OPINION – Death always wins. You can look it up, it’s in the rules.
This time it wasn’t family or friend or even anybody I ever met.
It was Saturday afternoon when a guitar-playing buddy dropped the news that we had lost Chuck Berry.
I awoke the next morning to an internet news item telling me that we had also lost Jimmy Breslin, a guy who could string words together better than just about anybody on the planet.
I loved Chuck Berry’s music.
He was one of those very few musicians who deserve the title of recording artist. Most of the others are either hacks or pretty good craftsmen and women. Berry had a certain artistry that set him apart. In fact, if not for Chuck Berry, most of us wannabe guitarists would be drummers or piano players or even, Heaven forbid, accordion players.
What impact did he have?
The Voyager deep space probe, expected to be out there somewhere in the universe forever with messages from Earth, carries a recording of Chuck doing “Johnny B. Goode.” I’m not sure, but I’ll bet the first extraterrestrial to listen to it will be tapping a toe – or whatever equivalent appendage it may have – when it unloads the satellite.
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The death of Breslin was more personal.
He won a Pulizter for his work as a New York City newspaper columnist.
He won an eternal place in my heart for his ability to take a slice of life and, in a thousand words or so, translate it into gritty, honest prose.
Breslin worked in America’s greatest city, rubbed shoulders with its biggest names.
He ate in the best restaurants, sipped whiskey in the best joints.
But, it was his connection, his understanding, of the common man, woman and child that set him apart from almost everybody who slings words for a living.
When John F. Kennedy was killed in 1963, Breslin didn’t linger in the periphery of political power and analyze the scene.
Instead, he interviewed Clifton Pollard, the guy who was assigned to dig Kennedy’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery.
It was one of his most memorable pieces.
When the cops were frantically chasing down a murderous lunatic named David Berkowitz, who was known in the press as Son of Sam, Breslin got ahead of the story, so much so that Berkowitz began addressing letters to the columnist.
Breslin could also show the commonality and humanity behind the biggest of celebrities.
In his column about the killing of John Lennon – written on deadline, by the way – Breslin featured the two cops who stuffed the former Beatle into the back of their car and sped him to Roosevelt Hospital where doctors tried to frantically save his life.
“And Jim Moran and Tony Palma, older now, cops in a world with no fun, stood in the emergency room as John Lennon, whose music they knew, whose music was known everywhere on earth, became another person who died after being shot with a gun on the streets of New York,” Breslin wrote, putting the coda on his column.
I remember later in his career when his work was put online.
I would read his work and marvel at his talent.
One of my favorite Breslin columns was about his experience while trying to enter Madison Square Garden to cover the 2004 Republican Convention.
We were just this side of the terrorist attack on New York City and Washington, D.C, and security measures were still insanely miserable.
Breslin put us there, at his side, as he negotiated his way through the maze of bunkers and detours set up around The Garden, up to and including several encounters with angry police dogs sniffing him in very uncomfortable places under vastly uncomfortable conditions all the while telling the reader how much he truly hated – no, despised – dogs.
Like The Beatles, Breslin came along at the exact right moment in time and space.
He was moving in a bubble of change, except his bubble had a rudder and he steered it right into the hearts and minds of readers. Along with Gay Talese and Tom Wolfe, Breslin is credited with ushering in this thing called “The New Journalism,” which featured a more literary approach to news writing.
It required work.
It required reporters to get out of the office and go look their sources in the eye to get the full story rather than simply regurgitating “facts” as spewed by reliable – or, as we have learned so painfully and frequently these days, unreliable – sources.
Breslin also gave no quarter.
He expected none, he gave none and, if he felt he had shortchanged his audience or stepped out of line, would turn his invective upon himself.
Breslin often had a sardonic flavor to his work, but he never got to the cloyingly curmudgeonly stage like Andy Rooney. His criticism, his cynicism was sharp and well-placed, with intent and focus. It wasn’t cute, it wasn’t tidy, it wasn’t just for effect. It was real, every bit, 100 percent real.
The millennials who blather about the news these days, for the most part, don’t get that.
They don’t understand that celebrity doesn’t guarantee a good story, that if you walk down the street and mingle, you can find some great stories; stories of hope, compassion, struggle, humility, the human condition.
There was never any question about Breslin’s credibility, never any doubt about his sources. He made his bones years ago and to challenge him would prove to be embarrassing, as former New York City Mayor Ed Koch learned when he feuded with Breslin over the columnist’s numerous articles about scandals during the Koch administration.
We could use Jimmy Breslin now.
We could use somebody who could cut through the smoke and mirrors and shuck and jive and get to the meat of what’s going on leaving those nasty bits of vegetables for the goats and pigs.
We could use somebody who can’t be bought, who is smart enough to not only detect a lie but call somebody on it, who is gutsy enough to spit on the ground, draw a line with his toe and dare you to step over it.
God bless you Jimmy.
Ed Kociela is an opinion columnist. The opinions stated in this article are his and not representative of St. George News.
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