“The Prophets? Nostradamus? The Horoscope? They don’t know dick about the end of the world. Let me tell you something, Home-Slice, somebody’s world end every fucking day. Believe that.” — Overheard at the wake of Kerry ‘Dooms’ Emery
New Orleans, October, 2008
This late in the year, one sometimes thinks of the scorecard. The tally, of what has been lost, what has been gained and what has been forever altered.
This year has been cruel. It has divided our country along the lines of class. The long-festering, 800-pound gorilla in the room, is now entirely visible. We’ve found out that our most cruel inequities and most visceral divides lie not among races, creeds, or colors, but along the lines of the distribution of wealth and resources, and how unjustly this bounty is distributed.
This crisis has Americans staring each other down across an economic chasm and as the days go by, we painfully discover that the collateral resentments and pain are every bit as personal and wounding as conflicts of race and gender are. What one cannot have, it seems, is every bit as entombing as what one cannot be, especially when that thing is a job or an adequate place to live.
2011 made visible the bruised soul of America.
This was the year that Egyptians threw off their shackles and, via Twitter and Facebook, brought down a dictator. It was also the year Occupy Wall Street and its hundreds (maybe thousands) of sister organizations entreated Americans to find the courage and the stomach for justified dissent and civil disobedience. In many cities, the cops kept their cool and observed (and sometimes participated in) the dialogue. In New York and Oakland, the cops demonstrated their fealty and obsequiousness to the wealthy classes by brutalizing protesters.
It was also the year I genuinely felt like I had some common ground with the Occupy movement. As a small business owner with eight employees, I feel like I did what our President asked of us, which was to create jobs. Between my studio and my gallery, we created four. He also told the banks to take the TARP money and loan money to businesses such as mine, in order that we might create more jobs. It makes sense. Stimulate the economy by putting more people to work and thus, more money moving around.
Because we have a Constitution, the President could only strongly suggest the banks do this with their hand-out. He could not ORDER it. Thus, a great many of the banks sat on the cash and continued to pay themselves bonuses while the rest of our nation took it in the ass. These are the same tools who are intimidated when they now look out the window of their bank and see legions of dissatisfied and pissed off Americans of every race, creed and social strata staring back at them. It is like the Nietzsche quote that warns us of looking into the abyss. . .that the abyss looks also into us.
This year, the banks and financial gatekeepers began to fear us; and this is a good thing. Every once in a while it’s good to let the powers that be know that we can take this place any time we want to.
This is the year we lost Smokin’ Joe Frazier, one of boxing’s faithful. The bruising heavyweight forever throwing the punishing left hook that put Muhammad Ali on his ass and shut him up–briefly. Joe was from Beaufort, South Carolina tobacco country and hailed from the working-poor upon whose backs the wealth of this country was built. Joe Frazier actually walked behind a mule, pushed a plow, and with his own two fists, extricated himself from poverty.
Ali’s characterizations of Joe were thoughtlessly cruel and a real betrayal. Frazier campaigned actively so that Ali’s boxing license might be reinstated after refusing induction to the army. He even lent Ali money when things were tough. Ali’s subsequent taunting of Joe as a ‘Tom” and likening him to a gorilla was ugly and undignified. Ali’s defenders will tell you this was just showbiz; something Ali did to goose the box office and create excitement, but they know better. What Ali did was culturally cruel. He separated Joe Frazier from the admiration of other people of color and, at the very least, Joe Frazier of Beaufort, South Carolina had earned this. Frazier never forgave this and I don’t blame him.
Sadly, it is only now that Joe Frazier is gone that we are able to discern his history as his own as opposed to merely being tangential to Ali’s. What is fascinating is how much more complex the portrait of Joe Frazier becomes once we view him fully–apart from Ali and the zeitgeist of the 1960s.
In Chicago, we buried the great Hubert Sumlin a few days ago. Whenever you hear that snarling guitar in Howlin’ Wolf’s Wang-Dang Doodle or those wrenching passages behind Muddy Waters, you’re hearing the incomparable Mr. Sumlin; and this man earned his dough. He and Wolf often quarreled and, on occasion, knocked each other’s teeth out. Howlin Wolf was a huge guy with a nasty temper who took no shit. Hubert often said, “I couldn’t let Wolf know I was afraid of him. He’d a killed me. So every time he hit me, I hit him back. Harder.”
To hear Hubert Sumlin play was to hear one of the last echoes of Robert Johnson–Hubert and Honeyboy Edwards being the last living conduits to the man at the Crossroads. My pal, Todd Park Mohr of Big Head Todd and the Monsters, played a tribute at Sumlin’s graveside on Tuesday. It was lovely in its acknowledgement of just what we, who grew up with Rock and Roll, owe those generations of black men with box guitars, who took what was sad and mundane and made it transcendent.
Godspeed Mr. Frazier.
Godspeed Mr. Sumlin.