Tuesday, November 28, 2006

When Harlem Nearly Killed King: Hugh Pearson (Seven Stories Press, 2004) In this interesting, fact-jammed piece of historical journalism Pearson (Shadow of the Panther: Huey Newton and the Price of Black Power in America) traces the lives of various people, famous and forgotten, at a crucial instance in the fight against racism. He shows how various elements political, philosophical, medical, and social brush against one another on one bloody, fateful day, September 20th, 1958 when nothing less than the future of the Civil Rights struggle lay on the operating table at Harlem Hospital.
Free Press: Underground & Alternative Publications 1965 – 1975: Jean-Francois Bizot (UNIVERSE, 2006) is a handsome, oversized collection of images from the height of the underground press era of the United States and Europe. The oversized format well accommodates the newspaper style and silk-screened beauty of many of these extraordinary publications. Unfortunately this collection is heavy on looks and very short on content, but I suppose that was inevitable with the limitations and space involved. The 2nd word in Barry Miles’ introduction is “nostalgic” and sadly nostalgia is all that remains of “the sixties” for many of this book’s potential “readers”. The fact is there is little reading to be done here. This is all about the striking image, the breathtaking slice of cover art, and for some a frozen moment of remembrance of an entire era past indeed. There are article reprints. Yet, more often than not, when things get interesting, one is led to an inside page that does not exist. This book is about the idea of Black Power, the idea of revolution, the idea of the peace movement, the idea of anti-imperialism, and obviously the idea of something called “the sixties” that most people who will enjoy this book had nothing to do with. It should come as no surprise then that the media wings of the Panthers and the Weathermen, The Black Panther and Osawatomie respectively, are not represented here. On the other hand, Atlanta’s own excellent The Great Speckled Bird is proudly represented with a “You Can’t Jail the Revolution” Huey P. Newton, silk-screened cover. Likewise, it appears arbitrary to take this up to The New York Rocker and a John Holmstrom, Punk magazine styled East Village Other cover and simply go no further. What about Sniffin’ Glue, Search & Destroy, Factsheet Five, Rollerderby, Nancy’s Magazine and a hundred others too numerous to mention? The underground press did not really come to a close in 1975. It continued more or less up until it was pushed into the dumpster of history by a new generation of non-print technology. This process is going on today. But this is a book about yesterday, about a time when phrases like “Freak Out” and “Power to the People” meant something. Certainly it is a lovely thing to behold, a reminder of what could have been and maybe even about what could be again.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Drugs Are Nice: A Post-Punk Memoir by Lisa Crystal Carver (Soft Skull Press). With this fun yet moving poster-punky memoir Lisa (you might remember her as Suckdog) Carver takes the willing reader back to a magical, secretive moment in the post-post-modern underground era of the 80’s and 90’s. It was the era of Bill Callahan (Smog), of Jean-Louis Costes, of Psycodrama, of G.G. Allin, of so many to the edge and beyond performer/musicians who are quickly quietly slipping into the lost memories realm. Lisa is perhaps best known (and I hope remembered by a few) for her delicious fanzine, ”Rollerderby”. She was also an amazing performer and anti-musician/artist responsible for many lost minor-masterpieces. Her records such as “Drugs Are Nice” and “Rape G.G.” remain decent enough snapshots of what she was capable of for those lucky enough to have obtained and held onto copies. With this new book Lisa takes us back to that strange, scary time. Along the way Lisa remembers her trip to Atlanta and appearance at the Fourth Destroy All Music Festival, where she performed with Debbey Richardson and Benjamin Smoke. D.A.M. 4 was one of the great events of the secret history of the Atlanta entertainment underground, so I am happy someone has had the good sense to document those noisy hours in book form, if only for a few paragraphs. Throughout this book Lisa leads us into a world few dared to enter. She is and was fearless. I love her for that. I am also glad she seems to have survived her adventures more or less intact.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Sing A Battle Song: The Revolutionary Poetry, Statements, and Communiques of the Weather Underground 1970 – 1974. Edited by Bernardine Dohrn, Bill Ayers, and Jeff Jones. (Seven Stories Press) November, post-election, and the quasi-liberals have finally regained control of Congress, and I suppose that is a good thing, certainly it is a less bad thing than the alternative. Whether it is enough to save the country and the planet, whether it is enough to revive the potential buried in the United States Declaration of Independence, is yet to be seen. I have to wonder what nefarious back room deals took place, for the vote manipulators to allow such an outcome. Let us not forget for one moment a moron madman still sits at his thrown, all twelve digits resting madly on all triggers. The man’s inability to maintain or communicate a complex thought is plain to all. Yet the Washington press core remains as mum as the yellow Chrysanthemums currently on display outside my neighborhood Whole Foods Market. And let us not forget that the democrats are at best the proverbial lesser evil.

It is a good time to look back at a not dissimilar moment in history. It is June 1969. Another slimy little wannabe king sits at the head of the Imperial American States. Another meaningless war is raging on the other side of the globe, spitting out countless civilian deaths on a daily basis that very few even bother to notice. All the while a determined guerrilla army is embarrassing and bewildering the mighty American military machine. At home the youth movement is in turmoil. At the national convention of the radical student organization, the Students for a Democratic Society (S.D.S.) there is a revolution within revolution. The result is the Weather Underground Organization.

This new book brings back into print three of the best of many Weather publications. The excellent Weather magazine “Osawatomie” is yet to be re-issued. Included are the three book length projects: the eponymous “Sing a battle song”, “Prairie Fire” and “The Weather Eye”. The original “Sing a battle song: Poems by women in the weather underground organization” is a collection of radical poetry, not always great literature, but always on the edge and on the mark. The following is from a poem called “FOR ASSATA SHAKUR” the author like all of them is anonymous:

“Underground is not the right word
It makes it seem too simple,
As if there is an easy way to disappear
A place to go

Beneath the city streets
There is no safe passage.
You moved among your people
A gentle wind
Invisibly winding into their lives
Constrained a normal human response to daily injustice
With an exhausting effort
A ballooning breath of anger caged inside
Carefully choosing the moment of attack
And with muscles taut like the stretched skin of a drum
Rode the subways between two businessmen
Studying your picture in the New York Times.

Although we had never seen one another
I wondered how you liked to spend those moments
When freedom meant
You knew
They didn’t know.”

Beautiful and raw, this is a blinding snapshot of an era when the streets ran red with revolutionary blood.

“The Weather Eye: Communiques from the Weather Underground, May 1970 – May 1974” is a collection of the various statements released by Weather, more often than not in conjunction with a revolutionary action. Here is Bernardine Dohrn from the first communiqué: “Freaks are revolutionaries and revolutionaries are freaks. If you want to find us, this is where we are. In every tribe, commune, dormitory, farmhouse, barracks and townhouse where kids are making love, smoking dope and loading guns – fugitives from Amerikan justice are free to go.”

“Prairie Fire: The Politics of Revolutionary Anti-Imperialism: Political Statement of the Weather Underground” is the voice of Weather at its most mature and complete, a brilliant revolutionary voice speaking with clarity and calm, that is worth listening to even from the vantage of thirty years on. “Prairie Fire” also comes with a bibliography of the radical left which remains as complete a source of revolutionary reading I have seen anywhere, before or since.

In addition to the three reissued books, there is a useful twenty-year timeline. An alternative history in short informative blurbs, this timeline documents the movement and events which contributed to the movement, from the censure of Joseph McCarthy, in March 1954 through the official dissolution of the Weather Underground in December 1976. For the period of time covered this is remarkably inclusive, unfortunately it does not include such earlier events as the World War II resistance movement or such later tragedies as the capture of David Gilbert and Kuwasi Balagoon. There are also new essays/introductions by Bernardine Dohrn, Bill Avers, Jeff Jones and Jonah Raskin. I found Dohrn’s article to be especially relevant and revelatory.

Together these three books combine to make a powerful statement. These books are more than a call to arms. They constitute a way of life, in words, in poem and prose, an education toward a new, better, truer way to live. This from the original introduction to “Sing a battle song”: “We are daughters of the Vietnam war, schooled by Black and Third World struggles, having come of age within the massive resistance of students, youth and women. We are joining our lives with the needs and aspirations of poor and working class women; we are learning our strengths as women fighting for liberation alongside our sisters here and around the world. In choosing this underground path, we and our brothers have made a commitment to continuing our opposition to US imperialism and to creating a political and armed organization for revolution.”-- sounds as relevant today as it was then.

Someone recently asked why I am so interested in the Weather Underground, the Black Panther Party and other 1960's/1970's era radical political movements. It is a complex question that probably deserves a complex answer, but for now, I simply find I learn more from Bernardine Dohrn than from Amy Goodman. So I suppose I am stuck in the past, hoping to find a few answers for the future.