Saturday, December 15, 2007

Ike Turner 'Beats' Tina to Death

Now that I got your attention, that was the disgustingly tasteless banner used on the New York Post when it broke the news that Ike Turner died at the age of 76.

(credit: Myung J. Chun, Los Angeles Times)

Anybody who has watched the film "What's Love Got To Do With It?" knows by now the sad, tragic saga of the Ike & Tina Turner saga. The union had its share of moments ("It's Gonna Take Some Time," "Proud Mary," "River Deep, Mountain High," "Nutbush City Limits"), but it had all devolved down from there into a nightmarish misama of spousal abuse, substance abuse and domestic warfare. Acoording to her 1986 autobiography, "I, Tina," she depicted Ike as a volatile, drug-addicted brute who manipulated her, personally and professionally, and once broke her jaw.

While Tina picked up the pieces and became a stronger, more resilent woman for it (not to mention the solo success she garnered for it), Ike remained a tabloid curiosity, popping up when he was busted on drug charges. Still, even as he acknowedged his wrongdoings, Ike managed to keep a low profile, rehabilitating his image somewhat and even garnering a Gtammy award in the 1990's.

(credit: Dennis Hopper/Greybull Press)

As Elijah Wald notes in the Los Angeles Times:

"Given that history, it is disturbing that most of Turner's early obituaries are giving as much space to his abuse of Tina as to his and their music. Just as Turner, Chuck Berry and James Brown all went to prison for crimes for which comparable white stars have been punished with slaps on the wrist, it is hard to imagine an equally important white musician receiving similar deathbed testimonials...Most modern pop fans probably wouldn't know Ike's name if he hadn't discovered, developed and showcased Tina, so his treatment of her is necessarily part of his story. But by the same token, the reason we care so much about that treatment is that Tina is a superstar -- that is, in a world where other abusive male stars treated women as groupies and playthings, Ike also had the vision to recognize and musically nurture one of rock's few true female icons."

Ike often expressed frustration that many of his accomplishments were not given their proper due. In fact, his 1951 single, "Rocket 88," is now acknowledged by many rock critics as the first true rock 'n' roll record. And as Louis D. Armmand notes in the Los Angeles Times:

"Ike Turner was an American original; the product of the poverty and oppression of the Mississippi Delta. As a "freedom rider" organizer in this region of the state in the 1960s, I can bear witness to the intrinsic strength of character that Ike had to possess in order to survive and overcome that American Apartheid system then operating. He had no musical master classes nor teachers except those great blues predecessors and contemporaries, who like him, were born from the soil of the Delta. Rest in Peace, my brother, you who have acknowledged your mistakes, for you have in summary made a profound mark upon this world, too."

But perhaps the best take on Ike Turner came from staff writer Ann Powers of the Los Angeles Times:

CULTURAL icons can't choose what they come to represent. Ike Turner was an icon; that was his burden and his punishment. Loving him was not a possibility for many who discovered his genius after his repellent secrets had been revealed. Appreciating him requires coming to terms with the double bind of rock and soul-era sexuality, a liberating force underpinned by racism, female objectification and machismo.

For the first half of his life, Turner was known as one of rock 'n' roll's inventors -- a dazzling pianist, raucous guitarist and ingenious showman whose songs pushed the blues into a new era. Then, in 1986, his ex-wife and musical partner, Tina Turner, published her autobiography, which recounted his mistreatment of her in horrifying detail. The book and its 1993 film version became key to feminist reassessments of rock and soul, and central to the growing literature of abuse survivors.

Tina, once stuck within an image of primal sensuality, was reborn as a self-possessed heroine. Ike sank further into obscurity. He was in prison in 1991 when the pair were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Over the subsequent decade, though he kicked the drug habit that apparently fueled his volatile temper, his image just got worse.

Then came the comeback. After 2001, when Turner returned to the stage and made the Grammy-nominated "Here and Now," he became a symbol of something else: the maligned rock hero. A victimizer, yes, but also a victim of those who'd privilege personal stories over musical ones. Turner's strong later albums and performances gave credence to his rehabilitation. The critical reassessments that followed refocused fans on his role as a musical groundbreaker.

Turner's return was also part of a swing of the pop pendulum, away from the questions about power and freedom raised by revisionists like Tina herself and toward a less "uptight" view of both music and sexuality. New looks at figures like Turner (or Led Zeppelin, to cite another example) acknowledged these artists' troubling qualities but demanded that the magic of their music not be denied.

The thing is, the magic and the troubling stuff can't be separated. Ike Turner's fierceness was rooted in brutality: a childhood that included witnessing his father's lynching and an adulthood as part of a "hard" music culture in which male leaders whipped their bands into shape and might also slap their wives around. The same cycle of pain and survival informs today's hyper-macho hip-hop artists, some of whom emulate Turner's icy-suave style.

I saw Turner twice during the comeback years. He didn't seem like an evil icon; more like a time-tempered, if unrepentant, old man. His music was joyful -- part escape from the hard world, part confident confrontation. But the dynamism of his act still relied on the tension between female heat and male swagger, a conflict at the root of some powerful notions of sexiness and also some forms of abuse.

Ike Turner's music taught us much. So did his sins. We should remember both.

Speaking of which, could somebody please remind the folks at the New York Post that manners do not require us to speak ill of the dead?

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