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Reviled and revered

The singer-bandleader's life could be defined as 'Rivers Deep and Mountains High.'

December 14, 2007|Ann Powers | Times Staff Writer

Cultural icons can't choose what they come to represent. Ike Turner was an icon; that was his burden and his punishment. Loving him was not a possibility for many who discovered his genius after his repellent secrets had been revealed. Appreciating him requires coming to terms with the double bind of rock and soul-era sexuality, a liberating force underpinned by racism, female objectification and machismo.

For the first half of his life, Turner was known as one of rock 'n' roll's inventors -- a dazzling pianist, raucous guitarist and ingenious showman whose songs pushed the blues into a new era. Then, in 1986, his ex-wife and musical partner, Tina Turner, published her autobiography, which recounted his mistreatment of her in horrifying detail. The book and its 1993 film version became key to feminist reassessments of rock and soul, and central to the growing literature of abuse survivors.

Tina, once stuck within an image of primal sensuality, was reborn as a self-possessed heroine. Ike sank further into obscurity. He was in prison in 1991 when the pair were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Over the subsequent decade, though he kicked the drug habit that apparently fueled his volatile temper, his image just got worse.

Then came the comeback. After 2001, when Turner returned to the stage and made the Grammy-nominated "Here and Now," he became a symbol of something else: the maligned rock hero. A victimizer, yes, but also a victim of those who'd privilege personal stories over musical ones. Turner's strong later albums and performances gave credence to his rehabilitation. The critical reassessments that followed refocused fans on his role as a musical groundbreaker.

Turner's return was also part of a swing of the pop pendulum, away from the questions about power and freedom raised by revisionists like Tina herself and toward a less "uptight" view of both music and sexuality. New looks at figures like Turner (or Led Zeppelin, to cite another example) acknowledged these artists' troubling qualities but demanded that the magic of their music not be denied.

The thing is, the magic and the troubling stuff can't be separated. Ike Turner's fierceness was rooted in brutality: a childhood that included witnessing his father's lynching and an adulthood as part of a "hard" music culture in which male leaders whipped their bands into shape and might also slap their wives around. The same cycle of pain and survival informs today's hyper-macho hip-hop artists, some of whom emulate Turner's icy-suave style.

I saw Turner twice during the comeback years. He didn't seem like an evil icon; more like a time-tempered, if unrepentant, old man. His music was joyful -- part escape from the hard world, part confident confrontation. But the dynamism of his act still relied on the tension between female heat and male swagger, a conflict at the root of some powerful notions of sexiness and also some forms of abuse.

Ike Turner's music taught us much. So did his sins. We should remember both.


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