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Tribute to Charles Bronson 
by Will Dodson of Arbus

Charles Bronson died in 2003 at the age of 81. The death was neither unexpected nor lamentable; 81’s a respectable old age, and we can’t expect to live much longer than that.

I love Charles Bronson. Charles Bronson taught me what music was all about. Let me explain. Technically, Charles Bronson didn’t compose the music to which I refer, the “Man With the Harmonica” theme from Once Upon a Time in the West. Ennio Morricone did that.

But when I saw the movie I didn’t know anything except that whenever Charles Bronson was on the screen, this harmonica, this odd other-worldly harmonica started playing. And sounds would slowly, quietly, begin to build around that harmonica, and build, and build, until suddenly there was this orchestra of death behind him, behind this little guy with tan skin in tan pants and a crooked yellow hat, this little guy who didn’t have a holster for his rusty gun but just a string. And the music continued to build and build, and the little guy’s eyes were steel gray, and I knew that whoever he was looking at was dead.

I was a kid then, but I still feel that now. I feel the music build, layer upon layer, behind this little guy, who doesn’t look like much but there’s something about him, something like death. Morricone composed the score, but he composed around Bronson. Bronson pulled the score out of Morricone as surely and deliberately as he pulled his harmonica out of his dusty pocket.

“Man With the Harmonica” will never be as iconic as “The Good, The Bad & the Ugly,” but that makes it all the more appealing to me. The orchestration is more complex, the build more gradual, the power of Bronson more real than Clint Eastwood and his theme. Clint looks tough, he looks dangerous. Bronson’s just a little guy with a smashed-in nose. But he’s much more dangerous, precisely because he’s just a little guy, and as the situation builds and builds and builds, he builds with it until he’s pure fury. Eastwood’s too obviously a bad-ass to smolder the way Bronson does.

So were his movies. Most people remember his horrid Death Wish sequels, but few recall how powerful the original really was. Bronson taught me the dangers of insulated moral philosophy. In the first Death Wish, Bronson played Paul Kersey, an anti-gun, anti-violence liberal. Then his daughter is raped and his wife killed, and he goes over the edge. Critics called it a second-rate Dirty Harry (again overshadowed by Eastwood), but I think the movie is real. What is our faith, what are our morals, who are we when we’re truly tested? Bronson, to me, could show real pathos, the real conflicts of repressed, tough men when they’re forced into emotion. That plays into music for me too. Music should be about the reality of an emotion, not an affected emotion. Playing an emotion makes it too big; playing an emotion forces the musician to guess where the emotion will go. Too often it becomes a cartoon, like Dirty Harry, a big hyperbolic caricature. But when the emotion is real, a la Paul Kersey, the musician goes with it, even it takes him into contradictory spaces, or spaces he never wanted to go. Bronson taught me about authenticity.

To return, the slow build Morricone gave to Bronson’s theme was not his own creation, but was already in Bronson, in all of his performances. In White Buffalo, The Dirty Dozen, The Great Escape, Murphy’s Law, The Magnificent Seven, even some of the Death Wish sequels, Bronson always gave the slow burn. He showed layers, contradictions, paradoxes, and weak points rubbed leather tough, all with his eyes and a bemused half-smile. Bronson was never considered a great actor, which to me is proof that he was. You never notice the performance of a great actor, because they embody that performance so seamlessly that they may as well not be acting at all.

That Bronson ideal applies to music. Music to me is good when I can’t even tell how it’s being played. To me, great music doesn’t show off, it’s layered but seamless, it’s a gathering storm that slowly coalesces and then releases, and when it releases, the world is drenched.

To the gathering storm, to the storm that gathered and rained until it had no more rain, to Charles Bronson, I give salute, I give tribute, I give thanks.