With the L.A. All-Star weekend in full swing, it's fitting to recall Marvin Gaye's iconic, controversial rendition of the national anthem from the 1983 ASG at the Forum. The performance has since become accepted and admired, but at the time it represented the latest example of art and patriotism in disharmony. Before Gaye, Jose Feliciano entered a firestorm after his acoustic rendition at the 1968 World Series. Like Feliciano, Jimi Hendrix wasn't intentionally thumbing his nose with his electric version at Woodstock, but had to defend himself against those accusations.
For more perspective, we tapped two-time Grammy Award winning musician Ben Harper, a Lakers fanatic and no stranger to anthem performances. (His was on a lap steel guitar during the 2007 NBA Finals.) Brian asked Harper if a song as sacred as the anthem should be allowed artistic interpretation:
"It has to be. It has to be. Because as defining of a song as it is, that's what makes America beautiful. That freedom of interpretation. That's what makes us not only who we are, but who we can become. Or freedom to interpret even the most strict of guidelines, whether it's musical or social or political or spiritual."
Among the talking points of our conversation:
- Ben vividly recalls watching Gaye's rendition of the anthem, which sparked debate in his house. He also recognized immediately this was a moment he'd never forget. In particular, how the arrangement resembled (perhaps too closely) Gaye's most recent hit, "Sexual Healing."
As Ben said, this was "so risky." But as he also noted, "it's so much who (Gaye) was. How else could he have done it?"
- The crowd's reaction to Gaye's performance. For much of the song, it feels like everyone wasn't even sure how they were supposed to react. Were they allowed to enjoy something so different and, to some, inappropriate?
- How race can perhaps make a performance like Gaye's, Hendrix's or Feliciano's seem more politicized than intended.
- Should the national anthem even be a staple at sporting events in the first place? It's a tradition, but does the song really mesh well with the venue?
As Ben asked, how did God, country and sports become so intertwined? At times, like after 9/11, this union helped our country heal during difficult times. At other times, it has been messy.
- Even as an artist with the guts to create an absurdly eclectic resume, Ben admits actually singing the anthem would be seriously intimidating. What could prompt him to actually take the plunge, much less with his own spin? An invitation to belt it out before his beloved Lakers play.
- And finally, for those curious, the class was in fact Lamaze, not Bradley.