while some are great, i’m only so-so…ali, cosell and jarosz
Man…I got a ton of work to do on this sunny Sunday afternoon but I needed to come over here for a second and tell you about Muhammed Ali and Sarah Jarosz. I thought of him early this morning while walking the dog and listening to her new album.
When I was a kid I was not all that athletic, but I liked going to Connie Mack Stadium with my dad to watch the Phillies lose to everybody they played, and together we’d often watch ABC’s Friday Night Fights on the tube. Although I thought wrestling was more interesting with colorful characters like Bobo Brazil, Haystacks Calhoun, Killer Kowalski and that crazy manager Wild Red Berry, boxing was of interest too. And when Cassius Clay came along I was mesmerized by his skill at not only punching, but his humor and timing that rivaled the best stand up comedians in the Catskills.
Quite often it was the late Howard Cosell (he above, on the left) who was his foil and straight man. It was a better team than Martin and Lewis as far as laughs were concerned. When Clay, later changing his name to Ali, would fight some of the greats of the time you weren’t usually able to see it live on television, that is until the tape was available the following week on the Wide World of Sports. So you’d have to tune in Armed Services radio and listen late at night (and often under the covers) to Cosell giving the blow by blow as Clay pummeled the likes of Floyd Patterson, Sonny Liston and later Smokin’ Joe Frazier.
In the sixties Clay (now Ali) chose to become a Muslim and than he stood up and refused to be drafted into the service. He lost his title and the ability to fight again, and he began a long legal process. The Thrilla in Manila and the Rumble in the Jungle came years later.
“I ain’t got no quarrel with the Vietcong. No Vietcong ever called me Nigger.”
On April 28, 1967 in Houston, Ali refused three times to step forward at the call of his name. An officer warned him he was committing a felony punishable by five years in prison and a fine of $10,000. Once more, Ali refused to budge when his name was called. As a result, he was arrested. At the trial on June 20, 1967, after only 21 minutes of deliberation, the jury found Ali guilty. This verdict was upheld by the appeals court. On June 28, 1971, the Supreme Court reversed his conviction for refusing induction by unanimous decision.
“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?”
Flash forward to the mid-eighties and Ali was retired and also revered worldwide as a hero and goodwill ambassador. Wherever he’d travel he’d be surrounded by throngs of people who wanted to see him and if they were lucky enough they might shake his hand or at least touch him for a moment. He was also diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease after years of being pounded in the head, and so began the slur of words, the gain of weight, the sagging of his face and the slowness of movement.
I was flying out of LAX on a People’s Express redeye back to Philly one night in ’85, when an older man wearing a long wool coat walked through the terminal and sat near the gate. He was all alone and for quite some time nobody paid much attention to him, just another brown man waiting to go home maybe, or meeting someone coming in which you could still do back then. In time, the whispers began slowly at first and soon became fast and furious…it was Muhammed Ali…all alone, sleepy eyed a bit, staring off into space. Somebody sent up their kids with a camera and an autograph book and he flashed a smile and began to chat. One by one, more and more children came up to him until he was surrounded by almost two dozen and he had them sit around him on the floor. I watched him ask them questions, and he made them laugh with little stories and jokes and songs. He spoke very quietly, you needed to lean in to hear. And the children loved him.
After time when the plane landed and began to empty itself of the passengers, he again found himself sitting alone and I walked over to him. I was the only adult in almost ninety minutes to approach him, but I just needed to do it. Putting my hand out he reached over and shook it, and I said “Champ, I loved you when I was a kid and have always respected you. I watched you with those kids and man, you are the greatest.” He smiled a little and replied “I like the children” and I moved back and waved goodbye.
Sometimes when I’m listening to music it takes me places you don’t ever expect to go to. What happened this morning was I was thinking that Sarah Jarosz has crafted an amazing set of songs, and it made me wonder about how some people are so creative and so talented. Why some people are able to leave in their footprints great songs, great photographs, great paintings, great books, great jokes, great films, great ideas and there are other people, like me…who are just so-so. Sometimes it seems not all that fair, but other times I’m okay with it. Those who are great at what they do (and fame has not a thing to do with what I’m saying) might just be here to help the rest of us. Which makes what they have so special…and such a gift.
Anyway…that new Sarah Jarosz album? Man…I think it’s the greatest.