Friday, June 11, 2004

Cosmic Ray

I can't help thinking Ray Charlespicked a bad time to leave the planet, what with all the hubbub over a certain freshly dead president and all.

Why, just a few hours before I heard the sad news about the Genius of Soul, I was wondering who would play Mother Teresa to Reagan's Princess Di: the unfortunate soul deprived of adequately detailed posthumous tributes in the wake of another, more glamorous, fatality around the same time. (I seem to recall Stanley Kubrick dying too close to somebody else, too, though I don't remember whom now.)

I somehow doubt Ray Charles eulogies will be as plentiful as those for R.R.--even though I must humbly suggest he probably left just as big a mark on the planet in his own (significantly more life-affirming) way. Because all his major work was done before I became aware of him, I never had the chance to encounter it in its freshest state.

Unless you count the first time I saw Bruce Conner's short film "Cosmic Ray" back in college long long ago. The song that formed the soundtrack was so exciting, so catchy ... and it was Ray Charles singing "What'd I Say."

Many years later, about a week after September 11, 2001, I held a performance/media event in my home to give people a chance to express whatever it was they were experiencing in those charged days, and a friend of mine brought a tape of Mr. Charles (that doesn't sound right!) singing "God Bless America" as his contribution. Some of the audience members, already weary of the flag-waving on the streets of the U.S., were annoyed by what they probably felt was yet another instance of mindless nationalist fervor, but to me there's a huge gap between Kate Smith (for instance) singing that particular anthem and Ray Charles. In that gap is a whole version of America that the current Reagan nostalgia trip seems determined to suppress.

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