A passing in threes

The canard that ‘famous people always die in threes’ is just that, a canard — a handy cliche, fun but a bit of superstition. So my grouping of the three I note who have passed today is a knowing use of it, but it strikes me that these three together help to represent some of the best we can offer as a species.

Robert Rauschenberg is, like many artists of recent times, someone who I knew of more by reputation than through his direct work, but his was a familiar name. His famous works of the 1950s still have a lingering impact — anyone who ever loved the 1980s work in particular of Vaughn Oliver and 23 Envelope for the 4AD label felt that influence, given the textured, found-material work that Rauschenberg explored during that time — but like any creative artist worth his salt, he did not stay there but went as his heart followed him over the years.

The NY Times obituary, a thoughtful overview of his life and work, includes this key section:

Apropos of Mr. Rauschenberg, [John] Cage once said, “Beauty is now underfoot wherever we take the trouble to look.”

Cage meant that people had come to see, through Mr. Rauschenberg’s efforts, not just that anything, including junk on the street, could be the stuff of art (this wasn’t itself new), but that it could be the stuff of an art aspiring to be beautiful — that there was a potential poetics even in consumer glut, which Mr. Rauschenberg celebrated. “I really feel sorry for people who think things like soap dishes or mirrors or Coke bottles are ugly,” he once said, “because they’re surrounded by things like that all day long, and it must make them miserable.”

This is wisely observed — rather than assuming his perspective emerged out of nowhere, it contextualizes it while allowing for the great leap forward. And that leap is important — it’s almost an extension of the idea that one must be happy with oneself, however that balance is maintained, and similarly that one can find a happiness in the aesthetics of the familiar. This said, both these observations have potential downsides — if one’s familiar surroundings are a crumbling building and a lack of security in job and day to day living, such aesthetics are secondary — but the larger point about one’s environment and having to live in it is still crucial. (And lest I inadvertantly sound too negative, Rauschenberg was heavily involved in charitable work throughout his life, including the founding of Change Inc..)

This only touches the surface of Rauschenberg’s work and philosophy, but it’s a start — in contrast, the work of Larry Levine on the face of it seems more limited, and certainly he is not a famous name in comparison. Regular readers of this blog, though, might remember my piece on legendary British recording engineer Norman Smith, and the key role he played in capturing the sound of the Beatles in concert with producer George Martin. Larry Levine’s influence was no less far-reaching in his own partnership — that of being the engineer to Mr. Wall of Sound himself, Phil Spector:

If Spector was the visionary architect of the “Wall of Sound” that defined such 1960s hits as the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby,” the Crystals’ “Da Doo Ron Ron” and the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” Levine was the nuts-and-bolts contractor charged with making it work.

Inside the cramped Studio A of Gold Star Recording Studios at Santa Monica Boulevard and Vine Street in Hollywood, Levine applied his skill to capturing and shaping arrangements that often encompassed three or four guitars, several pianos, brass, percussion and other instruments, not to mention the vocals.

“He made Phil Spector a genius by applying the simple logic of using echo chamber,” Gold Star’s co-owner Ross said Monday of Levine. “Phil had a tendency of overbooking the room, and there were more musicians than there should have been in the studio.

“It began to saturate the walls, and you couldn’t make it happen unless you get some separation, and the only way you could do that is by getting some echo and making the room sound larger. . . .

“I showed him how you work this echo chamber thing and he got into it and sure enough it worked. . . . If Phil had gone into another place to do it, it would have been a normal record without any wall of sound. . . . It gave it dimension, it sounded like it was a football field.”

To say that Levine’s work is therefore inextricable with that of pop music as a whole understates. The role of the Wall of Sound in moving such music towards the anthemic — to sound ‘like a football field’ even in the time when the idea of regularly playing in a football field was still only starting to come together if at all — has been beaten to death and I’ve little to add, but again, it’s that ‘nuts-and-bolts guy’ you have to have to hand to carry it out, if you’re not the engineer yourself. That famous picture of Spector in his heyday standing behind a mixing desk should have been a double-portrait.

Yet the third passing I wish to note is, in the end, that of the person who truly did the most — Irena Sendler. The LA Times obituary is a must-read — to quote briefly:

Fate may have led Irena Sendler to the moment almost 70 years ago when she began to risk her life for the children of strangers. But for this humble Polish Catholic social worker, who was barely 30 when one of history’s most nightmarish chapters unfolded before her, the pivotal influence was something her parents had drummed into her.

“I was taught that if you see a person drowning,” she said, “you must jump into the water to save them, whether you can swim or not.”

She studied at Warsaw University and was a social worker in Warsaw when the German occupation of Poland began in 1939. In 1940, after the Nazis herded Jews into the ghetto and built a wall separating it from the rest of the city, disease, especially typhoid, ran rampant. Social workers were not allowed inside the ghetto, but Sendler, imagining “the horror of life behind the walls,” obtained fake identification and passed herself off as a nurse, allowed to bring in food, clothes and medicine.

By 1942, when the deadly intentions of the Nazis had become clear, Sendler joined a Polish underground organization, Zegota. She recruited 10 close friends — a group that would eventually grow to 25, all but one of them women — and began rescuing Jewish children.

She and her friends smuggled the children out in boxes, suitcases, sacks and coffins, sedating babies to quiet their cries. Some were spirited away through a network of basements and secret passages. Operations were timed to the second. One of Sendler’s children told of waiting by a gate in darkness as a German soldier patrolled nearby. When the soldier passed, the boy counted to 30, then made a mad dash to the middle of the street, where a manhole cover opened and he was taken down into the sewers and eventually to safety.

Decades later, Sendler was still haunted by the parents’ pleas, particularly of those who ultimately could not bear to be apart from their children.

“The one question every parent asked me was ‘Can you guarantee they will live?’ We had to admit honestly that we could not, as we did not even know if we would succeed in leaving the ghetto that day. The only guarantee,” she said, “was that the children would most likely die if they stayed.”

What can be added to this, really, as we continue on into a century of sorrows no less poignant and heartbreaking, no less predictable until they occur — and I type this aware of the crushing news that in the Chinese earthquake, many of the victims were children caught in their school buildings. That, at least, was no deliberate action, a cold comfort at best.

Sendler’s work and life reminds us that we do not plan to be heroes or heroines. In fact — and I hope I do not denigrate anyone by saying this — we seek to live life in comfort and peace, enjoying our time in this world and on this planet in the hopes that we can pass on something of value, and to make it at least a little better. Rauschenberg and Levine, in their individual ways, aimed for that too, applying their skill and knowledge to creations undreamed of. Sendler too wished to do this — but she did not plan to be a heroine. Instead, a circumstance — if so banal a term is appropriate — arose, and she reacted. The rest followed.

It is not that we should hope to be like her in specifics. Consider — this would mean hoping something so horrific has occurred, that so much death and suffering is in the offing or happening, that in such an extraordinary time, the extraordinary measure is required. The goal is to prevent such a thing from happening again, to fight the injustice before it occurs. But when the moment of prevention is passed, then the next steps are crucial.

Who knows what we would all do in similar circumstances, but this is not to criticize the other choices made, looked at in hindsight and from a distance.

It is enough to simply note this — Sendler jumped into the water and swam.

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