Wednesday, August 23, 2017

In Memoriam: Dick Gregory 1932-2017

"Segregation is not all bad. Have you ever heard of a collision where the people in the back of the bus got hurt?"

"Last time I was down South I walked into this restaurant, and this white waitress came up to me and said: 'We don't serve colored people here.' I said: 'That's all right, I don't eat colored people. Bring me a whole fried chicken.' About that time these three cousins came in, you know the ones I mean, Klu, Kluck and Klan, and they say: 'Boy, we're givin' you fair warnin'. Anything you do to that chicken, we're gonna do to you.' So I put down that knife and fork, and I picked up that chicken, and I kissed it."

Gregory was born in St. Louis (as was another black comedian ten years earlier: Redd Foxx) A very good athlete, he earned a track scholarship  to Southern Illinois University--Carbondale, where he set school records as a half-miler and miler. Unfortunately, there was another institution out there very much interested in athletic young men: the U.S. Army. I was under the impression there was such a thing as college deferments during the draft era, but for whatever reason, Gregory didn't get one, and he spent the next two years serving Uncle Sam. This was many years before the military's 1970s post-draft advertising slogan Be All You Can Be, but Gregory soon found he had another skill, one that couldn't have gotten him a scholarship as track and field had, but would bode well for him nonetheless. A commanding officer who noticed Gregory was a bit of a cut-up, encouraged him to enter an Army talent show. Gregory did and won (I don't know what, but it obviously wasn't a deferment), and then entered several more, and won those, too. When his hitch was finally up, Gregory briefly returned to SIU, but didn't stay long. He was now determined to be a comedian, and moved to a city in a neighboring state.

Chicago. Note the sign to the left, and though it's obscured partially by a streetlight, you should still be able to make out the name of a popular comedy team of the day (which reminds me, I have another obituary to do once I'm through with this one.) Gregory wouldn't be playing in the same venues as those two guys. Not yet anyway. As he himself put it: "Blacks could sing and dance in the white night clubs but weren't allowed to stand flat-footed and talk to white folks, which is what a comic does." So he played to black audiences in black clubs, but a white or two could occasionally be found in the audience, such as this fellow:

Hugh Hefner may look a bit grim in the above picture, but he was said to have laughed out loud at Gregory's Civil Rights-infused act (see jokes at top of post) and got the young comic a job working here:

Hefner's own Playboy Club. Gregory was now performing his comedy to mostly white audiences, but he didn't tone it down any. And didn't need, too. Black comics were becoming increasingly more popular with the white folks. Nipsey Russell, Godfrey Cambridge, Bill Cosby, and the aforementioned Foxx all began to be heard and laughed at during  this era. Still, nightclubs were hardly the apex of show business. For that you needed that new medium, television, and, increasingly, if you wanted to get on television for the very first time, you needed this guy:

Before Jimmy, Jay, Conan, Jay, and Johnny, there was Jack. Gregory actually turned down invitations to appear on the late night talk show at first, which puzzled Paar. It seems black comics in the past had performed their monologues but were not asked afterwards to sit down and chat with Paar, which wasn't the case with the white comics. Paar promised they would chat, Gregory appeared on the show, and soon became a household name.

 I actually can't find a photo of Gregory on Paar's show, so you'll just have to settle for Merv.

Gregory killing a white audience, in the only way he knew how.

As the 1960s wore on, Dick Gregory morphed into a political activist, and remained one right up until the end. He never out-and-out quit comedy, but nightclub owners became reluctant to book him. It's one thing to joke about civil rights, it's another to get arrested for it. Gregory, for his part, no longer wanted much to do with nightclubs anyway. Those places served booze, which he had come to see in political terms ("If they took all the drugs, nicotine, alcohol and caffeine off the market for six days, they'd have to bring out the tanks to control you.") So he basically earned his living on the college circuit, while continuing his outside activities. In addition to fighting for social justice, Gregory became a conspiracy theorist. The Kennedy assassination, the King assassination, 9/11, and even the 1969 moon landing were all at the mercy of his skepticism.

Gregory often fasted as a means of protest, weighing only 100 pounds at one point. And he never quite put the weight all back on again.  He may not have always looked as he does in the above picture, but he sure was a pretty skinny dude these past few decades.

Though it wasn't the reason why he chose to starve himself, Gregory decided a extremely limited diet had been good for his health, and wished to share his nutritional findings with others.

You may disagree with Gregory's views, express disapproval at his choice of associates, snicker at some of his more outlandish doings, but at least respect the fact that he basically sacrificed a career as a comedy superstar, with all the earning potential that entails, to fight for the things he truly believed in. Sure, a lot of celebrities these days have their own pet political and social causes, but they make damn sure first their agents are out lining up jobs for them before they start marching. Dick Gregory? I don't think he even had an agent! (He did back in the 1960s, but I can't find anyone who might have represented him lately.) 

Through it all, Dick Gregory maintained his sense of humor, always ready to crack a joke, be it a protest rally or an appearance before Congress. I used to watch C-SPAN quite a bit back when I had cable, and Gregory appeared on it from time to time, usually before a college audience (the network covers lectures, seminars, and whatnot when Congress is not in session.) Once he was on some serious-minded panel discussing the serious-minded topic of urban poverty. The discussion turned to crime, and Gregory had this to say:

"I saw in the news that this burglar broke into a drugstore and stole all the Viagra. The police put out an all-points-bulletin, telling everyone to be on the lookout for a hardened criminal."

You can take the activist out of the Playboy Club, but you can't take the Playboy Club out of the activist.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Archival Revival (Feed Your Head Edition)

It's recently come to my attention that this is the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love, which originally came about when a committee of San Francisco nonconformists, realizing the rundown neighborhood in which they lived and worked was rapidly becoming world-famous, decided that such a label might put a positive spin on things. However, in the years since, I think the Summer of Love has come to mean something much larger than that one neighborhood or those mere three months of the year. It's now synonymous with The 1960s (even if the decade was more than 3/5ths over by then.) Mostly because it was about this time that the general public became aware of a colorful (sometimes literally so) group of people known as "hippies". But what exactly was a hippie, and how did such an individual come to be identified with not just a season when a lot of people go on vacation, but an entire decade, or even an entire era? A while back I did a post on the TV show Star Trek where I digressed a bit to take a look at the social currents that were then swirling about the science-fiction series. Here is some of what I wrote: 

Eleven years before the Summer of Love.

Ten years before the Summer of Love.

Three years before the Summer of Love.

On January 14, 1967--halfway through Star Trek's first season--somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 people showed up for The Human Be-In that was held in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, a stone's (or stoner's) throw from the low-rent neighborhood of Haight-Ashbury. What exactly was this Be-In? A few months earlier, California had banned lysergic acid diethylamide, a psychoactive drug better known as LSD that allowed those taking it to visit strange new worlds without having to first book passage on a starship, and so this was a protest of sorts, though pictures of the event shows very few people carrying signs. Mostly they're dancing and appear to be having a very good time. Maybe that was their way of protesting. Whatever they were doing, it caught the attention of the national, and even international, media, which tentatively portrayed the event as a humorous sideshow to the serious issues of the day. There was a problem, though. What to call all these young people? Well, just calling them young people sounds OK to me, but perhaps that wasn't good enough copy. According to the writer Tom Wolfe, who kept close tabs (no pun intended; he was strictly an observer) on this scene, a good many of those young people liked to refer to themselves as acid heads. That wouldn't do for a family publication. Nor would another term they like to use, freaks. Newspaper readers might get the mistaken impression that 20,000 Siamese twins, hermaphrodites, and bearded ladies had shown up in Golden Gate Park. A 50-years old local columnist by the name of Herb Caen came up with a suitable alternative: hippies, and the term stuck beyond a Madison Avenue copywriter's wildest ad campaign. Within a few weeks, "hippie" had become a household word, even used by those who wouldn't let a hippie in their tool shed much less their house. The only people who weren't using the term were the hippies themselves, and even they eventually had to give in rather than disappoint all those teenage runaways now arriving weekly in Haight-Ashbury by the busloads, thanks to all the publicity the low-rent neighborhood had gotten (indeed, it soon became the most famous low-rent neighborhood on the planet.) Though he certainly helped popularize it, Caen didn't actually invent the term "hippie". The words "hip" and "hep"--both meant you were in the know--had been in use in the African-American community since the early 1900s. White kids were introduced to the terms via swing music during the '30s and '40s. As a minority of those white kids got older, especially if they were artistically inclined, or maybe were just different from anybody else (otherwise, what's the point of a subculture?), they moved to places like Greenwich Village, or North Beach in San Francisco (before rents went up in the latter and they all had to relocate to the more affordable Haight-Ashbury) where, since the middle of the 19th century, they were called bohemians. Not that that's what the Bohemians called themselves, at least not in the beginning. Those who didn't like artists, or people who were just different, sarcastically compared such folks to Gypsies, in the mistaken belief that the latter group had originated in Bohemia. Yet that label had gotten old by the middle of the 20th century, and so a few Bohemians took to calling themselves hipsters ("angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection" as one young poet put it.) "Hippie" was coined around the same time, probably by some unsung beatnik. Not that the unsung beatnik would ever have called himself a "beatnik" (at least not until the teenage runaways began arriving in Greenwich Village and North Beach by the busloads.) That term, too, was coined by the enterprising Herb Caen, though a friend of Jack Kerouac's by the name of Harold Huncke had come up with the "beat" part a decade earlier. So many terms, so many ways to attract teenage runaways, so many ways to scare the hell out of Middle America.

However, it wasn't what you called them, or what they called themselves that mattered. It was the sheer visibility that was so unsettling. Sure, there had always been Bohemians, but nobody gave them much mind until their numbers all of a sudden seemed to increase a thousandfold (thanks, no doubt, to post-World War II birth rates.) Difference had never loomed so large. The mainstream media could no longer treat it as a comedy side show. It WAS the serious issue of the day. In one respect, though, it still was a sideshow. They were freaks, as least as far as the non-freaks in the (soon-to-be prefixed as "Silent") Majority were concerned. Long hair on men was especially frowned upon. As was facial hair. Combine the two and you have what to 1967 Mainstream America would have resembled a bearded lady. That some of these strange, new people might differ from each other went unnoticed. Eventually, the hippies, Yippies, flower children, folkies, mods, Jesus freaks, back-to-nature hedonists, campus radicals, Weathermen, fugitives, hustlers, rioters, flag burners, bra burners, draft card burners, draft dodgers, doves, panhandlers, dope peddlers, Merry Pranksters, junkies, Transcendentalist Meditationists, Marrakesh backpackers, hitchhikers, organic farmers, communal dwellers, THE END IS NEAR (or NIGH) picketers, rock stars, rock concert promoters, sitar players, groupies, dee-jays, Sunset Strip go-go dancers, exhibitionists, Satanists, underground newspaper publishers, underground cartoonists, health store owners, head shop owners, cellar cafe owners, coffeehouse (but not coffee shop) owners, street performers, Off-Off-Broadway producers, avant-garde stage directors, experimental film directors, free-form poets, cut-up novelists, pop artists, potty-mouth comedians, Marvel superheroes, graffiti artists, New Journalists, public intellectuals (unless your last name happened to be Buckley), vegetarians, American Southwest desert nomads, gay liberationists, Maoists, Che Guevara admirers, Hell's Angels, Black Panthers, Black Muslims, dune buggy drivers, Volkswagen drivers, any Oregonians not employed by the logging industry, and last, but certainly not least, teenagers, were all filed (or lumped together) under a heading fraught with sociological meaning: The Counterculture. 

As I reread what I wrote, I see I left out a commonly used term of that era: Generation Gap, essentially the difference between teen or college-age kids and their parents on such matters as politics, morality, fashions, and what radio station the dial should be set on. If you're still not sure what the term means, watch just about any episode of All in the Family (the 1960s having spilled over into the '70s.) Is there still a Generation Gap? Maybe more of a cranny. I mean, kids still listen to different music than their parents. The reference points are still different. And a parent still may take offense if a member of the younger generation refers to one of their beloved movies or TV shows as "old". But it all lacks the sociological heft of the 1960s Gap. Back then parents felt THREATENED by youth culture. Today it's just a pain in the ass (as well as an irritating reminder that you're getting along in years and no longer "with it".) What I find funny is how often the middle-aged parent of today will nevertheless mimic the middle-aged parent of yesterday. More than once I've witnessed a father or mother born five or even ten years after the Summer of Love bitch and moan that "the kids these day are too wild. It's not like when I was young and we obeyed rules and blah, blah, blah..." The Gap has become routine, ritualized even, the complaints handed down from one generation to the next like an old heirloom. That original 1960s Generation Gap just seemed so much more vital, so much more urgent. 

It's now also so much in the past:

So go celebrate the anniversary with an Early Bird Special. Especially if you've got the munchies.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Home Wreckers

I've only paid sporadic attention to playwright (and sometimes movie star) Sam Shepard over the years, so I'm not going to give you a full rundown of his career. I did watch and "enjoy" the PBS version of his play True West with a young Gary Sinese and John Malkovich that first aired in 1984,  and has been shown several times since. If you're wondering why I put the word "enjoy" in quotation marks--Hey, I did it again!--the play is a trenchant commentary on the American Dream, family dynamics, the creative process, and what happens when you neglect the housekeeping. Shepard may have had some other response in mind than mere "enjoyment". Cold sweats, maybe. Anyway, have a look:


An actress by the name of Margaret Thomson played the mother. I don't blame her for wanting to get the hell out of that madhouse and visit Picasso, even if he was dead by then. She could drop in on Matisse and Duchamp while she's at it.

Well, I hope you enjoyed that (I thought italics might work better.)