Obituary

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Hodskins Simone and SearlsThe photo above dates from early 1978, when Hodskins Simone & Searls, a new ad agency, was born in Durham, North Carolina. Specifically, at 602 West Chapel Hill Street. Click on that link and you’ll see the outside of our building. Perhaps you can imagine the scene above behind the left front window, because that’s where we stood, in bright diffused southern light. Left to right are David Hodskins, Ray Simone, and me.

That scene, and the rest of my life, were bent toward all their possibilities by a phone call I made to Ray one day in 1976, when I was working as an occasionally employed journalist, advertising guy, comedy writer, radio voice, and laborer: anything that paid, plus plenty that didn’t. I didn’t yet know Ray personally, but I loved the comics he drew, and I wanted his art for an ad I had written for a local audio shop. So I called him at the “multiple media studio” where he was employed at the time. Before we got down to business, however, he also got into an off-phone conversation with another person in his office. After Ray told the other person he was on the phone with Doctor Dave (the comic radio persona by which I was known around those parts back then), the other person told Ray to book lunch with me at a restaurant downtown.

I got there first, so I was sitting down when Ray walked in with a guy who looked like an idealized version of me. Not just better looking, but radiating charisma and confidence. This was the other person who worked with Ray, and who told Ray to propose the lunch. That’s how I met David Hodskins, who used the lunch to recruit me as a copywriter for the multiple media studio. I said yes, and after a few months of that, David decided the three of us should start Hodskins Simone & Searls. Four years and as many locations later, we occupied a whole building in Raleigh, had dozens of people working for us, and were the top ad agency in the state specializing in tech and broadcasting.

A couple years after that we seemed to be hitting a ceiling as the alpha tech agency in a region still decades away from becoming the “other Silicon Valley” it wanted to be. So, after one of our clients said “Y’know, guys, there’s more action on one street in Sunnyvale than there is in all of North Carolina,” David flew out to scout Silicon Valley itself. That resulted in a tiny satellite office in Palo Alto, where David prospected for business while running the Raleigh headquarters by phone and fax. After a year of doing that, David returned, convened a dinner with all the agency managers, and said we’d have to close Palo Alto if he didn’t get some help out there. This was in August 1985.

To my surprise, I heard myself volunteering duty out there, even though a year earlier when David asked me to join him there I had said no. I’m not even sure why I volunteered this time. I loved North Carolina, had many friends there, and was well established as a figure in the community, mostly thanks to my Doctor Dave stuff. I said I just needed to make sure my kids, then 15 and 12, wanted to go. (I was essentially a single dad at the time.) After they said yes, we flew out and spent a week checking out what was for me an extremely exotic place. But the kids fell instantly in love with it. So I rented a house near downtown Palo Alto, registered the kids in Palo Alto junior and high schools, left them there with David, flew back to North Carolina, gave away everything that wouldn’t fit in a small U-Haul trailer, and towed my life west in my new 145-horse ’85 Camry sedan with a stick shift. With my Mom along for company, we crossed the country in just four days.

The business situation wasn’t ideal. Silicon Valley was in a slump at that time. “For Lease” banners hung over the windows new buildings all over the place. Commodore, Atari, and other temporary giants in the new PC industry were going down. Apple, despite the novelty of its new Macintosh computer, was in trouble. And ad agencies—more than 200 of them—were fighting for every possible account, new and old. Worse, except for David, me, and one assistant, our whole staff was three time zones east of there, and the Internet that we know today was decades away in the future. But we bluffed our way into the running for two of the biggest accounts in review.

As we kept advancing in playoffs for those two accounts, the North Carolina office was treading water and funds were running thin. In our final pitches, we were also up against the same incumbent agency: one that, at that time, was by far the biggest and best in the valley, and did enviably good work. So we were not the way to bet. The evening before our last pitch, David told Ray and me that we needed to win both accounts or retreat back to North Carolina. I told him that I was staying, regardless, because I belonged there, and so did my kids, one of whom was suddenly an academic achiever and the other a surfer who totally looked the part. We had gone native. David reached across the table to shake my hand. That was his way of saying both “Thanks” and “I respect that.”

Then we won both accounts, got a mountain of publicity for having come out of nowhere and kicked ass, and our Palo Alto office quickly outgrew our Raleigh headquarters. Within a year we had closed Raleigh and were on our way to becoming one of the top tech agencies in Silicon Valley. None of this was easy, and all of it required maximal tenacity, coordination, and smarts, all of which were embodied in, and exemplified by, David Hodskins. He was wickedly smart, tough, creative, and entrepreneurial: perfect for leading a small and rapidly growing company. While hard-driving and often overbearing (sometimes driving Ray and me nuts) he was also great fun to work and hang out with, and one of the best friends I’ve ever had.

One of our bondings was around basketball. David was a severely loyal Duke alumnus and grandfathered with two season tickets every year to games at the Duke’s famous Cameron Indoor Stadium. I became a Duke fan as his date for dozens of games there. When we moved to Palo Alto, he and I got our basketball fix through season tickets to the Golden State Warriors. (In the late ’80s, this was still affordable for normal people.) At one point, we even came close once to winning the Warriors’ advertising business.

In the early 90s, I forked my own marketing consulting business out of HS&S, while remaining a partner with the firm until it was acquired by Publicis in 1998. By then I had also shifted back into journalism as an editor for Linux Journal, while also starting to blog. (Which I’m still doing right here.) David, Ray, and I remained good friends, however, while all three of us got married (Ray), remarried (David and I), and had California kids. In fact, I had met my wife with Ray’s help in 1990.

Ray died of lung cancer in 2011, at just 63. I remember him in this post here, and every day of my life.

On November 13 of last year, my wife and I attended the first game of the season for the Indiana Univesity Men’s basketball team, which David and I had rooted against countless times when they played Duke and other North Carolina teams. While there, I took a photo of the scene with my phone and sent it in an email to David, saying “Guess where I am?” He wrote back, “Looks suspiciously like Assembly Hall in Bloomington, Indiana, where liberals go to die. WTF are you doing there?”

I explained that Joyce and I were now visiting scholars at IU. He wrote back,

Mr. visiting scholar,

Recuperating from a one-week visit by (a friend) and his missus, before heading to Maui for T’giving week.

The unwelcome news is that I’m battling health issues on several fronts: GERD, Sleep Apnea, Chronic Fatigue, and severe abdominal pain. Getting my stomach scoped when I’m back from Maui, and hoping it isn’t stomach cancer.

Actual retirement is in sight… at the end of 2022. (Wife) hangs it up in February, 2024, so we’ll kick our travel plans into higher gear, assuming I’m still alive.

Already sick of hearing that coach K has “5 national titles, blah, blah, blah” but excited to see Paulo Banchero this year, and to see Jon Scheyer take the reins next year. Check out the drone work in this promotional video: https://youtu.be/Dp1dEadccGQ

Thanks for checking in, and glad to hear you’re keeping your brain(s) active. Please don’t become a Hoosier fan.

d

David’s ailment turned out to be ALS. After a rapid decline too awful to describe, he died last week, on March 22nd. Two days earlier I sent him a video telling him that, among other things, he was the brother I never had and a massive influence on many of the lives that spun through his orbits. Unable to speak, eat or breathe on his own, he was at least able to smile at some of what I told him, and mouth “Wow” at the end.

And now there is just one left: the oldest and least athletic of us three. (Ray was a natural at every sport he picked up and won medals in fencing. David played varsity basketball in high school. Best I ever got at that game was not being chosen last for my college dorm’s second floor south intramural team.)

I have much more to think, say, and write about David, especially since he was a source of wisdom on many subjects. But it’s hard because his being gone is so out of character.

But not completely, I suppose. Hemmingway:

The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.

My joke about aging is that I know I’m in the exit line, but I let others cut in. I just wish this time it hadn’t been David.

But the line does keep moving, while the world holds the door.

The Cluetrain Manifesto had four authors but one voice, and that was Chris Locke‘s.

Cluetrain, a word that didn’t exist before Chris (aka RageBoy), David Weinberger, Rick Levine and I made it up during a phone conversation in early 1999 (and based it on a joke about a company that didn’t get clues delivered by train four times a day), is now tweeted constantly, close to 23 years later. (And by now belongs in the OED.)

In his book The Tipping Point, which was published the same month as The Cluetrain Manifesto (January, 2000), Malcolm Gladwell said, “the success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on the involvement of people with a particular and rare set of social gifts.” He also called this “the Law of the Few.” Among those few, one needed three kinds of people: mavens, connectors, and salespeople. Chris was all three. To different degrees so were David, Rick and myself; but Chris was the best, especially at connecting. He was the one who brought us together. And he was the one who sold us on making something happen. He moved us from one Newtonian state to another—a body at rest to a body in motion—by sending us this little graphic:

After we got that, we had to put up the Cluetrain website. And then we had to expand that site into a book, thanks to the viral outbreak of interest that followed a column about the site—and Chris especially, face and all—in The Wall Street Journal. Though a great enemy of marketing-as-usual, nobody was better than Chris at spreading a word. I mean, damn: dude got Cluetrain in the fucking Wall Street Journal! (Huge hat tip to Tom Petzinger for writing that column, and for writing the book’s forward as well. Chris Locke

Want to know Chris’s marketing techniques? Read Gonzo Marketing: Winning Through Worst Practices, which followed Cluetrain, and had the best cover ever, with bullet holes (actual holes) through a barcode, and a red page behind it. I’m sure Chris came up with that idea. His graphic sense was equally creative, sharp and—as with everything—outrageous.

Or listen to the audio version, performed by Chris in his perfect baritone voice.

Alas, Chris died yesterday, after a long struggle with COPD. (Too much smoke, for too long. Got my dad and my old pal Ray too. That cigarette smoking has become unfashionable is a grace of our time.)

Good God, what a great writer Chris was. Try Winter Solstice. One pull-quote: “We learn to love the lie we must tell ourselves to survive.”

And his stories. OMG, were they good. Better than fiction, and all true.

For example, you know how, when two people are first getting to know each other, they exchange stories about parts of their lives? I remember once telling Chris that my parents were frontier types who met in Alaska. While I thought that would take us down an interesting story hole (my parents really were interesting people), Chris blasted open a conversational hole of his own the size of a crater: “My father was a priest and my mother was a nun.” Top that.

Once, when I missed a plane from SFO to meet Chris in Denver, I mentioned that I was standing next to a strangely wide glass wall at my just-vacated gate in Terminal 1. “I know that gate well,” he said. “And that glass is a trip. I once missed a plane there myself while I was on acid and got totally into that glass wall.” I don’t remember what he said after that, except that it was outrageous (for anyone but Chris) and I couldn’t stop laughing as his story went on.

Among too many other stories to count, here is one I hope his soul forgives me for lifting (along with that picture of him) from a thread on Facebook:

on this Father’s Day I am recalling getting drunk with MY dad on Christmas Eve 1968, as was our custom back then (this month I am 34 years sober). he told me he was suicidal and i knew he meant it. so I turned him on to acid there and then. it was a bit of a rocky trip, but things were better for him after that.

btw, when the trip got really rough, I tricked him into thinking he could fall asleep. “If you want to come down, just take six of these big bomber multivitamin pills and that’ll be it.” fat chance! but he fell sound asleep. as I sat next to him marveling at the sound of guardian angel wings softly beating over us, THE PHONE RANG!!! OMG. at like 4am! and worse, it was my judgmental hyper-Catholic MOTHER!! she said…

hello, is your father over there

….yes… I said.

are you two taking LSD?

oh no! had she gone psychic??

….yes… I said, fearful of what was coming next.

THANK GOD, she said. SOMETHING had to give.

and then:

“well, have a good trip,” she said, and rang off.

I’ll leave you with this, from a post on Chris’s Rageboy blog called Dust My Boom. It was written on the occasion of an odd wind coming toward Boulder that now seems prophetic toward the future that came three days ago when a wind-driven fire swept across the landscape, eventually roasting close to 600 homes, a hotel, and a shopping center. Read the whole thing for more about the wind…

There’s so much you don’t know about me. Cannot ever, no matter how hard I try to make it otherwise. I have been places, done things impossible to recount. I remember nights of love, each different from all the rest. I have sat beside the dead in the room with the open windows. I have seen those ships on fire off Orion’s shoulder.

Yeah well. I wrote something into the cluetrain manifesto that must have raised some eyebrows among our more knowing cousins. And it went like this:

…People of Earth

The sky is open to the stars. Clouds roll over us night and day. Oceans rise and fall. Whatever you may have heard, this is our world, our place to be. Whatever you’ve been told, our flags fly free. Our heart goes on forever. People of Earth, remember.

So I should end this now, but that’s way too dramatic and drama is the wrong note to end on. I think I need to put in something ordinary here, pedestrian. A joke maybe. A duck walks into a bar…

Because, whatever it is, it’s just the normal regular passage of time. Nothing mystical. Nothing shocking. We are born. We grow old. We die. In between, we sometimes get a glimpse of something. If I knew what it was, I’d tell you in a second. I don’t know. Take this piece of writing as my prayer flag flapping out in the wind of a day that came on sideways. Who knows where it’s headed? Tomorrow I have a con-call at noon, a website to build, and forty-one phone calls to return. Possibly lunch.

What I do know is that if you’re lonely and you’re hurting, then you’re human. What am I telling you this for? Hell if I know. To cheer you up maybe. Let me know if it worked.

And remember the man who said all that, and so much more. He was here for real, and he is missed.

This is about credit where due, and unwanted by the credited. I speak here of Kim Cameron, a man whose modesty was immense because it had to be, given the size of his importance to us all.

See, to the degree that identity matters, and disparate systems getting along with each other matters—in both cases for the sakes of each and all—Kim’s original wisdom and guidance matters. And that mattering is only beginning to play out.

But Kim isn’t here to shake his head at what I just said, because (as I reported in my prior post) he passed last week.

While I expect Kim’s thoughts and works to prove out over time, the point I want to make here is that it is possible for an open and generous person in a giant company to use its power for good, and not play the heavy doing it. That’s the example Kim set in the two decades he was the top architect of Microsoft’s approach to digital identity and meta systems (that is, systems that make disparate systems work as if just one).

I first saw him practice these powers at the inaugural meeting of a group that called itself the Identity Gang. That name was given to the group by Steve Gillmor, who hosted a Gillmor Gang podcast (here’s the audio) on the topic of digital identity, on December 31, 2004: New Years Eve. To follow that up, seven of the nine people in that podcast, plus about as many more, gathered during a break at Esther Dyson‘s PC Forum conference in Scottsdale, Arizona, on March 20, 2005. Here is an album of photos I shot of the Gang, sitting around an outside table. (The shot above is one of them.) There was a purpose to the meeting: deciding what we should do next, for all of the very different identity-related projects we were working on—and for all the other possible developments that also needed support.

Kim was the most powerful participant, owing both to his position at Microsoft and for having issued, one by one, Seven Laws of Identity, over the preceding months. Like the Ten Commandments, Kim’s laws are rules which, even if followed poorly, civilize the world.

Kim always insisted that his Laws were not carved on stone tablets and that he was no burning bush, but those laws were, and remain, enormously important. And I doubt that would be so without Kim’s 200-proof Canadian modesty.

The next time the Identity Gang met was in October of that year, in Berkeley. By then the gang had grown to about a hundred people. Organized by Kaliya (IdentityWoman) Young, Phil Windley, and myself (but mostly the other two), the next meeting was branded Internet Identity Workshop (IIW), and it has been held every Fall and Spring since then at the Computer History Museum (and, on three pandemic occasions, online), with hundreds, from all over the world, participating every time.

IIW is an open space workshop, meaning that it consists entirely of breakouts on topics chosen and led by the participants. There are no keynotes, no panels, no vendor booths. Sponsor involvement is limited to food, coffee, free wi-fi, projectors, and other graces that carry no other promotional value. (Thanks to Kim, it has long been a tradition for Microsoft to sponsor an evening at a local restaurant and bar.) Most importantly, the people attending from big companies and startups alike are those with the ability to engineer or guide technical developments that work for everyone and not for just those companies.

I’m biased, but I believe IIW is the most essential and productive conference of any kind, in the world. Conversations and developments of many kinds are moved forward at every one of them. Examples of developments that might not be the same today but for IIW include OAuth, OpenID, personal clouds, picosSSI, VRM, KERI, and distributed ledgers.

I am also sure that progress made around digital identity would not be the same (or as advanced) without Kim Cameron’s strong and gentle guidance. Hats off to his spirit, his laws, and his example.

 

 

Got word yesterday that Kim Cameron had passed.

Hit me hard. Kim was a loving and loved friend. He was also a brilliant and influential thinker and technologist.

That’s Kim, above, speaking at the 2018 EIC conference in Germany. His topics were The Laws of Identity on the Blockchain and Informational Self-Determination in a Post Facebook/Cambridge Analytica Era (in the Ownership of Data track).

The laws were seven:

  1. User control and consent
  2. Minimum disclosure for a constrained use
  3. Justifiable parties
  4. Directed identity (meaning pairwise, known only to the person and the other party)
  5. Pluralism of operators
  6. Human integration
  7. Consistent experience across contexts

He wrote these in 2004, when he was still early in his tenure as Microsoft’s chief architect for identity (one of several similar titles he held at the company). Perhaps more than anyone at Microsoft—or at any big company—Kim pushed constantly toward openness, inclusivity, compatibility, cooperation, and the need for individual agency and scale. His laws, and other contributions to tech, are still only beginning to have full influence. Kim was way ahead of his time, and its a terrible shame that his own is up. He died of cancer on November 30.

But Kim was so much more—and other—than his work. He was a great musician, teacher (in French and English), thinker, epicure, traveler, father, husband, and friend. As a companion, he was always fun, as well as curious, passionate, caring, gracious. Pick a flattering adjective and it likely applies.

I am reminded of what a friend said of Amos Tversky, another genius of seemingly boundless vitality who died too soon: “Death is unrepresentative of him.”

That’s one reason it’s hard to think of Kim in the past tense, and why I resisted the urge to update Kim’s Wikipedia page earlier today. (Somebody has done that now, I see.)

We all get our closing parentheses. I’ve gone longer without closing mine than Kim did before closing his. That also makes me sad, not that I’m in a hurry. Being old means knowing you’re in the exit line, but okay with others cutting in. I just wish this time it wasn’t Kim.

Britt Blaser says life is like a loaf of bread. It’s one loaf no matter how many slices are in it. Some people get a few slices, others many. For the sake of us all, I wish Kim had more.

Here is an album of photos of Kim, going back to 2005 at Esther Dyson’s PC Forum, where we had the first gathering of what would become the Internet Identity Workshop, the 34th of which is coming up next Spring. As with many other things in the world, it wouldn’t be the same—or here at all—without Kim.

Bonus links:

It bums me out that Gail Sheehy passed without much notice—meaning I only heard about it in passing. And I didn’t hear about it, actually; I saw it on CBS’ Sunday Morning, where her face passed somewhere between Tom Seaver’s and John Thompson’s in the September 6 show’s roster of the freshly dead. I was shocked: She was older than both those guys and far less done. Or done at all, except technically. Death seems especially out of character for her, of all people.

Credit where due: The New York Times did post a fine obituary, and New York, for which she wrote much, has an excellent remembrance in the magazine by Christopher Bonanos (@heybonanos). Writes Bonanos,

Sheehy had an 18th book in the works, and it would have been — or will be, if someone else takes to the finish line — a fascinating one. Instead of reporting amid her peers (she was a few years older than the boomers, but roughly in their cohort), she set out to write a kind of echo of Passages, but this time about the millennial generation. And I can tell you that she was reveling in the immersion among people 50 and 60 years younger than she. She went to clubs with college guys and got out on the dance floor, and (by her account, at least) they were disarmed and amused by her — which is to say that she’d found every journalist’s sweet spot, where people get loose and comfortable enough to reveal themselves. She was constantly offering bits and pieces of her findings as magazine stories and columns. Some would work as stand-alone pieces and others wouldn’t, but all were tesserae in what was clearly going to be a big ambitious swoop of sociology. At New York, we were so taken with this project that we had also begun work on a profile of her…

@Gail_Sheehy is chronologically uncorrected. Her website, GailSheehy.com, also still speaks of her in the present tense: “For her new book-in-progress, she’s a woman on a mission to redefine the most misunderstood generation: millennials. They are struggling with the rupture in gender roles and a crisis in mental health. But this generation of 20- and 30-somethings is also inventing radically new passages.”

Gail Sheehy’s writing isn’t just solid; it is enviably good. BrainyQuotes has 71 samples, which is far short of sufficient. One goes, It is a paradox that as we reach our prime, we also see there is a place where it finishes. (Tell me about it. I’m only ten years younger than she was.)

As it happens, I’m writing this in the home library of a friend. On its many shelves a single spine stands out: Pathfinders, published in 1981. I pull it down and open it at random, knowing I’ll find something worth sharing from a page there. Here ya go, under the subhead Secrets of Well-being:

Like the dance of brilliant reflections on a clear pond, well-being is a shimmer that accumulates from many important life choices, mad over the years by a mind that is not often muddied by pretense or ignorance and a heart that is open enough to sense people in their depths and to intuit the meaning of most situations.

If there is an afterlife, I am sure Gail Sheehy is already reporting on it.

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John Prine

John Prine and I are both from Maywood, though not the same one. His Maywood was in Illinois and mine was in New Jersey. Not a real connection, but one among many small doors souls might open to common likes.

One of those we share is country. Both of us were domesticated rural animals, born only nine months apart. (My son, another John Prine fan, just told me that he and John share a cool birthday: 10/10.)

I found John during my first job in radio, at a country station in rural New Jersey (yes, there is such a thing). At the station we got about a cubic foot of new albums every week. Sometimes more. Most we never listened to, obeying advice from services paid to thresh musical wheat from chaff. But I’d take the home as many rejects as I could, and plow through them for stuff I liked and that maybe the station would play. Sometimes the station would add a song, but most of the time I’d just keep the good ones and bring the rest back.

One of my keepers was John Prine’s Sweet Revenge, best known for Dear Abby, which was kind of a novelty song. But the song that knocked me out most on that album was “Grandpa Was a Carpenter.” Here’s the refrain:

Grandpa was a carpenter, he built houses, stores and banks
Chain-smoked camel cigarettes, and hammered nails in planks
He would level on the level, he shaved even every door
And voted for Eisenhower, cause Lincoln won the war

This called to mind my own father, a chain-smoking Republican and lifelong carpenter who served as a phone operator for Eisenhower after the end of WWII. Anyway, my love of John Prine and his songs began then, and has lasted forty-seven years, so far.

There are so many great songs. “Angel from Montgomery.” “Illegal Smile.” “Your flag decal won’t get you into heaven anymore.” “Sam Stone.” One-liners like, “A question ain’t a question if you know the answer too” (from “Far From Me”). But my favorite is “Paradise.” Here’s one verse and refrain:

Then the coal company came with the world’s largest shovel
And they tortured the timber and stripped all the land
Well, they dug for their coal till the land was forsaken
Then they wrote it all down as the progress of man

And daddy won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County
Down by the Green River where Paradise lay
Well, I’m sorry my son, but you’re too late in asking
Mister Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away

Kind of like they did here:

kentucky

It’s called mountaintop removal mining. That photo is not of Muhlenberg County, which is west of there; but it’s been tortured and stripped so it’ll do.

Like many fans, I’d heard John was sick with COVID-19. Given his health history, news yesterday of his death was no surprise. I wonder now if the final verse of “Paradise” will become prophecy:

When I die let my ashes float down the Green River
Let my soul roll on up to the Rochester dam
I’ll be halfway to Heaven with Paradise waitin’
Just five miles away from wherever I am

The picture of Freddy Herrick I carry everywhere is in my wallet, on the back of my membership card for a retail store. It got there after I loaned my extra card to Freddy so he could use it every once in awhile. As Freddy explained it, one day, while checking out at the store, he was notified at the cash register that the card had expired. So he went to the service counter and presented the card for renewal. When the person behind the counter looked at my picture on the card and said, “This doesn’t look like you,” Freddy replied, “That was before the accident.” The person said “Okay,” and shot Freddy’s picture, which has appeared on the back of that same membership card every year it has been issued since then.

I met Freddy in 2001, when I first arrived in Santa Barbara, and he was installing something at the house we had just bought. When my wife, who had hired him for the work, introduced Freddy to me, he pointed at my face and said, “July, 1947.”

“Right,” I replied.

“Me too.” Then he added, “New York, right?”

“New Jersey, across the river in Fort Lee.”

“Well, close enough. New York for me. Long Island.”

“How do you know this stuff?”

“I don’t know. I’ve never done anything like this before. It’s just weird.”

Everything was weird with Freddy, who became my best friend in Santa Barbara that very day. In the years since then he has also remained one of the most interesting people I’ve ever known.

Freddy was an athlete, an author, a playwright, a screenwriter and an actor, most of whose work is still unpublished, sitting in boxes and on floppies, hard drives and various laptops. These last few months, while avoiding doctors yet sick with what turned out to be liver cancer, he was working on a deal for one of his scripts. I hope it still goes through somehow, for the sake of his family and his art. The dude was exceptionally talented, smart, funny, generous and kind. He could also fix anything, which is why he mostly worked as a handyman the whole nineteen years I’ve known him.

Freddy grew up in wealth, and did his best to avoid that condition for most of his life, or at least for the nineteen years I knew him. This was manifested in a number of odd and charming ways. For example, his car was an early-’60s Volkswagen bug he drove for more than fifty years.

I last saw Freddy in late January, before I headed to New York. And, though I later learned his cancer was terminal, I did expect to find him among the living when I got back to Santa Barbara on Wednesday. Alas, I learned this morning that he died at home in his sleep last Saturday.

Freddy talked about death often, and in an almost casual and friendly way. Both his parents died in middle age, as did Jeff MacNelly, a childhood friend of Freddy’s who also happened to be—in the judgement of us both—the best cartoonist who ever lived. Measured against the short lives of those three, Freddy felt that every year he lived past their spans was a bonus.

And all those years were exactly that, for all who knew him.

Rest in Fun, old friend.

Loving Leonard

leonard

I was as deeply affected by learning Leonard Cohen died as I was by the election results. Maybe more. I can’t name an artist whose songs mean more to me than his. Not Dylan, not (I’m thinking…) anybody. (Here’s how he lifted me one time when I was sick a few years ago.)

Through the soundtrack of my life, nobody else taught more about how to be a man, a lover, and a human being with one foot in the temporary world and the other in eternity.

A couple weeks ago, I was driving to the Peets on Upper State Street in Santa Barbara when some station on the radio played the title song of Leonard’s new album, You Want It Darker.

I didn’t make it all the way. Had to pull over. There was no way I could listen and keep driving. It was too deep, too right. I had never heard it before, and it demanded full attention. Still does. The lyric begins,

If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game
If you are the healer, it means I’m broken and lame
If thine is the glory then mine must be the shame
You want it darker
We kill the flame

Magnified, sanctified, be thy holy name
Vilified, crucified, in the human frame
A million candles burning for the help that never came
You want it darker

Hineni, hineni
I’m ready, my lord

And he was.

I heard today, somewhere in the links below, that he recorded that final album in his Los Angeles apartment, on what turned out to be his death bed.

Please listen to audio links. Leonard’s voice was so deep and worn; and his humor was, if anything, sharper than ever, right to the end.

Having so much of his music in my life makes me miss him more, not less.

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JohnLeeHooker1997(This post is reblogged from this one, posted on June 11, 2001.)

The best live performance I’ve ever attended was John Lee Hooker playing St. Joseph’s AME (African Methodist Episcopal) Church in Durham, North Carolina.

It was around the turn of the 80s, and in those days I went to pretty much every interesting act that came through town. I had no idea this was going to be anything unusual.

When I walked in the door, John Lee was standing near the entrance looking old and beat in his orange jacket. He also smelled pretty bad, frankly, and I felt guilty for noticing it. As usual, I took a seat in the front pew (I hate sitting in the back of anything). In a few minutes John Lee came in and grumbled “Stand up!” in a gruff voice. Everybody obeyed. He then launched into a series of songs that made it impossible for anybody to sit for the next several hours. It was a Rock & Roll Gospel Event of the first order. After that I knew a lot more about John Lee and the hard-driving boogie blues genre he pioneered.

For the last few years John Lee has lived down the hill from my house, which overlooks the Bay Area from Redwood City. He has a small ranch house on a cul-de-sac off Alameda de las Pulgas, the main drag at the base of the hill. There is usually a Caddy parked out front with a vanity plate that makes clear who’s home.

Recently we also came to share the same barber. So now I’ll share the story our barber once told me about his most famous customer.

It seems that John Lee liked to have his hair cut at home, and the barber was glad to oblige. 240px-KeithR2Then one day, when he came over to John Lee’s house, there was a corpse in the front parlor, laying on the couch. When the barber went over to have a closer look, the corpse — which belonged to a gaunt white man — appeared to have been dead for some time. When the barber went into John Lee’s bedroom, where the old man liked to sit to have his hair cut, the barber said, “Did you know there’s a dead guy in your living room?” “Aw,” John Lee replied, “That’s just Keith Richards. He always looks like that.”

Yesterday we drove past John Lee’s house on our way out of town. I wondered, as I always do, about how the old guy was doing. It turned out our barber was losing his customer on the same day.

So: is it true? Whether or not, it’s a great story.

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This is for Christopher Baker.

Chris was nine years old when a friend shot him through the head by mistake, using a gun the friend’s father kept for protection. Chris was a great kid: fun-loving, kind and athletic. In the open casket at his funeral, he wore a baseball cap that covered the fatal wound. The hole in his parents hearts would never be filled. Chris was their only child, and they never had another.

If Chris had lived, he would be forty-two years old now. Instead, for those who remember him, he’ll always be nine.

If you think I’m about to go into an argument for gun control, be disappointed, because I don’t have one. Like millions of others who know innocent victims of gunfire, I feel grief and despair, even after all these years. Unlike many or most of them, I have no answer.

As Gideon Litchfield writes in Quartz, There is nothing more to say. There is no “debate,” no “national conversation.” There are only entrenched positions that don’t influence each other at all. Specifically, the gun non-debate—

echoes another frozen conflict: the one in Israel-Palestine. Four years of covering it made me see that, in certain disputes, the opposing forces attain a sort of self-correcting stasis. Even after a particularly cruel outrage, equilibrium returns quickly, as if neither side can let go of its claim to eternal victimhood. Change does come—many decades-long conflicts have ended—but it takes its own, often mysterious path that neither words nor any single tragedy can alter.

Indeed, instead of “gun-control debate,” we should call it the “gun-control conflict.” There is no debate here, only forces locked in frozen combat.

And the number of cats out of bags are legion. Today there are more guns than people in the U.S. Given that fact alone, it is not much easier to “control” the gun market, or the use of guns, in the U.S., than it is to control the tides. Guns are abundant and loose in human nature. I fear the best we can hope for is not being among the unlucky, as Chris was.

 

 

 

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