The Messenger

When Gil Scott-Heron died last May at the age of 62 nearly all the obituaries saluted him as “the Godfather of Rap.” It was a title he modestly denied when I interviewed him in 1995, shortly after his recording Spirits had come out. Poet, novelist, R&B musician and social activist, Scott-Heron had influenced the rhyme and rhythms of what would become the rap movement. But the content of his message, contained in “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” “Save the Children,” and dozens of other socially-conscious songs and politically-contrary lyrics, seemed largely ignored by the commercially-intent rap movement he supposedly had inspired.

The interview was a difficult endeavor that saw him cancel an arranged face-to-face, postpone a handful of phone appointments and eventually make contact as he drove around New York’s west side. At key moments in the conversation, the connection would break up and I was left wondering what exactly he had said. I suspected the man was occupied with a mission I could only guess at. By the time he died, it was well known that the suspicions I harbored were well founded.

 

That someone of such achievement, someone of such compassion and determination would succumb to the very evils he had sung about in “The Bottle” and “Angel Dust” is the unspoken heart of The Last Holiday, Scott-Heron’s recently released memoir. By the time he passed, Scott-Heron had spent a fair portion of his last years in jail for cocaine possession, had confessed to battles with addiction and had revealed he was HIV positive. As a young man, he was talented, ambitious (despite “a complete dedication to marijuana”) and fearless in pursuing his goals. What happened?

The omission of any hint of Scott-Heron’s lifestyle struggles puts a huge hole in the memoir, especially considering that the book was written during those last years and that drug use may have even influenced its writing. It’s especially disappointing considering the honesty and excellence of the book’s first half.

The stand-out tune from Spirits was “Message To the Messengers,” a plea for that generation’s rap stars to show some respect for their elders and what had gone down before. ““[Rappers] have to know they’re not going through anything new” he told me, “it’s the same stuff I went through back then. They’ve got to remember it’s not about them. It’s about community and the people.”

That’s exactly what the book’s first several fascinating chapters are about, community and people. It addresses the years between his childhood in small-town Tennessee to his signing with Clive Davis’ Arista Records. This journey makes for a compelling, even inspiring story. Scott-Heron acknowledges the help he had along the way, including that from a young white English teacher named Nettie Leaf who challenged him to read John Knowles A Separate Peace, a book he thought was “white noise about white people.”  Leaf recognized his promise as a writer and helped him get into a private school that would challenge both his intellect and his social skills. He credits his mother with helping him develop his style and reveals that it was she who, “provided the punch line” for his classic complaint against misplaced priorities,  “Whitey On the Moon.” She also suggested mimicking Langston Hughes by repeating the opening line of the poem—” a rat done bit my sister Nell…”

And he worked hard. Presidential candidates who have suggested there’s no work ethic in America’s underclass should read Scott-Heron’s description of employment at age 14 as a dishwasher in a steaming restaurant kitchen and how he sometimes held down multiple jobs to keep himself in school books. It’s thrilling to read how success –not always the case–follows his hard work.

The early sections devoted to his upbringing by his grandmother in Jackson, Tennessee, his eventual move to New York to join his mother, his hot-bloodied pursuit of an education and his eventual recording success even as he coveted a career as a novelist are strong stuff, written with the kind of rhythm and word play expected of someone whose seen as a spiritual inspiration of the rap movement. But then the book changes purpose as its focus shifts to Stevie Wonder and the effort to establish a holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King. It’s as if Scott-Heron has gone into denial and lost his abilities for self-examination. While the sections on Wonder are worthy in that they establish his important role in securing the King holiday –remember Wonder’s joyful 1981 song “Happy Birthday”?—we didn’t come this far with Scott-Heron to see him disappear.

Not only is the focus lost, the writing deteriorates and the book’s construction suddenly seems haphazard.  An excerpt from a long-held Scott-Heron project called “The Artist” seem to fall in as if from the moon. Chapters lurch from story to story without connection. Sprinkled throughout the text are poems, written in rhyming couplets, some deserving a backbeat and a melody line to carry their worthy message forward, clumsy others just waiting to be forgotten. When one of these poems expressing  the hope that morning coffee, “Will hit the right spot and somehow make it clear/What the hell’s going on? What am I doing here?”  we can’t help wonder right along with him.

The unevenness of the text is probably due to the start-and-stop way it was written over his last decade or so.  The book seems to be of two minds and of the two the first is better. Even as the narrative starts to skip like a damaged recording, there are some great moments as Scott-Heron jumps ahead and out of his life to consider the election of Ronald Reagan, and his feelings on joining the Wonderlove tour. We feel the innocent excitement of the book’s first half when Scott-Heron stands on stage next to a child-like Michael Jackson and when he recalls Jesse Jackson giving an election speech at the San Diego Convention Center in 1984. But largely in the book’s second half, the narrative flow, the thing that made so many of his musical verses strong, is missing.

It’s strange to realize once finishing the book that despite all the talk of “spirits” who helped him along the way he completely avoids addressing the devils that did him in. What a disappointment it is – and telling– to know that someone who wrote so honestly about his early life, who penned lyrics that touched a generation with their biting commentary and hopeful resolution, would ignore the struggle that consumed the last years of his life. The Last Holiday seems to stray from its intended themes and leave us with one that’s unintended: the messenger losing sight of the message. It’s as if he wants to tell us, as he does about his early years, but as during that long ago interview, the connection is always breaking up.–Cabbage Rabbit

 

Spalding Gray Naked, Unseen

Spalding Gray struck me as the perfect balance of author and performer, someone who wrote well and revealingly of himself and then brought that self to the stage. As a long time Gray fan, I was anticipating the release of The Journals of Spalding Gray this month until I read the excerpts printed in today’s New York Times Sunday Magazine. Yes, Gray is introspective and thoughtful, curious as to who he is and why, just as he was in his monologues (if not as deeply as in his published work). But something seemed lacking, something prevented my usual embrace of his story. And I realized that I was getting only half of Gray, the writer without the performer. And I was disappointed in myself for needing the visual, the audible, the theatrical factor that made Gray unique.

One excerpt caught my attention.

Problems with father tempted by the idea that all I do may be a reaction against my father — I look at his life and do all I can to live my life in opposition to this makes my life inflexible and rigid.

This idea of the reactionary life, particularly in light of my own father, has long been a source of discomfort and discussion. Was the protest movement of the 1960s motivated by politics or psychology?  That we might be seeing it in generational terms — my 60s-’70s rebellious and politically radical generation was a reaction to the organizational and blue-collar patriarchs of the post-War generation, wasn’t it? The current Occupy Wall Street movement resulting from reactionary tendencies directed towards the greed-is-good generation of the ’80s and now the ’00s —  it’s powered by the same motivations isn’t it?  It’s a troubling question.  I believe the current movement is ideologically motivated, a reaction to the conditions and the protestors’ perceived future. But ours, a generation that embraced ideals and sold out a decade and more later? I’m not so sure–Cabbage Rabbit

Taking the Long View

For many of us, the 1960s never ended. Tom Hayden takes that belief a step further. The ’60s continue…for everyone.

Hayden’s book, The Long Sixties, takes the political history of the ’60s and finds its legacy alive today in the social movement that brought Barack Obama to the presidency. He sees Obama as a reflection of the movement politics of that decade. Movement politics –the actions of groups sharing similar visions or issue positions– can be found  in the emerging progressive- populist, anti-finance and anti-corporate movements and in the ignored but tangible anti-war movement. These movements, anchored in their correctness, grow in reaction to the resistance they meet. Without the ’60s, Hayden suggests, hope would go missing from our politics.

Despite the tired joke that memory of that special decade implies absence, Hayden was there. He was a founding member of the Students For a Democratic Society and led the drafting of the student manifesto The Port Huron Statement. He was indicted as a co-conspirator of the Chicago 8, charged with inciting riot at the Democratic National Convention in 1968 (his conviction was overturned in 1972).  He traveled to North Vietnam during the war with Jane Fonda (in 1973), an act that still inspires outrage from his adversaries, before going on to spend time in California politics in the 1980s and ’90s. He has not only been controversial among his enemies on the right, but with radical progressives who, at times, saw him compromising to join the political system.

Hayden describes his political and social beliefs with “the M/M model,” progressive movements in opposition to the Machiavellians “power technicians” who represent the various power institutions of government, business and the military. He places the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement and the anti-corporate movements of the ’60s in this model. The movements  grow, as he says, “when sufficient rage and frustration lead to a perception that all peaceful, legal means have been exhausted.”

The majority of the book frames many of the seminal radical events of the decade inside the model. In the process, Hayden paints a history of the times that counters attempts at whitewash and demonization.  His “Promoting Amnesia” section warns, “The general approach is to reduce the whole sixties to a blurred story of violence, sex drugs, and rock-and-roll signifying nothing. This requires a difficult removal of civil rights, feminist and farmworker movements…” The most visible example of rewriting history from the era, he says,  is the effort to “wrap Vietnam in triumphalism…”

Hayden declares that while the political successes of the era were compromised in the following decades, the ’60s counterculture revolution succeeded in taking over the culture at large. “Sixties music and artists still retain a dominant influence. The general public is supportive of the decriminalization of marijuana and a treatment-centered approach to drugs. Things organic, foods and medicines, hold vast sway. Above all, environmental programs  such as renewable energy and conservation derive from approaches that were considered part of the extreme fringe thirty years ago.”

Hayden is quick to point out that the sixties did not hold onto its political victories. War, repression, racisim and exploitation of workers continues and, indeed expands. The movement was absorbed and co-opted, he states, and parts of it were separated from the whole. “Green politics still remain white politics,” he says, echoing Van Jones. The Machiavellians, ascendant during the first several years of the new century firmly control the agenda.

It’s when Hayden ties the movement lessons of the ’60s to more recent events that his book speaks the loudest. And nowhere is this most apparent than on sections devoted to Obama. Hayden, along with Barbara Ehrenreich and others, famously endorsed Obama in a March, 2007 piece for The Huffington Post (published in the book). Yet Hayden has not relented any of his positions to support the president, taking him to task for his extension  of the war in Afghanistan and calling out the media as well as the White House for ignoring its casualties.  “…one hard lesson has become clear to me from experience:” he writes with added emphasis, Domestic progress has been continually derailed by dubious wars.” Though he has not addressed class struggle and the financial crisis as thoroughly, he has, in true Hayden style, linked the two to the actions and philosophies of the Obama administration.

“Obama is trying to navigate between Machivavellians he has either inherited or appointed–the generals, military contractors, national security elites, Wall Street bankers, and hedge fund speculators–and a public opinion of high hopes and growing anger…” he writes in the book, which was published in 2009. “To permanently shift the American balance of power in a progressive direction, the Obama administration needs to encourage both structural shifts and cultural ones, not policy change alone…” But even some of Obama’s recent policy, despite its achievements, must unsettle Hayden.

The book’s last sentence addresses both the president and ourselves. “What he needs, then, and what we need is a New Left.” In other words, what’s needed is a return to the movement politics of the sixties, founded on unclouded understanding of the issues, cast in current terms and propelled by contemporary technology. We’ll be looking to see if Hayden’s take on Obama and the current state of America has changed in the last two years when the paperback edition of The Long Sixties, hopefully updated, is published in April.–Cabbage Rabbit

Kerouac, Ginsberg, Lenny Bruce and Me

“I am the man who has best charted his inmost self.” Antonin Artaud quoted by Helen Weaver

Helen Weaver’s account of  her early days in Greenwich Village is misleadingly titled. Weaver, a new age author and translator nominated for a National Book Award in 1977 for her reading of Antonin Artaud, was a member of New York’s hip set in the 1950s and ’60s. She had affairs with Jack Kerouac and Lenny Bruce, a longstanding friendship with Allen Ginsberg and worked in the heart of the publishing scene for Harold Vursell and Roger W. Straus Jr. at Farrar, Straus and Cudhay, later Farrar, Straus and Giroux. So who’s the awakener in all this?

Well, it’s the guy whose name will sell the most books, thus the subtitle A Memoir of Kerouac and the Fifties.  But a large part of  the book deals in Weaver’s life without Kerouac. Equally interesting sections, some maybe more so,  deal in her relationship with Bruce and her own life in Greenwich Village, smoking pot, getting into jazz and generally pursuing a life of her own. If you’re thinking the book is strictly about Kerouac, you’ll be disappointed. Women also named Helen as well as guys named Tommy and Monty all help shake Weaver into consciousness.

But this is not  a disappointing book. Weaver’s story is a late coming-of-age tale in an era (and among a generation) that treated women with (mostly) quaint attitudes  (“Jack wouldn’t let me smoke dope; that was for the boys.”). She breaks away from a “middle-class” upbringing in Scarsdale, Pennsylvania and a dull first marriage. Weaver avidly pursues life, embracing hetro and homosexual relationships, indulging in drugs and following psychoanalysis. By the time you finish, you’ll think  Weaver awakened herself.

Weaver’s sexual awakening after undergraduate studies and while she was married has more affect on her development than the undependable, often drunk, brilliant writer who gave us On the Road.  “If women had suddenly been transformed from rivals to the objects of my desire,” she writes, ” then all my previous conditioning went out the window.”

This is also a story of privilege. Despite her claim to the middle-class, Weaver attended Oberlin, her father paid for her first Village apartment and much of her psychoanalysis and her career in publishing came from her connections.  She could afford to be different. When things don’t go well, the family is there to bail her out. Not every struggling artist or bohemian has that advantage.

Still, Weaver’s honesty about it all makes the book sincere and rewarding. She’s refreshingly disarming about her mistakes with men and women and her own youthful preoccupations, especially when viewed from her later years. And she’s particularly descriptive when it comes to her beloved Greenwich Village. Here are the clubs and coffee shops, the quaint streets and magical social scene that made the Village of the late ’50s and early ’60s a sort of Never Land for those avoiding the conformity of that era.

Weaver ends the book with Kerouac considerations, some pulled from reading, some from observation, some from astrology. These short chapters are the ones Kerouac devotees will be most interested in. Even when seeing “Pisces-Virgo contradictions” in the writer’s life, she’ll make insightful revelations: “Kerouac’s struggle with opposites was a rich source of creativity, the shifting ground on which he was able to arrive at symmetry or balance in his art.”   These same sort of contraditions, though less dramatic, make Weaver’s book  fascinating.–Cabbage Rabbit

Digging Up A Deadly Past

The Gaza Flotilla Raid in May that left nine dead and dozens wounded has already faded into the background of oil-soaked news. While in Seattle earlier this month, the Rabbit witnessed attempts at keeping the issue alive: dueling protests on the University of Washington campus in which both bullhorned sides invited the other into the space between them for “real” discussion (neither side budged while we watched), and a large, pro-Palestinian march the following day through downtown. Similar actions have been  reported around the country and the world. The opposing UW protests emerged in our mind as an symbol of how little chance there is of worthwhile resolution to the West Bank and Gaza issue. No doubt,  by the time summer is over, the flotilla incident will be just another footnote in a long, cruel and bloody struggle.

The death toll in the flotilla incident is small compared to that alleged in the two incidents illustrated in Joe Sacco’s Footnotes in Gaza. The book is a long account of Sacco’s investigation of two actions in Gaza that occurred back in 1956, one in the town of Khan Younis that left 275 Palestinians dead, another in Rafah that left 111 dead. While the overall effect of Sacco’s narrative is one of shock, disgust and shame it also serves as a reminder of the on-going nature of repression and killing that has marked the Palestinian-Israeli struggle for some 60 years.

Sacco, author-illustrator of Palestine and Safe Area Grorazde is the premier graphic journalist, the creator of detailed, researched, investigative comics that are no laughing matter. He approaches his subject in classic Gonzo style, injecting his search for stories into a larger narrative. This injection strengthens his reporting with its wide-angled, contemporary background to, in this case, events over 50 years old. That he concentrated on personal accounts, often to make up for a lack of official documentation, makes his work extremely engaging. Perspective–no pun intended– is everything in his work.

Sacco traveled to Gaza in 2001 with reporter Chris Hedges for Harper’s magazine and soon returned to collect accounts of the massacres that occurred during the ’56 Suez conflict. As readers of Palestine know, his sympathies are with the Palestinian people and this will disqualify him as a legitimate source for many. Yet anyone reading his book and examining the illustrations cannot help but conclude that the Palestinians suffer overwhelming poverty, repression and the effects of  what amounts to war. His infrequent sympathies for Israelis thrust into terrible situations as well as infrequent but obvious disapproval of some Palestinian actions offer precious little balance to a story that has little of it to offer.

In his introduction, Sacco acknowledges  the “scant” official documentation of the events he investigates as well as the questionable reliability of oral testimony. What documentation he was able to discover by sending researchers into the Israel State Archives and the archives of the Israel Defense Forces is listed (and quoted) in the Appendix. He issues the hope that his work will cause some Israeli veterans to come forward with accounts of their own.

Sacco also cautions readers not to see his illustrations as fact. Despite using historical photos when drawing his landscapes, he says that drawing comes with “a measure of refraction” and should be seen as such. (It’s surprising how little things have changed from his depictions of 1956 to the  current day drawings.)

Sacco makes clear the complications of life in Gaza; the waste, the shortages, the crowds, the filth.  He claims that the half of Gaza’s workforce which once worked in Israel have found themselves replaced by Thai, Romanian and Chinese workers.  Invited by a United Nations Relief Worker Agency employee to visit a home in Khan Younis, Sacco sweats and becomes claustrophobic at the tight conditions in which the 11 people live.  He notes what little work is available to them, hunting scrap or the rare teaching position funded by UNRWA. He finds that the Palestinian Authority hires police whose only duty seems to be to collect salaries. The most well-off man he meets works for an American aid agency as a facilitator of “democratization.”  “Basically, it’s bullshit,” says the man.

These modern-day accounts of Sacco’s investigation and story gathering make the book far more relevant than just an account of the massacres. When those accounts do come, they are filled with horror, grief and inexplicable cruelty. Some of Sacco’s most extreme panel’s are over-sized Hieronymus Bosh-like nightmares depicting killing, detention and states of cruel pandemonium. Cross-hatched scenes of darkness or those with the story-teller super-imposed on his own story are done to chilling effect.

Unlike Palestine, the art work doesn’t evolve but maintains a direct, composed style. The strongest work in Palestine is its portraits. Here, the portraits are all of a kind, similar in mood and expression. Footnotes’ best illustrations comes in the narrative flow. Sacco is a master at finding the right action and composition to move his story forward and even the scatter of spent shell casings on a blank background has an impact on his story.

Comic touches are few. A restaurant menu is rolled open to reveal “Bombings! Assassinations! Incursions!” Sacco makes laughs at his own expense and his is the only overly characterized face: large lips, receding hairline, eyes constantly whited out behind  large, round spectacles. He also makes fun of the press corp and their proclivity to drink and party even as duty calls in sections that recall the indifferent press in the movies The Year of Living Dangerously and Under Fire.

That party scene  serves to illustrate his frustrations — and hopes — beyond the murderous bickering. Among the international crowd of reporters and N.G.O.s are “hepcat Arabs from Ramallah and right-on Jews from Tel Aviv sharing salads and grooving to the same post-bop jazz. Are the dark-haired cuties who jump up when the dance beat kicks in Palestinian or Israeli?…Ahhh, even in the belly of the world’s most intractable conflict there’s a glimmer of hope in which to exalt!”

At end, Sacco feels shame for what he’s lost while gathering his accounts, “for losing something along the way as I collected my evidence, disentangled it, dissected it, indexed it, and logged it onto my chart.” This confession comes as something of a surprise as he has shown nothing but compassion for those who experienced the killings. In a series of almost four wordless pages he runs a final account through his mind, from a perspective inside the punished crowd, as if in attempt to develop an empathy he didn’t have. If he didn’t succeed with himself — and what preceeds it suggests that he did — Sacco certainly succeeds with the reader.–Cabbage Rabbit

Insider’s Take

The author of The Mystery Guest explains his strange conception, his twisted upbringing and how a glimpse of a friend’s naked mother, followed by a street riot, seems to repeat itself every time he falls in love.

Imagine the quandary of Gregoire Bouillier. Conceived in one of several three-way encounters between his father, his mother and his mother’s lover, he can never be sure who he really is. His mother tells him it doesn’t matter, that “when two men ejaculate, in a woman’s vagina, instead of competing, their sperm cells fertilize the egg and give birth to a mutant.” And what a wonderful mutant he is. Bouillier, French author of the brilliant little book The Mystery Guest, is not only an insightful memoirist but a disarmingly honest one. He weaves together his anxious childhood with an unpredictable mother and his later, always ill-fated relationships with women. Despite bullies, adolescent frustrations and an encounter with a sexually ambiguous older brother, Bouillier trumpets a happy childhood and it’s almost true. He’s not without proclivities. He likes to pour his mother’s nail polish on toy soldiers and his hands and set them all on fire. He obsesses about a school mate’s prized marble. The simple lessons here (“you have to use your hands to help in penetration”) come at a cost and Boullier buys them in bulk. The larger lessons come from repetition as he draws the threads of his youth and knots them to his later romantic experiences. He finds laughs—big ones– in his existential puzzle. “Life impossibly mischievous?” he writes. “You think you’re living until what you’re really living dies, revives…” Happiness, he seems to say, comes from endlessly starting over and never getting over what you started before. Playfully written (translated from the French by Bruce Benderson) and full of ironic introspection, Bouillier’s book excuses us all from the self-obsession that haunts our day-to-day life.–Cabbage Rabbit

The Illustrated Book Review

We’ve written before about comics as a vehicle for memoir. Now comes Alison Bechdel to show how comics can be applied to memoir criticism. Bechdel’s illustrated review of Jane Vandenburgh’s A Pocket History of Sex In the Twentieth Century: A Memoir in the March 29 New York Times Book Review contains all the components of thoughtful criticism: a decent summary of the book, our relationship to its subject matter, where it suceeds and where it fails. To be sure, Bechdel’s own Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic bares certain resemblances to Vandenburgh’s story, specifically a closeted father. And Bechdel’s skills at telling her own story, applied to her examination of Vandenburgh’s, make her review so rewarding. The pacing and architecture of her panels, the innocence and madenss of her character depictions and her ability to seek out the most appropriate image are all on display here. Who knows? Bechdel may have just launched a new form of illustrated criticism. If so, let’s hope that all its practitioners are as gifted at it as she.–Cabbage Rabbit

UPDATE, March 30: We’ve heard back from Alison Bechdel after alerting her to our post (something akin to getting a smile from Miles Davis after applauding a solo) and she points out that the great Milt Gross did some “wordless” book reviews which can be seen at “The Fabuleous Fifties” blogspot. They were done for the late ’30s magazine (previously unknown to me)  Ken and included illustrated accounts of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath and Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. Certainly worth the work to view.–CR