My Heroes

Another hero gone… Cormac McCarthy, dead at 89. This time a writer, a hero of a different nature. I’ve lost plenty of heroes already; Chick Corea, Lyle Mays, George Winston… brilliant jazz pianists and composers. Hell, I even knew Lyle, even played piano with him one occasion. Hard to get to know, a somewhat typical genius.

Portrait of American Jazz musician Lyle Mays (1953 – 2020)

Chick Corea

I’ve lost plenty of literary heroes, too. Lost them?? Yes. They died, and I so much wish they could have done more. Doesn’t matter whether I knew them or not… I feel like I did. J. D. Salinger, (Franny & Zooey) Joseph Heller, (Catch 22( Hermann Hesse, (Magister Ludi, Narcissus & Goldmund) Ken Kesey, ( Sometimes A Great Notion, and One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest) and Robert Pirsig. (Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance.) Even Thomas Paine, back in 1776. (Common Sense) In my humble estimation, literary geniuses, all. Each one inspired me in a different way, making me think things like, “damn, that’s some really great writing. It must be fun, I’d like to try that…”

Am I unreasonably free with my words “genius” and “hero?” Perhaps, but in the case of jazz pianists, composers and authors, I have attempted all three artistic activities and have found them to be incredibly difficult to get even proficient, let alone “really good” or “brilliant!” And to me, those who become famous for their abilities and their works, blow me away with their “high bar” consistency AND continue to make it look easy… well then, there you have my description of an artistic genius. And these geniuses happen to be my heroes! They have inspired me to reach farther than my abilities allow, and for that alone I will hold them always in the highest esteem.

So yes, I have heroes. Doesn’t everyone? And yes, sadly, most of my heroes are dead and gone. Cormac McCarthy was a truly great writer. He won the Nobel Prize for literature for his book, “The Road.” He dedicated it to his son, John Frances, saying that having a child as an older man “forces the world on you, and I think that’s a good thing.”

Yup, he’s a literary hero of mine, for sure… for several reasons. I know a little more about him than some, due to the fact that I often worked with an adman in Atlanta, Mack Kirkpatrick, who attended the U. Of Tennessee with McCarthy. Mack told me that Cormac was already something of a standout at Tennessee, even though it would take him years to finally land on the national stage. You might know his work from the movies “No Country For Old Men,” and “All The Pretty Horses,” both McCarthy books that were turned into movies.

Mack told me that McCarthy’s original name was Charles McCarthy, and that early on he had decided to change it to Cormac, as he never wanted to be known as “Charlie McCarthy.” Good call, Cormac.

My introduction to Cormac McCarthy’s writing came about rather strangely. At lunch with my writer/ad friend Mack one day, I mentioned the fact that I thought he was a fine writer in his own right, and why hadn’t he written a book yet? At first I regretted asking it, as he got quiet and the table mood immediately changed. He sipped his wine thoughtfully, then finally looked up at me. “Rather than explain it to you, let me give you something that will answer your question for you.”

A week later he dropped by Doppler Studios and handed me a McCarthy book, “The Crossing” and said, “This is the answer to your question at lunch the other day.” And with that, he left. I read the book, found its story incredible in its depth and understanding of character development, let alone the beauty and naked honesty of the story line itself. Some time later I worked with Mack again, and told him I’d read The Crossing and now understood his answer. “Yeah,” he said, now much lighter than he was at that lunch. “From being around him, then reading a few of his novels, I realized how high he had set the bar, and instantly knew I’d never even come close to that level. I have no desire to even try.”

I remember saying something to Mack about that particular bar not mattering if he has something to write in his own unique way. He shook his head. “It matters to me. It’s just not in the cards.” And that was the end of it.

But not for me. I thought about that so much in the next few months, whether one should not pursue a thing because others have already done it so much better. Ultimately I lit upon several conclusions… one, that a person should pursue their talents and their goals, regardless of what’s been done in the past. There have been, and will continue to be geniuses who set that very high bar and often make it look easy in the process. Those brilliant artists and their works should not halt or restrict our own efforts in any way; rather those geniuses and their works should inspire us to create beyond our own abilities. I have borrowed or stolen something from most of my heroes of music and prose, and have yet to be called on any of it. I feel that those “thefts” have only enhanced whatever abilities I have. Also, it’s highly likely that my heroes “stole” a few ideas and techniques from their heroes as well. In that light, these artistic thefts would appear to be no more than one more way for us to improve ourselves from generation to generation.

Two, any random comparison of ourselves to anyone else, especially the greats, is generally dangerous. It almost always invites a harsh judgement upon ourselves, when we shouldn’t even be judging ourselves on any level in the first place, unless it is but a gentle, temporary judgement to help us acknowledge where we are in the real world at any given moment. Of course it’s a good thing to be striving for something and to know where one is in the process, but not to the detriment of the joy of and the passion for the process itself.

Non-judgement was easy for me in the early years… I was content to be a somewhat functioning member of the social order of the jazz musician. I was always proud of that, even knowing I was pretty much at the bottom of that barrel. It was okay, I knew I’d work my way up, and I did.

My heroes never once did to me what Mack’s hero, Cormac McCarthy, did to him… which was to totally shut down his desire, and hence his ability, to try his own hand at the craft and art form he exhibited so well on the TV and radio commercial stage. I have read and heard a ton of ad copy over the years and know for a fact that Mack was a damn good writer. He was creative, inventive and had his own unique style, which was perfect for the Great American Commercial. It was painfully evident to me that he might have stretched those abilities onto a much more serious pallet. He made good money at his agency, of course, yet I doubt that he was fulfilled in that job.

And a strange thing happened one summer’s afternoon. I was in bumper to bumper traffic, heading out of Atlanta to the North at the end of a day in the studio. I was chuckling, as I often did, about how much of my life was passing right before my eyes while sitting in traffic, listening to the radio, hoping to hear one of my jingles, when this little vintage sports car pulls up beside me to the right, then eases a touch ahead, at around 5 miles per hour. Its driver is hunched over the small steering wheel, smoking a cigarette as if it were the last cigarette he would ever have. What a sad caricature of an obviously nervous, perhaps even fearful man. And then I recognized him… it was Mack!

Life can be so funny sometimes. I know, from working with him many times over the years, that Mack could write circles around me. Who knows why he decided the bar (for him, anyway) was just too high? Were there other reasons he didn’t want to share why he was content to restrict his abilities to ad copy? Obviously Cormac McCarthy’s writing inspired him somehow… no, impressed him. For in my mind, inspiration begs for action, participation. Hm. Guess I’ll never really know.

One of the most important things I learned from these great writers is this- that to write well, one has to learn to think well. The words and thoughts don’t just come out of one’s fingertips… they have to be first thought and formulated, then put into some understandable form. And those thoughts and words have to come from someplace, right? Right. My heroes taught me to observe people, to observe life, to research and examine without judging, and to not be afraid to interpret those observations in whatever style I might light upon. Invaluable! You don’t get that shit from college writing 101. And I learned it all from reading you, my heroes… Kurt Vonnegut, Jack Kerouac, Oscar Wilde, Hunter Thompson, Pat McManus, Mark Twain, Carl Jung… heroes whose writings thrilled me and inspired me to pursue the level of drivel I delight in sharing with you every week. And though the results of all this will assuredly come to nothing, the process is incredibly delicious!

Steve Hulse

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