Saturday, June 30, 2007

Dave Zirin: Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics, and Promise of Sports (Haymarket Books) Someone said Dave Zirin believes “everything is about race.” The fact is a great many issues come down to race. Obviously, the United States is built upon the backs of slavery. All these many years later, much has changed, but many, perhaps most, things remain the same for African-Americans. This truism was exposed in the aftermath of Katrina, when the poor, black, forgotten faces were seen on television by the nation and the world, abandoned, desperate and without hope, left behind in the mammoth structure called the Superdome.

It is upon this ugly symbol of the race gap that Zirin introduces his new book, Welcome to the Terrordome. Zirin re-examines the moment when, in his words, this tragedy became a farce, when the Superdome refugees were moved “not to government housing, public shelters, or even another location in the area, but to the Houston Astrodome.” Then the woman who might best symbolize white American privilege and all that is so terribly wrong with this country, Barbara Bush, showed up to give her words of wisdom on the hopeless situation. According to Barbara: “What I’m hearing, which is sort of scary, is they all want to stay in Texas.” Then the son of the witch, whom Zirin calls “Barbara’s spawn,” shows up to offer his words of wisdom and his “sympathy… for segregationist Trent Lott.” According to George the younger, out of the rubble of Trent’s house “there is going to be a fantastic house. And I’m looking forward to sitting on the porch.”

From the devastation of New Orleans, Zirin moves forward to examine a variety of issues. These are issues that define the United States in 2007. He examines them all through the lens of sports and sports celebrities. The scandal of Barry Bonds' supposed flirtation with steroids becomes a lens through which Zirin exposes the continuing presence of racism in the “sports journalism” of the present era. Zirin exposes the diminishing presence of African-Americans in baseball, and he shows how this is rooted in the basic, hopeless economics of the black ghetto. Zirin writes about sports with a passion and integrity you will not find in your average sports page or monthly sports magazine. Welcome to the Terrordome is a devastating collection of the best of his work.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Todd Boyd: The Notorious Ph.D.’s Guide to The Super Fly ‘70’s(Harlem Moon Books) The study of popular Black culture of the 1970’s is a pretty great gig, as Todd Boyd suggests in his introduction to this new paperback. With an appropriate amount of hyperbole, Boyd, a.k.a. “the Notorious Ph.D.”, calls himself “a lethal combination of intellect and street knowledge, a unique ‘collabo’ between the formal and the vernacular, a Super Fly ‘70’s blaxploitation hero trapped in a professor’s body.” With some loss of points for the brevity of his study, Boyd lives up to the hype. The decade at issue seems to mean very different things to different people. To many rock music enthusiasts, the decade was long considered the nadir of the music, a dead zone of drab stadium rock, over-the-top phony stage shows and very bad hair. The decade was saved only at its very end by the emergence of the punk scene. On the strength of punk, rock pretty much limped along ever after. These same rock types often dismissed much of the music discussed by Boyd herein with the latent (sometimes blatant) racist cry of “disco sucks.” On the contrary, to many of the African-American community, the 70’s were a watershed period of rebirth and rediscover. Perhaps birth and discovery would be a better way to describe what happened to the culture during these crucial years. The end result, amongst other things was that R&B, or soul, later hip-hop, came to replace rock music as the dominate form of popular music in American culture. Throughout this same culture African-Americans came into their own, where once they were all but invisible in not just music but movies, television, comedy and sports. This book describes how this transformation happened. Boyd shows the relationship between the stalled political revolution of the 1960’s and “the Super Fly ‘70’s”. Where black power failed to bring down the empire, hip-hop culture, the rightful heir to all that this book is about, has become the mainstream of American culture, revolution from within. From the NBA to every other commercial on television to you name it, whether or not disco sucked, disco won. Get over it. Boyd divides his look at 1970’s culture into four parts. There is an introductory section called “Hot Buttered Soul” where he broadly discusses the period and its relationship to the present day. In this section Boyd also looks at some of the more important figures from the era including Issac Hayes and George Clinton. Part two, “Hell up in Hollywood” examines some of the films: Shaft (1971), Super Fly (1972), Across 110th Street (1972), The Mack (1973), The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973), Cooley High (1975), and Car Wash(1976). Boyd also gives special attention to three important, sometimes overlooked, African-American celebrities: Richard Pryor, Pam Grier, and Rudy Ray Moore, and one Asian, Bruce Lee, the only non-African American included. (Quentin Tarantino also gets a nod and a wink for the love he has shown blaxploitation in his movies.) The 3rd section, “If you don’t know me by now,” examines the music of the period, including such musical masters as Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin and James Brown. The final section, “Whatcha See is Watcha Get,” looks at the rise of African-Americans in television and sports, giving attention to three series: Sanford and Sons, Good Times, and Soul Train, and four groundbreaking athletes of the era: Muhammad Ali, Julius “Dr. J” Erving, Hank Aaron, and Darryl Dawkins. The Notorious Ph.D.’s Guide to The Super Fly ’70’s is filled with entertaining words about all that made this period exciting and important, so it feels wrong to complain, but there could have been so much more, but what is here is great and right on, never dull and pulls not one punch.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

I have been reading some of the online blather about the finale episode of The Sopranos. I cannot help it. Like pretty much everyone else in this pathetic, T.V. obsessed world we are living, it is pretty much all I am thinking about. Unlike the rest of you suckers, I actually like the character, Tony Soprano, and I am hoping for his ending up king of New York. After he slaughters Phil Leotardo and decapitates his worthless regime, Paulie and Tony will rise to lead the five families as they so richly deserve. Perhaps it is a lot to hope for in the course of an hour-long episode.

One thing I read stirred me up more than the various sorry notions of how the show will end. Someone said The Sopranos is the greatest television show ever. Wrong. The greatest television show ever is The Sopranos' brother HBO series The Wire. #2 is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. #3 is the original Twilight Zone. #4 The X-Files. Fortunately for all of us, most of the rest of the history of television is so filled with dreck , I can never put together a list of the 99 best shows ever. At best I could pull out 15, maybe, and I will leave that for another day.