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.
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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?