Sometimes your heroes
Get better with age
Hero worship is a tough business. From both sides. It can be crippling for the hero who has to live up to the hype. It’s equally difficult for the worshipper who has to either admit the hero has clay feet or go on touting the hero’s now less-than-stellar accomplishments.
Last week we buried a hero that seem to have figured it out. The late Sen. John McCain had little trouble – though he didn’t really like to do it – admitting he had feet of clay like anyone else. Still, he punched well above his weight on the national stage, coming close to that most valued prize, the presidency. And to judge from the recent HBO special on the former POW and U.S. senator, For Whom the Bell Tolls, his 2000 “Straight Talk Express” campaign for the Republican presidential nomination was unlike anything in modern politics in being both enlightening and just flat-out entertaining as hell. The reporters who covered McCain during that campaign seemed – to a man and woman – sad to see it end, knowing they would never see its likes again.
After McCain died, the one clip I heard over and over was of the candidate at a 2008 town hall meeting correcting a woman who said she couldn’t trust Obama because he was “an Arab.”
“No, ma’am,” interrupted McCain. “He’s a decent family man. [A] citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what the campaign’s all about.”
Praise even came from McCain’s former captors. McCain’s Skyhawk dive bomber was shot down over Hanoi in 1967 and he was taken prisoner and held in the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” prison for more than five years.
Former Col. Tran Trong Duyet, who ran the prison at the time, said he met with McCain many times while he was confined there.
“At that time I liked him personally for his toughness and strong stance,” he told the newspaper Vietnam News, published by the official Vietnam News Agency.
And when McCain made one of the biggest mistakes of his political career – intervening on behalf of one of the biggest offenders during the saving-and-loan crisis of the late 1980s – he rebounded by pushing for substantial campaign reform. In other words, he used his experience to improve the country.
As he was laid to rest, McCain seemed like a man who had stepped into the late 20th century steeped in the values and codes of the Victorian era when a man’s reputation was measured by what he said and how he acted, not how many TV viewers or Twitter followers he had.
Last week I also went to see an old hero of mine, Boz Scaggs. The Plano-raised blue-eyed soul and rock singer is now 74 and the radio hits have long dried up. Heck, music radio itself has dried up. But from 1976 to 1981, there was no stopping Scaggs, who racked up a string of hits from Lowdown to Lido Shuffle. I saw Scaggs a few times in those years when he was big and he always had a tight rhythm section that could put a solid, irresistible groove into the slowest song. You couldn’t help but move to it.
The inebriated folk at the show I saw at The Theatre in Grand Prairie – many of whom had a tough time negotiating the stairs – still shook their hips. A woman in front of me seemed oblivious to the music other than to scream “Woo-woo” whenever she noticed there was someone on stage. That was when she wasn’t taking selfies with her phone or trying to find her lost shoe. I’ve given up trying to be in the perfect audience.
Nevertheless, Scaggs always knew his craft. One of his signature songs from his second album was a version of Fenton Robinson’s Loan Me a Dime. Unlike a lot of white boys who worshipped the blues, Scaggs wasn’t interested in extended guitar wankery or slavish imitation. Scaggs knew these little three-minute records were full of drama and he milked them of every ounce. When I had seen him previously, Loan Me a Dime was always the centerpiece moment of the show, where Scaggs took the audience through the blues wringer as he sings of a man who needs to call his “old time used to be” because he’s realized, too late, just how much he needs her. It was effective when I saw him then, nearly 40 years ago. Now, Scaggs has been though life and the man has continued to work on his craft. At the show he played several new songs, usually death for an artist from the ’70s or ’80s. The man was still working on his craft. One new song, The Last Tango on 116th Street, got one of the biggest rounds of applause of the night. Good job, Boz. Craft your work, but work on your craft, may be the message here if you want to make Scaggs’ example a T-shirt.
It also helped at the show that the bass player was Willie Weeks, a bass player who is worshipped by other bass players. The man once made a three-and-a-half minute bass solo interesting. Case closed.
But even now, nearly 40 years later, that Loan Me a Dime remains the showstopper in Scaggs’ show. The difference is that Scaggs has continued to work on his craft and put his life experience into his work. So when he sang: “I know she’s a good girl, but at that time I just didn’t understand. No I didn’t.” You knew he meant it now. He now understands what Fenton Robinson meant when he wrote the song in 1967. Better yet, he can make us feel it, too.
Like McCain, Scaggs used his experience too, in this case to improve an already stellar performance.
That’s when hero worship pays off.