THERE is always a pig in the tale, and when celebs die we try to find it. The defamation of this scoundrel is a kind of purification of our own demons. The problem is that the pig is more often than not the celeb themselves.
Let's have a look at three recently departed heroes: Robbie Robertson, Sinéad O'Connor and Tony Bennett. With each of them there was a pig in the tale. Fortunately not the same pig.
So much has been written about O'Connor recently (she renamed herself Shuhada' Sadaqat when she became Muslim) that I will not dwell on her too long.
Few people have made me react as emotionally to their singing as O'Connor. Unusual in appearance, a voice like an angel, interpreter of lyrics without equal.
As a person, she was a living disaster area. Not because of the weed she smoked every day. She reacted badly to all other drugs, she recounts in her autobiography, Rememberings, and the green stuff put her in the moment, especially when she sang.
Her real problem, she admitted, was that she always knew better than others. The extreme example of this is that she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder but denied it for the rest of her life and refused any medication that might have helped her.
She boasted that the times she ended up in institutions for treatment, she made sure she got her hands on amphetamines and celebrated life inside at full speed. “I get to call it a nuthouse because I'm a nut."
She was also willing to believe any old story and follow bad advice. Her first pregnancy was the result of her gullible acceptance of a friend's remark that a woman is at her most infertile on the middle day between two flows.
Before the birth of her first child, another friend told her she should drink a lot of castor oil when her contractions started. Which O'Connor did in excess, with the kind of consequences that make you shudder. Twenty bedpans full, she says.
O'Connor was a veteran of eight failed suicide attempts. She leaves us with the gift of exquisite music, which I would rather remember than the way she died.
Tony Bennett was on the same trajectory as O'Connor, but not quite on the spectrum as she was.
He was always someone who was at the wrong place at the wrong time — not hip enough to be fashionable. A jazz singer at the beginning of the pop revolution of the early 1960s, a Las Vegas crooner who didn't rhyme with the Quaalude-and-cocaine crowd of the early 1970s, a pop singer with real talent in the time of autotune.
Actually, he was a fascinating person. He will be honoured for his singing, but he also excelled as a painter under his real surname, Benedetto. (“The art of painting teaches you who you are. When you're at the canvas, you're all alone; you're thinking about your own story.”)
He had his own enormous struggle with drugs, which taught him how to bring stability and sobriety to two great musicians with serious addictions — Amy Winehouse and Bill Evans — at critical stages in their lives.
Bennett fired his manager, Ralph Sharon, in 1965 when he had to give up jazz due to pressure from his record company for more popular songs. Soon without a record deal, Bennett began to follow his own whims, became addicted to cocaine and ended up on the streets.
In 1979, he almost died of a drug overdose and was saved from drowning in his bath by his then wife, Sandra Grant. His son Danny took over his affairs. Bennett was able to use the 1980s to get his career back on track with hard work and careful selection of material.
Ironically, the album considered to be his peak as a singer, The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album (1975), was produced when Evans's addiction was at its worst and Bennett's problem with coke was gathering pace. The album was recorded over three days with only Bennett and Evans in the studio, and Helen Keane (his new manager) and the sound engineer, Don Cody, in the control room.
That was the album that rehabilitated Bennett in the eyes of his contemporaries and made Winehouse decide he was the only man on earth she could trust.
Since the turn of the century, Bennett has been the senior singer in the entertainment world. In Life Is A Gift he writes that his mantra, and the core of his being, was the words of Bill Evans — all that matters in life is “truth and beauty".
Bennett had Alzheimer's disease for the last three years of his life. According to his son, he could no longer remember the titles of songs, but as soon as the music started playing he could recall all the lyrics perfectly — the best proof that good music is timeless.
Robbie Robertson and Levon Helm
While O'Connor and Bennett were victims of their own weaknesses, Robertson, a masterful guitarist, composer and inspiration to many, was plagued by jealousy of people who were supposed to be grateful for the opportunities he created for them.
Robertson is the man who created The Band's musical identity with his compositions — and shaped the direction of modern music thanks to his influence on people such as Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton. As a member of The Band, he was lucky to find himself in the company of a group of gifted musicians who were able to bring his blend of folk, rock, Americana and gospel to life.
The Band were the musicians who rescued Dylan from his slump of the late 1960s with the making of the legendary The Basement Tapes, and this collaboration spilled over into The Band's first album, Music from the Big Pink. In their Hawks guise, The Band also accompanied Dylan on his famous British concert tour of 1966.
I reckon Robertson achieved even more with his solo career after The Band. His efforts to incorporate the culture of the North American natives into his music will probably be appreciated even more in the years to come.
The pig in Robertson's tale is Levon Helm, drummer of The Band. Robertson would be the first to admit that the world he moved in was a drug environment. He referred to it in his memoir, Testimony, because Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Helm's drinking and heroin use eventually led to The Band's demise. He never developed a problem with addiction himself, but Helm was in the super league.
Apart from his musical activities, Helm also acted in exceptional films such as Coal Miner's Daughter, The Right Stuff, Fire Down Below, In the Electric Mist and Staying Together. He developed throat cancer in 2011 and died in April 2012.
After the filming of The Last Waltz in 1976, he and Robertson spoke to each other mainly through their lawyers after Helm accused Robertson of stealing royalties. He claimed Robertson did not give him the credit he was due for creating the music.
The custom is that those who write the lyrics and create the basic melody are designated as composers. The Beatles and the Rolling Stones are the best examples of this custom. John Lennon and Paul McCartney; Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. It doesn't matter that George Harrison created the Beatles' guitar solos or that Mick Taylor and Ronnie Wood did the same with the Stones; they don't get credit for it in terms of royalties.
Over the years, this tradition has caused great friction in most large groups and in many cases caused their demise, with the lawyers walking away with the booty.
Helm could not get used to the idea, especially since his film work was increasingly in minor movies, mainly cameo roles — due to his unreliability. And unreliability, followers of popular culture will know, is the codeword for drug addiction. That's when people start complaining about money.
The story received a lot of exposure in the media over the years. Helm made sure of it. When it became known that Robertson increasingly gave Helm more credit and thus created a royalty stream for him, even in cases where Helm's singing interpretation was all that could be recognised, the tide began to turn against Helm.
The two reconciled before Helm's death. Whether this peace succeeded in rehabilitating Helm's public image is no foregone conclusion.
Until his death, Robertson maintained it was the correct decision to dissolve The Band after the 1977 Islands album. He knew The Band was nothing without him.
Listen to the play lists of each of these deceased artists:
♦ VWB ♦
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