I recently found I could stream films through Kanopy by way of my public library. The first film I watched was A Taste of Honey, Tony Richardson’s 1961 award winner set in Greater Manchester’s Salford. Jo, played by Rita Tushingham, the daughter of a libertine mother, Dora Bryan, moves out on her own after her mother remarries. While at home Jo has a fling with a ship’s cook Jimmy (Paul Danquah), who soon sails away slowly (if not into the sunset). At her shoe shop job she meets Geoffrey Ingham (Murray Melvin), a textile design student who’s been kicked out of his flat apparently for his own liaisons—with men—and thus Jo invites him to room with her. And room they have—it’s a top-floor studio apartment—but squalid, as only the black-and-white camera can capture, softened only somewhat by Geoff’s student’s style.
I recall Tushingham from her less-free-spirit role of Dot a couple years later in The Leather Boys. And Melvin is instantly recognizable from Barry Lyndon (1975) as Rev. Samuel Runt, the “failed Rasputin” for Marisa Berenson’s Lady Lyndon. But what surprised me were two lines in A Taste of Honey uttered by Jimmy in response to Jo’s urge to “Dream of me” upon their second leave-taking. “Dreamt of you last night,” he says. “Fell out of bed twice.” The lines also appeared in the film’s forebear, Shelagh Delaney’s popular play by the same name. But music fans like me otherwise would remember it from the middle eight of the Smiths’ first song on LP, “Reel Around the Fountain.”
I dreamt about you last night and I fell out of bed twice
This was not an unconscious lift: Delaney is “cover star” on the band’s 1987 single “Girlfriend in a Coma.”
Although “Reel” is perhaps my favorite Smiths song, I haven’t listened to the album in years. It was spoiled for me by my brother Richard, an audiophile, who pointed out the album’s wretched tizzy EQ. Lead singer Morrissey apparently concurs, writing in his 2011 Autobiography that “the album sounds exactly how the Smiths were not: pasty and thin.” It was produced by John Porter, whose résumé up to that point included playing bass with Roxy Music onFor Your Pleasureand producing Roxy frontman Bryan Ferry’s first solo album, both in 1973. The same year asThe Smiths (1984) he’d work with Paul Haig, Killing Joke, Dead or Alive, Julian Cope, Orange Juice, One the Juggler, The Room, Microdisney, The Monochrome Set, and Chron Gen. Porter also had produced the Smiths’ summer ’83 radio appearance for David Jensen, and so the band’s guitarist Johnny Marr suggested Porter for their debut LP; Morrissey agreed.
But The Smiths initially was recorded during the summer of 1983 with Troy Tate producing. (I seem to recall that my brother was a fan of Tate’s “Love Is…”, released in ’83 and featuring Robert Ellis Orrall, who issued his mini-album Special Pain that same year, which names Tate as a contributor and includes a duet with Carlene Carter, whose voice compares well with stepsister Rosanne Cash, both being born in ’55 to different parents.) Marr recalls in his own autobiography (Set the Boy Free, 2016) that Tate strove to achieve a live presence in the studio, which was articulated by Morrissey: “The Smiths sound had already developed with a bullish fortification […]. Live, Mike’s drumming had an incredible thunderbolt quality, and Andy’s bass had a pealing swagger […].”
Morrissey complained further that, via Porter’s recording, the “yearning thirst of Reel around the fountain was dropped in pitch […].” Moz’s metaphor notwithstanding, this was borne out by the fact that the John Peel radio version of the song, performed May 18, 1983, is in a higher key than either the Porter or Tate version (my Tate differs from others floating around)—or even a July 6, 1983 live version filmed at the Hacienda, not to mention the Porter-produced David Jensen radio version from September 5, 1983, which didn’t air.
Just as the Albert Brothers that same year were accused of sandbagging Gang of Four’s on Hard, Porter can be said to have studio-ized “Reel Around the Fountain” by relegating Morrissey’s hailed bass-and-drums to the status of a rhythm section while raising Marr in the mix, accentuating his jangly guitars’ perennial appeal. By contrast, on the Tate tape Mike Joyce’s drums are almost Wall of Sound although clipped a bit by a studio effect. Producer Roger Pusey of the Peel tape has Andy Rourke’s bass front and center, possibly a byproduct of the higher key. In both of these Marr retains his own ostinato obbligato in vast passages. But Porter not only tips the balance in Marr’s direction, he fills those passages with what Morrissey calls the “frisky piano” and organ of Porter’s friend Paul Carrick.
To my mind Carrick’s non-frisky organ contrasts well with Marr’s movement as it poignantly plays with Morrissey’s sustained cadences. The piano lends an ironic touch to this incarnation of an already ironic song that is second-cousin to Marguerite Deras’s The Lover (which I refer to in an earlier post). Beyond that I hadn’t really probed the lyric past the line “Fifteen minutes with you,” which seems naturally tied to the album’s cover art—obtained from Warhol’s Flesh. But when I was looking tonight for the song’s lyrics I found a thoughtful (albeit clumsy) exegesis, beginning with the song’s title. That “reel around the fountain” itself is a sexual slang is, mm, hard for me to, mm, swallow, but the same assertion is made by celebrity biographer David Bret (Morrissey: Scandal and Passion, 2004). A taste of honey indeed.
This past summer in Cheyenne my uncle Richard Hughes told me of his hallucinations. That a man going blind might also view visions seems an insult to injury. Yet his condition has a name—Charles Bonnet syndrome—after an eighteenth-century Swiss naturalist and philosopher. As profiled in ACNR (Vol. 8, No. 5, 19) Bonnet first listed his grandfather’s
silent visions of men, women, birds, carriages, and buildings, which he fully realised were ‘fictions’ of his brain. Bonnet himself later underwent visual deterioration and experienced hallucinations typical of the syndrome named after him […].
(Compare with “Blinky” Watts, the sound effects technician character from David Lynch’s short-lived TV series On the Air, who suffers from Bozeman’s Simplex, which causes him to see “25.62 times as much as we do.”)
Six months prior I came across a song by Richard Dawson, which I wanted to write about tonight only to find that he too sees things (due to a genetic defect), but through a glass darkly, as DawsontoldThe Guardian‘s Michael Hann, who remarked, “There’s an almost hallucinatory clarity to his writing.”
The Felon’s Song
“The Felon’s Song” tends toward the clarity end—not that it isn’t evocative. Dawson composed it and four others for a 2017 multimedia project at Hexham Old Gaol, England’s oldest (built in 1333), now a museum. With a marketer’s remarkable myopia, the museum offers
a fun and educational experience for all. ¶Try our stocks (if you dare), visit the prison house and learn about Medieval crime and punishment on a day out with a difference. Did you know that suspected criminals were locked up before their trial, or that those in debt often shared the Dungeon with the most dangerous criminals?
In what can be seen as a partial corrective, artist Matt Stokes, who investigates music-as-social-catalyst, enrolled Dawson in telling the stories of five characters who would have had dealings with that Northumberland prison.
The culmination of the collaboration is a film with the provocative title, This Liberty, itself part of a larger venture, Meeting Point2, in which each of ten artists crafted a new and site-specific piece at a museum in the country’s north end. Yet “The Felon’s Song,” the only one of the five sung by Dawson himself, is shot—in one take—in the cell of a still-operative penitentiary, as Dawsontold the online music magazineThe Quietus.
The Felon’s fix flowed from Dawson’s mind’s eye: how a kid of twelve or thirteen, charged with stealing a neighbor’s eggs, endures while awaiting court for days on end. At about the time of the English Renaissance. But Stokes upends the museum’s family-friendly displays by drawing parallels between then and now. Dawson sings The Felon’s Song in the style of an antiquated border ballad, yet clad in the uniform of an operational prison. The parallel is made. Bloody well.
Comrades in Denver recently attended a performance by the Manitoba band Propagandhi. I knew the group’s name but not their music and poked around a bit. If you like your tunes hard and fast, guitar-driven and polemically positioned, with gorgeously apocalyptic album art, this is up your alley. But I was quite surprised to learn that John K. Samson was the band’s bassist for nearly six years.
According to the cliché about art school, you learn the rules before breaking them. Samson can be seen, superficially, as having worked in reverse, with a minimalist-with-message band before leaving school to fashion, with The Weakerthans, a new song in an old mold: figurative, more muted, embellished with just enough magic in its realism to keep us inquiring. Perhaps the finest example of this craft is the band’s ballad “Pamphleteer.”
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Samson explains the genesis of “Pamphleteer” in a 2001 Punk Planetinterview with Larry Livermore and Michael Silverberg:
A friend of mine wrote a film script and asked me to write a song for it. It was a script about various things, and it had a newspaper story to it. But I suddenly had this image of an activist, someone involved in politics, who passed out pamphlets on street corners—which is something I admire—and suddenly one day cracked and started churning out these pamphlets about his personal life and passing them out on street corners. It started with that image and grew from there.
For me a key, prosaic passage in the song is
I walk this room in time to
the beat of the Gestetner
10 to 10,000
For any organizer or activist in the first three quarters of the 20th century, the Gestetner brand mimeograph machine was the propagator of propaganda. When I used them as a community organizer with the United Farm Workers beginning in 1973 the UFW didn’t bother to buy one. We availed of allies’ deeper pockets: labor union locals, houses of worship, community organizations and centers—sometimes openly, sometimes on the sly, but always with a sense that you might overstay your welcome.
Mimeo mechanics: You carved your design in its stencils or slid them atop your typewriter platen. If you could afford it, a companion stencil etcher would scan your original artwork and burn through the wax resist to the porous backing. Black, messy ink could flow through the Gestetner’s stencil until it disintegrated. Ads of the day say 10 to 10,000, but that would be stretching it. Nonetheless, if I recall correctly, you could clean a stable stencil for later use. The machine also accepted metal foil stencils that were more durable.
The original Gestetners were hand cranked, so Samson’s pamphleteer, walking in time to its beat, is dated to post crank, whenever that was.
This device should not be confused with the duplicator or Ditto machine, which produced indigo images and print by a mineral spirit method—to the delight of many a student who sniffed and whiffed the solvent still present in a stack of pop quizzes sent ’round the room. This Ditto-versus-Mimeo distinction actually came up for me years ago.
In 2010, searching for something unrelated, I found that Stephen Gertz, a rare-book scout and dealer, had described savoring the Ditto spirit in a post titled “O Solé Mimeo”:
By now, many readers of a certain age no doubt have a sweet, intoxicating aroma wafting within their sense memory that harkens back to school days and fresh off the mimeo machine test papers and handouts. School Daze: putting the test right up close to one’s nostrils, taking two or three deep inhalations, feeling lightheaded, then getting down to business—inserting “Maybe” for True or False questions, and filling in blanks with answers not found amongst the multiple choice options. Like ex-junkies recalling their first shot, many people who attended school during the 1930s through mid-1960s vividly and fondly remember those mimeographed papers with purple ink whose odor lifted us a millimeter or two off the floor.
I wrote to Gertz, after raising another matter:
Also, your “O Solé Mimeo” column is very dear, although in the area of activism rather than literature. In my research I’m going through much mimeographed material and, at 55, am old enough to have used the machines on the UFW boycott when I came to L.A. from Boulder at age 17. I do have an olfactory memory, however, from the black ink, due to cranking or monitoring.
Gertz did not reply to my quibble, since it only was an aside to my main reason for contacting him. But tonight, when revisiting his post, I find he appears to have corrected himself (based on my comment?):
The problem, however, as I’ve just recently discovered to my horror (being completely wrong for over forty-five years is humbling if not humiliating)), is that those papers were not copied on mimeograph machines, which do not duplicate with purple ink or produce a distinctive smell.
John Samson’s pamphleteer paces the room to the mimeograph’s rhythm, to
contemplate my next communique.
The rhetoric and treason
of saying that I’ll miss you.
Of saying, “Hey, well maybe you should stay.”
Sing “Oh what force on earth could be
weaker than the feeble strength
of one” like me remembering
the way it could have been.
The pamphleteer’s latter quote is from Ralph Chaplin’s 1916 labor standard “Solidarity Forever”—but in this case we’re drawn to the personal within the collective struggle.
Chaplin, according to his memoir Wobbly (University of Chicago Press, 1948), completed the song in Chicago in 1915. He’d begun it during the bloody coal miners strike a few years before in Virginia’s Kanawha Valley when he’d been “bootlegging” strike literature “into the martial-law zone.” That winter of 1915, as Chaplin wrote, Chicago was home to the general headquarters of the Industrial Workers of the World, yet “there was no English-speaking branch in town.” Hunger riots were rampant on both coasts and the Gulf. A somewhat contrived hunger demonstration in Chicago, per Chaplin, on January 17, 1915, was the venue for the debut of “Solidarity Forever,” which he had just completed while “lying on the rug in the living-room that day scribbling stanza after stanza.”
Jon Bekken, writing about the song in Anarcho-Syndicalist Review (No. 55, Winter 2010/11) notes that, while the song has become a labor anthem, certain of its verses are shunned at events by corporate-style unions. Verse two declares, “There is aught we hold in common with the greedy parasite,” echoing the IWW’s constitution preamble: “The working class and the employing class have nothing in common.” Bekken states that “many officials seem to believe that they do in fact have something in common […].” And while other verses touch on the basis of the labor theory of value—that “without our brain and muscle not a single wheel can turn”—, verse four argues, “All the world that’s owned by idle drones, is ours and ours alone.” This is a bright-line alternative to the longtime, establishment, union-as-wage-slave-pimp. And the latter-day oxymoron of the “labor-management partnership.”
“What force on earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one” leads us to deduce the inspiration for The Weakerthans moniker. And in a 2004 interview John Samson admits as much, but prior to that he quotes from the film adaptation of Marguerite Duras’s The Lover: “Go ahead, I’m weaker than you can possibly imagine.” (Somewhat curious, since upon leaving Propaghandi, Samson cofounded ARP/Arbeiter Ring Publishing, which issues fiction as well as titles by Ward Churchill.) The line from the film is stunningly ironic, uttered by the young girl’s Chinaman lover in response to her brother’s invitation to fight. Except that the line actually goes, “You have no idea how weak I am.”
Nevertheless, The Lover connection is of interest to me because the copy of the novel in my personal library was given to my wife Andrea Carney and me (and, thus, autographed) by Stan Weir, whose posthumous collected writing is titled Singlejack Solidarity (University of Minnesota Press, 2004). Although Stan cut his teeth in shipyards and factories, his own title is taken from the hard-rock miner’s shorthandled hammer wielded upon a spike held by a fellow miner, both workers having to trust that the spike won’t wobble nor the hammer miss its mark. Stan mentored Andrea—and me to a lesser degree—as we were being tempted to leave the rank and file of her union and of my workplace in the 1990s.
Stan gave us photocopies of his article, reprinted in his collection, “Meetings with James Baldwin” (Against the Current, Jan/Feb 1989). Andrea had all of Baldwin’s books on her shelves when I met her in 1975, and a couple of years before, in high school, I’d done a book report on his Another Country, my introduction to queer literature. Stan and Baldwin’s own solidarity was forged as young men when they worked together, navigating the new world (for them) of Greenwich Village in 1942. Andrea and I hadn’t known before that Baldwin had become involved in Stan’s efforts to integrate the ILWU.
Left and Leaving
I first was introduced to The Weakerthans through One Way Magazine, a freebie I used to pick up in Los Angeles. Each issue contained a CD sampler of music both familiar and unknown, as was “Our Retired Explorer (Dines with Michel Foucault in Paris, 1961)” from The Weakerthans’ 2003 album Reconstruction Site. I bought that CD and and later its predecessors, Fallow and Left and Leaving. The latter album’s “Pamphleteer” devastated me, and later when I was drafting my (still) work-in-progress about three early commie-pinko gay organizers, “the feeble strength of one” seemed to be a natural as my working title: these three fellows had experienced comradeship between themselves as well as at least one consequential relationship with another man, but ended their days alone.
I’m a terrible interviewee for the most part. Recently I was contacted by a radio news editor about homophobia in hip-hop, based on my involvement in the 1980s rap group, Age of Consent. I can’t imagine any sound bites from that conversation will end up in the final piece, but the dialogue got me thinking. In the course of subsequent riffling through AOC archival material and updating our website I came across a profile of our group from 1983 in which I actually was cogent. And I was surprised that I articulated a notion I thought I’d only come to hold more recently. But I was also disappointed by my hubris.
The article, by Samir Hachem (1956–1992), provides a good introduction to what AOC was about, so I won’t duplicate that here. I knew Samir’s work from radio and his love for the Lebanese singer Fairouz. As KCRW’s Tom Schnabel (the station’s first music director and creator of Morning Becomes Eclectic) recalls in his tribute to Hachem, “Samir told me of how Fairouz could perform for one faction in the Lebanese civil war of the 1970s, then cross over to the other side and perform there, too. Such was her fame and the respect she commanded.” In addition to radio Samir wrote for The Hollywood Reporter and The Advocate, in which the AOC profile appeared.
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Before turning to that profile, some historical perspective. As I told my interviewer last week, in AOC’s heyday, 1981–1983, rap was so new to West Coast audiences that music critics felt obliged to explain what it was. To wit:
Chris Pasles, who reviewed our first performed rap, was a classical music reviewer (the music series I produced and performed in was geared toward the highbrow avant garde), so it may be understandable when he called our rap “a rock-accompanied” message
LA Times critic Don Snowden instructed, “Rapping, the funk style which features spoken-sung vocals laid over skeletal funk rhythms,” in his review of the September 6, 1981 Rap Night at which we were asked to encore the only rap we’d written to that point (thinking we’d be blown away by the other acts, so why polish up the other raps we were working on?)
Even Bill Lane, an African American journalist for the LA Sentinel, in his commentary about that same gig, described the art form using quotation marks: “kinetic ‘rap’ recordings.” His analysis is engaging because he has a sense of history and also of what could be: white domination of rap (discussed below)
Darcy Diamond, in a Herald Examinerprofile of AOC three months later wrote, regarding the same gig, “Los Angeles has not been a hotbed of rap music activity and many people were hard-pressed to even define it”
The Herald Examiner, on October 15, 1982, reviewed “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash but it also felt compelled to include a sort of sidebar, “Tracing the Roots of Rap,” by Leonard Pitts Jr.
In February of 1983, six months before we broke up, LA Times pop music critic Richard Cromelin still was explaining rap as “a rhythmic, sung-and-spoken style” (see “L.A. Takes the Rap from N.Y. Movement,” Feb 7)
The next month LA Times pop music critic Kristine McKenna again felt she had to offer a primer on rap, writing, “Rap originated as a sort of folk art, a way for ghetto kids who couldn’t afford guitars and amps, to create their own music…” (see “Taking the Rap in L.A.,” Mar 7)
Of all the above writers Bill Lane is the most thoughtful, although I quibble with some of his assertions. After leading off with remarks about pioneering rapper Kurtis Blow, Lane mentions a rap antecedent, Larry Darnell, who “had sold millions of his talk records years ago, especially one based on the song ‘I’ll Get Along Somehow.’ And there were others.” Claiming, via Darnell, that Blow’s “peculiar talk” was “not the first time” it had become “salable product on the American market” is a bit of a stretch despite any similarities. In Part 2 of his song Darnell reads the beads of an ungrateful protégé, just as in “The Breaks”Blow ends his rap with a vignette of a woman betrayed by a two-bit gold-digger. But Darnell’s delivery is in a conversational (if forceful) style atop the filigree of a celeste-ial score. It can’t compare with the beat of Blow’s rapping, accented by classic rhythm guitar work and drum… er… breaks.
At the time of Bill Lane’s column in August of 1981 he noted that
suddenly black radio began a ban on rap records. Some black program directors said the recordings were too profane. Some said they were “too black.” How black one can or cannot be in black radio is anybody’s guess. Many blacks years ago shunned and condemned the “jive talk” of Cab Calloway and the late Chicago Defender writer Dan Burley.
Indeed, in 1975 the Bee Gees had included their absurd “Jive Talkin'” on the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. While not mentioning the Bee Gees by name vis-à-vis disco (discussed below), Lane warned against white appropriation of rap. “Nowadays, it’s peculiar that black radio in banning rap records by black artists made a cross-over hit of the new rap recording of the white singer Blondie”—mistaking Debbie Harry for the name of her band. “Some black stations are also playing a Cockney-sounding ‘Wkiwrap’ disc from Sam Records, also featuring a white singer.” The disc in question is “Wikka Wrap” by the Evasions on SAM Records—a 12″ in my collection, as are almost all the records discussed in this post.
The so-called white singer’s rap is clearly a parody, as indicated by its jacket, above. Discogs, the indispensable Wikipedia of recorded music explains about the rap’s artists, The Evasions:
Basically a formation of U.K. TV producers Graham De Wilde and Adrian Sear in 1981 for a funky – novelty – comedy impersonation of TV personality Alan Whicker in their single “Wikka Wrap”, No.9 in the U.K. chart, No.20 in the U.S. R’n’B chart and No.19 in the U.S. Hot Dance Chart that year. Coolio sampled the song in his 1996 single “1, 2, 3, 4 (Sumpin’ New)”.
Aside from mimicking Alan Whicker, Graham de Wilde had a more personal connection, having composed the theme music to Whicker’s World, the globetrotting documentary series that ran for more than thirty years. (Per Wikipedia, Whicker already had been parodied in 1968 by Benny Hill—“Knicker’s World”—and in 1974 by Monty Python—“Whicker Island”.) As for Bill Lane’s characterization of de Wilde-as-Whicker sounding cockney, keep in mind that Whicker himself was born in Cairo and grew up in Surrey. Listen to the journalist in this ITV obituary and decide whether de Wilde flubs the parody.
In 2003, when John Callahan, Thea Other, and I were preparing the release of our retrospective CD, Old School on the Down Low, I wrote the following, augmented by my asides tonight in brackets.
It’s interesting that in 1981 we still had to explain what rap was, given the fact that, the same year, the rap parodies “General Hospi-Tale” [by The Afternoon Delights, the band name itself a play on the naughty number by Starland Vocal Band] and Russ Mason’s “Prep Rap” were released on major labels, followed by Rich Little’s “President’s Rap” [set to Tom Tom Club’s “Genius of Love”] and Eddie Murphy’s “Boogie In Your Butt” in ’82 [while still at Saturday Night Live, and taken from his first album, which led off with the live “Faggots”, apparently a non-routine riff uttered when he came onstage and a male audience member urged him to “Take it all off,” perhaps in reaction to Murphy doffing an article of clothing]. I guess by release of “The Message” people pretty much knew what was going on, and with “White Lines” [rhythm lines lifted from Liquid Liquid’s “Cavern”] one would think that record execs wouldn’t think rap was a flash in the pan. Maybe because there was so much novelty stuff (Rodney Dangerfield did one), they still thought it was a joke?
I left out another parody, 1982’s “Beatle Rap” by The Qworymen, issued by Rhino Records, which specialized in novelty numbers before becoming a reissue powerhouse.
Bill Lane continued his critique.
When disco was ablaze white discos were criticized for banning mostly black-speech disco songs in favor of those by white singers and musicians. Now some black-oriented radio stations are doing the same thing. […] But just as whites took over disco, until it became tiresome, so are whites making a bid to master rap records. Rap songs. Rap talk.
Lane goes on to say he attended the first Rap Night at Silver Lake’s ON Klub (Aug ’81), which became an occasional series. The house was packed with white music critics and industry folk, and the deejay was Ken Tucker—then critic for the Herald Examiner, now heard on NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Lane:
It was notable that virtually every song played was by a black singer, or a black group. Why? Because there are comparatively no white rap records with the funky black beat and rapidfire words of the streets. But they remedied that after awhile. [Tucker] put on a recording that featured only a soundtrack of stopdown, funky black music. And up to the mike stepped two white chaps called the Age of Consent and they began to rap over the music background like two Anglo-Saxon Kurtis Blows.
And we did. We were stretching the rap envelope topically, not sonically (yet). And so was Blow. His hit “The Breaks” did not deal with his sex appeal (although the album cover covered that handily); he merely gave a laundry list of “breaks, brakes, etc”—bad and good—and told a tale. Our own musical reworking of the rap group mode would come fifteen months later when we were perhaps the first such group to be backed by a live band. (And, yes, this is a rhetorical remark intended to elicit any rebuttals…)
Bill Lane worried about the appropriation of rap by whites. “Before long, […] the white rock stations that have been playing black rap product will join the contemporary black-oriented radio stations and stop playing them. White rap will be in, and, once again, blacks will have helped to kill their own generic, indigenous creativity.” And the “140-billion-a-year black consumer just might be spending himself into the poorhouse—by steadily seeking to buy white.” Lane then turned hopeful. “Sylvia Robinson says her Sugar Hill [sic] Records is preparing to record white rap singers wherever she can find them.” (She sort of succeeded with Patto, whose “Ebony and Ivory”-ish “Black and White” tries to poke fun at racial attitudes and epithets.)
I just read that Justin Simien (Dear White People) is slated to direct a film adaptation of Robinson’s life, which should be fascinating. I remember as a kid in the ’60s hearing her 1956 single with Mickey Baker, “Love Is Strange.” In addition to collaborating on “Rapper’s Delight” in 1979, that same year she signed the all-female rap group The Sequence (including Angie Stone) and cowrote their “Funk You Up”. Regarding the film project, Robinson’s son Joey told the Hollywood Reporter:
Sugarhill paved the way for a new genre of music that the industry had no knowledge of back in 1979. You will see the struggles of what Sugarhill went through to keep Hip-Hop music alive when the industry wanted to bury it.
Our experience in L.A. wasn’t that rap was something to be ignored or buried. Fads like rap simply weren’t worth the investment.
I don’t recall seeing Bill Lane’s Los Angeles Sentinel article at the time in 1981. I found it by chance on October 14, 2018 when I was doing a newspaper search to confirm the date of another clipping. To my knowledge, but for Lane, Age of Consent never was critiqued by an African American writer.
In light of Lane’s argument I was surprised that I echoed his sentiment somewhat in what I told Samir Hachem in April of ’83.
Traditionally, white people have always ripped off black music […]. What we’re trying to do is expand this kind of music. As a minority group ourselves, we’re using it to say some things.
But with introspection now I ask:
Who am I to engage in cultural appropriation—and enhancement—simply because it’s been done before? Because I can be counted amongst a sexual minority?
I cringe—except that in that same interview with Samir I equivocated somewhat.
One of the things we stand for most strongly is that everyone should have a choice […]. We’re against sexual labels. Sex isn’t rigid. Roles aren’t limited. It’s all more fluid and complex.
As I said up top, I’m not a good interviewee. When Age of Consent issued its retrospective CD in 2004, cofounder John Callahan and I appeared at a release event at the ONE Archives at USC (which houses an AOC collection that John assembled). John did most of the talking, but the little I did evidently was not effective. As I recall, John was invited to appear on KPFK’s IMRU program to promote the CD, with a specific request that I stay home.
Were Samir Hachem alive today I’d ask him if he remembers crafting my mumblings into words that, thirty-five years later, I both take issue with and embrace.
Header photo credit:
Joyce Dallal (colored by David Hughes)
What follows is the recollection and reflection of a remarkable musical work, and my work experience around it.
The prison strike of late summer 2018 was in part a commemoration of the killing of prison organizer and author George Jackson on August 21, 1971 and the uprising his death sparked (in part) at Attica nineteen days later on September 9. Having just turned 16 at the time, although I was involved in antiwar activity in Boulder, Jackson and Attica were two coastlines away and easy enough for me to ignore. Two years later I was reacquainted with those struggles—through music.
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As a kid I’d become familiar with composers who pushed the envelope. In grade school our music teacher played us recordings of John Cage. Two electric/electronic masses were known to me, one by The Electric Prunes (Mass in F Minor, 1968) and the other a collaboration by Spooky Tooth and musique concrète maestro Pierre Henry (Ceremony, 1969). Warner Brothers samplers like The Big Red Ball (1970) and Zappèd (1970) promoted offbeat acts like the GTOs, Captain Beefheart, Ed Sanders, and Lord Buckley, all of whom took liberties with music and the spoken word.
A friend’s father, Paul Parmelee, was pals with composer George Crumb as was David Burge, a Crumb collaborator who taught with Paul at CU and conducted our philharmonic. So it’s not surprising that Crumb’s intimately challenging Ancient Voices of Children (1970) was performed in our high school auditorium—my first exposure to the poetry of Federico García Lorca (not having paid attention to Joan Baez’s Baptism of ’68). Likewise, our church youth choir did not shy away from Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of the Carols (1942), recordings of which sometimes are paired with the composer’s Rejoice in the Lamb (1943), the setting of a poem penned by Christopher Smart when he was prisoner in a mental institution: “For I am under the same accusation with my Saviour; for they said, he is besides himself.” Smart later died in a debtor’s prison. (See my post about such a gaol.)
After high school when I worked with the United Farm Workers as a full-time boycott organizer beginning in the summer of ’73 a comrade introduced me to the so-called minimalists of avant-garde classical music. The oeuvre of two of these, Steve Reich and Frederic Rzewski, contained charged language. Reich composed his famous Come Out as part of a 1966 legal benefit for the Harlem 6 who were being retried for the ’64 “fruit stand” riot, covered by James Baldwin in the pages of The Nation. Five years later Rzewski composed two pieces in reaction to the Attica uprising.
Reich’s Come Out is a masterpiece of manipulated verbal vérité: it’s simply and solely a recording of defendant Daniel Hamm explaining how he had to convince cops he’d been beaten in jail by rupturing his own bruise. Rzewski’s Coming Together is a traditional musical setting of a written text, a narration, albeit by an electro-acoustic septet. And while both Come Out and Coming Together had brutal roots, Daniel Hamm survived his ordeal whereas Rzewski’s narrator did not.1
These are two powerful, musical statements, belied by the minimalism genre to which they are assigned, and we minimize the minimalists, in whatever medium, at our poverty if not our peril. Take, for instance, the color field canvases of Mark Rothko. A friend from college, a fiber artist, remarked on how those uncomplicated paintings are made richer by the fabric of their foundation, as if the traditional gesso primer had not been applied, freeing the fibers’ textures.2 Likewise, the repetitions of Come Out and Coming Together facilitate our auditory and intellectual attention-to-detail—to lyrics, but also to the musical fibers freed from the substrate of either lyrical (representational) melody or atonal (abstract) cacophony. The weft, if you will, of the notation staff bearing a more-or-less even weave, with variation.
Melville and Attica: A greater coming together
On May 16, 1970 Attica prisoner Sam Melville wrote his close friend John Cohen.
I think the combination of age and a greater coming together is responsible for the speed of the passing time…
Melville was born Samuel Joseph Grossman in 1934 in New York City. (The story of his name change is told at SamMellville.org, from which some of the following is taken.) Like many other political radicals in the ’60s and ’70s Melville turned from protest to property destruction as an act of defiance against: the war in Vietnam, rampant capitalism, environmental pillage, governmental clampdown. Melville’s eight acknowledged bombings took place in 1969—before the formation of groups like Weather Underground and George Jackson Brigade.3 He was arrested on November 12 of that year, and attempted an escape the next March.
Melville made trouble everywhere he was held. He organized prison strikes in The Tombs and Sing Sing before being sent to Attica where he published a zine called Iced Pig and organized with black, brown, and white protests against brutality, mail censorship, and 25 cents-a-day wages. And, of course, he was a leader of the prisoners’ takeover of Attica, during which he was killed—but not before fashioning hundreds of Molotov cocktails and other defensive weapons and devices.
After the Attica occupation, Ramparts magazine published several of Melville’s letters, including the one referenced above. Frederic Rzewski recalled later:
As I read it I was impressed both by the poetic quality of the text and by its cryptic irony. I read it over and over again. It seemed that I was trying both to capture a sense of the physical presence of the writer, and at the same time to unlock a hidden meaning from the simple but ambiguous language. The act of reading and rereading finally led me to the idea of a musical treatment.4
If Rzewski needed more motivation, a photo of Melville in the Ramparts article was accompanied by a poem by Adrienne Rich; not Attica-inspired but describing the cruelty of “the city of pain.” (The same edition of the magazine, December 1971, includes: a commentary by Staughton Lynd, who would chronicle another prison rebellion at Lucasville two decades later5; a lengthy and sympathetic profile of four New York sex workers; an equally lengthy and sympathetic profile of the Cockettes; an ad for The Food Stamp Gourmet: Patrician Eating on a Proletarian Budget; a look at nascent women’s studies programs; a piece on Rainbow Farm’s evolution to a women’s commune; a review of records by the Grateful Dead and Country Joe; and a sports column.)
It’s impossible for me to read Melville’s words in that Ramparts article without hearing the cadence of Steven ben Israel, Coming Together’s narrator in its 1973 recording. Israel is described by the New York Times as “a longhaired, card-carrying pacifist, anarchist, comedian and performance artist who toured during the 1960s and ’70s with the Living Theater, an avant-garde repertory group.”6 If Sam Melville attempted to tear down—blow up—the walls of imperium, Steve ben Israel and the Living Theater actually succeeded in breaking through the “fourth wall” separating stage and spectators.7
Rzewski’s pulsating score for Coming Together was performed on that 1973 LP by an ensemble that included Alvin Curran, who with Rzewski and Richard Teitelbaum cofounded Musica Elettronica Viva, a pioneer of electro-acoustic exploration. In 1978 when I studied with Allen Ginsberg at Naropa, knowing of my interest in offbeat music, Allen handed me Curran’s first solo album, Cante e Vedute del Giardano Magnetico (Songs and Views from the Magnetic Garden). Apart from Ginsberg’s insightful tutoring of my poetry, I tend to forget how influential was the loan of that LP. Curran’s use of natural sounds—not necessarily manipulated à la musique concrète—was an inspiration, liberatory in the laboratory of my own magnetic musings.
The sequencing of text and sound in Coming Together echoes Rzewski’s first reading of Sam Melville’s transcribed letter, with phrases repeated, dislodged. (Living Theater also had worked in a somewhat modular fashion on at least one production.8) I’m not even sure if the two paragraphs of Melville’s May ’70 letter—the focal point of Coming Together—ever are read in a single string, word for word. And I don’t need or even want to know. After nearly twenty-six minutes of various configurations, we get it.
In April of 1999 I had the chance to witness Coming Together performed by the California EAR Unit at the Los Angeles Museum of Art. LACMA has had a long history of presenting challenging and unfamiliar chamber works via its Monday Evening Concerts series, beginning in 1939. As a student at Immaculate Heart College (now the campus of American Film Institute) I attended the performances and even took a course in the fall of ’78 by the series’s then-director Dorrance Stalvey in which we previewed and reviewed the concerts. Among other things we were treated that season to a 78-year-old Aaron Copland accompanying his own 12 Poems of Emily Dickinson.
On the night of the EAR Unit performance I was a (temp?) worker at the California Power Exchange, which facilitated the trading of energy prior to the collapse of Enron two years later. I can’t recall exactly what our unit did at the time; later we were tasked with creating a curriculum for the training of traders, in pursuit of which I spent at least one night, perhaps more, sleeping on the office floor. Even before that I didn’t often attend weekday night concerts—I was flexible, a team player (okay, I just needed my job)—but I was looking forward to this performance.
From the LACMA promo brochure it appeared Rzewski’s piece might be on the second half of the program, which began at 8. It would take me the better part of an hour to drive from Pasadena to the Miracle Mile district. Just before what should have been quitting time I recall a matter being drawn out by my bosses who knew I had an engagement. How exactly does an adult human squirm? I can’t say, but I know I did, as the clock ticked and ticked past 7. It was a subtle sort of humiliation, yet embarrassing on both sides because of its utter transparency: I was not master of my leisure—they were. Upon my release I rushed to the museum only to hear, from the lobby, the strains of Coming Together coming together. It was the opener. The concert closed with Louis Andriessen’s Worker’s Union, and now I wish I’d acted as though we had one. A slight consolation, if I recall correctly: the intermission buzzed due to the presence of Ruth Underwood, late of Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention, who apparently had been interested in the chops that were called for by Rzewski on the part of the vibraphonist in Coming Together. Music. Workers. Music workers. Coming together.
Richard X. Clark was another leader of the Attica uprising. Raised in foster homes in Jamaica (Queens) and the Bronx, he joined the Navy after graduating high school. Discharged in 1968, he was arrested for attempted robbery in 1969 and received a four-year sentence, ending up at Attica.9 Unlike Sam Melville, Clark survived the uprising, writing about it in The Brothers of Attica (New York: Links Books, 1973). Kirkus, in the book’s review, remarked on Clark’s descriptions of the four nights of relative autonomy as being “clinical and graphic” and his paraphrasing participants’ words “with reportorial exactness.” In a scathing analysis of a more recent book on Attica, cultural anthropologist Orisanmi Burton quotes from Clark’s description of the prison’s Goon Squad, made up of
from eight to twenty-five officers […]. These guards were like Neanderthal men, and they would all roll on one inmate. They never spoke. The only thing you would hear was the cracking of the victim’s bones. And his cries. They were led by Sergeant Elmore, a devil with gold-rimmed granny glasses. We called him Little Hitler.
Earlier, upon his release from Attica, Clark was more poetic but no less pointed, and Frederic Rzewski was provoked.
In February, 1972 [Clark] was released from prison. As the car that was taking him to Buffalo crossed the Attica village limits, he was asked how it felt to leave Attica behind him. His answer, quoted in the New York ‘Times’, provided the text for this piece.10
The piece is Attica, in which Steven ben Israel sing-speaks Clark’s six-word rejoinder to that question, on a single note. It is shorter than Coming Together by a dozen minutes, and with a lilting, less convulsive accompaniment, but featuring penultimate fanfare flourishes.
Clark had pled guilty to the original charge of armed robbery but he told the Times in the same article that the plea was only to reduce the sentence for a crime he didn’t commit. At the time of the “crime” he’d been out of the Navy only eight months and was married with twin sons, two years old. Like so many others he simply couldn’t afford to lose upon taking his case to trial—for whatever reason. (Today 95% of felony convictions are achieved via plea bargains, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.)
Before Clark’s arrest in March of ’69 he’d just passed the police department entrance exam. This raises the question: Why would he want to add armed robbery to his résumé? The answer is embedded in a system that begins with J and ends in ICE.
Coming Together || Attica
If Sam Melville had been radicalized prior to prison, it appears that Richard X. Clark was radicalized on the inside, becoming a politically motivated Muslim minister. Hear Clark “in his own words,” an appearance at Burning Books in Buffalo:
’Tis not in harmony…
William Congreve famously begins his 1697 tragedy The Mourning Bride with the princess of Granada observing that “music has charms to sooth a savage breast.” But she is not pacified. “’Tis not in harmony to calm my griefs.”
Through perpetual repetition, Coming Together and Attica force active listeners to confront the horror of prison and its perpetuation. No, we are not charmed.
1952 was a watershed year for the Mattachine. The organization had begun its engagement with the larger community by standing in solidarity with Mexican Americans who, like homosexuals, were targets of the Los Angeles Police Department. With the arrest of its cofounder Dale Jennings in March of that year, the Mattachine had a test case of its own to rally ’round, but in that effort the group turned inward rather than outward. I examine this dynamic in the first of three articles, “Harry Hay Meets His Match.” I also look toward the remarkable woman Hay met along the way.
The gamble to back Jennings paid off. His superb legal representation—bankrolled by Mattachine fundraising—resulted in a hung jury, allowing the organization to capitalize on an impossible dream: an admittedly homosexual man beating a charge of lewd vagrancy. “Blown Cover: The Arrest of Dale Jennings” reviews some of the particulars of the case, including the identity of his arresting officers. I also examine LAPD’s liberal employment of the lewd vagrancy allegation as well as its use of a tactic known as the “third degree” and brutalization in general.
In the fall of 1952, emboldened by Jennings’ success in court, the Mattachine once again turned its gaze outward, this time to civic leaders and local candidates for office. The vehicle of outreach was a brief survey known to have been completed by only three or four respondents, but when it came to the attention of a local newspaper columnist, the concerns he voiced about the Mattachine turned out to reflect those already in the minds of its members, as discussed in “Queer Questionnaire and Coates Column.”
The above three articles are adapted from my work-in-progress with the working title The Feeble Strength of One: Bob Hull, Chuck Rowland, Maxey, Marx and the Mattachine. Because their length likely would prevent their eventual publication as-is, I offer them via The Tangent Group.
Gerard “Gerry” Brissette (November 12, 1926–September 20, 1980) almost singlehandedly organized what we now know as the Mattachine Society in the San Francisco Bay Area.
With his direction, facilitation, and participation the organization in Northern California grew from a virtually useless mailing list in mid-February 1953 to being active enough to send delegates to the Mattachine’s constitutional convention in April and May of that year. Nearly as quickly, following the conventions, Brissette became disillusioned with the organization’s trajectory and fell away. Due to a series of letters between Brissette and Mattachine cofounder Chuck Rowland in 1953, we are privy both to Brissette’s early biography as well as his motivations and challenges in building the organization in San Francisco and the East Bay. A 1976 interview of Brissette conducted by historian John D’Emilio aids in the latter regard as well.
This profile of Gerry Brissette is adapted from my work-in-progress with the working title The Feeble Strength of One: Bob Hull, Chuck Rowland, Maxey, Marx and the Mattachine. Because its length likely would prevent its eventual publication as-is, I offer it on The Tangent Group.
With this new volume, Breaking Down the Walls of Heartache: How Music Came Out, Aston fills a much needed lapse in queer pop history. Unlike books such as Zoot Suits and Second-Hand Dresses (1988) edited by Angela McRobbie and John Gill’s Queer Noises (1995), the former which deals with the subject tangentially and the latter which deals with it personally and sporadically, Breaking Down the Walls of Heartache (taking its name from a late ’60s Northern soul hit) moves decade by decade through the 20th century (a bit before, and after), just as the music itself comes into play.
I edited and commented on this extensive interview of LGBTQ activist, publisher, and eroticist Hal Call, conducted by author Paul D. Cain (Leading the Parade: Conversations with America’s Most Influential Lesbians and Gay Men, 2002).
In my time looking at the lives of members of the early Mattachine, perhaps the most enigmatic was Paul Benard (April 24, 1916–November 7, 1954).
One of the eight men pictured in the famous “Christmas tree” photograph taken by Jim Gruber in 1951, Benard turns out to have been considered for a role in the Mattachine’s leadership. He left the group and left Los Angeles but remained in contact with members, only to die in 1954.
To my surprise last year, a chance query by Víctor Macías-González, Professor of History and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at University of Wisconsin–La Cross provided me with Benard’s birth name, and I was able to construct a very detailed account of his early life. Had the existing Mattachine leadership known about his involvement in the little and leftist theater endeavors of New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, they’d have seen him as a comrade.
This profile of Paul Benard is adapted from my work-in-progress with the working title The Feeble Strength of One: Bob Hull, Chuck Rowland, Maxey, Marx and the Mattachine. Because its length likely would prevent its eventual publication as-is, I offer it here. Lengthy as it is, more study of Paul Benard is warranted.