Our story begins in Her Majesty's Prison Wandsworth, a place once feared for "hard labour, hard fare and a hard bed"; it was from Wandsworth that Oscar Wilde, having suffered an ear injury, was transferred to Reading Gaol, which was a decided improvement. Today Wandsworth is the home of Australian singer Rolf Harris, up until recently best known for his 1963 hit record "Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport, who this summer was convicted in an English court of a dozen counts of "indecent assault" against children as young as eight, and sentenced to five years and nine months in HM Prison. Both Australia and the UK are busily erasing him from history:

Within hours of the unanimous decision, Harris had lost his place in the Australian Recording Industry Association (ARIA) Hall of Fame, into which he was inducted in 2008 for his contribution to music. He has also been stripped of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) Fellowship he was awarded two years ago and will likely lose his CBE from the Queen. Harris could also be stripped of his Order of Australia.

Which is not to say that Harris doesn't deserve this sort of treatment. Given the heinousness of his offenses, in the event of his death in Her Majesty's custody should he survive to serve his full term, he will be 90 years old few will mourn.

But "few" does not equal "none." As a fan since "Kangaroo" days, I am of course mortified; but I'm not going to burn my Rolf Harris records out of sympathy for the victims, or for any other reason. Apparently I am able to separate the sides of the man's character, the one that made lots of us laugh and the one that made a few of us suffer horribly.

I suspect that I am probably quite alone in this stance. Tina Jordan contemplates the matter of Marion Zimmer Bradley in an essay for Entertainment Weekly (issue #1320, not yet on their Web site):

By the time I finished the last of these legal documents, the image of the author I'd revered flickered and vanished, mirage-like. I felt unsettled not just about her, but about the book, too.

For me, that raised the question, Should we judge a piece of art by the artist? Is that fair? In the same way that I imagine long-time Woody Allen fans grapple with the accusations against him when they watch his movies, I sat down to reread The Mists of Avalon with trepidation. Could I still love this book, which has meant so much to me over the years? I was almost afraid to find out.

SPOILER: She couldn't:

Learning about Bradley's past didn't dim my literary opinion of the book: I still think The Mists of Avalon is a masterpiece. I'm grateful it was there for me. But I've discovered I'm not one of those people who can divorce the art from the artist. Reading Bradley's work through this new filter made me queasy and I won't be doing it again.

For some reason, I am one of those people who can divorce the art from the artist. I still watch Woody Allen films although I admittedly prefer the earlier, funnier ones and I certainly haven't sworn off Oscar Wilde, though the crimes of that former inmate of Wandsworth would scarcely be considered crimes today. This is not to say that time and tolerance will exonerate Rolf Harris, though: some offenses remain beyond the pale, and should.

But my model for this, I think, is the late Ike Turner. When he died in 2007, I began an article about him this way:

Inasmuch as everything else you're going to read about the late Ike Turner focuses on his seriously-dysfunctional relationship with Tina, I'm going to spend some time on the musical stuff, which starts in his late teens in the Mississippi delta with the founding of the Kings of Rhythm, who cut one of the contenders for First Rock and Roll Record in late 1950.

This is that record: "Rocket 88," credited to Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats, and indeed that's Brenston on the vocal, though the Delta Cats are indeed Ike's Kings of Rhythm. Why? Ask Chess Records, who picked up that Memphis recording (by Sam Phillips, no less) for national distribution. It surely wasn't anything nineteen-year-old Ike had done.

And think how many records I'd have to throw away if I decided I had to distance myself from Jim Gordon, who went over the edge in 1983, murdered his mother, and to this day remains the "guest" of the state of California at the Medical Facility in Vacaville.

The Vent

  16 July 2014

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 Copyright © 2014 by Charles G. Hill