Sunday, July 10, 2016

That Same Old Song

     When I was just a kid, struggling to wrap my mind and my fingers around the I-IV-V blues progression, I had occasion, one Saturday night, to listen to a real master of the form. I forget where that was. Some club in Old Town, maybe.

     They called him something like “Delta Slim Johnson,” but his given name was Otis. He was scarecrow lean, with a craggy face and permanently bloodshot eyes. Kept his kinky grey hair clipped close to the skull, and a pencil-thin mustache lay along his upper lip like an indolent snake taking in some sun. Had more gold in his teeth than they had at Fort Knox. Smoked Lucky Strikes, like me, so he had to be a man.
     With a bottle on his little finger, he did some fine sliding solos, tuned to E major. His fingers were gnarly and crooked, like a bare-knuckle boxer’s. Hard work hands.
     Though he drank his share of Jack Daniels, you couldn’t tell from his voice. He had a deep baritone that made Darth Vader seem like a squeaky soprano, and mournful lyrics flowed from his throat like an Ole Man River of honey, but with the urgency of an escaped slave running from the bloodhounds.
     Yeah, daddy-o, he could play him some blues. 
     Too Much Bourbon Blues. 
     Copulatin’ Blues. 
     Knife-fightin’ Blues. 
     Baby Lef’ Me Blues. 
     Dirt Poor Blues.   
     Miss My Momma Blues. 
     Wanna Go Home But Ain’t Got None Blues. 
     Lynched My Daddy Blues. 
     Old Dog Blues.

     I sat at a table in that cramped club, sat so close I could have barred chords for him, so close that his pain made my gut tremble like a tuning fork.  He couldn’t avoid noticing me. Partly because I was right up front, partly because I stuck out like a dildo on a tree trunk.  Every other face in the crowd was Black.
     Not like me.
     Now, my old man was half Indian, and if we have to pick sides for a ball game, that's the team I’m batting for.  I’ve got some of the features – the eyes, the cheekbones, the attitude. But I could pass for White. Most people look at me, they don’t think “Native American.” They think Italian. Spanish. Greek. I’m kind of a reverse apple: I’m White on the outside, but I’m Red as I can be on the inside.

     I approached him between sets.
     “I really dig your music,” I said, and asked if I could buy him a drink.
     Later, we had a conversation, sipping bourbon, chain-smoking Lucky’s. “Conversation” is charitable. He talked; I listened.
     He hailed from Mississippi.
     As a child, his father had taught him, not only how to play the guitar, but  how to survive, being Black in a White Man’s World, made him memorize the rules like Bible verses or multiplication tables, so he’d never forget. 
     You forget, you die:
Never look any White man in the eye. Keep your gaze down, boy.
Never raise your voice to a White man.
Never contradict anything a White man says. Don’t even question anything he says.
Never make any sudden moves.
Always smile, be polite. Call every White man “Sir.” Call every White woman “Ma’am.”  If it’s the poeleece, call ‘em “Boss.” They likes that.
Whatever a White man or woman asks you to do, you do it.
The White Man is always right, even when he’s wrong ---especially when he’s wrong.
The White man is always tellin’ the truth, even when he’s lyin’ – especially when he’s lyin.’
Nobody’s gonna take your word over a White Man’s word on anything.
Might makes right and White makes right and the White Man’s got both.
Don’t give a White Man a reason to come at you. They don’t needs one. They can make one up if they’re in a mood to do it, and there ain’t nothing you can do about it but pray that you don’t be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

     There was more to it.
     But it didn’t get any better.
     Made me want to holler.
     Or puke.
     Or weep.
     Or shoot somebody.

     Now I’m sitting here, decades later, taking a break from playing some blues. And I remember back to that conversation with Delta Slim, who's, by now, certainly playing an extended engagement in that great roadhouse in the sky.
     See, I just watched a video clip somebody put out on the internet.
     It’s a video advising the public on how citizens should conduct themselves when interacting with the police, so said citizens can avoid being tasered, or shot or beaten to death.
     And it hit me like a short left hook.
     It was the same exact advice that Slim’s daddy had given him.

     If that doesn’t suggest something to you, it sure as hell should.




Friday, July 8, 2016

Good Cop/Dead Cop


     We had it tough, growing up.
     We went from one slum apartment with hot and cold cockroaches to another, like we were in a running gun battle with the rats. We lived in broken down shacks in old shanty town where the wind blew through the walls hindered to the same degree that a wet Kleenex would impede the progress of a .45 bullet. We lived in a car for a while. An old blue Packard.
      I don’t think I ever wore anything that someone else hadn’t worn first.
      Never had access to thing that the good kids had – music lessons, sports, going places and doing things.
      I was physically and emotionally abused. I know all too well what it’s like to be subjected to harsh punishment based on the arbitrary whim of an irrational, emotionally disturbed person who’s making up the rules as he goes along.
      I understand helplessness, and fear and despair.
     And anger.
     I’m good with anger.
     Real good.

     But as bad as things were for me, after all pain I went through, the simple truth is that I can’t even begin to imagine what it must be like to be Black in the United States.
     Maybe the only people who can are those who survived the Nazi holocaust.       
     Something on that scale.

     There were a lot of Black folks where we lived in the city. I never thought much about it.  I grew up listening to Black music – blues, jazz, “rhythm & blues” which morphed into “rock and roll” when they added bleach. I played in bands with Black musicians.  I dated Black women. Once I taught a karate class at the behest of some friends in the Black Panthers.  The hero of my youth was Muhammad Ali, less for his boxing skill than for his moral courage. I remember watching bewildered as civil rights marchers on TV were set upon by police with clubs, and teargas, and dogs, at which time the word “motherfuckers” entered my repertoire of commonly used terms. It was the only word that seemed to fit.
     Still is.

     So yesterday the cops murdered another Black man for no apparent reason.
     If you’re Black in America, everything you do is a crime and the penalty is at the discretion of the police – who clearly favor summary execution.
     Yeah, sure they murder White people, too.

     Whites are 72% of the population but less than 50% of those killed by police

 Bullies are cowards.
     So they always select as victims those whom they perceive to be available, vulnerable and, above all defenseless. People with no clout. No lawyers in the family and no money to hire one. No connections down at city hall, or the state capitol. Easy pickin’s for a psychopathic predator, a sexual sadist, or a cop – but I’m being redundant there.
    That means the poor, the homeless, the mentally ill, the physically disabled, the disenfranchised, children and the elderly, of any race. But at to that “non-white” and your odds of being murdered by a cop skyrocket to the top of the charts faster than a Beatles song in late ‘60’s.

     I don’t know what the hell to do about it.
    Or, actually, I do know, but I don’t like it.
     You know, too, whether you admit it or not.
     It’s ugly, even when absolutely necessary.
     Police officers who commit crimes should be prosecuted. All those mythical “good cops” out there should be leading the charge, demanding that these bastards who betray their oath and disgrace the badge, should be treated like nothing other than the criminals that they are.
     They should be.
     But they’re not.
     When it comes down to it, you have pick a side, you have to choose right or wrong, and there is no Mr. In-Between. To be neutral is to be, de facto, on the side of oppression and injustice. It appears that cops have picked a side. And it's not our side.

     Here’s what I’ve learned from dogs and horses. If you want a behavior to be repeated, you reward that behavior. If you don’t want it to be repeated, you “punish” that behavior. Now, I’m not saying cops are as smart as a good dog or an average horse, but I do think they’re trainable.
     When a cop commits a crime he/she must be held accountable.
     By whatever means necessary.
     When it’s impossible to get justice in the courts, it becomes imperative to get it in the streets.
     Maybe it's time for us to say, in one voice:  "You can be a good cop, or you can be a dead cop. You get to choose. But that's the only choice you get."

     That's a whole lot more choice than they gave their victims.
     So it seems more than fair.

Liberty & Justice


                                            A tutorial on dealing with predators. Any questions?