William Buckley: A Television Persona Passes

William F. Buckley may be twisting painfully in the eternal hellfires right about now, condemned for rejecting civil rights in a cynical wager against his own views of liberty, but his passing does recall a type of conservative who would gladly make a public argument on the relative merits – and not try to merely shout the opposition down with bully talk and cheap sloganeering.

His death also removes another one of those classic 60s and 70s television personalities from the talk show set, a singular face and voice and style that those of us who can feel those years mourn the dearth of these days. From his half recline, one arm thrown back over a corner of the chair, a pen clutched in the other, Buckley unpacked slow-moving questions on Firing Line – big slow righty curves compared to today’s ‘roid-raged speedballers – and he inhabited a public world of curling cigarette smoke in black and white, talking world that included names like Mailer, and Vidal and Capote. Continue reading

A Life Well-Remembered

Every year, I find myself engrossed in the New York Times Magazine‘s collection of brief epitaphs of Americans, famous and not-so-much, who died during the previous year. But when I pulled the issue from the blue plastic wrapper this morning and thumbed through it, there was a stronger, more personal reaction to one remembrance.

Matt Bai’s piece captures Steve Gilliard’s life beautifully, and leans on his contribution to a national discussion from his perch in East Harlem. As readers know, I was a big Gilliard fan – we were acquaintances and occasional correspondents. Steve was generosity personified, generous with links and advice; when I launched newcritics.com in January, he eagerly signed on here as an occasional contributor, planning to write about his beloved classic rock. Sadly, those few, short posts came during the early part of his final illness – but they struck me as yet another example of how it was impossible to buttonhole Gilliard. He was an angry anti-war progressive with a love for military history, a black guy who dug the Beatles and the Stones, a generous, warm-hearted misanthrope. I think Bai captured the inherent conflicts in Steve’s life that made him so interesting:

It was a life both short and loud. What began with a bad cough just after Valentine’s Day became a spiraling infection that ravaged Gilliard’s vulnerable heart and kidneys, and he spent most of his last four months hospitalized. The identities he kept separate for most of his 42 years collided in the days after he died; the few dozen mostly white bloggers who came to Harlem for the funeral saw for the first time the stark urban setting of Gilliard’s childhood, while his parents and relatives groped to understand what kind of work he had been doing at that computer and why scores of people had come so far to see him off. They must have been confused when Gilly’s online pals, sickened by the way some right-wing bloggers were gloating over his death, advised them not to disclose where he was buried, out of fear that someone might deface the site. The grave, like Gilliard himself, is known only to a few.

Please read the whole piece. I was saddened to come upon it this morning over my second cup of coffee, but also thrilled that Steve’s prominence in our ongoing discussion was so well-recognized.

A Loss in the Family

I’m sure newcritics bloggers and readers will join me in sending condolences to one of our regulars. Dennis Perrin, whose sister-in-law was tragically murdered Friday in what seems to have been a random act of violence. His post on the tragedy is here, but I was particularly moved by this excerpt:

Whenever tragedies like this happen, the survivors always paint the deceased in bright colors. To be expected and not to be dismissed. But please trust me friends when I tell you that Holly was one of the sweetest, most positive individuals I’ve ever known. Holly faced some serious adversity in her life, but it never seemed to drag her down. She remained optimistic and upbeat no matter what. I don’t know how she swung that, but I’ll always be amazed and impressed that she did.

Our best wishes to Dennis and his family.

Steve Gilliard, 1966-2007

One of the great voices of the shared Internet is gone: blogger Steve Gilliard (who blogged here at newcritics before his illness) died today at age 41.

I didn’t know Steve very well personally, but he was a brother in the virtual sense. His voice was entirely his – a true iconoclast with a strong, unyielding point of view. We met a couple of times. Mainly we corresponded in email, in comments, on his blog, on my blog. Just before his illness, he agreed to join our little cultural blogging group here. I treasure the fact that his name appears there as an author. He wrote about The Magnificent Seven and its place in cold war culture, and Revolver – to Steve, the Beatles’ true breakthrough record.

There is another important aspect to Steve – one that I think may be a true legacy beyond his pioneering political blogging. Gilliard brought real perspective to race relations in New York and beyond. An African-American who was unafraid to talk about race, Steve willingly jumped into the deep end on many issues that frankly scared a lot of the mainly-white, predominantly middle-class, well-educated lefty blogosphere. His work during the transit strike, for instance, brought insight that none of New York’s newspapers even came close to.

And to me, he wasn’t predictable. He did relationship advice. He did military history. He did classic rock. He did food. He did technology. He was a big man in every sense. Steve didn’t suffer fools, but he was an open source kind of guy – bring it, he’d say, and back it up.

His partner in the Newsblog, Jen, told us that Steve came to know just how much his voice was missed during his long, terrible illness. I’m glad of that. But the feed’s been empty for too damned long now. And it’s going to stay that way.

UPDATE: Thanks to Jon Swift, a compendium of links and tributes – some great (and sad) reading: American Street, Firedoglake, Mad Kane’s Political Madness (featuring a short interview with Steve), Sisyphus Shrugged, AlterNet.org, Daily Kos, skippy the bush kangaroo, State of the Day, The Carpetbagger Report, TalkLeft, August J. Pollak, Jesus’ General, All Spin Zone, the talking dog, The Impolitic, Happy Furry Puppy Story, The Democratic Daily, culturekitchen, Comments From Left Field, Brilliant at Breakfast, Digby, Orcinus, Avedon Carol’s The Sideshow, Meteor Blades, Making Light, Off the Kuff.

Kurt Vonnegut’s Greatest Generation

Kurt VonnegutKurt Vonnegut proposed an alternative version of World War II glory, a writhing and brutal portrait of internal turmoil and loss and madness that manifested its horror in a seemingly charming and picaresque line: foot-soldier Billy Pilgrim had become “unstuck in time.”

Slaughterhouse-Five belongs to the rarified antiwar prose of the post-war writing generation that includes Joseph Heller and Norman Mailer, the brand of story-telling that went beyond the “war is hell – but damn, it’s a great story” method of pulp fiction and John Wayne. He wrote about inner damage in the guise of science fiction and fantasy; Vonnegut created a terrifying alternative universe created on the ruins of still-living souls who had witnessed first-hand the worst men can do to other men.

But damn, if it wasn’t accessible to a 14-year-old. The combination of humour, and sex, and sci-fi, and words put Slaughterhouse-Five on every adolescent reading list my generation; it didn’t have to be assigned – it was sought out.

When news Vonnegut’s death broke early this morning, I immediately remembered that period of discovery – of revelation – that reading Slaughterhouse-Five and the canon of Vonnegut novels brought on. Those precious, quiet moments alone with the words and the realization that freedom of thought was entirely real, and that some people explored that freedom to the fullest. Continue reading