Monday, August 11, 2008

A Tough Weekend...

“He Wasn't Scared A' You!”

Bernard “Bernie Mac” McCullough—1957-2008

“Soul Man...Personified”

Isaac Hayes—1942-2008

I awoke Saturday morning to the news of the untimely death of comedian Bernie Mac, and to be frank, it hit me a lot harder than you might think.

I didn't know Bernie personally, but I came of age in the entertainment industry working alongside him during the “Black Comedy Boom” of the early nineties. I was working heavily in television at the time and had as peers people who would eventually write for his later television series and work as producers for it. I saw many of Bernie's Black comic contemporaries work the biggest stages—hundreds of them actually, and worked directly with many of the folks who opened for and toured with him on the eastern seaboard circuit back then. It was a wild time. I saw SNL's and “30 Rock's” Tracy Morgan make his first TV appearances, as well as Steve Harvey, and J. Anthony Brown while Bernie himself would break through downtown on the “cousin” TV project “Def Comedy Jam”.

Bernie was the natural heir to the late, great Robin Harris, who was the first Def Comedy Jam shooting star and also passed away tragically young (at the age of thirty-six). Harris' style was if you can imagine, the life experience of a blue collar slaughterhouse worker from a Howlin' Wolf song, poured through Rodney Dangerfield's self-deprecating “No Respect” filter, and then shaken vigorously with a double shot of Richard Pryor's rough verbal patois. Harris was on his way to mega-stardom, as the nascent hit show's host and thanks to a couple of scene-stealing turns in Reginald Hudlin's “House Party” (as “Pop”) and Spike Lee's “Do The Right Thing” (as corner-man “Sweet Dick Willie”) when he died of a heart attack during a bout of sleep apnea while on tour. Martin Lawrence would step into the Def Comedy Jam host breech and take the world by storm with his kinetic style, but it was Bernie who would continue mining the besieged everyman vein initially prospected by Harris.

From the moment he first took the stage, prowling nervously and then grabbing the mic and roaring at the crowd with paranoid eyes darting every-which-way,“I ain't scared a' you!”—and the audience knowing knowing full well there was more than a little fear there behind the bluster—he was a hit, playing the aggrieved, “why me” to the hilt, dragging the Dangerfield schtick through the South Side's back streets as Harris did with that extra dollop of paranoia.

He ragged on his advancing age and time's not being kind to him—particularly a waning sexual prowess, moaning ruefully “M' body tired...m' body weary..”. He wasn't going to be seen in the red leather suits Eddie Murphy sported, or work the slick “Player” angle of his S-Curled, MTV comedy star contemporary Bill Bellamy. He was the guy with problems, and he was gonna share 'em—warts and all. Ornery kids bugged the hell out of him, as did moochy, ne'er-do-well relatives. And he was hilarious re-counting it all in that blustery, “Foghorn Leghorn”-ish griot/storyteller style of his. He pretty much counted on playing the club circuit permanently, ironically joking about how the TV executives would never give him a show like his buddies Steve Harvey, Cedric The Entertainer and D.L. Hughley had gotten during the hilarious basketball court segment of the Spike Lee directed “Kings Of Comedy” film.

BERNIE: (Wild-eyed and straight to camera) I vote. I still get hassled. You know, I been with my wife for 25 years—I ain't got NO outside kids. But do I get a—naw! Fuck that, I'm gonna tell ya'll...But do I have a television show? Naaaaawww! I ain't got no televison show. Why?! (Right up on camera now) Cause' you scared a' me! Scared I'm a' say somethin'! Henh! (BEAT) You mother-fuckin' right! Think I won't say somethin'? Lemme tell you somethin'!...Ya'll been fuckin' with me for a loooong time... you know? But I'm back! Shit, me an' Jim Brown'd tear this mother-fucker up!

CEDRIC: (Laughing, and then in a tepid announcer's voice) The comments made by Bernie Mac belong to him and him himself...

BERNIE: Now you (To Cedric) told—you told me to sat what I wanted to say! (Then suddenly contrite and despairing) White folks, I don't mean that...I'm just playin'. Ya'll can do...if you give me a chance, I'll take WB, I'll take UPN, I'll take USA (Networks). Gimme a chance to show ya.

STEVE HARVEY: You'll take The Food Channel.

BERNIE: Sure will! TNT!

STEVE: The Bernie Mac Cooking Show!

But of course, Bernie did land a show...and it was perhaps the best of the bunch among his contemporaries, expanding on his standup bit about parenting his cracked-out sister's kids—but with a sense of heart and the real flusteredness of raising kids in a modern world. “The Bernie Mac Show” was an award-winning hit in its first season. But alas, similar tensions between the star, the network and the show runner / Executive Producer to those that killed Chappelle's Show cropped up and the honeymoon was over by the middle of season two. The show would go on, thanks to the talents of the star himself (but no thanks to a bit of shortsightedness that made Fox's “Divide and Conquer” plan work to “T”, separating the series' brain—Larry Wilmore, from its soul, Bernie). Bigger movie roles would come—unlike his oily, profane preacher and and mouthy barber cameos in earlier, smaller films—for example his parts in Charlie's Angels and George Clooney's “Ocean's” franchise, as well as starring roles in “Guess Who” and “Mr. 3000”.

But Bernie's health was an increasing problem. He suffered from the auto-immune disease Sarcoidosis, which causes irritating and sometimes painful cellular lumps or granules (granulomas) to grow in organs and tissues, while also bringing on chronic fatigue and body pain. But it's those damned “granules” that do the damage—attacking the lymph nodes and lungs primarily. And diseases that compromise the pulmonary system (yes, sarcoidosis can adversely affect your breathing) make other pulmonary ailments like the pneumonia that killed him that much more intense and difficult to fight. You add in that rigorous TV shooting schedule he had, and the continual touring, probable lack of rest, bad eating and so on that is endemic to the working comic's life, and you have a recipe for disaster. His appearance changed drastically when a nasty flare-up (of Sarcoidosis) hit him in '04 and the drugs used to spell the disease (steroids) visibly blew him up and then dried him out, and Fox had to shut the show down for a month so he could get a handle on the illness. (He did and it went into “remission”) And then in '06, the show itself was cancelled, but his rigorous touring resumed. Taxing on anyone, that sort of running about really strains a person with sarcoidosis. Bernie's death hit home hard for me as one of my best friends for nearly thirty years and a fellow television writer also suffers from the illness, and has to take special care to stay healthy as the disease has a “cascade” effect when dealing with things like colds and lung-compromising viruses. Bernie was only fifty years old. My buddy, another veteran of that “Black Comedy Boom” is just a few years younger than that, so you can imagine the lump in our collective throats in the circle of friends upon hearing about Bernie's death and considering ourselves. Hearts go out to Bernie's family and surviving loved ones. This was a stunner.

And even more stunning was the second blow to America's pop-culture gut yesterday, as I was walking through Times Square in Manhattan, only to look up at the “Zipper” news crawl around a building to see that the legendary Isaac Hayes had also passed away. I stood there for a moment wondering...“Did I just see that?”, and waited for the news items to repeat. I saw it again, and my eyes filled with tears.

For those who don't know...Isaac Hayes was an awful lot more than a sultry baritone voice and “Chef” on South Park.

Hayes...was in fact, one of the architects of Soul music as we know it. He was a songwriter par excellence, contributing in no small way to fashioning the “Stax/Memphis” Soul sound itself, with his work (alongside his writing partner David Porter) on such classics as “Soul Man”, “Hold On, I'm Comin'”, “B-A-B-Y” (for Carla Thomas) and “When Something Is Wrong With My Baby”, just to name a few. Hayes was of a generation of great musicians that came through the Memphis public school system's music program (a veritable “Who's Who” of Jazz and R&B legends too numerous to cite here), who stayed in the city and re-vitalized it with his groundbreaking work at Stax. He fused the hard Blues with the roaring fire of Southern Gospel, while adding into the mix more than a little bit of the punchy Jazz style (particularly the horn charts—Basie-esque “smears” and “stabs” on the brass) endemic to the region.

And God, could he write melodies! Melodies that mated perfectly with the scary rhythmic sense he seemed to simply sweat. He had a “golden ear” for arrangements and balance, while having a special knack for building a jam “in-song” from a whisper to a roar, until the song was a big ol', almost living, amoebic thing—pulsing, flying here and there...whispering and shouting...all at once.

I first came to really know of Isaac when I heard his (in my mind) magnum opus—the eleven-minute cover /re-contextualization of Burt Bacharach's “Walk On By”. This was a pimp-tastic, psychedelic, sanctified, cinematic / operatic sonic workout, from the crackling opening snare hits, to the soaring strings in the chorus, to the flanged, crazy Hendrix-ish guitar trail-out. It was on the album “Hot Buttered Soul”, its cover placed prominently as if to say “Now Playing” atop the big Sylvania stereo console in our family living room. That big, gleaming bald head of his, looking like a NASA shot of a massive, brown planet on the cover always intrigued me. In the age of “The Fro'”, Isaac said “No.”, and went with his own wild “Star Child” look—the big goggle-y aviators, and his inversion of the chains of slavery into golden links of proud prosperity draping his hulking, onyx form.

Brother was bad-ass long before Shaft was “a bad mutha-shut yo' mouf!”

There were the pre-“Shaft” albums—“To Be Continued”, and “The Isaac Hayes Movement” (said sporting what was at that time the BEST art direction along with “Hot Buttered Soul” in the Soul and R&B record racks) that featured those amazing, long, long breakdowns / songs. These albums boasted maybe five tunes maximum, but there were usually two or three seven-minute-plus monsters on them—sprawling vanity / concept pieces that pre-dated Marvin's and Stevie's “What's Goin' On” and “Talking Book” masterpieces by a couple of years. “Walk On By” was one such beast, as were his covers of George Harrison's “Something”, and Jimmy Webb's “By The Time I Get To Phoenix”. (His original funk-opera “Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic” is another such wonder)

And then, there was “Shaft”, or rather “SHAFT—Music from the Soundtrack Composed and Performed by ISAAC HAYES”, as it is described on the three vinyl copies I—and probably you also own.

The Shaft soundtrack or score is more than just the ubiquitous tile track that has entered the pop-culture lexicon through it's driving rhythm and “Stagger Lee”-ish lyrics. It was—and in many ways still is the gold standard of film scores of the second half of the 20th century. The music, from “Shaft's Cab Ride”, “Ellie's Love Theme”, “Bumpy's Lament” and the sparkling, summer-y “Café Regio's” are near-perfect music beds for the scenes they support, working beautifully, but then when separated from the visuals, they are also brilliant individual pieces of Soul/Jazz/Blues that unlike the songs from the Bee Gees “Saturday Night Fever” didn't sound like pre-existing hits inserted into the movie. These were just great pieces of music that seemed to jump out of the score they were written for. I didn't even mention “Soulsville”, or “Do Your Thing”, and those strong tracks just add to the album's majesty. The other thing “Shaft” did was expand the palette of avenues for Black music and its pre-eminent composers to exploit, opening film music up to the more trenchant stylings of Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield, bringing those artists ever more into the “mainstream” and letting them explore their artistic souls more fully.

It all started with “Shaft”, and for that alone, Isaac Hayes would be a legend. But his Stax work as a producer and writer, as well as his pre-“Shaft” solo work just enhances his legend that much more, and makes his loss that much deeper.

Every artist peaks, and “Shaft” may well have been his—considering the rote-ish and occasionally ill-advised artistic choices that followed, along with a bit of fun self-parody late in his career—but what a climb to that peak it was!

It was a tough weekend loss-wise, losing these two. And them being gone makes life and art just a little bit sadder to think about. But that's the miracle of what they did. Thanks to technology, it lives on. And it's there to be enjoyed...even if they've gone from us.

So, dig into that Netflix queue, or that iTunes playlist and let what they did so well wash over you.

And bid them both Godspeed. Godspeed. Godspeed.