Moviegoing is basically a passive pastime. You buy the ticket, head into the theater, sit, behold, and leave — happy, sad, mad, moved, amped up, let down, confused. The movies happen to you. But Roger Ebert, who died yesterday at 70, happened to the movies and, by extension, he happened to us. For a quarter of a century, he sat across from Gene Siskel and changed the act of moviegoing and popularized the art of movie criticism. He and Siskel started talking on television in 1975, the same year Jaws changed the art of popular moviemaking. How's that for parallelism? Siskel and Ebert: both the great white shark and the Steven Spielberg of tastemaking.
Two days before Thanksgiving in 1978, I got fired from the only reporting job I’d ever had. For two years, I had been virtually the entire editorial staff of Worcester Magazine, where, for 50 bucks a week, I’d written practically everything. In October of 1978, I’d reported and written a story about the 25th anniversary of the founding of the John Birch Society. The newly hired editor of the magazine — who was not me — was rather a dunce and killed the piece. He did not agree with my assessment of his talents, so I got fired. I had fallen off the bottom rung of the ladder. At the instigation of a friend, I submitted the piece to a guy named Bob Sales, who was the editor of the Boston Phoenix, because, really, having been fired by Worcester Magazine, what in the hell did I have to lose?
Sales bought the piece and, as luck would have it, I had a chance to go in with some friends on an apartment in an old brownstone that was hard by the pond in Jamaica Plain. For the first time, I wandered into the old warehouse on the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Newbury Street, right there across from the old Kentucky Tavern, where they had filmed some of The Friends of Eddie Coyle, the film version of what is still the greatest novel ever written about Boston. I didn’t know anyone. The environmental reporter had a husky that was somewhere between 3 and 300 years old, and it would snooze in the middle of the floor until George Kimball, the sports editor, got off the elevator. Then it would growl. Otherwise, it was a rug. Nobody ever figured out why that was. I looked warily at the hound and went into Sales’s office. He read the Birch Society piece, tossed it into his Out basket, and said, “OK, what’s next?”
Andy Rooney died last week at the age of 92. He went into the hospital for some minor surgery, there were complications, and he died. In the wake of his passing, people will write many, many obituaries about what he meant, and what he symbolized. And it’s a good thing Rooney isn’t alive for this process, because it would totally annoy him. He would insist that his death is essentially meaningless and that strangers who argue otherwise are idiotic. And I’d like to think he’d be wrong about this, but he’d probably be right.
Jani Lane was the first person to speak from the stage at the first concert I ever paid money to see, a 1989 show at the West Fargo Fairgrounds featuring Warrant, Great White, and Ratt. In retrospect, that was a real triple-bill of tragedy — Ratt’s Robbin Crosby was the first major '80s metal figure to contract HIV from heroin use, Great White was the accidental catalyst for the death of 100 people at a 2003 show in Rhode Island, and — today — the news broke that Lane was found dead at the age of 47 in Woodland Falls Hills, Calif. As I type this sentence, the cause of death has not been reported but this was a 47-year-old musician who died in a hotel room. Do the math.
It’s easy to compliment the dead, but that’s often the only time we admit noncontextual truths: Lane was an incredible frontman, particularly in 1989. He was loquacious and funny and famous-looking, and Warrant tried so hard to be entertaining; they probably played for only 40 minutes, but they clearly did not want all the teenage girls wearing Ratt T-shirts in the mud to feel remotely ripped off. The only song most of the crowd knew was “Down Boys,” which they may have played twice; I remember they played “Heaven” and everybody sort of instantly knew this would be a supersuccessful single that a lot of guys would pretend to hate during prom. Considering how emotionally invested Warrant seemed in playing for 8,000 people in a city they knew nothing about, it must have been a wonderful time to be the singer in a band that seemed engineered for joy and hugeness. Yet I wonder how often Jani Lane was happy during the 22 years that followed. He had success, but it was the kind of success that’s hard to appreciate.