Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES TV ARCHIVES

Sitting Here in Limbaugh

Television

How to do Rush Limbaugh? It’s a serious politicomedic question, a challenge for anyone of the liberal/left persuasion who stammers in the face of right-wing-but-funny. You dread sounding shrill, so you develop a grudging respect, maybe even a winking approval for the talk show host who has the nation’s right ear. You begin casting him in a whimsical light to avoid casting yourself as someone who can’t take a joke.

Better you laugh with success than it laugh at you. Limbaugh is the nation’s No. 1 radio talk show host, with 530 stations and some 13 million listeners tuning in for his daily three-hour program. His three-month-old TV show, in which he cavorts guestless 30 min­utes a night, is syndicated in 203 markets and many weeks is the No. 3 late-night talk show, topped only by Nightline and Leno. His book, The Way Things Ought To Be, has been the No. 1 hardback bestseller for 14 weeks.

Success begets tolerance. Even reluctant libs look at Limbaugh in a new light — Shirley MacLaine, as he tells it, communed deeply with him at a star-studded Manhattan party. News stories, which invari­ably dub him a “rock and roll Republican,” tend to chuckle over the bombastic, entertainment-val­ue Rush, repeating his patented lines about “environmentalist wackos,” “feminazis,” and the boast that he has “talent on loan from God” — while they ignore the more heated moments, like his defense of Mississippi governor Kirk Fordice’s declaration that America is “a Christian nation.” Literal to a fault (when he wants to be), Rush explains that Fordice is right, because “86 percent of Americans claim to be Christian.” Liberals who act like they’re threatened with a concentration camp “need a psychiatrist.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”720727″ /]

Still, Rush is not a screaming hatemonger like Bob Grant or Morton Downey Jr. He’s got charm, humor (though personally I’ve yet to laugh out loud), and ideology — a combo as bedeviling to “the dominant media” as Ross Perot’s magic. (The author of the nation’s No. 1 paperback nonfiction book during the election, Ross was Rush’s one true rival and a daily target of his ridicule.) Of course, the media eventually struck back at Perot, a fate Lim­baugh evades by not running for office, though he is often asked to.

All of which may well make him, as he’s also fond of repeat­ing, “The most dangerous man in America.” That says it all: He mocks liberals who believe a fun­ny conservative is dangerous, and yet this roly-poly marshmallow, who once shied away from televi­sion because of his girth, wants the world to know he stings.

“How to do Rush?” parallels the nagging ’80s question of how to do Ronald Reagan. And that parallel bounces off another: Rea­gan’s former media consultant, Roger Ailes, is Rush’s TV execu­tive producer. With another for­mer Ailes client, George Bush, out, the Republicans scrambling, and Pat Buchanan a Party pooper, it’s reasonable to conclude: Rush Limbaugh is the country’s foremost conservative.

[related_posts post_id_1=”717929″ /]

If Rush has reached that prickly pinnacle, it’s because he’s deter­mined to prove that conservatives just want to have fun. Limbaugh’s real mission is to show that liber­als are a bunch of p.c. killjoys, that their web of political do’s and don’t’s restrains the natural expansiveness of man. (Which is an indi­rect way for Republicans to say, “I am not sexually repressed!”)

And so every day, millions tune into Rush to get permission to have fun. Every now and then, Rush bursts forth and bellows that he’s “having more fun than a hu­man being should be allowed to have” (a locution that contains the conservative seeds of fun’s re­pression). Recently Joan from Bir­mingham called the TV show. She’s one of Rush’s biggest fans, she assured him, but she has to say it, she just got tired of his Clinton-bashing. Rush’s response was characteristic: First he re­treated — lied, waffled, you might say — claiming that he doesn’t bash. Then he attacked: “My guy lost and I’m having a good time,” he said soon as Joan got off the phone (always polite, he stabs callers only behind their backs). “Joan’s guy won and she’s miser­able.” The point, as always, is to show that liberals are constitu­tionally crybabies.

In this, Rush is at least consis­tent. The day after the election, despite much radio caller moan­ing, he declared he wasn’t going to get depressed or blame the me­dia — that would be no better than the Democrats blaming Willie Horton for ’88. He exhorted his audience to get on with their lives, to prosper despite the economic disaster Clinton will surely bring, and “not look at whoever’s in the White House as your Daddy.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”717934″ /]

Perhaps his cheer is forced. It’s possible that Limbaugh is merely a creature of the Reagan-Bush era, and maybe, please please please, he’ll just fade away. If the next few years improve the economic lot of his fans — people whose in­stinct is less for Rush’s ideological conservativism than for Perot’s fed-up populism — Rush might find himself with less to say and begin feeding more and more off his media stardom, devouring his own tail. Already a promo-for-a-­promo feel courses through the broadcasts: His TV show refers to and plugs his radio show, his ra­dio plugs his TV, and both plug his newsletter (“printed on non­recycled paper”) and his book­ — shelves of which serve as back­drop on the show’s set. To top it off, he regularly reads excerpts of both rave and attack reviews (and I can’t write this without imagin­ing him reading the most flat-foot­ed parts on the air to prove me wrong wrong wrong and no fun!).

But that’s wishful thinking. Limbaugh will thrive. Sure, the shows have lost some angry oomph since the election, but then, hasn’t life? With subjects like gays in the military and Marge Schott, he’ll have plenty to play with. In fact, he’ll be a re­freshingly fearless critic of Clinton’s inevitable hypocrisies.

After the wistful question of whether his show will survive, the other query you hear most in New York — where Rush works and lives (on the Upper West Side!) but where people seem barely aware of the national legend (his TV ratings here are among the lowest, despite the recent switch from Channel 9 at 12:30 a.m. to Channel 5 at 11 a.m.) — is: He doesn’t really believe half the stuff he says, does he? Way more than half. As Limbaugh told USA To­day, his views are “honestly held and sincerely offered. But the ar­rogance is pure, 100 percent shtick — an attempt at humor.”

The big brag is his key attempt at humor. “This show is not about what you think,” he tells his audi­ence. “This show is about what I think.” The big brag simulta­neously inflates his importance and, by its obviousness, preempts audience resentment. The brag’s his free-market ideology in action, a blow-up toy version of letting the individual, not the govern­ment, do it.

[related_posts post_id_1=”397777″ /]

Whether or not he becomes King of the Right Wing, the daily debates over just where does Mr. Limbaugh stand play right into his self-referential media politics. Is he far right-wing? callers ask. Does he like Pat Robertson? (His disassociation from the reverend is most delicate.) In Rush’s lexi­con, he’s from “the Bennett/Kemp/Limbaugh wing of the Re­publican Party.” He also defends Pat Buchanan’s “religious war” and is antiabortion, but he’s not a prude. Soft-core blasphemy is a frequent motif: To announce his book’s reemergence at the top of the lists last month, he said, “For three weeks Madonna sat atop me [audience laughs] on The New York Times hardcover [on “hard” he squinches his face like he can’t stand the overstimulation] nonfic­tion bestseller list. But now I sit atop Madonna [oohs and boos], and she is going down.”

Other good things ab-out Rush, quickly:

• He makes ideas understandable in plain English, without talking down to the audience. In fact, un­like Reagan or Bush, Limbaugh exalts the intellect and is vaguely pro-brains: “With half my brains tied behind my back to make it even,” he says daily.

• When you agree with him — go Rush! He was ruthless on Perot, doing one of his “Updates” — ­song parodies on topical sub­jects — to the tune of “Secret Agent Man.”

• Liberal p.c. needs to be pierced.

A few sickening things about Rush:

• One of his spoof Updates is about the homeless. Only under pressure did he drop an AIDS Up­date set to “I’ll Never Love This Way Again.” (Is there a Lee Atwa­ter-deathbed apology in the mak­ing here?)

• He avoids direct discussion about race, couching any talk about, say, Jesse Jackson or Spike Lee in their liberal politics. Theo­retically, that’s fair. But in actual­ity, his almost all-white audience easily fills in the cracks, which he gleefully widens: Delighted that the Colorado boycott forced May­or David Dinkins to choose be­tween two politically correct forces — gays or Denver’s black mayor, Wellington Webb, who asked him not to support the boy­cott — Limbaugh went on and on about how Dinkins and Webb were “black bros,” repeating “bro” eight times, apparently be­cause it was just so darn funny. His understanding of racism is, at best, pre-adolescent: Iman, “a black woman,” is “beauti­ful … that means I’m not racist.”

•  Almost everything he says on women is suspect. He just doesn’t know women, feminist or other­wise. He’s obviously afraid of them, as he admitted in Vanity Fair, because he felt unattractive and never had a date in high school. But the twice-divorced Rush can’t see his own projection: Women become the ugly desper­ate ones, as proven in one of his “35 undeniable truths about life”: “Feminism was established so as to allow unattractive women easi­er access to the mainstream.” And while he railed against Gloria Steinem for calling Al D’Amato a Nazi, he’s continued to call femi­nists “feminazis.” Why, Rush is just heilarious!

[related_posts post_id_1=”714416″ /]

Such rabidness smoothed by a likable personality would seem to make him a TV natural. But there’s something off about the show. Maybe it’s because Rush plays himself sweeter and safer on TV, afraid his more free-wheeling radio rant will lose him his chance for TV glory.

TV glory seems important to Limbaugh and Ailes — they’ve been “using the medium” to the hilt. Viewers send in video Rush paeans; Rush regularly shows TV clips of his favorite enemies in the act of a liberal gaffe. But without guests and with only an occasional caller, the props are just a diver­sion — there’s an emptiness at the heart of the show. Oddly it’s an emptiness echoed, not countered, by the presence of a live audience.

Their laughter sounds canned. Maybe it’s because they’re trying to have more fun than a human being should be allowed to have; maybe it’s because, laughing only on Rush’s cues, their laughter is canned. Lookswise, they could pass as The Rushford Lives: 98 per cent of the men wear suits and ties.

[related_posts post_id_1=”716800″ /]

Ultimately, it’s Rush’s relation­ship to his audience that defines him as either dangerous man or mere media darling. The most telling Rush phrase I’ve left till last: “Dittos.” Years back, callers were wasting valuable radio time praising him before they got on to their questions. He suggested they just say “dittos” and everyone would get the point. So people be­came “dittoheads” and greet him with “megadittos” from Omaha or Dallas. The special phrases that pass between Rush and audience have become a kind of nationwide baby talk, a gurgly lingo that only the in-love understand.

Though Rush urges his audi­ence to think for themselves, like a good individualistic-minded conservative should, most every­thing in his spiel tells them to think like him. “You don’t have to think. I’ll do the thinking for you.” He’s being ironic, very­ — but many in his audience don’t get the irony and just get upset. In his own way, he wants to warn them away from followerhood­ — but he’d be a nobody without it.

The shows crackle with the con­tradiction. Never does the audi­ence challenge him more than when they think he’s deviated from the track he’s warned them to stay on. Postelection, he appar­ently said something nice on the radio about Clinton (I missed what it was, but heard the hemor­rhaging). As caller after caller be­rated him, Rush categorically de­nied that he had said the nice thing. Thus the faithful rose to their most noble, calling him, in so many words, a liar. One wom­an, after validating herself as a megadittohead, took him on, arti­culately and fearlessly, and dared him to replay the tape. OK, I thought, finally someone smart, strong, someone who “gets the joke” challenging him on his own ground. Will he finally be punc­tured, for real?

Rush charmed her, and she forgot her dare. ■

[related_posts post_id_1=”226751″ /]

Categories
From The Archives NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NEWS NYC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Thugs in Blue

THE BEAT GOES ON … AND ON
Once Again, Police Pummel a Plan for Reform

Last Wednesday, an enormous mob surged out of control, menaced citizens, pushed through police lines onto city hall steps, and blocked traffic on Broadway and the Brooklyn Bridge. But uniformed cops stood by, smiling—for the maraud­ers were fellow cops, thousands of them. Yelling profanities and racist slurs, they rocked and dented cars; some kicked a New York Times reporter in the stomach, others chanted “asshole, asshole” at a be­wildered photographer and at stalled driv­ers who talked with journalists. One such driver, Virginia Santana, was near tears at the blockade; she was trying to get her kid to the hospital for chemotherapy. Vicky Cohen, standing beside her car, was en­raged. “All they care about is them­selves,” she said. Two cops, looking like frat pranksters, shimmied up the bridge exit sign to suspend a banner declaring: “Support US in Blue not the ACLU.”

Over on Murray Street, Rudy Giuliani addressed another police crowd. “The New York Police Department is the very finest in the United States,” he declared, then went after David Dinkins for being anti-police. He criticized the idea of creat­ing an all-civilian complaint review board. “In the words of my good friend, Guy Molinari, BULLSHIT.” The crowd roared.

Next was introduced Molinari’s daugh­ter Susan, a congresswoman from Staten Island, a big police booster, and a single woman. “Homo,” yelled one cop.

Over at city hall, chief David Scott had tried to urge the cops to clear out, since they had no permit to be there. He was met by a sea of flying middle fingers. “Retire! Retire!” chanted the crowd, many of whom were openly drinking alcohol.

This week, New York City launched yet another effort to bridge the precipitous gap between police and public with a proposal for a new, fully independent Civilian Com­plaint Review Board. Police replied with a Bronx cheer, turning out for one of their largest protests in years. Doubtless tons of time, money, and ink will be devoted to the slugfest, and it’ll be tough to beat the pow­erful Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, which has already launched a radio blitz targeting the mayor.

The argument for an all-civilian CCRB is politically sexy; it sounds like a good anti­dote to reams of stories of police abuse. But a closer look suggests the proposal on the table is well-meaning but inadequate—for instance, it still leaves the police commis­sioner with the power to decide what, if any, discipline out-of-control cops should get.

Indeed, some reformers doubt that this is even the right battle to wage. Brutality ex­perts warn that the most efficient and fair ex-post-facto investigations of errant cops won’t remedy a more deep-seated problem. To do that requires a fundamental recali­brating of the police department: how it chooses officers, trains them, and what it tells them about their responsibility to the public.

Best solution or not, the CCRB proposal got new life after policeman Michael O’Keefe killed Jose Garcia in Washington Heights last July. Although a grand jury cleared O’Keefe and concluded he acted in self-defense, Garcia’s death galvanized the Latino community, which often finds itself on the business end of a nightstick. But it’s not just minorities who feel the police oper­ate with impunity—as Jeffrey Wassen and Jeffrey Bergida found out.

[related_posts post_id_1=”721023″ /]

CHELSEA: THE JEWS

It was 1:50 a.m. on December 20, 1989, when Jeffrey Wassen’s car hit a taxi near 23rd Street and 8th Avenue; he and his passenger, Jeffrey Bergida, suffered head injuries. Police officers Steven Cruz and Timothy Vandenberg arrived on the scene and asked Wassen if he’d been drinking. Wassen replied that he wanted the advice of Bergida, his friend and lawyer.

That’s when the officers got nasty, ac­cording to a sworn deposition from Dean Burney, the emergency medical technician on the scene. Besides arresting Bergida for interference, they disparaged “Jew law­yers” (Bergida wore a chai) and repeatedly declared, “Maybe Hitler was right after all.” They also taunted: “I don’t think much of Jewish men, but I like Jewish women, they take it up the ass real good,” and “This is what happens when Jews have too much money and they don’t know what to do with it.” They called the two men “fag” and “Jew fag.” Later, when Bergida’s head had been bandaged, officers joked that with the red hospital markings, Ber­gida looked like a character from the TV series Alien Nation.

That episode was kids’ stuff compared with the pain of a fellow in Washington Square Park who was bitten in the testicles by a police dog. Or when cops doused an accused fare beater, Fernando Huerta, with ammonia—then held a lit match close to his head.

[related_posts post_id_1=”718566″ /]

JUST ANOTHER STATISTIC

No one would dispute that policing is a stressful, dangerous profession or that good cops deserve esteem. But with the power, the gun, and the nightstick goes a heavy responsibility which is too often shunted, and when it comes to malevolent, dis­turbed, or violent cops. New York City has a case of terminal denial. Virtually no poli­tician or powerful figure will publicly acknowledge what many privately maintain: that police brutality and abuse in New York City are much more than a blip on an otherwise placid screen.

“The police are given incredible leeway to do whatever they want when faced with a street encounter,” says Legal Aid attorney Scott Ciment. “There is absolutely no gov­ernment oversight to rein in police abuse.” For Ciment and his colleagues, brutality is common as potholes.

Nobody actually knows how many people are threatened, insulted, intimidated, or groundlessly whacked by cops every day. That’s because the system designed to track brutality is hobbled by fear, disillusion­ment, and the self-interest of the data col­lectors. Oddly, in a field in which statistics are churned out like buttermilk, the NYPD won’t release figures for the number of offi­cers disciplined for brutality, the number dismissed, or even which precinct has the most repeat offenders.

All we have to go on are the figures recorded by the Civilian Complaint Review Board, which is staffed entirely by Police Department employees: From January to June of this year, 1854 complaints were filed, surpassing the number filed during that time last year, 1557. Since 1987, the numbers have generally declined, which the New York Civil Liberties Union says does not necessarily mean there’s less police abuse; just that fewer people are filing complaints.

James Fyfe, a noted criminologist and former NYC cop, says no matter how thoroughly most citizens’ complaints are in­vestigated, the majority are fated to be found unsubstantiated. The reason: They come down to swearing contests between cops and citizens. Of all complaints received in New York, only 3 percent are substantiated, far lower than other cities.

As Koch did before him, Dinkins down­plays the possibility of a systemic problem; Lee Brown, by many standards a progres­sive cop, did too. However, with more offi­cers than any other city, New York is unique: Even if 90 percent of the local cops did not engage in misconduct, that would still leave a staggering 3000 abusive cops. That group alone would constitute one of the largest police forces in America. And specialists say 10 percent is a conservative guess.

Polls may be a more accurate measure of the scope of the problem: In 1991, Gallup found that 43 percent of New Yorkers think the police department uses too much force, a big jump from the 29 percent who said so in 1989. Even the tepid CCRB, in a 1990 report, worried: “If the willingness to resort to unwarranted violence demonstrat­ed at Tompkins Square … is a reflection of the altitudes of the members of the police service, there is reason for concern about what is occurring when police supervisors, journalists, and other citizens are not present.”

Public attitudes sometimes exacerbate the problem. “A lot of people in this city believe cops should be able to kick a little ass,” says Dan Johnston, an attorney and ex-CCRB member. “I believe it’s very harmful to the city and to public safety for the police to treat people in a way [that] they lose respect for the law. But many believe the way to police is by fear.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”4736″ /]

QUEENS: THE POLE 

“Why they attacked these kids I don’t know,” says Joseph Karpinski, whose son spent his 18th birthday being beaten by city police. Karpinski makes an interesting ag­grieved party, since he’s a retired NYC cop.

On the night of February 22, 1989, Abi­gail Mullins happened to glance out her window as she waited for her daughter to come home. Just then, she saw a small group of teens standing in front of her house. One reached to light a cigarette for another, and missed. Both friends fell. Their companions were reaching to pull them out of this Keystone Kops predica­ment when a sedan squealed around the corner, nearly hitting the youths. Then, says Mullins, the car’s two occupants attacked the youths. Immediately, a different car ar­rived from the opposite direction, and its occupants, too, ran over and began beating the group. Mullins didn’t realize the at­tackers were police—in fact she thought she was witnessing a mugging—and called 911.

One of the four, a young woman, screamed, and an officer grabbed her, an­other grabbed her boyfriend, a third grabbed Chris Karpinski, and a fourth knocked down Steve Devaney. The young woman says she and her boyfriend spotted a shield around one man’s neck, and, real­izing they were police, stopped struggling. The officers warned them away—”get outta here”—and concentrated on Karpinski and Devaney. Another witness says that after the plainclothes officers had pummeled Karpinski, they threw him on a car, and he rolled over unconscious. While his body lay on the ground, the witness says, a uni­formed cop arrived and started kicking him. They also smacked the youths with their flashlights and radios. Chris lost one tooth; two to three others were cracked, and his face was seriously lacerated above his eye. He now suffers from severe jaw problems. (His father took snapshots; the offi­cial photos, according to the family, disappeared.)

The incident set off a domino chain of litigation; ultimately, criminal charges against Karpinski were thrown out and civ­il suits on both sides dropped. As for the CCRB, it decided there was no evidence to warrant disciplining the officers. Yet, since a judge decided Karpinski hadn’t prompted the attack by assaulting cops, as police al­leged, who was responsible for his injuries seen in the photographs?

In suing the cops, the Karpinskis were hardly alone. A report by Comptroller Eliz­abeth Holtzman shows that in 1991, 659 people filed civil actions against the cops for misconduct, a 25 percent increase from four years earlier. During that time, the city paid out $44 million to victims of police brutality.

Faced now with mounting demand that something be done, the city council last Thursday began discussing a bill to grant independence to the NYPD-controlled Ci­vilian Complaint Review Board, in hopes it will more aggressively investigate police abuses. An angry Mayor Dinkins, still reel­ing from the cop “Mutiny” the day before, reasserted his strong support for Intro 549, sponsored by Ronnie Eldridge, Virginia Fields, and Victor Robles, along with 15 cosponsors, and endorsed by 17 communi­ty boards.

Although revamping the CCRB to give it real power would be a step toward restoring some public confidence, it won’t even begin to address the underlying issues. Councilmember Sal Albanese of Brooklyn who, perhaps more than any other council mem­ber, knows police issues, calls it “a red herring. It doesn’t address the real issues.” The department, he feels, must require that cops be city residents, do better training, and upgrade detection systems to get rid of bad cops early on.

“The screening mechanism is not good enough, there are some white cops who never came into contact with the minority commu­nity before enlisting,” Albanese says.

[related_posts post_id_1=”725990″ /]

THE BOYS DOWN AT THE PBA

Nobody is more attentive to the police bru­tality debate—and no one takes it more personally—than the PBA, which stands ready to battle any reform.

“I want to welcome you to Fort Scape­goat,” PBA president Phil Caruso told a crowd of cops demonstrating in Brooklyn against “unfair treatment of police offi­cers.” Caruso is the Mary Matalin of police reps—always on the offensive for his mem­bers. Caruso groused: “There’s a pattern emerging in this city where the police offi­cers are getting scapegoated and the crimi­nals are getting royal treatment.”

Not so, says Dan Johnston, the ex-­CCRBer. Reviewing complaints was like listening to a broken record: Time and again, police had overreacted when a citi­zen challenged their authority. Johnston re­calls: “They would allow things to escalate instead of trying to keep the peace.”

That habitual overreaction may be in part because officers are so disconnected from the city and people they guard. After the Tompkins Square melee in 1988 in which police pummeled scores, Police Commissioner Ben Ward complained that many of the demonstrators at Tompkins Square were from outside the city—but so were the police. In fact, 40 percent of NYC cops live outside the city, and many others live in “cop neighborhoods” in Staten Is­land and other outer boroughs, often with­drawing into all-cop social lives that only emphasize the “us-versus-them” mentality.

PBA spokesman Joseph Mancini dis­agrees: “Most cops still live in the city. Even those who live outside the city were born here. Once they started earning decent incomes and raising families, they decided they wanted to be in a suburban setting. It doesn’t make them less committed to the city.”

But it’s indisputable that city cops suffer culture shock when they go from their ho­mogenous communities into unfamiliar ter­ritory. Fyfe, the former NYPD officer, grew up in “lily white” Bay Ridge, then found himself plopped into downtown Brooklyn, with its heavy concentration of blacks and Latinos. Fyfe might as well have been in Kathmandu. He learned how to deal with these cultures, but too late: “For a Hispanic man, looking an authority figure in the eye is a sign of disrespect,” he says. “For an Anglo, it’s the opposite. So I’d get angry at a Puerto Rican guy who didn’t look me in the eye, and start yelling at him.” And, too often, from small misunderstandings come larger consequences.

For cops, racial and ethnic strife begin at home—right inside the precinct house. The heads of the black and Latino officers’ asso­ciations say that intolerance permeates the department. “If you expect police to be equitable with people on the street, you won’t get it until they treat their own ranks properly,” says Detective Walter Alicea, head of the Hispanic Officers Association of the NYPD.

Detective Robert Rivers Jr., president of the Guardians Association, the black offi­cers’ group, has had his own brushes with the issue, outside of work. Once when off duty, he tried to speak with a uniformed officer. “I called out and he immediately reached for his gun. What did he see? A bald-headed black man.”

Margaret Fung of the Asian American Legal Defense Fund says her group has seen a large increase in abusive cops. Language is a key difficulty—many Asian immigrants can’t understand police orders and few offi­cers speak their languages. And though Asians make up 7 percent of the city’s population, they make up less than 1 percent of the police force.

Cyril Nishimoto of Japanese American Social Services was pleased when the Mid­town South precinct invited him to come in and offer some “Sensitivity Training.” But Nishimoto says he came away feeling angry because officers ignored his presentation, actually turning their backs on him as he spoke.

[related_posts post_id_1=”731235″ /]

MIDTOWN: THE ITALIAN

According to the CCRB, the most common complaints—40 percent of those regis­tered—concern excessive force, with “dis­courtesy” second at 30 percent. The re­maining complaints are classified as “abuse of authority” (20 percent of grievances), and “ethnic slurs” (5 percent to 8 percent).

Depending on how you look at it, Greg­ory Garguilo drove into at least two and maybe three of these categories as he head­ed home from his job as a parking atten­dant on March 28 of this year.

It was 1 a.m and Garguilo, 28, was sitting at a light on Tenth Avenue, his car pointed north, he recalls. Another sedan, crawling along 59th Street, turned south on Tenth. Then, suddenly, it screeched a U and roared up behind the bewildered Garguilo. Mysterious men came running at his car, one with a gun drawn, yelling “get the fuck out of the car.” Garguilo recalls. The terri­fied Garguilo immediately complied. The men, who still had not identified them­selves, demanded, “Where the fuck did you steal the car?” “Asshole” and “fuck” he says, were part of every sentence. “They were very angry. I kept saying I was the owner. The one holding the gun said if I opened my mouth again he was going to bash it in.”

Garguilo says the plainclothes cops false­ly accused him of running a red light, and he mentioned so in the complaint he filed at the police station. Yet when a revised version of his report was mailed back to him, his claim had been deleted. Garguilo, a clean-cut, serious young man who drives into Manhattan every day from his home in Tappan (where many cops live), can only guess why the police even stopped him. “The cops had a hunch,” he says with a shrug, “and their adrenaline gets going.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”724399″ /]

SPARRING PARTNERS

When citizens complain about cops, PBA lawyers know how to counter. Legal Aid attorney Scott Ciment says when a citizen is charged with assaulting a police officer, its a good bet in many cases that police are covering up their own abuses. “Often as­sault will be the only charge,” Ciment says. “Why were they arrested in the first place? Not that many people go around assaulting cops.” Indeed, many people who have brought civil brutality suits say that when they filed a complaint, the police filed a cross suit, alleging assault. Attorneys famil­iar with such cases say the strategy is com­mon to defuse the original suit, hoping both parties will agree to drop charges.

Sometimes, cops move to protect them­selves well before anyone’s day in court. Another Legal Aid attorney, David Roun­tree, was at the Transit District 3 precinct last year, inside the subway station at 145th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue, waiting for a lineup. An officer brought in a hand­cuffed suspect with a badly bloodied face. Rountree alleges that the desk sergeant, who appeared to know the suspect, re­marked to him that he “must have fallen down the stairs.” The officers present chuckled. After they’d locked him up, the arresting officer came out, and, according to Rountree, the sergeant said, “What do you think you’re doing? I don’t think we can send that guy downtown looking like that.” Then, the EMS arrived and stitched him up.

On a separate occasion, Rountree repre­sented a man who’d been arrested with one or two vials of crack and a small amount of marijuana—misdemeanors—in Times Square. At his arraignment, the man—who had no prior arrests, lived with his parents and worked in a music instrument store—sported a classic shiner. When the judge inquired where it came from, Rountree ex­plained that his client had been thrown to the ground by a rookie officer and kicked in the face with a boot. The D.A. then inter­jected, in an on-the-record comment, that he had been prepared to charge the defen­dant with a noncriminal violation, but based on these allegations of police brutal­ity, he would not make that offer.

Ciment says the D.A. will interview someone who makes allegations of police brutality, but can turn those statements against the defendant at his trial. Further­more, he says that even if defendants are acquitted, confirming that they were indeed victims of brutality, the D.A. will frequent­ly drop all interest in the brutality charge.

Most people won’t sue. If they do any­thing, they will seek redress from the CCRB. But brutality cases slip through like fine grains in a large-bore sieve. Even in the coarsest, most publicized cases, the com­plainants are rarely satisfied. For the enor­mous number of people who feel they’ve been unjustly insulted, humiliated, slurred, intimidated, terrorized, beaten, etc., the bottom line is low indeed: almost no cop is ever meted “serious justice” when citizens charge them with abuse. (The police depart­ment’s Internal Affairs Division simply doesn’t deal with most abuse situations.) “Even when officers are found guilty of using excessive force,” Newsday found in 1991, “the penalty many receive is a one­-week suspension—the same punishment given to an officer who accepts two free doughnuts from a restaurant, wears a turtle­neck while in uniform, or is discourteous to a supervisor.”

Even in well-publicized, outrageous cases like Judith Regan’s, getting justice is not easy. In 1990, Regan, a pregnant Simon & Schuster editor, told officers to stop taunt­ing her cab driver. She was yanked from the vehicle, thrown against the side, hand­cuffed and taken to a police station. There, she was held—still manacled tightly—for five hours and barraged with threats and lewd and anti-Semitic remarks. Cops asked Regan, an Irish-Italian Catholic, what her name was. “Judith,” she replied. No, said a cop, “Jew bitch.” The rough treatment threatened Regan’s pregnancy; she suffered internal bleeding.

“The CCRB, which is one of the biggest jokes in the world, cleared them of any wrongdoing,” she recalls. The D.A.’s office wasn’t much better. “They have to get along with the police. It’s all political. They issued a press release saying basically that they did not have enough evidence to pros­ecute me so they were dropping the charges, implying that I must have done something wrong. The D.A. didn’t want to help me, they wanted me to go away.”

“I was a very bad example: a mother, in a nice outfit, in a nice job. They couldn’t call me a menace, or a drug addict.” Regan says she was harassed afterwards for a long time; a retired officer even called her husband, thinking he was an ex-husband, digging for dirt.

Regan sued, and the city recently paid her a six-figure amount in settlement. How­ever, not a single officer was publicly disciplined.

[related_posts post_id_1=”725362″ /]

CCRB: CIVILIAN COMPLAINT REJECTION BOARD?

Judith Regan’s “joke,” the Civilian Com­plaint Review Board, is made up of six civilians appointed by the mayor, and six NYPD civilian staffers. A majority of its investigators are uniformed cops. William Kuntz, a CCRB appointed member from 1987 until he resigned five months ago, found the coziness troubling. For example, he didn’t much like the board relying on legal opinions from NYPD attorneys, or its deference to the department.

The Tompkins Square report shows the rift between civilian and police members of the CCRB. “You should have seen the Tompkins Square report before I got my hands on it,” says Kuntz, now a Wall Street lawyer. “If I and some other civilian mem­bers of the board hadn’t been as forceful in putting out that what happened in Tomp­kins Square Park was disgraceful, it would have been very different.”

The most devastating evidence of CCRB’s failure came in a 1990 report on the Tompkins Square “Incident,” issued by the New York Civil Liberties Union. NYCLU reviewed the cases of several bystanders who were shown on videotape be­ing bludgeoned by police: fewer than one dozen were charged. but not one was convicted.

Of 143 allegations of abuse and brutality in the park. CCRB substantiated 29, but was unable to identify the cops involved. One reason: the NYPD refuses to take pro­file shots of its officers. After the Tompkins Square report came out, the CCRB recom­mended that the department snap full fron­tal, left and right profile shots of all officers. The NYPD, however, rejected the advice, arguing that the shots would essen­tially treat cops like criminals. (Another proposal, that I.D. numbers be painted on riot helmets, was accepted.)

Worse, though the board recommends, the police commissioner chooses the pun­ishment. Of 143 allegations, only one offi­cer received internal discipline by the de­partment of more than 30 days suspension. To boot, on that rare occasion when the CCRB dared whimper, the cops simply ignored it: Commissioner Ward let her off with a one-year suspension, instead of fir­ing her, as the board recommended. The board’s sleuths themselves leave something to be desired when it comes to investigating their buddies’ behavior. One Legal Aid at­torney recalls an interview between CCRB investigators and her client: “They sounded more like they were grilling a suspect than taking a report.”

Johnston, a former CCRB commissioner and ex-Des Moines district attorney now in private practice in Manhattan, agrees there’s a problem: “There’s nothing about being a street police officer that qualifies anyone to be an investigator.”

Under mounting pressure, the review board has begun to make wheezy, but slightly discernible adjustments. Only two months ago did it publish a brochure in Spanish. And members are for the first time starting to emerge from their cocoon to attend community board meetings.

[related_posts post_id_1=”724782″ /]

LIFE IN THE BLUE BUBBLE

Nothing moves a cop into high gear like a Code 1013 call, Officer Needs Assistance. But mutual support extends to what many call the Blue Wall of Silence, the unwilling­ness to rat on a fellow officer. Some equate it to the Mafia’s omerta, a blood oath.

Based on his trial experiences, attorney Meyerson breaks the bulk of officers into three groups: Those who don’t see what they see, others who tell a half-truth, and still others who outright lie about what they see. “Any police officer’s word is no more intrinsically credible than anybody else’s word,” says Meyerson. “Police officers will lie as readily as anybody else.”

“Coupled with the 10 percent of cops [who may be regularly abusive], you have an excruciatingly difficult problem that can’t be resolved by the most progressive police commissioner,” says Meyerson.

Cops are encouraged to see themselves as different from everyone else. “Because of the aura assigned to police officers by American society, officers have trouble un­derstanding police work is a job, not a way to spend an entire life,” says Guy Seymour, chief psychologist for the city of Atlanta, which is noted for its progressive policing. Seymour, an expert on police behavior, says cops often have trouble separating the rest of their existence from their work.

”People say, ‘I’m a police officer 24 hours a day, 365 days a year,'” notes Sey­mour. “But that’s not true, it’s just that society sees them that way. If we could get police to look at their work more dispas­sionately, the way a good carpenter looks at his handiwork, I think we’d have a lot few­er problems.”

Anger and aggression, which build when cops feel they’re not accorded all the re­spect they deserve, spill over from their work to their personal lives, spawning a pattern of divorce and domestic violence.

“It comes from being accustomed to having people do what you say, and living your life so that you always want to be in control,” Seymour says.

Interestingly, much of the aggression takes place after a suspect has been sub­dued, suggesting that cops are not trained to deal with the adrenaline rush that comes from the chase. Andrew Vachss, who had broad experience with police as chief of a maximum security institution for violent youth and as a probation officer, cites the Rodney King case, in which King was im­mobilized before cops beat him. Vachss says that whenever cops have a confronta­tion involving physical injury to either par­ty, cops are always treated for ‘trauma.’ “That’s an attempt to decompress them.”

Seymour believes police need to learn how to be negotiators and mediators—the opposite of the police academy, where the emphasis is on getting and maintaining control at all costs.

[related_posts post_id_1=”724516″ /]

PBA: POLICE BREASTBEATERS ALLIANCE?

Besides better training, Seymour says police need closer supervision—by bosses who are not their buddies. Supervisors and line cops are both members of the PBA, which vocif­erously opposes independent controls. PBA successfully waged a fear campaign in 1966 that transformed the newly created CCRB from an all-civilian to an all-cop board. David Garth, the consultant who co-chaired the pro-civilian side, recalls the onslaught.

“We had everybody from the entire es­tablishment, but it didn’t make much dif­ference,” he says. “We got killed.”

Attorney Meyerson, who handles police abuse cases, blames outfits like the PBA, and its head, Phil Caruso, for an ostrich act that debilitates New York. “The greatest disservice Caruso does is to his member­ship, because Phil Caruso should be talking about the investment of great deals of mon­ey into psych services in this department, into new recruitment structures, into early intervention and warning systems.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”727972″ /]

ROLE MODELS, NOT ROBOCOP

Solutions and reforms worth trying are in no short supply. To broaden the fairly nar­row, white, working-class base of the NYPD, Adam Walinsky, who served on the state’s Commission of Investigation, pro­poses funding college educations for those willing to commit to four years service as a cop. The goal: a more representative slice of the population, including people who don’t intend to stay on the force forever, and therefore view the job differently.

Alicea of the Hispanic officers associa­tion calls for more aggressive recruitment among Hispanics from within city limits and notes that the so-called recruitment unit has just one Latino doing outreach.

Since the late ’60s, when NYPD was a leader in developing risk management and stress reduction, the city has lagged badly. It might look to Atlanta’s computerized ‘early warning’ system, which ties in dispa­rate sources of information within the po­lice department—internal affairs records, personnel information and field perfor­mance reviews—to warn of officers headed for trouble.

As for diligently tracking complaints, Johnston believes the city ought to be de­veloping a comprehensive career path for civilian investigators that would cover all city agencies, not the limited number the current Department of Investigation over­sees. And he advocates using undercover monitors to help identify abusive officers.

That’s just a slice of the advice pie. But nothing changes unless it comes from on high. “Ultimately,” says Johnston, “the question is: Do you have the right chief, the right commissioner, the right mayor? If people feel the police are out of control, they must let the mayor know that’s going to be an issue in the election.” ❖

Research: Renuka Parthasarathi 

Categories
CRIME ARCHIVES From The Archives NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

The Devil and Michael Alig

Busting the King of Club Kids
By William Bastone and Jennifer Gonnerman

In the final deluded days before his arrest, Michad Alig had convinced himself that he could trade Peter Gatien’s scalp for Angel Melendez’s torso. For the 31-year-old club kid, this surely seemed like a fair barter: in the debauched demimonde he once ruled, the only thing worse than being dead is being dull. 

Holed up with his 22-year-old boyfriend in a Toms River, New Jersey, motel, Alig had become the pawn of Drug Enforcement Administration agents Man Germanowski and Bob Gagne, who were using him as an informant to fortify their drug-trafficking case against Gatien, New York’s night­club king. Simultaneously, Alig was the prey of another pair of investigators. 

Working from a secret Soho office — upstairs from an art gallery and just south of Commes des Garçons on Wooster Street — Miguel Rodriguez and Walter Alexander, investigators with the Manhattan district attorney’s office, were preparing to nab Alig for the March murder of Melendez, a nightclub habitué and low-level drug dealer.

Played out against the backdrop of these two competing criminal probes, Alig’s frantic last weeks took on an added urgency, with him mistakenly believing that his DEA cooperation would somehow provide immunity from a homicide charge. This misguided notion probably reflects less on Alig’s grasp of the criminal justice system than it does in the accused killer’s value system.

[related_posts post_id_1=”713510″ /]

As he passed on damaging information about Gatien to the DEA, Alig became more certain that he would never be charged with Melendez’s murder. At one point in October — before Melendez’s body had been ID’d by the city medical examiner — Alig telephoned his friend Rachel Cain and poked fun at the homicide probe. Pretending he was Rodriguez, Alig demanded that Cain immediately come to the D.A.’s office for an interview, she told the Voice Sunday. 

Known as “Screaming Rachel,” Cain is a tireless self-promoter (she kicked off a conversation about Melendez’s murder by plugging a Geraldo appearance and her fledgling record label) who was the first Alig friend to publicly confirm that the club kid had spoken of murdering Melendez. As it turned out, Cain’s version — provided to the Voice in June — dovetailed with details of the bludgeoning and dismemberment that investigators believe occurred in Apartment 3K at the Riverbank West skyscraper on West 43rd Street.

Cain told the Voice that, during two lengthy interviews with Rodriguez, she recounted Alig’s statements about the Melendez killing. Cain’s recitation apparently was used by prosecutors last week to buttress murder charges filed against Alig and Robert Riggs, a 28-year-old club denizen known as “Freeze.”

The felony complaints open by referring to statements made by Alig days after the mid­-March slaying. The account is attributed in the complaints to a D.A.’s informant; Cain conced­ed it was a “possibility” she was the unnamed source. Cain also admitted that, like Alig, she has been cooperating with DEA agents and federal prosecutors in a continuing grand jury probe of drug activity at Gatien’s nightspots. For her help, Cain has received witness fees, per diem allowances, and a small lump-sum payment

[related_posts post_id_1=”674582″ /]

Alig had originally been a target of the DEA’s probe, which began about a year ago and resulted in the May indictment of Gatien and a score of other defendants on drug-trafficking and conspiracy charges. Wiretap affidavits ob­tained by the Voice show that Alig, who has not been charged in the federal case, was suspected of involvement in “various schemes to distribute large amounts” of the hallucinogen Ecstasy. 

Cain apparently was not the only Alig asso­ciate to whom the club kid provided details of Melendez’s death. One Voice source recalled that a “very agitated, very upset” Alig approached him in March and asked, “Do you have a car?” The acquaintance was immediately suspicious, recalling in an interview Saturday that “I knew he didn’t want to take a ride. I know Mike. Mike’s crazy.”

The source said Alig then proceeded to describe how he and Riggs killed Melendez and how “he had a dead body in his apartment” and needed to move it. Days later, in an encounter at the Limelight nightclub, the source said Alig commented, “We got rid of the body.” Despite the charges against Alig, the source added that he was “not a bad person.” Like Cain, a reluctant witness who was doggedly pursued by Rodriguez, the Voice source never thought to contact police about Alig’s confession.

One law enforcement source said that Melendez’s body sat in Alig’s bathtub for several days before the club kid and Riggs dismembered it and stuffed it into a box. They then carried the large package downstairs, flagged down a taxicab, and headed to the Hudson River, where they dumped it. 

In the face of a murder investigation, the reluctance of Alig’s associates to assist probers vexed Rodriguez and others in the D.A.’s office, sources said. From the outset, investigators suspected that Alig’s confession was no hoax, but needed a body before they could contemplate a murder prosecution. Investigators believed they had found Melendez’s body in September when a mutilated corpse was fished out of the water off Manhattan’s northern shore.

But while that body turned out to be just another unidentified casualty, press reports at the time struck a chord with police assigned to Staten Island’s 122nd Precinct. On April 12, Detective Ralph Gengo had responded to a call at Oakwood Beach, a scruffy spit of sand just north of Great Kills Park, where locals fish for flounder and teenagers build fires on the weekend. There, a group of children had stumbled across a box containing a legless body. A subsequent autopsy by Dr. Jonathan Arden of the medical examiner’s office determined that victim had died of asphyxia after being struck three time on the head with a blunt object.

Using dental records, Staten Island police and D.A. investigators in late October identified the corpse as that of Melendez. Investigators broke the news to Melendez’s family, adding that they expected to make arrests in the case during the first week of December. The only suspects were Alig and Riggs.

Police arrested Alig in New Jersey at 3 a.m. last Thursday. They picked up Riggs later that morning and “invited him to come down and answer a few questions.” The 28-year-old could have refused, but instead rode with Rodriguez and Alexander to Wooster Street, where the D.A.’s official corruption unit is headquartered. The Soho office, which has unlisted phone numbers and is not included in a building directory, handles police corruption cases and other sensitive matters.

[related_posts post_id_1=”727600″ /]

As D.A. representatives pressed him for de­tails of Melendez’s disappearance, Riggs — who did not ask for a lawyer — surprised investigators by admitting his and Alig’s role in the murder. Along with a written confession, Riggs was videotaped describing the killing, the hacking off of Melendez’s legs, and the disposal of the body. In contrast, when Alig was arrested, probers were not allowed to question him about the killing since Alig had previously hired an attorney. That retainer was made in connec­tion with Alig’s cooperation with the DEA and Brooklyn federal prosecutors. 

When a Voice reporter visited Riggs Saturday at Rikers Island, he was dressed in a slate gray, short-sleeved jumpsuit with Velcro closures up the front. He wore slip-on sandals and white tube socks. Gone were the high-top Nikes, blue and green parachute pants, and shimmery parka he wore the prior day at his arraignment. Riggs refused to discuss his role in the Melendez murder, speaking only about his journey to New York from Florida 10 years ago to work as a milliner. Riggs added that he had recently been designing stage props and costumes for movies and Broadway productions. 

Alig declined Sunday to see a Voice reporter who tried to visit him at Rikers’s Anna M. Kross Center, where Riggs is also housed. While being arraigned Friday afternoon, Alig fidgeted nervously, bit his nails, and scanned the courtroom for familiar faces. As he stood in the dock, with his striped boxers peeking out from the back of his baggy, khaki-colored pants, Alig seemed to be reeling. 

He had spent the prior few months trying to salvage his career in the face of whispers that he was a murderer. At times, to escape the scrutiny and the rumors, he would head to the Garden State to be with 22-year-old Brian McCauley who sells Tommy Hilfiger clothing at the Toms River Macy’s. For Alig, the sleepy town surely must have been a comedown. It was inhabited by tunnel people, who, along with their bridge counterparts, filled up Gatien’s clubs on many of the nights Alig promoted parties. They were the ones who paid at the door and were never palmed a drink ticket. 

[related_posts post_id_1=”719427″ /]

Closeted in the Riverwatch Inn & Irish Pub, a few doors down from the Catholic Charities office, Alig left his room only for trips across the street to the 7-Eleven. With his canary yellow hair and effeminate manner, he quickly caught the eye of the locals. “Oh, it’s the fag!” clerk Robin Simone laughed Saturday when asked about Alig. “He was always patting his boyfriend’s butt. I thought they were gonna get it on right in here.” The Riverwatch owner also had a wisecrack ready, claiming that Alig and his young companion had stayed in “Room 69” at the 50-room motel. 

The slurs were ugly, but it was hard to feel sorry for Alig since he was the one quoted in October’s Details magazine calling Melendez a “scum-of-the-earth drug dealer,” virtually implying he got what was coming to him. But this slight was no surprise. Alig sat at the center of a firmament of cynical, low-rent “stars” whose lives usually revolved around drug use and other assorted excesses.

Until his arrest last week, Alig’s life had been filled with flashes from a camera strobe, disco balls, and spotlights. But as he was driven away from the Riverwatch early Thursday, he was illuminated by only the whirling cherry top on a Dover Township police cruiser. As the cop car headed down Water Street, the last glimpse of neon Michael Alig may see came from a Budweiser sign in the shape of a shamrock, hanging in the window of a musty Jersey dive. 

Additional reporting by J.A. Lobbia and Thomas Goetz

Inside Alig’s Brain: Drugs, Genius, Pedophilia
By Frank Owen

Add prostituting an underage runaway and having sex with minors to Michael Alig’s grow­ing list of alleged criminal activities. In the wake of the arrest of the former king of the club kids for the murder of drug dealer Angel Melendez, a disturbing portrait of Alig as a predatory pedophile and sometime pimp is beginning to emerge. 

According to close friends — both current and former — in 1991 Alig dressed a homeless 12-year-old boy in drag (to look like Brooke Shields in Pretty Baby) and took him to Edel­weiss, a notorious hustler joint then located on West 29th Street. Here the boy sold his backside to get food and drug money for him­self and Alig. “A menace to young boys” is how one former confidant describes Alig. Others, however, insist that any sexual activity was entirely consensual, albeit thoroughly illegal. “Michael was getting sex and money, these boys were getting the time of their young lives,” says one of Alig’s pals.

Previously, according to the same people, Alig had visited Germany following the collapse of the Berlin Wall, where he photographed and took phone numbers from a string of East German hustlers whom he attempted to sell as houseboys to rich New York patrons. “The scheme never really got off the ground,” says one insider. “Michaell was too disorganized.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”731109″ /]

Alig has made a habit of flaunting the law. Whether walking through the lobby of his posh apartment building holding a crack pipe, or doing drugs in public while helping the DEA build its drug conspiracy case against his former boss Peter Gatien, or boasting to friends about murdering Melendez, Alig has long felt the rules governing the rest of society don’t apply to him. He’s so brazen he even repeated the story of the 12-year-old and the East German houseboys to numerous friends on many occasions.

Alig has openly admitted that he’s a pedophile, and used to keep a stack of kiddie porn maga­zines in his apartment. Before his arrest, he was usually seen with a posse of young boys in tow. According to writer Stephen Saban, who lives down the hall from Alig’s former pad, “He [Alig] was giving young boys [the date rape drug] Rohypnol so he could have sex with them. I would see young kids coming to his apartment all the time.” 

Not that these young hustlers and run­aways were angels, insists Saban. If Alig was an exploiter — “a get-over queen,” in Saban’s phrase — he also allowed himself to be exploit­ed. “Inevitably Michael would be so fucked up he could hardly walk, so these kids would prop him up and walk him out into the street and get into a cab with him so that they could get into the clubs for free.” 

[related_posts post_id_1=”723357″ /]

How did the energetic upstart who single-handedly launched his own youth sub­culture in the ’80s turn into the messed­-up sociopath and accused murderer of today? How did the twisted creativity of the original club-kid scene tip over into outright evil? 

Alig’s nightclub career began in the early ’80s, when — fresh from South Bend, Indiana — the 18-year-old started working at Danceteria as a bus boy. People remember him from those days as a nerdy but cute gay boy conventionally attired in blue jeans and white T-shirt who didn’t look old enough to be in the club in the first place. The green hair and extravagant out­fits would come later. 

The club kids were widely ridiculed as brattish outsiders by older trendies when they first appeared. The original Details magazine dis­missed Alig and his crew as “little boys in bean­ies.” Yet Alig ended up revitalizing Downtown (first at Danceteria and the Tunnel, later at Club USA and Disco 2000) at a time when the rapidly aging scene was in desperate need of an injection of young blood. 

“Michael’s genius was in recognizing that the only thing separating the fabulous person from the non fabulous person was somebody’s saying so,” says writer-filmmaker Fenton Bailey, who caught the novice Alig how to throw par­ties. “He saw that he didn’t need to work his way into the established elite of Downtown nightlife. Instead, he gathered around him a whole bunch of friends, inspired them, and transformed them visually, and created his own scene of which he was the king. Like Andy Warhol, he realized that stardom was nothing more than a fantastic act of self-invention.” 

Michael not only reinvented himself, he also made over his friends. Before he met Alig, the self-styled “Superstar DJ” Keoki was a hum­ble flight attendant at TWA. The same thing happened to Robert Riggs, who has confessed to participating with Alig in the murder of Angel. Riggs, whose nom de disco is “Freeze,” was a high-­end hat designer who dressed conservatively before falling under Alig’s charismatic spell.

[related_posts post_id_1=”675261″ /]

Alig had shown perverse tendencies from an early age. While other kids were content with watching horror and slasher movies, the 15-year-old Alig ordered hardcore snuff movies through the mail. But in the early ’90s, his perversity started to slip over into outright depravity as the glitzy drag queens and fashion victims that provided him with his initial following were replaced by a younger, rougher, druggier crowd. His parties became less creative and increasingly sordid. Witness the “Emergency Room” and gore parties that were so characteristic of the last days of Disco 2000. His character changed completely under the influ­ence of so many drugs — especially heroin, which he started using in the early ’90s. Alig took on the traits of a manic depressive, euphoric one minute, suicidal the next. It was also at this time that he caught hepatitis and a large tumor appeared on his upper spine — the result of years of indiscriminate drug use. He got sicker and sicker in every way — physically, emotionally, and mentally. 

“His life, especially in the last two years, has been a suicide mission,” says Gatien publicist Ron Allen, a childhood friend of Alig’s. “Even before he was arrested, he talked about suicide constantly. Everybody I know thinks Michael will take his own life rather than serve out a long jail term. Up to now, he’s always had a way out — whether another pill to pop or another party to promote. He’s cornered; I fear death is his only way out.” 

Another friend isn’t so sure: “Michael is too much of a narcissist to take his own life.” 

He may get some help, though: on Monday he was reportedly severely beaten in jail by four other inmates. ❖ 

The View From Clubland
By Michael Musto

The Michael Alig arrest hasn’t had much impact on nightlife, as it turns out, because nothing can stop a party in motion, because a lot of clubbies don’t read, and mainly because the effects of Alig’s plight had set in way before the handcuffs snapped shut.

Most club crawlers I talked to in the wake of the arrest either had no idea of recent events or were so plugged in to the situation that they barely flinched, but either way it wasn’t intruding on whatever nightly rituals are left to be scraped up in the Giuliani era. Last Friday at Twilo, where club kids use to mix liberally with the civilian crowd, the long line of revelers waiting to get in was inordinately low on vinyl, fake fur, and war paint. “The Alig situation has already had its effect for a while, and that’s why we’re seeing the crowd we’re seeing,” said doorperson Kate Harwood. “It’s a lot less colorful. Not that I was a fan of the club kid scene, because it was getting nasty already. We knew there were too many drug combinations going on.” Her co-doorperson, Lincoln Palsgrove III, agreed: Alig’s kids haven’t been a potent night force for some time. “Michael was trying to achieve Sodom and Gomorrah,” he said, “but it became too decadent and there was no glamour to it anymore. There was no sense of responsibility like at studio 54.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”725753″ /]

Over at Peter Gatien’s Tunnel, where Alig once ruled, the medium-sparkly crowd seemed oblivious to current events, though in the bathroom, a leggy, blond drag queen named Eva Love did appear mildly alarmed. “Its going to be a wake-up call on the  scene,” she said, defiantly downing a swig of Poland Spring water — a far cry from the Ecstasy-Special K combos of the Alig era. Outside, a door guard was emitting even more sobering tones. “The papers keep running that picture of Michael with Peter Gatien,” he lamented, and I understood the concern. Gatien — who’s being investigated for alleged drug trafficking at his nightspots — doesn’t want any lingering connection with the troubled club kid, even though they were bound at the hip-cool-trendoid for years. In fact, Gatien’s publicist took pains to remind me last week that the murder happened after Peter dumped Alig — though my calendar seems to note that the firing and the ru­mors all surfaced in the same few weeks.

As the breaking blind item I ran in April becomes an eye-opening reality, everyone’s putting in his two cents (except the folks at Mi­rage, where Michael threw his most recent par­ties; when I called for comment, they simply laughed hysterically). Cornered at a restaurant, club staple JoJo Americo choked on  his sand­wich, then declared, “Give him the chair!” But drag performer Lady Bunny said, “Michael al­ways gave me the feeling that he was looking out for me,” though she then claimed he did once slip her a beverage she later learned was tinged with his urine — “when he had hepatitis.”

The most typical debate had the aforementioned flack telling club observer Stephen Sa­ban, “It’s horrible what drugs did to Michael,” and Saban replying, “But it’s not the drugs. I’ve known millions of drug users who’ve never killed anyone.” Let alone cut off their legs. Alas, the Giulianis of the world would probably love us to think that nightlife is exclusively populated with druggies and killers, and that the two are inexorably intertwined. He doesn’t go out as much as I do. As longtime promoter Susanne Bartsch told me, “This has nothing to do with nightlife. [Michael’s condition] was a pattern of not liking yourself. Going to a club is not a drug addiction.” And a drug addiction can’t create barbaric impulses that aren’t there. This is an isolated incident, like the hideous eradication of Eigil Vesti after he was picked up at a club in the ’80s. The Angel saga doesn’t convince me that all club impresarios are treacherous any more than O.J. makes me run from athletes faster than I already do.

[related_posts post_id_1=”731524″ /]

My take on Alig was always that he was brilliant, but a potential wreck waiting to happen, that his sense of fun too often hinged on pro­voking people in ways that made them uncom­fortable and angry. At a club, he’d grab you and pull you down a stairway and into a pool. He’d stand there with a friend and openly make fun of you. But you’d forgive him because he threw wickedly amusing, exuberantly envelope­-pushing parties — because the tinge of danger could take on a liberating edge — and he could be warm and effusive too. “Michael’s a human being like everybody else,” says Kenny Kenny, Michael’s old drag doorman. “Nobody’s all good or all bad.”

The way Alig shook up bourgeois notions was a welcome kick in the butt, until he’d go too far and I’d have to start apologizing for knowing him. In an ’88 Voice cover story, I described some of his bigger outrages, like the party he threw to which only HIV-negatives were invit­ed — his idea of a joke — or his Child Pornography Ring soiree, at which people used play money to buy dates with 16-year-olds, Alig pay­ing the kids real cash to go through with it. Alig couldn’t praise the mood-altering drug Ecstasy enough, but typically told me about crack, “It’s dirty and gross and only gross Puerto Ricans do it.” And when he started getting in touch with late-’80s activism, Alig’s ideology was, “People arc so blasé and lazy. They don’t want to go out and pillage and bum police cars anymore.” I bet he’d like to burn some police cars now.

You can chart the progression from ’86 Area to ’96 Mirage, but it was still the same Alig — except that every time he developed more presence on the scene, he’d lose touch with a few more behavioral boundaries. One of his ex-sidekicks, James St. James, recently moved to L.A. as a result of all the goings-on. “I love Michael dearly, but I can’t be around any of this,” St. James told me last week. “It’s totally destroyed my entire view of what we were doing. I thought the club kid movement was about breaking the rules and seeing how far you could push things. Now I realize that isn’t a good thing because absolute power corrupts absolutely. He had too much and thought he could get away with anything, which is not to say that he’s guilty or innocent. But it’s to say that he could get away with murder if he wanted to.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”721955″ /]

On the scene, club kids can’t get away with much of anything anymore. Ex-Gatien em­ployee Steve Lewis is opening a club called Life that Kenny Kenny, who’ll do the door, said will play host to an older, more modely crowd. And over at B Bar (formerly Bowery Bar), which al­ready has that crowd, the disgraced Alig is obvi­ously no longer swinging in with friends for lav­ish dinners. Did he used to pay? “Probably not too frequently — maybe in little pieces,” co-owner Eric Goode said, then philosophically added, “Life is certainly stranger than fiction.”

It’s especially bizarre if you believe the new hearsay filtering in: that Alig skipped town at one point because he was afraid Gatien would get him; that an ex of Alig’s was privy to the crime; that a girl who drove Alig cross-country after the murder could be in trouble for aiding and abetting; that Alig’s been going through withdrawal at Rikers and will be moved to a nicer joint because he’s the star witness in the case against Gatien; and that a prominent TV personality is paying Alig’s bail and legal fees. Also, though confessed cohort Robert “Freeze” Riggs (who’s suddenly a noted hat designer in the press) told the cops that Angel owed Alig rent, I hear the dealer didn’t officially live with Alig at all, he just frequently stayed over.

Amid the daisy chain of finger-pointing — Riggs ratting on Alig ratting on Gatien — speculation is so frenzied that some feel Michael may even be enjoying his public-enemy status be­cause it’s his most famous achievement yet (there are people on the scene who’d apparently kill for publicity). That’s doubtful, but in any case, the intrigue to come promises to be the sickest, most elaborate Alig party ever. Gushes St. James, “The trial will be absolutely beauti­ful, with [club regular] Amanda LaPore in a big hat and all the drag queens parading. It’ll be a fabulous image.” ❖

Categories
FEATURE ARCHIVES From The Archives NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Oh God, It’s Christmas: Yule Laugh, Yule Cry

A White Christmas
BY FRANK OWEN

It was a Christmas that only Sid and Nancy could have loved. Two newlyweds — one a British music critic, the other an aspiring model from Detroit — were shacked up in a former welfare hotel indulging a bohemian fantasy of Yuletide spent without any of the traditional trappings (families, gifts, religion), but with plenty of drugs.

The year was 1988. The place was Hotel 17, the Stuyvesant Square boardinghouse for trendy transients. Around the turn of the cen­tury, when the place was originally built as a res­idence for a few wealthy families, Christmas must have been celebrated on a grand scale here. Our Christmas, however, was a far more inti­mate occasion, observed in one dingy, cell-like room lined with designer clothes and books of obscure French theory.

The word room hardly does justice to the eight-by-10 stained brown box we were paying $30 a night for. In keeping with the tan color scheme, the taps coughed up diarrhea-colored water. The whitest thing in the room, including the sheets on the bed, was the neat pile of crys­talline powder glinting on the beat-up dresser. That, and the waxy squares of paper that lay crumpled on the threadbare carpet.

We’d been up for three days taking cocaine and crystal meth, grinding our teeth and talking shit about the true meaning of the season. In our deluded euphoric state, we decided that festive excess was what it was all about. Christmas is an opportunity for the casual drug-user, a time when the discipline of work and the normal restrictions on hedonistic behavior are relaxed. So it was easy to convince ourselves that staying up all night dancing and drugging was more in tune with the pagan roots of Christmas than the homogenized and domesticated rituals taking place in the world around us.

Personally, I loathe family Christmases, so I was, initially at least, more than happy to spend the holiday season snorting my brains out. But as as the drug supply began to run low, an edgy gloom set in, a mood amplified by the melancholic sounds of an old man muttering to himself in the hallway, a leftover from the day before the influx of drag queens and club brats, when Hotel 17 was a place where the elderly, the ill, and the drug-addicted came to die.

1995 collection of Village Voice memoirs by various authors

Like latter-day postmodern Scrooges, my wife and I thought we were immune to the re­lentless commercial propaganda of the season. Who did we think we were kidding? The reli­gious significance of Christmas may be often ob­scured by the gaudy displays of advertisers and shopkeepers, but as a holiday it retains a tremendous power to evoke communal and family feel­ing. It’s a spirit that can rarely be ignored with­out emotional cost, as we began to find out.

It was Christmas day. For the first time in my life, I was feeling homesick. There was no telephone in the room, so neither my wife nor I could call our parents. There was no television set, so we couldn’t watch It’s a Wonderful Life to get us in the requisite mood. We finally decided to venture out into the stinging cold to try and forage for a turkey dinner. All we could find open was a Korean deli with a salad bar, so our Christmas repast that year consisted not of roast beast with all the trimmings, but of a wilted col­lection of freezing vegetables. We weren’t that hungry anyway.

By now it was evening, time to get dressed, take more drugs, and make the nocturnal rounds. The supply of cocaine seemed unlimited that season. Speeding us across town to a friend’s loft, even the taxi driver offered us a hit. Once at our friend’s apartment, we played with his kids under the Christmas tree, then retired to a side room to do yet more lines. Then it was off to the clubs; every time we walked through a new door, someone would whisk us off to the bathroom.

“Next year, we’re gonna have a giving Christmas, not a taking Christmas,” my wife in­formed me before we finally fell asleep that night, our nostrils encrusted with powdery sed­iment. There was no need to elaborate. After all, there are only so many white Christmases a marriage can take.

[related_posts post_id_1=”713510″ /]

Open Season
BY ANN POWERS

Whatever sentimental phrase signals authentic Christmasness to you­ — sleigh bells jinglin’, angels heard on high, Jack Frost roasting on an open fire — in the down-and-dirty business of consumerism the only one that matters is the one reading OPEN LATE. And for procrastinators, even brighter is the rare sign that flashes OPEN 365 DAYS A YEAR. The record store where I worked a dozen years ago considered that sign a talisman and a creed. And so, while most people stuffed their faces and watched Rudolph or the 49ers, we per­formed the act of charity that meant the most to the late-running and the lonely. We cranked up the cash register and sold.

Working on Christmas may seem like a nightmare of Dickensian proportions, but the employees of Sell-More Discs actually competed for yule shifts. Record retail de­mands more love than ambi­tion — at just over minimum wage, few of us had savings accounts or truly habitable apartments. But we got to spend all day and night neck­ deep in the records we loved more than money, more than status, more than anything. On my crew, there was Terry, a hip­pie-maned-jazzboe who drove a hack for extra cash and ate macrobiotic; Korean Rastaman Lester; Southern gentleman-goth, Charles; Max, an avant-garde axman who actually had record bins set up in his house; punk speed-freak lovebirds Timmy and Corrine; folkie­-turned-performance artist Jade, a Wyoming transplant living in her van; and my best buddy, Penelope, a Roxy Music fanatic versatile enough to attend the symphony with one coworker and a Run-D.M.C. show with another. Me, I was a new-wave kid studying poetry and the blues, swiping all the records the simpatico security guard would allow, learning fast.

We were freaks; by choice or destiny, no one really knew. But what else are freaks going to do on Christmas but hang out at the shrine to all that makes them freaky? Many of us either had no parent figures or weren’t currently phon­ing home, so we volunteered for double shifts to earn triple overtime, and broke out the brandy and eggnog under the counter. But it was Bill, our night manager, who engineered the Sell-More Discs freak feast.

Bill and his brother Theo were Guamanian muscle-guys loyal to the company but in love with the employees. For the yule, Bill and Theo or­ganized a potluck, but this wasn’t just your usu­al banana bread-and-pretzels affair: Max made a vat of German potato salad, Lester cooked up some Caribbean bean stew, Terry provided soy cheesecake, and Pen baked a raisin-apple pie just like her mom always did. Even the speed kids managed to buy an Entenmenn’s pie. Best of all, Bill and Theo, generous and subversive to the end, set up a barbecue right by the back vent and smoked a  whole salmon, island-style.

We chowed between cash register shifts and blasted A Reggae Christmas as stragglers and lonely hearts wandered the store’s aisles. Some­body put up a poster of Wham! and started a darts game. A friend or two from outside dropped by for a glass of cheer and a shopping spree, receiving an extra-special holiday discount our bosses would never know about. And as always the local TV news crews showed up with their cameras and their question so off-the­-mark. “Isn’t it awful to work on Christmas?” the perky reporter said, scrunching his nose as we frantically hid our bottle of champagne behind the Yanni tapes. We made some joke or nasty comment — “well, you’re doing it, aren’t you?” — ­and got rid of them so we could get back to our party. It would have been too hard to explain what we knew: Ours was a family by choice, each member a misfit struggling to build some kinship that felt not just comfortable, but real. Sell-More Discs had given us a chance to do that. The truth was, we weren’t working this Christ­mas. We were spending the day at home.

Some of the names in this article have been changed.

[related_posts post_id_1=”720680″ /]

Black Santa
BY KWELI I. WRIGHT

My brother and I knew from whence our dirt bikes, Christie dolls (black Barbies), Star Wars action figures, and Easy Bake Ovens came. From our parents, of course. After all, didn’t we give them carefully prepared Christmas lists, show them the pictures of the toys in the Toys “R” Us catalog? Couldn’t we see the rolls of wrapping paper hidden (not very well) in the closet?

Our parents liked ro keep it real. “Me and Daddy buy the toys, Santa just delivers them,” is how Mom explained the whole Saint Nick phenomenon. In 1979, while feeling the spirit a little more than usual, she decided to take our celebration to another level: she would hire a Santa to come to our building, ride up the ele­vator, and march straight to our apartment with a delivery of gifts. She found a Santa through a newspaper ad, and then she gave us details. He would come around 11 p.m. Christmas Eve and stay for dessert, so we might want to rest up. If I remember correctly, the whole deal with San­ta visiting is that you don’t see him, but that was beside the point to her: he was already paid. My brother Kareem and I had no questions or reser­vations about the fantasy-reality mix. We weren’t about to miss this.

So we left a glass of milk and a chunk of Entemann’s chocolate cake on the dining room table and waited at the top of the stairs for Santa to push through the unlocked door. As we crept down the steps we heard him frantically unpacking, knocking collectibles off the coffee table. Then we saw him.

This wasn’t any Santa — this Santa was as black and beautiful as my grandpa, only taller and younger. Back then I was eight, and I didn’t realize how important it was for me to see a black Santa. The thought never crossed my mind that this was probably the last one I’d see. It was my parents’ idea that Santa can be claimed by peo­ple of any color — black, white, Hispanic, Asian — because what he really represents is an extension of your family. She told me the other day that her goal was not to prove there was one real Santa, but to make sure we knew this gift-­giving guy belonged in our home.

When he heard two kids approaching, our guest freaked and ran to hide in the bedroom, emerging only after Kareem and I assured him that he was expected. We sat on the living-room floor with our legs crossed, grinning from ear to ear as our very own black Santa chuckled “Ho, ho, ho!” and laid exactly the presents we’d asked for under the tree.

[related_posts post_id_1=”724767″ /]

A Kwanzaa Carol
BY EVETTE PORTER

“I’m celebrating Kwanzaa this year,” my I nephew announced, a bit self-satisfied, when I asked him a few weeks ago what he wanted for Christmas. I assumed it was just another phase he was going through, like the time I want­ed to be called Balaniké, refusing to answer to anything else. My nephew, Daevon, is seven, and the oldest of my brother’s three children. And in years past, he’s enjoyed the kind of Christmas largesse that comes with being the first and, un­til recently, only child in the family. So for him to disavow Christmas would be a big deal.

“So, does that mean you don’t want any­thing for Christmas?” I asked, hoping I might be off the hook for gifts this year. “No! What are you, crazy?!” (Kids always speak in exclama­tions.) “Well, exactly what are you celebrating, Christmas or Kwanzaa?” I said, trying to force the issue. “Both, of course.”

Of course.

I grew up in the ’60s, before Kwanzaa’s sudden emergence as a major black holiday­ — now more popular than Juneteenth or Black History Month. Beginning the day after Christ­mas, Kwanzaa is a week-long celebration of fam­ily and spirituality. It’s thriving for the same rea­son black parents look for books with black faces or buy Shani dolls — it’s something they can use to build a “positive self-image” for their kids. Given the scarcity of black Santas, Kwanzaa makes the holiday season a bit more culturally correct. To me, the “tradition” sometimes seem a bit forced — but to Daevon, it’s clearly an ex­citing, if confusing, part of a burgeoning cultural identity. “So how do you celebrate Kwanzaa?” “On each day [sigh], you do different things with your family. But you have to read from the Kwanzaa book.”

“The Kwanzaa book?”

“Yeah, the Kwanzaa book. Everyone has the same words.”

“You read something out of a book?”

“No! You read from the book and then you do something with your family. But you don’t have to do exactly what’s in the book.”

“Okay.”

“Well, hmmmm … Aunt Muffy, could you hold on just one second?”

There’s a long pause.

At this point, I’m not so sure Daevon really understands what Kwanzaa is all about. He hasn’t mentioned the traditional candle-lighting ceremony or the seven principles (nguzo saba) of Kwanzaa — unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith.

“I’m back. I was looking for my Kwanzaa book.”

“Tell me what you do each day to celebrate Kwanzaa.”

“Every day you and your family do some­thing together [another sigh]. Like on one of the days, all the money you save up … no, uh. One of the days, right, you make like a little piggy bank?’

“Uh-huh.”

“And you save up money, and put it in that bank. And then, and then the next coming Kwanzaa, that’s when you buy something BIG, for saving up all that money.”

“Okay, so the money you save up, do you buy something the next day or do you buy something the next year?”

“You buy something whenever you have enough money to buy something big.”

“Do you still celebrate Christmas?”

“Yes, you can still celebrate Christmas. But on the seventh day of Kwanzaa, that’s when you’re supposed to open all your gifts. The next Monday [a week from Christmas].”

“Are you having a Christmas play at school.”

“Yeah, I’m in it. It’s all the second graders.”

“And what are you doing in it?”

“Oh, I’m singing a song. It’s not like a play, it’s a presentation. Every second-grade class is singing a song, one song. Like ‘Little Drummer Boy,’ ‘Must See Santa,’ and ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas.’ We’re doing songs like that. And there is a Kwanzaa song.”

“What’s the Kwanzaa song?”

“l really don’t know all the words. Hold on, I have to think this through.” (Barely audi­ble mumbling as my nephew tries to remember the verse.)

“While you’re thinking, tell me what you want for Christmas, I mean Kwanzaa.”

“Oh, I know some of the words — ‘Children learn their history.’ ”

“Children learn their history?”

“Huh-huh. Yeah. I know half of the song.”

“Do you know when Kwanzaa began? Where it came from?”

“It came from Africa.”

“No, it didn’t. In 1966, a guy named Ron Karenga, a black man, decided to create a holiday that was more nationalistic, more Afrocentric. But it’s based on African traditions. There’s a harvest celebration in Africa that’s similar to it, but it’s not the same thing. It actually began here in the U.S. Did you know that?”

“No. I did not know that.”

Well, I’ve done my bit for black history.

“Do you want different gifts for Kwanzaa than you want for Christmas?”

“Yeah, totally different.”

“What do you want for Kwanzaa?”

“Like African American things.”

“What?”

“I don’t know … like scarves that have …”

“Kente cloth?”

“Yeah, and, like, stuff that has the colors of Kwanzaa and other colors. And in the middle of it, it has ’95. That’s the year I got it.”

“If ’95 is in the middle, what’s going to be on the outside?

“Around 1995, I want the border to be red, black, and green.”

“Okay.”

“I think that’s it for Kwanzaa.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”1550″ /]

The Worst Noel
BY ELIZABETH ZIMMER

“Bubbe-meises,” my New York Jewish mother snapped whenever the subject of Christmas came up. Lies and superstitions, all of it: the Immaculate Conception, the Virgin Birth. A lot of nonsense. She’d get cross and impatient. We never had trees; we exchanged modest gifts at Hanukkah; when we got older there were no gifts at all, just her gen­erous check “for your birthday, really,” which followed in January.

Then a guy proposed to me; a sculptor, sweet and shy, a lapsed Lutheran from the out­skirts of Buffalo whose terrific homemaker mom announced, when she first met me, that her best friends were Jewish. It was 1969, and the no­tion of getting married seemed as bizarre as everything else in the zeitgeist, but at the same time made sense; we’d create a safe haven for each other amid the prevailing sexual and political chaos. I became a legal member of his Chris­tian family (albeit in a Jewish ceremony). Dodg­ing his draft board, we’d emigrated to Nova Scotia, miles from everyone we knew, to teach at an art college in an officially Christian country. I embraced Christmas as impetuously as I’d entered marriage. That year, I participated enthusiastically, readying the tree in the picture win­dow, crafting elaborate ornaments and baking spicy German cookies like his mother’s. Hand­ made presents winged toward us; we scrambled to reciprocate on our entry-level paychecks. He made oyster stew on Christmas Eve, as his clan had always done; we spent the holidays cook­ing and welcoming new acquaintances.

1995 collection of Village Voice memoirs by various authors

By the next Christmas we knew he was about to lose his job, but we kept shopping, cooking, entertaining. The Christmas after that, he was unemployed. The one after that, he was, I guess you’d say, self-employed, experimenting in our cellar with prototypes of furniture he hoped to manufacture and sell, filling the air with chem­ical smells and the sound of a ripsaw. I was earn­ing all our money, still cobbling together cele­brations, frightened and anxious and tired.

Something had to change. Never marry anybody you wouldn’t hire, I found myself mut­tering under my breath. The next Christmas we got a tree, but all I felt like hanging on it was food: popcorn, cookies, foil-wrapped chocolates on golden strings from the vast sweets empori­um down the road. That year he gave me a steam iron and a pair of ice skates. I don’t remember what I gave him. But on Boxing Day I began eat­ing the ornaments, one Santa after another, until the boughs were bare. Then I started packing. I walked the mile to work every morning, took a dance class every night. Three months later I quit my job and moved across the country, alone.

[related_posts post_id_1=”19170″ /]

Holiday on Ice Cream
BY MICHAEL MUSTO

I’m probably the only nondysfunctional Christmas guy in the entire metropolitan area. Home for the holidays to my parents’ kitsch-laden house in Bensonhurst, I return to the awe-inspiring decor that, in its own magi­cally garish way, spells love. Crocheted flowers, stickpin owls, and dolls of many nations blind­ingly adorn the joint, and most eye-catchingly of all, half the fridge door is done as a homage to Jesus Christ, while the other half is covered with pictures of my parents’ other idol, me (their on­ly child, after all). Everything’s equal here — not only am I aligned with the Christ figure, but beautiful clocks equal 99-Cent Store Pierrot heads — and the Christmassy doodads add even more festive layers that further steamroll every­thing to the same lovely level.

But the real celebration is in the food; to quote the well-spoken duck in Babe, Christmas means carnage. A gigantic lasagna or baked ziti could easily serve as the main course in any other home in the world, but in this place it’s a mere hint of a shred of an appetizer. It’s followed by voluminous amounts of meatballs, sausages, and other gravy meats, all covered with blizzards of parmesan cheese and tomato sauce. Then, if you’re still alive, come the entrées: wildly delicious chicken and ham dishes, plus an array of sides — namely sal­ads, candied yams, mushrooms, and a quiche made with artichoke hearts. Just when you’re sure your stomach is about to blow apart, out come the insanely large tubs of sherbet and ice cream, plus the donuts, pastries, cakes, and pies, with Reddi Wip, Cool Whip, and La Creme standing by for good measure. Say no to any of this and you’re driving a knife through my mother’s heart. These loving if artery-clogging offerings say she cares. To accept them means you care back.

The mood is generally warm, the company familiar. But some­how, amid the threat of all that happiness and satiation, semidysfunctions do tend to crop up. In this setting, my attempts at dark humor — so delightful elsewhere — can be misinterpreted as cruel; other family members’ politically incorrect comments drive my friends into the bathroom crying (there, they can enjoy mom’s doll-shaped toilet paper coverings); and, as everyone jockeys for attention, merriment sometimes leads, at the drop of a meatball, to hurt feelings, none of them directed by Jodie Foster. But in the wake of all this, mom has the best response of all: “Come on, have some more ice cream!”

[related_posts post_id_1=”561927″ /]

Manger? Mangia!
BY FRANK RUSCITTI

My family is extremely Italian. You want proof? We come from a small town called Cansano in the mountain ranges of Abruzzi that had one road in and one road out. We immigrated to the States in 1955 (making the front page of Il Progresso in a “just off the boat” photo) and settled on that most Brooklyn of all Brooklyn street corners, 33rd and Third. We got guys named Mario and Antonio in our family, but thank heaven no one wears gold chains. Like all good Italians (southern Italy, at least; anything north of Milan is Ger­many anyway), we celebrate every Christmas Eve with the biggest seafood dinner this side of Jesus and that loaves-of-bread episode. The funny thing is most Italians don’t know why we party this way; phone calls to organizations such as the Italian Cultural Institute and the Italian Heritage and Cultural Commission were met with the verbal equivalent of shrugged shoul­ders. Words like history and tradition are thrown around, but the only fact that seems to count is that a minimum of dishes must be served (ac­cording to one coworker nine, my sister eight, my mother 12). No one seems to know why we do what we do every year without fail.

But ours is not to question why, ours is just to eat, eat, eat. Not, however, until everyone is ready. My sisters bring out plate after heaping plate, only to yell, “GET YOUR HANDS OFF OF THAT!” with all the love they can muster if anyone moves too soon. It’s friggin’ torture. Picture Red Lobster, except the fish is real and cooked by humans. Homemade pasta with calamari. Baked clams. Salmon steaks. Breaded scallops. Octopus salad. Baccala. Stuffed squid. Shrimp scampi. Shrimp cocktails. And that’s just for starters.

More than once, I’ve fasted before the feast, making penance for my sins and drooling thanks while fantasizing about the greatest meal of the year. Talk about tripping! Some years were classics, like the one when 11 main courses were served (the record!), or the one when we were invaded by non-English speaking Danish students. Everyone is welcome at the table as long as they can endure my family’s penchant for demanding they sing Christmas carols for their supper; even faked lyrics bring a loud roar of approval. It’s an offer guests can’t refuse, because even the feeblest attempt brings a non-stop embarrassment of riches in the form of lobster, breaded shrimp, mussels, seared tuna, raw clams, and more. Christmas day is almost an afterthought, because year after year Christmas Eve kicks its butt hands down.

Recently, a faction of American-born offspring has started a separate “kids’ meal.” A pasta with meatballs dish is served to children who won’t eat fish. Of course, certain family members (including me) grumble that if they aren’ going to eat seafood they should starve. Why? It’s tradition!

[related_posts post_id_1=”3667″ /]

God Bless Us, Every One
BY MARIAH CORRIGAN

It was Christmas 1974 at the Immaculate Conception Children’s Home, and Suprima, Ineeda, and I had already planned all the things we were going to make in our Easy Bake Ovens. We were nine, and the nine-year-old girls always got ovens; it was a tradition. How else would we learn to cook? Certainly not from Sister Mary (their middle names were always Mary) Bougofawa, the home’s head cook, who didn’t make anything if it wasn’t white and boiled beyond recognition. The ovens were handed out at the home’s yearly holiday extravaganza. That day, we set our hair, dug out our good dresses and church shoes, and filed down to the gym in anticipation of an unrecognizable dinner and Christmas presents.

But this year things just didn’t look right. The tree wasn’t as large as I’d remembered it; the head table, reserved for the community sponsors of this shindig, was nearly empty. Where was Mr. Harold? He was town supervi­sor and always the Christmas party organizer. And what about his good friend Mr. Vinny? He took care of all the construction needs around the Children’s Home for free, and in return thee older boys went to work for him. The nuns tried to be tight-lipped about it; only after a good bit of badgering did Sister Mary Josephine (whom I’d recently witnessed executing karate moves on a wayward boy) offer that Mr. Harold was in jail. I don’t remember exactly what for, bribery or embezzlement, but it must have had something to do with Mr. Vinny, because he seemed to be making himself pretty scarce, too.

Everything seemed dimmer. Even the local football ream, whose B-string usually put in a two-minute appearance to have their pictures taken with us orphan children, barely stayed one minute, and in the time it took me to run down the hall to go to the bathroom, they’d all been and gone, leaving behind some sort of apolo­getic team manager. (We once met O.J., but we had to be bused to a location more convenient for him — an awards dinner where we were trot­ted out for a group photo with the man himself. Later, we were each awarded a tiny plastic auto­graphed football for our well-behaved perfor­mance as the grateful needy.)

But the worst was yet to come. The party ended, and we were commanded to say our thank yous, gather up our gifts, and, in an or­derly line, follow the nun in charge of our re­spective groups back to our playrooms. Ineeda and I were already suspicious. All our boxes seemed small — hell, all mine seemed to be the same size. Could they possibly contain an Easy Bake Oven? Maybe they packed it in parts­— how ingenious and surprising! We sat on the in­door/outdoor carpet, our presents arrayed in front of us, waiting impatiently for Sister Mary Luciose to give us the go-ahead. She counted: five, four, three, two, one … We went mad. When all the wrapping was cleared away, I had two crib toys, recommended for children ages 0-3, and seven identical boxes of Shrinky Dink Make-it-Yourself Christmas ornaments, which, to my horror, I needed an oven to make.

As I turned in dismay to Sister Mary Lu­ciose, I saw her wrinkly 60-year-old face flush. Her eyes began to bulge from behind her brown cat-eyed glasses. Uh-oh. I thought her head might explode — I thought she would lose that veil, so I would know once and for all if that shock of hair on her forehead was indeed the imitation hairpiece I had once wagered it was. Sister Mary launched into a lecture on material­ism and the beast it would turn me into, how I would never get to heaven with that attitude, missy. She feared for my soul. I didn’t care. Even as she marched me off for the special emergency confession she had arranged with Father Walter the next morning, all I could think about was … I want an Easy Bake Oven, goddammit.

I wasn’t really an orphan — I had a mother, though she had shed her worldly trappings to live as a hermit in the Genesee River Valley. And I had a father. When he arrived to collect me for my allotted holiday visit on Christmas Eve (appar­ently having passed the Breathalyzer test Sister Mary Rosanne reserved specially for him) I was still hellbent on some decent presents. I had no illusions about who Santa was. As he deposited me with my two retired, never-married school­teacher aunts, I dispatched my guilt-ridden fa­ther to the mall to retrieve an Easy Bake Oven.

As the evening wore on, I began to fear that perhaps he couldn’t find me anything. The aunts were dazed and unsure of what to do with me. My yammering about the Easy Bake Oven sent one aunt running to the kitchen for a bourbon straight up, while the other slipped in and out of the living room to refill her glass with an amber liquid she said was apple cider, but which my watchful eyes knew was beer. When I quieted down, the aunts whispered to each other that he’d probably gone oven shopping at Jo-J’s Bar & Grill. I occupied myself with reruns of Hawaii Five-O and slowly began to surrender my dreams of being a chef I was ready for bed when I heard his familiar staggering steps on the front porch. Aunt Jean flipped on the porch light, and there was Dad — squinting and disheveled in the sud­den illumination, but holding a box. I could tell instantly what the abused wrapping concealed, because I knew the shape by heart — here, at last, was my Easy Bake Oven.

Some of the names in this article have been changed.

[related_posts post_id_1=”731284″ /]

Bah Humdrum
BY COREY SABOURIN

This is going to be a shitty Christmas. John is going upstate. Ditto David. Ditto Bob.

Darrin’s found a lover. Lucky him. They’ll want privacy as they model their new His & His flannel robes.

Devra … Michigan. Jeff … Fresno. Blaine? Maybe — or no, isn’t he going to India?

My roommate is working coatcheck again, regrets, though it will be fun opening gifts at 5 a.m.

Out of everyone, I’ll be missing Liz the most. She’s the woman I’d go straight for if such a thing were possible. A soulmate since the 12th grade (she might peg the date further back, to Mr. Compton’s Exploratory Reading class at Petalunia Junior High, but hopefully that argu­ment’s settled), Liz came east with photos of her handsome fiancé in ’92, and left just before Christmas. In ’93 the pair returned, married, but at Rumbul’s on Christopher Street the first of many heart-to-hearts began. In ’94, she was divorced, depressed, but nowhere near the lump of coal she thinks she was. For ’95 she’s staying put in California. Can I blame her?

If it’s me and my cat sharing a can of tuna on Christmas Day, it’s my fault. Mom and Dad needle me to hop a plane. But the sour taste of predictable yule traditions still lingers and besides, I hate to fly. I have to improvise. One year, it was lasagna and a Georgy Girl video. Another, it was the Monster Bar employee dinner: Miss Shari, the drag queen, presided, and Lady Aaron, the 70-plus bookkeeper, gave us tiaras and white taffeta.

This year? Glenn might be down from Provincetown, and Michael will surely throw a pre-Christmas shindig, although nude Polaroids are usually involved, and I vowed never to end up in that scandal shoebox. Then there’s Nesha, Liz’s and my friend, who, bless her heart, has ex­tended an invitation to dinner “if you don’t have anything else to do.”

Will I? The 11th hour is the moment great things happen in this town. Like Christmas Eve ’92, when Hunter, Scott, and I drifted into the chapel of the Theological Seminary in Chelsea, where the burnt-out Church of the Holy Cross congregation was holding services. “I’m an athe­ist,” Hunter protested in the cold, reluctant to go inside. “Do you know what this means?” So? I was a lapsed Lutheran, and Scott was Jewish. Inside we shared a pew with another group of spectator-worshipers dressed more like they prayed at the altar of Barneys.

But then the Episcopalian pastor delivered a message of antidiscrimination, which he ex­tended to sexuality and health. And the female chorus members sang She in place of He during the Nicene Creed. That stole any grinch left in­side me; even my atheist friend smiled. Sud­denly I was terrifically glad to be there, and nowhere else.

Here’s hoping.

[related_posts post_id_1=”719892″ /]

Window Pain
BY LYNN YAEGER

I’m Jewish. This wasn’t my idea ro begin with, so imagine how I felt at the age of three when I discovered that there was an upcoming holiday full of twinkly lights, candy canes, and piles of presents, the centerpiece of which was a tiny doll lying in a toy cradle sur­rounded by its mommy and daddy (well, he cer­tainly seemed like the daddy … ) and a lot of cute little animals. Oh yes, my mother conced­ed. She knew all about this holiday, she rold me brightly. But it’s not for us! We don’t have it!

Quite frankly, I have never gotten over this revelation. I have spent the last three decades trying to effect a working compromise: Do I send out cards but draw the line at lights? Go for the lights but eschew the tree? Once I actually did drag a tree up six flights of stairs (did I know you need a tree stand? Did I know there would still be pine needles sticking out of the carpet on the fourth of July?). I even tried to avoid the festivities altogether by fleeing to Eu­rope, but like death in Samarra, Christmas was waiting for me when I got off the plane.

I burst into tears a lot at Christmas time. Mr. Magoo induces spasms of sobbing. I can’t watch Meet Me in St. Louis without practically having to call an ambulance. So why do I undertake my methodical investigation of each and every store’s holiday windows each and every year? Same rea­son some people hang out at the Vault, I guess.

My first srop is usually Bloomingdale’s, a store I always think of as Jewish anyway. (Saks and Bloomingdalc’s are Jewish. Lord & Taylor and Bergdorf’s are not.) This year’s display con­sists of 12 trees decorated by Robert Isabell, the hot society florist recently employed for the gar­ish wedding of one of the so-called fabulous Miller sisters. The trees are hung variously with grocery produce (strawberries and zucchinis­ — or maybe they’re cucumbers?), glitzy jewelry (the contents of a morning sweep at the 26th Street flea market?), candy, roses, crystals, Vic­torian toys, and sheaves of wheat. They’re beautiful, but not particularly snivel-inducing. Far more enticing is the small mannequin in a side window: she’s bright red, holds a green garland wound with black and white Chanel ribbons, and she’s sprouting a little tree where her head should be.

Two blocks over, the witty, vaguely cyni­cal windows at Barneys make no reference to the imminent festivities at all. They’re like the senior project of a prestigious graduate school design seminar: Dada-esque tableaux, in beige and pewter (Barneys’s version of red and green), illustrating proverbs like “many hands make light work” (disembodied digits holding lightbulbs). I can see they’re clever, but instead of inducing yuletide longing they make me feel like I’m standing outside a nightclub while the doorperson is telling me I’m not on the list.

My next stop is positively homey by com­parison: Tiffany & Co., where the tiny jewel­box windows reflect the tasteful treasures with­in. The conceit here is ornithologic: faintly Disney-esque penguins with party hats (hey, this is 57th Street) celebrate New Year’s Eve; the P. Johns family (get it?), a nuclear unit dressed in 1940s outfits, nestle in a tree house; Santa rides in a sled pulled by green parakeets, etc. The on­ly jewelry in evidence is around the neck of a woodpecker — he’s wearing a stunning cabo­chon ruby and diamond cross. (A woodpecker gets to wear a cross and I don’t?)

[related_posts post_id_1=”715503″ /]

I’m still dry-eyed, though I have a weak moment when the Salvation Army girl lets loose with a heartbreaking rendition of “Hark the Her­ald Angels Sing.” I have to grit my teeth and think about the plot of Guys and Dolls (I hum the Fugue for Tinhorns to distract myself) as I march down Fifth Avenue to Saks. On the way I pass Henri Bendel, where the vitrines show leering, huge­-eared automata-elves done up like doormen brandishing merchandise from their out-stretched palms. (Do Bendel’s shoppers really need this unsubtle reminder that it’s tipping time again?)

At Saks, I’m confronted with my first real­ly traditional windows of the season — a series of mechanical tableaux depicting the story of Margie and Nick and the little snowman they befriend. I won’t bore you with the details, but Nick and Margie make friends with Santa, who takes everyone to the Rainbow Room for “mu­sic, dancing, cakes and cookies. It was swell.” Suddenly I’m all choked up: I’m dying to go to the Rainbow Room on Christmas Eve too, and I ain’t ordering cookies either. After a few min­utes wallowing in my sad fate, it dawns on me: isn’t it a little fishy that Marge and Nick and even the snowman are spending Christmas Eve at the Rainbow Room instead of midnight mass?

Thus cheered, I proceed to that bastion of Christian gentility, Lord & Taylor. This is year the windows feature an old-fashioned version of Clement Moore’s The Night Before Christmas. There are mechanical pyrotechnics here as well — Santa’s big tummy heaves as if he’s about to have a heart attack, reindeer jog in place, and there are winsome little mice scuttling over the rafters — very charming unless you have lived on the Lower East Side where little mice still scut­tle across the rafters. (Once a mouse got trapped in my toaster oven. You don’t want to know.) The scenes are sentimental and touching and perfectly serviceable, if not terribly original.

In the corner window, there’s a poignant display of one of those Dickens Christmas vil­lages full of miniature 19th-century houses, skating ponds, dwarf trees, and surgical-cotton snow. For some reason, this little town gets to me far more than the main display. I’m starting to feel really sorry for myself (it’s easy! try it!) when I see a bunch of bedraggled second graders on a field trip being whipped along by a sullen teacher’s aide. They’ve been forced to wear big cardboard signs with their names and addresses, and although a few are facing their fate with false hilarity, many others are sunk in the pro­found existential misery I remember so well.

Nothing lifts the spirit quicker than the agony of others, and suddenly I’m so light­hearted that I fairly skip to Macy’s, a store over­loaded with Christmas mirth. I try to affect a stance as hard-bitten as the six-year-old Natalie Wood’s in Miracle on 34th Street, but it’s not really necessary: these circus-themed dioramas (a plate twirler, a clumsy acrobat) leave me al­most entirely unmoved. The coup de grace is a couple of clowns cavorting around a Volkswa­gen piled high with presents like TV sets and CD players. (A Volkswagen is supposed to make me feel nostalgic about Christmas? In my fam­ily, you re not even allowed to buy a comb that’s stamped Germany.)

The last window I look at holds two huge elephants flanking a slinky brunette mannequin in an evening gown. It’s an uncanny homage to Dovima, and I have a funny feeling that the fel­las in the display department snuck it right over the heads of Macy’s executives. But maybe they didn’t! Maybe the bureaucrats at Macy’s simply worship Avedon! Strangely buoyant, I descend the steps to the BMT, ready to go home, string up my dalmatian-and-fire-hydrant lights, and face the difficult days ahead. ❖

Categories
COMEDY ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives Uncategorized

Eddie Izzard: Comedy Makeover

“Last time I was New York it was 1987,” recalls come­dian Eddie Izzard, speaking via mobile phone from Stockholm, the current stop on the world tour of his solo show, Definite Article. “I gave a little performance down in Washington Square Park. I stood up and told the crowd I was from London, and people started shouting, ‘So what!’ I made about 25, 30 dollars — not bad, but I saw what a New York audience is capable of.”

History is unlikely to repeat itself when Izzard makes his official New York debut this week at P.S. 122. Times have changed for the mild-man­nered, transvestite stand-up, whose surreal stream of droll observation has sold out two runs in the West End and won him a loyal international follow­ing. “We were a big hit in Reykjavik,” he declares with a contained astonishment. “Holland was completely indifferent to me. Though Tilburg was great. Loads of students. Young, hip, they really tuned in.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”726163″ /]

Just an ordinary bloke with penchant for glitzy cross-dressing and rumpled ironies, Izzard is himself a contradiction in comic terms. His doughy, pal-of-mine countenance and mumbling vulnerability belie his agile wit and fire engine-red nail polish. That he recently came out on British TV as an honest to goodness transvestite only means that he might show up on stage in a breathtaking crushed velvet orange number by Jean Paul Gaultier. No “my girdle’s killing me” jokes have slipped into his act. He remains steadfastly con­tent dwelling on the reasons pears refuse to ripen or the bad luck of the Corinthians to get Paul as a pen pal.

Izzard remains unfazed by the As­sault-and-Battery school of comedy. His is a peculiarly unthreatening, one is tempted to say fraternal, presence; aggression — sexuality for that matter­ — has been successfully sublimated into his refamiliarizing way of seeing. Guilty of anthropomorphism, literal-minded wordplay, and the occasional burst of vivid mime, Izzard turns us on through the curious turns of his wry, inventive mind. Non sequiturs with a faint unconscious ping replace the more customary wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am punch lines. Influenced by Billy Connolly and Monty Python at home, Izzard remains slightly awed by contemporary Ameri­can comic prowess. “Steve Martin, Richard Pryor, Whoopie Goldberg, the early days of Saturday Night Live — this is the tradition I look to in my work.” He’d very much like to make forays in­to big-screen acting. He’ll soon appear in Christopher Hampton’s The Secret Agent, and has already won acclaim for his stage performances in The Cryptogram and Edward II. “I’m trying to give myself time to ease into more serious acting,” Izzard says. “When you do a lot of comedy you get com­edy baggage. Everyone expects you to crack jokes no matter what and so you can lose credibility as a dramatic actor.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”720142″ /]

But if being a stand-up comic is an impediment to getting plum dra­matic roles, many are talking about how Izzard’s recent acting experience has done wonders for his comedy. The critics have remarked on his increased confidence and heightened sense of theatricality; a few have even observed a new swagger to his stage walk. Of course there are those who chalk up the new attitude to his ward­robe overhaul. Before his newfound freedom as a declared cross-dresser, he would stumble on stage in whatever he happened to be wearing — blue jeans, a nondescript blazer, a beige polyester shirt with tails hanging out. “Someone once described my appearance as a wash of denim,” he says with a laugh. “I used to look, well, slobby. Now I can wear what­ever I want. I know I don’t look like a woman when I wear makeup. I just hope I look like I’m part of this planet.” ❖

Categories
CRIME ARCHIVES CRIME ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

The Sad, Strange Tale of Judas Priest

RENO, NEVADA — By the rolling green banks of the Truckee River, under a nearly full moon, a tall, vaguely Hispanic-looking man with beautiful shoulder-length black hair, a foot-long beard, and a perfectly re­laxed body comes over to tell me that Satan is walking proud these days. He slips his small U.S. Army pack off one shoulder, introduces himself as Jacob, then says he just missed the midnight bus out of Reno.

“Satan’s walking proud through the cities,” he amends himself, taking a deep whiff of grass and river. “That’s why I’ll only work migrant, out in the country. I know the joy of the mountain cat’s full belly,” he says with a devout smile. “And I know the pain of the deer that’s in there.”

It’s my third night in Reno, and before turning in I’ve come down to the river that cuts right through downtown for some fresh air. I was hoping to spare myself the 24-hour passion plays of the casinos, but there’s no escaping it here: Heaven and Hell are married on every 01her street cor­ner in Reno. A block down, across from the Washoe County District Courthouse where I’ve been spending my days watching the Judas Priest “subliminals” trial, a store­front window advertises summer cut rates for “QUICKEST MARRIAGES IN RENO”; a block up, the Truckee glistens weirdly as it cross­es under the Virginia Street Bridge — from all the wedding rings thrown in after quick­ie divorces.

[related_posts post_id_1=”721955″ /]

And Jacob, though his voice is warm and clear as a bell, has blue-green eyes that flash from one extreme conviction to another with a scary rapidity. I’ve gotten used to people like him by now, picking me out, of a neon-lit crowd of thousands on Sierra Street to announce the Apocalypse to, or spilling out of the casinos at 2 a.m. on a 90-degree Saturday night and offering to mow my lawn for $3

“I’m just here,” I tell him, “to cover the Judas Priest trial,” then instantly regret having dropped that particular name.

“Three times,” Jacob says stonily, “thou shalt betray me before the cock crows.”

While I consider the wisdom of pointing out that his Biblical quote concerns Peter, not Judas, Jacob continues:

“Oh, I’ll go to the cities,” he admits. “Salt Lake, Sacramento, Vegas. But I tiptoe through town. Satan’s walking around.”

“No. that’s Mammon,” he says matter-of-factly, as though I’d misidentified a crow as a raven. “Robbing, cheating, beating people up in the middle of the night’s no good,” I hear him say from 10 paces behind me. It’ll come back to you, sooner than you think. Good and evil. Heaven and hell. Life and death. The mountain cat’s joy”— he’s beginning to shout now — “and the deer’s pain. Gain and loss! People who want something for nothing will lose their souls to Satan!”

Reno, depending on how your cards are flopping, might or might not be a town for Satan, but it is a town for losers. You see your first half-dozen before clearing the plane’s disembark ramp, grim old ladies in bright holiday dresses feeding the 25-cent slot machines at three-quarters a pull Downtown, the slots become progressive, with red six-figure jackpot numbers “progressing” digitally and fast into the hundreds of thousands of dollars everywhere you look; before you lose all sense of the value of the money in your pocket, its obvious these beautiful numbers aren’t spelling anything but the losses, one coin at a time, of hundreds of thousands of people.

This is a fleeting awareness though, if you harbor the slightest conviction that life owes you something. Within hours of land­ing in this former whistle-stop on the Union Pacific Railroad, this three-square-­mile block of concrete and neon plopped in the middle of the Sierra Nevada mountain­-desert range, you feel indignant, hopeful, and a little out of control every time you put a quarter in a pay phone.

By various estimates, 50 to 70 per cent of the people actually living in Reno and Sparks, the adjacent bedroom community, have moved here within the last 10 years. The migration pattern — families that failed elsewhere and have come to Nevada for a last chance — becomes clear quickly enough. To sit quietly for more than five minutes in a public place in Reno — be it a diner counter, casino lobby, or poolside at a $25-a-night motel — is to invite the person to your right or left to tell you his troubles. And, however dubious these confessions seem at first, the statistics are there to back them up: Nevadans — the last of the free thinkers — have among the five highest rates per capita of marriages, heart disease, cancer, AIDS, alcoholism, prostitution, cocaine use by adults, divorce, population growth, churches, legal handguns and rifles, incarceration, child abuse, teenage pregnan­cies, and successful suicides by white males ages 15 to 24.

Two “progressions” of that last statis­tic — Raymond Belknap, 18, by a sawed-off shotgun blast to the chin in a Sparks churchyard on December 23, 1985, and his best friend, Jay Vance, 20, who managed only to blow the bottom half of his face away (he spent three years enduring $400,000 of painful reconstructive surgery to his face before dying of a methadone overdose in 1988) — have led to the strang­est media circus (and what one Vegas book-maker called the “biggest crapshoot”) in Reno history: A multimillion-dollar prod­uct liability suit brought by three Reno law­yers against CBS Records and the band one recent critic called the “doyens of British heavy metal,” Judas Priest.

[related_posts post_id_1=”730086″ /]

Seven subliminal (audible only subcon­sciously) commands saying “Do it” were allegedly embedded on one song of Priest’s 1978 release, Stained Class — the album that was on Ray Belknap’s turntable the afternoon he and Jay formed their suicide pact. Coupled with four alleged “back-­masked lyrics” (audible only when playing the record in reverse) on three other songs— the exhortations “Try suicide,” “Suicide is in,” “Sing my evil spirit,” “Fuck the Lord, fuck [or suck] all of you” — the Do its, say the lawyers, created a compulsion that led to the “wrongful death” of Ray Belknap and to the “personal injury” of Jay Vance. The Vance family is asking for $5 million. The Belknaps for $1.2 million. “If you’re going to hurt someone,” jokes one of plaintiffs’ lawyers, “you’re bet­ter off killing them. It’s a lot cheaper.”

The suit was brought in 1986 after Jay, in a letter to Ray’s mother, Aunetta Roberson, wrote: “I believe that alcohol and heavy metal music such as Judas Priest led us to be mesmerized …” The lawyers initially cited the alleged suicidal content of the Stained Class songs “Heroes End” (“But you you have to die to be a hero./It’s a shame in life./You make it better dead.”) and “Beyond the Realms of Death” (“Keep your world of all its sin./It’s not fit for living in”). The suit seemed dead in the water, however, after the California Dis­trict Court of Appeal ruled that the lyrics of Ozzy Osbourne’s “Suicide Solution” — cited in a similar suicide/product liability suit — were protected by the First Amendment.

The Reno suit made its bizarre beeline into the unconscious a year and a half later, when six Sparks metalheads, hired by plain­tiffs’ lawyers to decipher the lyrics of the entire album, reported concurrent, identical nightmares of going on killing sprees with semiautomatic weapons in their neighbor­hood shopping malls. On the advice of Dr. Wilson Bryan Key, the grandmaster of the subliminal exposé (his books, Subliminal Seduction, Media Sexploitation, The Clam­-Plate Orgy, etc., have sold over 4 million copies), plaintiffs’ lawyers hired a self-taught audio engineer named Bill Nickloff (then marketing personalized subliminal self-help tapes through his firm, Secret Sounds. Inc.) to examine a CD of Stained Class. Using his original “backwards engineering” process — by which the audio signal of a piece of recorded music is decon­structed into its component 24 tracks on his Mac II home computer — Nickloff “dis­covered the smoking gun”: seven subliminal Do its in the first and second choruses of the song “Better By You, Better Than Me.”

Key, a 65-year-old Henry Miller look­alike with a MENSA belt buckle and a young wife he is able to put to sleep with a simple posthypnotic suggestion, lives out­side of Reno, off a highway running through surreal, sage-scented moonscape that yields some very exotic roadkill. As he is quick to point out, the issue of sublimin­als and the adverse effect of music is not entirely without precedent. The Billie Holi­day ballad “Gloomy Sunday” was banned from the radio in the early ’40s when several war widows killed themselves after lis­tening. And the foreman of a jury in Penn­sylvania cited subliminals as a mitigating factor in the 1989 guilty verdict for Steven Mignogna, a 19-year-old metalhead who murdered two 10-year-old kids after 12 hours of listening to AC/DC, Ozzy Os­bourne, Mötley Crüe, and Judas Priest. Mignogna, who was defended by the Bish­op of Sardinia (then in Pittsburgh for medi­cal reasons), was given two consecutive life sentences rather than the death penalty the prosecution had asked for.

[related_posts post_id_1=”727600″ /]

The Do its — uttered, said Nickloff, by a different voice than lead singer Rob Hal­ford’s — were allegedly punched into (or lay­ered beneath) the swirling chords of a Les­ley Guitar (a guitar played through a synthesized organ), a tom-tom beat and backward cymbal crash, and the prolonged exhalations of Halford’s falsetto rendition of the lyric, “Better by you, better than meee-uh! [Do it!]/You can tell ’em what I want it to beee-uhh [Do it!]/You can say what I can only seee-uhh [Do it!].” Nickloff also speculated that enhancements of the Do its had been spread across 11 of the 24 tracks by a second machine, perhaps a COMB filter. This he couldn’t prove, how­ever, simply by testing the CD.

Thus began a three-year hunt for the 24-track masters, not only of “Better By You” but of every other Judas Priest song, album, rehearsal, and live tape in CBS’s posses­sion. The song left a long paper trail, and discovery of the 24-track proved far easier than other Judas Priest masters (CBS said they still hadn’t located any others by the time trial began): The album’s only number not written by band members, it was added when CBS’s New York a&r men decided none of the album’s original eight songs had hit potential.

CBS located the tape in September of 1988: they delivered a safety copy to Nick­loff three months later — an “18-minute-like gap” that became plaintiffs’ second “smok­ing gun”: CBS, they alleged, had used the three months of studio time to cover up the embedded Do its. Nickloff asked for the original master, then refused to examine it when it arrived. The original tape’s zinc oxide, he said, had begun to flake (suspi­ciously so, he thought), and he wouldn’t accept responsibility for it.

A series of motions and court orders re­garding CBS’s cooperation in the search for other masters followed, leading to two years of immensely mistrustful exchanges be­tween plaintiffs and defense lawyers. It de­generated quickly into one of the most con­tentious suits since Bleak House‘s Jarndyce v. Jarndyce: public accusations of complic­ity and conspiracy; shouting matches at prehearing depositions (Nickloff’s in partic­ular): detectives (including a former Scot­land Yard man) digging into the silt of CBS corporate policy and procedure, and the Oedipal dramas of the plaintiffs’ families.

It culminated in a 14-day trial, starting July 16, that featured exquisite dramatiza­tions of humility, rage, and bathos; incredu­lity and condescension; Rob Halford’s a cappella singing from the witness stand; the repeated playing of his ee-uh! heavy breath­ings that made the court stenographer cover her face in embarrassment; the defense’s strident attacks on the existence of a Freud­ian unconscious; and a Manichaean court­room divided between the local born-agains and metalhead autograph hounds.

Courtroom melodrama isn’t something that bothers a man like Ken McKenna. A lik­able, unabashed media animal (“My phone hasn’t stopped ringing since 1986,” he boasts), he’s the man responsible for the suit’s enormous publicity. The inevitable epithets — “tort twister,” “slip-and-slide man,” and “ambulance chaser” — only bring a bemused, faintly proud smile to McKenna’s lips, and he’s not one to linger on the moral or emotional aspects of a case. Not until closing statement time, that is. Then you realize McKenna’s a pretty corny guy — fond of homespun similes and homi­lies (“I guess the lesson to be learned from all this,” etc.), and the words “gosh” and “heck.” When the subject of his work comes up, his pudgy, angelic face (at 38, he still looks like his high school yearbook photo) takes on a devilish grin.

“I was born to sue,” he says in his well­-appointed two-story office in downtown Reno. “I didn’t know who or why or where or what I was till I discovered contingency law.”

At 8 a.m., sprightly during the first of several interviews he’ll be giving this Satur­day morning, he looks like he’s just stepped onto a budget cruise liner: blue shorts, salmon Polo shirt, a big well-scrubbed smile on his face, and a solid gold Mickey Mouse watch on his wrist. Stacked next to his Catalogue of Expert Witnesses (“The expert business is big-time bizarre,” he tells me) are heaps of anti-heavy-metal pam­phlets. I leaf through one with an R. Crumb-like cartoon on the cover, Stairway to Hell: The Well-Planned Destruction of Teens, while McKenna faxes a client. A beautiful epigram from Boethius — “Music is a part of us, and either ennobles or de­grades our behavior” — prefaces a chapter on backmasked lyrics that focuses on the alleged backward content of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” (“It’s just a spring­-clean for the May Queen” = “I live for Sa­tan … He will give you six, six, six,” etc.). Italicized in the first paragraph of text is the premise that drives the ultra-right’s fas­cination with backmasking: “Induction into the Worldwide Church of Satan is predicat­ed in the ability to say the Lord’s Prayer backwards!

McKenna (who represents the Belknaps), Tim Post (the born-again Christian repre­senting the Vances), and Vivian Lynch (who represents the estate of Jay Vance) deny identification with the anti-metal fa­natics, but that Southern California-based fringe (which Frank Zappa calls the “Or­ange Curtain”) is very supportive of the suit. Two of plaintiffs’ expert witnesses, Dr. Robert Demski, medical director of a San Antonio hospice for troubled adolescents, and Darlyne Pettinicchio, a Fullerton, Cali­fornia, probation officer, were recommend­ed by Tipper Gore’s Parents Music Re­source Center. Their testimony — Judas Priest’s music induces self-destructive be­havior by glorifying Satan — wasn’t allowed on record (Stained Class‘s lyric content was not at issue). Without Pettinicchio, howev­er, the metal link to the suicide probably wouldn’t have been made. It was through attendance at one of her seminars, or the reading of an anti-metal “police training manual” prepared by a disciple, that one of the detectives handling the shootings knew to advise Ray’s mother to hang on to the Stained Class LP on Ray’s turntable.

[related_posts post_id_1=”729257″ /]

“You can borrow that stuff if you wanna,” McKenna says, putting a heavy, distancing accent on the word stuff. Walk­ing me out to his porch after the interview, though, he can’t resist telling me that Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant did once purchase Aleister Crowley’s mansion. (McKenna isn’t far off: Jimmy Page, Zeppelin’s guitar­ist and a devotee of the Grand Old Man of English Satanism, did buy Crowley’s Boles­kine House, near Loch Ness, in the early 1970s.)

I stop to look at a gruesome photograph of a twin-engine plane’s wreckage in a copse of pine trees, given pride of place in his front office. That devilish smile comes to McKenna’s face as he tells me, “That’s two million dollars you’re looking at.”

Vivian Lynch, unlike McKenna, is a “lawyer’s lawyer.” A middle-aged woman who speaks in perfectly constructed, declarative sentences, she has a sober, battered look on her face, and pretty, penetrating blue eyes that become a rapid flutter of mascara and sky-blue eyeshadow whenever she concentrates on a point of law. Holder of the highest bar exam scores ever in Michigan and Nevada, she’s known among the defense team as the dragon lady, and several of their expert witnesses tell me how unnerving it is to be cross-examined by her. On both state and national amicus curiae committees, much of her legal work for the last two decades has been the drafting of other attorneys’ motions for the Supreme Court in Carson City. Entering the suit at the beginning of defense’s constitutional challenges in 1987, she has defeated every motion to dismiss, quash, and relocate that Reno and New York counsel for CBS have come up with.

Unlike McKenna, Lynch has no taste for publicity; she once left the suit for months, she tells me, when she felt that his media hi-jinks (particularly an interview given to the Enquirer) had crossed over into the jury-prejudicial. She also seems entirely un­motivated by Mammon: A supporter of Tipper Gore, she’s “in this suit for my children,” two of whom were “extreme me­talheads.” Lynch’s only appearance in the local headlines came in the first week of trial, when she asked bassist Ian Hill and guitarist Ken Downing for autographs for her middle son. (“My son wasn’t talking to me,” she tells me.)

When she pulls up to her office for our interview, one side of her pickup’s flatbed is stacked with Diet Coke empties, and the passenger seat of the cab has a three-foot stack of legal paper. When a local Holy Roller, overhearing us discuss the suit in a restaurant a few hours later, comes over with his two young daughters to testify that the “owner of a major U.S. record company belongs to the Worldwide Church of Sa­tan,” and that “my best friend’s brother jumped off the high bridge in Santa Barba­ra because of that company’s music,” Lynch hears him out patiently, then gives her address so he can send along his compi­lation tape of backward lyrics.

“I think that man’s insane,” I say when he shepherds his daughters from the restaurant.

“I don’t,” says Lynch, draining her third iced tea. “I think he’s tripping. Didn’t you sec how dilated his pupils were?”

[related_posts post_id_1=”727067″ /]

Even if McKenna and Lynch can prove the existence of subliminals on “Better By You” to Judge Jerry Carr Whitehead (both sides have agreed to forgo a jury in the trial), they still have to show the sublimin­als were the “proximate cause” of the sui­cide pact. Defense has argued that Ray and Jay decided to kill themselves because they were miserable. CBS’s three-year investiga­tion into the allegedly violent home lives of the boys focused on the marital history of Ray Belknap’s mother, Aunetta Roberson (three husbands by the time Ray killed himself), the religious conflict in Jay Vance’s life (his mother is a born-again Christian), the alcoholic and allegedly abu­sive tendencies of both boys’ stepfathers, and the bleak work prospects and fantasy­-ridden lives of the pair once they’d dropped out of high school in the first weeks of their junior years. The circumstantial evidence is enormous.

By McKenna’s and Lynch’s own lights, however, the families of Ray and Jay were enviable. McKenna’s first case was his brother Pat’s Murder 1 appeal, for the ex­tremely brutal slaying of a fellow prisoner while awaiting sentence on a separate mul­tiple-murder conviction. And though he seems an extremely peaceable man (and is remarkably polite and gentle with hostile witnesses), he is able to provide the most dramatic moment of the trial: At the end of his closing statement (which he prefaces by placing a two-foot by three-foot blowup of Ray Belknap’s 10th-grade yearbook photo on a table facing the court), McKenna’s soliloquy of a father’s rationalizing thoughts after striking his son (“I didn’t mean to hit him that hard”; “he was pro­voking me”; “I barely touched him,” etc.) has the entire court’s heads bowed (includ­ing Judge Whitehead’s) for over a minute.

“Following the defense’s logic,” says Lynch. “I should have killed myself 10 times over.” The eldest of three abused children, she and two younger sisters were taken from her parents when she was two years old and institutionalized in a Long Island orphanage till their teens. After be­ing sexually abused by a relative, a 14-year-­old Lynch and her two sisters moved into a Detroit studio with a single Murphy bed, and she went to work to support them. She went through Wayne State Law School on scholarship, saving money by memorizing textbooks and selling them back before classes started. Her own marriage, an ex­tremely unhappy one, yielded three chil­dren; she divorced her husband in 1972, four years after she’d come home from a day of practicing international law in New York. turned on the evening news, and saw her house being fired upon by tanks with 9mm anti-personnel weapons during the Detroit riots. (Weeks later, back in Detroit, she was bayoneted in the back while four months pregnant.) Four of the seven chil­dren she’s raised came from troubled households in Reno.

“The histories of the Vance and Belknap families,” Lynch tells me without batting an eyelash, “are certainly no different in kind or degree than what you’ll find across America. I can tell you for sure they grew up like most of the kids you’ll find around here.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”716800″ /]

The billboards along South Virginia Street arc as likely to read “HAVE YOU BEEN ABUSED?” or “DIVORCE?” — followed by a seven-digit number — as to announce Dolly Parton at the Sands, or next Saturday’s fight card at Harrah’s. Otherwise, South Virginia is a typical five-mile burger strip leading out of town: small businesses, chain restaurants, mini-golf courses, teenage boys screeching their tires on Saturday night till they find a girl or a fight; and the occasion­al mammoth concrete structure, like the Reno-Sparks Convention Center, where Ray and Jay saw Judas Priest on its 1983 Screaming for Vengeance tour. It was a big tour for the band (the album was their first to hit platinum), and it meant a lot to the boys: Ray stole the six-foot tour poster­ — one fan described it as a mythic drawing of “sort of a tank with a bull’s face, horns, missiles, guns” — and taped it above his bed for a year.

When I go to meet Scott Schilingheyde, a high school friend of Ray’s, it’s in front of the enormous Peppermill Casino, all the way out of town on South Virginia. Scott, a striking 21-year-old kid with immaculately blow-dried shoulder-length blond hair, has driven from his mother’s house up in the Hidden Valley hills: he’s recently been pa­roled after two years in the Carson City penitentiary (for selling crank, a metham­phetamine), and he doesn’t want anyone to know he’s “back in town.” Scott isn’t exactly scrupulous in maintaining his low pro­file, however: I can hear the Megadeth tape blasting in his yellow Le Mans from a block away.

It’s sadly easy to forget Scott’s tender age once you meet him: he seems far more like some hardened and prospectless maquis­ — come down from a Philippine hill town to talk to a very foreign reporter — than any American teenager I’ve met. The only clues to his age are his gape-mouthed appreciation of a 40-pound striper in the Peppermill fish-tank, and a fit of uncontrollable gig­gling when I ask it it’s true Ray and Jay played cowboys-and-Indians with live ammo (“Yeah, that sounds like Ray”). When he speaks of guns, prison, child abuse, and suicide, Scott sounds like he’s talking last night’s ballgame: “Ray and Jay weren’t all-out crazy, out-and-out violent people,” he says. “They did pretty much normal, crazy shit. They had normal prob­lems — Ray more than most. We all talked about suicide, all the time, but it was just tough-guy talk, weapons talk. They did it.”

Scott stonewalls when I ask what prob­lems Ray had: “Ray shelved that shit the moment he got out of the house, and I wasn’t allowed in there. Only Jay was. Those two were as close as close can get. I remember one time, though, we went up to shoot my brother’s gun and Ray had to go get some clothes, ’cause he couldn’t go home. I think we ripped some beers on the way up.”

“Did you guys steal most of the things you had?”

“No, no,” Scott shakes his head emphati­cally. “I think we bought our own ciga­rettes.” He blows out a long thin plume of Marlboro smoke. “Mom bought the jeans and T-shirts. We never thought much about food.”

“Did they do a lot of drugs?”

“Everything that came their way,” Scott says automatically. “Anything they could afford. Mostly, they drank a lot of beer.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”717604″ /]

On the day of his autopsy, the day after Christmas, 1985, Ray, six foot two, weighed 141 pounds; the only substance in his stomach was a stick of chewing gum, and his alcohol/blood tested at 0.098 (0.100 constitutes intoxication in Nevada). He wore blue jeans with long sweats under­neath, a gray Miami Dolphins “Super Bowl ’85” T-shirt with vents cut out, and brown construction boots with white socks. His belt buckle was shaped like a cannabis leaf. He had one tattoo, a green RB on his upper right arm (unlike Jay, who had many on his arms and upper body), and 25 small lacer­ations on his fists, from playing knuckles with Jay (punching each other’s knuckles to see whose bled first). Ray’s stepbrother, Tom Roach, testified that their former stepfather, Jesse Roberson, would take Ray to the garage, lock the door, and whip him with his belt till Ray could get the door unlocked and scamper back to his room, but no indications of that or any other beating showed up on the autopsy.

“Growing up,” Scott tells me, “Ray didn’t really have friends. He didn’t like no one, and didn’t like himself. He really hat­ed his red hair.”

The first and only person Ray ever really took to was Jay, whom he met in seventh grade. Jay, who’d been left back twice, had BMOC status with his two extra years, and his immediate love for Ray was an unend­ing source of pride. Ray was never at ease with girls, unlike Jay, who’d often find two girls waiting at his door when he came home from work. A pretty redhead named Carol did fall madly in love with Ray in 10th grade, and he left home to live with her for a week, but he could always be counted on to ditch her to spend the night with Jay. Their parents were pleased when the boys finally showed a sign of domestic­ity: shortly after leaving high school, they bought pit bull pups together (both of which had to be put down by the parents after the shooting).

Jesse worked at a Sparks auto parts shop for $20 a day plus commissions. Aunetta has worked for the past five years as a 21 dealer in a Reno casino for $35 a night and tips. Ray, who was good with his hands (he made a shelf for targets he and Jay would take up into the hills with them), loved construction work. On his last application form, he wrote that he had worked on a building site in Truckee, California, begin­ning as a laborer at $5.50 an hour and ending, a month later, as a $10.75-an-hour framer, but there’s no reason to believe this is true. His last job, feeding paper reams into a cutter at a Sparks print shop, paid 10 cents above the minimum wage, because he worked from midnight to 8 a.m. Two weeks before he killed himself, he was fired for refusing to work overtime. He’d lost the job before that, in a used furniture store, when he stole $454 from his boss’s desk and used the money to go see his real father in Oklahoma.

He liked to think of himself as a karate master and was very fond of his weapons: a sawed-off 12-gauge shotgun, a 12-gauge pump, a BB gun, and a two-foot-long hard-­rubber whipstick. (When Tom Roach was asked what the purpose of this whip-stick was, he answered, “It hurts when you get hit with it.”) Though Ray was terrible in school (in his two years at Reed High School he flunked all but two classes), he was by far the better pupil of the two. Both were good shots, and when not stalking Tom Roach with BB guns through the house (for liking “mellow” bands like Def Leppard and Night Ranger), they would often go up into the Sierras with their .22s to hunt quail, which Ray loved to eat spit­-roasted, or to a cave within the Sparks city limits, to nail bats to the wall with air-rifle shot. Two weeks before his suicide, police came to his house to investigate a report of “animal torture” — Ray had allegedly shot a neighborhood cat with a blowgun.

Other than the occasional trip to the mall, or a night of playing “terrorize the town” on South Virginia Street, Ray’s only regular activity was up in his room with Jay, “listening to Priest” and fantasizing about becoming a mercenary. They loved Priest, Jay said later, because they got pow­er from the music — amps was Jay’s word — ­and because their connection with Priest was “more intimate” than with bands like Iron Maiden, whose “Kill ’em all, let God sort ’em out sort of lyrics” left the two cold. If they had a credo to live by, he said, it was “Ride Hard. Die Fast.” In the hospital after the shootings, Jay used an index finger to draw the words Life sucks, when asked why they’d shot themselves.

Of the thousands of details that surface in the Judas Priest trial, two of the few that defense and plaintiffs don’t dispute is that Ray and Jay loved Judas Priest more than any other band (in deposition, Jay said he “would’ve done anything those guys asked me to do”), and that the two boys were inseparable. Several friends testify that when they met Jay after the shooting, the first thing he would ask was if they blamed him for Ray’s death. “I ran into Jay at a gas station one day,” Scott tells me. “But I didn’t know who he was till he started talking, ’cause he didn’t really have a face yet or anything. I couldn’t understand him either, ’cause his tongue was gone. I was angry at him, though. There’s nothin’ in this world so hard,” he says, clenching his fists, slowly, “that you gotta shoot yourself over it. Nothin’.”

“What’d you say to Jay at the gas sta­tion?”

“Nothin’. Just walked away. I never saw him again.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”724707″ /]

Growing up, Jay wanted to be a hunting or a fishing guide. Several early backpacking trips — in the desolation wilderness of northern Nevada, and on visits to a favor­ite uncle up in Oregon, along the Pacific Coast Trail — had a huge effect on him. He started doing gardening work in junior high school, and told his school psychiatrist he owned a few landscaping companies and had made investments in pieces of heavy equipment. As he began to realize he’d nev­er get through Reed High, his fantasy of enrolling in Lassen Gunsmith College up in Susanville evaporated; at the New Frontier drug program he lasted half of, trying to cure himself of a crank addiction six months before the shooting, he spoke indifferently of becoming either a mercenary or janitor. He studied typing and applied sci­ence after the shooting, and had plans to become either a physical therapist, or, once his tongue was rebuilt, a suicide hot-line operator.

Something went very wrong in Jay’s life in the first and second grades. One school psychiatrist called him hyperactive, another diagnosed him for Attention Deficit Disor­der: he repeated both years. His mother refused to give him the nervous-system stimulant Ritalin. “Those kids on Ritalin,” she says, “were just zombies.” She agreed to see the district psychiatrist after Jay tied a belt around his head and began pulling his hair out one day in second grade, but when the man came to see the home envi­ronment she wouldn’t let him in. Driving home after being expelled from school in the third grade, Jay became incensed when his mother wouldn’t listen to his version of the argument that had led to his expulsion, and wrapped both hands around her neck. A few years later, he went after her with a hammer, and again with a pistol a few years after that.

From the age of 10 till he dropped out of high school in the first weeks of his junior year, Jay spent his school hours in the Spe­cial Ed Room, alongside Down’s syndrome kids, paraplegics, and the severely impaired (he remembered befriending one speechless boy who’d swallowed half a bottle of bleach). Though he tested low on every proficiency and IQ test (he had big prob­lems with hand-eye coordination), when you read the sharp, direct responses he gave in depositions, you realize Jay was a quick-­minded and intuitive, if ineducable, kid who never had a chance in school.

From the age of 15, when he discovered Judas Priest, Jay had a Priest album or song for every mood and period of his life: Unleashed in the East, when be needed to “get amped”; Hellbent for Leather, to party; Screaming for Vengeance when he left school and for nine months lived-in as a baby-sitter for an older woman. Both he and Ray loved the early album, Sin After Sin, with its cover: a black figure with no face. He said they listened to the songs “Epitaph” and “Dream Deceiver” when they needed to cry: “Saw a figure floating/Beneath the willow trees./Asked us if we were happy/We said we didn’t know/took us by the hands/and up we go!/We followed the dreamer deceiver.”

“Jay recited those lines like scripture,” says Phillis Vance, who agrees to see me once I swear I’m not from “one of those smut magazines like the Enquirer, or that Rolling Stone” (which ran an even-handed piece a week before the trial began). “Me and Tony [Jay’s adoptive father] would be watching TV out in the living room and he’d be listening to Judas Priest in his bed­room, so loud that even through his ear­phones we couldn’t hear the TV. And if I’d go in and tell him to turn it down, he’d point that finger at me, just like Rob Hal­ford, and scream. ‘ON YOUR KNEES, AND WOR­SHIP ME IF YOU PLEASE!’ After he was born-­again, in 1983, he sold all 13 of their albums to Recycled Records. He stopped doing drugs for a while too. Either you worship Jesus Christ, or you worship Judas Priest.”

Jay later said it was Priest’s music that turned him, temporarily, into a white su­premacist. In school, his guidance counselor once sent him to the infirmary to have his left forearm PhiSoHexed, when the swastikas and the words Judas Priest he’d drawn on with black magic marker had caused a serious infection.

[related_posts post_id_1=”726204″ /]

The 23rd of December, 1985, a freezing, overcast day, began for Ray with a family trip to the Happy Looker hair salon in the neighborhood shopping mall. His four-year­-old half-sister, Christie Lynn, was getting her first haircut: Ray went home to get a camera, and on the way back to the Happy Looker decided, after years of wearing his long hair back in a bandana, to have it cut into a manageable buzz.

Though he’d recently lost his first pay­check in three weeks over a few games of pool at Doc and Eddie’s Tavern, he seemed to be in a good mood: all but one install­ment of the $454 he’d stolen from his for­mer boss was still owed, but he’d had enough money to buy Christmas presents for everyone. Not one to stand on ceremo­ny, he’d opened the records he’d bought for Tom Roach and a few friends (including the hard-to-find Stained Class LP for Jay) and listened to them. And Jay had a plan to get Ray’s paycheck back from the local con­tractor he’d lost it to: “I was going to stomp on him in the back of his knee, and I would crunch his knee to the concrete and then karate chop him in the back of the neck, and he would pretty much be helpless, at that moment, because I know karate.”

The day had begun for Jay shortly after noon: in a deposition given under hypnosis two years later, he remembered that “I saw my death and looked around.” He cleared his eyes, had a piss, and took a glass of chocolate milk from the kitchen to the bathroom. He drank the milk slowly as he sat under a hot shower for 20 minutes, then put the glass on the toilet seat while he washed his newly buzzed-cut hair.

The shootings might never have hap­pened if Jay hadn’t missed his ride to the printing press that day. In his hypnotic deposition, he remembered finding a note his mother had left in the kitchen, saying she was over at her sister’s house and to call if he needed another ride; Jay, however, couldn’t find or remember his aunt’s num­ber. Perhaps he didn’t want to: Jay hated his 12-hour shifts, which left him so filthy it took up to three hours to scrub the print­-ink off his forearms.

Ray was baby-sitting Christie Lynn and a few of her friends all afternoon, but he had time to pick up Jay in his mother’s car, then stop back at the Happy Looker to get his hair recut to look more like Jay’s. They drove back to Richards Way together and, up in Ray’s room, put on The Best of Judas Priest and Unleashed in the East. After a spat over the two joints of scrub-bud they were smoking (Jay was angry Ray had “stoled the pot from a friend of mine,” which Ray denied), they got to work on their first six-pack of Bud.

They left the room an hour later, Ray to tell his sister and her friends he was going to bust their little heads if they didn’t stop running around and slamming doors, Jay to get some more beer from the fridge in the garage. He ran into Ray’s pregnant half-­sister, Rita Skulason, in the dining room, yelling at Ray to stop messing with the kids, scowling at Jay as he came into the room. Rita didn’t like Jay at all, but Jay didn’t care: He was feeling good, and had realized he had no desire to be a printer’s appren­tice any longer.

When they got back to the bedroom, Ray had a big smile on his face from a decision he’d come to: not to wait until the 25th to give Jay his present. Reaching behind his stereo for the Stained Class album, he put the record on the turntable and gave the jacket to Jay, saying, “Merry Christmas, brother.” As the opening lyric of “Exciter” played: “To find this day,/We’ll surely fall,” Ray and Jay stood up and hugged each other, then started dancing around the room.

They listened to both sides of the record two to four times (depending on which of Jay’s depositions you read) before going back out to the garage for more beer. Rita was still sitting at the dining room table. She said that Jay came over and fondled her breast, though Jay later denied that: “Rita wasn’t the kind of girl you could do that to. She’d bust you in the mouth.” Per­haps the two boys were already considering suicide: Jay asked Rita if she was going to name her baby after Ray if something hap­pened to him. “Not unless it’s a goddamn redhead,” she said.

[related_posts post_id_1=”730434″ /]

A few minutes after they returned to Ray’s room, Jay’s parents showed up at the front door to drive Jay to work, but they were too late. “I was rocking out,” Jay remembered. Though Phyllis tried to rea­son with him, asking, “How’re you going to buy your cigarettes if you don’t have any money?” she and Tony were out the Bel­knaps’ front door a minute later, Jay right behind them screaming, “LEAVE ME ALONE!”

It’s unclear how many more times they listened to Stained Class, and which song was on when Jay said to Ray, “Let’s see what’s next.” In depositions, Jay said it was the lyric, “Keep your world of all its sin,/It’s not fit for living in,” that led them both to understand what the message was: “The answer to this life is death.” Trying to comprehend what had happened to him in the year after the shootings, Jay went a half-­dozen times to see Susan Rusk, his former guidance counselor at Reed High; she re­members Jay mentioning that he and Ray had sat chanting “Do it, do it,” as they passed the album cover back and forth.

Ray, in any case, understood what Jay was telling him. “Yeah,” he growled, then offered his knuckles for Jay to punch. After rapping fists together, they were “psyched enough” to tear Ray’s room apart, smash­ing furniture and glass, including Ray’s prized full-length mirror. While Jay wedged a two-by-four under Ray’s door, Ray grabbed his favorite weapon, the sawed-off 12-gauge, opened his bedroom window, and crawled out.

By the time Jay had followed him out the window, Ray was already 20 feet down the alley behind his house, which led to the six­-foot wall of the Community First Church of God. Jay yelled at him to wait, and the two scaled the wall together. At 5:10 p.m. on the third shortest day of the year it was already pitch-black in the churchyard, and neither boy knew where they were. A neigh­borhood dog had begun to bark, and they were worried about the police coming. Nei­ther of them was old enough to be outdoors with a loaded gun.

Ray stepped onto a small, rickety carou­sel in the corner of the churchyard and loaded up with a single shell from his pocket. He looked terrified as he heard the gun cock. It was well below freezing, and both boys were wearing only jeans and T-shirts. In several depositions, Jay remembers say­ing, “Just hurry up” to Ray; Susan Rusk later testified that Jay told her Ray was going round and round on the carousel, chanting “Do it, do it,” and that what Jay finally said to Ray was, “Just do it.”

As the years went by, it was only in dreams that Jay could remember seeing his best friend kill himself, and inaccurately at that: In his dreams he remembered fire coming out of the back of Ray’s head after he shot himself; in his depositions, he testi­fied he had his back turned when it hap­pened. Two days after the shootings, how­ever, Jay told police he watched Ray sit down on the carousel and plant the gun on the ground between his feet. The coroner’s report located the entrance wound in the exact center of Ray’s chin, and Jay remem­bered that Ray’s voice was clipped when he said, “I sure fucked up my life,” because he had the gun’s barrel “so tight under his chin.” Jay watched in amazement as Ray reached for the trigger and pulled it. The buckshot imploded in Ray’s head, causing no exit wound, but spraying the carousel, the gun. and over three feet of ground with “an incredible amount of blood.”

Jay remembers “shaking real bad” as he grabbed the gun, uncocked it, and put the shell Ray had given him into the chamber. “I didn’t know what to do,” he said. “I thought somebody was going to stop me.” He told police he only went through with his half of the pact because he was afraid of being accused of Ray’s murder. When he tried to put the gun in his mouth the blood on it made him gag, so he put it under his chin, then stood next to the carousel for a minute, perhaps two, thinking about “my mom, and people I cared about.” The gun felt greasy from the blood, and Jay’s hand-to-eye coordination failed him one last time as he pulled the trigger. The shot took off his chin and mouth and nose and missed his eyes and brain.

He remembered feeling weightless as he dropped to his knees, then face-first to the ground. After a long numbness, he felt a stinging sensation, as though someone had slapped him. “Then somebody,” he said, “turned me over on my back … and checked out my blood.” He remembers fighting with that person to get back onto his stomach. As he was placed into the ambulance and given an emergency trache­otomy. Jay had no idea he no longer had a mouth or a tongue, and couldn’t under­stand why the simple sentence, “I don’t want to die,” wouldn’t come out when he tried to say it to the paramedic.

[related_posts post_id_1=”718343″ /]

As you drive out from Reno to Sparks, the buffets broadcast from the hotel marquees get cheaper, the entertainers get older, and the hold-’em games go from $1-3-5 to $3-5-10. A suburban sprawl crawling up the side of a mountain. Sparks extends higher and seemingly at random with each year into the canyons and hillocks of the surrounding Sierras: endless streets of one-story houses with one willow tree on each lawn, a car or two in each driveway-and one four-wheel­-drive vehicle, RV, or big boat in every other drive. Most of the four-wheels have gun racks in the back.

Four doors down from Ray’s old house on Richards Way, I find the Community First Church of God. A 20-square-foot patch of grass surrounded by six feet of cinderblock (interrupted only by a chain fence on the east wall), it looks far more like a prison yard. Formerly a playground for Sunday school kids, it has a spooky, cloistered feel to it. The peeling, white­washed cross on the church roof is visible between two immense weeping willows hanging over a brace of swings; only one swing is still on its chain. Two feet from the sawed-off stump of a third willow is the small foot-pump carousel Ray was sitting on when he shot himself.

Among Jay’s endless nightmares after the shootings, many were filled with Old Chris­tian symbolism and stained glass. Though there’s no such glass visible from the yard, there are three cheap panels on the front of the church that are enough to give anyone nightmares. The last panel bears a striking resemblance to the Stained Class album cover (an android’s face being pierced by a bolt of something that leaves a red halo over the android’s head), which was put into evidence for its subliminal content.

Jay lay in the hospital for three months, getting daily injections of morphine and listening to the music playing over and over in his head. He got a friend of his to make a tape of Stained Class and played it for weeks, trying, he said, “to bury my grief for Ray. It’s real weird saying goodbye to someone.”

The extent of the reconstructive surgery was enormous. Doctors at the Stanford University hospital first took a piece of skin remaining from his forehead and graft­ed it onto the middle of his face, eventually to become a nose. The skin grew hair and needed to be shaved daily. After two years, surgeons began working on a pair of lips from skin taken from the smooth crease under the knee, and he was halfway toward his third and final chin when he died. A third of his tongue remained, but he’d lost his gag reflex, and would drool and swallow his tongue. He had only one tooth, and could eat only by using his thumb as a second incisor. When Jay went to watch McKenna and Lynch work on an unrelated trial, he was ejected from the courtroom for upsetting the jury; when McKenna’s young daughter first saw Jay, she fainted.

Because Jay wouldn’t be eligible for Tony’s insurance — to pay for what he called his “$400,000 face” — unless he lived at home, he stayed with his parents. Incred­ibly, Jay’s love life didn’t slow down: he turned down two offers of marriage, and a third girlfriend came to live with the Vances after she’d been booted out of her house on her 18th birthday. She bore a child of theirs a year before Jay died. (“I told the girl that I didn’t want them mon­keying around in the bedroom,” Phyllis Vance recalls. “Jay said I had forgotten to mention the garage, the front lawn, the backyard … “)

For three years, Jay was in almost con­stant agony: coupled with the initial trau­ma, surgeons had attached skin extenders to his face, pulling down on the single re­maining flap of forehead skin to re-form his face, which caused painful swelling. Jay survived numerous addictions to Percodan and Xanax, and often said that he hadn’t known what a “real drug addiction was like” when he checked into the New Frontier program for crank abuse in July of 1985. Just after the shooting, he’d begun injecting up to two grams of cocaine a day into his arm to ease the pain, but he’d been able to overcome that addiction by getting nerve-block injections (a one-and-a-half-­inch needle in the base of his neck).

[related_posts post_id_1=”729181″ /]

Despite being placed on suicide watch in Washoe Medical Center (Jay got enormous­ly depressed every year around the holiday season), he died of a methadone overdose on Thanksgiving Day, 1988. Though it’s listed a suicide, it isn’t clear how he got enough of the drug to kill himself, and Vivian Lynch, who represents Jay’s child, is considering suing Washoe. Phyllis Vance is convinced it was malpractice: “Jay felt he had everything to live for. He used to say that he was literally reborn after the accident.”

Before he died, Jay put his mother in the hospital on two occasions — during seizures of cocaine toxicity and withdrawal agony: He split her lip the first time; the second time he fractured her nose. “But we were never closer than after the accident,” Phyl­lis Vance tells me over Diet Cokes in her backyard, where we’ve come because she won’t let me, or her husband Tony, smoke in the house. “Jay would wake up scream­ing in blind terror in the middle of the night, and I’d be right there beside him. His face was so swollen he couldn’t see any­thing except what he’d seen in his dream, the same one, night after night: Ray blow­ing the back of his head off. He’d see fire coming out of the back of his head, hear the thud of his body, and he knew Ray was dead.”

Tony, sitting beside her, lights a Marl­boro and nods his head. I ask if he’d like to respond to reports that Jay’s was a violent home. “I remember one time,” he answers with a flat, emotionless voice, “when Jay came back from California with his eyes all glassy. I told him, ‘Show me your eyes’ and he wouldn’t. So I went into his room to punish him. He said, ‘Daddy, I’m too old for you to be spanking me.’ So, I haul off and belt him, two or three times, with my fist. I don’t know if it did any good,” he says, “’cause I never did it again.”

Tony’s a quiet, broad-shouldered guy, a Blackfoot-Cherokee from Kentucky who never seems at ease, either in the court­room or in his backyard. During the suit, defense lawyers often raised the question of his alleged alcoholism and gambling, and cite an incident where Phyllis pulled a gun on him when he tried to go out gambling with his overtime pay, but Tony didn’t drink until the Oakland GM plant he drove a forklift for closed down in 1979, and he didn’t gamble much till they moved to Ne­vada. “That gun thing only happened,” Phyllis explains, “because Tony was used to gambling with his overtime. After the acci­dent, though, we needed the money for Jay.”

A short, enraged-seeming woman with a strident voice and piercing stare, after an hour of talking with her in her backyard I’m able to see her for what she is: a power­ful and very angry mother who, five years later, finally knows why her son shot him­self. “One thing I’ll never be able to get over,” she says, with a sweet, mystified look, “is that he did it in a churchyard, and without even knowing where he was. Piece by piece, though, you put it all together, and you can finally stop asking ‘Why? Why?’ It was the subliminals.

Though I try to concentrate on what Phyllis is telling me, my eye keeps wander­ing across her yard. But for a few tons of concrete Tony laid down for Jay’s pit-bull to run in, it looks exactly like the First Community’s churchyard: a 20-foot patch of grass bordered by a six-foot-high wall, the sawed-off stump of a willow tree, and two big weeping willows overhanging a brace with only one chain swing left.

[related_posts post_id_1=”729090″ /]

By the last week of the trial, the horde of kids protesting outside the courthouse has dwindled to a few aging stoners with goa­tees and Motorhead and Houses of the Holy T-shirts and one 90-pound girl wearing white pumps, a white bustier, and jeans with a copper zipper that goes from front to back. Their tinny cries of “Let the music live” are drowned by the right-to-life pamphleteering of a slack-jawed scarecrow of a man named Andy Anderson, who’s been running for lieutenant governor of Ne­vada for several decades. (“But I still haven’t found the right man to share the ticket with.”)

Of the 75 media people who’d come to Reno from seven different countries, all three networks, four cable channels, and most of the major newsweeklies and dailies in the country, only four rather cynical stringers for the wire services and local pa­pers, three local TV and radio people, and a documentary team from New York sur­vived the first week of the trial, which be­came extremely technical once opening statements were read. Three-quarters of the testimony given was from “expert witness­es” — psychologists, audiologists, and com­puter experts for the most part — several of whom seem to have confused their testimo­ny for Oscar acceptance speeches. “We had a suicide shrink here last week,” one string­er says, “who thanked everyone in the Yel­low Pages for his long career. He was so deadly the bailiff was talking about putting speed bumps by the exit.”

The 83-seat courtroom, no more than half-filled till the last day of trial, is notice­ably devoid of metalheads, whose atten­dance was successfully dissuaded by Judge Whitehead’s strict dress-code order after the second day of trial. Other than Phyllis Vance (who comes every day, accompanied by a visionary-looking young man dressed in impeccable linen), there are very few “magic” Christians here, born-again or oth­erwise: a 15-year-old strawberry blond, who sits behind me, telling her rosary; the man whose friend’s brother jumped off the San­ta Barbara bridge (with his daughters); and one very anxious elderly woman, wearing the same emerald pants and midnight blue shirt every day, who seems poised to rise and object to every question posed by de­fense’s lawyers. (On the last day of the trial, she finally stands to say, “Please stop this! I have 25 children I work with downtown and someone has to care for them. Some­one has to stop this.” As she was led out, she pleaded, “Your honor, please put me on the stand. I’m an electronics expert too.”)

The empty jury room, formerly needed to handle the overflow press, has been given over to defense’s entourage for recess breaks: band members, U.S. and U.K. man­agement people, a half-dozen independent producers and recording engineers, a few CBS corporate types, and two very jolly 275-pound security toughs from Tempe, Arizona, Rick and Nick, who have the de­fense team addressing each other with “Hey dude.”

After a first decade of opening shows for bands like AC-DC, UFO, and Ratt, Judas Priest has been on a roll since their 1980 release, British Steel, the album that establishcd them as a hardcore metal band. They’ve been accused of glomming — a la Spinal Tap — from the metal trends set by other groups: Kiss’s leather and two-tiered stage sets; the guitar pyrotechnics, dry-ice smoke, mythic-medieval themes, and on­stage monsters of Deep Purple and Black Sabbath; and even some “hell-oriented themes” here and there, when bands like Venom, Mercyful Fate, Scorpions, and Me­gadeth started hitting gold by reaching the various covens and Satanic wannabees across the country. But from the time Priest learned that heavy metal is show biz — and shed their ’70s kimonos and velvet robes for leather, studs, spurs, and choke collars; added smoke machines, whips, fire pits, flamethrowers. and a 15-foot robot that shot laser beams and lifted the two guitar­ists into the air during lead breaks; and began riding onstage on Harley-Davidson two-tone Low Riders — they have had their own sound and their own following.

[related_posts post_id_1=”729124″ /]

Skip Herman, promotions director and “morning mutant” DJ of Reno’s heavy metal FM station, made friends with the band in the early days of the trial, and has been hanging out with them near Lake Ta­hoe, where they’ve rented a suite of deluxe cottages. (Skip, who tells me, “This back­-masked stuff is all bull,” later invites me to his radio station to hear what are obviously unintentional reverse-direction lyrics on Diana Ross’s “Touch Me in the Morning”: “Death to all. He is the one. Satan is love.“) Over and above a mutual love for music, Skip shares Priest’s other guiding passion: golf. “They talk about the trial for the first two holes,” he says, “Then maybe a little music, girls, a lot of old times. Ian and Glenn talk about their kids. From there to the clubhouse, it’s nothing but setting up a good, steady tripod with your legs, and es­tablishing that perfect pendulum for your swing.”

“It’ll be another 10 years before I’ll even be able to spell ‘subliminals,'” Downing says as he signs autographs on the way into the courtroom. Halford and Tipton, howev­er, don’t see the joke. “It’s terribly wrong, y’know,” says Tipton, “for my family to have to turn on the tube, see this poor kid with his face blown off and have the finger pointing, ‘Judas Priest did this.’ I have a lot of work to do. but you can’t go ’round to court every day, sit down behind your law­yers. have the knife twisted in your gut for eight hours, then go home and pick up your guitar.”

“These people act like we drink a gallon of blood and hang upside down from cruci­fixes before we go onstage,” Rob Halford says. “We’re performers, have been for two decades. We do the show and we wear the costumes our audience expect us to.”

A polite, soft-spoken man with a slow, working-class Birmingham accent and bright, caricatural droopy eyes, Halford says the trial is “degrading and tedious,” but also admits it’s good publicity. “It’s been murder on my creativity as an artist, though. I can’t wait for this tour. I’m going to explode. You can’t fight back the way you should. because you’re in a court of law. Legal proceedings are so frustrating.”

The proceedings are also extremely class­ist — from plaintiffs’ evocations of CBS’s enormous capital resources (“and they still couldn’t find the master tapes”) to de­fense’s portrayal of the Vance/Belknap fam­ilies, the clipped King’s English spoken by half their witnesses, and the ridicule of plaintiffs’ expert witnesses’ credentials. Nickloff, for example, is often cited as “the marine biologist” — his major in college. The testimony given by Dr. Bruce Tannenbaum (Jay’s psychiatrist in his last two years) — that Jay wouldn’t have shot him­self without a subliminal command to Do it — is colored by several references to Tan­nenbaum’s dabblings in “jam essence” and “block flower” therapies, and his claim to be “the only white man ever to have en­dured the Native American’s fire-sweat ceremony.”

But there are even more unorthodox wit­nesses called, and by both sides of the bench: An advocate for subliminal self-help aids, who claims his tapes have been docu­mented to promote the regrowth of hair, enlarge breast size, cure homosexuality, and turn a local college’s worst football team in its history into a division contender; a To­ronto psychologist who recites the entire “Jabberwocky” section of Through the Looking Glass backward; and five friends of the deceased who contradict reams of evidence as to Ray’s and Jay’s whereabouts on December 23, 1985. One kid, whose testimony places Ray and Jay in his pickup a half-hour after the shooting, is asked by Judge Whitehead to show his glassy eyes “to the court” before he leaves the stand.

Whitehead, whose decision in the suit will set major precedent, is the last person in Reno I’d play cards with, for his eyes show absolutely nothing. An austere Mormon, with a quiet (almost inaudible) sense of his own dignity, he seems like a man who has grimly determined to catch more flies with honey than vinegar; whether he sustains or overrules an objection, his rul­ing is delivered with exactly the same measured deference, care, and consideration. His courtroom has a statewide reputation for running by the book and to the minute; entering each morning at precisely 8:45, he says. “Thank you, will you please be seated,” and clears his throat away from the microphone. But except for a question he’ll interject now and again, and the occasional wince when a witness refers to the ”back­-masked lyric” “F— the Lord” as “Fuck the Lord” (after 11 days of trial, he still listens to that section of tape with his face averted from the court), he sits impassively till 5 p.m., then whispers the day to a close without the slightest clue as to what he’s seen, heard, or thought.

[related_posts post_id_1=”725977″ /]

After Lynch files a Motion in Limine (asking to be awarded the decision outright, on 1he basis of CBS’s lack of cooperation in producing evidence) and a motion for sanctions (money), the first three days feature endless declarations of the impossibility of “punching” anything into a mixed-down two-track (or even 24-track) tape. Several witnesses cite CBS’s impossible task in locating the tapes (probably the first time in legal history an American arts corporation has argued for its lack of control of the matrix of production). Whole mornings and afternoons arc devoted to very unconvincing testimony as to the difficulty and scarcity of backward lyrics in the recording business, either phonetic reversals (lyrics forming a sensible fragment when played backward), or backward-recorded reversals (words recorded forward and added to the mix in reverse direction). After eight court-hours of such testimony (by men who engineered or produced such records as Electric Ladyland, four Zeppelin albums, The Wall, and lier Satanic Majesty’s Request), a 32-year-old engineer/producer named Andrew Jackson (called to testify because he served as assistant engineer on the “Better By You” recording session 13 years ago) is asked if he knows of any backmasked lyrics in the rock industry.

“Yes I do,” he says with a Cockney accent so thick he has Judge Whitehead straining to understand him. “I produced a band just last month had a song with the lyric. ‘And I need someone to lie on./And I need someone to rely on.’ Played in reverse that becomes ‘Here’s me/Here I am./ What we have lost./I am the messenger of love.'” (The singer memorized the backward phrase, with all its reversals and sibilants and plosives, sang it on one track, and that rack was used — backward — as a forward-running vocal overdub.)

“And do you know of any instances of backward-recorded lyrics in the rock industry he was asked by Judge Whitehead to show his glassy eyes “to the court” before he leaves the stand.

Whitehead, whose decision in the suit will set major precedent, is the last person in Reno I’d play cards with, for his eyes show absolutely nothing. An austere Mor­mon, with a quiet (almost inaudible) sense of his own dignity, he seems like a man who has grimly determined to catch more flies with honey than vinegar: whether he sustains or overrules an objection, his ruling is delivered with exactly the same measured deference, care, and consideration. His courtroom has a statewide reputation for running by the book and to the minute: entering each morning at precisely 8:45, he says. “Thank you, will you please he seated,” and clears his throat away from the microphone. But except for a question he’ll interject now and again, and the occasional wince when a witness refers to the “back-masked lyric” “F··· the Lord” as “Fuck the Lord” (after 11 days of trial, he still listens to that section of tape with his face averted from the court) he sits impassively till 5 p.m. then whispers the day to a close with­out the slightest clue as to what he’s seen, heard, or thought.

After Lynch files a Motion in Limine

“Yes, I do,” Jackson say with barely concealed pride. “A Pink Floyd song I worked on has the backward-recorded lyric: “Dear Punter. Congratulations. You have found the secret message. Please send an­swers to Pink Floyd, care of the Funny Farm, Chalford, St. Giles.’ ”

I get to hear two of the back masked lyrics and the alleged Do its on the antepenultimate day of the trial, when the court adjourns to a 24-track studio across town. Two of the stringers look harrowed as we enter a dark room that, through a two-inch plate-glass window, looks onto the console room the court is reconvening in. “We were in Carson City last month to report on a death-penalty execution,” one of them tells me. “It was set up just like this.”

From the four-foot UREI Studio Monitors in our room we hear the title cut’s first chorus, forward first:”Long ago, when man was king./This heart must beat, on stained class./Time must end before sixteen/So now he’s just a stained class thing … ” and then the reverse of the next line, “Faithless continuum into the abyss,” which is supposed to be “Sing my evil spirit.” Though it is a creepy sound, inhumanly high-pitched and extremely emphatic somehow, I can’t say I hear anything more than “S-s-eeg mahee-voh speeree.”

In the song “White Hot, Red Heat,” played next. I do hear something that sounds remarkable, like a dolphin saying “F-f-f-fuck the Lor … S-ss-suck-ck tolleyuse” When the lines, “Deliver us/ From all the fuss,” are played backward. Its existence is important to plaintiffs’ case, since they’ve argued that its backward appearance confirms the “message” of “White Hot, Red Heat.” Which desecrates the Lord’s Pray­er: “… Thy father’s son/Thy kingdom come/Electric ecstasy/Deliver us/from all the fuss …”

“Better By You. Better Than Me” is exactly the type of song Jay said he and Ray loved Judas Priest’s music for, “a steady, galloping rhythm … only changing for the chorus. [when] the beat would get more dramatic or more intensified.” After the screeching line. “Tell her what I’m like within/I can’t find the words, my mind dim,” comes the first chorus, with its pro­longed ee-eh, exhalation sounds. Though I don’t hear anything that sounds like Do it, there is an extra, syncopated beat falling just on the third beat of each measure, a discolike mesh of noise that has nothing to do with the musical/lyrical content of the song. It does sound — if not “punched in” — ­added on.

As the song moves into the second chorus with the lyrics,”Guess I’ll learn to tight and kill./Tell her not to wait until/They find my blood upon her windowsill,” the extra beat seem, to land with greater emphasis, more elaborated and groanlike with each ee-uh sound till, yes. I hear the words Do it — a, a kind of antiphonal chant — falling, with relative clarity, on the last rendition of “You can tell her what I want it to be.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”728509″ /]

The issue of backward masking seems resolved, forever, on the last day of testimony Halford, noticeably absent from court all morning, arrives late in the after­noon session with a large, black double­-deck, and a cassette. Put on the stand, he says that he’s spent the morning in the recording studio, spooling Stained Class backward would like to play what he’s found for the court. Ever the showman (Halford began as a theater apprentice in Birmingham and switched to metal when he realized he’d “stay in the limelight longer that way”), he asks if he can play the tape forward, sing the lyric once, play the “backmasked stuff,” then sing that.

Lynch objects furiously to the tape’s admission, and to Halford’s request to per­form for the court. Whitehead agrees there’s no need for Halford to sing again, then cracks his first smile of the suit. “I want to hear this though.”

“Some of these aren’t entirely grammatical.” Halford deadpans apologetically. “But I don’t think ‘Sing my evil spirit’ would”­

“Objection,” says Lynch.

“Sustained,” says Whitehead.

A blast of heavy bass and Glenn Tipton ‘s 32nd-note trill accompanies the fragment, “strategic force/they will not,” from “Invader.” Its reverse is the insane-sounding but entirely audible screech: “It’s so fishy, personally I’ll owe it.” When Halford plays, “They won’t take our love away,” from the same song, the backward, “Hey look, Ma, my chair’s broken,” has the courtroom howling. McKenna and Lynch are livid.

After a week of suspending my own dis­belief, I lose it completely when Halford plays his last discovery — the lines “Stand by for Exciter./Salvation is his task”­ — which come out backward with an emphat­ic and high-pitched, “I-I-I as-sked her for a peppermint-t-t/I-I-I asked for her to get one.”

The band is exultant after Halford’s perfor­mance. Up in their Reno counsel’s offices (on the 15th noor of the one bona fide office building I see in Reno), Downing and Ian Hill are talking of issuing a Greatest Hits album. Judas Priest: The Subliminal Years, their American manager is on the phone booking Tipton’s family on a morn­ing night to the Grand Canyon, and Hal­ford, giving an interview to the New York documentary team, lets his hair down: “I’ve never known such a lull in my sex­-life, y’now. I don’t think I’ve had an erec­tion since we’ve got here.”

I ride down with Ian Hill and Ken Down­ing to the bar in Harrah’s, where both they and their drink orders are well-known by the maitre d’. The two original members of the band (they dropped out of their second­ary school in Birmingham in the same year), and the only two members of the defense team that don’t seem compelled to shower plaintiffs’ every statement with scornful smiles, they watch the proceedings with a mixture of curiosity and incompre­hension till the late hours of afternoon, when they both look ready for a long nap, or a stiff drink. Over second Bloody Marys, I tell Downing I’ve noticed that his ears seem to prick up any time Ray’s or Jay’s name is mentioned in court. A 38-year-old man with a shoulder-length permanent and deeply receding hairline, he tells me that he’s been wanting to go to the churchyard the two shot themselves in.

[related_posts post_id_1=”719427″ /]

“I’ve got some strange feelings about those kids,” he says. “It’s not guilt, y’know, but I do feel haunted when I hear about their lives, ’cause they were the same as mine. I hated my parents, y’know, terribly. These kids just didn’t get to live long enough to put all that past them.”

“So you made up with your parents eventually?”

“Oh, I talk to my Mum all the time.”

“Is your father dead?”

“No. he’s alive. But I don’t talk to him. I don’t hate him anymore, though. I don’t feel that I ever really matured till I stopped carrying that anger around with me, and that wasn’t till a year or so ago. The music was the only real release, till then. I do feel angry, though, when they play all that back­ward surf music and talk about the harm our music did these kids, ’cause I think it was the best thing they had. I remember citing sophisticated stuff verbatim to my folks — like they say Ray and Jay did all the time — Hendrix lyrics like, and they’d look at me, like, Where’s all that coming from? My parents aren’t clever people, you know. They’re just people.”

Halford and Tipton, finished with their interview, come in with the security guys, Rick and Nick. Rick is opining on Neva­da’s other major court case — the libel suit brought by Las Vegas’s Stardust Hotel against the animal rights group, PETA — on our way into the adjoining three-star res­taurant. “Some guy slaps an orangutan in the face, and they’re asking for $800,000,000.”

I don’t remember much of that dinner, but I won’t forget the next morning’s hang­over soon. Between repeated calls for “one more bottle of this Chateau Neuf-de … POP!, Captain Bong,” to our suave Fili­pino headwaiter and leading a backward­sounding finger-chorus by everyone at the table on our Diamond Optic crystal wine-glasses. Halford, wfto sat at the head, regaled the table with recitations from his favorite Mafia movies. Rick and Nick or­dered the Chateaubriand for Two apiece, and I remember an argument starting when Nick told Rick he must have the plaintiff and defendant confused in the Vegas case. “It would have to have been the animal rights guy who slapped the orangutan.”

Ken, who sat to my left, ordered a second appetizer rather than an entree (he was worried about fitting into his stage clothes), and told me how much he hated secondary school. “I was all thumbs in Woodworking Shop. Metalworking, which is a biggie in Birmingham (Tipton worked for British Steel before joining the band), was even worse. The only thing I liked was Chess Club. where I got to beat up on the kids with perfectly pressed uniforms, and Cooking.”

“Why Cooking?”

“‘Cause you got to watch the girls bend over. I went to work as a cook after I left school, and loved it. I mean, how many people do you know, even at this age, who can bake an egg?”

Sometime between the third bottle of Moet and the warmed Grand Marnier, I remember a silver plate with an $800 check hitting the table. Happy Verdict, Captain Bong was written on the back.

On the long walk back to the lawyer’s office to get their dry cleaning, Ken and Ian looked thoughtful, and 1000 light years from home; riding up on the elevator, they both admitted they’d heard a couple of Do its in the recording studio on Tuesday.

[related_posts post_id_1=”726163″ /]

Judge Whitehead’s decision on both the suit and Vivian Lynch’s Motion in Limine and motion for sanctions was handed down two weeks after the end of the trial. An impressive document, it runs 68 pages, stopping en route to cite Sir Edward Coke’s 17th century interpretation of the Magna Carta and Thomas Payne’s and James Madison’s arguments for the right to trial.

After criticizing CBS’s actions in the dis­covery process, he awarded plaintiffs’ law­yers $40,000. Finding (I) that the 24-track of “Better By You” submitted by CBS was authentic and unaltered, he declared (2) that there were several Do its; (3) that they were subliminals; (4) but they were placed on the record unintentionally; (5) and that lack of intent establishes lack of liability under invasion of privacy theory; (6) that plaintiffs established a sufficient founda­tion for the effectiveness of subliminal stimuli, and that the decedents perceived these: (7) but that plaintiffs failed to prove these stimuli were sufficient to explain con­duct of this magnitude; and (following a lengthy disclaimer of any intent to demean the Vance and Belknap families) (8) that a number of other factors existed that explain their behavior.

Whitehead’s final findings concerned backmasked messages, which he rejected out of hand. Though he had “grave con­cerns” as to their possible use if perceived by the unconscious, he found no reason to believe they could be so perceived. And though he indicated his displeasure with heavy metal several times, he closed by thanking the members of Judas Priest for their courtesy during the trial. In Los Ange­les to film a video, Judas Priest has report­edly decided to call their upcoming tour “Subliminal Criminals.”

Vivian Lynch, reached for comment after the decision, felt Whitehead was wrong in construing this as an invasion of privacy case. “This is product liability. If somebody explodes in a Pinto, you don’t have to prove Ford intended that to happen.” She said she’ll be filing a motion for a new trial this week: “I feel Judge Whitehead’s find­ings were entirely correct. I’m appealing on his application of the law to his findings.”

She also expressed satisfaction with the trial: “We accomplished what we set out to: give congressional committees and state legislatures enough reason to take a solid look at what these subliminals are doing to our kids. And I’ve still got Jay’s daughter’s wrongful death suit to file against CBS. It’ll be the same thing all over again.”

McKenna was more succinct: “Hey man.” he tells me. “I’ll take the $40,000.” ❖

Categories
FILM ARCHIVES From The Archives Uncategorized

The Africentric Cinema of Julie Dash

Of Homegirl Goddesses and Geechee Women 

Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust has been described as the first translation of the sensibility found in contemporary Black women’s literature to the screen. Logocentrists and literary scholars beware: Dash’s achievement is not simply a matter of grafting the thematic concerns of Hurston, Morrison, Walker, and Naylor to the screen. The filmmaking magic and craft of Dash and her cinema­tographer, Arthur Jafa, shows through most brilliantly in the film’s comprehensive Afrocentric visual aesthetic and richness of period detail. Daughters evokes the spirituality and emotional depths of those writer’s mytho­poeic prose styles. It is a film of visionary power conceived with a passion for pure research.

Ostensibly about a Gullah fam­ily whose younger generation are making plans to leave their ances­tral islands for mainland U.S.A. at the crest of the 20th century, Daughters is also an interrogation of Black America’s cleft soul, split between the quest for modernity and a hunger for the replenish­ment of roots. Zeroing in on the family’s women, it captures the shifting faces of dignity, denial, yearning, and elegance that give shape and meaning to Black fe­male subjectivity. Daughters is an unparalleled and unprecedented achievement in terms of both world cinema and African aesthet­ics. In this it extends ten thou­sand-fold the canon of Black film to have emerged from the UCLA-based Black filmmakers Dash joined in the late ’70s — Charles Burnell, Haile Gerima, Larry Clarke, Alile Sharon Larkin, Billy Woddberry, Zeinabu Davis. Pending a distribution deal this summer, the film should be in a theater near you this fall, making it the first feature-length film di­rected by an African-American woman to gain a national theatri­cal release. Anybody in need of more encouragement than this to give Julie Dash her props is just wasting my breath. — Greg Tate

[related_posts post_id_1=”731019″ /]

Greg Tate: Did you feel you were engaged in a heroic, historic act while you were making the movie?

Julie Dash: Absolutely. Everyone involved in Daughters was aware that these were the islands where the slaves were quarantined and fattened up after the Middle Pas­sage and before being sent to the ports of Charleston. Since we were working with available light, we’d go out and wait every morning for the sunrise. When the sun would rise everyone in the crew would stop unless we were actually shooting. Often people would weep. Then there were things like the sandstorm that hit us all of a sudden on a clear day in the mid­dle of a heavy dramatic scene. It was like [whistles Twilight Zone theme]. We slopped shooting and ran for cover in the woods behind the beach. One of the actresses, Verta Mae Grosvenor, came up and told me, “You stirring too much stuff up girl.”

Tate: What do you use as a guide­post for translating African mysti­cism and spiritual experiences to the screen? How do you know you’re on the right track?

Dash: You don’t. Every morning I’d get up and say, please ances­tors help me. All the rituals are based on extensive research. But sometimes you have to trust your gut to do or not do something. For instance, we found an ancient African graveyard, and the first thought was, this is great, these are slave graves, the old souls are buried here, we can construct our Ki-Kongo graveyard on top of this. We’ll be on sacred ground. We got our props there and our production designer Kerry Mar­shall looked at me, and said, “This is not right.” And I said, “You’re right, let’s go find ground where people aren’t buried.”

Tate: Why a story about the Gul­lah at the turn of the century?

Dash: The Sea Islands are sacred ground. All our ancestors came through these islands. I wanted to do a story set at the turn of the century about the first generation of free Blacks, and a story about a pivotal moment in the lives of the women of the family. Also, be­cause my father’s family came from that area, I’ve heard Gee­chee and Gullah dialect, and eat­en the food all my life. I don’t remember much from my visits during the summer when I was a kid, but I was influenced by the Geechees I knew on 165th and Amsterdam Ave. There was a bar called The Office and mostly Gul­lah and Geechee would go there. Whenever we wanted to call my father, we’d call The Office. My mother will die to hear me say that. For me hearing heavy Gullah dialect is not strange. My grand­mother speaks that way.

[related_posts post_id_1=”731017″ /]

Tate: You made a decision to not do the film in a thick dialect with subtitles.

Dash: My original intention was to have thick Gullah language with subtitles and then segue into Gullah dialect. Some people seem to have problems with it, but to tell the truth, I had problems with Miller’s Crossing. It made me re­alize that I’ve done that all my life, pushed through on accents until I understood them. Why is it with Daughters of the Dust that people almost seem offended by it? When they bring it up, I tell them, “Release on it, you’ll under­stand it in a minute.” You may not understand every sentence but you’ll surely get the general idea, the sensibility of the whole thing. We’ve grown up translating. We have no other choice.

Tate: Does the whole question of whether you’re pushing an audi­ence too hard ever come into it for you? When do you release on that?

Dash: I think it’s on a project-by­-project basis. On Daughters it was about breaking through, doing something different. I mean, all the main characters are grounded in West African cosmology. The narrative is not driven by the Greek gods but Oshun, Oya­-Yansa, Yemoja, Eshu-Elegba. Then there’s a lot of subliminal stuff happening. We have a mas­ter talking drummer playing mes­sages very subtly throughout the film, saying in Yoruba, “Remem­ber me, remember my name, take me with you, take me where you go.” I know people can’t under­stand it, but I want it working on people’s subconscious. All the mu­sic by John Barnes was composed in certain astrological keys. We had Santeria high priestesses came in and sang secret songs to Oshun. There’s so much working in this film that has never been done be­fore. All the principal actors had worked in films by other Black independent directors. We worked with fine artists like Da­vid Hammons, Tyrone Mitchell, Kerry Marshall, Michael Kelly Williams, Martha Jackson-Jarvis. All these people coming together make it an exciting grand experiment.

[related_posts post_id_1=”416015″ /]

Tate: In terms of Black female ico­nography and beauty, Daughters is a breakthrough.

Dash: We brought in Pamela Fer­rell of Cornrows Incorporated from D.C. This woman is a mas­ter cornrower and hairstylist who studied in Africa. We have hair­styles representing people from Senegal, the Ivory Coast, and Madagascar. We didn’t take any­thing lightly. I remember many years ago I was doing an intern­ship on Roots when I was al the AFI, and of course all the hair-dressers were white. Being my young naïve self I asked them what gave them the idea for giving these slave women pressed hair. One said to me, “Oh yes, we re­searched this, and they were try­ing to emulate their masters.” I thought, wait a minute. Would the people in Dachau, if they could, try to dress, or even act, like their German captors? It made no sense. It was ridiculous. Not to mention that you’ve never seen that hairstyle in any drawings or photographs from the period.

Tate: The film is praise-song to the beauty of dark-skinned Black women. But, I heard, that after the screening a few weeks back, one black woman critic reduced Daughters to being a film that was “about hair.”

Dash: I guess it’s all about what your nervous system can stand. As a Black woman you’re constantly being bombarded by all these oth­er images like the Revlon woman pulling out her blow dryer like a gunfighter. Those things affect your concept of what you have to do to be a “real woman.” There’s a lot of drama around Black hair. Teachers treating girls with soft straight hair nicer than those with short nappy hair. I could try and be a filmmaker who was myopic about it, like this really isn’t an issue, but it would be untrue. The other thing is, in all other types of films, you see women with all kinds of hairstyles and no one no­tices. You have Black women wearing something other than a doo-rag, and all of a sudden, you’re self-conscious in the follicle area. I wanted these women to look like nothing you’ve ever seen on the screen before, and I wanted them to have ancient hairstyles.

Tate: Body language is more im­portant than dialogue in Daugh­ters, and a lot of other Black wom­en’s films, as a way of communicating.

Dash: Body language was impor­tant in West Africa. Women standing arms akimbo, hands on hips — was first seen in this country through slave women doing that. The young child straddling the mother’s hip is another exam­ple. Averting the eyes, turning your face away from someone you respect, like a grandparent, is a West African sign of respect that still persists in the Black commu­nity. Those motor habits persist.

[related_posts post_id_1=”417221″ /]

Tate: In terms of world cinema, how do you see Daughters?

Dash: I think it’s a timeless piece, not something that’s trendy for right now. It’s a huge photograph that whoever sees it could take and put in their mind’s eye, and walk around to the end of their days and feel better about a whole lot of things. It’s like a balm. I think people will look at it 10, 20 years from now and discover new things and new emotions in it. You won’t be able to do that with a whole lot of other films.

Tate: You think there’s a popular audience out there for it?

Dash: I think the audience we get will suprise some people. It clearly frightens most white males and they are the ones who get to say what kind of audience is out there for a Daughters of the Dust. They don’t understand it for the most part and don’t want to say that they don’t, so they say it’s not good, or it’s not well crafted or the dramatic themes were spotty. Daughters should be promoted as a woman’s film, as an art film. It’s not a homeboy film, it’s not even a homegirl film. It’s interesting that most of the people doing the homeboy/homegirl films didn’t grow up in that section [of the city]. I grew up in the projects so I’m not doing those types of films.

Tate: Could you ever see yourself making a film about growing up in the projects?

Dash: Yes, I could, but it would be very different from what we have out there now. Those are coming-of-age films for males and I’m not gonna do that.

[related_posts post_id_1=”720560″ /]

Tate: How has Black women’s literature affected your work?

Dash: That’s the reason I’m doing it. I stopped making documenta­ries after discovering Toni Morri­son, Toni Cade Bambara, and Alice Walker in high school. I’d wondered, why can’t we see mov­ies like this? I realized I needed to learn how to make narrative mov­ies. I couldn’t believe it when I first read books like Toni Morri­son’s Sula and Toni Cade Bamba­ra’s Gorilla, My Love, I’d put the books down and say, I know these people. I’ll never forget reading about “the Deweys” in Sula, and thinking that the lady who took care of me would do this. Name all three of her kids Dewey, like it didn’t matter. Miz Edwards. As I think back on it, she had a pro­found effect on me, because she would comb my hair and burn it so no one could get hold of it. And talk about hiding your pictures so no one could put gopher dust on them and drive you crazy. All this kind of stuff became normal to me, not something you have to point out. So when I have stuff like that in my films, it’s not like, look, we’re about to pour on this ritual now. I see these things as a part of our everyday life. It’s our culture and tradition. ❖

Categories
FILM ARCHIVES From The Archives Uncategorized

Surface Tension: Michael Mann’s “Heat”

In Michael Mann’s wide-screen, West Coast gloss on his own Miami Vice, the locations almost upstage the stars, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. Mann is a locations visionary. He sees a city not so much for what it is as for what it might become. Just as Miami remade itself to better resemble its image in Miami Vice, L.A. may rise eventually to Heat‘s desolate, sand­blasted impersonality.

Mann’s City of Lights, where Vin­cent Hanna (Pacino) and Neil McCauley (De Niro) go through their paces as the last of the existential cops and criminals, couldn’t be more re­moved from the gothic, phosphores­cent L.A. of David Fincher’s Seven. Heat’s color scheme is ultracool. In one inconsequential scene set at a con­struction site, Mann finds a 20-foot­-high pile of baby-bunting yellow sand that perfectly balances the film’s basic bleached blues and grays. The image stays in the mind’s eye long after the formulaic plot has faded. So does the ultimate showdown between Vincent and Neil on the far reaches of an air­port runway, where the immediate question of who lives and who dies is dwarfed by the planes roaring over­head. Mann’s use of scale is as mean­ingful as any great modernist painter’s.

[related_posts post_id_1=”421865″ /]

The splendid visuals aside, Heat is a cosmically silly movie — which does­n’t make it any less entertaining. Mann manages to have his romance of ob­sessed masculinity and send it up too. The joke is in the casting. Pacino and De Niro are as much dinosaurs as the parts they play; Mann doesn’t demand a suspension of disbelief. If anything, thee competition for acting honors be­tween these two ethnic superstars (relics of the wilder side of ’70s cine­ma) eclipses the fictional face-off of cop and criminal.

Though there are no big surprises in either performance, my preference is for Pacino, whose head-fakes and er­ratic speech rhythms have the improvisatory flair of the new Knicks. Pacino manages to be playful even when he’s excessive and never less than true even when he’s over the top. Moment to moment, he’s a pleasure to watch.

Pleasure has never been part of De Niro’s game. He’s a lot better here than in Casino (which isn’t saying much), and just about as proficient as he was in GoodFellas. At his best, these days, De Niro seems admirable rather than awesome. Once upon a time, his rigid­ity was a desperate defense against a rage that might erupt at any moment. He could make one both fear and long for the return of the repressed. But over time, the rage imploded into a black hole, sucking the life from him­ — and from anyone who watches. Here, that inner heaviness, though it doesn’t make for a thrilling performance, is right for the character — a career crimi­nal who’s ultimately undone nor by the desire for love he so carefully guards against as by a need for revenge that is the one thing he can’t control.

[related_posts post_id_1=”421868″ /]

Mann has never gotten the credit he deserves as an actor’s director. In Heat, he does well not only by his two stars but also his supporting cast, par­ticularly Val Kilmer as the most volatile of the partners in crime, Ashley Judd as his intermittently loyal wife, and Diana Venora as a woman who knows she’s too smart to stay married to a cop. She’s so smart, in fact, she almost gets away with using the word “detritus” in the middle of a love scene. ❖

Categories
From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Chuck D: All Over the Map

THE DAY BEFORE PUBLIC ENEMY’S monthlong tour with Anthrax began, we drove out to the nondescript Hempstead office building that Chuck D, Hank Shocklee, and their crew have occupied since they were running Long Island’s first hiphop sound system back in 1982. S1W’s PE merchandisers, Media Assassin Harry Allen, and other employees contributed to the general hubbub. On the walls of the front office were samples of PE fashion: Spike Lee-style baseball shirts and hats, tour jackets, T-shirts, the whole nine. Chuck corralled us into a cramped conference room whose dominant feature was a map of the United States complete with zip codes. As he lectured us on the vagaries of hiphop as a national phenomenon, Chuck often rose from his chair and pointed to regions on the map to make himself clearer. The conversation began with Chuck in­terrogating Christgau about how he became a writer and ended with him apologizing to Tate for once branding him a Village Voice porch nigger. It lasted close to three hours, and for the most part Chuck didn’t duck our questions, although he did forestall them with his ver­bosity — as John Leland has said, Chuck may be louder than a bomb, but he’s a lot less succinct. Needless to say, what follows is an edited version

1. WHO HAS SPARE TIME?

CHRISTGAU: How much input did the old crew have into Apoca­lypse 91? Hank, Keith, Eric­—

CHUCK D: Hank is the master­mind of all.

CHRISTGAU: Was he on this re­cord now?

CHUCK D: Yeah, that was Hank.

TATE: Y’all work like Miles now, it’s just like, you come to the stu­dio, you do your part, and it’s al­ready there?

CHUCK D: No, it’s not like that. The Bomb Squad is still the Bomb Squad.

CHRISTGAU: Do you think here’s any musical evolution on the new record? Do you see it as being different musically as op­posed to lyrically?

CHUCK D: The difference lyrical­ly and difference musically is it’s more focused — it’s more hard. It’s sort of like Bum Rush the Show. Each album we do differently. I think I got real creative on the last one. Less creative on this one. You know, you venture off into different sounds and techniques and —

CHRISTGAU: The mix isn’t as dense, would you say?

CHUCK D: Of course. That was intentional. We hope to be trendsettters and not followers. The main difference on this is just tempo. We like to think of things as tempo first and not sound. Other people would probably say sonics before tempo. No. We’re in tune to tem­po — we was the first rap group to really tempo it up, on “Bring the Noise.” That was 109 beats per minute. These tempos basically give you a Midwest, middle-of-the-country feel, with a little bit of east-west hard edge.

CHRISTGAU: How do the BPMs range?

CHUCK D: A lot of them are in the 96 to 102 range, which people will say is slow for PE, but then again, these are people that — what’s danceable here [points at East Coast on map] don’t mean shit. I just come from Kansas City.

CHRISTGAU: So, the music is getting hard.

CHUCK D: On this album. I might just bug out on the next one. But when I bug out, it’s going to hit 85 to 90 per cent of the places. It might not hit here [points to New York] at all. But give me the rest, I’ll take it. Fear of a Black Planet was the most successful album we had — not because of all of the hype and hysteria. It was a world record. Because of the different feels and the different textures and the flow it had, I can do it — get the same feeling [more pointing] here, here, here, here, you know what I’m saying? Just in L.A., a kid is breaking down the rappers from different areas and he says, Public Enemy, man, ain’t even like y’all from New York, it’s like y’all from somefuckingwhere, like, you’re fucking everywhere. I say, well, we are from everywhere, and it reflects in our music, and it reflects in our lyrics, you know. I’m a person — I ride on Grey­hound through the middle. I ride Greyhound through Arkansas and Arizona. I’ll sit on Greyhound for hours just listening to my music, look out the window and write, you know. Yo, I just drove — went down to Disneyworld. I could drive like — see, there’s always a job in the business. Let’s say they say, Chuck, you out of the busi­ness, man, I’ll be a bus driver. I know the fucking roads, man.

[related_posts post_id_1=”713843″ /]

CHRISTGAU: What do you do with your spare time?

CHUCK D: Who has spare time?

CHRISTGAU: Everybody has some spare time, man.

CHUCK D: Well, my business and my thing I like to do is more fun than anybody else’s —

CHRISTGAU: I live the same way, but nevertheless, I got leisure, you’ve got —

CHUCK D: Well, sometimes I just like to go in my fucking basement and just fucking watch fucking TV or videotapes. I can’t really watch too many movies. I usually like watching sports. I watch sports, you know —

CHRISTGAU: Do you listen to music much?

CHUCK D: I listen to Motown, I listen to a lot of tapes — usually when I’m on the road, when I’m on the airplane. When I’m home, I don’t really listen to music as much as I like to watch videos.

TATE: Music videos, or just —

CHUCK D: Music videos and sports. Music and sports. I can’t watch movies, really, except for black movies. I just seen Livin’ Large yesterday and you know, to the average person it might be like a three­-cent movie, but I had a good time watching it. You know, me and a couple of the brothers’ families went out. I said, yeah, that’s some kind of dope.

CHRISTGAU: You listen to any jazz or blues?

CHUCK D: I wasn’t a jazz fanatic. My pops, like, was a jazz person — all that abstract shit. I was like, nah.

CHRISTGAU: Not for you?

CHUCK D: Not for me at all. I like blues more than jazz. ‘Cause blues deals with lyrics — more feeling, you know what I’m saying? And it has so much ironic twist in it — it’s usually about the slightest shit that black people talk about, you know, day by day. And I do a lot of hanging in places like down South, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Atlanta.

CHRISTGAU: Do you listen to any metal or white rock?

CHUCK D: Yeah, once in a while. I like watching the videos more than I like lis­tening to it.

TATE: When you hang out down South, do you hang out in music clubs, or do you just hang?

CHUCK D: Music clubs, Beale Street, the whole nine. I always liked the blues. But I’ve liked it more since I’ve been able to go to these places.

CHRISTGAU: It would be great to sample some of that shit. You hear very little in the way of blues samples.

CHUCK D: Well, you know, musically it moves me, but lyrically, man, I’ll be like saying, Goddamn. And that’s why I try to move a lot of rapping and rap music the same. At the end of the day, I don’t know what the fuck you write about, just make somebody just say, Damn, you know. That is a good point of view, you know what I’m saying? I mean, look at N.W.A — you might not agree with what the fuck they’re saying, but you at least know at the end of the song, like, yo, these motherfuckers meant this, that’s what they’re saying, you know?

[related_posts post_id_1=”604068″ /]

2. HARDCORE RESPONSIBILITY

TATE: People talk about positive and neg­ative images of rap, and then there’s a whole other line of thought that says the music is important no matter what it’s talking about ’cause it’s creating a forum for discussion.

CHUCK D: It’s important to be positive because you got to understand, the only time that the structure wants to put any­body black up there in the spotlight is if we are athletes or entertainers. If all the athletes and the musicians are going to get projected like that, we’ve got to say, damn, we’ve got a little bit more responsi­bility than the average white musician that comes along and just wants to talk about his dick. ‘Cause we’ve got to say, all right, yeah, this is a story to tell, but at the same time, this is probably going to be the result of it. I mean, I talk about a drive­-by, I might start drive-bys in St. Louis. That’s a tight line, and we’ve got to deal with it, ’cause we’re going to be listened, watched, and followed a lot closer than a lot of white kids.

CHRISTGAU: But you just said N.W.A at least had their own point of view­ —

CHUCK D: They’ve got their own point of view, that’s coming from an artistic point of view, but socially —

CHRISTGAU: You’ve got your doubts about that sort of representation?

CHUCK D: ‘Cause I see the fucking re­sults of it. And you got to have a structure in the society, in the school system, that’s able to say well, this is the right, and this is the wrong. We could say that families are supposed to do it, but we ain’t got family the way it’s supposed to be. So I mean, we’ve got to go to a school or structure that can teach us family.

CHRISTGAU: You got kids yourself?

CHUCK D: I got a daughter.

CHRISTGAU: How old is she?

CHUCK D: She’s going to be three next week. And you know, that shit is a moth­erfucking task. [Laughter.]

CHRISTGAU: I know. I got a daughter, Greg’s got a daughter.

CHUCK D: I’m saying, you know, people have to be taught how to do certain things. And then, let’s go back to the music, the positive and the negative. A guy’s going to talk negative shit because that’s what he sees. Rappers only talk what they know. I mean, sometimes you’ve got people going off into the fantasy world, like the Geto Boys when they talk about mind playing tricks on me, Chuckie and stuff like that, and make analogies saying, well, you can’t talk about me because, hey, all these fucking crazy movies coming out and nobody’s getting any heat for that. But we have a double-edged sword hang­ing over our head, a guillotine, that’s say­ing, well, we do this, we’re going to be followed — you know, people going to do this shit in reality. And I believe that.

‘Cause I mean, everywhere I go, I mean, I go to prisons and, you know, brothers — if they get no guidance from zero to 16, they’re going to follow something that can relate to them best. And if something can relate to them best that they really, really like, they’re going to follow it. They’re going to say, I got to kick this mother­fucker tonight. Boom, boom, boom. And later on, they’ll be like, damn, damn. Like that brother that got to go to the fucking joint now for killing that Jewish guy. And ain’t nobody fucking behind him now. He gotta go to the fucking joint. He gonna get fried. Somebody didn’t tell him to put his brain in gear. Now he’s gotta suffer the consequences. I feel sorry for him. Be­cause I’ve talked to a lot of brothers in jail, and usually brothers in jail are in for impulse. Boom!

That’s why I start talking about the 1 million bottle bags. Because I tell you a lot of shit be starting off because of distorted thinking like, damn, usually broth­ers that know each other, be like drinking. They be like, “What you say?” “I ain’t say shit, man.” “Your fucking mother.” And then somebody got a fucking nine or Uzi in the territory, and the shit escalate to even a higher pitch, couple of people in there going, “Yo, just, chill, chill, chill.” And sometimes you get, you know, “Fuck that, motherfucker.” And it all be starting because motherfuckers is fucked up.

[related_posts post_id_1=”727067″ /]

CHRISTGAU: Do you drink at all?

CHUCK D: I don’t drink. My crew don’t even touch meat. Me, I eat it, if my wife cooks it at the crib.

TATE: Did you talk with Ice Cube about the St. Ides thing?

CHUCK D: Yeah, I mean I briefed it on him. You know, he said, “Yo, man, just trying to get out of it.” Trying to stop it, but he’s contracted. I said, “Yo, Cube, hey, there ain’t nothing against you, I mean, it’s your thing, your guilt thing, but you should have had quality control.” The people at St. Ides said, “Well, we really respect you Chuck D, you know.” I told ’em I don’t respect y’all, fuck y’all. I see the results. I’m not just fucking read­ing stats. You’re in the black community, you can run, you can’t hide. There ain’t nowhere you can go and live and say, well, I’m going to be far away from it. Nowhere.

I’m seeing results whether it be Mem­phis, Houston, St. Louis, Chicago, De­troit — it could be the smaller fucking cit­ies. I’ll take you right in the ‘Velt, Roosevelt — one square mile. Got 14 delis in there, and every single deli got Ice Cube’s poster. The people say, well, why do you give so much of a damn? Well, because I’ve got to live in this mother­fucker. And I’m grown. Once you’re over 18, fun and games got to be put to num­ber three. Responsibility and business got to be one and two and you can have fun and games and shit, but once you under­stand those number one and two things, you understand that fun and games are being played on your ass. I tell mother­fuckers in a minute, you can be hardcore and be positive. Thieves and pimps and murderers, man, motherfuckers got to pay a penalty. The problem is that some white boy coming in and trying to remedy the situation and we need to start doing it ourselves. The more grown people you have that understand they’re adults and take control of their community, the less bullshit you have coming in. And you used to have something like that until quote unquote so-called integration.

TATE: Desegregation.

CHUCK D: Yeah, right.

TATE: That’s what all the older folks used to talk about. If you were doing any kind of crime, you just knew not to do it in nobody’s face. If you were drinking, you didn’t drink in public, you didn’t fall down in the street.

CHUCK D: It was a time, right. It was hardcore. Hardcore will never die and need to come back. You can be positive in the hardcore. Hardcore got this connota­tion that other people put on it of saying that it’s negative and no, no — hardcore, it’s like you taking control. I tell brothers, you say you hard, but your life harder than you. How hard can you be? Your life kicking you in the ass. Fucking world is harder than any motherfucker.

This stuff should be coming to people when they’re three, four. Especially young black males, three, four, seven, eight. And it gotta come every day. That’s what the father does, is supposed to do. I mean, my pops had to work, but my pops was able to give it to me at the right time. And I think the key is in the black structure in society. We have to rebuild the black man, young black males got to be built to be men. And I think with that, then you will start seeing a clearer picture, you know. It’s — a lot more simple than it is complex.

[related_posts post_id_1=”729655″ /]

And I think that’s something that’s defi­nitely got to be taught through the school systems. I mean a lot of things have to be taught to us. Once again, I go back to slavery. Slavery has done a lot of fucking detriment, where it’s almost irreparable unless we’re going to fucking eight-hour-a­ day training sessions that satisfy our intel­lect but also satisfy our wants and needs, you know. I mean, mentally and physical­ly. School’s got to be school. And a school for black people, black kids, definitely it got to be different from white kids.

The remedies and how it can get done is all in the government’s hands. We talk about reparations, I’m not talking about, sending everybody a fucking $10,000 check. If you went outside and gave moth­erfuckers $10,000 each, those mother­fuckers wouldn’t know what the fuck to do with it. I’m saying, you got to have a fucking training programming medium so people will be able to say, well, damn, now I’m being taught how to think.

TATE: That kind of begs the question of whether the government wouldn’t just as soon black people stay where they are.

CHUCK D: I don’t think the government wants to see that happen. First of all, they’re saying we’re only 10 per cent, so we have to submit to whatever goes down. But we’re a growing quote unquote 10 per cent. And in order for them to satisfy black people in the year 2000 they better come up with some shit. They already came up with a result of genocide that got us fucking each other up. I’m saying, we need to come out of that dead zone. We come out of that dead zone then we can talk about plan two, three, or four. It’s either got to be this way or it’s going to be fucked up, it’s going to be crazy. That’s why I said, “Welcome to the Terror­dome.” I wrote that record at the end of ’89, to signify the Terrordome is the 1990s. It’s a make-it-or-break-it period for us. We do the right thing, we’ll be able to pull into the 21st century with some kind of program. We do the wrong thing, the 21st century is going to be gone, there’ll be no coming back.

CHRISTGAU: I buy that.

CHUCK D: Outta here. Over with.

CHRISTGAU: Do you think that PE or rap in general is doing anything to stop this from happening from a practical point of view?

CHUCK D: I don’t know how much effect it has — I’m not here to judge effect or results. A lot of times, the weight that a lot of people put on Public Enemy is because they don’t see these other things. When I first did Public Enemy my role was bringing information, saying, well, bro, there’s a Karenga, there’s a Farrak­han, there’s people out there that have been studying in whatever field. There’s a Dr. Welsing. Check these people out. We need to get into it, ’cause these people have put in 40 or 50 years of unacknowl­edged time, for the benefit of where we should go.

But Public Enemy’s just one fucking thing. I’m only one motherfucking person. And I’m saying to each and every black person, you look in your family—it might not be your immediate family — you’re gonna find either murder, drugs, alcohol abuse, and disease, or jail, somebody get­ting jailed. I’m saying you can run but you can’t hide. Which means that everybody gotta be able to at least work forward or try to remedy the situation.

TATE: You’re really talking about person­al accountability. You’re not in this neces­sarily believing you’re going to change the world.

CHUCK D: No, no, of course not. There’s no one motherfucker that can change the world. I’m saying that my fucking job as an adult is just to make sure that my community is all right for me — or whoev­er, a child or adult— to live in.

[related_posts post_id_1=”724152″ /]

3. TCB

TATE: When I saw you down at the con­ference in D.C., on one of the panels you said, Yeah, a lot of people think I spend a lot of time reading this, that, and the other thing. The one thing that I really study is the music business. How did you become so fanatical about the business?

CHUCK D: I approached Hank back when he was a monster DJ out here — I used to be a fan of theirs [Spectrum City, Hank’s sound system]. I just saw that one of the gigs I went to there wasn’t enough people there, and I came up to Hank out of nowhere and tried to explain that it was presented wrong. I thought, you know, in order to catch people’s attention, you know, fliers should be done in the same way most black people buy things. And later on, I was just toying around on the mike at Adelphi. They had never really allowed MCs, and I guess I was the one. Hank liked me because of the way I sound. So we became partners in ’79, and we would wait for people to hire us. But that begun to be a dead end road because you always dealt with somebody that wanted to just rip you off. So that’s when you say, Yo, man, we rocking the house, but somebody’s always leaving out the back door with the money. So I say, Yo, man, look, we going to do this. I keep the people busy and you keep that person at that door.

TATE: The both of your families are businesspeople?

CHUCK D: My father had his own busi­ness at 40 after he went through the same bullshit in the white corporation, and he was working in the corporation for 20-some-odd years and all of a sudden they had a fucking attitude of, you know, well, maybe he could go somewhere else.

TATE: What kind of a corporation was it?

CHUCK D: The fabric business — 979 Third Avenue, the D&D building. He worked in a couple of companies in the fabric business. Jack-of-all-trades. But his official title was really shipping and receiving manager, you know, warehouse manager. He knew all about the business.

CHRISTGAU: And then what’d he start to do at 40?

CHUCK D: He just dropped it and what he did, all his contacts and all his friends, he started a trucking company that dealt with undercutting the other trucking com­panies. It was rocky for about two years and then it coasted. Still was a battle, because it was a lone one-man thing, bat­tling the structure. But I learned a lot from my father. He just said, you know, if I’m making less, fuck it. Eventually, you know, what it gives you in peace of mind is more important. My moms couldn’t understand it, you know, but then later on she did. But that move taught me a lot. It just showed me that business is the only way to go. I don’t care if I’m making $10 on my own, it’s better than getting $100 from somewhere and you don’t know when, it’s coming from.

CHRISTGAU: What were you doing be­tween ’79 and ’84?

CHUCK D: ’79 and ’84 we was what you’d call the hiphop movement in Long Island, Queens.

CHRISTGAU: And you were making money off of hiphop?

CHUCK D: Yeah, we was making money. Paying bills. Wasn’t making profit, but we was paying bills. And what drove us is, like, yo, you’ve got to pay these bills. Lighting and rent and shit like that.

CHRISTGAU: So you weren’t making a profit. How were you eating?

CHUCK D: I was in college just like you.

[related_posts post_id_1=”726847″ /]

4. OUT OF ONE PEOPLE, MANY AFROCENTRISMS

TATE: One of the things that you read all the time about all the rappers that come from the suburbs — there’s this idea ’cause you’re in the suburbs, you don’t know any­thing about racism, discrimination.

CHUCK D: That’s bullshit. There’s apar­theid out here like a motherfucker. There’s a lot of black people out here but it’s in pockets. Roosevelt is one square mile but in Merrick it’s like no blacks there. You know, they ask for ID — how is that different from a pass?

TATE: I have a friend that grew up in Elmont. Right next to her neighborhood is this huge high school. And they rezoned her neighborhood out of that, so it’s still like a predominantly white high school.

CHUCK D: If you look into cities, cities are just places that say, come on up from down there so we can put y’all in one area, stack y’all on top of each other, we’ll make it easy for you to get you a job. And that’s why we’re catching so much hell in cities today. People are saying, what about the Crown Heights thing, the Brooklyn situation? I say, Brooklyn’s a fucked up place to be. The shit ain’t right for you. The place is getting packed and packed, more and more, they stacking people on top, and there’s no way to fuck­ing have a clear fucking type of thinking there, you know, when you’re all tight with everybody. And then when you’ve got two fucking communities just getting bigger and bigger, forcing into each other, shit’s going to break wild if everybody don’t get no explanations on how to take care of themselves. The city ain’t never been right for us, you know what I’m saying? I always look back, like in Africa, we were always nomadic people. You know, shit get crazy — go, move, you know what I’m saying? Get the fuck on out of town.

TATE: You were in a program that was run by the Panthers, right?

CHUCK D: It was two years, summer school. At their house. Panthers, Islamic brothers, just brothers in the neighborhood, students, you know. And it was the thing that turned me around, turned a lot of us around. It wasn’t like what it gave us then — we noticed it years later. You know, “Hey, remember African American Experience?” At this time in America around ’77 and ’78, motherfuckers was like laughing at dashikis, and we said, Damn, that shit was sort of fly back then. We’re not saying that we would wear them, but, you know, we had a respect for that, whereas a lot of kids in other areas was like, what? And it came up the roots that that supplementary education gave us. These guys and these sisters weren’t saying don’t go to school, which a lot of people were using as an excuse: Oh, man, school ain’t teaching me what I need to know. Yeah, but you got to know that because right now we have a lot of people in America, we have potential and talent for a lot of different things but we’re unskilled.

CHRISTGAU: So you’re in favor of an Afrocentric curriculum, obviously.

CHUCK D: It’s the only key to our surviv­al —

CHRISTGAU: Can you tell me what Afro­centric thinkers you especially relate to? Do you read a lot of this stuff?

CHUCK D: I read a lot of it. But you know, basically, it’s the same story interrelated.

CHRISTGAU: Wait — give me a couple of names. Asante, Williams.

CHUCK D: Ah, man, come on. Asante’s cool, you know, Karenga. I mean, every­body — I think a lot of brothers, I mean, going back to Marcus, got concrete plans. A lot of brothers had concrete plans for the time, but then again, we have to real­ize, times, they’ve really changed.

I think all the black philosophers have something in line. Like people talk about Stanley Crouch, how much of an asshole he is. I think, deep down, he wants to see something better for black people even though he might sound like an asshole. It’s just that a lot of brothers that fight for the struggle, they fight for the struggle so long that they get beat down by white supremacy and don’t realize it. So their views become so radical that every time you hear their mouth they sound like, “This nigger antiblack or what?”

[related_posts post_id_1=”60814″ /]

CHRISTGAU: Do you think the aspect of Afrocentric theory that’s about the great­ness of ancient black civilizations is as important as it’s made out to be? Or are you more interested in contemporary his­tory, all the aftereffects of the slave trade?

CHUCK D: Contemporary stuff. I think that’s important. But I’m really dealing with, you know, everything. And history is everything. White capitalism, white su­premacy, slave trade, movement of blacks, and black people catching hell all over. That takes studying. And a mother­fucker in the eighth grade should have that down. Those are the basics. You don’t understand that shit from fourth to eighth grade and it doesn’t get drilled into you and it doesn’t make you feel good. Learning should be feeling good like a motherfucker. Learning should be some­thing like, Damn, man, I’m learning a lot today.

You know, you walk into a fourth and fifth grade, in a black school — quote un­quote black school — today, I’m telling you, you’re finding chaos right now, ’cause rappers came in the game and threw that confusing element in it, and now kids is like, Yo, fuck this motherfuck, you know what I’m saying? School, I’m telling you, the educational system from here to here is at war, I’m telling you. In the ’90s, by 1995, it’s gone. I’ll tell you, I do speaking engagements, I went to fuck­ing Evansville. White high school. Eighty per cent white. And every one of the white kids is number one like this, What’s up man, uh, yo. [Laughs.] Yo, thanks a lot man, y’all teaching us a different perspec­tive, because I only can take so much of this Patrick Henry bullshit.

CHRISTGAU: Well, now that you’ve set up this expectation, and you’ve got this fucked up school system, do you think this school system is so fucked up that it’s just as well that they ain’t listening? Or don’t you think it might be a good idea for them to learn how to do their addition and read and write?

CHUCK D: It don’t take mothers long to take skills down. They spread it, they try to make it interesting, you know what I’m saying? Skills is skills. To get those basic skills down — they spread it so fucking far apart, 12 years, and you’re taking 12 years of skills. There’s some of them are unnec­essary skills, know what I’m saying? If you had kids saying, well, damn, I want to, like, put Nintendo computers together, it might be advantageous for you to — well, you better do good in calculus or trig or some shit like that.

So I don’t make some statement like, yeah, I hope to make some money to send my daughter to college. I hope to make some businesses that she can run. And that’s the fucking thing about capital­ism — we as black people keep looking for fucking jobs, we ain’t getting no jobs ’cause there’s a tight rope on white busi­ness, and they definitely ain’t giving a black face a fucking job because business is family.

CHRISTGAU: It’s Farrakhan’s orienta­tion to that kind of thing that you like best about his program.

CHUCK D: A lot of things I like best, you know what I’m saying? You can’t say it’s just that one thing, it’s a lot of things. But, yes, self-sufficiency is the best program.

CHRISTGAU: Do you think he’s actually achieved that?

CHUCK D: Farrakhan’s one man.

CHRISTGAU: I know that. I’m talking about the NOI [Nation of Islam]. Do you think the NOI is actually —

CHUCK D: NOI is full of individuals that treat it like an organization and many brothers in the NOI have small businesses. It’s not just some big fucking corpora­tion juggernaut. It’s not that. Basically, it’s an organization of united brothers and sisters around the country that say, Yo, now, we’re going to do for ourselves.

CHRISTGAU: Do you buy the notion that some sort of an African-centered religion might be very useful in making this hap­pen, in giving this sense of community? Not necessarily the NOI, but say the kind of thing Asante talks about.

CHUCK D: No. I just think that we could still have the various different philoso­phies and different viewpoints of life. Everybody ain’t made out of a cookie cutter. Everybody got different opinions — every­body got different tastes and different feelings on how they want to look at life. It’s only, there’s a right way and there’s a wrong way, you know what I’m saying? The wrong way is getting in somebody’s path and disrespecting nature, which is God’s plan — we only got one place we know we and other human beings can live. And the white structure and the Eu­ropean structure has proven contrary to both. It’s fucked up other human beings, and it’s fucked up the planet.

[related_posts post_id_1=”724143″ /]

5. CARLTON RIDENHOUR AS CHUCK D

CHRISTGAU: Visually, how do you pro­ject your own persona? Do you think about how you look?

CHUCK D: Do I look in the mirror and bust pimples?

CHRISTGAU: No, I’m just talking about how you present yourself visually, how you think about that.

CHUCK D: Well, out of strength. Back in the day, I was like the first to put on a black Raiders hat, because it was a black hat. One of the few black hats you could find. The Raiders had kind of silver and black, and I said, Well why not, kind of dope. They didn’t make Raiders hats, I would have been in trouble.

CHRISTGAU: So you do think about this. Now broaden it out a little bit. How was Chuck D different from Carlton Ridenhour?

CHUCK D: Because he is on the wall. Ain’t no different. Maybe it’s a little dif­ferent five years later, because I know that I’m older and I got more responsibility, but shit, it’s not that much different.

CHRISTGAU: You set yourself up as a teacher, right?

CHUCK D: I set myself up as not only a teacher, but an older brother. ‘Cause when I was working the hiphop, you know, people was saying, Why y’all fuck­ing with them kids? When me and Hank first got involved, we said, Yo, man, we into the music, we’re going to give our communities something, some kind of outlet — 15-, 16-, 17-year-old brothers. ‘Cause older brothers was what? Either being locked up, going off into the work­ing world, and saying, well, fuck it, I got my thing. Or, they were going in the fuck­ing army, especially the army. But what they would leave is a whole bunch of brothers, 16, 15, 14, 13, with no direction. And they wasn’t really listening to their parents. Once again, there’s a lot of single parents and then the parents that was there — there’s such a gap, you know what I’m saying? Brother come home, bring home his Run-D.M.C., and the father, he only into his fucking Anita, you know what I’m saying? And never the two would communicate.

Other people came and said, Damn, saying you’re older in rap is like taboo. I started making records when I was 26, know what I’m saying? So I just threw all that shit out the window. ‘Cause when I was growing up, I liked the Tempts. You didn’t look at them as being old mother­fucking men. O’Jays — bad as a mother­fucker. So I said, well, basically your older brother can communicate to younger brothers ’cause younger brothers want to get to where their older brothers are. I got a car, I ain’t got to go to school no more, and I’m working, I got a little bit of mon­ey with me. Somebody 14 saying, Hey, it ain’t bad, I can relate to some of that.

CHRISTGAU: Do you think that your fans think you’re wiser, more knowledge­able than you actually are?

CHUCK D: I’m using age as a weapon. Me and Ice-T probably talk to more brothers than anyone. And Ice-T got a couple of years on me. I say, look man, I been through what you did and some. And they’re, “Bro, fuck it, man, you got this and you got that.” I say, “How you know? Still black in America. I know exactly where you heading to.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”720494″ /]

6. WHO TO SOCK IT TO

TATE: There was an article, long time ago, where you were quoted as saying, there’s no way a homosexual could be a black leader. And there’s also that whole charge that you’re homophobic —

CHUCK D: I’m not afraid of them. I’m just not one. I’m not on that side. I’m just not on their side.

TATE: Yeah, but what does that mean about how you feel about people who are on that side?

CHUCK D: That’s their thing. Do what they want to do. I can’t tell them who to sock it to. I mean, that’s their thing. Would I let a homosexual in my kitchen to eat dinner? Yeah, why not? Would I let him into my room while I’m sleeping­ —

CHRISTGAU: Well, but I’m sure no ho­mosexual is interested.

CHUCK D: How could I be afraid of a homosexual? Can’t be afraid of them.

TATE: A lot of people are afraid of them. Afraid of what they represent.

CHRISTGAU: Or they’re afraid of what might be inside themselves, too.

CHUCK D: I think they’re a little con­fused. That’s my personal viewpoint. Love got a distorted fucking viewpoint on it. Who gives anybody a badge to say what love is? Love — homosexuals can come from lack of love as well. From somebody not really knowing what true love is. Heterosexuality — a lot of people think it’s love is not love either, you know what I’m saying? Love can be a concern, it can even not be sexual.

CHRISTGAU: You’re not saying that ho­mosexuals who love other men don’t really love them?

CHUCK D: No. I’m not saying that at all. They can love them all they want. I won’t love them. Not in that way.

CHRISTGAU: Do you think there could be a —

CHUCK D: A homosexual leader?

CHRISTGAU: Black leader? Bayard Rus­tin, for instance?

CHUCK D: Leader — why would sexuality have something to do with it?

CHRISTGAU: Don’t ask me.

CHUCK D: I don’t come out and say, Yo, man, I’m a heterosexual, so why does your sexuality have to do with anything? What business is it —

CHRISTGAU: I’m glad to hear you say that, Chuck. That’s the way I feel about it.

[related_posts post_id_1=”729080″ /]

CHUCK D: But no, this is what I’m say­ing. A lot of homosexuals, they call it out of the closet. They use it as a badge. That ain’t no badge, It’s like somebody going and saying, Yeah, well I fucked nine bitches three weeks ago.

CHRISTGAU: It’s a badge because it’s a source of oppression, that’s why.

CHUCK D: They use it as a badge, I’m telling you. What the fuck does your sexu­ality got to do with anything?

CHRISTGAU: It can have a lot to do with whether you’re free to live your life the way you want to live it.

TATE: It wouldn’t be an issue if people weren’t kicking people’s asses.

CHUCK D: No, no, no. Number one, I think — this is number one — it’s like this. If sexuality becomes an issue, then the fucking society, twisted as it is, it’s going to come out like it’s going to come out. I’m like saying, what’s the fucking whole point of pushing it — all right, yeah, I’m fucking these motherfuckers, but accept me anyway. I don’t give a fuck who you’re fucking.

CHRISTGAU: A lot of people do, Chuck.

CHUCK D: It’s a waste of time.

CHRISTGAU: I’m glad to hear you say that but it worries me when homosexuals or perceived homosexuals get beaten up by straights, for whatever reason.

CHUCK D: But why would anybody wear sexuality as a badge?

CHRISTGAU: Because they’re oppressed as a result of it.

CHUCK D: You think they’re oppressed ’cause of them wearing it as a badge.

CHRISTGAU: I think they’re oppressed ’cause they’re gay.  

TATE: It’s like, historically what happens is somebody says, That motherfucker’s a faggot, I’m going to kick his ass. It’s not like this person’s going around wearing a placard, but it’s because of the prejudice that exists towards this person’s sexuality. They get oppressed.

CHUCK D: My whole point is like no­body — you know, this is an average thing in the neighborhoods, like, homeboy was just with a girl, right? And usually in the neighborhoods, it’s like, motherfucker’s got to tell a story. Like, all right, that you getting that pussy. I don’t want to hear that. You know, I’m bored with you, let’s talk about something that’s constructive, but you getting that ass, you know what I’m saying? That’s the same thing, it’s like, that’s bullshit talk.

TATE: It’s like if you espouse black nationalist philosophy you’re going to get your ass kicked in this society. But nine times out of 10, if you believe in it, you’re going to put that shit out there, ’cause that’s what you believe.

CHUCK D: That ain’t got nothing to do with my sexuality. Somebody come over and say — suppose my point of view is like this — I’m Chuck D, I ain’t fucking no white bitches. What’s the point of that? I say, Yo, I don’t like white women, black women is what I like. You know what I’m saying? That’s not even a point. That’s not even the issue. A lot of things is be­hind the closet. A lot of things should remain behind the closet, you know what I’m saying? A lot of things should remain behind closed doors. True or false?

CHRISTGAU: Not necessarily, Chuck.

TATE: It’s like, your sex life is probably behind closed doors. But somebody sees you in the street and decides they’re going to kick your ass ’cause —

CHRISTGAU: Or if you’re told you can’t teach elementary school because you’re gay, which happens, that’s bullshit. And gay people have to protect themselves against that.

[related_posts post_id_1=”594245″ /]

CHUCK D: This is what I’m saying. A motherfucker goes out, and he’s effemi­nate or whatever, and the mother going to beat him up, that’s a stupid motherfucker. But if that causes people to come out and say, Yeah, fuck it, I’m gay: I’m like say­ing, All right, OK.

TATE: But that’s usually why people do become militant — because somebody’s try­ing to destroy them because of their identity.

CHUCK D: But there’s still some things that — I don’t know — that’s just a personal point of view. I think more gays, you know — their business is their business. That’s my whole thing. Do the job. Why should the sexuality be a fucking post­card? This is who I like fucking, this who I’m in love with. If I came out and said, This is what I like fucking and this is my fucking agenda, I’m not really getting the job done.

CHRISTGAU: I just want to see if l can get a straight answer. Do you think that there’s prejudice against gay people in this society?

CHUCK D: Of course there’s prejudice, but at the same time I understand that a lot of it — I don’t want to say that it’s brought on themselves. I say a lot of it should remain behind closed doors.

CHRISTGAU: All right. Circle again.

CHUCK D: That’s my feeling. Because, if it comes out it really is —

CHRISTGAU: Do you think it’s right to contribute to that prejudice?

CHUCK D: No.

CHRISTGAU: When Flav says Cagney beat up a fag in the New York Post song­ —

CHUCK D: Flavor doesn’t like homos. And a lot of people say, Yo, man, fuck them. Look, you’re asking me, you’re talking to me —

CHRISTGAU: I mean, if we’re all human beings, and all the rest of that nice talk, so are homosexuals, and they ought to be treated like human beings.

CHUCK D: Well, treat them like human beings. I’m saying that’s cool. I mean, I ride a train with one, ride a bus with one. I’ll even do business with one. I do busi­ness with them all the time. I’ve been doing business since I was fucking 12 — in the D&D building — got nothing but ho­mosexuals in it. That was one of my first jobs. My father always said, those are the people, this is what they do. You do what you do, they do what they do and call it a day. My whole thing is — it doesn’t be­come an issue with me. It’s a waste of my fucking time. Talking about homosexual­ity is almost like talking about Jews, you know, it’s a waste of my fucking time. I don’t spend much of my day talking about either.

CHRISTGAU: Or thinking, I’m sure.

CHUCK D: Like, yo, their thing is their thing, you know what I’m saying? My whole thing is usually black people. And to anybody whoever might do whatever they want to do, it’s like, Yo, that’s your program, you know what I’m saying? And when people ask me questions about it, sometimes, it gets difficult, because I’m like, you know, I haven’t studied other people’s religions to tell them this and that. You know a lot of times when you talk about Jewish people, I would like to say, I don’t know. Here in America I look at things in black and white, I’m not breaking down nobody’s classification.

[related_posts post_id_1=”720871″ /]

7. HARD AND SOFT

CHRISTGAU: On the new record, there’s an anti-Quiet Storm song [“How To Kill A Radio Consultant”].

CHUCK D: I hate Quiet Storm. My wife loves that shit. I don’t understand it.

TATE: Boy-girl thing.

CHUCK D: All you fucking do is go to sleep to that shit.

CHRISTGAU: Well, no, there’s other things you can do. But that’s behind closed doors, Chuck. Many would say it’s good fucking music.

CHUCK D: I think a beat is better.

CHRISTGAU: But do you think romantic music is like escapist bullshit? Is that how you feel about it?

CHUCK D: To me personally, I think it was better r&b in the ’60s. It ain’t because I’m trying to sound like an old mother­fucker, but I just think that more heart and soul went into the concern over the lyrics and the lyrics led somewhere. The brothers back then and sisters back then sang a tune and the lyrics was kicking, and the music was felt. I mean, you know, today, I mean I love the fuck about of BBD [Bell Biv Devoe] and shit, ’cause it’s something I can relate to, I like Keith Sweat, and I like a lot of new guys. But I can’t go too much past them.

CHRISTGAU: Not even Luther?

CHUCK D: I respect Luther as a skilled artist. Whether he’s my skilled artist? I brought Power of Love to the crib, I have doubts I’ll be cracking it, though. Not my cup of tea.

CHRISTGAU: I know the feeling. But there’s a sense in which PE’s music is very much boys’ music.

CHUCK D: Right.

CHRISTGAU: Do you think that those hard beats express everything that you want to be, spiritually? I like hard beats a lot. But I also want to be compassionate, sensitive, as well as angry. PE’s music­ — it’s so militantly unromantic.

CHUCK D: But it romanticizes certain things that we tend to ignore. I mean — I wrote a love song, “98” [“You’re Gonna Get Yours”]. That was my love song, man. It wasn’t that that 98 was all there — ­barely had four wheels. man. But that was my motherfucking shit, you know.

CHRISTGAU: Do you think you can do a song like that about women, about love and women? ‘Cause you don’t do it at all.

CHUCK D: Why should I write that song? I’ll leave that up to Luther.

CHRISTGAU: Because if creating strong young black men is what your central thing is about, and you’re deep into the family, then it seems to be that there’s a place where hard beats stop, spiritually. It can get you so far.

CHUCK D: There’s a place where hard beats stop. And it stops at the end of my record. You want to listen to something that’s mellow, then you want to listen to somebody else. L.L. might give you that song; Bobby Brown might give it to you.

CHRISTGAU: And you hope somebody does.

CHUCK D: Somebody does, anyway. I tell you what I think, though, I just feel like cursing is kind of played. The Geto Boys took it as far as you could take it. When I went down South, the album that I could play that met the medium of everybody in the car — my sister-in-law, and my other sister-in-law, she’s 14, my daughter, my niece, they’re like three and four, my wife — so you know, I was surrounded by Apaches, I can’t be playing Boyz N the Hood soundtrack now. I got my tapes here — can’t play Robin Harris. You know who we ended up playing six times? L.L. Mama Said Knock You Out. It was hard enough for me, nice enough for the wife. It’s like the hardest pop record ever made. I had to give it to him. He made a fucking hard album without cursing.

[related_posts post_id_1=”722337″ /]

8. IT’S A BLACK THING, YOU GOT TO UNDERSTAND  

CHRISTGAU: You just toured with the Sisters of Mercy and you’re touring with Anthrax now too? Would you say you’re targeting the white audience, or it’s just what happened?

CHUCK D: It’s just what happened.

CHRISTGAU: You said that the 1990s were a crucial time for black people in this country. At your most optimistic, how would you envision race relations in this country shaking our, say, 25 years from now? At your most optimistic.

CHUCK D: That’s when it’ll start.

CHRISTGAU: What do you mean?

CHUCK D: It’s going to take 25 years of hard work amongst ourselves to even get to that point. For us having an under­standing of ourselves and our community, saying, well, we do well with you or without you. That’s the only time you respect somebody, when they say, I can do with you or without you. We got to get it going on. Usually, we’re just, Help me, can you help me, sympathize with me, ’cause we ain’t got it going on. I mean, be realistic. What we really need white people to do is just support us in our theories — just stay the fuck out of the way for a little while and if you’re going to do anything, just throw money and don’t ask for it back. It’s a hard thing to swallow, but, you know, you’ve got to understand. I’m in the middle of a tornado just as well as Greg. This is a mess that we didn’t start and we’re trying to find our way out of, you know what I’m saying?

CHRISTGAU: Do you think white people can help at all in this? Do you think that nothing we have to say —

CHUCK D: Throw some money.

CHRISTGAU: No ideas.

CHUCK D: No ideas, money talks.

CHRISTGAU: So you’ve got no interest in reaching white people? It’s just incidental?

CHUCK D: My interest is reaching black people and whites who are good enough to listen and they want to fucking listen, fine.

CHRISTGAU: Do you think you can do them any good that’ll end up doing you good?

CHUCK D: They’ll at least know our side and our perspective. Whether it’s the truth or not —

CHRISTGAU: It’s your perspective. And is that an important part of what you have to achieve here? ‘Cause after all, I mean — in your most optimistic projection, you see that it’ll take 25 years. And that’s assum­ing —

CHUCK D: Minimum.

CHRISTGAU: I understand. That seems realistic to me, at a minimum. But that’s assuming that the white people who still run this country and probably still will, certainly still will —

CHUCK D: Or their sons and daughters.

CHRISTGAU: Or their sons and daughters — will let you do it, won’t get in your way. And of course, they will get in your way, no question about that. The only question is how much.

[related_posts post_id_1=”724831″ /]

CHUCK D: They can only get in one per­son’s way. They can’t get into fucking millions of people’s way. I’m a realist. I’m saying, we don’t get our act together this decade, it’s over. I’m not going to wait for that 25: I’m not going to wait for race relations. What’s going to happen, it’s go­ing to be utter chaos 25 years from now. White people are going to be killed just like black people are getting killed. Sense­less. Without mercy. It’s going to be like — it’s going to run rampant. You’re going to see more white mass murderers, more motherfuckers that qualify to be in asylums on the streets. You’re just going to see more madness. You can’t pile mad­ness on top of madness, then it gets to a height where it gets totally crazy.

CHRISTGAU: Do you think there’s any way in which the success or failure of this project depends on what happens economi­cally in this country? I mean is it more likely to happen if some economic exploitation stops that doesn’t just apply to black people, it applies to white people as well? Do you have an economic vision that exists alongside the racial vision?

CHUCK D: I’m not an economist, so­ —

CHRISTGAU: You’re not a historian either.

CHUCK D: I’m not a historian and I’m not an expert on racial theory either. I think Dr. Welsing and the other people’ll tell you a lot better than myself about what my feelings … Of course it’s got to get better economically in order for this thing to come about. If it doesn’t get bet­ter economically, we have to figure out what we can do with what we got.

CHRISTGAU: Well, a certain portion of white racism comes out of economic resentment and fear.

CHUCK D: A great portion of it. But after everybody’s economically satisfied who knows what other racism —

CHRISTGAU: Damn right. No question.

CHUCK D: You’ll see shit coming out­ — motherfuckers want to be that way just ’cause, fuck it, I just want to be this way. You know, it’s like with a lawn, right? You can have crabgrass, right? Cutting it ain’t going to do a damn thing — going to just grow back. It’s got a fucking deep root, that motherfucker, you know what I’m saying?

CHRISTGAU: And how do you do that?

CHUCK D: I’m not an economist. I know I’ve given a lot of ideas but you gotta say but this whole interview has just been my ideas. I could be right, I could be wrong.

TATE: I know what you’re getting to in terms of — you’re moving towards the whole idea of some kind of alliance, I guess, between —

CHRISTGAU: Obviously it’s what I think. But I really wasn’t moving towards any­thing — I really wanted to know what he thought.

CHUCK D: Economically between blacks and whites the only alliance that will hap­pen will be black businesses and white businesses. That’s just like I do. I work with anybody, like the Mafia, man. Now, for — I’m not working for no one again. I tell companies right now, I’m in a busi­ness dispute with this particular company that I’m working, and I might say, no exclusivity on this end, I’m giving you exclusivity on this end — none. I know too much about slavery to be a slave again. I don’t care how much money you throw on the table. It’s just like — I’m not working for no one again.

[related_posts post_id_1=”713841″ /]

9. P.S.

CHRISTGAU: OK. Enough. As far as I’m concerned. Is there anything else you want to ask?

TATE: Nothing.

CHUCK D: [To Greg.] I want to just apol­ogize for that porch-nigger statement. I was mad. I can take criticism from any­body. But at that time, it was like I couldn’t see just getting criticized while I think I’m trying to do the right job, you know, in a white paper. I can get criti­cized all day long in the Sun, or Amster­dam News, or even on the block. I’m like, all right, I take my licks. But I felt like, damn, at least if I had talked face to face with homeboy, I could have explained it, being that he’s a brother.

CHRISTGAU: Think the Voice is after your ass? Do you still think that?

CHUCK D: No. I break it down to people, just like the Voice. RJ Smith — I don’t like that motherfucker. I just don’t like him. Why? ‘Cause I just feel I don’t like him.

CHRISTGAU: You think he shouldn’t have reported that stuff that Griff said?

CHUCK D: Yeah. But as far — RJ Smith, it’s not so much that, it’s just, damn, we got a chance to get this nigger’s —

CHRISTGAU: That ain’t what happened.

CHUCK D: It’s a big story for me.

CHRISTGAU: That ain’t what happened.

TATE: I mean, if he didn’t, listen, some­body else at the paper —

CHRISTGAU: I would’ve. Damn right I would’ve. What Griff said to David Mills was intolerable. Intolerable. And you gotta deal with it.

CHUCK D: I know, I deal with it. That was a situation where, you know, you have a nice guy running the ship, and expects everybody to do their fucking job correctly, no mistakes. And when the shit happens — you know, for different rea­sons, you’re like, damn, can’t a mother­fucker do a job right? And that was that. I’m not going to do that ever again. I’m cutting the motherfucker off and watching the blood drip if they make a mistake. Look man, I built this house for every­body, the least thing you do is live in it and don’t fucking burn it down because you on some old tip, because you ain’t feeling love for a minute. That’s one thing I learned from that shit. Lead the ship and rule with a fucking firm grip. I told Flavor, man — they offered Flavor a St. Ides commercial. I said, Flavor, man, you take that shit, I’ll cut you off publicly so fucking bad.

[related_posts post_id_1=”713650″ /]

CHRISTGAU: What’d Flav say?

CHUCK D: Flav still considered it. Said, ­Come on, you know me. I got a check and balance before any of that shit goes out.

TATE: Speaking of your responsibility, what about the Dee Barnes situation?

CHUCK D: That shit was foul. So I went out there not too long after that and I know Dre’s crew and all, ’cause they worked with us on tour, and I was like, How the fuck can y’all let this happen? They was like, Yo, Chuck, you know, he was drunk. I said, y’all fucking dumb. That shit was foul, man. But my whole thing is like, I won’t get another brother in print, I won’t attack black people in print — unless they come out in the media, or in the same print, and attack me.

CHRISTGAU: All right. There’s one other question. Along with the Dee Barnes thing, seems to me I gotta also ask about the New York Post song and the incident with Flav. Do you think —

CHUCK D: They printed his address. That’s why I was mad. I tried to sue the Post. Tried to sue them. My lawyer told —

­CHRISTGAU: Do you think that the inci­dent itself wasn’t worthy of reporting?

CHUCK D: ‘Cause you don’t know the incident.

CHRISTGAU: Was he brought to jail?

CHUCK D: She kicked his ass. Look, his girl kicked his ass, he smacked her back, right? She didn’t call the police, she called the news station. From Channel 12 out here in Long Island, the Post took it.

CHRISTGAU: That’s your version of what happened with Flav?

CHUCK D: Yo, I wasn’t there.

CHRISTGAU: Flav’s version of what hap­pened with Flav?

CHUCK D: That’s people’s version that was there. He’s not big enough. She was beating his ass, you know what I’m say­ing? I mean, my whole thing is like this­ — there’s bigger and better news to be put­ting on there. Many of us rappers’ posi­tions are being closely watched. And there’s people out there that realize that our words are meaning a lot, no matter who we might be. If I do the slightest thing — that’s why I say, all right, I’m grown and responsible. And adults make mistakes. But when you’re spotlighted — ­especially if you’re black — they’ll take that mistake and they’ll fucking run with it. Just like, you know, a brother was telling me, it was this major-league sports team. This brother was a future perennial all-star, you know. They pinned drugs on him — and he never even took drugs in his life. But they pinned drugs on him so he couldn’t renegotiate his salary. They pinned drugs on him and then he was eventually just run right on out of the league. So it was like, OK, we’re spotlighting you, but the smallest amount of salt in the game will fuck you up. You know? They’re just waiting for Chuck D­ —

CHRISTGAU: I don’t deny that.

CHUCK D: Chuck D arrested for rape with a white woman, Public Enemy’s over with. It’s over with. It’s gone. ❖

Categories
FILM ARCHIVES From The Archives Uncategorized

The Godfather, Part III: Like Godfather …

First, the bottom line: If you’re an American, you’ll see The God­father, Part III … once. After all, Kennedys aside, the Corleones are the only royal family we’ve got and, as an update on the clan unto their third generation, Godfather III combines the anticipatory ap­peal of Fotomat-fresh family snapshots with the more civic in­terest inspired by the celeb of your choice on the cover of People magazine.

How could it be any other way? Almost a trailer for itself, The Godfather immediately estab­lished Don Corleone’s power over American popular culture (namely Tin Pan Alley and Hollywood) be­fore settling in to dramatize his son Michael’s Faustian bargain to revive the crime family’s fortune. Indeed, the feds have already done their part to raise Godfather consciousness by busting John Gotti only hours before the sea­son’s major movie event had its single, packed preview at Loews Astor Plaza. Although Godfather III is scarcely a comedy, the audi­ence chuckled throughout, with cynical pleasure and friendly derision.

Released in December 1974, The Godfather, Part II ended some time in 1959. When Godfa­ther III — which, in a wonderfully apposite bit of timing, comes out on Christmas Day — picks up the story 20 years later, Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) has gone straight, sort of. The obligatory opening rite of passage (a wedding in The Godfather, a first commu­nion in Godfather II) is here al­most a spiritual coronation, in which Michael, having divested himself of his illegal businesses and become a noted philanthro­pist, is receiving a personal deco­ration from a representative of the pope. Yes, the Godfather meets God the Father, or at least His Vicar.

[related_posts post_id_1=”730629″ /]

The previous Godfather films were ceremonial pageants in which delicately arranged histori­cal tableaux and exquisite loca­tions were inevitably seared by eruptions of fantastic violence. (Coppola naturalized the Cor­leone’s activities in part through the classical use of establishing shots.) Godfather III has consider­ably less finesse (there’s an at­tempt to rub out a virtual Apala­chin conference of mobsters where it literally rains bullets) but it doesn’t lack for ambition. Cop­pola and copilot Mario Puzo blast off for some cosmic Shakespear­ean netherworld of tearful solilo­quies and dynastic tragedy, where sister Connie (Talia Shire) comes on like a tarantella-dancing Lady Macbeth and Michael develops a soul. Although Talia Shire has compared her real-life brother Francis’s latest project to the ceil­ing of the Sistine Chapel, the overarching structure Godfather III more closely suggests is Michael Graves’s postmodern design for the expanded Whitney Muse­um: The earlier Godfather films are incorporated whole into a new baroque framework that not only returns the Corleones to Sicily for the ultimate climax but involves the Vatican and grand opera too.

As the action is deflected over­seas, motivations turn inward. Coppola and Puzo take a cue from the original Scarface by heightening the clan’s incestuous longings. Did you think The God­father and Godfather II were about violence, vengeance, crime, capitalism, America? Guess again. “The only wealth in the world is children” are the first words spo­ken in Godfather III, delivered by Michael in husky voiceover. As in popular Yiddish theater, the most intense relationships here are be­tween parents and offspring, sur­rogate or natural. Michael’s daughter Mary (Francis’s daugh­ter Sofia) is the chairman of his charitable foundation, their close­ness mocking Michael’s previous obsession with fathering boys. Meanwhile, Michael’s attempt to persuade his son Anthony (tenor Franc D’Ambrosio) to stay in law school rather than pursue a musi­cal career occasions the movie’s worst soap operatics.

Anthony is the first Corleone to ever sing. The film’s lengthy cli­max, admirably presaged by a choreographed whack mid-Feast of San Gennaro, brings everybody back to Palermo for a production of Cavalleria Rusticana. Nearly a half an hour, this somewhat dis­tended, impossibly convoluted set piece offers the bloodiest bit of backstage intrigue since Murder at the Vanities (not to mention a grandiose reworking of The God­father‘s single most admired se­quence). Still, the edifice is too ornate, the structure is too roomy, Godfather III resounds with ech­oes from previous films — sinister oranges, strategic cannoli, Diane Keaton. (Vying for most outra­geous are the fantasy that Michael and Kay were once a super-ro­mantic couple and their son’s ren­dition of “Theme From The God­father,” sung in special tribute to Dad.)

[related_posts post_id_1=”730344″ /]

The plot, such as it is, is notable mainly for its deadpan delirium. No sooner is Michael “blessed” than the Vatican bank goes broke and, perhaps having learned the lessons of New York City politics, the Don offers a bailout for a piece of the church’s real estate action. It’s the ultimate money­-laundering scheme — the Cor­leones merge with the pope. As Michael tells sister Connie, “The higher I go, the crookeder it gets.” Although this motif is reiterated in a minor key — priests and kill­ers are indistinguishable through­out — from a Catholic point of view, the high point of the movie is surely Michael’s confession, de­livered with appropriate pathos and tolling bells. (The scene drib­bles off, but the lucky priest is named pope.)

The Godfather films have thrived on meaningful casting (en­compassing a subterranean history of the Actors’ Studio) and if Michael is absolved, Pacino is de­nied Brandofication. Not that he doesn’t have a look. The movie’s unspoken premise is that the two decades between Godfathers II and III have somehow electrified the once icy Michael Corleone. Moving stiffly with a pitched forward lurch (as if to pull his plug out of a wall socket), hair brushed up to resemble the steel bristles on an industrial floor polisher. Pacino suggests and even acts like a wired Yoda. There are times when Godfather III bids to become three hours of Michael admonish­ing his obstreperous nephew, Son­ny’s illegitimate son, Vincent (Andy Garcia).

Although Pacino looks like John G0tti could eat him for breakfast, as the last of the Cor­leones, Garcia is an engaging, suave, loose-limbed show-off. He makes his bones when two killers invade the Lower Manhattan tenement where he is trysting with a winsome photographer (Bridget Fonda): his authenticity is vouch­safed when he bumps into Martin Scorsese’s mother on Elizabeth Street or carries on his uncle’s tradition by repeating the family lies to Mary, the younger cousin who adores him. Garcia struts through the movie’s first hour suffering under the delusion that this is a gangster film, rather than the surging symphony of guilt and ex­patiation that drowns him well be­fore the movie ends. The requisite veteran Method actor playing the requisite old mafioso, Eli Wallach flutters and sputters through a mediocre performance. The gang­ster of choice is Joey Zasa, a pub­licity-loving thug obviously in­spired by Joey Gallo and played, with impressively metallic sheen, by Joe Mantegna. “I’d like to get a little pin from the pope,” Zasa sneers, the Bad Fairy at one of the new Michael’s numerous love­fests.

[related_posts post_id_1=”718520″ /]

Still, the most amazing presence by far is Coppola’s 19-year-old daughter Sofia. (Clearly, the pope is not the only one to grant indul­gences.) In a deep and satisfying way, Sofia’s exotic full-moon face and awkward body language justify the film. From the moment she arranges her features for the first of many (no doubt necessary) close-ups, generous lips creased in a permanent, wildly expressionistic sneer, through her last Californiated line reading, she gives a performance that is gloriously be­havioral. “A bad actor,” Jack Smith once wrote, “is rich, unique, idiosyncratic, revealing.” Nothing in Godfather III has more to do with patriarchal power than Sofia’s uncertain glances off­screen; her seeming suspicion that the least important bit player with whom she shares a frame has more right to the camera than she; her fantastically repressed (hence totally affecting) love scene cum cooking lesson with Vincent. This is a woman cursed with two fathers — one who’s inside the narra­tive and another who rules the set.

To the degree that The Godfa­ther, Part III is Coppola’s person­al psychodrama, Sofia is absolute­ly essential. (Once you see the movie, it’s obvious why Winona Ryder — who was originally cast as  Mary and suffered some sort of breakdown during production — could never have played this part.) Sofia was the infant baptized in the celebrated penultimate sequence of The Godfather, it seems more than appropriate that the saga, which opened so evocatively with an appeal to Don Corleone for justice in the matter of a particularly vicious date-rape, would end with her pained, un­comprehending cry of “Da-a-ad!”

Model for the plutocratic family dramas and immigrant miniseries that dominated network televi­sion well into the ’80s, The Godfa­ther is so much a part of our na­tional identity it’s difficult to imagine that Paramount first envisioned the movie as a quick cash-in on a surprise bestseller. As reinvented by Coppola, The Godfather not only raised ticket prices to a new high of $4 but wound up grossing more of those inflated dollars than any movie in history (until surpassed by The Exorcist one year later).

These days, The Godfather is being called the greatest Holly­wood movie since Citzen Kane. It’s a sloppy judgment — Detour, Kiss Me Deadly, Night of the Hunter, The Searchers, Vertigo, Touch of Evil, The Tarnished Angels, The Naked Kiss, The Wild Bunch, 2001, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, and The Last Movie not withstanding. The Godfather is not even really a single movie. Unlike any other sequel, Godfather II actually improved the orig­inal, as well as improving on it. Although Godfather II suffers from repeating too many of The Godfather’s narrative rhythms (a tic that becomes convulsive in Godfather III), it considerably enriched the first film’s allegorical history of America — from the Old World through the frontier settlements of New York and Nevada to the foreign frontier Havana, looping back in haunting post­script to a family dinner on the day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor

[related_posts post_id_1=”730574″ /]

If, in formal terms, The Godfather was Coppola’s Birth of a Na­tion — a family-centered period piece that, among other things, set out to redress perceived historical wounds and effectively restored classical Hollywood continuity af­ter the narrative breakdown of the late ’60s — then Godfather II was his Intolerance. Although depen­dent for his meaning on the first film, Coppola’s audaciously ana­lytical reworking of the material, a kind of archeological excavation that allowed the story to go simul­taneously forward and backward in time, and Robert De Niro’s brilliant interpretation of “Brando,” illuminated The Godfather and set it, so to speak, among the constellations. To find people who are unfamiliar with The Godfather mythos, you would have to look for them among the characters in Godfather III — ­which, in a sense, is part of that film’s problem.

Despite its unwieldy editing and somnolent second hour, en­cumbered by its tour-guide view of Sicily, Godfather III may be Coppola’s richest filmmaking since Marlon Brando capsized Apocalypse Now. That’s a back­handed compliment, I fear. But what does it profit Paramount if Michael gains a soul but loses his world? Michael’s redemption is presented as abrupt fait accompli: Mary’s innocence must be abso­lute. Devoid of social content, Godfather III represses precisely the period treated in Goodfellas, easy winner of the 1990 gangster-national allegory sweepstakes. Had Mary lived through the ’70s, she would understand her father only too well.

In leaping from period of con­sensus to period of consensus (the 1960-78 era signified only by the opening shot of the void around Lake Tahoe and a quick tour of the abandoned Corleone com­pound), Godfather III surrenders its claim on the historical imagi­nation. Although the movie is not altogether superfluous, it can’t help but suggest Mark Twain’s forgotten Tom Sawyer sequels or the bogus credit-crawl histories that American Graffiti made a cliché. In the context of its predecessors. Godfather III has its place — perhaps the longest, most expensive footnote ever made. ❖