Celebrity and Mortality
December 6, 2001
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
Capitols first great stars, and here the company that owed him so much
was identifying itself with four upstart kids from England who were, by
Coles standards, hardly musicians at all.
Today, when a Beatle dies, its 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
Harrisons 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 dont wear well; whereas I still listen to Cole often.
I always marvel at the way his smoky voice
handles standards like Caravan, Aint
Misbehavin, Dont Get Around Much Anymore,
A Cottage for Sale, These Foolish Things, Once
in a While, Youre 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 didnt 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. Youll 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
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 Hes So Fine that I
wasnt surprised when he was successfully sued for copyright violation. If
he didnt realize what he was doing, he had no ear for music. He also
didnt have much of a voice.
This sounds harsher than I intend it to. I
merely mean that Harrisons work cant stand up under scrutiny. Like
most rock music, its childish. In order to celebrate him, you almost have to
talk the kind of nonsense we were hearing so much of last week.
Nat Coles 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
The Beatles were not so much entertainers as
celebrities. Everyone knew their music wasnt meant to be savored, or even
listened to; their screaming fans made them inaudible, proving that the music
wasnt 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 groups fame and be independently
interesting. Maybe start a new religion or something. After Beatlehood, the
skys the limit.
Maybe those of us who have never been Beatles
shouldnt judge them too severely. That degree of celebrity would test
anyones maturity, never mind four boys in their twenties. Still, we might
reflect on the fact that none of Nat Coles fans ever tried to shoot him.