or even sticking lit cigarettes in his pockets. He teamed up with button-downed reporter Rowland Evans to become the Laverne and Shirley of political commentators, running an inside baseball column and political report together from 1963 to Evans' death in 2001. So eagerly they printed leaks and fresh information that didn't turn out so well they were nicknamed "Evans and No Facts". Novak later became a frequent presence of dyspeptic misogyny in the early days of cable news, at one point even declaring that the sight of homeless people on television news ruined his Thanksgiving dinner. It's not for nothing that he was nicknamed "The Prince of Darkness".

Novak will likely be best remembered for revealing the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame in 2003. Members of the Bush administration leaked her identity to Novak in retaliation for her husband Joe Wilson publicly demolished the line pushed by the administration that Iraq was seeking uranium from Niger. Despite the fact that this revelation outed Plame, her CIA cover organization, the other CIA operatives working for that organization, and all of their informants, no one was charged or convicted of this crime, excepting Scooter Libby's perjury conviction. Novak doubled down and insisted he'd done nothing wrong because "left-wing critics" were meanie pants to him. One persistent critic was Jon Stewart of The Daily Show, who awarded Novak the "Congressional Medal of Douchebaggery."

In 2008, Novak hit an 86 year old pedestrian with his black Corvette convertible. Despite the fact that the poor guy (who thankfully escaped with minor injuries) bounced off Novak's windshield, Novak claimed he never saw him. After a lifetime of reckless driving, speeding citations, douchebaggery, and not giving a shit about anyone, many concluded he was lying. But a few days later, Novak was diagnosed with a brain tumor. He died a little over a year later, on August 18, 2009.

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Saturday, August 6, 2011

Warner Oland (1879-1938)

So how did a Swedish guy become the most famous Asian in the Western world?

Oland was born Johan Verner Ölund in Västerbotten County, the second most northern and second least populated county in Sweden. His family moved to the United States when he was thirteen. He took to the stage and became a Shakespearean actor and translator of Strindberg. He was vaguely Asian looking, something Oland attributed to Mongolian ancestry thanks to the invasions of Genghis Khan. In Hollywood's hands, he filled the roles of stock villain and stock ethnic character, sometimes both. In The Jazz Singer (1927) he was Cantor Rabinowitz, he was the title character, and incidentally the second most famous Asian character in the Western world, in The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu (1929), and he was a werewolf in Werewolf of London (1935). Okay, that last one doesn't count. Lest we think that this is a bizarre anachronism, think about how many ethnicities Scottish actor Sean Connery has played.

Hollywood was such in those days that aside from Anna May Wong and a few others, roles for Asians, even playing Asian characters, were few and far between. White actors playing Asians was the norm. A Swedish guy playing an Asian seems an especially egregious example, and perhaps it is, but there are plenty of strange examples of white guys who don't even vaguely look Asian playing Asian roles. Case in point: John Wayne as Warner Oland's ancestor Genghis Khan in The Conqueror (1956).

So Warner Oland slipped into the role of Chinese detective Charlie Chan with easy. Oland appeared in sixteen Charlie Chan films and the series became a worldwide success. When Oland died of pneumonia in a Stockholm hospital on August 6, 1938, the rest of his final film was reshot Ed Wood style with another actor, none other than Peter Lorre. The Charlie Chan series continued, with much less success, with another white actor, Sidney Toler.

A fascinating look at the Charlie Chan series, Hollywood yellowface, and the inspiration for Chan, real life Hawaiian detective Chang Apana, is Prof. Yunte Huang's 2010 book Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Raymond Carver (1938-1988)

And did you get what

you wanted from this life, even so?

I did.

And what did you want?

To call myself beloved, to feel myself

beloved on the earth.

Those words are inscribed on the tombstone of Raymond Carver, the starkly minimalist and massively influential author of stories about what people talk about, and what they don't talk about.

Less is more has been a credo since the turn of the 20th century but Carver went to extremes. Much of this was the influence of Esquire magazine editor Gordon Lish, who performed "surgical amputation and transplantation" on Carver's stories in what was perhaps the most important and influential author/editor relationship since Ezra Pound took a red pen to T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland. Carver eventually broke with Lish and their relationship is being critically reevaluated. In 2009, thanks to efforts by his widow, the poet Tess Gallagher, his seminal What We Talk About When We Talk About Love was republished with the original drafts of the stories, often twice as long as the versions that were published by Lish, as Beginners.

A lifelong alcoholic, Carver said of his time with John Cheever Iowa Writers' Workshop that they did no writing, little teaching, and much drinking. Thanks to Alcoholics Anonymous, he quit drinking, which he thought would kill him, at age 40. When he learned he had lung cancer ten years later, he thought of that decade as a bonus and wrote a poem about it called "Gravy", which reads in part:
No other word will do. For that's what it was.Gravy.
Gravy, these past ten years.
Alive, sober, working, loving, and
being loved by a good woman...

Carver died of lung cancer on August 2, 1988 at the age of 50.