Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Music Journalist Nelson George Discusses Michael Jackson

The following excerpt is from an unpublished interview(12 manuscript pages long) originally intended for publication in the now -defunct New York Native, a gay weekly newspaper I wrote for from 1983 to 1988. I don't recall why the Native didn't run it.

In a telephone interview, Nelson George, the Black Music Editor of Billboard magazine and author of The Michael Jackson Story (Dell Books) explains the enormous attention being paid to Michael Jackson: "The reason we're interested in this guy is because of his music. That's the bottom line to me. Michael's most interesting work is about his psyche, more than about politics. Things like 'Billie Jean,' 'Wanna Be Startin' Somethin',' and even 'Heartbreak Hotel,' [from the Triumph album] say a lot more about his own insecurities and his feelings about his relationship to the world. That's what I was interested in. How his personality is reflected in his artistic statements and how his business or economics has affected his career in terms of why he left Motown. I don't think normally most of the fan books that I've been reading since I was a child deals with those aspects of the career. So that was in there," he continues," plus the typical things: 'Is he gay?,' 'What kind of makeup does he use?' I tried to get a balance of all those [questions]."
George wrote the book in two and a half months without "any direct input" from Jackson. "I tried to get Michael's official cooperation in this book. I could not get that. I tried his father. His father said the best thing to do was to reach Michael directly. I tried through a number of sources, I got nowhere." So then George " did what every biographer does when he can't get [cooperation from] the source person, you talk to everyone you can who knows Michael." That included record producer Quincy Jones, Michael's parents ("I had a chance to talk with his mother on two occasions") ,the musicians who performed on the Thriller album, and Michael's sister LaToya with whom Nelson George did a long interview. "That turned out to be very valuable," he says. "She's the one who more or less told me the whole background. I didn't realize that the Jacksons had made records before they joined Motown. They're not good records by any means. They're interesting more or less as historical documents. They were made one or a year and a half before they joined Motown. That really gives you an insight into what Motown did for those guys in terms of production quality and song quality."
The book, says George, has received "real good response from the teen crowd" because of its straightforward approach as well as from rock critics "who basically felt more or less that while it was written straightforwardly and very acceptably, it also did touch on a lot of the things in terms of his musical development."
George initially set out to do a Village Voice-style book, one in which there was "a little more delving in, from my point of view as a writer, into the whole context of Michael; his music in more detail. A lot of things would have been more detailed, and more intellectually rigorous in that way." But the people at Dell Publications wanted "more of a fan book. They wanted more of a People magazine book. The resulting manuscript is a compromise between [those] two points of view. It seems like it's working well."

Thursday, June 25, 2009

On Newspapers

"A newspaper is lumber made malleable. It is ink made into words and pictures. It is conceived, born, grows up and dies of old age in a day."
--Jim Bishop, American journalist and author, from The Mammoth Book of Zingers, Quips and One-Liners, edited by Geoff Tibballs (Carroll & Graf, 2004)

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

A Few Words from Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

"...I do not feel that Americans need any 'selling' to themselves. We are inclined to be a bit too self-satisfied as it is. I feel on the contrary, that we need to be made more aware of the discrepancy between our theories and our facts or practices. I feel that we need, as does every nation, to be less conscious of nationalism and more conscious of a general humanity."
--Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (1896-1953), American writer, from Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings: Sojourner at Cross Creek by Elizabeth Silverthorne (Woodstock, NY: The Overlook Press, 1988).

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Fairy Tales in Harlem

What's happening in Harlem has been labeled by real estate developers as "the second Harlem Renaissance." But it is a misnomer; the first Harlem Renaissance , in the 1920s and 1930s, was an artistic movement out of which came such luminaries as Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Countee Cullen. That has nothing to do with the present situation, which is about land and buildings, not art.
If there is a second renaissance in the making, Casa Frela, a new art gallery located at 47 West 119th Street in the Mount Morris Park Historic District, is helping to spearhead it. Casa Frela, which means "your house should be a walk in the park" (containing one word from Spanish and one from the language of the Yaqui Indians of Mexico) is in a brownstone designed by the Gilded Age architect Stanford White. Lawrence Rodriguez, an openly gay man of Mexican descent (both parents were Yaquis) owns the four-story building as well as the gallery in a neighborhood where many gay and lesbian artists reside.
When he moved to Harlem more than three years ago, the Fashion Institute of Technology graduate's intention was to buy a building, not start a gallery. But when he showed the work of an artist who lived down the street, that exhibit put the gallery on the map.
Last year, he showed the work of three lesbian artists--Allicette Torres, D.C. Gable, and Kelly Beeman--in an annual show called "Rainbows Over Harlem." The works included a range of female images, some that were erotic, some non-erotic.
This year he is showing the work of six gay male artists--Brian H. Crede, Anthony Gonzales, Joel Handorff, Seth Ruggles Hiller, Tai Lin, and Branden Charles Wallace--in a show called "Fairy Tales: Personal Legend, Urban Myth, Gay Exhibition." The show, which runs until July 13, "tells individual narrative stories through drawings, paintings, and sculpture," says Rodriguez , in a press release.
Rodriguez who receives a 30 percent commission for each artwork sold says that his gallery can sell anything that's priced under three thousand dollars. But because of his location and the state of the economy, Rodriguez does not deal with anything priced above that. He explained that galleries on 57th Street and in Chelsea were more established and that Harlem is an up and coming art venue. Plus, the other galleries were more centrally located in Manhattan, making them easier to get to from the jobs of art lovers.
Rodriguez, despite being openly gay, does not plan to exclusively handle gay-oriented artworks; he envisions Casa Frela as a place where a lot of Latino artists can showcase their work.
Another vision of his is to open a smaller gallery in Houston, Texas to be called Casita. He recently went there to look over a property to see if he could afford it.
Whenever Rodriguez opens a show, which requires months of preparation, it turns into a major learning experience for him. Or as he terms it, "Cliff's Notes version of an artist's work."
For Rodriguez, the foremost goal of Casa Frela is to act as "a vibrant magnet for the art enthusiast."

Saturday, June 6, 2009

The Blood, Sweat, and Tears of Journalists

One aspect of disgraced New York Times journalist Jayson Blair's memoir, Burning Down My Master's House that got overlooked is his mention of that paper's employee relations department where he sought help for his drug addiction. This part of the book was more interesting than his tales of plagiarism and fabrications.
When I read the book I never knew that such a department existed at a major American newspaper. It made me wonder if other media outlets had a similar department.
Since the lives of a number of Times editors and reporters ended in suicide, no doubt from workplace pressures, I thought it was time for someone to examine the role that such a department plays in keeping employees healthy and functioning. What programs are made available? How accessible are they to employees? What are the origins and history of an employee relations department? What are the qualifications of the administrators? What are the annual costs such a department incurs? What is their success rate? What problems predominate? These are some of the questions I would seek answers to.
Such an article is important because it sheds some light on the underside of the media--the psychological and physical wear and tear of daily journalism.
In light of such recent tragedies as 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina as well as the decimation of newspapers and journalism jobs by the economic downturn, it would be eye-opening, timely, and instructive as to the ways media outlets are helping their current and former employees cope with these events. It would allow news consumers the opportunity to see the human side of the journalistic profession, to witness the blood, sweat, and tears shed by those whose job it is to cover the events of the day.

Friday, June 5, 2009

When Black Gay Arts Thrived

Much has been written and said about the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s. However, very little has been written about another black arts movement that occurred among black gays and lesbians mainly here in New York. As you may know, the '80s was a frightening time because of the burgeoning AIDS crisis. But it was also a very creative period for black gays and lesbians in all the arts: fiction, the theatre, photography, music, dance, film, and art.
Out of this period came such notables as Assotto Saint, Melvin Dixon, Marlon Riggs, Joseph Beam, Barbara Smith, Audre Lorde, Essex Hemphill to name a few.
Unfortunately, most of the male individuals are now dead, victims of the AIDS epidemic. They left behind, however, a body of work that revealed a promising talent that was cut short.
Also, at that time numerous literary journals began to emerge: Other Countries Journal, Habari Daftari, BLK, Pyramid Periodical, In the Life: A Black Gay Anthology, etc.
From 1983 to 1988, I wrote for the now-defunct weekly newspaper, the New York Native. Most of the articles I contributed focused on the black gay and lesbian community. So I got the opportunity to interview and write about many of the participants of this movement. A few of them like Assotto Saint became friends. So whenever I see them mentioned in an article or book, my mind goes back to when I spoke to them on the phone or attended one of their readings or ate dinner with them. For me they will always be more than just a name on a printed page.
Just as Edmund White and Felice Picano have kept the memory of the members of the Violet Quill writing group alive, so too should the names and the work of the aforementioned writers be memorialized.
Eventually someone will write a memoir or critique of the black gay arts movement. I hope I will be able to share my thoughts and memories as well as documentary material with that scholar.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

A Haiku for the Obamas

It is with pleasure that I accept Charles Michael Smith's invitation to publish one of my poems, a haiku for the Obamas , on his blog. Velma Jean Reeb.

Amabo, but Firmly

Rising before dawn,
Barack the lad sat with Mom
reviewing lessons.

"Obama" reversed,
means, in Latin, "I will love,"
but he's tough--no dove!

He wasted no time:
Columbia in '79--
Harvard by '83.

Then as President
Elect, he heard his daughters
laugh with glee to hear

Dad's long-awaited:
"Sasha and Malia...you
have earned the puppy..."

And so, First Dog Bo
has come home to the White House:
Amamus te, Bo!

c2009 Velma Jean Reeb

Velma Jean Reeb is an alumna of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Classics, at Columbia University. She is a proud Upper West Side/Morningside Heights progressive Democrat.