Happy Birthday, Charlie Chaplin

Some years ago, I wrote an essay about Charlie Chaplin and what it means to “be funny,” and what it means when it operates on such a genius level as Chaplin. It’s in the details. Details can’t be taught. For instance, in the famous dinner-roll dance scene above: the way he looks all the way to the right. He commits to that move. And then, what makes it funnier, is the small eyebrow-raise as he looks down, like, “Yup. Check me out. I know I’m an awesome dancer. Yup.” Put it all together: Genius.

It’s like perfect pitch. Either you have it or you don’t.

Here’s my essay:

Why actors still talk about Charlie Chaplin, and what he teaches them about not acting funny

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Ebertfest 2017 Preview

So proud and honored that our short film July and Half of August is part of the impressive 2017 Ebertfest lineup. The video of me there is from the Albuquerque festival. I had just arrived at the hotel, and had just found out about Prince’s death. Like, half an hour earlier. I had no idea I would be interviewed. I had been crying. Anyway: thank you Chaz Ebert for that beautiful piece, and thank you Chaz and Nate Kohn for having our film play at the festival. It’s a huge honor.

Something separate, but connected
I do just want to mention one small personal thing. Those of you who read me regularly are familiar with “Michael.” A friend of mine. We go way WAY back. (I just wrote about one of our more ridiculous experiences together. But this is really the main piece I wrote about us. It’s extremely intense and at one point sexually explicit and I probably wouldn’t write it that way now. But it captures exactly what he meant to me and what he continued to mean. Michael’s read it, of course.) Something profound existed between us – and it was there instantly – and I suppose it is still there. I never see him. But we are connected and – as we were back then – supportive of one another’s pursuits. (Michael and I were obsessed with Mickey Rourke during our time together, and with the news of The Wrestler, we both lost our minds. And we couldn’t talk about it to anyone else but each other. Nobody else was as insane about Rourke in our circles of friends as we were. I eventually wrote this gigantic piece: Gone Away, Come Back: Mickey Rourke – which was the first piece of film writing I did that “traveled”. It was linked on the IMDB homepage, for example. Anyway, Michael and I were so whipped up into a frenzy about Rourke’s resurgence that it bled onto the site – always with Michael’s permission. Witness: Post, Post, Post, Post, Post.) But anyway, as most of you know, Michael’s film Kwik Stop played at the 2002 Ebertfest (when it was known as the Overlooked Film Festival). I wrote about Roger’s review of it here.

The point of all of this is:

Michael and I dated when we were – basically – kids. But our connection was real. We were aware of it at the time. Our relationship is a very special memory for the both of us.

So … what are the odds … what are the freakin’ odds … that these two rumpled happy Gen-X kids …

… would both have films play at Ebertfest? So many years apart? One having nothing to do with the other?

Considering how our relationship was, and how it has developed since, and how important we are to one another – in a way not easily definable – it seems so beautiful, so right, in an eerily symmetrical way … that we would both go through this exact same thing, decades apart.

When Roger emailed me to ask me to write for him, Michael was one of the first people I told. Because Roger had reached a hand out to Michael, too. Had recognized his talent, had championed him, had done his best to push Michael into the spotlight where he belonged. And here was I, doing something totally different – film writing – and there Roger was, reaching his hand out to me.

I try not to “believe” in coincidences. That way nothing good lies.

I guess it’s the symmetry I like so much. And the sense of right-ness that accompanies certain kinds of symmetry: That of course it would go down this way. Of course. I mean, look at those two grunge-balls by the creek. Of COURSE they would be connected forever in this weird … not completely explainable … way. And of course they would end up having identical extremely specific experiences, both having to do with Roger Ebert. Still, though: What?? It’s rather incredible, in the most literal sense of the word.

I like it, that’s all. Michael does too. In life, which is such a constant welter of chaos, sometimes it helps to think that sometimes, just sometimes, the world makes a kind of beautiful sense.

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“There fell upon the ear the most terrible noise that human beings ever listened to – the cries of hundreds of people struggling in the icy cold water, crying for help with a cry we knew could not be answered.” – Ruth, Titanic survivor

On the night of April 14, 1912, the RMS Titanic of the White Star Line hit an iceberg in the North Atlantic and sank, killing 1,517 people, due to not enough lifeboats for all the passengers (and numerous other perfect-storm conditions).

For me, it is not so much the sinking of the ship that is the horrifying thing to contemplate (although that is definitely awful). It is the aftermath (described so vividly in the title of this post by “Ruth”): 1,500 people thrashing about in freezing ocean, miles and miles from anywhere, with lifeboats full (or half-full) of people bobbing nearby, listening to the sounds of the death throes.

Thomas Hardy wrote a poem about Titanic called “The Convergence of the Twain”. The title alone brings a chill of dread.

The Convergence of the Twain
by Thomas Hardy

In a solitude of the sea
Deep from human vanity,
And the Pride of Life that planned her, stilly couches she.

Steel chambers, late the pyres
Of her salamandrine fires,
Cold currents thrid, and turn to rhythmic tidal lyres.

Over the mirrors meant
To glass the opulent
The sea-worm crawls-grotesque, slimed, dumb, indifferent.

Jewels in joy designed
To ravish the sensuous mind
Lie lightless, all their sparkles bleared and black and blind.

Dim moon-eyed fishes near
Gaze at the gilded gear
And query: “What does this vaingloriousness down here?”…

Well: while was fashioning
This creature of cleaving wing,
The Immanent Will that stirs and urges everything

Prepared a sinister mate
For her – so gaily great –
A Shape of Ice, for the time far and dissociate.

And as the smart ship grew
In stature, grace, and hue,
In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too.

Alien they seemed to be:
No mortal eye could see
The intimate welding of their later history,

Or sign that they were bent
by paths coincident
On being anon twin halves of one august event,

Till the Spinner of the Years
Said “Now!” And each one hears,
And consummation comes, and jars two hemispheres.

And The Self-Styled Siren outdoes herself with a post on The Titanic, in three movies.

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Review: Heal the Living (2017): God, I loved this

Ignore the bad poster. This is a really special movie and it has stuck with me. It’s not what it’s about that matter, it’s HOW the story is told that is so special. Katell Quillévéré is an extremely talented director. This is her third feature (her other films, Suzanne and Love Like Poison are also very good. But this feels like a giant leap forward.)

My review of Heal the Living is now up at Rogerebert.com.

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“All his passwords were Hitler.”

This is incredibly charming and moving. Bob Saget, John Stamos and Jimmy Kimmel reminisce about Don Rickles.

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For the NY Times: ‘Feud: Bette and Joan’ Episode 6 Recap: Midnight Descending

My re-cap for “Hagsploitation,” episode 6 of Feud: Bette and Joan is up at the New York Times.

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Happy Birthday, Poet Christopher Smart

“I do not think he ought to be shut up. His infirmities were not noxious to society. He insisted on people praying with him; and I’d as lief pray with Kit Smart as anyone else. Another charge was that he did not love clean linen, and I have no passion for it.” — Dr. Johnson

Christopher Smart, born on this day in 1722, spent over 10 years of his life locked up in mental institutions (a kind term for what such establishments were back then). He seemed to suffer from some sort of religious ecstasy (although “suffering” is not the right word at all). He was overcome by the love of God. It made him tremble with happiness. To quote my Dad, “I see no problem.”

Smart was born in Kent, and after his father’s death when he was 11, he was taken under the wing of the Vane family (his father had been a steward at their home). The Vanes made sure he went to college, Pembroke. He became friends with Alexander Pope, and also somehow became acquainted with Dr. Johnson. He had problems right off the bat with drinking and money, irresponsible with both. He was arrested in 1747 for not paying his debts. He needed to make a living. He moved to London. He worked as an editor. He got married. In 1756 he was sent to an insane asylum and he stayed locked up until 1763. His wife left him during his incarceration, but in general he had not alienated his friends, and most stood by him, trying to help him out, financially or otherwise (he had two children by that point).

While he was in the asylum, he wrote A Song to David. It was published the year of his release. You can see in it Smart’s essential qualities, one of which is a love of lists – lists/outlines seemed to organize his high-flying rapturous thought processes. He can’t BEAR how much he has to say about David, and so he tries to break it down, break David down into the essences, which takes the form of a list. Exhibit A, Exhibit B, and so on. Smart’s language is startling, right off the bat. There is energy in the language. He is not lost in quiet contemplation. He is right up against it: he needs URGENTLY to speak.

Robert Graves wrote:

Christopher Smart wrote A Song to David in a lunatic asylum, and when his collected poems were published in 1791, it was omitted as ‘not acceptable to the reader’. This poem is formally addressed to David – Smart knew that he was no madder than King David had been, and a tradition survives that he scrabbled the verses with a key on the wall of his cell.

Michael Schmidt, in Lives of the Poets, writes:

However [Song to David] was written, they remain a wonder and a mystery, begotten of the Bible, of broad and deep learning, and of some catalyst that made a confusion that poet resolved, against chaos as it were, to put in some sort of order.

For the word of God is a sword on my side – no matter what other weapon a stick or a straw.
For I have adventured myself in the name of the Lord, and he hath marked me for his own.
For I bless God the Postmaster general & all conveyancers of letters under his care especially Allen & Shelvock.
For my grounds in New Canaan shall infinitely compensate for the flats & maynes of Staindrop Moore.
For the praise of God can give to a mute faith the notes of a nightingale.

Is it nonsense? Yes. Is it nonsense? No.

Northrop Frye wrote:

“[Alexander] Pope’s ‘Messiah’ is not musical, but Smart’s ‘Song to David’, with its pounding thematic words and the fortissimo explosion of its coda, is a musical tour de force.”

He died in 1771. His life was chaotic, to some degree, but his confinement was almost a blessing in that it allowed him the space to write without the pressure of having to make a living by it (a struggle for most writers). I am hesitant of making a blessing out of madness – even when some good art comes out of it. Anyone who has experienced madness to any degree will know that nobody would ever choose it. But madness does have its compensations. You’re not supposed to say that, but it’s the truth. As Dr. Johnson’s quote that opens this post suggests: Smart’s madness was benign. It didn’t cause him agony. He wanted to praise God. He would fall to his knees in the middle of public squares, lost in the rapture of God’s love. Well, I’ve seen such people all over New York. Perhaps a bit annoying if you are trying to walk down that sidewalk, but other than that, what’s the harm?

Michael Schmidt wrote in Lives of the Poets about how Smart’s desire to praise God helped form his poetry:

Smart’s originality is the product not of a candid, puzzled, anxious personality like William Cowper’s, nor the lucid, nostalgic and humane sensibility of a Goldsmith. It’s the product of a distinctly poetic imagination, using that term in a classical sense. Smart seldom composes verse: he is a poet rare in any age, most rare in the eighteenth century, a spiritual enthusiast and a consummate verbal artist. He might resemble Blake, only he has greater formal tact, a better ear, a better (that is, a less didactic) nature. His poems exist to celebrate God, not to cajole, instruct and persuade us.

In his most famous poem, the one most often quoted today, Christopher Smart sat and watched his cat Jeoffry stretching and playing in the sun, and became overwhelmed by God’s nearness and presence, obvious to him in every ripple of muscle in the cat’s body. The poem that resulted from his awe-struck observations is one of my favorites of all time: “Jubilate Agno, Fragment B [For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry]”.

Christopher Smart’s influence was quite local during his own time, but he has easily crossed the centuries following his death, and new generations of readers continue to discover his wonderful work. Allen Ginsberg spoke of him as a huge influence. In Smart’s poem about his cat Jeoffry, you can almost feel Christopher Smart “rapping” about the cat, riffing … a la the Beats of the 40s and 50s, with complete confidence in what Ginsberg, centuries later, would call “first thought best thought”. I don’t believe that first thought is always best thought. Sometimes “first thought” needs to go through an editing process. But Smart’s sound – a voice murmuring over and over, turning around and around the same topic – can be heard in poets centuries later.

Smart’s lines don’t look like other poet’s lines (at least not in the 18th century). His lines look like the lines from poets in the mid-20th century. He often begins all lines with the same word, giving the verse an incantatory feel. His lines are long and conversational, they look like the lines of “Howl”.

Donald Davie writes:

It is not impossible that when Smart is judged over the whole range of his various productions – conventional in form as well as unconventional, light and even ribald as well as devotional, urbane or tender as well as sublime – he will be thought of as the greatest English poet between Pope and Wordsworth.

Schmidt addresses the whole madness issue in his section on Smart:

We readily assume that he wrote in madness, that what he wrote, in its forms and themes, partakes of his derangement. Or we divide the work into sane and “insane” and judge the parts by distinct criteria. But his madness can be seen not so much as a disorder as alternative order, his religious vision not as eccentric but as direct, comprehensive. To say an artist is “mad” is to say very little. What matters is what he makes of language. Smart makes passionate poetry…

He is not an imitator even in his translations, which hold the original in a form and language that make no concessions. He feels and conveys the force of the poetry he admires. His intution is attuned to a broad tradition, not caught in the rut of convention. Marcus Walsh calls Smart’s mature style “mannered, religiose and self-conscious” – and each becomes a positive critical term, for together they produce a “homogenous” style that “unifies” – the crucial word – “a number of divergent influences”. It is the paradoxical combination of influences, biblical and classical, and the disruptions his imagination registers, that make him outstanding and eccentric. Learning and accidents of biography delver him from the bondage of Augustan convention into the sometimes anarchic, vertiginous freedom of Jubliate Agno and the originality of the Song to David. He has few heirs.


And about his “cat poem”:

First of all, check out this gorgeous post.

Second of all: Living as I do with a furry purry beast, Christopher Smart’s lines often come to mind when I watch her behavior. Certain things she will do will remind me of this or that line of his long poem, and it makes me laugh. I think of that 18th-century kitty cat named Jeoffry, and I love that the world may change, technology may change, but cats never change.

Illustrations of some of the lines of Smart’s poem, starring my cat Hope.

For she can creep

For every family had one cat at least in the bag.

For she is tenacious of her point.

For every house is incomplete without her and a blessing is lacking in the spirit.

For she purrs in thankfulness, when God tells her she’s a good Cat

For she is the tribe of the Tiger

For she can set up with gravity which is patience upon approbation.

For she counteracts the powers of darkness by her electrical skin and glaring eyes.

And here is the long-awaited Cat Poem. It still has the power to move me. It is a prayer of thankfulness that cats exist, that Jeoffry is there with him in the asylum, to be contemplated, to be treasured.

For I Will Consider My Cat Jeoffry

For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.
For he is the servant of the Living God duly and daily serving him.
For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way.
For this is done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness.
For then he leaps up to catch the musk, which is the blessing of God upon his prayer.
For he rolls upon prank to work it in.
For having done duty and received blessing he begins to consider himself.
For this he performs in ten degrees.
For first he looks upon his forepaws to see if they are clean.
For secondly he kicks up behind to clear away there.
For thirdly he works it upon stretch with the forepaws extended.
For fourthly he sharpens his paws by wood.
For fifthly he washes himself.
For sixthly he rolls upon wash.
For seventhly he fleas himself, that he may not be interrupted upon the beat.
For eighthly he rubs himself against a post.
For ninthly he looks up for his instructions.
For tenthly he goes in quest of food.
For having consider’d God and himself he will consider his neighbour.
For if he meets another cat he will kiss her in kindness.
For when he takes his prey he plays with it to give it a chance.
For one mouse in seven escapes by his dallying.
For when his day’s work is done his business more properly begins.
For he keeps the Lord’s watch in the night against the adversary.
For he counteracts the powers of darkness by his electrical skin and glaring eyes.
For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life.
For in his morning orisons he loves the sun and the sun loves him.
For he is of the tribe of Tiger.
For the Cherub Cat is a term of the Angel Tiger.
For he has the subtlety and hissing of a serpent, which in goodness he suppresses.
For he will not do destruction, if he is well-fed, neither will he spit without provocation.
For he purrs in thankfulness, when God tells him he’s a good Cat.
For he is an instrument for the children to learn benevolence upon.
For every house is incomplete without him and a blessing is lacking in the spirit.
For the Lord commanded Moses concerning the cats at the departure of the Children of Israel from Egypt.
For every family had one cat at least in the bag.
For the English Cats are the best in Europe.
For he is the cleanest in the use of his forepaws of any quadruped.
For the dexterity of his defence is an instance of the love of God to him exceedingly.
For he is the quickest to his mark of any creature.
For he is tenacious of his point.
For he is a mixture of gravity and waggery.
For he knows that God is his Saviour.
For there is nothing sweeter than his peace when at rest.
For there is nothing brisker than his life when in motion.
For he is of the Lord’s poor and so indeed is he called by benevolence perpetually–Poor Jeoffry! poor Jeoffry! the rat has bit thy throat.
For I bless the name of the Lord Jesus that Jeoffry is better.
For the divine spirit comes about his body to sustain it in complete cat.
For his tongue is exceeding pure so that it has in purity what it wants in music.
For he is docile and can learn certain things.
For he can set up with gravity which is patience upon approbation.
For he can fetch and carry, which is patience in employment.
For he can jump over a stick which is patience upon proof positive.
For he can spraggle upon waggle at the word of command.
For he can jump from an eminence into his master’s bosom.
For he can catch the cork and toss it again.
For he is hated by the hypocrite and miser.
For the former is afraid of detection.
For the latter refuses the charge.
For he camels his back to bear the first notion of business.
For he is good to think on, if a man would express himself neatly.
For he made a great figure in Egypt for his signal services.
For he killed the Ichneumon-rat very pernicious by land.
For his ears are so acute that they sting again.
For from this proceeds the passing quickness of his attention.
For by stroking of him I have found out electricity.
For I perceived God’s light about him both wax and fire.
For the Electrical fire is the spiritual substance, which God sends from heaven to sustain the bodies both of man and beast.
For God has blessed him in the variety of his movements.
For, tho he cannot fly, he is an excellent clamberer.
For his motions upon the face of the earth are more than any other quadruped.
For he can tread to all the measures upon the music.
For he can swim for life.
For he can creep.

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Review: Win It All (2017)

I reviewed Joe Swanberg’s latest, Win It All, for Rogerebert.com.

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For Billie Holiday’s Birthday

Here is Frank O’Hara’s poem called “The Day Lady Died.”

The Day Lady Died

It is 12:20 in New York a Friday
three days after Bastille day, yes
it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine
because I will get off the 4:19 in Easthampton
at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner
and I don’t know the people who will feed me

I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun
and have a hamburger and a malted and buy
an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets
in Ghana are doing these days
I go on to the bank
and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)
doesn’t even look up my balance for once in her life
and in the GOLDEN GRIFFIN I get a little Verlaine
for Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I do
think of Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore or
Brendan Behan’s new play or Le Balcon or Les Nègres
of Genet, but I don’t, I stick with Verlaine
after practically going to sleep with quandariness

and for Mike I just stroll into the PARK LANE
Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and
then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue
and the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatre and
casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton
of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it

and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing

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Happy Birthday, Merle Haggard


“There were so many things I loved about the thirties. I could find many reasons for wanting to live back there. Such as trains was the main method of travel, the glamour of trains always appealed to me. And America was at the dawn of an industrial age. Coming out of a Depression into a war. Then again the music was young. So many things were being done in music, it was wide open back then, electronics had not yet been involved, and basically it was REAL. Sure, I’d have liked to have visited those days and at least seen it happen. For musicians of that generations such as Eldon Shamblin and Joe Venuti it was an unbelievable period to live in, they saw it all.”
— Merle Haggard

“I heard [Johnny Cash] when he first came out in ’55. I heard them all. I was two years younger than Elvis, and I was in a lot of trouble then. I was going to jail a lot. I went to jail and did a year, ’54 to ’55, and Elvis came out. Elvis got my attention first and I liked Jerry Lee Lewis a lot and Carl Perkins. I was a fan of all of those Memphis guys. I worked in the nightclubs quite a while before I got lucky with records and I did all of their songs and identified a lot closer with them than Hank Williams or somebody. They were more my age and it was a little more modern. And it was rockabilly. That’s sort of what I was. Both Elvis and Johnny were widely accepted by people in jail. They were both rebellious against the system, and we read that clearly. That’s what they saw in Cash, that he didn’t like the system and he didn’t like the people in charge and didn’t like being told what to do.”
— Merle Haggard in this great Rolling Stone interview. He describes being in prison in San Quentin in the 50s when Cash came to play there. Very emotional.

Excerpt from the chapter on Merle Haggard in Peter Guralnick’s wonderful book Lost Highway: Journeys and Arrivals of American Musicians:

His whole career has been founded upon … paradox. As a young man barely out of prison, he crooned love songs, sounding very much like Marty Robbins, who was hot at the time. It was not even his own compositions that few drew upon the prison experience for him; instead he virtually stumbled upon the song, ‘I’m a Lonesome Fugitive.’ “Liz Anderson [the writer] came to a show we were doing in Sacramento. She said she had some songs, but I wouldn’t have listened if it hadn’t been for my brother Lowell. It turned out she had six hits in her pocket. Well, that kind of opened up a whole trend of songs, such as ‘Branded Man’ and ‘Sing Me Back Home.’ It gave me thought for writing. It gave me a direction for writing. You see, what it was, with that song I was really and finally some way or another come together – musically and image-wise. I mean, it was a true song. I wasn’t trying to shit nobody, because long ago I had made the decision not to try to hide my past, but then I found out it was one of the most interesting things about me.”

Nonetheless, when it looked as if the prison songs were becoming a trap, Merle neatly sidestepped that issue by embarking upon the first in his series of historical albums. And when ‘Okie from Muskogee’ hit in 1969, bringing undreamt-of fame and presidential invitations, Merle’s first inclination (thwarted by his record company) was to release ‘Irma Jackson,’ a tale of interracial love, as the follow-up. His whole career in fact can be looked upon as a series of deliberate avoidances (walking out on the Ed Sullivan show, quitting a network production of Oklahoma), instinctive retreats from the obvious, and restatements of his central role as an outsider (remaining in Bakersfield, rather than moving to Nashville, was one very key element of his alienation; even his blues singing, a major component of his music, stresses over and over that ‘I’m a White Boy,’ a ‘White Man Singin’ the Blues’).

Perhaps this is what has enabled him to create the astonishing body of work that represents the ‘career’ of Merle Haggard. There is no one in contemporary popular music who has created a more impressive legacy, or one that spans a wider variety of styles. In a genre that has always relied upon filler to round out the album coming off a country hit, Merle has written the vast preponderance of his material (“Without writing, you have nothing,” says Merle, meaning both the royalties and the satisfaction) and has used each album as a vehicle for personal expression, sometimes not even leaving the room to include the hit. He has written blues and folk songs, social commentary and classic love songs, protest and anti-protest, gospels and ballads, prison and train songs, drinking songs, and updates of Jimmie Rodgers’ blue yodels. He has written just about every kind of song there is, in fact, except a convincing rock number, and while such prolificness is not without its price (some of the rhymes are less than fresh, some of the metaphors could have been worked out a little more fully, and sometimes you wish an idea had been left to simmer rather than having been incorporated immediately into a song), taken as a whole the body of work that he has created is absolutely staggering.

Here’s Eric Church: “Pledge Allegiance to the Hag.”

“I sometimes feel like I’m standing up for the people that don’t have the nerve to stand up for themselves. I just enjoyed winning for the loser. I’d never been around anything except losers my whole life.”
Merle Haggard

He also was … not hard to look at. Like, at all.

Haggard pays tribute to Elvis in “From Graceland to the Promised Land.”

Haggard said to Peter Guralnick in the 70s:

[Elvis was] a prisoner of success. I’m positive he was. I didn’t know Elvis well, but I met him and I knew a lot of people who were close to him. Elvis, I believe, was just plain simply tired of it. He didn’t want to live any longer. I don’t know how you feel about these things, but the celestial life – if such a thing exists – I think that was what he was seeking. I think it released him. Either that or he didn’t die at all. Had a face-lift and a fingerprint job – if you think about it, it isn’t that far-fetched. A lot of people who were there swear it wasn’t him in the coffin.

He died on his birthday last year.

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