“In that open letter I wrote to Pope Francis on the Huffington Post …”
I read a lot of books as an impressionable teenager, but there were three autobiographies I devoured, all in the same semester, that inspired/fascinated/disgusted me with what I felt was their smart, savvy, sometimes brutal depictions and opinions of what “real life” was like: The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Woody Guthrie’s Bound for Glory, and Iceberg Slim’s Pimp. One was assigned for school; two I picked up at a used bookstore in Greenwich Village when my friend Mike and I were supposed to be in school. All contributed to my education.
Over time, I learned that much of what was in those books, while emotionally riveting and mostly true, was factually dubious. Freshman year in college I read Joe Klein’s Woody Guthrie: A Life and learned that Guthrie was both savvier and more mundane a personality than he wanted us to believe. Manning Marable’s Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention showed how Malcolm’s Autobiography was a brilliant, controlled, selective performance. And now Justin Gifford’s Street Poison: The Biography of Iceberg Slim tells a more complicated and less self-aggrandizing (though still pretty damn disturbing) tale than the official take.
Few of the revelations in those books (Marable’s were the most controversial when they were first published) diminish the story or the storyteller. Many of the deviations from fact in Autobiography of Malcolm X, Bound for Glory, and Pimp were made to improve and focus the story, but it turns out that messiness makes for a more complicated and even more engaging story than a slightly too-well-rounded version.
“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” That’s the key line from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and, in some ways, that’s the moral of the film and the three high school books I’m remembering. Sometimes, though, dumping the legend in favor of the fact can better serve the subject and the story.
Sometimes a small, specific unexpected detail can pull you into a piece. Here are the first few sentences of a piece by Steve Coll in this week’s New Yorker about the deal recently reached between Iran and various world powers.
In the late nineteen-eighties, in Switzerland, Iranian officials met with collaborators of A. Q. Khan, the scientist who fathered Pakistan’s nuclear-bomb program. The parties may also have met in Dubai, where Khan maintained a secret office above a children’s store called Mummy & Me. In 1987, the Iranians received a one-page document that included the offer of a disassembled centrifuge, along with diagrams of the machine. They reportedly ended up paying as much as ten million dollars for information and materials that helped Iran advance its nuclear program during the nineteen-nineties.
I’ve boldfaced the part that made it impossible for me not to read the whole article. Illicit nuclear negotiations atop a children’s store! With a great name! Who wouldn’t want to see where this article goes?
(While writing the following for work, I realized that a few moments in the accompanying video are NSFW in most workplaces, so I figured I’d post it here instead.)
I was just sharing with a colleague an example of a useful, entertaining brief animated video and thought I’d share it here, too.
This three-minute-long clip, in which musician and comedian Carrie Brownstein searches for a mythical good afterparty, has all the elements you want in a brief animation: a taut, compelling story (complete with surprises and reversals), images that reinforce and comment upon what’s being said (often with humor), and a design that fits well with the topic. It also features my favorite song from her White Flag project. Enjoy!
I think about Johnny Otis a lot, mostly because I love his music (no Otis, no hand jive, people) and the ways in which he fought for racial equality. I’m thinking about him today in particular because of the unfolding Rachel Dolezal story today.
Consider these long-ago quotes from Otis:
Mr. Otis was also a political activist, a preacher, an artist, an author and even, late in life, an organic farmer. But it was in music that he left his most lasting mark.
Despite being a mover and shaker in the world of black music, Mr. Otis was not black, which as far as he was concerned was simply an accident of birth. He was immersed in African-American culture from an early age and said he considered himself “black by persuasion.”
“Genetically, I’m pure Greek,” he told The San Jose Mercury News in 1994. “Psychologically, environmentally, culturally, by choice, I’m a member of the black community.” (source)
Otis, who was white, was born John Veliotes to Greek immigrants in Vallejo, according to the Los Angeles Times. He grew up in a black section of Berkeley, where he said he identified far more with black culture than his own. As a teenager, he changed his name because he thought Johnny Otis sounded more black.“As a kid, I decided that if our society dictated that one had to be black or white, I would be black,” he once explained.His musical tastes clearly reflected that adopted culture and even after he became famous, his dark skin and hair often led audiences and club promoters to assume he was black like his band mates. (source)
What is real? What is performance? What is wishful thinking? What is passing? What is lying? What is helpful? What is hurtful? What is truth? We’re just starting to unpack these and many, many other questions.
In my world, though, The Blizzard of 78 isn’t a storm. It’s the name of a terrific local band that contributed to my Sandinista Project (still in print! still cheap!) many years ago. They contributed a smashing version of the side six stalwart “Silicone on Sapphire,” which I’ve included below as a gift to everyone stuck in tonight because of the snow. Their version includes an unexpected but perfect contributor: dub giant Mikey Dread. Dread, of course, was an essential contributor to the original Sandinista!, producing some tracks, helping write some more, toasting over even more. Abe Bradshaw and I were honored to have him on the record and I’m particularly grateful to the adept Blizzard boys for making it happen. Now listen to this while the snow continues to pile up outside your window …
Forget that the stories tend to be self-aggrandizing and factually dubious; the actual writing in celebrity memoirs is often brittle and awkward, in part because they’re trying to capture the celebrity’s speaking voice. Jane reminded me of that this morning when she read me a paragraph she found online from the recent autobiography of Mike Huckabee (someone we don’t often quote around the house).
Even autobiographies from entertainers you like tend to be boring, which makes it all more exciting when you come across a paragraph as full of life as this one from Viv Albertine’s memoir Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys, in which she chronicles how the members of her band, the Slits, carried themselves:
When we were on a TV show in Holland, Mike Oldfield’s sister, Sally, was on the same bill. She had a single out at the time (“Mirrors”). Sally was dressed in a peasant gypsy-type dress and warbling away in a breathy little-girl voice. We went up to her afterwards and told her she was shit, that she was compounding stereotypes and doing a disservice to girls, that she should take a good look at what she was doing and how she was projecting herself and be honest about who she was. She burst into tears. We do that sort of thing all the time.
(For more on the Slits’ influence, you may wish to see the brief note I wrote for BoingBoing after Ari Up died, in which I quote the great Amy Rigby.)