Tuesday, February 9, 2021

John Giorno Wants Your Body



 

 


John Giorno Wants Your Body

by Justin Desmangles

 

Great Demon Kings: A Memoir of Poetry, Sex, Art, Death, and Enlightenment

By John Giorno

351 pp. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $28.00

 

 

Some people make their own luck. In the right place and at the right time because they are on their own clock. “Now Is the Time.” John Giorno was just such a person. Anointed by the sweat of Dylan Thomas, to hear him tell it in his newly published posthumous memoir Great Demon Kings, he followed a path to the ancients. The lyric poet as someone scooping out their insides and telling you how sensitive they are had mercifully been killed-off by Modernism. And it’s a good thing too, because otherwise a book of this kind, containing this kind of history would never have been written. The American running-style of literature — a style rooted in Blues, Ragtime and stride piano — conveys images of everything seemingly happening at once. Stories turn topsy-turvy in rapid succession and collide. Anecdotes cascade one into the other, tales interweave and spool like a movie projectionist slipping in an extra reel without explanation. The rhythmic tension in this style is taut yet supple, bending and snapping-back, never breaking. As James Brown would say, “Moving, grooving, doing it, you know, like a sex machine.” The left hand of James P. Johnson. It’s in Dos Passos U.S.A. and other Lost Generation writers influenced by the new thing in poetry. “Make it new” meant imitate the musical phrase and the new music was Jazz. West African polyrhythms on a Celtic tongue in Tennessee. Gatsby is a syncopated piano overheard where someone got killed. Satchmo’s grace notes falling like stars — flashing, flaring before a midnight sun.

Giorno adopts this running-style all throughout the pages of this book. He acquired it by way of the Beat Generation. They who had grafted it from Jack Kerouac’s masters Louis-Ferdinand Céline and Charlie Parker. Moving from one thing to another with no respite, no let up, not taking a breath. Running you out to get to know your breathing and just how many breaths you take. Leaving you duly exhausted from their intensity of purpose, “exhilerausted” in Bob Kaufman’s language.

The hero of the Blues comes up against adversity and uses verbal charms and linguistic talismans to get around the trouble. Shuts his mouth wide open and wonders will a match box hold his clothes. Employing a symmetry of what seems absurd to his enemy, an unseen window opens in time and the hero of the Blues slips away. Giorno makes his a continuous get away, careening through and laying down with a cultural Olympus of American art demi-gods and yes, demons. The demonic spew a venom that is ambrosia to his muse and he drinks it down with gusto. He in turn becomes lover and muse to the demons themselves. Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and the king of Hell himself William S. Burroughs.

Had Giorno never written a poem, published a book, or recorded an album, he would still be enshrined in the primers of artist’s history. He was Warhol’s first superstar, appearing in the movie Sleep. Warhol’s early films marked a dramatic, some would say traumatic break. Not only in the direction his own work would take, but the whole of cinema internationally. Opportunities to see this film today presented as a film are scant. Even the ethereal hustle of the internet has a tough time with this one. Six hours of a man sleeping. Step back MFA grads, the check is in the mail. But in the hey-day of New York’s cinema avatar Jonas Mekas and his Filmmakers' Cinematheque, this movie could be shown almost any night of the week. Right alongside Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising, Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures,  Ron Rice’s The Flower Thief, John Cassavetes’s Shadows, or classics such as Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon. Warhol knew what was popping and he had an eye for talent. When he turned on the camera from the first, it was John Giorno he was focused on.

Warhol liked to stare, he liked to watch, to evaporate and observe without presence. A kind of forensic detective. What he discovered he harvested to a precise vision, images of America’s true religion. Money bleeding through. It was a vampirism that Giorno found toothsome, a quality later tasted in his relationship with Burroughs. If these guys needed their tanks filled-up, Giorno had the gas. If they needed their engine tuned, he supplied the tool. Warhol’s mother had religion and the religious iconography he grew up around sharpened the wit of his eye. That which a culture worships, that which a culture adores, image counterpoints of sin and salvation. Even more money, even more blood.

The writing about Warhol in this book is tender, playful, romantic and above all revealing in its candor. Giorno was not afraid to learn from his mistakes and he made lots of them. Yearning for wisdom, Giorno made new ones, always learning. Always moving forward. The time spent with Warhol is some of the most touching and humorous in the book, the two young lovers teaching each other how to live. Buoyant like a game of tag, a lot of names float through and quick. There is no effacing it’s a game, this art world business, where people come as equipped with roles to play. The size of these personalities is so big that even the background players are all-stars nowadays. Asked in an early local television interview at the Leo Castelli gallery how he responded to his detractors, Warhol answered “They’re right.” It takes an awfully bright person to create the illusion that they are dim. A lot of people thought Warhol was running on about two watts. He was in fact running on incredible amounts of speed, as were a great many people that surrounded him. Alcohol, tobacco, marijuana burn, flow, waft, pour and otherwise guide the reader through much of this book. Later mushrooms and LSD. In this mix it is how things get done. The original party people from way back, here to funk your head up. And it certainly took its toll with early deaths and suicides. There is much meditation on death and its meaning throughout this book. It is here that Giorno’s breath gets hot and he starts getting into his own thing. Purely his own current. That same electric pulse you feel in his best performances. He’s got an ear on the lost chord in these moments and the writing is his.

Hagiographers of Warhol will want to pay careful attention to the sensitive portrait drawn of his mother. Giorno’s acknowledgement of their unique ethnic heritage and its language is rendered with insights into their private world. She lived in the back you see, with her son taking up the front of the house. These were the days before the life of fortune and fame and flashy names. Warhol always brought home the bacon. It was partially his work ethic that allowed him to burn through people as he did. They were lazy as far as he could see. That drive is on display seeing him cast aside onlookers out his path to greet Marcel Duchamp arriving at Americans 1963, a breakthrough exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art, Giorno literally hanging by his sleeve. Out one night at a poetry reading, Warhol quietly asked “Why are they so boring?” The poets were Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery, the question echoed in Giorno’s mind. Why were they so boring? It was a question that he was driven to answer for the rest of his life in fresh, sometimes astounding ways. Giorno writes “It was clear that poetry was seventy-five years behind painting, sculpture, music, and dance. The golden age of poetry was just about to begin.” And begin it did.

Years later Giorno would say “When a poet is performing in front of an audience, he's talking to the audience, and every single word has to grab them. And most often, poets completely do not understand that. They have this great, wonderful, magnificent work, and they read it in front of an audience, and it's like showing radio over television or something.”

Giorno Poetry Systems was soon founded as a non-profit cultural organization and later became one of the most innovative record labels in America. The Black Arts movement had created Jihad Records, an attempt to amplify the role poetry could play in civic life, bringing about constructive change. The legendary Caedmon Records, inspired by Dylan Thomas’s tour of the United States, sought to deepen listeners aesthetic sensibilities. Giorno Poetry Systems found a way to braid together these two directions, these two impulses simultaneously. The record label would produce, record, and distribute albums featuring Miguel Algarín, Glenn Branca, Jayne Cortez, Jessica Hagedorn, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Lydia Lunch, Psychic TV, and many others who would otherwise not have been available to audiences off-of-the-page. Albums were given titles such as Better an Old Demon Than a New God, and A Diamond Hidden in the Mouth of a Corpse. Giorno himself was both activist-organizer and poet-performer, willing to go to extremes on stage and off to get his message across. And not be boring.

As things wound-down with Warhol, and after an Tangierian interlude with Brion Gysin, a new romance, this time with Robert Rauschenberg, bloomed in the incestuous gardens of his art circle. Rauschenberg, unlike Warhol, was not out in the sense of how we might think of that today. There was a front of being straight, so to speak, and the parameters of the social life the two would lead were much different. Rauschenberg further cultivated Giorno’s involvement in theatrical performance, experimental theater, dance, Happenings, and hybrid’s of poetry and music. He introduced him to Bob Moog whose then new invention, the synthesizer, became a part of Giorno’s growing arsenal. Rauschenberg also created original art for the cover of Giorno’s first book, Poems.

The cross-pollination of disciplines in the arts in New York during the sixties produced an incandescent atmosphere. As the Jazz capitol of the world, the city was already steeped in exploring the theatrical possibilities of dance movement with poetry and improvised sound for at least three generations. Now with poets and writers getting into the act, holding their own festivals, building their own off-off-Broadway theaters, things were getting heated where before they had been left for dead cold. The inferno generated by all this activity became so caustic that wave after wave began to flee and by the next decade much of this activity had migrated to either the San Francisco Bay Area or Europe. Giorno remained very much a New Yorker and expanded his experimentation to one of the most successful conceptual pieces combining poetry and new technology. Dial-a-Poem! A massive phone bank of pre-recorded works by a veritable who’s-who of the American avant-garde. Callers who dialed in would be treated to a recording of an original work, calling back as much as they liked. The project became so popular that the machinery broke down more than once. The basic idea made its way into general consciousness so fast that soon there was a dial-a-just-about-everything-you-can-think-of industry. Horoscopes, advice to lovelorn, legal help, amateur pornography, but unlike Giorno’s art installation, all charged a fee.

Those wishing to make a quick study of just what sort of high-weirdness and serious fun Giorno was having in creating these experiments with sound poetry, music, and performance are hereby directed to “Everyone Is a Complete Disappointment” from the album John Giorno & Anne Waldman, released in 1977. It’s the kind of gleeful, mischievous nihilism that disguises a much more willful desire to create one’s own meanings for existence. The occasionally sardonic barbs are really just pushing the buttons on the joy-spring. If you can get with this, great; and if you can’t, so what, it seems to say with a sly grin. Daring you to talk back.

Giorno doesn’t pull any punches in this book and he lands more than a few that will put some readers on the floor. The first T.K.O. is bound to be sex. Graphic sex and lots of it. Not everyone will care to see their art heroes depicted burbling a mouth full of sperm, but the sperm being his, Giorno wants you to know. The dimensions of a canonical novelist’s penis or the favored anal penetration of one of the world’s greatest painters is not for everyone, to be sure. But let it be known at the outset that none of these passages are rendered with vulgarity, but rather as any other creative act in Giorno’s quest. In fact, rather than a sheerly pornographic language, the sex is given empathy and it is the trust between the men having it that comes through more than any other element. Including, remarkably enough, an orgy in a subway bathroom at Prince street station with the young Keith Haring. He also lands a few jabs and an upper-cut to Allen Ginsberg, reprinting portions of a then controversial interview from the magazine Gay Sunshine, 1974, criticizing Ginsberg’s public relations politics, manipulations and tactics. “Allen uses mantra to support ego.” This coincided with Ginsberg’s winning the National Book Award for The Fall of America, an honor he shared that year with Adrienne Rich’s masterpiece Diving into the Wreck. Giorno’s relationship with Ginsberg remained a fertile one throughout their lifetime, though he felt unjustly excluded from the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, now part of Naropa University, a school founded by Ginsberg along with poet Anne Waldman also in 1974.

But it is Giorno’s lifelong and nurturing relationship with his close friend, the writer William S. Burroughs that really distinguishes this book. The least commercially popular of the Beat triumvirate completed by Ginsberg and Kerouac, likely because in the last analysis his message is so anti-White. Burroughs’s routine evisceration of all things holy to the so-called White American doesn’t end with a blunt dismissal of bourgeois consumer values or the military-industrial complex or his revulsion towards Christianity. Not by any means. The whole European-American Western civilization is regarded as a rancid, decaying putrid corpse to be torched and soon before it spreads anymore of its pestilence. To do that Burroughs cuts-up and cuts into just about every existing genre of American fiction, high and low, turning them out anew in the running-style adopted by the early Modernists from their affinity with Jazz and Blues. His most widely read book Naked Lunch, oscillates from the sounds of “metallic cocaine bebop” to Ellington’s early composition “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo” and back again. The ultimate concerns are with the life of the mind and changing it to resemble a utopian ideal, one populated by gay, often drug addicted, pirates, cowboys, private detectives and doctors on the make. But that is another matter.  As far as Burroughs was concerned, literature as ritual magic and self-defense was the only answer to fighting back this morally debauched, sickly society of barking advertising men, pimps, pushers, and private-eyes up to no good. Giorno agreed whole heartedly. He may have found a different means in performance poetry and new technologies for casting off the yoke that intended to strangle them, true, but their critical perspective shared mostly common ground.

There are few people who had as positive and life-sustaining an effect on Burroughs as Giorno did. They were sexual intimates, yes, but much closer friends. The tenderness that emerges from a deep and abiding respect between human beings who trust one another with their lives is a strength beyond words. Nevertheless, Giorno finds those words when talking about his years living alongside side each other in the Bowery, where Burroughs rented his famous Bunker in the same building as Giorno’s apartment, traveling the world performing and recording albums together, or just visiting the ageing writer at his final home in Lawrence, Kansas.

Like Burroughs, Giorno was a descendant of America’s upper-middle class, and both were stabilized financially well into their adult lives by the considerable wealth of their parents. Otherwise lethal situations were neatly avoided with a monthly allowance, keeping them off the streets unless they really wanted to be there. Often, it was Burroughs who really did want to be there. Giorno is upfront about his access to wealth throughout this book. No shame in his game. Whatever material similarities they may have shared in their upbringing, their connection to each other was essentially spiritual. In fact, fundamentally so. Burroughs performance persona, beloved by international audiences throughout the last decades of his life, was as much Giorno’s cultivation as it was his own. Appearing as a duo on countless bills around the world and in the United States, Giorno helped Burroughs craft a stage presence that in time became distinctly his own. In the end that was what paid the bills and the constant touring took a toll.

The picture of Burroughs that emerges is one that both harmonizes and contradicts the literary mask the world saw on stage and heard on record. His boyish delights in handling the heavy metal phallus of weapons is certainly familiar. The soft, yearning desire for shared love, a need that is finally fulfilled by his gentle relationships with an extended family of cats and kittens, is less well known. The last words the revolutionary novelist would write in his journal stated any resolution to the violent conflict of his life was found in the experience of mutual love and affection with his cats and kittens.  “Like I felt for Fletch and Ruski, Spooner and Calico. Pure love. What I feel for my cats, present and past. Love? What is it? Most natural painkiller there is. LOVE.”

The chapters surrounding Burroughs death are the most harrowing in the book. Graciously, Giorno’s intuitive response to the situation is miraculously balanced throughout. After the reader had earlier been treated to the arc and panorama of Giorno’s religious devotions in Tibet and India, the wisdom gained there now reaches its full flower. There is considerable ugliness, especially with one or two of Burroughs hangers-on, but Giorno navigates the necessary and the needful with skill. Applying mystic beliefs and practices acquired through his own Buddhist discipline, Giorno guides the now dead Burroughs at the inception of the deceased’s journey into The Western Lands. Though much of this will certainly be regarded as occult by some readers, I see no reason to doubt the veracity of what Giorno says in regards to these events (or any others in the book for that matter). It is the kind of denouement that suggests all roads were leading here, every moment however infinitesimal, was leading us here. A climax gathering of all themes, all motifs, great and small.

Any serious student of American art and literature in the late 20th century will want to read this book. If you don’t you got a hole in your bucket.













[originally published in Konch, Winter Issue, 2021]

 

 

 

Saturday, October 17, 2020

Quincy Troupe on Black Renaissance Noire departing NYU, controversial jazz critic Stanley Crouch


 

Quincy Troupe in Conversation with Justin Desmangles, Sept. 26, 2020 

Quincy Troupe has been among the most frequent guests on my radio show over  the past twenty years. The following transcription is excerpted from a two-hour  conversation covering a vast array of topics, largely focusing on his body of work  as a poet and his forthcoming collection Duende: Poems, 1966-Now (Seven Stories  Press). For this issue of Konch, the editors and I have chosen to focus on two  points of great interest in the recent history of American art, the departure of  Black Renaissance Noire from New York University and the death of controversial  jazz critic Stanley Crouch. 

On the departure of Black Renaissance Noire from New York University 

Justin Desmangles: When I was describing your poetry as creating the vision for  the possibility of real freedom, I was thinking of it as integral to all of these other  traditions that inform your writing. Because if you’re listening to a Quincy Troupe  poem, or you’re reading a Quincy Troupe poem, and you’re not moving your  body, if you don’t have some boogie or some stomp or some shuffle or some  bounce, you’re not hearing the poem! In order to really hear the Quincy Troupe  poem, you have to boogie your body. You have to be able to step lively. The music  that is in the poetry is the practical form of real freedom. The possibility of that  imagination moving the body.  

That wellspring of wisdom is also what informed the way that you shaped and  moved and created the very supple Black Renaissance Noire, which under your  leadership as editor expanded the range into all these other sensuous  presentations of art.  

You recently announced to your friends and colleagues that there was a  departure of ways coming between you and NYU [New York University] and Black  Renaissance Noire. Could you speak to us about that?  

Quincy Troupe: Sure. This is the way it was explained to me. You know, I have an  office down there that I never go to, so I said, let somebody else have it. I can  work really well at my place, I have everything at my disposal. I got everything. So 

I said, just give it to somebody else. I think that rubbed some people the wrong  way. “This guy, he ain’t even going to take the office.” You never know what rubs  people the wrong way, but somebody told me that.  

Anyway, Manthia Diawara hired me because of the fact that he loved Code magazine so much.  

JD: Oh yes. 

QT: He was my contributing editor. He’s from Mali. He used to provide stuff for  Code, so when Code stopped, when I moved back to New York, he said “Why  don’t you take over Black Renaissance Noire?”. And that’s what I did, I took it over  and I said, “Well you know, I am going to change it. I just want to let you know  that.” He was one of the one’s who started it, he and Walter Mosley and Clyde  Taylor. He said, “That’s what I want you to do, that’s why I am hiring you, because  I know you’re going to change it.” [laughter] “I know it’s going to make a lot of  people mad, but I think it needs to be changed.” I said, “I am going to bring in  some white people and everybody else.” He said, “Do it, I am giving you free  reign.” So that’s what I did, I felt empowered at Black Renaissance Noire, I could  do what I wanted. He said, “I trust your judgement, your editorial judgement and  what you will do. I really do, I think it’s going to be remarkable.” So I said, “O.K.,  man!”  

And so, I pissed-off a lot of people because I started to change a lot of stuff. I  remember this guy who was one of the old editors. We had a meeting early on,  maybe in the second year or so, and he came in, he was mad. He was mad with  me because of the fact that I had made some changes and had rejected  somebody that he had brought in. So we were sitting there . . . and I liked the guy,  I liked him a lot . . . he says “Why did you do that, why did you do that?” I said,  look at my title. He said, “Wha-wha-what?” I said, “Look at my title, it’s Editor-in Chief. Editor-in-Chief means I make the decisions.” I learned that when I was  doing Code with Larry Flynt. It’s my decision. “If I don’t like it, it’s going,” I said, “I  have no guilt.” I have no guilt about stuff like that. He said, “But I, I just . . .,” and I  said, “Look man, I just told you, I have no guilt so this is useless.” 

JD: Let me save you some time!

QT: Yeah! “Look, I’m not going to do it, man. I’m going to do what I want to do.”  “Well, I’m going to quit then.” I said, “Hey, man that is your choice. I like you,  man, but I am the Editor-in-Chief and you’re not.” [laughter] “You’re a  contributing editor, I am the Editor-in-Chief, O.K.? Manthia told me that’s what it  was and I take that stuff seriously.”  

In the end what I do is what’s going to come down on me. It’s not going to come  down on Manthia, it’s going to come down on me. And so anyway, that went on  for a while. Then Manthia left and he said “Quincy, I don’t want to be involved  with the magazine anymore. I am a university professor and I want to travel more.  You can call on me or Clyde or Walter when you want to, but Deborah Willis is  going to take my position.” I said, “Well, I know Deb,” and he said, “Well you  know she has a kind of different take on stuff.” O.K. I didn’t know what that was,  and so she took over his position.  

He had been telling me that there were some mysterious white professors in the  administration who were jealous. That is what he said. They admitted that it was  a great magazine but they were jealous, they were envious because they were  getting asked about me all the time and they didn’t like that. I understand that  kind of stuff so . . .  

JD: This is something that has happened a lot to you.  

QT: Yeah, it happens. So one day, Deb calls me up and says “We’re going to have  to make some changes with the magazine.” “What? What do you mean?” She  says, “Well, they think we ought to do things like this . . .” “I’m not doing it, what  do you mean?” She says, “Well, they think we should do things like this.” I said,  “I’m not going to do it. I am just not going to do it.” She said, “Well, maybe, I  guess we’ve reached a parting of the ways.”  

Hey, it was like that, it was just like that. You know what I mean? JD: Wow, this is Deb Willis talking?  

QT: Yeah, Deb Willis, but then I found out it wasn’t even her. She was told to do  that.  

JD: I see. 

QT: She said to me later, “Well, I didn’t want to do that, see, but the higher-ups,  they wanted to do it.” She says, “I teach here,” you know, “I got to get along with  these people.” I said, “Hey, it’s your decision. This is what I want to know,” I said,  

“since you’re going to cease publishing the magazine, can I take it with me at  some opportune time and take it off campus. Maybe get money and start it over  again with somebody else.” “Oh, yeah,” she said “You can do that, you can do  that.” 

Well, that’s what I am going to do. That’s what is going to happen. I am going to  own it. 

JD: That’s great.  

QT: I am going to have control of it. I am just going to let it go for a while and then  we are going to do it. I just have to get the money together first. I have some  people. I had NYU behind me. That is a lot of money, we were coming out three  times a year. It was costing some money to do that magazine like it was done. So  we’ll see. If not it will just have to be gone. Maybe we can do a big one every year.  

JD: Like an annual.  

QT: I can be a contributing editor and somebody else can be Editor-in-Chief if we  raise enough money. So that’s what happened. I know Deb is sorry now, she is  really sorry it happened because she is catching grief.  

JD: I’ll bet.  

QT: People call me, they call me up, “What happened, what happened to the  magazine?” I say, call Deb Willis, and I give them her number. And so she says to  me, “Quincy, could you please stop giving my . . .” I said, ”No, I am not going to  take the blame. I had nothing to do with it.”  

JD: Let me ask you this. In recent years the United States has openly embraced  fascism and a lot of the trends that have been taking place in so-called higher  education have reflected that. Some of the most far-right think tanks in the  United States have exerted extraordinary control over curriculum on America’s  college campuses and universities. Groups like the Manhattan Institute, the  Heritage Foundation, and the Hoover Institute out here in California. 

Do you suspect or do you know that the decision coming through NYU vis-à-vis  Black Renaissance Noire has illustrated part of that larger trend? Is that fair to  say? 

QT: I would think so. I don’t know. I had thought about it because it just came all  of a sudden. I don’t even know the people who pulled the trigger, I don’t even  know who they are. They’re shadowy people. I never met them. If I did meet  them, you know, they were very nice to me, you know what I mean?  

There was a provost there who loved the journal. A gay white guy and he was  married to a black gay guy. He was the provost, he loved the journal. He started  teaching again, he wanted more freedom, they said. And this woman took over.  She was the one who executed it, you know. Her name was Parker or something  like that. I never met her. I asked for meetings when I heard all this stuff was  about to happen. She would never meet with me. I don’t know what happened. I  just know the decision was by some higher-ups.  

Some of those people in the English Department, they were jealous and envious  of the journal because everybody was talking about it. They were talking about it  with great esteem. [The English Department] was pissed-off. Somebody said,  “Why he’s not even down here, he doesn’t even come to his office.” [laughter]  What does that have to do with the product? 

JD: Exactly. There was something about Black Renaissance Noire, especially for  younger readers who are not necessarily immersed in the culture, that opened up  worlds within worlds for them. In other words, it became a medicinal substance  for people who were otherwise in triage. I think that is part of the move that is  being made here by these shadowy higher-ups. They’re trying to cut off the flow  of medicine to people who need it.  

QT: Right! Right! That’s what it is. That’s why I am glad they are going to allow me  to take it and do something with it.  

JD: That’s the best news I’ve heard all day. 

On the late jazz critic Stanley Crouch 

QT: I was a Jayne Cortez’s house one day and Stanley [Crouch] was talking this  shit, man, and I said, “Shut the fuck up, Stanley.” 

JD: Serious.  

QT: He said, “What?” I said, “Shut up. If you don’t shut up I’m going to smack the  shit out of you.” 

JD: There you go.  

QT: Stanley used to always bully people.  

JD: That’s right.  

QT: He said, “You going to do what?” I said, “Say it again, say it again.” He said it  again. I knocked him out. I didn’t knock him out, I knocked him on the bed with a  right cross. Buh-ow! [laughter] On the bed. Jayne said, “Oh my god!” And Mel  Edwards started laughing. [Stanley] never said nothing to me ever again.  

He would bully people, Stanley.  

I’d say, “Stanley, Stanley.” He’d say “Yeah, Troupe what is it?” I’d say, “Don’t go  there, man, I might have to clock you again.” And Stanley and I got along to the  end. Because I used to tell him, that shit you talking about is stupid.  

You were talking about it earlier [the up-front, plain-spoken style of the Midwest].  K. Curtis Lyle and I moved to St. Louis from Los Angeles. He still lives there and I  told Curtis, “The difference between you and me, we are both intellectuals but  how you express yourself is kind of like California.” Now Curtis is a big guy, he will  knock you out, but he’s always trying to get around it. He told me one day, “Now I  understand how you are, since I lived in St. Louis so long.” They’ll just clock you,  they’ll shoot you, [laughter] they don’t think about it.  

JD: It’s that same Blues impulse that you hear in Richard Pryor, you can hear it in  Miles Davis. You can hear it in a lot of artists that come from that area.  

QT: That’s right, that’s it, man. Point blank.  

JD: Point blank and no filigree, no adornment, just right there.  QT: No filigree. [laughter] 

JD: Plain as moonlight in the forest and if you can’t dig it, fine.  QT: Fine.

JD: I am glad that you brought up Stanley though because I find him to be very  troubling. In as much as he seemed to spend a career just going which way the  wind blows, and he became a professional assassin for his bosses.  

QT: Yes.  

JD: In other words, the New York literary establishment would hire Stanley to  abuse and punish Black men whom they felt got out of line. I for one am very  confused at the praise that is being heaped on him in death because this was a  man who committed the most egregious of sins. Betrayal of the spiritual tradition  that brought him into existence. In fact, there are very few people that he didn’t  betray. Even his mentor Albert Murray, the man who co-signed for Stanley. He  betrayed him too.  

QT: Right. I don’t know if you saw it, but they had a notice of his death on  Facebook and I wrote a piece . . . everybody was, like, oh shit! I talked about it. I  said Stanley was brilliant. I knew Stanley from the time we didn’t have no money  in Watts. You know, we were running around together. He was out there with us,  the Watts Writers. He was going with Jayne Cortez.  

I watched him slide down that slope. I saw him just sell himself out. I said that in  that piece. He was avaricious, he was evil, you know what I mean? 

Let me tell you this one story. I remember when he loved Miles Davis, I mean  absolutely adored, loved. We go in to a club one night . . . I’m from St. Louis,  Miles is from East St. Louis . . . I saw Miles standing over there against the wall  with this woman. Beautiful woman. He always had beautiful women. Stanley said,  “Hey, man, that’s Miles Davis, I am going to go over and say something. We’re  going to go over and say hello.” I said, “I’m not going over there, Stanley. Miles  don’t want to talk to you, man.”  

JD: Exactly. 

QT: I said, “Miles don’t want to talk to you.” He said, “Well, I’m going over and  saying hello, man.” He went over there to talk to Miles Davis, saying, I’m so and so  and so and so, I’m Stanley Crouch. Miles said, “Fuck you motherfucker, get the  fuck out of my motherfucking face.” Just like that. Point blank, boom! 

Stanley, he was upset. Up until that point he had written nothing but real praise  about Miles. The next week in the Village Voice he wrote a piece putting-down  Miles Davis like a dog. Just because he got cursed out. I called him up, I said, “That  is some chicken shit stuff that you just did, man. You know goddamn well you love  Miles Davis. The reason you wrote that piece was because he cursed your ass out.  Talking about how he can’t play?” I said, “Are you a fool? Just because he cursed  you out, he can’t play, huh? You’re the only one who believes that, you and Albert  Murray. Don’t bring that shit to me, man, I know you. I know you. I’m not one of  these crazy people or them white boys that you hang-out with. They don’t know  you like I know you. You’re just chicken shit.” He would tiptoe around me after  that.  

All that stuff that he was writing, attacking all these writers, people, musicians  and everything. It’s just bullshit.  

JD: It is.  

QT: It’s just crazy.  

JD: He was remarkably in tune with the Reagan era. That is when he really rose to  position over there in New York. By following the new conservative trend of  Ronald Reagan. A lot of people don’t like my saying that, but it is true.  

QT: It’s true. It is absolutely true. I was there! I watched him make those moves.






Originally published in Konch, Fall Issue, October 14, 2020

(l-r, Calvin C. Hernton, Ishmael Reed, Amiri Baraka, Quincy Troupe, photo by Eugene B. Redmond c. 1981)

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

UNCLE SAM PLAYS THE TRUMP CARD







UNCLE SAM PLAYS THE TRUMP CARD
by Justin Desmangles

“'Tis dangerous to take a cold, to sleep, to drink; but I tell you, my lord fool, out of this nettle, danger, we pluck this flower, safety. The purpose you undertake is dangerous, the friends you have named uncertain, the time itself unsorted, and your whole plot too light for the counterpoise of so great an opposition.” – Hotspur, Henry IV, Act 2 Scene 3, William Shakespeare

“This is NOT a time for penny-pinching or horse trading on the Hill.” – White House economic advisor Peter Navarro, February 23, 2020, memo to the President warning of an impending 2 million deaths in the U.S. from corona virus.

I had been wondering what they dug out of Reinhard Heydrich’s grave last December; I guess this virus may have been it! Having just read The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick’s dystopian sci-fi masterpiece in which the Nazis emerge as victors of World War II, the name sounded familiar. In the novel, set in the Bay Area, Dick places Heydrich quite high in the order of things, as well he would have been had he not been assassinated by Czech Resistance fighters. The real Reinhard Heydrich was the principal designer of the proposed “final solution” as well as the organizer of Kristallnacht. A man whose infamous cruelty was so severe it was both feared and admired by his Nazi peers, he was also rumored to have Jewish ancestry. Contemporary admiration for his ideas led his followers to resort to grave robbing at the end of last year. Who is to say towards what ritual purpose these actions may have been put? Among certain secret societies, fraternal orders, even wealthy occultists, there would be a great demand for such a substance as previously contained in that grave. Haven’t heard a lot from Skull and Bones at Yale lately. Maybe some of the folks in the Federalist Society could find some Johnnie Walker for a round of congratulations? They can send the bill to A.L.E.C., Americans for Prosperity, or maybe Freedom Works. I am sure Dick Armey’s pension can handle it.

Nazi intellectuals and law makers had great admiration for American domestic policies concerning race and ideas of racial hygiene and were not shy about saying so prior to the U.S. entering the war (see Hitler's American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law, James Q. Whitman, Princeton University Press, 2017). They, too, looked out at the world and saw “shithole countries,” to quote Donald Trump, rather than places where people lived. Forced sterilization of undesirables was especially attractive to them, a policy which remained active in the United States well into the 1970s. The factory-like settings in which Germany would implement their version of these strategies resemble nothing so much as their American cousins in the prison system. Replete with often lethal, illegal medical experimentation on prisoners. Had Heydrich lived to ascend to Germany’s Chancellorship, as many believed he would, I am sure he would have approved of the Trump-Pence junta and its handling of the coronavirus thus far. Particularly the lines of class, race, ethnicity, education and income levels so clearly demarcated by its lethality. To put it country-simple, the right people are dying.

Dean Baquet would probably be the last to admit it, right after David Remnick, but a great many of their wealthiest readers scan headlines like “BLACK AMERICANS BEAR THE BRUNT AS VIRUS SPREADS” (lead story, front page, The New York Times, April 8, 2020) and breathe a quiet hallelujah. The impulse leading toward the genocide of non-white people in the Americas is not only alive and well, it is thriving and growing in strength. Though that impulse began many centuries ago, too many of its key features are with us today in stark and undeniable ways. The elaborate construction of concentration camps along the southern border, tens of thousands of children being held at subsistence level, barely alive, the violent breaking apart of their families as public spectacle. All of these details would show themselves as familiar to any serious student of the history of these continents north and south, going back to the earliest settlements by Spanish, French, Portuguese and English colonists. Their mirror images in the present become obscured only by the fact that collectively we put those events in a sentimental, seductive past, rather than accepting their hideous, grotesque reflection of now. Our greatest palliative in the process of this un-remembering, dismembering today has been access to the narcotizing excesses of so-called media. As the poet Bob Kaufman accurately reported in his now classic “Heavy Water Blues”, “Television, america’s ultimate relief, from the indian disturbance.” Can the Navajo draw such a distinction with its near past? Can any indigenous tribe that has survived unto the 21st century? Surely the rampantly rising infection rates among immigrant workers in Wisconsin’s meat processing plants reveal the centuries old motive for this violence.

Cut to commercial. Real Uncle Tom scene, Ben Carson singing Water Boy on a small riser at the end of dark room under a single spotlight, a tiny scrim behind him on which is projected a waving confederate flag.

Voice over: Stop the war of northern aggression, give generously to the Strom Thurmond Foundation to End Miscegenation.

Fade-to-black

Camera zooms out to reveal a Heidi–type character, smiling, arms extended a la Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music, twirling atop green rolling hills.

Voice over: Yearning to return to her regular pogroming, Erica bought futures in pork bellies last week. She has faith in Tyson Foods and so can you.

Next we see the fat winking face of Mitch McConnell fill the screen like so much pink gelatin, “With so many channels to choose from, why have one point of view?”

And now back to our regular pogroming . . .

The American presidency has always existed in moral twilight. Presidents lie, it is important that they do so in order to keep their job. Even those who audition for the role often start by telling a lot of lies in public to see how much traction they can gain coming into the race. No president as far as we know has lied as much as Donald Trump. His bilious regurgitation of insults, exaggerations, half-truths and outright deceptions is unparalleled by any measure, save for his heroes in professional wrestling. Rowdy Roddy Piper, indeed. But I’ll tell one thing he is not lying about, the number of Federal judges he has appointed to the bench. Other than Ronald Reagan, no president has seated more of these immeasurably powerful lifetime appointments. This extraordinary ordinary fact is a vivid example of what can go wrong when a country stops paying attention. A lot of America’s self-appointed intelligentsia at the papers-of-record and the jibber-jabber-jaws of cable news have taken porn stars, errant penises, and illicit payoffs to be more worthy of their commentary than federal judges. Charismatic advertising, you know. Because as long the news-gathering model for reporting is based on advertising revenue, they will continue to do so. Beguiling and bewildering their audiences for the cheap thrill of pretending they are the monsters they so despise. The desire for power among those who don’t have it and the misconceptions that brings is more haunting than the Ghost of Christmas Past but with much less conscience.

We interrupt this pogrom with a special news bulletin. Disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein, a presumed death by suicide, was discovered impersonating Elvis as a contestant in a south Florida karaoke bar. Claiming to be the winner of the contest when detained by local officials, Mr. Epstein reportedly said that he was without an agent and willing to work at scale.

Next on Fox, Kitten on a Hot Mic, Becky Misandric spews mutilated Marxism before uncorking wine bottles with her teeth, a trick she learned at Socialist summer camp in the hills of Berkeley, California.

The Confederacy was a declared enemy of the United States. Maybe that is the message from these crowds flying Stars and Bars, carrying big guns and screaming that the country be re-opened. They remind me of the religious flagellants from an earlier plague, some even have the same taste in headgear (see Francisco de Goya’s painting A Procession of Flagellants.) These masochistic zealots were famously portrayed by Ingmar Bergman in his icy tour-de-force The Seventh Seal, a meditation on God’s silence in the face of atrocities. Like the new breed of flagellants, they believed if they got the whipping over with, inflicting violence on themselves and others, their God might show them some mercy. Last I checked, God don’t let you pick your switch, but that’s them. People who laugh at the malapropisms and misspellings of these new flagellants do so at their own peril. It’s not funny. Fascist authoritarian governments have always had a tenuous relation with these kind of rabble-rousing provocateurs, they are as necessary to white supremacist terror as clean sheets are to the Klan. It can all go to Hell of course when these people mess-up, kill, or intimidate the wrong person. They’re largely bunglers who have been known to bite the hand that feeds off at the elbow, sometimes even turning their former leaders upside down with entrails hanging out. The trouble in dealing with these death cult ecstatics is tell-them-off too well and they may like you just too much. As has been seen at these demonstrations, they’re just getting riled up, spoiling for the fight and terrorism that comes later. But why would a country allow people carrying guns to fly the flag of its declared enemy in front of state houses and government buildings?

The only good __________ is a dead ___________. You’re an American, so you can fill in the blanks with live ammunition.

Advertising psychology plays its experienced role as dramaturge, the golden rule being that of tricking the customer about the product. Why not be Jekyll when you can play Hyde and seek on the weekend? Political theater? The governor of California, a thespian by choice, has communicated far more effectively for having partnered with a professional actress. Don Jr.’s main squeeze is the governor’s ex-wife, also trained in the theater arts. Her beaux has been performing much better on camera since she stepped in the picture, he even passes as an author on Amazon. Donald Trump for his part continues the traditions of Vaudeville. Still visible in the popular culture are the techniques of the traveling tent shows of the 19th century. There’s Skip Gates swabbing celebrity DNA and telling them they were Cleopatra. Trump’s rebarbative motifs are borrowed from the top-ten hits of European fascism. Vituperative, cruel, heartless, the words come easy. Venom lolls off the tongue, joining a river of bile. His imperious gaze reflecting fits of pique that his authority be questioned at all. Standing at the lectern with the world chomping at the bit, ready to restore ratings with the latest bilge. Having sewn chaos in the garden of democracy, he now reaps a harvest in the Electoral College. Women vote for him, their sons admire him, even grandpa’s got his blood up again. “Dad called a man he didn’t know a nigger at the grocery store in front of a security guard and the security guard laughed!”

Much in the style of Don Rickles, Trump performs the politics of the 19th century too, an era of obsession among his underwriters at the corporate level. “Those damn Civil War amendments, 13 and 14, you heard of them, well get rid of them!”

Mass incarceration of African-Americans is re-enslavement, a process beginning in the immediate wake of the emancipation provided by the 13th amendment (see Douglas Blackmon, Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II Anchor Books, 2008). As I have written elsewhere in this magazine (“Just Us and Jeff Sessions”, Konch, Spring Issue 2018) the elimination of the 14th amendment’s guarantees of citizenship and voting rights is the center piece of the agenda promoted by the Trump administration’s first Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his former aide, now presidential advisor, Stephen Miller. Lee Atwater would have been proud of these guys. American liberal and progressive political thinkers often begin with the premise that the state and its authority have a moral and ethical right to exist. The murder of innocent blacks at the hands of police is viewed with the ironic distance of a malfunction in an otherwise purring engine that works for everybody. Drive it long enough and it will take you where you want to go, local and express.  But the murder and destruction of non-white people by state authority is not an accident that calls for a tune-up, it is an essential constituent of American life. A set of religious rites and rituals that inform long standing traditions of Western domination. As Susan Sontag has famously written, “The truth is that Mozart, Pascal, Boolean algebra, Shakespeare, parliamentary government, baroque churches, Newton, the emancipation of women, Kant, Marx, Balanchine ballets, et al, don't redeem what this particular civilization has wrought upon the world. The white race is the cancer of human history; it is the white race and it alone—its ideologies and inventions—which eradicates autonomous civilizations wherever it spreads, which has upset the ecological balance of the planet, which now threatens the very existence of life itself.” (“What's Happening to America?” Partisan Review, 1967).

Front page, above the fold, a lead item, two of the four journalists who published the aforementioned New York Times piece followed up on May 11, 2020 with “Questions of Bias in Virus Care Haunt Mourning Black Families.” Above the headline is an image of the empty hall of a high school in northern Germany, its doors flung open to better circulate the air free of viruses. The article details the impact of anti-black racism on American public and private health care systems and their long history of abuse, neglect, illegal experimentation, and premature death contextualizing our moment of genocide. The acceleration of African American deaths due to coronavirus infection has been reported on in the European press as well, “African Americans have died at a rate of 50.3 per 100,000 people, compared with 20.7 for whites, 22.9 for Latinos and 22.7 for Asian Americans. More than 20,000 African Americans – about one in 2,000 of the entire black population in the U.S. have died of the disease,” (“Black Americans Dying of Covid-19 at Three Times the Rate of White People”, The Guardian, May 20, 2020).

Can we talk about those concentration camps now?

Of course collecting data is a problem, some would say the problem. As Althea Maybank, chief equity officer at the American Medical Association, has made clear, “We’re not collecting the stats on race and ethnicity we desperately need,” reminding us that “Fewer than a dozen states have published data on the race and ethnic patterns of the pandemic,”(“The Pandemic’s Missing Data”, New York Times, April 8, 2020). In other words the numbers reported above by The Guardian are likely much higher.

More on that missing data question. In January of this year the National Archives announced that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was free to destroy documents related to the sexual abuse and death of undocumented immigrants. Included also are detainee’s complaints detailing violations of their human rights. This maneuver on the part of the National Archives also extends itself to the destruction of records by the Department of the Interior, dealing with such subjects as endangered species, unsafe drinking water, even domestic oil exploration.

Heydrich and his admirers have done themselves proud. As Upton Sinclair would say, it’s a jungle out there.











This essay was composed on May 24, 2020 and first published June 10, 2020 in Konch