Celebrity and Mortality
December 6, 2001

by Joe Sobran

     Toward the end of his all-too-brief life, the great 
pop singer and jazz pianist Nat "King" Cole phoned his 
record company. The switchboard operator answered: 
"Capitol Records, home of the Beatles." Cole slammed the 
phone down in disgust.

     Understandably. Cole had been one of Capitol's first 
great stars, and here the company that owed him so much 
was identifying itself with four upstart kids from 
England -- who were, by Cole's standards, hardly 
musicians at all.

     Today, when a Beatle dies, it's like another Kennedy 
expiration. The world falls all over itself in fulsome 
eulogies, as if a great cultural and spiritual light had 
been snuffed out. When Cole died of cancer in 1965, there 
was none of the silly fuss we saw last week at George 
Harrison's passing. It was just a sad moment; we had lost 
a classy entertainer, and it was enough to say that.

     Nothing against the Beatles, mind you. I never 
joined in the Harry Potter-scale enthusiasm they inspired 
in my generation, but I liked them well enough, and they 
produced a half-dozen or so good songs, tunes that stay 
with you. Not bad, but nothing great. I long ago quit 
playing their records, which don't wear well; whereas I 
still listen to Cole often.

     I always marvel at the way his smoky voice handles 
standards like "Caravan," "Ain't Misbehavin'," "Don't Get 
Around Much Anymore," "A Cottage for Sale," "These 
Foolish Things," "Once in a While," "You're the Cream in 
My Coffee," and others too numerous to list. Romantic, 
polished, witty, singing every note perfectly and 
endowing every word with meaning, he was a superb 
interpreter of the finest American pop music. He didn't 
always choose the best material, and he was unfortunate 
in some of his arrangers; but the records he made with 
his own trio and with Billy May hold up extremely well.

     One way to appreciate Cole is to try singing along 
with him. You'll quickly realize how deceptively easy he 
makes it sound. His timing is flawless, he reaches every 
note without the slightest strain, and he can hold a note 
indefinitely. His style is as subtle as it is powerful.

     And George Harrison? Nice fellow, mediocre musician. 
We know far too much about his personal life; not that it 
was disgraceful, merely uninteresting. He dabbled in 
Hinduism and adopted an air of profundity that never bore 
fruit in his work; his pseudo-spiritual song "My Sweet 
Lord," far from expressing depths of Eastern mysticism, 
was such an obvious rip-off of the old Motown hit "He's 
So Fine" that I wasn't surprised when he was successfully 
sued for copyright violation. If he didn't realize what 
he was doing, he had no ear for music. He also didn't 
have much of a voice.

     This sounds harsher than I intend it to. I merely 
mean that Harrison's work can't stand up under scrutiny. 
Like most rock music, it's childish. In order to 
celebrate him, you almost have to talk the kind of 
nonsense we were hearing so much of last week.

     Nat Cole's personal life was probably far more 
interesting, but nobody cared much about it, and he liked 
it that way. He was content to be an entertainer, and he 
took pride in his work without losing his modesty.

     The Beatles were not so much entertainers as 
celebrities. Everyone knew their music wasn't meant to be 
savored, or even listened to; their screaming fans made 
them inaudible, proving that the music wasn't the point. 
Celebrity-worship was.

     The adoration they received made them self-
important, John Lennon most egregiously. He quickly 
succumbed to the temptation to make public pronouncements 
on politics, religion, sex, and art, proving only that he 
took himself as seriously as his fans did. He became 
brooding, shocking, and generally as "artistic" as all 
get-out. It was dramatically apt that he should be shot 
by a crazed fan.

     Pure, distilled celebrity -- as the man said, being 
famous for being famous. The Beatles inevitably broke up, 
each supposing he could take his share of the group's 
fame and be independently interesting. Maybe start a new 
religion or something. After Beatlehood, the sky's the 
limit.

     Maybe those of us who have never been Beatles 
shouldn't judge them too severely. That degree of 
celebrity would test anyone's maturity, never mind four 
boys in their twenties. Still, we might reflect on the 
fact that none of Nat Cole's fans ever tried to shoot 
him.

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