Gurus vs rock stars

One of the unquestioned assumptions behind the various health and fitness philosophies that are being peddled everywhere is the idea that we all want to live to a ripe old age. And even more than that, we want this to be “quality aging”, i.e. with only the smallest amount of physical and mental decline, bright as buttons, still running half-marathons in our eighties.

Whether or not this is a worthy goal is a question I’ll leave for another day, but the obsessive focus on life extension gave me an idea. Why not get a little competitive with this? Let’s pair a team of health gurus with a team of people who’ve had perhaps a slightly less healthy life but a whole lot more fun, like rock stars. Obviously we’d have to wait a few more decades to see how this entirely unscientific experiment plays out.

But in the meantime, let’s do some retrospective pairing:

Health and fitness gurus

Jack LaLanne (exercise and diet guru) died at 96

Roy Walford (Caloric Restriction guru) died at 79

Barry Groves (low carb guru) died at 77

Robert Atkins (low carb guru) died at 72

George Ohsawa (macrobiotic guru) died at 72

Jerome Irving Rodale (organics and Prevention guru) died at 72

Adelle Davis (supplement and health food guru) diet at 70

Nathan Pritikin (low fat guru) died at 69

James Fixx (fitness guru) died at 52

Rock stars

“Fats” Domino (not really a rock star, but you know what I mean) – 86, still living

Chuck Berry – 87, still living

Little Richard – 81, still living

Willie Nelson, 80, still living

Leonard Cohen, 79 – still living

Bill Wyman, 77 – still living

Jerry Lee Lewis, 77 – still living

Keith Richards – 70, still living

Mick Jagger – 70, still living

Patti Smith – 68, still living

Iggy Pop – 66, still living

Lou Reed  – died at 71

Would you take lifestyle advice from this man?

Or this man?

I know it’s not a fair comparison. But still, let’s ask ourselves the question: should we eat only coconut oil for breakfast every day and spend precious minutes obsessing over whether that bit of canola oil on our toasted seaweed will throw off our omega 3 balance, or should we stay up late, get a little drunk, sing out of tune, say things we shouldn’t say, wear pants that are too tight and lipstick that’s a little too bright?

David Johansen/Buster Pointdexter, ex New York Dolls, still chipper at 64

The saddest song in the world

When I was still living in London, in a blitzed out, wistful little corner of Limehouse, I had an upstairs neighbor from Colombia. He was studying the shoemaking business at Cordwainers College so that he’d be able to support his father who owned a shoe factory. Most days he would be fairly quiet but occasionally he’d get quite drunk late in the evening, and he’d play music at full blast. Unfortunately, Stairway to Heaven was the first song that would start off these fits of melancholia. There were other songs however. He had a fondness for Gardel, for example. There was also one song he’d play that I found mesmerizing (the ceilings were that thin). It was sad, determined, monotonous, hypnotic and long. It had some kind of Latin rhythm.

And then one day my neighbor left for Colombia and I vowed to myself to find out what that song was. Surprisingly, I struck gold early on. In the early 1990s Portobello Market used to have many vendors selling bootleg cassette tapes. At that point I had no knowledge of Latin music whatsoever so I ended up with some Willie Colon, Hector Lavoe, merengue, and a live recording called “The Montuno Sessions“,  live broadcast from Studio ‘A’, 99.5 FM, NYC, later released by Mr Bongo. The song I was after was on this tape, a version of Oriente by Henry and Orlando Fiol.

This is what Stephen Mejias from Stereophile has to say about this song:

 But what really caught my heart was the plaintive, urgent, yearning sound of Henry Fiol‘s  restoration of Cheo Marquetti’s “Oriente.” The song delights me, troubles me. I say without doubt that I’ve never been moved this way. It’s stifling. Time-stopping. Indeed, Fiol’s “Oriente” is a wash of sadness and beauty, ten fleeting minutes of churning, swaying, and pleading; tres locked in dance with guiro, delicate piano backed by heartrending trumpet lines, and, above all, that mysterious, otherworldly croon: “Yo me voy a morir / Caramba, me voy a matar.” It’s magic. I could cry.

I don’t want to leave the impression, however, that “Oriente” is morose. It’s not. There is hope, pride, strength in its many movements. It ends where it begins, with a wave and a graceful turn. It, this song, feels so true to me, I’m nearly afraid no one else will understand. The thought is painful. It’s difficult to imagine another person being lifted, moved, possessed by this song in the same way.

I happen to feel exactly the same way about this song, and I couldn’t have said it better myself.

The Live from Studio A version of the song can’t be found free online (which is just as well), only the studio version which is a little overproduced. This performance gets close but lacks the full hypnotic length.

Oriente, an indestructibly beautiful song, was actually written by Cheo Marquetti, one of the great unrecognized heroes of son. A man who was connected to some of the greatest bands of his age, but kept moving on – who knows why? – and died early in semi-obscurity. There is a beautiful version of Oriente by Conjunto Chappottin with Cheo singing.

Where did that deep sadness come from? Cheo Marquetti wrote other beautiful, classic songs – Sonero, Amor Verdadero, Labrando La Tierra – but none are as yearningly obsessed with death. If I had to select a single song of all the world’s songs to last me to eternity, I would pick this one.

Strange love

I have somewhat of a hard time admitting this, and few people know this about me, but I love and have always loved The Cramps. I love them not as a musical connoisseur, but with pure puppy dog love. Given my advanced age, I have a hard time making sense of this. When Lux Interior died on February 4, 2009 I felt a pang of regret and upset. But because my mother was in a coma and fighting for her life at the time, I put away most of those feelings. But a little while later an intense wave of sorrow washed over me, a wave that took months to ebb. Months where I thought about Lux and Ivy every day almost obsessively. What’s curious is that I never experience these kinds of feelings when another older generation musical hero (Alex Chilton, Sky Saxon, say) dies. What does it mean?

I find this a bit hard to explain, and usually keep very, very quiet about it. Because, on the face of it, The Cramps come across as a bit of a schlocky, schticky joke. A band that’s barely changed their musical style in 30+ years, a bit of a Halloween Special, with the goofy song titles and B movie graphics a 17 year old could love. Fans of the band in their 40s and 50s have a vibe of being overgrown teenagers. The type who still reads comic books and wears old band T-shirts they should have donated to goodwill many years ago. That isn’t me. So why do I love them so?

What’s so striking about The Cramps is the impression of a sustained theatrical pose that never really cracked. It felt like Lux and Ivy inhabited their characters to a point where you were unsure there were real thinking, feeling human beings underneath. It’s notable that in 33 years they never really wrote or performed a love song of the traditional kind. There was of course this, and this and this – but those were about the delusions love gives rise to. And yet, Lux and Ivy embodied an absolute, unfashionable, totally committed love and partnership. But their love came to life not in the songs but their performance together.

And their other love, once again absolute, unfashionable and totally committed was in their scholarship and collecting of  the forgotten people’s music of America, the music of  small towns,  forgotten bands, uncensored, dirty, raw and real music that’s mostly never made it into any kind of canon.

Because they were never interested in being famous or making it big, they propagated this love only through covering it, playing it before shows, and talking about it in interviews.

I used to look for a sustainable philosophy of life in the music of The Cramps. Some kind of charm that would protect be against the blows of life, and always found it to be only a flimsy shield. Their alternative reality is so far removed from how most people life, it comes across as just pure escapism. I’ve learned to use other arts to help me do so.

The Cramps did of course have – fiercely private – lives beyond the pose (no known gravestone, for a start). Vegetarian cat-lovers.  Photographers. Car repairers. People with families. But I really don’t want to know. All I know, every Cramps song is a love song.