The Immortals

22 Feb

The great Montreal novelist Mordecai Richler died at the age of 70, ten years ago this coming summer. He died too young, but left behind shelves-full of brilliant written works. His literary legacy accords him a certain degree of immortality, which may have been one of his motivations for writing in the first place.

“Fundamentally, all writing is about the same thing,” Richler once wrote. “It’s about dying, about the brief flicker of time we have, and the frustration that it creates.”

With a major biography about Richler and an acclaimed movie adaptation of his final novel, Barney’s Version, released over the past few months, it seems as if Richler’s earned immortality has endured at least the decade since his death.

But some writers… or artists… or musicians… are not so fortunate. Many fade away into obscurity when they die. Others gain a degree of immortality only after a life of relative obscurity.

The latter may be worse than the former.

Take Elmore James, for instance.

One of the most important musical side effects of the 1960s British Invasion was that it resurrected the careers of some of the great Blues musicians of the ‘40s and ’50s.

Music recorded by Blues legends such as Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf and Sonny Boy Williamson had inspired the Rolling Stones, the Who, the Yardbirds, and other bands who hit it big at the time.

Those young bands introduced the music of their heroes to a new generation of fans. As a result, the older Blues musicians began recording again and touring around the world, cementing their reputations and ensuring their music would continue to be heard for decades to come.

John Lee Hooker, for example, was still making hit records, movies and music videos into his eighties, up until his own death ten years ago (co-incidentally, just a few days before Richler’s).

But what about poor Elmore James, one of the most influential of all the mid-20th Century bluesmen? His slide guitar work set the template for what was to come in the Rock and Roll era, influencing George Harrison – who once mentioned him on a Beatles’ record – Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix and others.

Listen to an early ‘50s Elmore James recording today and you can hear a guitar sound that wouldn’t sound out of place on a recording six decades later.

But James never got to experience the same fame bump as did many of his contemporaries. He never got to record new songs in the 1960s and ‘70s, never got to tour Europe with a young band of acolytes and hear young fans screaming for encores.

Why? Because the hard-drinking James had the misfortune of dropping dead of a heart attack at the age of 45 in May 1963, just a few months before the British Invasion began. So while his influence is undeniable, and his recordings are still available, his music remains just that much more obscure than it otherwise would have been.

Holding on just a few more years would have done wonders for his career… and his immortality.

Then there’s the case of John Kennedy Toole, a brilliant young New Orleans writing prodigy. In his short lifetime, he was an obscure college professor and a struggling writer, who had authored one unpublished novel as a teenager and another as a young adult.

He spent years unsuccessfully trying to get the latter novel published. In 1969, depressed by his lack of literary accomplishments and demonstrating signs of possible mental illness, he committed suicide at the age of 31.

A couple of years after his death, his mother found the unpublished manuscript of his second novel in his old room, and began another years-long attempt to get book publishers interested in the work.

His novel, A Confederacy of Dunces, was finally published in 1980 to critical acclaim. The following year, 12 years after his untimely death, Toole was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The book is considered a work of comic genius, and one of the quintessential novels about New Orleans.

Toole gained his measure of immortality, but if only he had stuck it out a few more years, he may have produced a library full of legendary literature.

The decisive observation on the topic may come from the immortal Woody Allen, as quoted in a 1993 magazine article by the immortal Mordecai Richler:

“I don’t want to gain immortality in my works. I want to gain it by not dying.”

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