Tuesday, December 13, 2005

richard pryor addresses a tearful nation

sometimes i think i've almost fooled myself
sometimes i think i've almost fooled myself
spreading out my wings
above us like a tree,
laughing now, out loud,
almost like i was free...

comedian richard pryor died on saturday of a heart attack. he had been afflicted with multiple sclerosis for some time. strangely, without any warning of his imminent demise, i had earlier in the week found myself dialing up joe henry's 2003 album scar on the ipod, specifically to listen to the song cited in the title above. i wasn't thinking of richard pryor, who is not named in the song itself (which received pryor's blessing), so much as the poignant, contemplative power of the tune, which usually transports me out of whatever careworn world i've fretted myself into. it incorporates an astonishing saxophone solo by the genius ornette coleman, which flutters and stutters, croons and bleats, crescendos madly and crashes down willy-nilly ... an alternately powerful and plaintive, strangely accurate impression of a life, a spirit, an essence. and if you want to hear it, you can listen here.

...anyway, america mourns. sort of.

we have a lot of mournful things on our minds right now, which doesn't mean richard slipped through the cracks. he almost slipped through our hands already, due to the crack, or really the freebase, which isn't the same thing i guess. in 1980 the man lit himself on fire, literally, but it seems to me that long before that, when he started pushing the boundaries with race and sex and profanity, self-immolation was a near-nightly thing, metaphorically speaking.

the nation had already seen some fire-walking comedians -- lenny bruce, dick gregory. but pryor, although regularly launching himself into allegedly forbidden territory, was also quite comfortably mainstream -- he wrote for tv (even winning an emmy), acted in popular films, hosted the academy awards. i have heard this said a lot of johnny cash lately: "he spoke truth to power," and i think that it is true of pryor too. except maybe even more so, b/c often when he was speaking truth to power he had made them pay for the privilege.

i look at you as the thing i wanted most
you look at me, and it's like you've seen a ghost
i wear the face
of all this has cost:
everything you tried to keep away from me,
everything i took from you and lost
all i took from you and lost...

after he nearly burned himself up in 1980 -- suicide attempt? accident? byproduct of drug psychosis? -- he became the phoenix, resurrected from ashes. using the ashes, in fact, as resurrection, eliciting from the nation the same horror/laughter he had done with social, racial, sexual humor.

lights shine above me, they're like your eyes above the street
lights shine below me, they're like stars beneath my feet
i stood on your shoulders
and i walked on my hands,
you watched me while i tried to fall
you couldn't bear to watch me land
try and land...

sometimes we did not watch. donnell told me that pryor emptied out the laugh factory some night when whatever edge he was walking sliced through him instead of cutting the intended target. but sometimes maybe we stared too hard. it seems like now there's only love for him, but he wasn't universally admired when he was shoving into people's faces the things they didn't dare to -- or want to -- consider about this great land. for the people who were open to his message -- and the anger and sense of injustice behind it -- he was a liberator. for the people who weren't, he was a threat. like lenny bruce, he knew the power of words, and he could deftly play with that power. my impression of him is as fearless, but ... i dunno. did he crave the spotlight above all else, as performers often do, whatever their message or mission? did he then fear the loss of attention, maybe more than censure or disease? huh. now i am speculating wildly.

after his illness became known, i think there was a softening toward pryor b/c of it. almost like he was defanged in a way, still alive but not exactly kicking. a relic of sorts, a known quantity, a predictable presence, someone who still stood for what he stood for but yet -- in a world he had helped create, of williamses and murphys and rocks and hickses and probably even foxworthys -- he had made his "contribution," as it could now safely, euphemistically be called. but he would never again make us squirm and chortle with uncomfortable recognition, challenge us on his feet while we sat on our asses.

take me away, carry me like a dove
take me away, carry me like a dove
love me like you're lying
let me feel you near,
remember me for trying
and excuse me while i disappear
excuse me while i disappear...

dear richard: i still see you. rest in peace, motherfucker.

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