January 16, 2013

Keep on the Sunny Side

A monumental opportunity

Louisville’s own Mickey Baker died on Nov. 27 at his home in the south of France. Famous and widely influential among 1960s and ’70s guitar players, he was best known as half of the duo Mickey and Sylvia. In 1957, they had a No. 1 hit with the immortal “Love is Strange.”

This song is golden, from the first weird guitar trill and dead thunk of cowbell to the spoken bit at the end. The world would be a slightly sadder place without it. You would have to be a pretty extreme hater not to see that. The song has such a spontaneous, happy sound. When I hear it, I always see Sissy Spacek in “Badlands,” dancing around in the woods with “Love is Strange” blasting from her transistor radio.

Sylvia was Sylvia Vanderpool. She later founded Sugar Hill Records. Sometimes known as the mother of hip-hop, when she died in 2011, her New York Times obituary called her “the mastermind behind the Sugarhill Gang’s ‘Rapper’s Delight.’” That is so amazing! She could have called it a day back in 1957.

Mickey and Sylvia were the coolest. They both played electric guitars. That was unusual, but some African-American women were rocking out in a major way at the time. Bo Diddley, who actually wrote “Love is Strange,” hired the great guitar player Lady Bo in 1957, followed by The Duchess in 1962.

It should be a big deal that Mickey Baker was born here, but maybe we have no right to claim him. Maybe it’s like how I make a huge deal about Johnny Depp being from the “OWB” even though I know he only lived there for maybe a year. It’s still significant. The first years of life are supposed to be really important. Neural pathways are being formed. Owensboro should at least put up one of those historical markers.

Tod Browning, director of the iconic films “Dracula” (1931) and “Freaks” (1932), was born in Louisville. As far as I know, we don’t have a statue of him, either. Don Knotts was born in Morgantown, W.V. Guess what they have? They have Don Knotts Boulevard! We don’t even have a Tod Browning cul-de-sac.

On the other hand, before the Muhammad Ali Center opened in 2005, maybe some people around here thought renaming Walnut Street was adequate recognition for one of the most beloved and inspirational people on this planet. I still wish we had a monument commemorating Muhammad Ali. I would like something abstract and in keeping with Islamic principles, but on the scale of Robert Graham’s massive, bronze Joe Louis fist in downtown Detroit.

I know that large-scale public sculpture is not on everybody’s mind right now. Marble statues can’t solve all our problems — just ask the Romans. For years, people arriving at our airport were greeted by that freaky fiberglass Col. Sanders.

Many people are far too busy to care. I know that, but history is fundamental to our humanity. Historical context can make people feel less adrift. Opportunities to contemplate the incredible things some of us have achieved should make it easier to see the potential in the rest of us.

Ultimately, we need to be nice to people while they are here. If we had been nicer to Abraham Lincoln, maybe Kentucky would be the “Land of Lincoln,” instead of Illinois.

Mickey Baker was born in Louisville, but he didn’t stay long. Sent to an orphanage when he was 11, he ran away to New York City at 16 and moved to France in the 1960s. I’ve heard that he came through here occasionally to visit relatives, maybe for funerals. From what I’ve read, he had a pretty hard time here as a kid. We should try to make up for it somehow. Maybe by putting up a statue, or maybe by just being nicer to little kids who are having a hard time.

Catherine Irwin sings and plays guitar and banjo with the band Freakwater. She is currently preparing to “push a fuckin’ Rav4” across the frozen tundra of the northeastern states to commemorate the 20th anniversary of their now classic record, Feels Like the Third Time.