Two Deaths & a Birthday

18 12 2011

A front-row seat to the cycle of birth and death makes the holidays a little more poignant, nonetheless so for three people I’ve never met but would have enjoyed the opportunity to buy them a drink and say thanks for their great works.

Cesaria Evora, the Cape Verdean singer who died this weekend, is one of those artists whose work I unhesitatingly recommend to anyone willing to take a gamble. Not much risk involved. She’s an artist everyone likes when they give a listen, and that’s rare. There’s only a few in that pantheon, which includes Louis Prima and Al Kooper, crowd pleasers all once given the chance.

While my Portuguese isn’t exactly up to snuff, it doesn’t matter. The timbre, the expressive quality of her voice, allows her message to cross language boundaries and find its rightful home in the heart. If you haven’t heard her, do yourself a favor and buy or download any of her material. High on the list should be Miss Perfumado and Cafe Atlantico.

She came to Atlanta and played to a half-filled house a few years ago. The audience was the faithful, and they sincerely appreciated every note and gesture. At one point, the piano went a little out of whack and while someone climbed under the lid for a minor bit of tuning, Evora lit a cigarette and gave an appreciative smile whenever a note slid back home. Soon the audience was applauding too and she nodded along. The band thought it was all funny too. It was a small group, barely beyond playing cafes and other small venues. They probably didn’t know a lick of English between them, but you could see they were glad to be along for the ride.

Oh, and no one on the stage that night, including the star, was under the age of 60. They all had enough life experience to appreciate their skills and luck.

The world also lost Christopher Hitchens in the past week. Not always the most likable of public intellectuals, a rarity enough in this country, he became a star because of his sheer force of will, a remarkable intellect, and a work ethic that approached superhuman. Sure, his appetite for alcohol and cigarettes was also beyond human and ultimately it did him in. But that was part of the appeal.

Two of his works stand out for me: God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything and Blood, Class, and Nostalgia: Anglo-American Ironies. He was not one for the echo chamber that has become the American version of public discussion. He had opinions that respected no party line but were rooted in a passion and a deeply philosophical belief that the oppressed deserved a voice the giants could hear and respect.

I didn’t always agree with him, but I’ll miss the wit, the humor, the discourse, the accent, and the huge breadth of his knowledge.

Not all is lost this weekend. Keith Richards, the human riff, celebrates his 68th birthday today, Sunday.

I’m always taken aback by people who, especially lately, say they’re surprised he can remember anything beyond this morning. Keith has been the best interview in show business for decades, and that knocks aside a few really good ones who aren’t afraid to tell a backstage anecdote, including Peter O’Toole and Malcom McDowell.

His 1971 interview with Rolling Stone was lengthy, hilarious, and pithy. If you haven’t read it, take the opportunity if you can find a copy. Sure, the language has dated, but the passion and humor haven’t.

A more recent glimpse of the man is here, courtesy the Beeb: 

Keith’s ever-present so give yourself a good listen to Steel Wheels or Voodoo Lounge. Both are overlooked, underrated, late-period Rolling Stones records that show how an artist in command ages with dignity and respect. Yes, not words usually associated with him or that band, but give them a chance. Both will add quality to your life.

Happy birthday, Keith, and I hope there are many more.