Wednesday, August 06, 2014

8.7.14 BLEW NOTE

This article originally appeared in the 8.7.14 issue of Metroland.

            Last week some truly depressing quotes from the great jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins started popping up online.  They were coming from a New Yorker article entitled “Sonny Rollins: In His Own Words.”  The entire article was a series of quotes, including:

Jazz might be the stupidest thing anyone ever came up with. The band starts a song, but then everything falls apart and the musicians just play whatever they want for as long they can stand it.

I really don’t know why I keep doing this. Inertia, I guess. Once you get stuck in a rut, it’s difficult to pull yourself out, even if you hate every minute of it. Maybe I’m just a coward.

Some of my recordings are in the Library of Congress. That’s idiotic. They ought to burn that building to the ground. I hate music. I wasted my life.

            None of this remotely jibed with the little bit I knew about Sonny Rollins, which was that he was a decent and spiritual man.  Pretty quickly I learned, by reading an angry blog post, that this was supposed to be a humor piece, written by someone calling himself “Django Gold”, who was described in his byline as a senior writer for The Onion.

            I guess some people think this piece is funny.  But a lot more people thought it was for real, as the quotes continued zinging through cyberspace, not as jokes, but as things Sonny Rollins actually said.  Monday Rollins did a 30-minute live webcast from his home in Woodstock, which you can see now on YouTube and which I highly recommend (search for “The Real Sonny Rollins”).   He passionately and comprehensively defended jazz, first pointing out that he was hurt over the fact that young jazz musicians might read the piece and stop practicing.  “The people who wrote this thing are trying to kill jazz, but you can’t kill a spirit.”  He said he loved comedians Bob and Ray and that he subscribed to Mad Magazine.  He quoted Churchill and Noam Chomsky.  He was beautiful.

            The New Yorker piece was a disgrace, and “Django Gold” is a royal asshole.  This piece wouldn’t have run in The Onion, because it truly isn’t funny.  And they can’t hide behind the claim that it’s satire.  It’s not.  Satire is a literary device by which someone’s  weaknesses or other bad qualities are exposed.   This didn’t do anything but attack Sonny Rollins and jazz.  Exactly what “bad qualities” does Sonny Rollins have that were “exposed” by the article?  None!  As jazz-man Nicholas Payton said on his blog “it’s nerdy white-boy humor.”  Except it’s not humor, but rather a putrid character assassination that might make some immature hipster douchebags feel good about themselves because they recognize references to Dexter Gordon, Miles Davis, The 3 Deuces, and the Montreax Jazz Festival.

            Sonny Rollins could easily sue the bejesus out of the New Yorker and “Django Gold.”  And he should.  He should sue to punish them, and even more importantly to clear his name.  Defamation consists of (a) the utterance or publication of something about someone that’s not true; (b) the speaker’s knowledge of the untruth; and (c) damage to the reputation of the subject.  There’s a satire exception if the lies are so outlandish that a “reasonable person” would conclude that they can’t be true.  And that’s not the case here.  It wasn’t for me, and it wasn’t for a ton of people, including a lot of people who know a heck of a lot more than me about jazz and Sonny Rollins.  This was defamation, pure and simple.

            Contrast this situation to our friends (and my clients) The Yes Men, who issue phony press releases and impersonate governmental and corporate officials proclaiming things like Dow Chemical is going spend a billion dollars cleaning up Bhopal, or that the World Bank is shutting down because it realized it was harming third-world countries.  The corporations and governments are then forced to deny these things, and often The Yes Men issue phony denials first.   The Yes Men’s announcements are often reported as real news.  Are these things defamatory?  Technically maybe, but the effectiveness of the stunts rely on people believing their outlandish claims, which then forces the targets’ denials (like Dow Chemical having to state that it’s not going to clean up Bhopal).  The end result is satire’s purpose, to expose the truth.   And it’s hard to argue that the truth could harm a target’s reputation.

            The fact is that the Yes Men are pretty much insulated from lawsuits because of the “Streisand Effect” – the notion that a lawsuit and the attendant publicity would trumpet the Yes Men’s message and notoriety even more loudly, and embarrass the target even more, no matter what the outcome of the lawsuit.
            Which is exactly why Sonny Rollins ought to sue: the Streisand Effect will work in his favor, as people reading about the lawsuit will come to learn that he didn’t say what the New Yorker has him saying.  And people will also learn what hideous fuckheads “Django Gold” and the editors at the New Yorker are.

Paul Rapp is a local IP attorney who dangles participles as naturally as he breathes.



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