Saturday, December 08, 2007

Down and Out at a Westin Beach

Is blogging well the best revenge? I’m wondering if my thoughts are pure enough to write this article as I lie by the pool at the Sunshine Suites Resort in Grand Cayman, having just come back from a supposedly public beach. Come back being a euphemism for being run off, asked to leave if you rather.

There I was, or rather here I am, at a wonderful hotel that promised unrestricted access to the beach, and after 3 months of Minneapolis’ 10,000 lakes I could do with a real sea. So with beach chair and stolen towel in hand I made for the sand. It’s tempting to think of all beaches, especially in the Caribbean as the same but they’re really quite different. A Jamaican beach spits out from the mountain, as if a reward for a mad dash or a tumble from a high peak. A Cayman beach—because the land is so flat— is downright indivisible from the land. A walk from land to sea is so effortless that you only notice that you’ve gone from dry to wet as an afterthought. Maybe that’s why I didn’t notice where I was.

Under a tree, I took off my shirt, sunk into warm white sand and granted myself one cliché (this is the life—groan, I know). With my glasses off, everything became a haze, so I thought nothing of the black and white blur coming towards me. By the time I got my glasses on, the security guard was hovering overhead. I thought finally, somebody is impressed that I'm reading Borges! but instead he apologized for bothering me (Caymanians are nothing if not unfailingly polite) and then asked if I knew that this was private property. Not only that, but that anyone who wasn’t a guest of the Westin Resort was only allowed within 10 feet of the water. Like any animal stunned I was immobile and for a long time, speechless.

But that doesn’t make any sense, I said. I’m a guest of Sunshine Suites, not a local. Anybody who lives in the Caribbean knows of Tourism’s tricky racial dynamics. If a black woman is at a tourist resort she’s either the chambermaid or she works in the office. If a black man is at a resort, he’s either cleaning something, hustling something or banging a late 50’s white woman for cash. This was extremely awkward for both of us and we knew it. He apologized again and said how much he hated this part of his job. It was one of those scenarios both in and out of body at once. We both knew that were seeing ourselves and how others were seeing us at the same time. A black man lying down on a beach. Less than 10 minutes later, another black man, in uniform, approaches. He says some words to the lying black man who then gets up, folds his chair and leaves, to go to the ‘public’ section of the beach. We know what we looked like, even as I explained to him that going down to the beach made no sense since a suntan was rather redundant on a black man. He laughed, I think because he didn’t want what might had been his umpteenth scene from a black person screaming racism. I've seen it countless times, but never ever thought I would find myself being either of those men.

But I had to ask myself? Did he make sure that all the white people here were from the Westin and not some other hotel? Does whiteness immediately grant one the privilege of going wherever he pleases?—a rhetorical question, I know. Or could it be that in a tourist location white skin immediately legitimizes one presence? That’s the case in Jamaica, Barbados, and Antigua, so why should it be any different in the Cayman Islands, a country for the most part given over to tourism and banking? There was just no way to play this situation correctly and we both knew it. Even playing for time was painful, since we both knew how this was going to end and I was getting angry. I have nothing against tourism or private property but as a citizen of the Caribbean I sometimes like to assume that I have some natural right to its mountains and beaches and yes, it stings, it downright offends when foreigners, interlopers tell me where I can and cannot go in my own territory. It reminded me of the Godfather's Nightclub in Kingston that used to turn away Jamaicans for flouting the dress code but allowed white tourists who did the same thing. Then I ran into my friend Lisa who reminded me that as a light skinned person she never has any incidents like this. But I've had quite a few. I remember after a business meeting at The Pegasus Hotel in Kingston, a waiter came up to us and said that he noticed our habit of congregating at this hotel and that we need to cease doing so. Immediately. People can say that this isn’t about race all they want, but they’re not on the black end of the stick.

So instead of walking down to the free, meaning local end of the beach where I can presumably disappear in the vagueness of black skin, I went back to my hotel’s poolside where I’m writing this blog. Who knows, maybe the waiters think I’m here for a 1:00 sex appointment with some 54 year old woman who saved all year and wants to ball a blackie. Or maybe that’s just Negril. Lord knows that when I’m at a Jamaican hotel and get ribald thumbs up from all the locals who work there, it’s not because they heard about the rave review in the New York Times.

I thought of going back to the beach the next day with a tape measure to make sure I’m within my ten feet. Best to prevent any incident, International or otherwise. Make no mistake— I don't confuse Cayman with the Westin and the reader shouldn't either. I had a fantastic time : the people were wonderful, I made great new friends, the food is some of the best I've had in the Caribbean and Books and Books is easily the finest Caribbean bookstore I've ever been too. Besides, it turns out that the manager, Sally Machado and I are old friends going back from 1988 ! I don't define my time there by this barely 10 minute episode, but given all that we've have been through in the Caribbean, and all that we may still go through, I can't ignore it either.

ED: The heading said Caymanian before, but I've realised that I would never have like d someone to put "Jamaican" after an experience of one beach. Hey, I'm learning here.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Men Whom Men Hate.

I stunned a friend of mine once, when I told her that she was not a woman’s woman. Meaning despite the love and lust she inspired in men, women simply couldn’t stand her. You know these women. You might even be one of them. Women whom other women think betray their sex, set a bad example, not just a trollop or a slut, but also Ann Coulter. Women who are sometimes given a raw deal for simply being too damn fearless. Or selfish. Is that you? Well fret not thy despised personage for there are men for whom other men go sick at the mention of their names. Men who let the side down. Men we’d gladly mow down with a moving vehicle or crush with a stationary one. Men who betray their brothers, piss on their fathers and make us wonder why God didn’t make Adam a lesbian. Men whom men hate.

1. Hostus Pompousassholinuss
If worthless, unemployable men spend their days watching TV, then worthless unemployable women spend their days in the audience of TV shows. Talk shows in particular. Talk shows hosted by men to be specific. This is the lair of Hostus Pompousassholinuss, the male talk show host. The TV talking ass that reassures women that yes, all men are jerks...except me. Morning TV is littered with them: Maury Povich, Geraldo, Montell (whose name sounds like a bad hair product from Dixie Peach)—men who trap deadbeat dads, bad breeders, child abusers, gay-sex-having house husbands and their ilk. Maury and Co. constantly parade the absolute worst examples of manliness within airspace to show soccer moms that yes, men are dogs, liars, killers, thieves, and freeloaders and they will leave you pregnant. All men of course, except them. So caring are these guys, so concerned, so loving that when they start to love other women instead of their wives, guess who forgives them first?

2. The Reality TV Troglodyte
Reality TV has had no shortage of despicable men, but even in that treacly bunch there once stood an asshole plus ultra, a man of such louché loutishness that one wondered why God himself didn’t come down to kick him in the nuts. That man would be Rocco Dispirito, the Chef of the deservedly flopped The Restaurant. While Anthony Bourdain and Marco Pierre White were classic bad boys who justified their behavior with legendary food, Dispirito was just a pretty-boy prick that thought the loudest man in the room was the one that got results. A whiner and a brat with an entitlement complex a mile wide, his gift for faking talent was matched only by his initial success at pulling it off. Men like him are not self-styled geniuses, but self-styled marketers, who can swing from hostile to ho in a (filmed) New York minute. But what really gets under our skin is another talent that men whom men hate seem to have in abundance. The gift to make beautiful women want them. For reasons unknown to the rest of us, some women mistake assholiness for attitude, belligerence for brashness, and tired pick up lines for poetry. Because when this man moves in for the kill, he can make a woman feel like she’s the only one in the room. Not a hard trick for a man who thinks everybody else is only scenery anyway.

3. Dr. Let Me Tell You What’s Wrong With You
Ah, Dr. Phil. Amazing what TV can do. A graduate of the tough love school of therapy, Phil is of the belief that nothing beats a good cussing to pull up one’s bootstraps. With men he frequently begins at the ending, writing them off before the first commercial break and cussing the [insert abused term here] woman to get some backbone. In Dr. Phil’s world men are simply irredeemable, so the woman if she has sense would just move on. Dr LMTYWWWU’s feel it’s their god given mission to always tell you what to do. By insisting that he knows you more than you know yourself, Phil gets to reduce your entire life to a sound bite, and just in time too. He needs all that extra airtime to hawk his next diet book.

4. The Creative Type
Let me tread carefully since I consider myself to be possessing of some talent. But here is the real trick of the Creative Type. He has no talent whatsoever. He shouts bad poetry because well, that’s how he reclaims his blackness y’all, or he swings it around jazz because, well swing is the only jazz word he knows even though he’s rapping to hard-bop or a diluted hip-hop. Or he paints big abstracts and the sells them for bigger prices or worst of all, serenades women off-key. You know this guy. Sometimes he’s not even attractive but there he is with booty he doesn’t deserve. Your only hope with this one is the fact the eventually everybody realizes they can do better.

5. The Dad Who Won’t Die
Some have it that young men admire old farts like Jack Nicholson for their seemingly unquenchable libido, even in their twilight years. Some people have it wrong. We despise these pot bellied cradle robbers. Give or take a few years and they would be statutory rapists. We can’t stand them because even with their colostomy bags in tow they will still make moves on their future daughters in law. In the past all men had an unwritten agreement with the generation that came after: marriage, parenthood, college bills, retirement, impotence, shuffleboard, adult diapers and death. But thanks to Viagra, Jurassic jerks have been showing up on the dance floor, stinking of aqua Velva and gunning for what should have been you future bedmate. But there’s a fine line between a screaming orgasm and a massive coronary once you’re past 60, and if there’s any luck lines get crossed.

6. The Reporter
Remember that unwritten rule between boys, that if an adult caught you in a fight neither should reveal who started it no matter what? Many a best friend came out of that scenario, but no such luck happens if one of you is a dipstick that tattles. As for that little piece of wretched effluvia? He grew up, didn’t you know, and now sits in the cubicle beside you. He feels he simply must share everything with the boss, especially if it’s about you. This creature works best with an audience so he waits until a board meeting to give you tips on how to come to work on time, or how to stick to the lunch break, or how to download at home instead of on company time. And while I’m all for going postal on a sucker, homicide might not be your wisest move for career advancement, unless your ambition is to get knee pads for prison life. Reporters, massive talkers that they are, tend not to be blessed with wit, so one good comeback (Man, you spend an awful lot of time watching me, Carson, I mean I’m gay friendly but is that appropriate behavior for the office?) will silence him for good.

7. Mr. Sensitive
The most despicable of the bunch. He’s the mullet haired, cattle prodded weenie that butchered Otis Redding, and told women that he’s their Soul Provider. He's that shitty twerp from Creed, a band that even Jesus hated with an ego so huge it literally screamed small penis. Or he’s that writer of The Notebook and ....okay I really don’t know any other book Nicholas Sparks wrote, but it’s the kind of book where a woman’s bosom is always heaving. Or worse, he’s that idiot in the snow looking like a wet rat whelping You’re Beautiful for so long that you’d slash your face just to get the slime bag to move on. Who are these men? How did they get one X-chromosome too many? Mr. Sensitive knows that sentimentality is merely a term for sentiment that some people (like me) don’t like. And people like me, don’t buy records at Walmart. But their fans do.

8. Mr. Real Man
Such an exact opposite of Mr. sensitive that we'd guess he's merely the former's Mr. Hyde. Mr. Real Man is so convinced of his real manliness that his big ambition is to do absolutely nothing but wallow in his masculine glow, flattening his butt out on a lazy boy. Mr. Real Man doesn't cook because well, he's straight. In fact we get it Mr. Uber Hetero. Don't read? We get it, you're straight. Never pluck monobrow? We get it, you're straight. Not into fashion—you only care that it's comfortable? We get it, you're straight. Don't know if another man is good looking or not? We get it, you're straight. Don't plan on going to an art gallery ever? We get it, you're straight. Don't care about dance unless it's in your lap? We get it, you're straight. Don't listen to anything but rap? Yup straight as an arrow, buddy. Look at the term bitch as one of endearment? We get it, Mr. I only dig tha chicks. Women who still want to sleep with you? That we don't get.

9, 10 and beyond. Dishonorable Mentions:

Clay Aitken (although some men love him dearly indeed). The bad breath guy who STILL has a girl friend. Super Christians who should just come out of the closet already. Men who don't know the difference between having some pride and having no shame. Maxwell. Tom Cruise. Robin Williams in everything after Mrs. Doubtfire (except Good Will Hunting). Men in touch with their feelings. Men who have to work at being real men. Men who want credit for what they're supposed to do. Kobe Bryant. All living male country singers not named Nelson, Ely, Hancock, Earle, Haggard, Lovett or Yoakam. Mike Tyson. 50 Cent. Barney.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Justice (Finally?) For the Memphis Three?

Coming from where I come from, I know a thing or two about injustice. In one of Jamaica's most notorious cases, a man was convicted and sentenced to death for a crime that happened after he was arrested.

I also know a thing or two about Heavy Metal. To this day I tell anybody who would listen that Guns and Roses saved my life. After Hurricane Gilbert pulled a Hiroshima on Jamaica, light went, water seemingly evaporated, food quintupled in price and the radio stations played Don't Worry, Be Happy all day long. I was nearly going postal and my mom was a cop who probably had a gun in the house.

I still remember the night I came home, turned on the radio and heard, not Sweet Chile O Mine, but the end of it. There I was hapless and hopeless and the first thing I heard in the dark was Where do we go? Where do we go now? I didn't know where I was going. I felt as if I'd never go anywhere, ever. I was trapped and stuck and losing my mind. I think I fell to my knees. I know I cried. A year later my school, in order to make sure we grew into morally upstanding young men, showed us the documentary Highway to Hell —you know the one—the one that backmasked Led Zeppelin and told you that even Madonna was a servant of Satan. Some people found Jesus after that documentary. I found ACDC, Led Zeppelin, Judas Priest, Black Sabbath and 999.

Also, coming from a country whose churches are out numbered only by bars I also know a thing or two about satanic panic. Hell, I wrote my first novel about it. Christanity whipped into a frenzy of justified bigotry and distrust of the other. So when the West Memphis Three, Jason Baldwin, Jessie Misskelley, Damien W. Echols, [picture] were convicted on a grisly triple murder that even third world detective work could have proven false, I knew it was heavy metal that was being convicted. Satanic panic given free reign to fill in the awfully wide gaps in a preposterously implausible story. I could go on about the details of the case, but the New York times, in a story that broke today about new DNA evidence does it much better.

Granted, Heavy Metal has never exactly been a banner music for racial equality. Some branches like a lot of European Black Metal seem to not like negroes very much and think Hitler was a right smashing fellow. Ultimately my allegiance is with Punk because it tore down racial and sexual boundaries as quickly as you could say 1234! (well it used to). The racial and sexual boundaries that some heavy metal still adheres to.

But something about being an outcast even among outcasts makes the story of the West Memphis Three resonate. It's not the first time Heavy metal and youth was put on trial. It's not the the first time nor will it be the last the church will launch a jihad on people who do not fit in. And it's not the first nor will it be the last time that people profit from the lingering miseries and petty fears of others.

Friday, October 26, 2007

On Slave Mentality

Sometimes I wonder if to be black in this world is to be absolutely unaccountable. For anything. We love windows but have never been very keen on mirrors, but then that probably goes for all human nature. Criticism is too often looked upon as attack and blind defense of black people simply because they are black can make for curious bedfellows, thugs, thieves, murderers and cop killers suddenly elevated to victim-martyr-saint status by Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton even though the latter has gotten far more judicious lately.

People complain, privately of course of the black person’s eagerness to deploy the race card and maybe they do in the US but in countries like Jamaica where pulling a race card is tantamount to mixing chocolate in coffee, it’s the slavery card that gets pulled once too often. A female friend of a friend of mine, a woman from the Dutch colonies tried to break down how it was the English slavery cum colonial system that resulted in the Jamaican mentality. Our almost communal refusal to be decision makers, our eternal patience for their mediocrity to be rewarded (hello, Long Service award), and our basic lack of ambition, revealed in everything from a 30 year sojourn as a file clerk, to a five month sojourn on the street corner waiting for handouts, guns, and the visa that was revoked mere weeks ago, though not necessarily in that order.

And while the argument that we are still carrying the ill effects of slavery nearly 200 years later has many merits, it’s also old and barely applies to any current living situation. Tribal politics, Brain Drain, importation at the expense of production, political shortsightedness, poor emphasis on education, drugs and turf wars and just plain laziness have far more to do with the so-called slavery mentality than slavery itself, but those factors lack the one thing that makes the slavery excuse so tantalizing: Blamelessness.

As long as it’s slavery, it never our fault. The whole point to an excuse is to excuse oneself from accountability and in that regard the slave mentality is manna from self-delusion heaven. It’s the one size fits all justification, the ultimate go to for explaining everything from post colonial theory to post colonial architecture. It is so universal, so easily said and so easily grasped for that “slave mentality” can silence any fruitful discussion, leaving all the black people in room warm and cuddly all over for getting to the core of what’s wrong with them. It is also tired bullshit.

As I said before, the truly rewarding thing about the slave mentality card is that it absolves entire nations of responsibility. It gives black people a 500 year get out of jail free card, where everything that has happened or will happen can simply claim slavery as the reason why. Terrell Owens makes a mess of his career? Slavery. Jayson Blair invents stories for the New York Times? He’s burning down his master’s house—Didn’t you get the memo? Mike Tyson beating the living daylights out of one woman and raping another? He’s had 400 years of the white man on his back, so of course he’s a monster. Black men breeding kids all over the place? It’s slavery dontcha know? From those days when the black man’s job was to be Mandingo-cock while the Massa sold off the kids so that he didn’t have to deal with baby-mama drama. Failing in school? Don’t you know that it’s the legacy of the white devil education that taught us to be inferior? Sho nuff it is. And you can’t help but be downtrodden because even after 1838, the white man simply got craftier with his enslavement of us.

Of course faced with such logic, white people often feel powerless and unfairly treated, as well they should be. They were dealt a nasty card, an unimpeachable one, similar to a Zionist screaming ‘NEVER AGAIN!” to silence even the slightest possible debate about Israel’s political policies. After a man shows his Bergen Belsen tattoo or his great grand father’s lynching photo what comeback can a white person possibly have?

None perhaps except this. Some blacks have a ridiculous capacity for mythmaking, a rewriting of the grayer parts of history that nobody wants to confront, the story of ex-slaves who owned slaves, blacks who collaborated with whites in slave rebellions and the Civil War, and blacks who could rob, rape, kill and steal just as terribly as any white Jack the ripper. The slave mentality as excuse for the black person’s inability to prosper is the all encompassing, unimpeachable argument and it’s also false. Maybe Brother A can’t get a job because the world is racist, but maybe he didn’t study hard enough in school. Maybe sister B can’t progress because she’s just too damn worthless to try. Maybe Father Q didn’t want success badly enough and was never put in a situation where he had to. Maybe the poorest of us Jamaicans have gotten so used to free food near Election time that we have no need to earn anything. Maybe it was gang violence the de-motivated the ghetto. Maybe it is a rural people drifting into an unforgiving urban reality that led to extreme poverty. And maybe that has nothing at all to do with slavery.

What’s truly offensive about the slave mentality excuse is that it insults the memory of slaves. How dare we wallow in our present victim fetish by casting our ancestors as the ultimate victims, ignoring what they went through but assuming that whatever it was, gave them an internal sense of defeat that they passed on to us. This patronizes their oppression and ignores their triumph. Jamaican slaves were victimized for over 400 years, but they were never victims once, not even for a day. They were one of the most rebellious in the western hemisphere. And this was more often than not the product of genuine planning, preparation, and thought, not some wild savages trying to pillage and plunder. At the core of Tacky’s revolt was in ingenious idea, not just destruction but rebuilding the county if not the nation in a series of city states based on the fruitful African model. Rebellion was more than an act of violence; it was an act of self-determination, independence by any other name. Even the Paul Bogle led protest of 1865 was again, a race of people demanding to be social and political players in their own socio-political system, not a bunch of dumb niggers blocking their own roads and burning down their own stores—cutting off noses to spit their faces. Were a slave to come to a ghetto street corner right now, he’d be horrified to know that these are the people for whom he gave his life. The true slave mentality was one of constant ingenuity, constant, active rebellion against an oppressive society, and a constant struggle for equality and humanity. The maroon town is a product of slavery mentality. The ghetto is not.

So maybe the reason why you have no drive, ambition, intelligence or future is that you’re too damn worthless to begin with. Maybe the reason you don’t have a good job is that you’ve never tried to find one or thought those subjects you took in school never came in handy. Maybe the reason you are looking to the Don for a handout is that you’re trapped in your own urban prison shaped by greedy modern politics and a dependence on handouts to begin with, instead of bearing the legacy of ex-slaves who knew how to grow their own damn food. Maybe it’s the drug and weapons trade and not the post slavery economic dispensation why your sister will be shot and killed tomorrow because she’s just one foot beyond her garrison boundary. Maybe the education system failed because teachers have become bureaucrats who care about meeting the requirements of the syllabus and not educating kids, just like every other bad education system in the world. Maybe fathers don’t raise their kids because everybody lets them off the hook and nobody puts forth legislation for deadbeat dads the way white people did in America (turns out that worthless fathers can be white too).

Maybe Tacky, Nanny, Sam Sharpe, Boukman, Accompong, Kunta Kinte, Frederick Douglas, Mary Prince, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Paul Bogle, Marcus Garvey and W.E.B. Dubois are all turning in their graves wondering if we were worth their lives. I have a feeling they might be thinking that we aren’t worth a damn, but who knows, maybe that’s just their slave mentality.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Methinks I Shall Read 100 Books

The easiest thing about choosing to read 100 books is picking the first one. I know that flies in the face of all logic, but logic was not one of the things I brought to the table when I decided, rather calmly I might add, that I was going to read 100 books before I write my next one. It just felt like the thing to do. Maybe I was looking at Jane Smiley’s 13 Ways of Looking At The Novel, a little too closely, but as far as I know I’m not suffering from writer’s block. I am concerned that to write now would be to bring the same old things to a new book, whether that be style or world view or philosophy or even structure. I need to read more. Maybe my next book will be a forward step instead of the sideways move that it feels like right now. Maybe I’m just envying these Camus and Saramago novels that I’ve been reading.

In the middle of all that I’ve been considering two seemingly diametrically opposed thoughts: how to write books that mean something more than what fiction can be on the surface (not metafiction which I cannot stand) but also how to capture that old sense of what a story could be, not necessarily Victorian, but maybe Dickensian in scope and in scale. I’ve been thinking about Dickens a lot lately, not just him but writers, extremely talented writers who nonetheless never forfeited that unwritten contract with the reader. The reason why my headline says Books instead of Novels is that several of the books I plan to read will be Non-Fiction, certainly biography. In fact, between biographies of Young Stalin and classics like the new translation of War and Peace, I might not find much space for contemporary novels.

This is not just because I want to connect with the past or the factual. But maybe you have noticed that if the reader today wants a story on a epic scale, something larger and more sweeping in narrative, he has to read old novels or non-fiction. The novel does not provide these pleasures anymore —certainly none I’ve read recently save for Absurdistan —and I’m not sure why. Michael Cunningham once lauded the era of the smaller novel, narrow in scope and focused on the minutiae of human life. Many writers seemed to agree with him. My problem with this is that it seems to be a decision that writers made among writers for writers without ever asking what the reader thought.

Faced with countless books about nothing the reader goes to where he can find a story: old books, non-fiction, even a videogame like Metal Gear Solid. It says volumes that the most engrossing recent novel was not recent at all, but a rescued work from Irene Nemirovsky, who died in a Nazi Concentration camp in World War 2. The main drawback to teaching a course on 9/11 Novels is the fact that the truly great narratives are not fiction. There has not yet been a novel of the sheer epic span of Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars, or the wide Tolstoyan scope of Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower, or the bark and bite of Fiasco, the funky feminist insight of The Terror Dream, the downright surreal Imperial Life in the Emerald City, or even The 9/11 Report, so devastating in its very plainness.

There’s no question that novels change, that the purpose of fiction should change. I’m just not sure anymore what was the point to any change in the past 40 years. In the late sixties John Barth declared the end of narrative, but I’m not sure who that to applied to other than him. Novelists in their desire to break free from imagined boundaries found many exciting ways to express, but not many to communicate. In some arenas that is still called by its first name: masturbation. There is a point to be made for experimental fiction, but fiction has been experimenting since Tristram Shandy and nobody has ever accused that book of being dull. I think I’m trying to find a midway between a novelist’s desire to innovate and a writer’s desire to connect. And maybe after reading 100 books I’ll get a clue.

The first book? Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. Saw it fall off a shelf in Borders and just knew. As for the rest, I'm all for people telling me what to do. What book do you think I should read?

Monday, October 15, 2007

People, Places and Things We Can Now Give Up On.

Are you carrying around a dead weight? Hoping that sooner or later he or she will be into you? Hoping that Hip-Hop will make another classic album? That the third world will one day make dollars? That Bush will make sense? Are you waiting on Clay Aitken to get naked with a female? Let me introduce you to the so thrilling it’s sinful pleasures of giving up on people. My favourite preacher once said he enters everything situation with a hypodermic and a gun. If the situation can be fixed, inject some medicine. If it’s a dying horse, shoot the sucker. Point your guns at the following.

1. MySpace

Ludicrously ugly and un-navigable from the get go, MySpace’s success was a stunner from day one especially since Facebook, which came out at roughly the same time (and his since surpassed it) was far more viewer friendly. The MySpace page was such a colossal eyesore that you could almost judge people by whether they had one or not. It was also responsible for some of the most laughable acts of hubris in years, with barely talented musicians all proclaiming themselves stars of a sort because they suddenly had 500 friends, none of whom would buy their records. With frustrating loading time, and a dogged refusal to innovate in any way that normal people would appreciate, the space soon became as much a dinosaur as friendster. And that long promised radical upgrade is only a away.

2. Ryan Adams

It was once our favourite pastime: waiting on Ryan Adams to make that country rock masterpiece. Lord knows we needed one— Sweetheart of The Rodeo, Honky Tonk Masquerade and Guitar Town were getting mighty lonely. But instead, caught up as he is in sleeping with famous women and having more hissy fits than the baldy from Smashing Pumpkins, Adams hasn’t found the time to deliver on that admittedly tall order. Instead we get the Ryan Adams record or rather, one every week; a CD of mostly tepid, country rock, with two or three all out stompers to help keep the faith. And they keep coming. If this were sex you’d begin to wonder if consistent quasi pleasure beats never having the orgasm that always seems around the corner. For some, that’s enough. For others it’s easier to believe that the bang did come, and the problem was us. Or maybe, like Terence Trent D’Arby and Lenny Kravitz, Adams was over praised from the start.

3. The End of the Cold War

People who believed that the US won the cold war made the crucial mistake of confusing war with battle. It was a curious 20 years, with some Americans taking credit for the fall of Soviet Communism, as if a suicide counts as murder if somebody else wanted to pull the gun. But some things were meant to come back to life. And Putin, sick of hearing how China’s greatest debtor somehow won a war against his country has been letting his horns show. Communism may have been a bad thing overall but it was the one thing Russia did well. And some people prefer the politburo to the Russian Mafia. So as journalists end up shot, former spies end up poisoned and dissidents end up disappeared, we can count down the years until the hammer and sickle comes back. And just in time too. My CCCP t-shirt still looks cool. Quite frankly I missed the cold war. Mutually Assured Destruction was the one thing not preventable with a condom. Many thought the right country won at the time (OK, maybe Americans and Pinochet), but the rest of us knew it was only a matter of time before the bear, rumoured dead would wake up from hibernation. Meeting with Iran? Yup, I think that he just growled.

4. Cable Series

The Sopranos are gone and they have taken with them the world. The world of the cable drama anyway. So after running out of hairs to scratch from watching John from Cincinnati and laughing at the future drag show that was Rome, the sad realization came upon me that the era of the genre and gut busting cable series is over. The mix of powerful writing, unrestrained acting, violence and real time sex was powerful indeed but it also smacked of the forbidden—as if we were watching something that we really should not be, biding time in illicit pleasure until somebody pulled the plug. So now instead of the brilliant, daring or merely shocking, we now have the good, pleasing, “edgy” but unbrilliant cable show, Dexter, Weeds, Tell Me You Love Me, and the Tudors. Ironically enough the better are shows are now on network TV. Or maybe I’m just saying that because I cannot get enough of Burn Notice.

5. Michael Jackson

If you still had hopes, you’re even more wacko than he is. And step away from those little boys while you’re at it.

6. Peace in the Middle East

Should we blame this one on Abraham? It’s the biblical thing to do. Atheists may want to, but to do so would mean to believe in God in the first place.

7. The Great Reggae Record

Sure it was overstuffed, overblown, self-indulgent and at least five songs too long, but Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers’ Jahmekya was also the last reggae masterpiece. Well the second to last, before Til Shiloh. But Jahmekya, was by any standard a stunning record, the sound of a band recognizing a world bigger than their own and responding without a second thought and sometimes without first one. So there was disco, funk, rock, but also a return to drum and bass basics that showcased the seminal talents of Stephen Marley. Pity that they released the crappy Kozmik as the first single and the crappier Small People as the second. To this day, most people judge the album by those tracks, a shame because roots Reggae will never make a record as brilliant again.

8. The Great American Novel

Was any thought more ludicrous to begin with? The concept has always smacked of self-consciousness and identity crisis, as if one could ever come across a singular work of fiction that speaks to the 8 million Americas that reside in New York alone. The very idea of a novel to end all novels is preposterous for it supposes things that could never be quantified: a universal definition of singular greatness, and the idea that one book could speak to such a heterogeneous and conflicting population. And should that goal happen, what would be left of American Literature? What would be the point for any American to continue writing? Where would the American novel go but down? Notice nobody is out there beating themselves trying to write the great British, Russian or Swedish novel.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Doris Lessing!!!!

Again, another of those writers you never think about for a Nobel because you just assumed she had won it already. I really need to check that Laureate's list. Way off was I. Consider me humbled.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Going [Away] To Teach

The great Jamaican novelist Anthony Winkler, no stranger to strangeness, chose 1975 to leave the US for Jamaica, a return to teach at a country school. At the time this flew in the face of conventional wisdom and even basic good sense—the rest of Jamaica was too busy trying to leave— and he must have noticed how empty the arrivals section was compared to the chaos in departures. But he did get a good book out of it. So who knows, maybe I’ll get a good book out my colonization in reverse. It’s September 10, 2007 and I have been in St. Paul, Minnesota for nearly a month now. While I fully understand Winkler’s reasons for going back, it’s worth noting that he did not stay. If you are a writer in Jamaica, maybe even in the Caribbean there comes a point when you just have to go.

I remember last year talking to a friend of mine, an artist. His work had once blazed with a fierce inventiveness, the kind of brief flashes of brilliance that Jamaicans can give you sometimes that makes you hope, wish that it would lead to something not just revolutionary but consistently groundbreaking. But like many before him, his brilliance was just a flash, and while he is still good, his work reflects a curious stasis, an unconscious failure of nerve, and a lack of hunger that has infected everything he has done. In Jamaica it is simply too easy to make good by not being good enough. I told him that he simply had to leave. It was time. His talent or more importantly his search had come to the point where Jamaica could no longer provide answers or even good questions. His choice was to either stay and contract (though make money doing it) or leave for somewhere, anywhere that would explode his point of view and challenge his thinking on what was good, normal, or even right. He needed a new space; somewhere he was not entitled to and had everything to prove. His art depended on it.

I know because that was my case as well. I find it hard explaining to people that I had grown tired of graphic design by 2000. By late 2000 I knew I had outgrown my life but could not think of what would come next, whether mediocrity or death. So I chose both. Or rather I decided to make mediocrity kill me. Nobody understood that the supposedly great design that I was doing took few minutes to create, few hours to execute and nothing to accomplish. I was doing substandard work and knew it. I also knew that nobody else in Jamaica knew I was doing it. I was not interested in getting better nor did I need to. It took me five more years to realize how wrong this was.

Years ago I asked a friend in UWI’s English Department what would it take to lecture on campus. Over the phone she said one of two things needed to happen: either one of [them] died or I became too big a writer to ignore. I’m not scared of burning bridges but that’s not why I left. Writing was the first activity I ever did that scared the daylights out of me. Many Jamaicans —and this is no disrespect to them— thought my work was good, but I did not quite believe it. I knew how easy it was to be lauded for merely doing something as opposed to doing it well. What’s more I was stuck here, while my friend Kwesi left to make films. This was a friend I looked up to because he was worldly and intelligent, had the most books I’ve ever seen, took what I said seriously and had high standards for himself. But when he left I knew why. Had he stayed he would have become a lot like some of the people he left behind. Sure he might have been able to buy a range rover but he would have lost his soul and by that I’m not trying to be dippy or metaphysical: By soul I mean the inner motivation to do something purely for the sake of doing it rather than for something external. Like good money.

That probably isn’t very clear. Let me put it this way. George Clinton once said funk is its own reward, meaning the greatest return, the deepest thrill in what he did was in the very act of doing it. I think and he’ll probably say I’m dead wrong (but it’s my impression and my blog), that Kwesi needed to be doing something where the very act of doing it was it’s own reward. I think that’s why he left and I know that’s why I had to.

So I finally left in August, even though just about everybody would tell you that I left from 2005. Just because some place is your home doesn’t mean you can live there. Jamaica became a base, a place to fly out from. I was in New York so much that customs started to suspect me of living there illegally. There was nothing more depressing than coming back to Jamaica and to be immediately thrust back into a life of trying to make money doing something I had no wish to. I did not start writing to find a new way to make money (boy would that have been a mistake —even though I’m not doing bad, thanks for asking) but I did get a degree in creative writing so that I could teach. And earn some money. I love my country but I’ve never missed it, perhaps because I have never forgotten the reasons I left.

When I told Kwesi what I was about to do, I simply recited the bottom line that I was in it for steady income. I think it disappointed him in some way, that way in which your friends sound polite and supportive but really think you can do better. What I wanted to say and should have said is that I love teaching and think I was kinda born to do it. I don’t know if that makes me a teacher, but I have to tell you, two days ago when a student came up to me and said he wasn’t supposed to be in my class, but liked it so much that he was going to drop his other class to take mine, well, that felt like something a better writer than me could have described. It’s not because I love the idea of “shaping young minds,” quite frankly I think that’s bullshit. I think I love it because like what Clinton said about funk, teaching is its own reward. I’m a writer first, but this is not a stopgap until Oprah returns my calls. If I leave this world with some people thinking I was a good teacher that wrote some books, that’s fine too.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Just In Case People Think I Only Have it Out for White People...

1. How many of the Rutgers Women were Ludacris Fans?
2. How many black women know the lyrics to Bitchez Ain't Shit? Big Pimpin'?
3. How many blacks with victim complexes does it take to cash a welfare check?
4. Why is it that every time a Black athlete falls from grace the reason must be in some way because of something The Man did back in Slavery? (Thanks for that one, Matt)
5. When is Public Enemy going to apologise to Elvis? (Pat Boone now, there's somebody who needs a public enema)
6. When is John Ridley's The Manifesto of Ascendancy for the Modern American Nigger going to become required reading for all black people?
7. Do we still need the word Nigger?
8. When are people going to realise that Michael Eric Dyson is the Geraldo Riviera of Black Opinion?
10. And Al Sharpton may be smarter than you think?
12. Isn't calling yourself a black queen or king just a deluded as calling yourself a nigga or bitch? My foremothers fought and died for the right to be called woman so how dare we tell them that it's not good enough?
13. For all the supposed blackness of hip-hop when did we choose to forget that the white media gave it props first?
14. Why is it that any black person who does not speak in ebonics is assumed to be acting white? Nobody accuses a redneck of not keeping it real if he goes to English Class.
15. Why are decorum, class, deportment, taste, and openmindedness considered white values?
16. What does it say about the black people who think so?
17. Who would have listened had he said, I'm a tell y'all. I has a dream in the heah house tonite! Sho Nuff! Sho nuff, daggumit. Free at last mah homeys! Free at last, mah Niggers and Niggettes!

18. Why are there still more black men in prison than in college?
19. How much of this is our fault? And when are we going to hold ourselves accountable?
20. Would Martin Luther King be proud of us or disappointed?
21. (Question inspired by Mar) How come I'm acting WHITE if I listen to white acts like Pig Destroyer, Feist, Kings of Leon and Mastodon, but BLACK if I listen to whitebread acts like John Mayer and Maroon 5?

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

On Hateration

It took me quite a while to realize that my list of friends who hate Jack Kerouac’s On The Road far outstripped my list of friends who actually read the book. I don’t think this means that I love a pack of liars so much as a posse of amateur but enthusiastic debunkers, people still young enough to stick to the contrasting opinion even if none is necessary, especially if the prevailing opinion was once the transgressive one. Put a simpler way, they hate shit that is cool just because everybody keeps saying it’s cool. Like my friend who hates Nirvana because everybody loves them but loves the album Nirvana fans dislike (MTV Unplugged), the consensus record for people who don’t really like Nirvana. One would be quick to call such people contrarians but they are something far more simplistic and far less tolerable: Haters.

Or Haytas. You are forgiven if unaware that Hip-hop has irrevocably altered the word, just as surely as Jamaicans changed the meaning of ignorant. Haters no longer hate, they hate on. They pile on disapproval for transparently selfish purposes. Hateration is mean spiritedness with a personal agenda. Sometimes it’s dislike for no other reason than there being a season for disliking. Other times it’s dislike for someone or something because they have become too ubiquitous, popular, correct, cool, or sometimes because they have been around too long. When Notorious BIG rapped about mo’ money, mo’ problems, the chief problem was the hater, the miserable (and less successful) who sought companions in their misery. People who can’t stand success in any shape or form not their own and to tear down such success even in their meager sphere of influence.

It’s always been cool to hate any book called a literary masterpiece. In one belligerent bout of hateration, Nabokov tore Dostoevsky to pieces, perhaps because he was sick of seeing Crime and Punishment being placed ahead of Lolita in Best Of... lists. For years the beats have been easy targets, first for the literati, then the threatened establishment, and then for every lit brat short of pubic hair but long on attitude, trying to make a name for himself by openly despising someone else. The more canonized the better. So many people view On the Road as an overrated novel that it might shock people to know how few people have actually read it. And that’s another thing about Hateration. Scratch off a hater and you’ll find its incestuous little cousin, the bullcritter.

Bullcrit. Most of us have done it and some of us will do it today. Bullcrit is the critical praise or damnation of a work one has never seen, or read or heard. More often than not we can pull it off because the average person is, without putting a fine point on it, knowledgeable of little and critical of even less. I was a bright and shining bullcritic until I embarrassed myself with the Great Gatsby, a book I have faked-read for years. “Just read the first chapter,” I said. “A pitch perfect example of the reliable narrator. How about that tone? Isn’t Gatsby the first truly modern novel? The first 20th century American novel of its own age? Isn’t it informed by post world war one weariness and melancholy?” I could go on and frequently did until I used the novel in my argument for the return of melodrama to fiction, saying, “that scene where Gatsby dies in the car crash is pure melodrama.”

We bullcrit novels we haven’t read, turned on I guess by the act of hating the loved. But hateration isn’t limited to dead novelists. In pop music, where the term came from, hateration is de rigueur. Missy Elliot’s sly single ‘Gossip Folks’ opens with samples of haters who can’t stand the bitch for eating two crackers a day and wonder if she’s having Michael Jackson’s baby. It’s funny as hell to be sure, but also serious. Missy knows that she’s at the stage where people will hate simply because it’s her time to be hated. Jamaicans can haterate with the best of them. Every time I start a discussion about Jamaican musician Sean Paul, the typical Jamaican’s typical response is “but he sucks live.” Now given that Sean performs 99.9% of the time to faraway audiences in faraway lands, such a judgment is downright impossible for a Jamaican to make. So I usually call them out on it. “And when did you see him perform?” I ask, “because I saw him at a club on Puerto Rican day and he blew everybody away.” The Jamaican will then trot out some irrelevant example, a concert from five or even ten years ago, or some award show with dozens of reasons for a bad performance, not one being the performer.

Even the seemingly highbrow sometimes go for the down and dirty. Rolling Stone Magazine, clueless as ever, lionized The White Stripes’ most overrated records, Elephant and Get Behind Me Satan, one guessed because they have never paid attention to them before and did not want to seem behind the curve. In fact Rolling Stone has mastered the art of loveration, loving a band simply because it’s now their time to be loved. And since they are usually off by a couple years, they frequently champion the major label debut and waste column inches explaining why it is better than their obscure indie records. But now that the love-in with White Stripes is over, not only have they given Icky Thump—a stunning return to form— the dreaded 3 ½ star review, the recently did a story on new guitar heroes and ignored Jack White. They did however feature John Mayer.

Hateration is hypocrisy, envy and covetousness all mixed into one despicable package and taken to extreme levels. It results in the death of Biggie Smalls and the debasing of the same idols that were created last week. It’s also ignorance (pre-not post Jamaican definition of the word) made into an art and a science; a dimwitted dismissal of something one has never heard seen or felt, in essence something we have always had with us but used to call by another name:


Monday, July 23, 2007

What’s the Matter with my Web 2.0?

Maybe I should call this blog, Am I a book snob 2.0. Or, the hidden benefits of elitism. One of the crucial facts forgotten about American democracy is that a power elite shaped its fundamental principles. Had the process of forming a democracy been itself democratic many would have preferred the safety (or cowardice) of sticking it out with mad King George. I’m thinking about this because of Andrew Keen’s book, The Cult Of The Amateur, a lightning rod of a book that has sparked an onslaught of criticism mostly from people who haven’t read it.

The problem is that the nature of the attacks all but proves Keen’s point and he knows it. His all out assault on web 2.0, particularly it’s user generated content has provoked vicious responses from that very same group and the first thing that’s noticeable is how amateurish most of the criticism is. Simple, grade 2 mistakes like attacking the man instead of his argument. Attacking the man because one had not bothered to read his book, and not seeing how obvious the ignorance. Calling him a motherfucker, for example. This book has provoked constructive debate but that is lost on people who because of the very nature of their sites or blogs have never applied genuine, informed critical thinking. They have never fact checked a blog to make sure there is truth to back up an argument, and have never been in a situation where simply saying that he is a dumb motherfucker is not enough. This of course proves his point even though one cannot escape Keen’s own personal stake in the matter—perhaps his own bitterness at having launched an Internet company that quickly went bust.

He may also be ignoring though he claims not to, that the same Internet is responsible for breaking truths that the mainstream media did not or would not. Would anybody have been the wiser about James Frey were it not for Smoking gun? I tread lightly because this is after all a blog and not only has it facilitated my own expression but also my communication with you, something that would not, has not and will not happen in the mainstream media where my voice simply does not count. And the stakes are not even as high for myself as it is for a Lebanese teenager who has nothing but a modem. That said there are things that I have written in my blog that would not have passed the first round of fact checking that I left untouched because I knew nobody would call me out on it. This is dangerous, something I have started to call Wikipedia wisdom. I come across Wikipedia wits all the time and the danger is not that they are unaware that Wikipedia is to a huge percent incorrect if not outright false, but that they do not care. Truth has become as flexible a commodity as trendiness and not half as necessary.

Perhaps the biggest myth about web 2.0 is it being a universal equalizer. A tool that has made the ordinary person, as powerful as any pundit. But not only is this untrue but the deception is perilous. The new boss is really no different from the old boss except that the slave doesn’t think he has a master. may have seemed like the voice of the people but it is really the voice of a few steering many, sometimes to bad movies that merely fit in with kinks of 34 year old virgins, movies like Me Myself and Irene. Watch how the web shaped the look of Transformers, where overgrown boys, still terrified of icky girls were responsible for eliminating a female transformer.

And then there is Wikipedia. The end result of Wikipedia being accepted as fact is not that truth becomes irrelevant (that’s the beginning), but that truth become easily manipulated. Contrary to what you may think, the internet shrinks opinion as much as it expands it. You may think that your gmail account is safe and easily accessible, and it is. But g-mail is also two gigs of your life that can be wiped out in a second by somebody you have never met. And there’s nothing you can do about it. A book in my hand, in my closet or hidden in my cellar means that when the oppressors come I can hide my knowledge, instead of watching it being destroyed by the whim and fancy of whoever is the programmer. Web 2.0 is power but it means nothing if the light goes. That’s an entire universe erased by a power switch. Youtube is ultimately controlled and the controller is not you.

Another big problem with web freedom so far is that is has not come with web responsibility, a fact reassuring to pedopliles and rumourmongers everywhere. So a biography of Anderson Cooper can make a huge detour into his sexuality, plunging into hearsay and hear-think and departing from fact and decorum, as if whom he is sleeping with is as important as how many died in Hurricane Katrina. I have seen in my own case how web reading has hurt my ability to read and teach books. Even now I have to force myself to not ‘web read’ novels— to not scan the first four or so lines, then ‘scroll’ to the bottom and turn the page.

Andrew keen is keen on pointing out how much the new web world has destroyed the old, better establishment, but nobody had to murder someone so dead set on suicide. A better point to be made is that the world that web 2.0 is creating is far inferior to the one that came before it. The Blind leading the blind hoping they’ll all eventually see—or, more likely conclude that seeing is way overrated anyway. A bigger problem is the new boss destroying a world it is not equipped to supplant. Or at least not yet. You may think that a voice from the street means more that a Walter Cronkite, but should a Hurricane Katrina happen or a President gets assassinated you need a Cronkite to hold 250 million people together. You need Britannica and its researched facts because should you need to save a life, a Wikipedia tip could just as likely kill. You need an where people who hate this blog cannot then go on my page, write a barrage on disgusting reviews despite not having read the book, and drive my rating down to one star, knowing that the American reading public trusts other readers more than critics.

But as I said before Andrew keen makes the same mistake that traditional media makes, screaming bloody murder while pointing the gun at himself. By trying to stretch his mouth wide open to include pornography, pedophiles and Youtube he exposes himself instead as a luddite in Bill O'Riley drag. You Tube may be a world where "Nothing seems too prosaic or narcissistic for these videographer monkeys," but it is also the only place where you’ll find James Brown on the TAMI show, or Lebanese kids showing their side of the whole bombing last year, because the mainstream media will show neither. Stephen Colbert knows that had he fought Youtube instead of left it alone, many of his present viewers would have ignored him. Keen attacks the wisdom of the crowd and the lack on an information central but fails to remember how easily manipulated information was even up to recently, which is why people still have a pleasing sense of nostalgia about Operation Desert Storm and trust anything Fox News channel tells them.

He also has to face the fact that web 2.0 is not going away, in fact a web 3.0 is on the horizon already. He may also be ignoring that many blogs have gone on to genuine intelligent content whether that be the range of opinion on The Huffington Post, or the simple elegance and grace of The Sartorialist. Unlike Keen, I see intelligence in an upward not downward curve. Human beings inevitably want more and that greed for information—not more, but better information— is always good. That greed has sparked everything from the creation of the wheel to outer space exploration to the discovery that the world is round. We are curious and hungry creatures and while we feel safety in the wisdom of the crowd, that crowd still needs that one kid who realizes that the Emperor is naked. What Keen does not realize is that this lone seeing eye —The web 2.0 Galileo or Dorothy Parker will come from the same crowd that is right now flying blind.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Rock and Roll, Black and White

So lately everybody has gotten into the argument as to where rock and roll was born. According to The New York Times, New Jersey has now gotten into the act, with two cities declaring that rock began when Bill Haley and his band played there. The argument has devolved into semantics with one city claiming he played there with the Comets, his rock and roll band and the other that he played with the Saddlemen, a country band that was sort of rockish anyway. New Jersey is but one of several places all laying claim to the sound, including Memphis, the Mississippi Delta, Cleveland and Philadelphia. But these warring places have one troubling and tiresome thing in common, a dogged, insistence that wherever rock and roll came from or whoever came up with it, that person simply MUST BE WHITE.

For if the person was black then it was merely R&B or race music. Or sped up 12 bar blues. One wonders where that leaves Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats’ ‘Rocket 88,’ a record held up by no less than Sam Phillips as the first rock and roll record. Doesn’t matter that Phillips thought it was Rock and Roll, most white critics consider it R&B, a bridesmaid of rock, not the Bride. Even the Bill Haley version of Rocket 88—which has no real difference from the original—is held up by some as the first rock and roll record. Rolling Stone, in one if its most inexplicable and disappointing articles came on the side of the Elvis kiss-ass and declared that ‘That’s Alright Mama’ was the first rock and roll record, something that Elvis disputed almost twenty years before and the magazine proved wrong in its very own 50’s issue from April 1990.

This begs the question of just what a black artist has to do to be considered rock. Any black rock song made too early (Rocket 88 was released in 1951) gets classified as R&B with patronizing rock critics declaring it to be important to the formation of rock and roll, but not rock itself. What does Rocket 88 have to do to be called a rock and roll song? Sure it’s ragged 12 bar blues but so is The Beatles’ Day Tripper. If anything Rocket 88 had a kid brother’s relationship to R&B, eschewing the dirty old man double-talk of the blues for a brand new lyrical concept that was all youth, all id and as blatantly sexual as it was witty: The car metaphor. Rocket 88 did more than that. It also introduced fuzz guitar almost 20 years before it became popular and pushed the drum way to the front where the whole song seemed submissive to the beat. Even listening to it now the blatant, sexually ferocious youth of the thing says rock and roll far more than anything by Bill Haley and The Comets.

But Jackie and the Delta Cats were not white, so Rocket 88 is R&B. After all Rolling Stone says so. For rock and roll to be rock and roll it simply must have some country in it. Never mind that all these black kids came from the south, grew up on country as much as blues and some, like Ray Charles actually played in country band. Critics use country merely as a ruse so they do not have to say that for rock to be rock it must have some white in it. White meaning people, not influence. Whatever black people did was proto-rock, proto being another word for prehistoric.

This slur disguised as compliment is nothing new of course. Jazz’s greatest fans have been insulting it for decades. David Hadju once wrote that in lionizing jazz the beats popularized the myth of black creative primitivism, allowing the most open-minded white listeners to use words such as ‘effortless’ and ‘instinctual’ to define black genius. Black art was an inexplicable mystery, like voodoo or black magic. So Prince is an instinctual genius despite playing 90 instruments and composing for the Joffrey ballet, but Elvis Costello is a craftsman. Duke Ellington is a natural talent but Stravinsky is a master of “multiple compositional styles, who revolutionized orchestration.” Black art is never about craft, education, technique, or intelligence. Not even jazz. Not even Free Jazz. Not even Be-bop.

Rhapsodizing about be-bop, Allen Ginsberg gushed that the music gave him such a wild, sense of freedom that he felt that all he had to do was ‘grab a horn and blow.’ Charlie Parker could only snigger at the statement, but other jazzmen took this to considerable offence. The idea that music was of such uncultured simplicity, such accidental genius that anybody could be inspired to just do it was simply preposterous, even if Ginsberg meant no harm by saying it. The truth is nobody can just grab a horn and play be-bop. One of the most complex music forms ever created, ever single person who played be-bop in its golden era was a genius, from Charlie Parker to Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Cannonball Aderley, and Milt Jackson, among others. For all the wild abandon that Bolero inspires, nobody ever says Ravel makes one feel like grabbing a piccolo.

There is still this sense that something is not quite believable about black brilliance; that it happens by either chance or something inexplicable. And that the talent is never a matter of intellect, but ‘baffling brilliance,’ as Kurt Loder once said about Prince. Black brilliance is either off the cuff, or accidental or so couched in primitivism that one needs only to be wild and primitive as well to tap into it. Iggy Pop certainly thought so when he did the ridiculous Africa Man, where he simply growled and screamed like an idiot because well idiocy and inspiration go hand in hand with black people. Critics seem to want to believe that rock and roll emerged fully formed from the start, but not if that means black people did it. Not if that song is Rocket 88.

This isn’t racist so much as willfully ignorant. That rock and roll could be so well developed and explosive from as far back as 1951 (if not earlier) makes the music more phenomenal not less. Perhaps critics are worried that if Rocket 88 is credited for giving rock and roll everything it needed for the subsequent 40 years that would mean that white people contributed very little. This is of course ludicrous. Subtract Elvis or Carl Perkins from rock and roll and there would be no Beatles and certainly no Led Zeppelin. It’s crucial to remember that 50’s rock and rollers boxed themselves into a corner that they could not get out of and nearly took the music with them, until the Brits and the Beach Boys found a way out. Bill Haley, Elvis, Ike Turner, Little Richard; All these artists were critical to the creation, vitality and legacy of the music. But it all began with Rocket 88, and it’s high time people stop acting like it didn’t.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Whatever Happened To Spin Magazine?

Like all rock and roll stories this starts with a band. Even in the balls and bluster world of Metal lines are drawn very deep, separating one from the other. And like every genre these days metal has its mainstream bands none of which I know or listen to and its alternative bands such as Isis, Jesu, Pelican, Converge, The Fucking Champs and Mastodon. Last year Spin magazine stunned readers when they gave Blood Mountain, the band’s new album two out of five stars and dismissed it as bad prog. The review was as brief as it was surprising given that both the mainstream and alternative press went rapturous over the record, culture tastemakers Pitchfork Media in particular giving it 8.5 out of ten. Not many issues down faux punkers Fall out Boy and Brand New both got a four star reviews and in June 2006 Beyoncé made the cover of “The Sexiest Under 25” issue. Something was changing and it wasn’t just the focus on cleavage. Was Spin turning into Blender?

Blender is the successful Maxim spin-off that caters to all the pre-hormonal boys who wished Maxim had more music. It’s very good for what it is and saying that it is cheapening the culture is not only pointless but also wrong. Trash and cash has always been newsworthy and when music gets worse Blender only gets better. The problem is that Spin magazine had made a mistake in thinking that rule also applies to them. Whatever happened to Spin Magazine? That weird post punk, post reggae, pre hip-hop, pre grunge magazine that put people like Nick Cave on their cover and called him the last rock star? That was from a time when Spin, like underground rock and roll was still a scary and sexy force, governed by no rules except its own and taking the hits (putting a free condom in an issue nearly drove them out of Business) that such fearlessness was bound to receive.

In the mid to late 80’s the sheer fearlessness of Spin was almost impossible to categorize or appreciate, and not just the pioneering AIDS Column. Spin was also the first magazine to truly dig black culture as it was happening, not after the fact—which has always been the story with the white media and rock and roll. That meant not only articles about hip-hop but stuff written in hip-hop language, with Bonz Malone’s pioneering articles, as crucial in establishing the music as Yo! MTV Raps. Like The Face in the UK, Spin covered House before Technotronic took it to the charts, Trip-hop before hairdressers bought Sneaker Pimps and even this little thing called grunge before Nirvana had a hit. In fact back when Rolling Stone dismissed Nevermind with a patronizing 3 star review Spin downright ordered its audience to buy the damn record and helped start a movement.

Around the same time Rolling Stone gave Nevermind three stars it gave new albums from U2 and Michael Jackson four and a half. By dismissing the former and lionizing the latter Rolling Stone declared allegiance to the establishment. Or had been so fat on corporate rock that it could no longer see where the music was going. Earlier in the year, their New Music issue produced such vanguard acts as Chris Isaak and Extreme. Alternative was about to explode and Rolling Stone would have none of it. The magazine even trashed crucial precursors like Jane’s Addiction’s Ritual De Lo Habitual. Maybe they didn’t see it coming, but Spin did. And maybe Jane’s was right and we do become the thing we hate because Spin is now doing the same thing, praising industry-approved bands like Fall Out Boy and routinely dismissing indie obsessions like Mastodon and Isis. When a rave review of a genuine talent happened as it did with their appraisal of Joanna Newsom’s YS, it felt left field, like and exercise in coolness, like a Rolling Stone review. There was a sense that the magazine was out of its depth, reporting about a topic on which it no longer had authority.

I remember in 1987 when Spin said Guns and Roses ‘looks like all that rock has left,’ and being thrilled and appalled by the sentence. I remember being perplexed and annoyed by their first Greatest Albums of All Time list because a James Brown live album was number one, Tom Waits’ Swordfishtrombones was either 2 or 3, Echo and the Bunnymen was in there somewhere as were Depeche Mode’s Black Celebration and George Michael’s Faith. It wasn’t only the choices that made my head spin but the writing, the reasoning why they demanded that these records be listened to. On Faith they said that Michael swung from faux prince to faux pop balladry and was so obsessed with giving pop pleasures that on ‘Hard Day,’ he warps his voice to play his own lover. Note that I can quote the article almost verbatim. I stole this issue from my friend and poured over it for months trying to figure out what kind of psychos would make a list like this and what did it mean. Then I listened to the records and the person in my mirror changed. Spin did not get me to listen to different rock and roll—it got me to listen to rock and roll differently. Rock and roll became a dark and sexy mystery where yes, George Michael’s desperate and sexually confused attempt to fake Prince was more rock and roll and real than Prince himself. Where James Brown screaming ‘take it to the bridge’ had more menace and noise than the breakdown in Whole Lotta Love played twice. Where Black Celebration and Ocean Rain played back to back summed up my eighties better than any book I could possibly write. And more than anything else where music could be mine and mine alone even as I shared it with millions and there was not a damn thing wrong with that.

Alternative music, that is. Before it became a nation and a punch line, alternative was an aberration. A subculture that was thought to exist only on college radio, but not quite a movement or a commercial force. Spin was not the first to respond to college rock but it may have been the first to find the common streak in wildly divergent styles from then obscure acts such as REM to a ubiquitous artist like Prince to something totally unpalatable like Ministry. It was the first to treat all music as baroque instead of focusing on only adolescent male virgins with big glasses and jangly guitars. By giving as much ink to Salt and Pepa as they did Slayer they dared to declare that they were one and the same thing, unified not only in their statement of purpose and their DIY creativity but also in mainstream ignorance or confusion. More than that Spin had a particular genius for pin-pointing what made these artists alternative—The propulsively gay and disco subtext of Madonna for example, or the rise of irony as the dominant aesthetic device as deployed in the film Heathers—in ways that other mags like Alternative Press simply could not understand.

Spin was also a common ground under which all the disparate strains of alternative could congregate. In that it echoed the progress of seminal bands in the late 80’s that did the same thing: Public Enemy, Pixies, Sonic Youth, NWA, Ice-T/Body Count, Jane’s Addiction, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nine Inch Nails, Soul II Soul and Nirvana.

Gradually to some, suddenly to most, Spin and the artists they covered became things that everybody had in common, an alternative nation before MTV co-opted and killed the term. As alternative grew, Spin grew into the tastemaker and 1990 to 1994 were the best years to be alive. But it would not last, and you didn’t need to see what was left of Kurt Cobain’s splattered head to know. The genre that never was spawned too many heads, too many compromises, too many marketing efforts disguised as bands that found the look, feel and sound too easy to co-opt. By 1996 alternative was also used to describe Matchbox Twenty and Better Than Ezra. The center could no longer hold and many of alternative’s unifying elements, Jane’s Addiction, Public Enemy, Raygun magazine, Nirvana and Lollapalooza fell apart.

Today’s Spin is not Spin magazine, but Pitchfork media, the website and alternative kingmaker responsible for making it’s own stars like LCD Soundsystem, Tapes n’ Tapes and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. Thanks to Pitchfork the young listener can see brilliance in both Dizzee Rascal and Kelly Clarkson and their reviews stand in striking, wonderful defiance of the conventional wisdom that internet age kids will never read anything long. But something is missing: the grand statement, an attempt to make rock a national, cultural discourse the way Spin did in the late 80’s and Rolling Stone did in the 70’s. An attempt to unify disparate elements without every saying that’s exactly what they are trying to do.

Counter culture and Music culture has never been more fractious, never been more in need of something with the ballsiness and insanity to bear witness and give testimony to it all. The last time this happened was the late eighties when songs like Just Got Paid went to number one and nobody knew what the hell was up with Prince who no longer seemed interested in saving us. In that universe Spin as if nobody told them not to, packed Morrissey, Metallica, Run DMC, AIDS, Rai and free condoms in one package and had the gall to stamp the whole thing, “ THIS IS ROCK AND ROLL.” Rock and roll heard differently and correctly. Without ever claiming so, Spin became the voice of the generation that would not be spoken for and it said strange things, like claiming rap was art (in hip-hop voice) that disco was as crucial as punk and that if you put Morrissey and Sinead together you might get Madonna. And yet they were never so up their alternative ass that they wouldn’t put Jon Bon Jovi on the cover.

Maybe every magazine is granted only one decade of brilliance. Esquire for the 60’s Rolling Stone for the 70’s, Sassy for the 80’s. And much of this is not Spin’s fault but rock and roll itself, which has become a passive experience, not different from watching the credits roll on a videogame. Maybe Spin should pull an Apple move and ask Bob Guccione Jr to come back. Musical chairs for the editor slot is never a good sign and there is still the magazine's continued attempts to become Blender. In trying times one can either take stock or take risks and Spin seems content on doing the former even though it remains leagues below its early 90’s heyday. Maybe Spin will realize that the mid 2G’s are not that far removed from the mid 80’s and needs somebody to make sense of it. Maybe they will see that they need Joanna Newsom and Justin Timberlake on the cover, not the Killers and that they need to stop trying to figure out what people want and have the guts to give people what they need. To stop following culture and create one. Maybe they will realize that we need 80’s Spin now more than ever.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

This Business of Books

The great thing about having an acclaimed first book is that the quality of your rejection letters gets so much better. Having gotten used to models of politeness like that yellow “NOT FOR US” card that Soho Press took the time to mass print and send to me, it did come as a rather pleasant shock how nice some of the letters were. These were some of the most heartfelt, personable and downright gripping no thank you’s I’ve received ever since I was sixteen and thought telling this girl she could sit in my lap instead of the bus seat was hot. One publisher wrote “ I know, I know, I know that I’m making a mistake turning this down but I have to,” contradicting my belief that Publishers never had to do anything. Another could rhapsodize about her favourite major and minor characters (some of who I had never given a second thought) but still decided that her publisher would not know what to do with it. And so on it went the torrent of nice let me downs, letters that let me know that I was a very good, but ultimately too risky proposition to publish.

And here I was thinking I was a Victorian. I’m not sure what being a risky writer means. Granted my new book is almost 500 pages of Slave dialect from the nineteenth century, but does that make a book risky? Hasn’t everybody seen Roots? My let’s call it affinity for sexual and scatological explicitness is well documented but I don’t know if it’s any worse than Ulysses or The Bluest Eye or Sabbath’s Theater for that matter (not that my work is anywhere near as good). I’m beginning to think that rejection letters say more about the publisher than the book being rejected. In some cases it’s simply a matter of the wrong publishing house. And granted I’m not so stuck up my own ass that I thought I was writing the great masterpiece to end all literature, but it’s puzzling to me just how cowardly the industry can be. Puzzling because too often this cowardice is written off as good business sense.

Contrary to what others may think, I have no problem with publishers being all about the money. Publishing is after all a business, not a charity. My problem with publishing is not that these guys are too mercenary but that they are nor mercenary enough. For an industry that all about the dollars very little done makes business sense. Take for instance the dependence on blockbusters, something the industry picked up from music and movies. Given how bad the state of publishing is, the dependence on mega cash cows couldn’t make less sense. And yet every publisher does it, waiting for the breakout book that will save the industry. So 8 million is spent on Charles Frazier’s new book before anybody even read what is truly a bad novel. Here was an industry setting up expectations that nobody could have matched anyway. And yet that hasn’t stopped the hunger for the next blockbuster novel.

At the Frankfurt and London Book Fair a malaise descended on the proceedings because there was no major breakout book. None except The Raw Shark Texts that was not only hyped the year before but has yet to justify it’s enormous push (Some say it has—see comments—, but I'm not seeing Cold Mountain/Corrections/Everything is Illuminated ubiquity yet). This makes no business sense. It doesn’t surprise me that so many roads lead to BMG because this is exactly the BMG/JIVE way of doing things. Comedy rocker Mojo Nixon said almost two decades ago that instead of giving Aerosmith 80 million dollars, why not give 40 bands two million dollars, that way if three or four or ten of that 40 amount to nothing there is still a wide playground of opportunity. Or put another way were Steven Tyler to croak he wouldn’t be taking your company down with him. The publishing equivalent of that would be the midlist, but there is no such thing as that in publishing anymore, despite whatever somebody might tell you. Again in the search for the next blockbuster, basic rules of business, taken for granted in every other industry are ignored. Things like building brand loyalty, nurturing the audience, exploring untapped markets, growing with the artist and the audience—nobody does that sort of thing anymore, well next to nobody anyway. Publishers have always said that this is an unquantifiable industry and I’m inclined to agree, but some things don’t need analysis, only common sense.

Some people may say that the publishing industry has always been this way. Forty-eight houses passed on Catch 22 and the biggest novel of the 50’s was Peyton Place. But the nature of the business, the character of the business has changed. Somebody has tried to make the business quantifiable, a matter of scientific numbers and nerdy analysis and I think I know whom that is. People old enough in the music industry moan that they don’t make stars like they used to and they are right. Prince broke through with his fifth album, Bruce Springsteen his third, Madonna her second. As everybody scrambles for the next big hit, nobody nurtures talent anymore and as a result there is no artist with a solid, successful career. Publishing is not much different. And yet if you take that business model to any other enterprise; no we don’t care about nurturing talent because this one thing right here, it’s gonna be the bomb, you would have been laughed to scorn. I can’t imagine the videogame industry one of those blamed for taking away music and publishing’s money running like that. To have everything riding on one videogame to be the blockbuster that sells billions instead of nurturing ten or twenty titles so that they can all eventually make a billion each would be a ridiculously stupid idea.

And in all the publishing industry's bawling about the shrinking size of their reading audience nobody seems to be paying attention to a rather unexpected bonus. Say what you want about the Harry Potter phenomenon but the fact that it created a kid (millions rather) who would rather read an 800 page book than watch TV or play a videogame is an astounding phenomenon that should not be taken lightly. Here is an audience that's massive, young, loyal and malleable. And starting next year they will be without the one thing that pulled them together. The industry has a unique opportunity to build on an already existing audience, to do the long haul thing, to respond to the wide gaping hole left by Harry Potter's absence by keeping these readers hooked to other stories and growing as they grow. Or they can just sit by and let the audience—the first massive loyal reading audience in nearly century— splinter and ultimately disappear. My money is on the latter.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Down and Out in Fort Lauderdale Airport

It’s June 4, 2007 and I’m in terminal F of the Fort Lauderdale airport wondering which preposition to use. ‘At’ sounds right, but ‘in’ sounds more apt. I feel not just in but locked inside the Airport, delayed and trapped for several shitty reasons. And when at 7:35PM, Spirit Airlines tells me that the flight is delayed for perhaps an hour, perhaps more it’s the culmination of an evening of delays that makes me want to sob and laugh at once. I do neither, but curse under my breath while not trying to picture what my Pastor best friend would think. Instead I sit on the floor, whip out my pen and book and write this blog.

Spirit Airways left Kingston at 3:30 and landed in Fort Lauderdale at 5:30. Being one of the few Jamaicans who understand the convoluted and confused FLA customs system I went to the empty ‘Visitors’ line and was in front of a Customs Officer in seconds. I would have given my backside the proverbial pat but then the Customs Officer said, “Come with me sir,” and my heart sank. Disappointed, of course but not surprised. My trips to the local police department in every American Airport had become standard ever since I had the sparkling wisdom to study for a Creative Writing Degree in the United States. After some inexplicable bureaucratic snafu, the school forgot that I had enrolled, the INS terminated my visa and I went on the F1 warning list, sharing company with Mohammed Atta and countless other Muslim terrorists, drug dealers, and illegal aliens who were all in the country on student visas, but not in school. Since 2005 I have been through so many Airport security departments (NYPD in New York) that the officers have begun to recognize me. This never-ending third degree becomes annoying after the thirteenth time but I had long decided to roll with it, nostalgic for the days when I was merely mistaken for a drug dealer.

The first customs officer, let’s call him Alpha, told me to sit in the same room that exists in a hundred airports. The same room that makes me wonder why am I in this place with Jamaicans who look like they were deported a week ago. Jamaicans, whose only flaw may have been unsophistication and others people, usually men whose only flaw might have been that they look Arabic. I’m already bored by the procedure until I realize that this C.O., let’s call him Beta, means business.
“Marlon James?”
“That’s me.”
“You’re here quite a lot.”
“I sorta have to be. I’m a writer, New York is the center of the publishing world.”
“You’re a writer. How do you support yourself, Mr. James?”
“I have a Graphic Design Company in Jamaica.”
“Can I see your business card?”
“I only have my writer’s card. I don’t exactly search for design business here.”
“When were you last here, sir?”
“Ahhh...a week ago? I was here for six weeks. Teaching a course for Gotham Writer’s workshop.”
He then left his desk came around to search my carry-on. He flipped through my laptop, my Jamaican house keys, the Peter Godwin book I was still reading and the homework my students sent in.
“Is this a register?” he said, looking at my roll call sheet.
“You know I spoke to the State Department about this. They said if I was invited and I’m working for an honorarium it was fine. I don’t need a workers permit for that.”
“Your trip to Toronto, what was that about?”
“Which one?”
“My brother’s wife’s funeral.... oh wait no, that was a book tour. I’ve been to Toronto twice and Vancouver once.”
“Miami in November?”
“Miami book fair.”
“You’re here an awful lot. How long are you staying this time?”
“Two weeks.”
“Can you remove your...oh you’re wearing slippers, never mind.”
“Honestly, am I going to get this every time?”
“Well sir you’re F1 visa raised a red flag and looking at this you’ve been stopped several times.”
You think? I said, but not to him.
“You’re here an awful lot and usually that means you’re not visiting, but living here, and then, you are from Jamaica.”

He finally said it. So clear from the get-go that he did not even need to finish his paragraph. A sentence with a subject that includes “Jamaica” needs no predicate—we know the rest of it by heart. Now that airports have gone back to pre 9/11 laxness my grace period was officially up. I looked up at the reflective glass and suddenly realized that were I a customs officer I’d think I was a drug dealer too. Before 9/11 customs detained me all the time. Ever since I stopped combing my hair everybody asks what band am I in, even as they pull my belt buckle to watch my jeans drop to reveal skivvies. Thank god I stopped going commando to airports. I thought wearing slippers would make things easier but that made it worse. With low-rise jeans, dreadlocks, loose shirt and hippy slippers I had molded myself in the perfect Rastafarian, Ganga smoker/dealer cliché, a patsy who needed only a “Pick Me” sign to stick out more. I had gotten lax myself. Back in my suspected drug dealer days I had always made sure to dress extra yuppie for international flights. A suit when everybody else wore jeans, something to over-compensate for streaky locks and three earrings.

So C.O. Beta began to type and did so for a very long time. I wondered what he was typing and why did he have to type this whole shit over again. I wondered if I should switch from Creative Writing to teaching American police personnel how to operate the SAVE key. I wasn’t afraid or even angry, but annoyed. And Beta was really only doing his job and he was quite nice despite the three score and 10 questions.
“Is this going to happen on my next trip, because I’ll be back in July and early August,” I say but like all the other times with all the other C.O’s, Beta had no answer. He continued typing and the asked if I’ve ever committed a crime or transported drugs. Then he asked, “What’s your religion, sir?”

“Christian...I guess,” I said, not doubting my answer but absolutely stunned by the question. By now all the passengers on the Spirit flight and a couple hundred more from other flights were gone and I was alone in customs. Even the ‘Arabs’ were gone. Beta continued to type.
“I’m here all the time on book business,” I say. “I’m coming back in July for the Harlem Book Fair.”
Beta tried to look interested. An hour passed. I thought of the Pennsylvania University that got me into this mess and the countless customs officers who kept stopping me for the same damn reason and wondered when will this supposedly first world country get to the point where local, regional and federal authorities share information so that Beta doesn’t have to type the same shit over and over. I looked at him and remembered crime scenes botched in the Bronx because the three authorities were too busy fighting over whose dick was the biggest. Why was I treated like this every time I came to the States? There’s not a single thing I have ever gotten from the United States that I’m not paying for, whether that be an education, food or Levis Jeans. I called my friend Bill and got his voicemail, knowing he would not call back. I thought of teaching another course: Accessing Voicemail 101 for Americans who do not know or cannot be bothered. Or maybe an opening a voicemail reply service since nobody ever returns messages in the US.

Then Beta stamped me. But unlike every other time I had traveled to the USA, he stamped me for one month, not six. I knew already that when (now if) I came back in July, my one month stamp would raise a brand new set of red flags and I would spend an hour or three, in an office just like this one, explaining all of this to an officer who will pretend to buy it as he types all this data over again. Beta explained that my student visa plus my frequent comings and goings had set off red flags and I agreed with him. After all, the world is brimming with fantastic nations and cities so why did I fly to New York so often? Why did I subject myself to this time and again for the nation that voted for George Bush twice? Far from disagreeing with him, Customs Office Beta gave me a mini epiphany. Maybe I do come to the States too much. I have never been to Europe, or Africa, or South America or even most of the Caribbean. Why was I coming to spend quality time with customs officers when I could be hiking through Europe or teaching English in Shanghai? I’m so going to blog this, I thought, blog being my new favourite threat, and would have whipped out my notebook had C.O. Kappa not been waiting on me.

Kappa told me good evening, too one look and sent me to the B line. The oh no Mr. suspect drug dealing illegal alien terrorist, we’re gonna check every crevice or crack including your ass crack if we feel like it line. But customs officer Kappa, who searched my bags, was actually kinda sweet. Maybe she just felt sorry for me after I told her that I was about to miss my connecting flight. Maybe she thought I was cute. Maybe she mistook me for Wyclef Jean from the Fugees. She searched quickly, smiled and sent me away but I could not move. Across the room C.O. Epsilon had a mango and things were about to get ugly. Seized from a Jamaican passenger, the mango had no choice but to be undressed and raped by the C.O. With blue gloves on he eviscerated the thing, stripping every piece of flesh until he was left with the seed. Then he snapped it open and swabbed inside. I didn’t know if I should have been insulted that he thought we’re so desperate to sell drugs or impressed that he thought we had such superior intelligence that we had already figured how to genetically engineer a mango fruit to bear a Ganga bud. Or a bomb. Thoughts of bombs led to thoughts of planes and I remembered that I have a flight to catch.

As I rushed to the gate I glanced a newspaper and saw why the Beta had asked about my religion. Three men from Trinidad and one from Guyana were arrested for hatching a plot to blow up JFK Airport. One of the Trinidadians was a sun and sea-born Muslim fundamentalist who had tried to overthrow the government before. Turned out that I had hit the trifecta after all. I was a suspected drug dealing, illegal alien terrorist. At the gate Spirit announces that the flight to New York is delayed. I feel like dropping an F-Bomb but can only laugh and the 7.25 price tag for a Pastrami sandwich in Vito’s Restaurant makes me laugh more. The plane arrives earlier than expected and as it lifts off I look around for something wooden to tap. There’s nothing but the paper on which I’m writing this blog. It will have to do. I do not reach Harlem until 2 in the morning forgetting to pay the bus fare and not giving much of a fuck. I am tired, fantastically pissed off and sporting a massive headache that I can do nothing about since only in Harlem is there no such thing as a 24 hour pharmacy. I do the best I can under the circumstances: drink super-drowsy cough syrup, put on Leonard Cohen’s Songs of Love and Hate and go to bed.