Thursday, January 26, 2017

Book Reviews: In the Midnight Hour-The Life and Soul of Wilson Pickett

In the Midnight Hour: The Life and Soul of Wilson Pickett
by Tony Fletcher
This was a gift from my brother. This is a beautiful book. As far as I know this is the only complete biography of Wilson Pickett (1941-2006) that exists. There is a quote within the book that really tells you everything about the man who was also known as "Wicked". Picket said in 1979, speaking to another musical journalist that, "James Brown to me is strictly small time. Just some Georgian kid working in some cramped sweaty bar where the stage is so damn small there's only room for him and the drummer.". That Wilson Pickett was quite comfortable calling Soul Brother Number One "small time" and making fun of his show lets you know that if nothing else Pickett had a very healthy ego. It was this ego and drive, along with his earth shattering voice, leonine good looks, and regal stage presence that took him out of the Alabama backwoods to Detroit success and later stardom with New York based Atlantic records. Pickett pioneered the sort of hard soul singing that was strongly based in the black gospel in which he had grown up and first made his mark. Whereas James Brown was a screamer who could sometimes sing, Pickett was a singer who could and did scream in key. Brown might have been funkier but Pickett was soul. I thought the book was at its most interesting when it was detailing Pickett's early days on the Detroit music scene. People who would later become legendary were just kids trying to learn their craft while occasionally getting ripped off along the way. Some famous people went to my neighborhood school. There are also some uncomfortable facts which the book brings up. I knew that Reverend C.L. Franklin, Aretha Franklin's father and a civil rights activist and supporter, had a certain reputation as a ladies' man. I didn't really think less of him for that. Most musicians/celebrities have similar reps when you get right down to it. I didn't know that the good Reverend had fathered a child with a twelve-year old. Ugh. 

There's no evidence that Pickett knew about that sordid history. But it is a fact that the previously devout Pickett, who was a friend to Aretha and sang at the Franklin church, grew tired of singing to drunk people on Sunday mornings. As Pickett told friends, he might as well be performing secular music if that was going to be his audience. There are a few other unpleasant warts revealed but this is not a gossipy salacious tell all type of book. It doesn't dwell on the bad side. It just tells it like it was. 

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Donald Trump, John Lewis, Legitimacy, Normalization and The Rust Belt

You may have heard that Democratic Congressman John Lewis (D-GA) ,who also happens to be a civil rights icon, recently stated that he wasn't going to attend the inauguration for Donald Trump in part because he felt that Trump was not the "legitimate" President. As he is prone to do Trump responded with a mostly inaccurate tweet telling Lewis to spend time on his crime ridden district. At this point no one should be surprised that the next President is an incredibly thin skinned individual who takes everything personally. Lewis' views on Trump aside, Lewis has only been to one Republican inauguration after he was elected to Congress. This suggests that Lewis' issues are not so much with Trump as they are with Republicans in general. But Lewis is not alone with his take on Trump's legitimacy. At least 60 Democratic elected officials have said that they won't be attending the inauguration. One writer argues that Clinton is the legitimate President and that courts should intervene to depose Trump. An actress who has feuded with Trump is calling for martial law. Various other intellectuals, bloggers, media and political personalities seemingly spend all day on twitter styling themselves the Resistance, plaintively asking what can be done to prevent Trump from taking office, or arguing that Trump should be arrested for treason. Republicans and conservatives are, in a display of hypocrisy that should surprise exactly no one, are attacking liberals and Democrats for being divisive, saying that everyone should respect the office of the President or saying that being a sore loser diminishes our system of governance. Well.

You should also remember that many conservatives and Republicans steadfastly refused to believe that President Obama was born in the US. This included Donald Trump. Some people also believed that President Obama was a secret Muslim (who for some reason ate pork and attended a Christian church) who wanted to destroy the US from within. Many Republicans still think that and worse about President Obama. Some conservatives could not talk about the President unless they were also calling him and his family apes or monkeys, threatening to kill him, wondering why no one had killed him yet, burning him in effigy, calling him a witch doctor, saying he wasn't their President, or making other statements to let everyone know they rejected Barack Obama as President or as human.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Book Reviews: Juice

by Ishmael Reed
I usually like reading Reed's works. He calls it like he sees it. I don't always agree but he does make me think. One of the key themes in Reed's work (both fictional and non-fiction) is that American racism is particularly virulent and acts as a unifying force for people who are "white" or who can theoretically become white. A sub theme is that this racism is not something restricted to the right wing or politically conservative among us. Liberals can be just as racist; Reed famously (and correctly) referred to NPR " as about as integrated as a Georgia country club". Lastly Reed is particularly interested in how this racism impacts black men-especially the stereotype of the brute. In Reed's view many people make money off of this belief-even black people who ought to know better. In Reed's view feminists of all stripes often rush to criticize bad behavior among black men while studiously ignoring such behavior among their own ethnic groups. Because there are very few or no media outlets which are controlled by black men, the result has been a vicious scapegoating of black men for various sins, especially sexual ones. This obviously has parallels to the supposedly bygone days of lynching in which a black man could be murdered because of an actual rape, a fictitious rape, looking a white person in the eye, having consensual sex with a white woman, just for being "uppity", for getting on a white person's nerves or for no reason at all. As Reed points out in this book and sociologists have discussed, up until the mid forties/fifties lynching of blacks was considered normal enough such that whites sent postcards bearing lynching photos or took out ads in newspapers threatening or advertising upcoming lynchings. So if that people took their children to witness lynchings then how long will it really be before beliefs about essential black inferiority no longer hold? It might be a while, as comedian Michael Richards demonstrated. Although thankfully those things don't happen (as often?) any longer a cynic could make the argument that the key function of lynching -unpunished public violence designed to keep blacks in their place-has been outsourced to the police. 

Monday, January 16, 2017

Movie Reviews: The Accountant, The Autopsy of Jane Doe

The Accountant
directed by Gavin O'Connor
It is a challenge to raise an autistic child. While there are some who are ultimately too much for their parents to handle and become a danger to themselves and others, other children who fall into that category wind up becoming highly productive and independent, if occasionally eccentric, members of society. There is no current way that we know of to prevent or cure autism. I know some people who are dealing with such situations. It's no picnic. Unlike the parent in this movie though I don't think that in real life most parents of autistic children attempt to train them in the martial arts. But you never know. It's difficult to review this movie without giving away spoilers even though the twist is pretty obvious after the first 30 minutes or so. Still, the film is entertaining on a couple of different levels and may make you think a little more about the challenges of dealing with autism or for that matter the simple challenges of raising another human being in this world. Christian Wolff (Ben Affleck-who is apparently still hitting the weights pretty hard) is an accountant who works out of a small strip mall in Plainfield Illinois. Well he's a little more than an accountant. He has a genius level understanding of mathematics, tax policy, accounting, payroll, etc-anything to do with numbers. He also is a high functioning autistic with some severe though controlled OCD issues. He likes things to be just so. He doesn't get humor, white lies or really understand most of the rules what define our daily interactions with each other. If you ask him if he likes an item of clothing you're wearing or if he enjoyed a gift you gave him he's going to tell you the truth without any regard for your feelings. He has difficulty making eye contact or speaking outside of a monotone. He tends to take things literally, He lacks any sense of sarcasm. We see via flashbacks that Christian used to be much less able to deal with outside stimuli than he currently is. But in various montages that are reminiscent of Batman movies, his father trained and had others train Christian to face his fears and deal with them. This normally involved physical combat. 

Friday, January 13, 2017

Music Reviews: The Big Bamboo

Ska, Calypso and Reggae are all interrelated forms of music. One of the original giants of calypso music, who was also influential in the beginnings of reggae is Grenadian-Trinidadian singer Mighty Sparrow (Slinger Francisco). Mighty Sparrow has been performing professionally since the mid fifties. The songs which he sings often have a sense of humor. These songs aren't necessarily to everyone's taste but I usually enjoy them. One of his better known songs, which has been covered by a number of different people is The Big Bamboo, which is about the absolutely critical importance of the aforementioned renewable resource. This song has different lyrics depending on who is singing it. It may well be a traditional song where true authorship is lost to time. Some of the versions have different lyrics. The first version I heard was by the Mighty Sparrow but I've also heard good versions by other calypso singers like Duke of Iron, Mighty Panther, Wilmoth Houdini and Lord Creator. I heard a more recent version of this song by the musical group Ska Cubano, which as you might suspect combines a variety of Afro-Carribbean music, including but not limited to ska, reggae, calypso, salsa and soca. I like songs that on the surface appear to be about one thing but when you think about it are about something else entirely. Sometimes limits can inspire more inventive wordplay.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

President Obama Anger Translator

Comedian Keegan-Michael Key stopped by The Daily Show to among other things share his final (?) sketch of Luther: President Obama's Anger Translator which stars him in the titular role alongside his long time performing partner Jordan Peele as President Obama. The idea is that President Obama is giving a farewell address responding to the idea of turning over the Presidency to Donald J. Trump. I thought the skit was worthwhile. It must be truly galling to the President to be succeeded by someone who trades in racist birther theories. But that's life. Check out the short video below.