Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Just to tease you fans of ‘The Wire’…

Here I sit in the writers’ room of HBO’s “The Wire” in Baltimore. I’ll be writing Episode 5 of the upcoming season, thanks to my old bud David Simon.

This final season will be a shortened one – just 10 episodes. They'll start filming in a few weeks. I cannot reveal anything about the storyline, except to say that it’ll surely be the funniest season ever of “The Wire”… if you like your humor dark. We’re talking the “Dr. Strangelove” of police procedurals here.

Attention “Homicide” fans… I can reveal this: Clark Johnson will have a prominent role on “The Wire” this coming season, as the city editor of Baltimore’s daily newspaper.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Q&A: Eldridge Cleaver (pt. 2)

Here’s more of my 1982 conversation with Eldridge Cleaver. This portion tracks his evolution as a radical.
DAVID MILLS: You have led a very dramatic life. I’d like to walk you through it, if you don’t mind, because it’s so fascinating and because of your new perspective on things.

Let’s start with your childhood. What were your feelings about race and America while growing up in Arkansas?

ELDRIDGE CLEAVER: I didn’t stay there long enough to get deep impressions. I left Arkansas when I was about 10 years old, so my memory of Arkansas is really about learning how to hunt with my dog, chasing rabbits, things like that.

MILLS: After moving to California, what kind of things influenced your political development?

CLEAVER: In growing up in L.A., I realized the existence of the white world, the black world and the Chicano world. I grew up in a neighborhood that was predominately Chicano, and the Chicanos, particularly at that time, had their own subculture which totally rejected white America.

I spent a lot of my time – my early years – as part of that view. And I think that had something to do with the strong withdrawal and rejection [of America] that I experienced.

MILLS: If you had grown up in a predominately black neighborhood, you might not have been so anti-American?

CLEAVER: I think so. And I say that because hanging out with the Chicano guys as a choice was, in itself, a rejection of what the blacks were doing – going along with the program.

In the ’40s, the Chicanos were involved in kind of a war in L.A. against the establishment, against the police. It was a very powerful reality in your life. The cops were always chasing them, they were outlaws. Living in that neighborhood helped sow the seeds of rebellion.

My parents wanted to guide me into being a minister. This was something that was really square as far as I could see, so I chose a rebellious direction.

MILLS: How many years of your life have you spent locked up?

CLEAVER: I add it up to be about 15.

I was sentenced to prison twice: once for possession of marijuana, and once for assault with a deadly weapon – not, as many people think, for rape.

When I was in prison, I wrote a book [“Soul on Ice”]. One section of the book dealt with the subject of rape, and I described some activity that I was involved in. And the way the press took it up, it was just sort of assumed that I was sentenced to prison for rape.

I was sentenced to prison for possession of marijuana, and I served two and a half years for that, then I was sentenced to prison for assault charges, and I stayed in there for 10 years.

MILLS: The first time you went to prison, how did that affect you?

CLEAVER: Well, I had some prior training for that by going to juvenile hall and the youth authority. So on that level I was already broken in to prison. But I think it had the effect of powerfully fixing my rebellious path.

I went to prison when I was 18 years old, and that’s a very delicate age for a young man. It’s an age when your sap is beginning to flow. And being locked up at that point is really one of the worst kinds of experiences.

That’s when I really began to be filled with hatred, and I think I became much more violent in prison. I believe that prisons, in that sense, are schools for crime.

I became a Communist in prison. I studied Marxism in prison.

MILLS: When you came out after that first term, you spent about a year on the outside before your second conviction. And during that time, as you revealed in “Soul on Ice,” you set about raping white women as a principle of black rebellion.

CLEAVER: I wrote this in prison. And I wrote this because I was trying to describe my own feelings, my own attitudes, and the attitudes of a lot of black men. At that time, this was something that was not really written about, talked about. It was kind of scandalous. There was a lot of denial in blacks who had these feelings.

MILLS: What feelings? Sexual attraction to white women?

CLEAVER: People used to deny that. The whole phenomenon was raging at that time because this whole black consciousness thing was coming in, interracial relationships were rising.

One of the old bugaboos of race relations in America has been black rape. It has been a big problem down through history and continues to be a problem. For my own part, I think there is often a lot of denial in that. But I think the facts will support a case that there is quite a bit of black rape.

MILLS: How come?

CLEAVER: Well, it has to do with social dynamics – I’ve said what I have to say about that subject in “Soul on Ice.”

MILLS: Looking back on that period now, how do you feel about your own activity?

CLEAVER: What I would do if I wrote about that again would be to put it in a larger context. At that point, I was trying to describe the motivations of the black rapist – what goes on inside his head, what he was thinking – whereas today I am very concerned about male violence against women. That was not what I was addressing in my essay. I would not repeat today what I said 20 years ago because the context is different.

MILLS: You have said that your affiliation with the Black Muslims and the solidarity of that group kept you going while in prison.

CLEAVER: I think it was very important in prison because everybody is organizing, like little armies, for survival. Racial tensions were really high in prison because of things that were going on outside. Consequently, we had a lot of riots in prison.

The prisons in California used to be segregated, and there were struggles inside the prison to break up some of those traditional practices. So there was a lot of motivation for people joining together in these kinds of groups. And the one that appealed to me was the Black Muslims.

You had the Mau-Mau, the Blood Brothers, just little cliques of people taking different names. But I had liked the concern of the Black Muslim organization, and the fact that it was an organization that was more legitimate than some of the cutthroat activity.

MILLS: But all during that time, you didn’t accept the Black Muslim philosophy that all white people were devils, correct?

CLEAVER: That’s why Malcolm X appealed to me, because Malcolm was more political. He had more of an economic analysis, whereas Elijah Muhammad was just full of that demonology.

Sometimes we would really wonder about the truth of Elijah’s teachings, because it was very easy to believe the whites were devils, particularly the way the information was organized. And it was very appealing to believe that. One man said that it was necessary to teach the black that the white man is the devil in order to get him to stop believing that the white man is God.

MILLS: After leaving prison in 1967, what attracted you to the Black Panthers?

CLEAVER: The fact that they were armed. When I left prison, I didn’t know anything about the Black Panther Party. But I left with the conviction that blacks had to take up guns.

The civil rights movement was turning violent already. I was still in prison when Watts went up in rebellion, and all the major cities across the country were experiencing those rebellions. So what I was aware of in prison was a lot of black people were being killed. And police were using police dogs, cattle prods, water hoses, all these things on the people. We in prison used to look at that news.

And we were already violent people. We were in prison for involving ourselves in criminal violence, nothing political. So it was very easy to transfer those attitudes. You began to just live for the day when you could get out and get involved.

One of the first things I did when I got out was to get some guns. And shortly thereafter, I met the Black Panthers at a meeting. When they came into this meeting, they had their guns. It was like love at first sight.

MILLS: What did you think of Martin Luther King during this period?

CLEAVER: At that time, I was very negative. I actually sort of hated Martin Luther King for preaching non-violence, and for being a Christian preacher. Martin Luther King to me was the embodiment of a lot of problems for black people.

I used to want to kill Martin Luther King. I thought it would be good if he was out of the way. I thought he was holding up the movement. Non-violence was never popular among the majority of black Americans from the very beginning. …

MILLS: Looking back now, what do you think of Dr. King?

CLEAVER: Well, looking back, for a long time, I have come to really admire him. When Martin Luther King was assassinated, I got busted two days later [in Oakland]. The gunfight I was involved in was part of the whole atmosphere that was reacting to his assassination.

When Martin Luther King was still alive, we were sort of waiting in the wings impatiently because we saw that non-violence was on the way out. Non-violence worked mostly in the South. When things moved toward the North, they became violent immediately. …

I remember when the media was anti-NAACP. They thought the NAACP were the most extreme people to come along, and they were for a while. But after a while, the media started loving the NAACP.

That’s because each extreme point, calibrated on a spectrum, tends to legitimize the ones it has eclipsed, if that makes sense. Like Martin Luther King and his direct-action movement, even though it was non-violent, eclipsed the NAACP’s legalistic tactics.

And when Martin Luther King came along, he started getting busted and going to jail, and the NAACP started getting invited to the White House. Then, when more violent people came along, Martin Luther King started getting invited to the White House.


Monday, February 26, 2007

Q&A: Eldridge Cleaver (pt. 1)

To usher out Black History Month, I’ve dug deep into my journalistic archives, back to the old college days.

In 1982 I interviewed Eldridge Cleaver, former “Minister of Information” for the Black Panther Party. He had come to the University of Maryland on a lecture tour. The one-time gun-toting Marxist revolutionary was now a Reagan Republican and a fan of Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church. Which made for a lively conversation.

I have no romantic attachment to the Panthers. In fact, I resent the simple-minded glorification of violent black radicalism. If Mr. Cleaver’s recollections can be trusted, my resentment is justified.

Cleaver died in 1998 at the age of 62. He certainly lived an interesting life, including seven years of exile in Cuba, France and Algeria (after a gun battle with Oakland police). This three-part interview covers a lot of ground. Stick with it till the end of pt. 3 and you’ll see perhaps the weirdest thing anyone ever said to me during an interview.
DAVID MILLS: It seems quite a change of heart you’ve had over 15 years. During the Black Power movement, you thought the primary crisis we faced was the American system. Now you say it’s the Communist threat.

ELDRIDGE CLEAVER: It’s not a total change, because the stuff I was preoccupied with in the ’60s is still true. American history is American history. I’m not trying to say America is utopia. Far from it. But I think that in the past I was oblivious to what was going on in Communist countries, or I didn’t believe what was said against the Communists.

I was really favorable toward the Communists because they made such a strong critique of capitalism and America. They were opposed to America systematically, so I viewed that as a source of strength or a source of alliances. Many people do this. We used to say that America’s enemies are our friends. …

What changed my whole point of view was that I had a chance to leave America and go live in Communist countries and see what was going on there. Without having that experience, I probably would still, like a lot of other people, be running around pushing the same line.

We have many problems in America, and some of them are absolutely outrageous. But with all our problems, we have more freedom in this country than any of those Communist countries.

So what I say today is we need to be more precise in what’s wrong with America. In the past we just used the shotgun approach, and just said burn it down, destroy it, overthrow it, that sort of stuff. Well, that’s very dangerous thinking. It’s not even thinking. It’s sloganizing.

Everybody admits that we have a huge economic problem, but the question becomes what do we do about it? Just close the curtain down, you know? Stop the show, change all the furniture around on the stage, and then let the show go on?

That’s one of my gripes with revolutionaries. Most of these revolutionary scenarios call for exactly that. But it’s like changing a tire on a moving vehicle; we have to figure out how to solve these problems while the thing’s in motion. So that means being very precise about what’s wrong.

MILLS: Let’s backtrack, because it’s ironic. Do you think that during the Panther movement when you were advocating revolution, that you and the Black Panthers were being used by the Communists?

CLEAVER: At different stages, you could say that. The Communists did not summon us into being. We grew up in our own community around our own issues and, as a matter of fact, against the activity of the Communists. They weren’t happy to see us come along because we were organizing people outside of their fold. They also had an attitude toward armed struggle that was more conservative than ours.

At a certain point, the Communists recognized that we were the ones having impact in the community. So they came to us. They offered us free legal representation – we always needed lawyers – and they would contribute finances to us. And we wanted to do this, because we were Marxists ourselves.

I think at a certain point, the Black Panther Party became the driving engine for a whole phase of the [Communist] movement. So in that sense, the Communists used us. On a worldwide basis, they used us propaganda-wise.

MILLS: What’s ironic about that is that was the FBI’s excuse to go after the Panthers, wasn’t it? That you were tools of the Communists?

CLEAVER: Well, it’s not against the law to be a Communist. But when you advocate the violent overthrow of the government, or when you practice it –

You know, many people lie about what they’re doing. And we used to lie, use falsehood, when we were describing our own activity. For instance, we would go out and ambush the police. Then, if we got caught, we’d say they shot at us first.

MILLS: And that was not true?

CLEAVER: It wasn’t always true. There were many times when we would shoot first.

And I say this because it illustrates the distortions that get involved when the people hate the police because they always see the police making trouble. But a lot of times, the police are not wrong. A lot of times, people did exactly what police said they did, but then they lie about it.

I think we were in that situation in the ’60s with the FBI. The FBI investigated us and came to the conclusion that we were a dangerous group.

MILLS: Was the FBI right?

CLEAVER: I think it was right. See, the problem gets into what does the FBI have a right to do to you? Once they make the decision that you are an enemy of America, then they consider you outside the law, so they use all their dirty tricks on you.

This got them into a lot of trouble. If they could have proven that we were systematically engaging in armed struggle, then they would have had less trouble with the public over what they were doing.

The whole thing is a mixture, because we were not always wrong. And we didn’t start out actually shooting at the cops. We were rebelling against a routine. We were rebelling against a whole history. We were rejecting America, America’s laws, everything like that.

MILLS: So the case could be made that J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI were justified in going after the Black Panther Party?

CLEAVER: I think a case could be made on the following points: that the FBI was not always wrong; that many of their accusations were accurate when it came to our use of violence, our use of bombs, our use of ambush tactics.

So if I would fault the FBI at all, it would be in its overzealousness in using CIA tactics on the American people. I say this because they did this to people who were not Black Panthers, or who were not involved in that kind of activity. Just people who dissented.

MILLS: There is still that kind of dissent in America. Why do you think that is?

CLEAVER: To really understand it, you have to go back to the Second World War. The Second World War was considered a patriotic war. America was solidly behind it.

But from that time on, there was a new kind of struggle, very controversial, with a new kind of political party which was not well understood, an international party coming in trying to change the government. That started the Cold War and what you call the “struggle for the minds of men.”

From that time on, we have had in America a preachment against the government, condemning the government, condemning the activity of the government in foreign countries – in Korea, Vietnam, Cuba, all over the world. It was a whole period of decolonization that took place.

So we have in America a couple of generations of people who have grown up just hearing negative about America. This is amazing because it has a distorting impact. I think Americans have been bombarded with very powerful negative propaganda. … It has a brainwashing effect on people.

MILLS: What about black Americans? There’s nothing new about black dissatisfaction with America.

CLEAVER: I think this is one of the very serious constituents of the black identity crisis. Blacks generally don’t feel part of America. I call it a fence-straddling mentality.

Even though you don’t have a strong “back-to-Africa” movement, you do have that theme that floats around in the community. The consequence is that you have people paralyzed on the fence. They neither go back to Africa nor do they participate fully in America. So you have millions and millions of blacks who are in a kind of catatonic trance over what to do.

The strong condemnation of America, the constant criticism of America, this has fixed a certain mindset. This is the mindset I have broken with, and it’s the mindset I encounter almost universally among middle-class blacks, which is what you find mostly on college campuses: America not being their home, or America being the worst country in the world, or everything being racist. Just racism, racism, everywhere is racism – not being able to draw some distinctions and to see some good in America as well as the bad.


Sunday, February 25, 2007

George Lopez steals from himself

Standup comedians are supposed to have some pride. Man, I still can’t believe what I saw on HBO last night.

I was looking forward to George Lopez’s HBO special. His 2004 Showtime special, “Why You Crying?” caught me by surprise. In terms of his fearlessness and stage command, and his mix of ethnic pride and dirty-laundry-airing, it reminded me of Chris Rock’s breakthrough special, “Bring the Pain.”

“Why You Crying?” was really, really funny.

Lopez must’ve thought so too… because he told some of the same jokes last night. At least three of ’em. (The crazy aunt with the crooked thong; Latinos who hide when a census taker knocks on their door; the Latino method of landscaping, taking measurements by closing one eye.)

Other material seemed familiar too… maybe from Lopez’s appearance on HBO’s “Comic Relief” last November. Routines aimed at White America – like “Everything you touch, we touch first,” about Latino farm labor – he has definitely performed on television before.

Now what kind of comic, for his first HBO special, tells jokes from his old Showtime special? When Dave Chappelle made the opposite transition, he came with all-new shit for the new gig. This is pay cable; it’s costing people money to watch your ass. Tell some fresh fuckin’ jokes!

Really, what else do you have to do, George Lopez, except write jokes, play golf and tape a sitcom that nobody watches? And you get on HBO with three-year-old jokes? Pinche cabron

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Unrecognized genius: Jef Lee Johnson

It’s my goal to shine a tiny spotlight on some gifted creative folks you might never have heard of... those who tend to fly beneath the radar of America’s corporate media. Like satirist Darius James, and cartoonist Shawn Belschwender, and album-cover artist Pedro Bell.

To launch this “unrecognized genius” interview series, let me introduce Jef Lee Johnson, a guitarist/songwriter/singer from Philadelphia. His resume as a sideman and session musician is impressive. He’s playing jazz clubs right now as part of George Duke’s quartet. He toured with D’Angelo when D’Angelo was hot like fire. Jef even sat in a few weeks with the “Late Night with David Letterman” band back in the ’80s.

But I am absolutely nuts about his solo CDs. His first one, “Blue” (1995), contains some of the tastiest funk to emerge in that decade. It was me who recommended the track “Jungle” to my main man David Simon; he featured it prominently in one of his “Homicide” episodes.

(Click the title to hear another “Blue” track, “Everything Starts Right Now,” via my Vox music stash.)

When I finally got a show of my own on the air – a little something called “Kingpin” – I broke off some Jef Lee Johnson for myself, using two tracks from “Hype Factory.” That 2001 double-CD is Johnson’s masterpiece, with one intriguing melody after another. Had “Kingpin” lasted longer, I would’ve designed a whole montage around “Sight Sound Mission.”

As a guitarist, Johnson can rock all styles, from the grimiest blues to sunshiny pop. (He has covered a Monkees tunes and Donovan’s “Mellow Yellow.”) Click on this track, “Peace and Love Infinity,” to hear what he can do with just a couple of peculiar rhythm licks.

Closing in on 49 years of age, Jef Lee Johnson is still waiting to be discovered by a larger audience. His most recent CDs were bankrolled out of his own pocket and distributed by Dreambox Media. I suggest you start with “Hype Factory,” then tell me if I done steered you wrong.

I also recommend you try to witness him in person. Those in the Bay Area can catch him tonight or tomorrow night with George Duke at Yoshi’s. (Actually, tonight’s shows are sold out.) If you’re closer to Manhattan, you can check out Jef’s own trio Monday night at Jazz Standard.

I met Jef for the first time eight days ago in Culver City, Calif. Here’s our conversation. (Many thanks to Jonathan Beedle for the picture above.)
DAVID MILLS: When did you start playing?

JEF LEE JOHNSON: When I was around 12, I think, I begged my older sister to teach me some chords on guitar. And then when I was 13, my mother made me start playing with her in church, whether I liked it or not. Playing bass in church. I didn’t know how to play; she said, “You’re just gonna follow me.” I didn’t know what I was doing, I was just making weird noises.

MILLS: Who did you listen to that made you want to play? What was happening musically at the time? Sly and the Family Stone?

JOHNSON: I wasn’t a good enough musician to appreciate Sly or Monk or Hendrix. I was just listening to television. Like, you know, cartoon music. “Johnny Quest,” the Warner Bros. stuff.

Used to be Tom Jones had a TV show, and his music director was named Big Jim Sullivan. Going into commercials Big Jim would play little guitar things, and I would sit there with my mouth open, like, “Wow.”

Anything that had a guitar in it, I would gravitate to. So like “Hee Haw,” Roy Clark and Buck Owens…

MILLS: Pickin’ and grinnin’!

JOHNSON: Yeah, pickin’ and grinning’. My theory teacher would say, when I was a teenager, “Yeah, your ear was developing, you didn’t even realize it.”

I was going around telling kids – they were singing songs, I’m like, “That doesn’t sound right.” “No, that’s the way it goes, that’s the way it goes.” That’s not what I meant. What I meant was, it wasn’t in the right key, but I didn’t know what a key was.

But a lot of TV commercials, a lot of TV theme songs, a lot of radio, AM radio…

MILLS: You’re talking Top 40?

JOHNSON: No, I’m talking commercials. I’m talking like “Miller High Life, the Champagne of Bottled Beers.” The little jingles, I was really into them. Not even the [hit] songs, the jingles – Celia Cruz did the Miller song, or Tony Bennett.

The songs? Yeah, they were cool. But the commercials were what I really liked. I’m serious, man.

Even before you came over today, I was looking at Boomerang. The old “Yogi Bear” show, “Huckleberry Hound,” “Quick Draw McGraw.” All that weird little stuff is like still in my head.

MILLS: Back in the ’70s, city kids walked around with guitars the way kids today walk around with basketballs. Do you feel like an endangered species? Do young kids coming up today have a reason to pick up the guitar? Are they picking it up?

JOHNSON: I don’t know if it’s so much endangerment as natural selection. Things are getting more mechanical and push-button now.

I just did a film-score session with Terence Blanchard a week ago, and we were talking about the hip-hop generation. It’s weird saying “the hip-hop generation” too, because they’re probably on the way out in a second. They’re gonna be in their 30s and 40s in a minute. They are in their 30s.

And [Terence] was talking about some film he did, and some other people – whose names I won’t mention – they just did hip-hop tracks. They didn’t look at the movie and do some emotional music to move the film along.

And I was explaining, well, there’s a whole generation of kids, adults, whatever, that are very, very well-to-do, they’re making a lot of money, and you cannot explain to them what Terence Blanchard does. They have no concept of him or George Duke or Herbie Hancock – or Elmer Bernstein or somebody like that – sitting down looking at a film and making some notes about something musically that goes along with the visual content. They’ll just do some track about some guy in the film or some girl’s behind.

I don’t know if that’s good or bad, but that’s what time it is.

MILLS: It’ll make you cry if you think about it too long. Do you know anybody 20 or 25 years old who plays the guitar? Where is the next generation of black guitarists going to come from?

JOHNSON: I’m a bad person to ask because I don’t know anybody, period. I’m like an outcast. I’m not accepted in most circles musically. That’s no joke.


JOHNSON: No. I mean, the people that ask me to play hire me because I’m either peculiar, or disciplined enough to try to keep their music together without needing the badges or awards that go along with it.

One of the best compliments I ever had is George Duke saying, “Yeah, man, I love having you in the band because I can go wherever I want to go, and you’ll keep things in line.” Or he’ll do what he does and I’ll go wherever I want – ’cause he knows I’ll go.

I’ve quit most of my other gigs anyway because I just want to dedicate the rest of my existence to trying to do whatever this Jef music is.

So I’m not like the guy, you know – “Call Jef, call Jef.” I’m the guy, like, “I heard about this guy, he’s kinda nuts. If I call him, will he be all right?” I’m that guy. …

I don’t do the usual come-in-and-joke-around – “Yeah, when I was on the road…” So I don’t know who the musicians are in my own generation, as opposed to older or younger generation.

MILLS: White kids, they’ve still got rock music. They’ve got Red Hot Chili Peppers. They know what a bass player – “I wanna play the bass like Flea!” Where’s the next Bourelly gonna come from? Where’s the next Jef Lee gonna come from?

JOHNSON: Little black kids don’t even realize that that’s their music. Their great-great-grandparents created that. They only go back as far as grunge or whatever. Older kids only go back as far as the Rolling Stones. They don’t even realize, like, Big Mama Thornton or Chuck Berry were actually doing this music, getting’ beat-up, gettin’ chased out of these little lean-to places.

That delete button just keeps everybody out of focus. Like deleting the lineage. That’s an American phenomenon.

MILLS: I see you’re on MySpace. Are people finding you through that for the first time?

JOHNSON: Yes. And hopefully it’s putting things back in the hands of the artists, I hope. Because there’s no meetings and demographics. It’s like, put your mess out there, there’s 150 million people on it, they can check you out, the end. For somebody like me, a little poor starving artist, it’s a great thing.

Yeah, I mean, some cat was like, “I can’t believe I found you. I can’t believe I’ve never known you.” Stuff like that. So that’s worth it.

MILLS: Here’s what perplexes me: Why do some of our best musicians – bona fide virtuosos like Bourelly and Jamaaladeen Tacuma – have more going on overseas than they do here? Jamaaladeen needed a Japanese label to put out most of his recent CDs. Bourelly lived in Berlin for a while. And you’ve spent time in Paris. What’s going on over there that ain’t happening here?

JOHNSON: It’s what’s not going on, which is a lot of meetings and stuff that’s holding up the artistic process. If they hear something they like, if they hear something they feel, then they just go check it out, they’ll support it.

Here it’s about hype. Use that Eisner theory: if Disney owns the billboards, if Disney owns the television show, and if Disney owns the magazines, and are constantly putting up this thing, this thing, this thing, this thing, then people [say], “This thing must be great, because I keep seeing it everywhere.”

Over there, you can go play because people like you, and they’ll come see you, and they’ll tell somebody else.

MILLS: How much time have you spent in Paris?

JOHNSON: Not a lot. Probably not enough. We should tour over there. It gets back to management and all that stuff. I mean, I’m not a manager, I don’t know how to get gigs.

MILLS: Never had a manager?

JOHNSON: Never really had one. The people that wanted to be manager were either just nice people that really couldn’t get it together or really nasty people that wanted too much money or whatever.

There’s a lady coming from Belgium on the 26th who might be a good – That’s another thing about MySpace. There might be some people we’ve found that might be good fits to get us some gigs, especially in Europe.

In fact, we’ve had a couple of gigs out of MySpace. This series [of weekly gigs at Jazz Standard], I’m not sure if that was MySpace or just some cat that was a fan. He kind of forced the issue at this club. Cat named James.

MILLS: Who was that? What’s his name?

JOHNSON: James. I don’t know what his last name is. He got us a gig in his club called the Union Hall in Brooklyn. And then he went to this other club; “Jef is playing in your club.” The guy [told me], “I don’t know you, but this guy James said you’re playing in my club.”

MILLS: I got turned on to you by Pete Wetherbee, who co-produced your first CD in 1995. How did that project come about?

JOHNSON: Well, he lobbied for it. A Florida label put up [the money]. We did it.

MILLS: Was Pete still working for Bill Laswell at that time?

JOHNSON: I didn’t even know he was working for Laswell. I just thought he was some crazy guy that was like, “This guy should have a record out.” I didn’t know where he was coming from. I was like, “Yeah, I should have a record out.”

MILLS: What was the reaction to “Blue”? It was a great album.

JOHNSON: There were never any tours or gigs right after any CDs so we could get feedback. It was always, “You should do in-stores.” “No we shouldn’t.” There were always these weird little wars going on between me and everybody.

MILLS: You got a problem with in-stores?

JOHNSON: We’re kinda rough on the ears, man. We did one in Florida and, immediately, warming up, mothers were grabbing their kids and running out the store. A couple of punk kids ran up to the front; everybody else was putting their hands over their kids’ ears. We should’ve done, like, bars or whatever, as far as I was concerned. …

We’ve never had the true test yet, as far as [whether] the music is affecting people. This thing in New York, this series, we’re getting a little taste. We got our first-ever standing ovation at the end of one of the gigs. So we are doing something that people are feeling. And that’s all I’m concerned about.

If I can make a little money, that’s a bonus. But if we’re not playing the music right, that’s my main concern. Jury’s still out.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

The Great Black Hope (of spelling)

I came to the Midwest this week to spend some time with my nephew and his family, and to cheer on my great-nephew, Chris, in a countywide spelling bee.

Having won his junior high school bee, Chris was on the glory road. After this, a regional bee. After that, the statewide bee. And then – yes, baby! – the Scripps National Spelling Bee on live television.

Chris, a 12-year-old seventh grader, impresses the hell out of me. He’s been watching the national bees on TV for years. I took him to see the documentary “Spellbound” in 2003, and I bought him the DVD when it came out.

I love that he’s into language. And I've been waiting for him to step up and compete in a bee.

Shorty was ready, too. Over the weekend, I challenged him to a duel, using words from his study guide. To make things interesting, I put $20 on the line. First one to spell 10 words correctly wins.

I really pride myself on my vocabulary. When I was much younger than Chris, I was reading the dictionary for fun.

But the kid waxed me. He can spell fricassee; he can spell denouement; he can spell schussboomer; he can spell plenipotentiary. Plus a whole bunch of words I never heard of before and can’t remember now.

By the time I got 10 of them right, Chris was up to, like, 40.

For our rematch, I asked for a handicap. Chris would have to spell words from the “advanced” list, while I’d get words from the “intermediate” list. I pulled out another $20.

He beat me in a squeaker, 10 to 9.

So I was feeling confident in Chris when we rolled into that theater seven deep. There were 78 kids competing that night, and a surpisingly diverse ethnic mix for the Midwest. Primarily white, of course, but a number of Asians, at least one Latina, at least one Muslim (judging by an audience member’s headscarf), and at least one other black kid besides Chris.

My great-nephew was relaxed, not stressing at all.

The competition began with what I’d call easy words, like keelhaul and chinchilla. Nothing like the killers Chris and I had practiced with.

Yet kids were falling like flies. One misspelled wanderlust; another added a second S to adios. A black girl – an immigrant, judging by her mom’s foreign accent – was utterly unfamiliar with the word paddock; she asked the reader (a female news anchor) to define it and use it in a sentence. Still, the girl missed badly with her guess: P-A-D-D-A.

As you know, one wrong letter and it’s all over.

When Chris stepped to the microphone, the reader gave him his word: mohair. Chris was unfamiliar with it. He asked for the definition. He asked the reader to use it in a sentence.

Then he took his best guess:


Crap. It was all over.

Chris took it like a man. But it was a sad silence in the SUV as we rode to Cold Stone Creamery to apply ice cream to our wounds.

Eventually, Chris got to cracking jokes. “It’s racist,” he said, unable to keep a straight face. He said the reader didn’t pronounce the C-K in paddock, that’s why the black girl got bounced. “When I missed,” Chris went on, “she probably said, ‘My plan is succeeding!’ ”

We all cracked up laughing. But Chris’s mom said, “Don’t talk that way. We don’t have any victims in this family.”

But Chris was on a roll. “There’s never been a black spelling-bee champion. It’s racist!”

Someone around the table mentioned Akeelah from “Akeelah and the Bee.” Chris didn’t miss a beat: “That’s a movie. That’s a fairy tale!”

Chris laughed, everybody laughed.

Then his mom said, “There’s always next year.”

But there won’t be a next year, according to Chris. His days of competitive spelling are over. He said he only did it this time because his mother urged him to.

“I don’t want you to quit,” his mom said.

“It’s not quitting if I didn’t want to do it in the first place,” Chris said. He wasn’t joking. Chris would rather excel at sports.

Heavy sigh.

I’m sorry, the world doesn’t need more black athletes. But we sure as hell could use a black spelling-bee champ.

UPDATE (02/24/07): Many thanks to “Kwiana,” who posted a comment last night informing me that there has been a black spelling-bee champ. Her name is Jody-Anne Maxwell, she’s from Kingston, Jamaica, and she now attends the University of the West Indies. Her winning word was chiaroscurist.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

MBP of the Week: Chicago Tribune (again)

You won’t believe this one. Boy, it has been a bad month for the Chicago Tribune.

I take that back. It’s been a super-shitty month for Tribune sportswriter Lew Freedman.

One week ago, I pointed out how the Trib published a long feature about ex-NBA player Kevin Gamble, but ran a file photo of Dee Brown (one of Gamble’s old Boston Celtic teammates) misidentified as Gamble.

That story was written by Lew Freedman.

Yesterday, the Trib published another feature story by Lew Freedman, this one about DePaul University baller Marcus Heard (above bottom). The headline read: “Demons’ Heard makes grade.” It was all about how Marcus Heard is a good student and a good citizen, on top of being a good athlete.

Freedman quoted Heard’s coach, Jerry Wainright, who said: “He's a great study of a young man who's pushing the envelope. … I love Marcus Heard. He opens doors for people. He says thank you.”

Freedman even quoted Heard’s mama, who said: “With Marcus, it was never if he was going to go to college, it was always when. He is very serious about his school.”

Nice story. Very nice. Only one problem…

Yes. Amazingly, the Chicago Tribune did it again, running a picture of Heard’s Blue Demon teammate Wilson Chandler (above top) misidentified as Heard.

Today, the Trib ran this correction: “On Page 3 of Tuesday’s Sports section, an incorrect photo appeared with a story on DePaul's Marcus Heard. The photo showed Wilson Chandler instead of Heard. Here is a photo of Heard.”

Well, that fixes that.

I emailed Lew Freedman this morning, introduced myself, and asked a few questions. Such as: Whose fault was this? Who screwed up? (Assignment editor? Copy editor? Photo editor?) Did you take any steps after the Kevin Gamble mix-up to ensure that such a thing never happened again? Will you try to do so now? Can you describe your feelings concerning these mistakes? Embarrassment, I suppose (even though they weren’t your fault)? Did you call Gamble and Marcus Heard yourself to apologize on behalf of your newspaper?

And so forth.

Freedman emailed me back to say he passed my questions up the chain of command to his boss, Dan McGrath.

If I don’t hear back from Mr. McGrath – and I haven’t yet – I won’t be surprised. Not because of my lowly status as a neophyte blogger. But because McGrath is probably still red-faced (literally) over a whopper of a Misidentified Black Person that occurred last summer.

In that case, McGrath himself wrote the 12-paragraph correction that appeared in the Trib. Here’s what happened:

A former NBA player named Eddie Johnson was arrested last August in Florida, charged with sexually assaulting an 8-year-old girl. Alas, there are two former NBA players named Eddie Johnson. The other one is now a broadcaster in Phoenix. That one – the one not charged with child sexual assault – grew up in Chicago and played ball at the University of Illinois. Which gave the Tribune’s editors a reason (so they thought) to pick up the Associated Press report on Eddie Johnson’s arrest.

The Trib didn’t run a picture (thank God), but it misidentified Eddie Johnson by inserting wrong information into the AP’s account. To wit, this headline: “Former NBA, Illini star accused of sexual assault.”

The Eddie Johnson who got arrested wasn’t an Illini; he played his college ball at Auburn University.

So sports editor Dan McGrath addressed the matter on August 10, 2006, under the headline “An apology to Chicago’s Eddie Johnson.”

“Factual errors erode a paper’s credibility,” McGrath began. “We made an inadvertent but hurtful error Tuesday night in an effort to get as much news as possible into Wednesday’s final edition of the Tribune sports section, and we would like to apologize to Eddie Johnson, his family and friends, and our readers.

“An Associated Press story detailing the arrest of ‘former NBA All-Star Eddie Johnson’ moved across the wire late Tuesday, and a decision was made to get it into the ‘Press Box’ segment of the sports section, where our sports briefs go.

“In Chicago, former NBA star Eddie Johnson means Eddie Johnson, 47, a 6-foot-7-inch forward from Westinghouse High School and the University of Illinois, the Eddie Johnson who went on to a 17-year pro career with seven NBA teams. The Eddie Johnson who was distinguished as much by good citizenship and charity work as by 19,202 career points….

“Unfortunately, the man arrested Tuesday was ‘the other’ Eddie Johnson, 51, a 6-2 guard from Auburn who had a 10-year career with three NBA teams and has been in and out of trouble with the law since he quit playing in 1987. …”

McGrath then bent over backwards to proclaim: “Anyone who knows or has had even limited contact with Chicago’s Eddie Johnson would find it unfathomable that he would be linked to such behavior” as sexual battery.

“For the record,” McGrath continued, “Chicago’s Eddie Johnson remains extensively involved in charity work, including motivational speaking and basketball clinics for kids. In addition to his broadcasting duties, he is president of a Phoenix telecommunications firm. He got his degree from Illinois in 1981, and he was and is regarded as one of the NBA’s model citizens.”

McGrath’s apology ends with this quote from Eddie Johnson himself: “It has been a tough day, but I appreciate you trying to set the record straight.”

Johnson might sound forgiving in that quote, but he expressed his hurt to the East Valley Tribune, a Phoenix-area newspaper, when the mistake hit the streets.

“This is why athletes have so many problems with the media,” Johnson told the Arizona paper. “They don’t do their homework. They don’t bother to check facts before they write things…. I’m sitting here dumbfounded because 47 years of building a reputation is being destroyed in one morning by something I had nothing to do with. I’ve been getting nasty emails all morning. It’s a nightmare.”

Getting back to the Chicago Tribune’s latest fuck-up, it occurs to me that the number of MBPs could be drastically reduced if newspapers simply stopped covering the sport of basketball. It may be the only way.

Recently, in the space of two weeks, the San Francisco Chronicle misidentified three different college or high-school basketball players in photo captions. All were black. Here are the Chronicle’s corrections:

“In Thursday’s Sporting Green, a photo of Cal women’s basketball player Keanna Levy was published with an article about her teammate Ashley Walker.” – January 26, 2007

“In Sunday’s Sporting Green, a caption for a photograph from the men’s basketball game between Stanford and Cal misidentified a Stanford player covering Cal’s Ayinde Ubaka. The player was Fred Washington.” – February 5, 2007

“A photo caption in Wednesday’s Sporting Green misidentified a Wallenberg High basketball player. Chibuzo Emeka is the athlete shooting the layup.” – February 8, 2007

I guess this bullshit happens in threes. So Dan McGrath, you know what that means? Time to buy some fucking eye drops, dude!

CLOSE BUT NO CIGAR: No, I’m not done yet with this round of MBPs. These next two will amuse and/or annoy any soul music fan.

The Hartford Courant ran this correction on February 16: “Singer Eddie LeVert was a member of the O’Jays, not the Temptations, as was incorrectly stated in a CD review on Page 6 of Thursday’s Cal section.”

(By the way, it should be spelled “Levert.”)

And the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette posted this correction on its website yesterday: “ ‘This Old Heart of Mine’ was recorded by the Isley Brothers. It was incorrectly attributed to the Temptations in a Rod Stewart concert review published online on Feb. 18, 2007.”

THE GRAVE WILL NOT PROTECT YOU: Finally, I wasn’t familiar with this gentleman because I’m not into the blues. But the Los Angeles Times ran this correction on February 14: “An obituary of guitarist and musician Eric von Schmidt that appeared in Monday’s California section misidentified blues guitarist Blind Boy Fuller as Blind Dog Fuller.”

Ain’t that a bitch?

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Night of the living stereotype

An occasional bummer about being a minority – especially black, but also Jewish, gay, Mexican, even Italian – is when you’re embarrassed by your own kind.

Just when you’re feeling all good about life, somebody steps up to publicly fulfill the worst stereotypes of your little community of identity. And part of you wants to hang your head.

I once spoke to a college class about TV writing. Wouldn’t you know, the one black chick in the class asked the dumbest question? Something about formatting or line spacing or something, when I was there talking about art and business. A white student spoke up to tell the girl she could find her answer in any beginner’s book on the mechanics of screenwriting. Part of me wanted to hang my head.

Couldn’t the sister have asked even a mediocre question… something that could slide by barely noticed? Why’d she have to say something to invite a public smackdown?

I must admit, though, when people of a different ethnic group fulfill one of their stereotypes, that can be funny as hell! When the Hank Greenberg documentary came out in 1998, I went to the Nuart in West L.A. to see it. On the opening Friday. I felt like the only gentile in a one-block radius.

So I’m standing in the concession line, right? The guy in front of me asks the counter man how much for a bottled water. He is told $2.50.

The guy says: “Can I get two for $4.00?”

Now that was hilarious to me. My man was trying to “Jew him down” on the price of a bottled water. At a movie about Jewish heroism.

Anyway… I flew into a major Midwestern city Sunday on the red-eye. (I won’t say which airline.) There was one black flight attendant in this crew. And she got on the microphone for the pre-flight safety announcements.

I could hardly understand what homegirl was saying. Not just because of the traces of ghetto diction, but because of her nasally tone, a frog-throated rasp which might’ve been due to a cold, plus the fact she was low-talking. All of this drew me forward in my seat to make out her words.

“Pull on the cord to release the flow of oxgen…”

Oxgen? What the hell is oxgen?

“Put the mask over your mouth and breathe normally. Oxgen is flowing even though the bag will not inflate…”

Ox-y-gen, got-dammit! It’s a three-syllable word!

Yeah, I got angry. What’s this woman doing anywhere near a microphone? What if there’s an emergency and she has to tell us something important?

Thankfully that didn’t happen. But she must’ve been the queen bee of the flight crew because she was serving first class.

I’m not the type who’s so Hollywood that he won’t fly coach. I bought a coach ticket. But when I picked it up at the airport kiosk, I got the option of upgrading for $100. (Worth it to increase my odds of getting decent sleep on this four-hour flight.)

So I was in first class… and expecting first-class service.

Well, homegirl came by with the beverage cart, and she had that grim-looking face you sometimes see on bad service employees. Like it should be enough that she pours me a drink, I’m not entitled to a smile and a friendly word too. No, Miss Thing, your job is to make my flight experience a more pleasant one. Be pleasant, bitch!

But I got my Coke and my nuts and I was cool.

Couple hours later, I roused out of a half-sleep to see homegirl standing before me again. She said something that didn’t compute. She was low-talking again, but it sounded like: “Sumta jink?”

“Excuse me?” I said.

She repeated: “Sumta jink?”

In my groggy disorientation, I wasn’t processing information very quickly. Like the fact that she had the beverage cart with her. I just leaned forward, thrust my left ear at her, and hoped the third time would be the charm.

She said: “Something to drink?”

“Oh. No, thank you.”

The fuck am I flying on? Mad TV Airlines?

Then, as we were about to land, homegirl got on the mic again, telling us to get our trash ready because someone would be coming down the “ai” to collect it. Not the aisle, the ai.

I noticed, in the row in front of me, two young blonde female heads whispering comments to each other. One of them shook her head. I could sense they were talking about homegirl… America’s most inarticulate stewardess.

It was probably hilarious to them.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Q&A: George Clinton (pt. 2)

Here’s the rest of that 1997 interview conducted by me, Larry Alexander and Thomas Stanley. We start with the Plainfield, N.J., barbershop that George Clinton operated during the 1960s, where he and his fellow Parliaments processed hair by day and harmonized by night.

If you live on the West Coast, check these dates for upcoming gigs. And for another sample of George's ’60-era pre-funk, check out “That Was My Girl” on my Vox music stash.
LARRY ALEXANDER: If I walked into your barbershop – first of all, what do I see?

GEORGE CLINTON: Ain’t no telling. (laughs) Ain’t no telling what you’d see. We had two or three older barbers who had their clientele, playing checkers and shit. Then we had the younger guys, who may be nodding, you know what I mean. Everybody in the town, damn-near, shot dope.

And it was a scholastic town too, which made it really weird. It wasn’t Newark, so they looked really weird, you know – one of the highest scholastic schools in the country, Plainfield High School was. They won the track meet in the Penn Relays almost every year.

But somehow, prior to ’59, somebody had come through there with real dope. Shit, I didn’t really know nothing but about reefer when I got there, and had just got that myself. I mean, “The Man With the Golden Arm” cured me of ever thinking about that as being recreation. That never appealed to me. Even though all the acid and stuff we were taking, that or angel dust never appealed to me at all.

Coke? Yeah, I’ve done my share, did my share, do my share, whatever. But all of it, I never got to the point – other than acid. I would’ve took acid forever if I could’ve. But it stopped working after while. Once it finish with you, it stop working. You don’t stop it, it stop where you just be up all night.

And then by ’70, there wasn’t really acid anyway. … When they started saying, “You wanna buy shit?,” it was over. Woodstock was the end of all of it. A lot of people think Woodstock was the beginning, but Woodstock was the first time you heard, “You wanna buy this?” Before that, it was, “Do you wanna share? You want to share this?” Woodstock, it was $20 a lid for weed, they had prices on ’em.

DAVID MILLS: Feeling how you do about heroin, is there anything you tried to do or say when you saw the younger band members getting into it?

CLINTON: I took the whole band to Toronto, all of them – Garry, Boogie [Mosson] and all them – to Toronto, ’cause we left [for Detroit], and we knew there was no way to watch ’em once we left. We took them to Toronto, and that’s where they stayed, that’s where they kicked.

’Cause there wasn’t no snorting [in Plainfield], them mugs was bangin’. Everybody was bangin’ there, that was all there was. It was deeper than New York. Plus, most of ’em was lame, so they really didn’t know what they was doing…. Thirteen and 14, girls and guys – did that one to death.

But we took them up there, and they pretty much straightened out for the most part. ’Cause there wasn’t too much up there to find. That pretty much kept them cool – from that one anyway.

ALEXANDER: So I come into the barbershop, you’re the man with the magic fingers, right?

CLINTON: I might have a girl in the back there. Somebody’s head might be burnin’, talkin’ ’bout “Get this shit out my muhfuckin’ head!”

We may have some counterfeit money in there we’re trying to color. Somebody sold us some counterfeit money, that’s why I said that. And for the last year and a half, we was coloring that shit with coffee. And spent so much of it in town that people started bringing it back to the barbershop, and we’d [say], “I don’t want that shit! We ain’t taking that shit.”

ALEXANDER: You’re the man with the magic fingers, though. How would you hook me up?

CLINTON: You’d get a fresh one to the front, with your head like that. You get a fresh one to the front – waves to the front. Like you see nowadays, but not hard.

ALEXANDER: How would you cook it?

CLINTON: Conkolene. Fry that muthafucka. Like they do with Soft Sheen, Aqua Sheen, all that shit they got now. Same thing, just put it on your head with a comb or brush, grease your head to death, then wash your head out while you pat your feet and holler.

ALEXANDER: Would you jump on the bus for New York while I’m up under that motherfucker?

CLINTON: Yeah, you might get some of that. “I’m going to audition for my record thang at one of the record companies… I’ll tell my boy to comb you out. I put the waves in ya so you gon’ be cool.”

MILLS: We talked about drugs, we talked about counterfeiting. Did you ever pimp women?

CLINTON: Hell naw, I like pussy. Hell naw.

I mean, I’ve had a girl pay me like a motherfucker. But she was teasing me. She’d come in, lay the money down, “Here daddy.” If I wouldn’t go for it, she’d say, “I bet if I walk over there, start back to pick it up, I bet he’d get it.” ‘Cause they chose in Detroit. They’d choose you. You’re the one they want to be with.

And so, I was with ’em. Damn, I couldn’t turn the money down. But I like pussy too much. I would never – she would never sell no pussy. I’d be on top of it. Matter of fact, wouldn’t be none left to sell.

MILLS: I’m jumping around a bit, but can you tell me about Ed Wingate, who owned Golden World Records? He would give you ideas for songs to write, you and your songwriting partner Sidney Barnes in Detroit?

CLINTON: Oh, he’d wake your ass up in the morning with his new title. You know, he heard Martha Jean, this disc jockey on the radio, saying, “I’m into something I can’t shake loose, and I betcha!” And he – “We’re gonna write a soooong today.” He’d buy a piano and bring it, cut the doors open in the hotel and say, “We’re gonna write this song and get you up early in the morning.” (laughs)

But [Wingate] just took care of you so much, he paid you so much that you had to try it. And we was his team. I mean, we stayed at his house.

MILLS: There’s an important moment when you brought Eddie Hazel into the band. “Billy Bass” Nelson wasn’t cutting it on the guitar. In fact, Billy told us that some of the Parliaments beat him up and threw his guitar out of a window. Is that what happened?

CLINTON: They were like our kids. I mean, Billy – his mother gave me guardian over him, me and Ray Davis. We had guardianship; if we was gonna take him out on the road, we had to be his guardians.

MILLS: You had to sign papers and everything?

CLINTON: Yeah. And he was like a brat, brat, brat. So we did everything from spank Eddie to throw Billy out a room or something, or take his guitar or something. You know, like a little brother. So it was a lot of that going on.

I done seen Fuzzy or whoever, they’d make him so mad that he would throw water in their face. They would do the same thing to [him]. That was like your little brother getting on your nerves.

MILLS: Do you remember a conversation with Eddie Hazel having to convince him to join you?

CLINTON: No. “Ask my mother” is what he would always say. “You talk to my mother. She’ll let me do it if you and Ernie” – there’s another guy named Ernie used to work at the barbershop with me – “If y’all talk to my mother, she’ll let me do it.”

And one of the guys in the barbershop, one of the older fellas – Wolf – he was the one talked to Eddie’s mother for us. Well, I talked to her too. But he was the one, in the beginning, that tried to tell me that we should listen to this boy, this kid around the corner. ’Cause [Wolf] had a room at Eddie’s mother’s house.

MILLS: Billy Bass tells the story of a gig at the 20 Grand in Detroit. Berry Gordy was there with his whole family, his parents and his wife and his mistress and everybody else. And according to Billy Bass, you got naked and jumped on Berry’s table and said something like, “You can kiss my ass.”

CLINTON: No, naw, I ain’t do no kiss-no-ass. Naw, everybody tell those lies.

I was naked, probably. And I probably poured some wine over my head, then it dripped all down on my dick, and as I run across all the tables in there – I don’t know if Berry was there, but I know the family was there, and all his sisters – I would run up and down the tables, up the bar, and wine would drip down so everybody say it looked like I peed in everybody’s drink.

But I was too out-of-it to even know if I did it or not. I doubt it.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Q&A: George Clinton (pt. 1)

George Clinton is the dominant creative influence of my life.

He hit his peak with Parliament and Funkadelic during my high-school years, and he redefined the sound of black radio. Even established jazz cats like Herbie Hancock, George Duke and Michael Henderson were trying to sound like P-Funk, to say nothing of up-and-comers like the Gap Band, Tom Browne and Rick James.

I can’t dance a lick. But Clinton’s jams – so sonically and conceptually thick – totally captured my imagination. Same was true for a generation of funk nerds who have carried a love and respect for Dr. Funkenstein into our middle age. George was a showman, shaman, satirist, satyr… and bona fide genius.

In the early ’90s, I published a fanzine called UNCUT FUNK. Only lasted three issues, but it yielded great dividends, because in 1996 I was approached by rock journalist Dave Marsh to write an “oral history” of George Clinton and P-Funk, part of Marsh’s “For the Record” paperback series. I took on three partners – Larry Alexander, Thomas Stanley and Aris Wilson – and between us we interviewed more than 40 musicians and singers in our quest to tell their untold story.

I had already interviewed George a couple of times over the years, going back to my college journalism days. Thomas Stanley had done a remarkable, history-spanning Q&A that formed the skeleton of our book. But by the summer of ’97, we had a few gaps in our narrative that only George could fill. One more interview was needed.

George Clinton at that point was well into his career renaissance as the black Jerry Garcia, with his “P-Funk All Stars” jam band blowing the minds of white college kids by the thousands. Without the major-label publicity machine that came with his earlier success, George would be harder to pin down for a chat. Plus we weren’t sure how George felt about us doing this book outside of his control. So me and my boys took one of George’s funky dictums to heart: “Whatever it takes. Whatever the party calls for.”

Thomas and Larry were in L.A. with me to carve through a ton of interview transcripts. Just so happened that Clinton was scheduled for an autograph signing at the Virgin Megastore in Hollywood. Now, given the rampant rumors concerning George’s… let us say “pharmacological dalliances,” an idea struck me: “If we stepped up to George and said, ‘We’ll give you $500 cash for a 30-minute interview, right now,’ he’d probably go for it.”

Thomas Stanley said: “Five hundred? Try $50.”

So we sprang into action… hit the ATM, figured out what questions to ask, etc. We stepped up to George at the Virgin Megastore and made our offer. George said, “Follow me to my hotel.”

We did, then I laid the $500 on him, and we got the interview we needed. Matter of fact, George had a show to do that night, so our time at the hotel was tight; we only got through 20 minutes when his handlers called it quits. George, being true to his word, agreed to do the final 10 minutes by phone after the gig. What follows is that interview from July 1997.

Speaking of pharmacological dalliances, there’s a bizarre interview with George Clinton in the February 2007 issue of GQ magazine (also online here), in which he talks frankly about his crack habit. He says he’s been smoking cocaine pretty much non-stop since 1980. “Something like crack, you can’t name five people that died from it,” George told Chris Heath, unashamed. “I don’t know nobody that ever died from it.”

Larry, Thomas and I dared not mention crack during our 30-minute sit-down. But George did acknowledge a nostalgic fondness for LSD. He may not be a role model for healthy living, but the man is a pop-culture legend, and this conversation was about delving deep into some fanboy shit, going all the way back to a high-school doo-wop group in Newark called the Parliaments (named, like many doo-wop groups, after a cigarette brand).

You might want to prepare your head by listening to a recording from the post-doo-wop, pre-funk, quasi-Motown period of the Parliaments, when they were based in Plainfield, N.J., and cutting records in Detroit. I’ve posted “A New Day Begins” (1969) on my Vox “music stash.” I invite you to check it out – George displays a surprisingly sweet singing voice – then check this out:
DAVID MILLS: We heard a story that you, as a kid, went into one of those record-your-own-record booths and did your own version of “Why Do Fools Fall in Love”?

GEORGE CLINTON: No, it was “Sunday Kind of Love.” That was like the epitome of doo-wops. That was like the real doo-wop song….

[It was] the group, the first Parliaments. We played it for a few people. It showed up again somewhere around New York – those collectors? That’s how I found out about it.

MILLS: I can understand why you wanted to be a singer, but did you think you were a good singer?

CLINTON: I couldn’t sing for shit. (laughs) Couldn’t but one guy in the group harmonize....

I learned to write first. And then I was around Motown for a while. Especially after I got my own style and stopped worrying about singing – Bernie Worrell, who was like classical-trained, he said it’s more like acting. I was a producer so I know what out-of-tune is, but people started falling in love with the vibe that I was doing, so it was more like acting. Once I got comfortable with acting, then I actually could move on up and sing when I have to. But we got such good singers, I don’t have to sing.

MILLS: Among the five Parliaments, when y’all hit, who was the best? I love Calvin Simon’s singing. Was there a pecking order among yourselves?

CLINTON: Calvin could sing. It was all about what style was in at the time, know what I’m saying? By the time we made it, bands was in, so it was about bands. And Sly and them had made it, so it was about the young gospel sounds. So we used Eddie Hazel, Billy Nelson, Calvin, Fuzzy [Haskins] – but Eddie and them was out front ’cause they knew more about Sly and was young enough to interpret it. I bought ’em the records and they was able to interpret Jimi and Sly.

I always utilize whoever we have, whoever is there. Then when Glenn [Goins] came, who had sang with Eddie and Billy and them, when he came it was even deeper. I had learned how to use soulful singers much more. It’s hard to use a soulful singer because they always sound older. By the time we did “Mothership [Connection],” we knew how to use ’em to make ’em sound young.

Garry [Shider] sang like Calvin and Fuzzy, but he was younger. I could have used any one of ’em, really. But I could mold the younger ones much easier. Fuzzy and them grew up with me, so [they’d say] “Fuck you, I know what I’m doing. You… how you know?” They’re gonna wear me out for a hour before they, you know, do the part. So it was easier to mold the other ones.

LARRY ALEXANDER: When’s the first time you got over with the females because you could sing? When’s the first time you got some pussy because you could sing?

CLINTON: We did that before we got records! I mean, we was the baddest group around town, ’cause love songs was all the shit anyway. Matter of fact, that’s why I still like doo-wop, ’cause all that was about was grinding and getting pussy.

After we started making it a little bit, and we saw that the Temptations and Four Tops, all them had that shit sewed up, and doo-wop was gone for the most part, we had to come up with another – Crazy was our next [thing]. Coasters, the Contours, the Isley Brothers, that was our next thing that we was good at was clowning.

MILLS: Let’s talk about that. Because even in Plainfield, the Parliaments had a very distinctive stage presence.

CLINTON: Yeah, we was cool at first. And then every once in a while, when we used to sing fast songs, we was goofy. Played pregnant, played titties and wigs and shit like that, like the Coasters. So we had all of that covered. So when we had to change to Funkadelic, all we had to do was… turn the amps up real loud, put on some robes. All the white boys [were] into blues, into metaphysical type of thangs, and psychedelic was there, so we just went totally loony.

I guess when we took acid we really did get loony and didn’t know it, ’cause we was goofing for the most part. Even with the “Free your mind and your ass will follow,” dah-dah-dah. And then we realized that people was really into it.

I didn’t never want to be pretentious about shit, so I would always make sure I was being funny. ’Cause I wasn’t no guru, ’cause I’m still trying to get some pussy. I don’t want nobody taking me seriously like I ain’t. If you catch me smoking a joint, don’t fuck with me. A little acid or whatever, you know what I’m saying…

I mean, I’m surprised by a lot of the songs myself. I look back, “Damn, I wish I was like that.” ’Cause they come through you, they’re not necessarily you.

MILLS: Do you remember the first time you took acid?

CLINTON: I don’t remember the first time. I remember Fuzzy’s first time, ’cause he’s a serious-acting person for the most part, but he was goofy as fuck. Billy and all of them –

MILLS: Who hooked you up?

CLINTON: In Boston, everybody hooked you up – the teachers. We went around to schools, Harvard, MIT. Everywhere you went, teachers, everybody had it. Couple of times, we was test students, and we wasn’t even in schools. (laughs) Was out of school for years and we went around there volunteering for these tests –

MILLS: LSD experiments?

CLINTON: Yeah. They’d watch you for two or three hours.

MILLS: So was it in Boston –

CLINTON: Oh, Boston definitely was the first time. Then Toronto. Detroit. Then I stayed loony for three years.

I never thought it did anything for me musically. But a long time after I quit, I realized that it did make my tempo unlike most tempos out of Newark. The kids made you embarrassed to want to fight your wife, or be jealous, ’cause they were so “peace and love.” For that moment, everybody really meant it.

But they had to go back to work sooner or later. So soon as ’70 came, it was over. And Jimi, Janis and all them died – it was over.

MILLS: But you were a hippie for real. Did you go around barefoot?

CLINTON: For years. I wore a sheet and nothing else in the wintertime.

Then I started seeing the beat-up Hare Krishnas. They had turned the working-class people against hippies, because their son was in the war. So then it was dangerous to walk around wearing a vest that looked like a flag.

It didn’t take me but a minute to realize, “Okay, they done started callin’ ’em ‘Jesus freaks.’ It’s over.” Instead of hippies, it was the connotation on “Jesus freak” – it wasn’t quite nice. They didn’t say it harshly, but you could feel it. And pretty soon, the hard-hats would come off the buildings and jump on Hare Krishnas, who had already sung themselves into Loonyville with no drugs.

MILLS: Did you ever get fucked with in Detroit for being a hippie?

CLINTON: In Boston I did. An old man followed me around the store – it was a cop – and this little old lady was walking behind him, hitting him, “You leave him alone, he hasn’t done nothing.” I had a vest on that looked like a flag. Finally the store owner stood in between me and the other man, told him, “Robert, you don’t wanna do this, you don’t wanna get yourself into trouble,” and let me get out. So I left.

MILLS: We heard about a publicity stunt in Detroit – this must’ve been during the freak-out period – where you and Iggy Pop were supposed to get married?

CLINTON: We always [hung out with] the same “Bad Boys of Ann Arbor” crew. Amboy Dukes, Ted Nugent, and Iggy and the MC5. And we’d just bullshit, we would try to come up with all kind of ways – Alice Cooper was from there. So it was always about theatrics. Iggy said, “We ought to get married. That would make a nice crazy-ass story.” But Creem didn’t pick it up because they knew we was all goofing anyway.

ALEXANDER: So it didn’t go anywhere?

CLINTON: Naw, it didn’t go anywhere. It went further these last few years when people have heard it, since he’s got straighter, I’ve probably gotten straighter. People pay more attention to it now than they did back then.

MILLS: It was Iggy’s idea?

CLINTON: I think it was my manager’s idea, I think – Cholly Bassoline, who was really close to Iggy and all of them too. He just said it, I laughed about it, Iggy laughed about it. It was like, whatever you could do.


Thursday, February 15, 2007

White riot (pt. 2)

Once upon a time, there was a light-skinned, straight-haired, college-educated “colored” man named Alexander Manly. He was the editor of the Daily Record, a successful black-owned newspaper read widely throughout North Carolina. One day, he decided to tempt fate…

Herewith, I conclude my Black History Month salute to “race riots” with the story of Mr. Manly and the Wilmington Massacre of 1898.

The political backdrop of this drama was a simmering tension between Wilmington’s black elites (plus their white “Fusionist” allies) and the white-supremacist Democrats of the time.

Enter a white feminist orator from Georgia named Rebecca Felton. She happened to be “an outspoken advocate of lynching African American males accused of raping white women,” according to North Carolina’s 1898 Wilmington Race Riot Commission. (The commission’s final report was issued last May.)

“Felton rejected mulattos or the relationships that generated mixed-race children as base and degenerate and reprimanded whites who allowed black/white unions.”

In one of Mrs. Felton’s speeches, reprinted in a white Wilmington newspaper, she urged white men to better safeguard their rural women: “[I]f it needs lynching to protect woman’s dearest possession from the ravening human beasts, then I say lynch; a thousand times a week if necessary.”

(Interesting digression: Rebecca Felton became the first woman to serve in the United States Senate. She was appointed in 1922 at the age of 87, and she served for 24 hours.)

So… Alex Manly responded to Mrs. Felton’s pro-lynching argument by publishing an unsigned editorial (presumably written by him). The editorial suggested that some white women consort willingly, if secretly, with colored men, just as white men often dallied with colored women. (The latter fact attested to by Manly’s own light skin and straight hair.)

“Tell your men that it is no worse for a black man to be intimate with a white woman, than for a white man to be intimate with a colored woman,” Manly wrote. “You set yourselves down as a lot of carping hypocrites in that you cry aloud for the virtue of your women while you seek to destroy the morality of ours. Don’t think ever that your women will remain pure while you are debauching ours.”

Manly wasn’t advocating interracial sex here. He was sticking up for black women while taunting white men with what we now recognize as Malcolm X’s infamous “chickens coming home to roost” metaphor.

Several months later, on November 10, 1898, a mob of armed whites – led by Democrat Alfred Moore Waddell, a former U.S. congressman – decided to take over the city and to chase duly elected black officeholders and white “Fusionists” out of power.

Manly’s Daily Record was the mob’s first stop. The rioters destroyed his printing press, then burned the building down, cheering as they did so.

All hell proceeded to break loose in Wilmington. Black men were gunned down in the streets, including a black police officer. Black women and children fled by the thousands into the woods and swamps on the outskirts of town.

Alexander Manly had already gotten out of Dodge. Lucky for him; he was described in a front-page headline of the next day’s Raleigh News and Observer as “the Defamer of White Womanhood.” Manly might as well have had a bull’s-eye on his back.

According to the 1898 Foundation, Inc., a self-described “community effort for remembrance and reconciliation,” there’s an “oral tradition” (I guess that means an “urban legend”) that Alex Manly and his brother, Frank, while fleeing the city, “were stopped at a checkpoint, assumed to be white, given a rifle, and told to ‘be on the lookout for that nigger editor Manly.’ ”

When it was all over, 25 black people were dead, by one estimate. And in Wilmington’s white churches the following Sunday, ministers praised Alfred Waddell’s overthrow of the city government. “[W]hites were doing God’s service,” one preacher said.

Waddell became the new mayor of Wilmington.

On the website for the PBS series “The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow,” you’ll find this quote from Harry Hayden, one of the rioters:

“The Men who took down their shotguns and cleared the Negroes out of office yesterday were not a mob of plug uglies. They were men of property, intelligence, culture… clergymen, lawyers, bankers, merchants. They are not a mob, they are revolutionists asserting a sacred privilege and a right.”

Right… not a “mob,” but revolutionists. Not a “riot,” a revolution. Reminds me of black folks nowadays who try to dignify the ’92 L.A. riots by calling them an “uprising.”

Except that North Carolina’s white power structure of a hundred years ago bought into the bullshit word game.

North Carolina Governor Charles B. Aycock, who led the fight to disenfranchise black voters, said in a 1904 speech: “When I was elected Governor it was after the revolution of 1898.”

Similarly, historian James Sprunt wrote that “the results of the Revolution of 1898 have indeed been a blessing to the community.”

History may be written by the victors, but it gets rewritten too. Maybe some neo-Confederate dickheads out there look upon 1898 as a shining moment for the white race. I’ll always remember it as the year of the Wilmington Massacre.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

White riot (pt. 1)

In honor of Black History Month, let’s talk about race riots.

No no, not the kind you’re thinking of. Not Reginald Denny being snatched out of his truck and almost murdered. Not ghetto folk running amok after the assassination of Dr. King. Not the flaming names of “Watts” and “Newark” and “Detroit.”

You see, before black people cornered the market on riots during the 1960s, the very term “race riot” meant white mobs taking up arms, going to the black part of town, setting buildings on fire, and beating or shooting African Americans indiscriminately. This violence was often spurred on – or validated after the fact – by white newspapers.

The NAACP came into existence in response to one such riot, the Springfield Race Riot of 1908. There was also the Atlanta Race Riot of 1906, the Beaumont Riot of 1943, and notable white-on-black riots in Mobile, Ala. (1943), New Orleans (1868), even Philadelphia (1834).

Some are now remembered (if they’re remembered at all) as “massacres.” The Wilmington Massacre. The Rosewood Massacre. The Greenwood Massacre. The Memphis Massacre. The Colfax Massacre. The Elaine Massacre. The East St. Louis Massacre.

I bring these up not to lay a guilt trip on whites, and certainly not to provide an occasion for blacks to feel all righteously indignant. I bring them up because I’m sick of the flash-card approach to history, especially black history.

It’s not about learning the names and faces of a few exceptional Negroes (though Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass were all that and a side of fries). It’s about trying to appreciate the human drama of history and what life was like for ordinary people.

Take Atlanta, 1906.

There was a broad political debate going on over black voting rights. Atlanta newspapers were stirring up their white readers with “stories, editorials, and cartoons warning of rising crime” – particularly “threats of the rape of their mothers, wives, and daughters by black males” – and a push by “uppity” blacks to have social equality with whites. This according to the New Georgia Encyclopedia (NGE).

“On the afternoon of Saturday, September 22, Atlanta newspapers reported four alleged assaults, none of which were ever substantiated, upon local white women,” as the NGE tells it. Soon “thousands of white men and boys gathered in downtown Atlanta,” inflamed by the lurid details in these press reports.

By evening time, this mob surged through the Negro district, smashing windows of black-owned businesses and assaulting black people at random. One barbershop “was raided by the rioters – and the barbers were killed,” according to the NGE. “The crowd also attacked streetcars, entering trolley cars and beating black men and women; at least three men were beaten to death.”

Days later, when it was all over, an estimated 25 to 40 blacks were dead, along with two whites.

The Springfield Race Riot of 1908 also was triggered by a rape accusation (later withdrawn). “Almost the entire Illinois state militia was required to quell the frenzy of the mob, which shot innocent people, burned homes, looted stores, and mutilated and lynched two elderly blacks,” according to the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Likewise, the Beaumont Riot of 1943 jumped off after a white woman accused a black man of rape. Several thousand whites went after the black community as a whole. The Texas State Historical Association describes it this way:

“With guns, axes, and hammers, they proceeded to terrorize black neighborhoods in central and north Beaumont. Many blacks were assaulted, several restaurants and stores were pillaged, a number of buildings were burned, and more than 100 homes were ransacked.”

Final tally: 50 people injured; two blacks and one white dead.

Occasionally, this type of mob violence didn’t grow out of a rape panic. The Elaine Massacre of 1919 took place after a white policeman was shot and killed outside a meeting of black sharecroppers in Phillips County, Ark. White vigilantes, many from the neighboring state of Mississippi, answered the local sheriff’s call “to hunt Mr. Nigger in his lair.”

“Hundreds of armed men jumped into trains, trucks, and cars and, crossing into Arkansas, fired out of windows at every black they saw,” writes Richard Wormser in “The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow.”

The black sexual menace, however, was its own special deal.

The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, also known as the Greenwood Massacre, occurred after a white woman said she’d been assaulted by a young black male in an office elevator. This case offers us a fascinating, almost cinematic narrative:

The black youth, a shoeshine boy named Dick Rowland, was arrested. And the black citizens of Tulsa, including some World War I veterans, feared that he might get lynched.

Why would they presume such a thing? Because nine months earlier, a white teenager named Roy Belton, arrested for shooting a cab driver, was seized from the very same jail – inside the Tulsa County Courthouse – by a group of armed white vigilantes. They drove Belton several miles away and hanged him.

After Dick Rowland’s arrest, several hundred whites gathered outside the courthouse, reacting to the news in an afternoon paper. Some in the mob yelled “Let us have the nigger,” according to the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921.

The sheriff refused to hand his prisoner over to the mob. This was a new sheriff, name of Willard M. McCullough, and he didn’t want a replay of the Roy Belton lynching. Sheriff McCullough went out on the courthouse steps to convince the crowd to go home. But the sheriff was “hooted down.”

Later that night, a group of about 25 black men, armed with rifles and shotguns, arrived at the courthouse. They told the sheriff they were there to help defend the jail. Sheriff McCullough declined their help, assuring them that Dick Rowland was safe.

The black men then got back in their cars and returned to the Greenwood section of town. But their appearance had an “electrifying effect” on the white mob, which by now had grown to more than a thousand.

“The visit of the black veterans had not at all been foreseen,” according to the Oklahoma Commission’s report. “Shocked, and then outraged, some members of the mob began to go home to fetch their guns.” Other whites tried to storm the National Guard Armory for rifles and ammo, but were rebuffed.

Later, another group of armed black men – this time 75 or so – arrived at the Tulsa County Courthouse. Again, they offered to help protect the prisoner. Again, Sheriff McCullough turned them away.

Then a white man tried to disarm one of the black vets…

“What are you doing with that pistol?”

“I’m going to use it if I need to.”

“No, you give it to me.”

“Like hell I will.”

The white man tried to take the pistol… and was shot. A gun battle ensued. The riot was on.

By the end of it, a 35-block area of black Tulsa was destroyed.

Next time, I’ll tell you about the 1898 Wilmington Race Riot, also known as the Wilmington Massacre. That North Carolina nightmare is intriguing because white men’s blood lust was aroused not by an actual accusation of rape, but by printed words… words printed in a black-owned newspaper by its editor. Words that damn-near cost him his life.


MBP of the Week: Chicago Tribune

Now you guys are getting into the spirit of this thing! Alex Gordon of the group blog A List of Things Thrown Five Minutes Ago brought the following Misidentified Black Person to my attention. (Big thanks, Alex.)

The Chicago Tribune last Saturday ran a long feature – 50 paragraphs long – on former NBA player Kevin Gamble (above bottom), who returned to his hometown of Springfield, Ill., and built a basketball program from scratch at the University of Illinois-Springfield.

Only one problem. A photograph supposedly showing Kevin Gamble in his playing days wasn't Kevin Gamble at all.

This morning, the Tribune posted this correction on the Web:

"CORRECTIONS AND CLARIFICATIONS: A 1990 file photograph that accompanied the story incorrectly identified a player as Kevin Gamble. It was not; the archival information was incorrect."

Alex Gordon tells me the photo was actually of another Boston Celtic, Dee Brown (above top).

Easy mistake to make. Those Irish... they all look alike.

UPDATE (02/15/07): When it comes to being misidentified in the media, female basketball players are as vulnerable as the men. And college newspapers are as prone to screwing up as the pros.

This correction was posted yesterday on the website of Kansas University's student paper:

“Tuesday’s The University Daily Kansan contained an error. The player in the photo, with the article ‘Shaq makes big plays at the buzzer,’ was misidentified. No. 20 Sade Morris was incorrectly identified as Shaq Mosley.”