If you come up to me, face to face, and suggest something about me — in the sweetest tone of voice — that I know to be untrue, or something that hurts my feelings, I can respond in several ways.  “You were misinformed.”  “That just isn’t the case.”  “Why would you say something like that?” “I wish you wouldn’t talk that way,” and a dozen others.

If you write something about me that is unkind, offensive, biased, or false, I can respond in the same ways . . . or, if I am furious or wounded, I can hire an attorney to put sharp-edged words on paper to make you stop.  “Libel” and “slander” become part of the conversation, as does the all-purpose phrase “legal action.”

But the dead have no such recourse.

Here’s a true story.  Two years ago, someone I had never before encountered wrote to me with some anecdotes he thought I would like to print on JAZZ LIVES.  One of them concerned a musician I will call Charles Atlas.  I knew that Charles occasionally took a drink, but my correspondent told a tale of alcohol making him act foolishly.  I will spare you the details.

Reading this tale of a grown man’s stupidity, I felt wounded.  Could one of my heroes have behaved like this?  But almost immediately that feeling of shock was followed by protectiveness.  I wasn’t about to bring shame to Charles, nor was I going to participate in publicizing stories — true or not — that would encourage readers to laugh at him, to think he was less than heroic.

In the 1980s, Joyce Carol Oates coined the term “pathography” for the modern biographical study that emphasizes the subject’s flaws: “dysfunction and disaster, illnesses and pratfalls, failed marriages and failed careers, alcoholism and breakdowns and outrageous conduct.”  Although such books — and the gloating self-righteousness the reader is encouraged to indulge in — are fascinating in the same way a tabloid newspaper, seen at the supermarket checkout is — their appeal is essentially repellent.

So that when I read a recent news story that refers to Louis Armstrong as a lower-case “lothario,” I am appalled, not only by the weird archaism, but at the mix of prurience and disrespect.  “Hey, that’s LOUIS ARMSTRONG you are talking about, Buster!” I want to say.

Some readers might think that all journalistic exploration is justified.  After all, to know the whole person do we not need to know his or her faults?  Perhaps. But is it crucial to our understanding of Ben Webster’s music to know that he had a violent side?  And if we insist on knowing this, how large a shadow should it cast on his life’s work?  Is Ruby Braff’s legendary irascibility more memorable than his music?  I think not.  If this sounds as if I am a hero-worshipping nineteenth-century biographer, I confess to leaning in that direction.  Human beings are complex and not all mysteries are meant to be unraveled.

Privacy counts.  Twenty years ago, I would have taken the position that the private life of a public individual was fair game.  But I have shifted that position so that when the elderly widow of a famous artist talked about her desire to burn certain private letters, I thought she had the right idea.  You can come visit me; I will speak candidly to you, but you cannot follow me into the bathroom.

And privacy is such a fragile concept in this century: type in anyone’s name and Google downwards.  The chance of finding that name followed by “hot nude photos” is not small.

If we love and respect someone while he or she is on the planet, should those feelings of affection and reverence cease when the person has made the transition to another existence?

But disrespect and unkindness to the dead are not solely the purview of people who (consciously or not) want to pull down the great figures because they are so imposing, because they make ordinary mortals seem so tiny.  The dead can be treated unkindly by those who feel great love for their idols.

People in love with the great artists can also crush and deform them in a choking embrace — an embrace turned off-balance by an ideological notion.  Someone who has labored to write a book on Kid MacIntosh must be careful not to distort or invent evidence to make the Kid a victim, perhaps.  The distorting impulse is subtle, and it comes out of love, “How could someone like the Kid have been less than a superstar?  It must have been his manager / his wife / discrimination / exploitation,” etc.  But love can obstruct our clear sight as much as any other emotion.  The chronicler who thinks (s)he owns the subject is mistaken.  The Kid was there before the book began and will remain long after the book has been remaindered.

We should treat the dead kindly.  Someday we all will be dead, and perhaps we will hope for the same posthumous kindness.

May your happiness increase.

11 responses to “TREAT THE DEAD KINDLY

  1. Loved this post in particular, Michael. I feel very strongly that a public person-living or dead- has the right to a private life. Well done.

    Warm wishes, Cindy

    Sent from my iPhone

  2. I’m so proud to be related to you!!!

  3. Great words of love for human being, my friend.. Have an happy and full of love christmas David

    Davide Brillante Via Idice 111/A Ozzano dell’Emilia 40064 Bologna Tel.+39/3288699455 Fisso: +39/0516515206

  4. Yes, well said! I know it sounds kind of goofy but one of the things that appealed to me about old 78’s was the total (at the time) mysterious anonymity of the musicians.

  5. ericwhittington

    Hi, Don’t remember what caused me to start getting your posts, which I did a month or two, but am very glad about it. Haven’t got time to read every single one, but check out a lot of them. This one’s particularly good, but so have been most of thoseI’ve read to date. Many thanks. & Happy Holidays… Eric Whittington Bird & Beckett Books San Francisco


  6. Very well expressed, Michael. Exactly how I feel. We are on the same page!

  7. A very thoughtful piece of writing, Michael. Of the many possible strands one might pick out from your essay, I would like to follow up with an observation about the behavior and maturation of artists in general. (Those words, “in general,” are dangerous I know.) All artists tend towards narcissism; being a successful artist nearly demands it at times. Commercially successful artists (among whom we can certainly include Mr. Armstrong) have less incentive to “grow up” than “average” folks. Working out your minimum wage paycheck to cover the costs of paying for rent and your baby’s food forces you to grow up. If you are very successful at your art, you may be forgiven for transgressions and furthermore you are paid well as long as you perform well. There weren’t a lot of dis-incentives for Louis to stop womanizing. There was a potentially unending stream of available females, and his reputation as a ladies’ man would hardly discourage all of them. I have been told by someone who should know, that Louis’ friends finally prevailed upon him to stop beating women, when he was well into his middle years. None of this diminishes his art. If we discovered that Albert Einstein was a serial shoplifter, would that alter our perception of his genius? There will always be those who delight in tearing down, and also those would delight in myth-making. The truth is somewhere else.

  8. I’m happy that this excellent post has received a number of responses. Your words echo one of the dissatisfying contradictions I have encountered in the field of serious jazz historiography: One can never know what was in a musician’s mind when a recording was created/a musician’s creations are not necessarily reflective of their life or inner self BUT, as a matter of interview strategy, be ruthlessly casual when asking the “necessary” questions about their drug addiction, pending paternity suits, dismissed murder charges, etc. If this is how budding scholars are taught to pursue a person sitting in the same room who has graciously agreed to share their living time, should we be surprised at this rousting of dead? Wouldn’t it be interesting to instead study the consciences of such writers, and to observe all of the loopholes of rationalization surely contained therein?

  9. If we have no respect for the dead, how can we possibly have respect for the living?

  10. Again, well said. We should judge a performer on their ability not on whether they have tatoos or body piercings or by their colour or faith.

    Nor should we judge those from times past by todays standards.

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