Wanna Buy Some Old Bill Cosby Records?

In the face of mounting allegations against the beloved comedian, we are left to reconsider his artistic legacy.

I’ll admit it: I’m a huge Ike Turner fan.

He’s never gotten his full credit as a musician, and one of the architects of this thing called rock ‘n’ roll. He’s known for being the bandleader on “Rocket 88″, the 1951 hit that many believe was the first rock record ever, and for being a heckuva guitar player. In fact, Turner played piano on “Rocket 88”, and didn’t switch over to guitar full-time until a few years later. Not too many in rock’s back pages have made history playing two different instruments.

On his own, he didn’t have too many hits, but the sides he cut with various iterations of his Kings of Rhythm band throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s had drive, flash, and a whole lot of nasty guitar licks. None of that came to the surface until he and his wife finally hit it big after years of grinding it out on the road. That combination was powerful in concert: Tina Turner drove audiences crazy, and Ike drove the band just about as hard as a band could be driven and still burn a groove.

This is where my Ike fandom gets problematic. The story is well-known: Ike routinely beat the crap out of Tina over a period of years. It took her a long time to steel herself enough to break away from him in order to save her life, but break away she finally did. Tina became a rock goddess and a pop superstar. Ike, who never gave Tina her due as a performer without wanting some of the credit for himself (it was he who re-christened the former Annie Mae Bullock as Tina, and for years railed about it in messages like the song “Gimme Back My Name”), sunk deeper into drugs, did a stretch in jail, and never regained the pop spotlight. But the story of their marriage sure did, thanks to the 1993 dual biopic What’s Love Got to Do with It.

I would imagine that the story of their marriage was named after her biggest solo hit must have gnawed at him more than a little. And he couldn’t have been happy about the way the movie’s portrayal colored the public’s image of him for decades (not that his own post-Tina behavior did that image any favors). But there are also those who would say, too bad for him. He shouldn’t have routinely beaten the crap out of Tina over a period of years. He deserves whatever obscurity the hottest corner of hell has to offer.

I would agree with all that, except for one thing: his creepiness as a man doesn’t trump his greatness as a musician, at least for me. I have never believed that condemning his personal behavior means ignoring his musical talent. Trying to balance those impulses is not easy; watching Ike and Tina in concert becomes harder to sit back and enjoy once you know the backstory. But I’m willing to salute his best work as a guitarist (I’ll grant you that, in most cases, it’s the non-Tina stuff I’m talking about), trusting that it’s not mine to exact the ultimate toll for his misdeeds.

Pearl Cleage worked through similar issues with her 1990 essay “Mad at Miles”. The Miles she was mad at was Mr. Davis, he of the decades of brilliance re-defining jazz again and again. The anger she felt compelled to write through came after reading his 1989 autobiography, especially the notorious passage where he talks about slapping his wife, Cicely Tyson, twice in one evening – once before the cops came to ask what was going on, and again after they left. Cleage took to pen to reconcile two seemingly unreconcilable stances: her love for his music and, as she says five times in the essay’s eight pages, her sense that:

He is guilty of self-confessed crimes against women such that we should break his albums, burn his tapes and scratch up his CDs until he acknowledges and apologizes and agrees to rethink his position on The Woman Question.

This line of thought summons a phrase you hear from time to time in the church: “love the sinner, hate the sin.” Doing that requires two perspectives that could be said to oppose each other. On the one hand, there’s the need to cast the offending action as one that cannot and will not be tolerated. A penalty must be paid, and the offender must clean up her/his act. But on the other hand, there’s the extension of, if not open arms and a full-fledged support system, at least a word of encouragement. That offending action need not define the offender as a hopeless, unredeemable sinner for the rest of her/his life. “If you’re willing to make a change,” goes the thinking, “we’ll meet you halfway.”

That’s not the same as turning a blind eye to the misdeed. It acknowledges that a wrong was done. But it also points to a way forward. It comes from a spirit of forgiveness, not revenge. Punishment is not skirted: no one is sweeping anything under any rug. But neither is redemption ruled out: no one is being voted off any island.

It’s one thing to say that to a teenaged gangbanger on the road to filling out a jacket of arrests. It’s another thing – harder, perhaps, but still possible – to say that to an unrepentant abuser. When dealing with a public figure, any celebrity the offender may have might prompt some temptation to make excuses in the name of professional achievement, or to snatch such excuses away because celebrities are expected to be preternaturally better than the rest of us schmoes. But the grappling with that love-hate equation remains.

Still, it would be awfully hard for most of us to contemplate going there on behalf of a murderer. Or a serial rapist. Or Bill Cosby.

* * *

As I write this, Cosby has neither admitted to nor discredited any of the 20-plus accusations of rape that have come to the surface in this astonishingly short moment. The lack of criminal convictions or civil judgments against him remains (citing expiration of the statute of limitations, Los Angeles County prosecutors have declined to press charges following the claims of a woman who says he raped her in 1974, when she was a teenager; he has responded by suing her for extortion). So for right now, according to the letter of the law, I cannot call him a serial rapist. But I would distinguish between Cosby and most serial rapists anyway, and not because of legal technicalities. The difference is:

• Most serial rapists haven’t been major celebrities and cultural figures for the past 50 years.

• Most serial rapists didn’t make a point of modeling healthy parental and marital relations in a beloved sitcom.

• Most serial rapists didn’t trade on a squeaky-clean persona to make commercials for Coca-Cola and E.F. Hutton.

• Most serial rapists don’t have a body of professional work that justifies the heft of a 544-page biography (Cosby: his Life and Times).

• Most serial rapists don’t have pieces from their art collection currently hanging in a Smithsonian gallery.

• Most serial rapists don’t get university endowments named in their honor, or sit on prestigious boards of trustees.

• Most serial rapists didn’t spend a good chunk of time in the early ‘00s lecturing poor black people about why their poverty is their own fault.

• Most serial rapists don’t make deals to keep their dirt out of the media.

• Most serial rapists don’t have forceful attorneys at the ready when it’s time to lawyer up.

• Most serial rapists aren’t among the most universally popular and respected stars across three generations.

Cosby’s success has been hinged upon, more than his comedic talents, the image of himself he sold us all: as a likeable guy and an earnest advocate for proper comportment. Whether or not we liked his comedy or agreed with his opinions on black poverty (in this space at the time, I didn’t), we all bought into those images at every step of the way in his career.

What we have seen these past few weeks has all but destroyed those images for us. Cosby’s camp has to date declined to issue something, anything that would effectively dispel these stories; his wife Camille’s stand-by-your-man attempt to link the accusations to the flawed reporting of Rolling Stone in the University of Virginia rape case did not seem to sway many opinions.

And thus are we left with sensations of anger and horror, hoping the truth will sort itself out so as to spare us the anguish. Celebrities have had their names dragged through public mud before, as Cosby’s lawyers and defenders steadfastly attest is happening here. But I can’t recall any prior incident that has caused such an unsettling sense among so many parties of having been personally violated upon receiving the news.

How else to explain his sudden banishment from television – broadcast, cable and streaming? How else to explain the decisions of universities to strip his name from the endowments and programs he funded, or his leaving the board of trustees of Temple University, his alma mater, before he got bum-rushed from it? How else to explain the admission of his biographer, Mark Whitaker, that he might investigate the string of allegations a little harder (he felt he didn’t have enough factual evidence to include them the first time around) if he had it to do all over again?

What Should We Do?

Yes, Cosby remains defiant. And audiences have still turned out to see him perform, at least when the gigs weren’t cancelled. But significant damage has been done. At this point, it is hard to imagine what could salvage his image, short of each of those women recanting their stories. Whitaker speculated to the Daily Beast in November that Cosby could go on Oprah and speak his piece; him asking for a nonjudgmental platform from a woman who survived sexual abuse herself might be a bit of a stretch.

Should we see what we can get for our Cosby collections on eBay? Hold a bonfire of Cosby stuff and forget he ever existed? Will it ever again be possible for the world to appreciate his creative output?

Perhaps this will turn out to be, in a cosmic sense, the justice that was waiting for Cosby all along, not in a court of law but the court of life: to have his plans for a few more turns in the spotlight scuttled, to lose his reputation as the über-father figure, to forfeit another round of riches, not to mention whatever payoffs and settlements might arise (in addition to those that were allegedly made over the years), to be branded forevermore as a predatory monster.

If that happens, and even to a large extent if it doesn’t, the rest of us, who’ve been his consumers all this time, will have another thing to consider: what do we do about all his work we’ve consumed?

We’re talking tons of it, much of it highly significant, as Whitaker lays out in his bio. There are the stand-up appearances in A-list nightclubs and comedy venues at a time when black comics were consigned to the chitlin’ circuit of black entertainment. There are the groundbreaking TV shows – not just The Cosby Show, but also I Spy (the first black to co-star in prime time as something other than a lackey), The Bill Cosby Show in the late ‘60s (the first black to star in his own sitcom), and the Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids cartoons (the first black stars of Saturday morning TV). There is his longtime championing of jazz – featuring performers like Betty Carter on The Cosby Show, hosting the Playboy Jazz Festival for more than 30 years – when few others much cared. There are the music albums he made every so often, which spawned a couple of minor hits and later became cult faves. And let’s not forget his books of comedy riffs and homespun wisdom, or the philanthropic largesse of he and his wife.

Cosby isn’t really a crossover act. His career arc wasn’t one from the black world to the whole world. His work has always been within mainstream contexts and channels. And its tone – even at its most pointed, his work was never raw, enraged or coarse – kept him firmly planted there. Especially with The Cosby Show, he showed America, both black and white, an ideal of blackness that had never been seen in mainstream pop – culturally specific and proud of it, but at its base as innocuous and all-American as the Jell-O products he endorsed for years. And on a good night, he was funny as hell.

All that is history, it can’t be written out of existence. Even Hannibal Buress, the comic who made the “Google Bill Cosby rapist” comment that opened up the floodgates (although one could also argue reviews of Whitaker’s bio that noted he didn’t mention the allegations, at least the ones that resulted in a police investigation, were the first cracks), is a product of a lineage that stretches back through Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock, Eddie Murphy, and Richard Pryor… all the way to Cosby at those nightclubs and concerts in the ‘60s, working his craft to the delight of interracial audiences.

So what should we do? See what we can get for our Cosby collections on eBay? Hold a bonfire of Cosby stuff and forget he ever existed? Will it ever again be possible for the world to appreciate his creative output?

This isn’t an entirely theoretical question for me; there are a few pieces of Cosby in my crates. But I hadn’t listened to most of them in years. I wondered how they would sound to me now that I have cause to see the man who made them in a much different light.

I started with low-hanging fruit: his 1990 CD Where You Lay Your Head, credited to Bill Cosby and Friends, with Cosby on percussion here and there. I was drawn to this not because of Cosby, but because of the eclectic roster of jazz stalwarts across the album’s five tracks: guitarists John Scofield and Sonny Sharrock, tenor sax blowers David Murray and Harold Vick, drummers Jack DeJohnette and Al Foster. Surely, Cosby’s support of jazz, and friendships with jazz musicians, made it a lot easier to attract a roster this solid to flesh out some tunes he built with Stu Gardner, his longtime music collaborator.

I’ve liked this record a lot, but because of the world-class playing on it; Cosby’s branding and participation had little to do with it besides piquing my curiosity. That didn’t change after a fresh listen, except I can now better recognize the quirkiness in Cosby’s themes – if you can call them that. The tunes aren’t much more than, as he explained in the liner notes, musical doodles that popped into his mind and got shaped into recordings in the studio. But the solos are quite cool, it’s still a perfectly decent listen, and I’m not about to cast scorn upon some cats who probably got a nice check for what’s essentially a vanity project. When it came out, I had no reason to suspect anything about the guy calling the shots.

At some point 20 or so years ago, I found his first music album, Silver Throat: Bill Cosby Sings (1967) in a record store and picked it up for two bucks. It was and still is a lark of a thing to acquire, an oddball conversation piece. Cosby attempts to sing the blues – lots of Jimmy Reed tunes, a cover of “I’ve Got a Woman” – and it’s not the least bit convincing, despite the energetic efforts of the (unnamed) studio musicians. “Little Ole Man” has Cosby dispensing a series of riffs that sound like bits from his nightclub act, set to a driving cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Uptight”(Everything’s Alright)” – it’s meant to be funny, I imagine, but it isn’t. And his crooning on Wonder’s “A Place in the Sun”…let’s just say that as a singer, Cosby made a great comedian.

Indeed, comedy is his professional calling card, so I needed to see how I’d now take to a slice of his stand-up work. I’ve owned the 1969 album 200 M.P.H. since childhood (years before HBO and Comedy Central, albums were cheap and effective ways for comics to get their material in front of at-home audiences). I played the heck out of this when I was a kid, then forgot all about it once I’d experienced Pryor in his true element.

Side one consists of four droll musings on family life, the kind of humor that became Cosby’s comedy trademark. Side two is a meandering, 20-minute tale of his need for speed, and how that need finally met its match in a specially built car capable of going 200 miles per hour. As I listened to it the other day, I remembered some of the favorite riffs and lines I liked back in my youth. I also noted details my young mind missed, like how he used rhythm and pacing and how he deftly set up an unwelcome audience comment for a course-correcting putdown.

One thing I didn’t notice was any hint of a predatory monster behind the persona of a likeable guy. There were no telltale signs of lurking evil, just a couple of tossed-aside references to his wealth. But the fact that I was listening for them, trying to suss them out, represents a major change in my reactions to his work. I can’t consume his comedy now without thinking about what all was going on offstage, and wondering what the ultimate truth here really is.

It would do little good to symbolically exact a pound of flesh from Cosby by destroying or discarding my pieces of his work. I’m disgusted by the charges, but I don’t yet feel the need to purge myself of all things Cosby because of them. It’s certainly not as if I’d be taking money away from him at this late date. But I won’t be boasting about owning those records. The material itself hasn’t changed, but my feelings about the man who created it have, and that makes it all but impossible for me to enjoy it as I once did.

Cleage’s resolution of her Milesean dilemma took a different course. She reported in a 2012 Atlanta Magazine interview that no, she hadn’t completely stopped listening to Miles, and didn’t explicitly recommend others refrain from digging his music. But what’s more pertinent to her central theme is the nerve she struck in her readers about black male-female relationships. “Mad” and the other pieces in the collection Mad at Miles: a Blackwoman’s Search for Truth were so incisive and unsettling, some readers asked her if it was okay for them to listen to Miles again after the trumpeter passed in 1991. And Cleage, an accomplished playwright and novelist, years later adapted “Mad” and other essays from that book into a stage play.

Cleage was more concerned about Miles’ behavior, and our attitudes about it, than his music. The call for scratching up his records seems in retrospect to be an attention grabber, something to jump-start a broader conversation. By contrast, there is nothing at all symbolic about Cosby’s ejection from the cultural landscape. Maybe it’s because these are different times, maybe it’s because the depth and breadth of the charges against Cosby are far more than what Miles admitted about what he’d done. But there are no conversations about broader relationship issues going on here. The only thing we’re wondering is how this sad, sick tale will finally conclude.

Of course, Cosby has yet to be found guilty of a crime. But perceptions matter. We want to like the artist, not just his or her art. At the minimum, we want to not be repulsed by what the artist did when not making that art. Right now, only Cosby’s most deeply committed supporters can say that.

* * *

Ike Turner, towards the end of his years, stopped his public bitching about Tina, got off drugs for a while, and returned to his musical roots, The rip-snorting 2001 blues album Here and Now was nominated for a Grammy, and 2006’s Risin’ with the Blues, won one. He’d survived long enough to receive some lion-in-winter respect (and work) from young rockers Gorillaz and the Black Keys. When he died in 2007, both his genius as a musician and his abusiveness as a spouse were duly noted.

Despite subsequent biographers uncovering more stories of Miles’ violence against women, Sony Legacy continues to dig out unreleased music from the vaults and repackage the old stuff, and has reaped many platitudes and more than a few bucks for the effort. It’s become accepted knowledge that he was a serial abuser, but people generally seem to be able to compartmentalize that enough to still enjoy his music.

Even Ray Rice, the former Baltimore Ravens running back immortalized for beating the crap out of his fiancé in full view of hotel security cameras (an incident which heightened sensitivity about spousal abuse, and colored the atmosphere in which we’ve received the Cosby allegations), recently won his case against the National Football League for issuing a second suspension against him, and is free to seek employment in his chosen profession, if any team will have him.

But Ike Turner, Ray Rice, not even Miles – none of them were beloved above and beyond their art.

None of them were ever said to represent the highest ideals of their race, or their nation.

And none of them went from being America’s Dad to America’s Pariah in the blink of an eye.

The core questions Cleage raised in “Mad at Miles” – Should black women still love their male stars after they do awful things to women? Should black men take a deeper look at the issue? – come up every time a black male celebrity is caught behaving badly against the opposite sex. Folks mused on them in the wake of R. Kelly’s predilections and Chris Brown’s smacking of Rhianna, and the next time it happens they’ll do it all over again.

But if Cosby’s case plays out to the worst imaginable extreme, black folks and everyone else will be challenged by that conundrum as never before. How would we reconcile all his artistic and philanthropic accomplishments with such pathological viciousness? Could we still love this particular sinner after these particular sins?

I could use some comfort food while I mull that over. But for right now, it won’t be Jell-O pudding.

Splash image from the cover of Icon (Geffen, 2011)