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The Death of Prince and the Death of Lonnie Mack

Wolf Blitzer and the other CNN anchors mourned Prince for three solid days, even interrupting their Trump blitz-coverage to sit TV shiva for him, but no-one on the airwaves shed Tear One for Lonnie Mack, who died the very same day.

No argument here about the greatness of Prince. One proof of it is that you could compile a great Prince album without even having any “Prince” tracks on it, leading off with Morris Day singing “777-9311.” Prince lays down a bass-line eight miles deep on that one, as he also does on the The Times’ epochal “Jungle Love,” and “The Walk.” I fondly remember a John Mellencamp performance on MTV, when in-between his songs he held a boombox up to the microphone and blasted “Little Red Corvette” to his audience while dancing around the stage (quite well, too.)

But leave it to CNN and Brian Williams to take the death of Prince and, well, beat it to death. While the color purple is wonderful as an Alice Walker title, and tolerable for unicorns in children’s storybooks, it’s a color that wears out its welcome very quickly. Seeing too much purple at one time is like swallowing a pound of granulated saccharine. It would’ve been nice—though astonishing—if they could’ve broken into that 24/7 coverage just long enough to mention Lonnie Mack, whose impact on some of us has been as great as Prince’s.

But Lonnie Mack was just a musician, and I suspect for many people of a certain age, like Blitzer and Williams, the frenzy of mourning over Prince’s death was something more: a mourning for their own lost (or buried) pleasures. Prince was supremely carnal, and when it comes to the carnal we live in a maddening time: in spite of the growing tolerance for “other” sexualities, the very idea of pleasure itself is under attack, with killjoys shooting darts of novocaine into our libidos from every angle—especially, of course, the repressed homosexuals and repressed heterosexuals and repressed polyamorists, onanists, and bestiality-fanciers of the Republican party. But it’s dumb, if convenient, to pretend it’s only them. As we get older we’re pummelled from all sides by society’s Stop Having Fun Over There agenda: get sober, get married, get clean, get to work.   So in grieving Prince, many of us are are grieving our own freedom, our own hours of pure hedonism—those nights before you felt so weighted down by the world, and just cut loose–when you fell into some high-quality weed or cocaine, maybe backed it up with a few drinks or pills to upholster the high, danced for hours until you were wringing sweat from your shirt, and capped the night with some highlight-reel sex, finally drifting off to sleep thinking I wish everyone could feel like this…We’re supposed to repent of those nights as we get older, but Prince remained in our memories as a messenger saying Enjoy. And we need to be reminded. Aside from striving to help our brothers and sisters, why are we here, if not for pleasure, of which the carnal is such a glorious kind? Perhaps we will miss that messenger as much as the musician.

Of course, when pleasure turns itself inside-out, and becomes need, it’s bad; and if Prince was strung out on Percocet, it throws into horribly bold relief just how huge the gulf is between pleasure and compulsion. Percocet addiction, and I know whereof I speak, is one of the creepiest joneses of all, because you’re pumping monstrous doses of acetaminaphin into your poor liver, which never did anything bad to you—you’re better off with straight opiates, although that way of course the manufacturers of acetaminaphin make slightly less money.

I have no idea what kind of pharmaceutical regimen Lonnie Mack observed, and TMZ won’t give us daily updates on his Walgreen’s records, the way they’re doing with Prince. But I do know that without Lonnie Mack’s self-created blend of rock-and-roll, blues, and R&B, all milkshaked-up together and cherry-topped with a unique trebly-vibrato attack with its roots in bluegrass “chicken-pickin’”, we would have no Duane Allman, no Jeff Beck, no Stevie Ray Vaughn or Jimmy Page, as each of them would be eager to tell you. He was also a deeply soulful, committed singer, whose version of “I Found a Love” is second only to Wilson Pickett’s. And he was a fine, hard-edged writer, too. Check out his live version of “Cincinnatti Jail,” a scorching, uptempto blues shuffle that doubles as a dark, hilarious narrative about his actual experience getting shot, and then jailed, by Cincinnatti cops:

I left the country on a warm summer day,
Drove to the city to buy a guitar I could play,
While walking ‘cross the street a cop-car almost run me down,
I hit it on the fender, shouted “ better slow it down!”,
They jumped from the car and they shot me in the leg,
And they put me in the Cincinnati jail.

I went before the judge, he set a twenty thousand bond,
“Son, you are the bad guy, the good guys wear a gun.”,
They put me in a cell with cold steel for my bed,
My shoes for my pillow, and my leg still full of lead,
You can’t get a thing for the pain in the Cincinnati jail…

The way Mack howls out “you can’t get a thing for the pain,” when you know he’s describing the actual bullets in his actual leg while lying in an actual Cincinnatti jailcell, is utterly inspiring in its mixture of righteous outrage and crazy laughter. We should all have the guts to face suffering the way Lonnie Mack did.

If you’re goin’ to the city, man, you better take a friend,
And watch out for those good guys, they’ll really do you in–
They say they’re there to help you, but Hitler said so too,
Be careful what you’re doin’ ’cause they just might shoot you too.
You’ll lie, swear and cuss. .if you live to tell the tale,
‘Bout when they threw you in the Cincinnati jail.

The deaths are coming all too fast and furious. Let’s mourn on for the fabled and celebrated ones who are so beloved of the CNN.anchors; by all means; but let’s spare a thought too for the giants who slip away into the darkness un-noticed and unmourned on the airwaves, partly because they happened to die on the same day as Wolf Blitzer’s favorite rocker..

Remember Lonnie Mack.

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John Eskow is a writer and musician. He wrote or co-wrote the movies Air America, The Mask of Zorro, and Pink Cadillac, as well as the novel Smokestack Lightning. He is a contributor to Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence. He can be reached at: johneskow@yahoo.com

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