This year continues to suck - another great figure has died, Muhammed Ali. I probably can't add a lot to what is being said about him - you can find more and better anywhere - Charles Pierce, say - he was a towering figure. Great athlete - almost impossibly charismatic - and hugely important, politically. Athletes in America tend to sometimes leave race and politics alone - but Ali did not. He was Black, he was a Muslim, he was against the Vietnam war, and he didn't hide from any of those things. He made his politics public - he forced us to confront them and everything they meant in the US. He was right about them, too - Vietnam was a distraction from what was wrong in the US (and what might have been getting better in the 60s, if not for Vietnam) - racism and its consequences have always been our fatal flaw, and worst enemy. Ali confronted it - and showed ways to get through it. The more the country listens to people like him, the better off we are.
And of course, he always did it with grace and style. He was a beautiful boxer to watch, fast and light, quick and loose; and he talked like it too. Smart and charismatic and funny. I watched him plenty in the 70s - wins and losses, though by then, he was past his prime, hanging on and coming back and, even then, visibly diminishing his legacy and risking his health. But he made fighting interesting - more than anyone. It's strange to look back - watching him in the 60s - so fast, so commanding, toying with people, beating the shit out of them - it's both beautiful to watch him, and rather horrifying, to think what boxers do to one another. (Mostly Ali doing it to the others, at that point.) Looking at some of the fights - guys going down four, five times, getting up for Ali to smack around some more.... I wish he could have picked a different sport - but he was so good at this one.
All right - that's enough. He talked like he fought - smart and fast and graceful, but hard as a rock - he was the greatest, the Black Superman.
Meanwhile - just a note, that Dave Swarbrick also died this week. Maybe not a transformative figure like Ali, but an integral part of one of my favorite bands. Here he is with Richard Thompson, 2009, playing one of their epic collaborations, Sloth: