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


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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?”

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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.

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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″ /]


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?


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″ /]


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″ /]


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. ❖


All the Way with Jimmy Scott

All the Way with Jimmy Scott: For Whatever Reason
Voice Rock & Roll Quarterly, Winter, 1988

“YOUR EYES … ” Other singers could finish an entire set in the time Jimmy Scott takes to sing these two words, but to this crowd it just signals the slow downward slide known as “The Mas­querade Is Over.” They respond with a gasp. “… Don’t shine …” A couple of older black women in the audience bow their heads, their mouths twisted into brittle knowing smiles. “… Like they used to shine …” In the front row, Tony Williams, once the great lead singer for the Platters, cocks his head back and lets go with a chilling half-laugh, half-cry. “… And the thrill is gone …” A cou­ple tables away sits new-wave performer James White, a serious look on his hound-­dog face. “… When your lips meet mine …” Jimmy’s voice has lost some of its range with the passing years, but it’s still impossibly high. Too high for a man.

“I guess I’ll have to play Pagliacci, and get myself a clown’s disguise,” he sings, striking an “oh, well” pose. “I’ll learn to laugh like Pagliacci” — Jimmy pauses, then swoops down on the next line — “With tears in my eyes.” His mandarin face contorts into a sob, and those long hands clutch the microphone to his breast. It is a grim song. He’s sung it for a lifetime.

“The masquerade is over,” he cries. “And so is love.” He sings the last four lines again, bringing the song’s unbear­able tension to an end. For a moment the stunned audience does nothing. They miss the beat where they should respond, then break into wild applause. A silent Jimmy makes his way through the crowd and sits down at our table. People seem almost embarrassed to talk to him. “That was great, Jimmy,” I say. He shrugs his shoulders and says nothing, taking a long drag off his cigarette as he looks away.

[related_posts post_id_1=”716127″ /]

“The feelin’,” says Ray Charles. “I just loved the feelin’ in his voice. Jimmy had soul way back when people weren’t usin’ the word.” Jimmy’s fan club is a heavy bunch — Quincy Jones, Bill Cosby, Frankie Valli, Tony Bennett, Percy May­field, Big Maybelle, Levi Stubbs, Jacqui Verdell, James Booker. When Dinah Washington couldn ‘t make a gig she called Jimmy Scott.

“He blew me away from the first note,” says Ruth Brown. “Jimmy drew the pro­fessionals wherever he sang. A lot of sing­ers owe their style to him.” Songwriter Doc Pomus agrees. “Nancy Wilson, Fran­kie Valli, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Frankie Lymon, Johnnie Ray — they all started out with watered-down versions of what Jimmy was doin’.”

In spite of his influence, Jimmy remains an invisible man in black music history. His two greatest albums — long out of print — don’t even have his picture on the cover. Jimmy performs with Char­lie Parker on One Night in Birdland, yet his vocal is credited to a woman. Rumors swirl around the singer — some say he’s a junkie, others insist his masculinity is a fraud, just another gimmick to get over a very idiosyncratic female vocalist. In the mid-6os, when Jimmy had all but disappeared from the music scene, Jet maga­zine mistakenly printed his obituary.

Jimmy has lived with a secret that has allowed others to invent his life for him — ­until now. As r&b singer Joe “Mr. Google Eyes” August says, “You gotta under­stand one thing. What Jimmy Scott sings, he lived.

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Why Was I Born?

JAMES VICTOR Scott was born on July 17, 1925, an umbilical cord wrapped around his throat. “Yep,” says Jimmy, “when I came into thins world I came here hung.”

His father Arthur was told his child had been born dead, and he rushed home from work with a friend named Victor. “It wasn’t until later in life that my family told me why I was named after him. When they came home and found I was still alive with that cord wrapped around my neck, Victor predicted that someday I was gonna be a singer.”

One of 10 kids, Jimmy was raised in a poor neighborhood on the east side of Cleveland. His mother Justine was a pia­nist at Hagar’s Universal Spiritual Church and would gather the children around the old upright to sing gospel songs. “All the Scott children sang, but Jimmy’s was God-given,” says his brother Kenny. “If you ask him today, he still can’t read a note.”

Justine was s stern teacher when it came to music. “If you didn’t sing a note just so, a little later in the day she’d say, ‘You know you didn’t sing that song right,”’ says Jimmy. “She’d make you feel guilty for voicing wrong notes. She was a very spiritual woman, a cornerstone of strength. My father just didn’t give a damn.”

Arthur “Scottie” Scott was a skilled asphalt layer, but hanging out with his street buddies was more important than any job. “Shooting pool, gambling, drinking his beer,” says Jimmy, “he liked being away from the house.” Once Arthur pawned the family radio when he needed some quick cash.

Justine kept the family together, and as Jimmy entered his teens, things seemed to be looking up — until the car accident. “Mother was taking my sister Shirley to school,” remembers Jimmy. “Shirley ran ahead of her, stepping out in the street. My mother flung her back to the curb. As she did that she got hit. The driver caught my mother by the arm — tore it right off — an’ drug her about 200 feet.” Justine Scott died a few days later. No one had bothered to take her children to visit her in the hospital.

“After she died, the hospital nurse said the last thing on her breath was, ‘Are my children alright?'” says Jimmy. “And my grandmother — my mother’s mother — told her, ‘Don’t worry about nuthin’. Your kids are fine — they’ re all in the detention home.’ My mother was so upset, the excitement caused her to hemorrhage and she bled to death. That’s the one thing that tugged on me for years and years after. I knew that my mother never wanted her kids separated.”

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Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child

AT AGE 13, Jimmy was on his own. “It shook the hell out of me and the other kids, because we had nobody but Mom and when she died, Dad took the quickest way out.” The kids were split up and dumped in foster homes. Along with his brothers and sisters, Jimmy begged his father to get a house and reunite the family. “We’d get promises from Dad,” says Jimmy. “‘Oh boy, now lemme tell ya, I’m gonna get the house, you all come down on such an’ such a day,’ and we’d go downtown to meet him” — Jimmy laughs disgustedly — “and we wouldn’t find our daddy nowhere.”

There were other problems. Jimmy, like his brother Kenny, seemed stuck in adolescence. With their abnormally high voices, soft features, and short stature — Jimmy only grew to four feet 11 inches until his mid-thirties, when he inexplica­bly shot up to five feet seven —the two Scott boys were always fighting to prove their masculinity.

As a teenager Jimmy ushered at the Metropolitan Theater, and fell in love with the music he saw there — Buddy Johnson, Lucky Millinder, Erskine Hawkins, and the rest of the big bands of the day. Then the youngster went out on the road with two tap dancers, working as a valet when he wasn’t pestering them for the chance to sing. Sometime in the mid-’40s on a Meadsville, Pennsylvania, gig, Jimmy got his shot. Walking out in front of a killer band that included Lester Young, Ben Webster, and Jo Jones, the bag-of-bones kid snuck up on the microphone, belting out “Talk of the Town.” Even as a kid, Jimmy was drawn to all-or-nothing-at-all tunes, supplicant hymns of unconditional love and broken-hearted ballads that offer no exit. His debut song was a sad one. It cut straight to the heart of the motherless child with the freakishly high voice: I can’t show my face/Can’t go anyplace­/people stop and stare/It’s so hard to bear/Everybody knows you’ve left me/It’s the talk of the town.

The response was immediate. “Even that first night, the people screamed and hollered,” says Jimmy, still surprised. His most excited fans were female. “You talk about Tom Jones and women throwing their underthings onstage — Jimmy Scott already had that thing going back in the ’40s,” says pianist Ace Carter. “Only they were throwing money. He pulled the women sexually.”

Hank Williams would’ve dug Jimmy Scott. Both possessed the ability to convey their innermost feelings to the world, creating an intense bond with the crowds they performed before. Yet both were extreme loners, men who had no use for show business when the show was over.

Unfortunately, Jimmy’s voice had a built-in gimmick: close your eyes and you heard a female vocalist. His childlike looks only complicated the mystery.”The biggest thing that bugged me was havin’ cats pick at you because you look young — like you’re some kind of woman or something,” says Jimmy. “I even had insinuations that I was gay.” For a couple of years, Jimmy carried a .25 automatic to discourage his more ardent male admirers.

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Talk of the Town

FOR ALL his onstage popularity, Jimmy’s private life was a mess. His first love, Ophelia Sharon, left him for another guy after a quickie marriage in ’45. Then came a statuesque 13-year-old from New­port News, Virginia, a streetwalker since the age of five. Their turbulent relation­ship lasted into the early ’50s, even though the towering prostitute would often chase the singer with an open razor.

“She was kinda young,” says Kenny Scott. “Every woman doesn’t understand us. There’s nothing wrong, we’re just not as fully developed as the next guy, y’un­derstand? These women in the streets think you’re funny. Jimmy couldn’t accept this rejection.” The ladies flocked to Jimmy, but he always wound up with tough, streetwise women that couldn’t possibly understand him. It was a tortured scenar­io that would repeat itself over and over in the years to come, with Jimmy inevitably playing the victim.

From ’45 to ’49, he went on the road with shake dancer Estelle “Caledonia” Young, the woman he considers his mentor. It was with Caledonia that Jimmy first hooked up with comedian Redd Foxx and Big Maybelle, the great r&b singer. Both became lifelong friends. In ’48 Foxx, actor/MC Ralph Cooper, and fighter Joe Louis arranged his first New York City gig, at the Baby Grand. A year later, Jimmy joined Lionel Hampton, who had the swingingest big band at the time. Jim­my recorded three songs with Hampton­ — “I’ve Been a Fool,” “I Wish I Knew,” and — his first big hit — “Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool.”

“It was a dramatic when he came out in the solo spot,” says Quincy Jones, then a young trumpet player with the band. “He’d just stand there with his shoulders hunched and his eyes closed and his head tilted to one side. He sang like a horn — ­he sang with the melodic concept of an instrument. It’s a very emotional, soul­-penetrating style. He’d put me on my knees, give me goose bumps. Jimmy used to tear my heart out every night.”

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Life on the road was an endless lesson in racism — the band had to drive miles out or their way for food and lodging — ­but Jimmy cherishes his days with Hampton. “I loved singin’ with that man,” he says, shaking his head.

Jimmy was a star. Capitalizing on Jim­my’s youthful looks and sound, Hampton changed his stated age from 25 to 17, then labeled the singer for a lifetime as “Little” Jimmy Scott. “It helped me get over to the public, but it sure didn’t help when I went to buy a drink or negotiate my salary,” says Jimmy. “Even though I looked like a child, I definitely didn’t think like a child.” The bandleader was notoriously cheap with his musicians, and Jimmy barely made a living, despite his hits.

Jimmy gradually left the Hampton band. Teddy Reig, a hustling A&R man intertwined with many jazz careers, wooed Jimmy into going solo with the promise of big bucks. Reig, along with partner Jack Hook, ran Roost Records, a threadbare label out of Linden, New Jersey. Between 1950 and ’52 the pair cut 16 excellent­ —if somewhat orthodox — sides on Jimmy, among them the original version of “The Masquerade Is Over.” The records were poorly distributed, and Jimmy didn’t see a dime from the deal.

One of the Hampton trips brought Jim­my to Newark, which in the early ’50s had a nightlife matching that of Harlem, or 52nd Street. Jimmy soon moved in. “One week I’d be at the Caravan Club, the next, Lloyd’s Manor or the Key Club,” says Jimmy. “I could practically make a living without leaving town.” It was in Newark that two young white kids, both aspiring singers, hung out with Jimmy Scott. One was Joe Pesci, who would later act oppo­site DeNiro in Raging Bull. The other was Frankie Valli.


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In a week,  Jimmy will turn 63, so I take him up to a friend’s house in the country. Not much of a present, but at least I get him out of his apartment and away from the TV. “Give me the simple life,” he al­ways says, but it’s been too simple. Take Jimmy to the movies, and he tells you it’s the first time he’s been to a theater in 20 years.

Unfortunately, when we arrive in the country I have an interview scheduled, so while Jimmy and Ear­lene look around the house, I sneak upstairs to call his old pal with the million-dollar falsetto, Frankie Valli.

“Jimmy’s not just a guy, not just a singer,” says Valli. “He was my mentor. Jimmy used to tell me ‘Don’t be afraid to sing slow, baby. Let them follow you — don’t you be following them.’ He broke all the rules in singing.”

Valli alludes to Jimmy’s dark side, telling me how the singer would vanish for months and sud­denly reappear. “Lemme tell you something,” says Valli. “There are gonna be pieces and parts you’re never gonna get to. You’ll never get to the bottom of the guy.” As he says that Jimmy’s raspy laugh ech­oes up from the floor below.

Late that night, a few of us de­cide to take a walk up a huge hill a couple blocks from the house. I fig­ure Jimmy and Earlene would want to call it a night, but they seem offended I would leave them out. A small, round woman with a perpetu­al smile, Earlene huffs and puffs her way up the hill, stopping every 10 feet to giggle at Jimmy’s jokes.

You can see stars everywhere from the top of the hill. Earlene excitedly points out the Big Dipper, the Little Dipper, and any other constellation she can name. Our faces turn to the sky, and for a long moment nothing is heard but the static drone of crickets.

Jimmy stands a few feet from me, barely visible in the mist. I think of what Frankie Valli said about never getting to the bottom of Jimmy Scott.

Earlene makes a request of her husband, breaking the silence. “You know what would really make this evening perfect, Jimmy? If you’d sing a song for us up here.” Jimmy says nothing, his figure just a silhouette against the night. Ear­lene asks again, but Jimmy doesn’t sing.

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When Did You Leave Heaven?

“I WAS A waitress at the Coleman Hotel, the place in Newark where all the black entertainers would stay,” remem­bers Earlene, who first met her future husband in the early ’50s. “I’d spend all my tip money playing ‘Everybody’s Some­body’s Fool’ on the jukebox. I never knew who sang it because it didn’t say on the record. The jukebox man used to have to replace it ’cause I’d wear it out!

“In the meantime this little guy was comin’ in with two other entertainers — ­Paul Gayten and Annie Laurie. I thought he was their son, and when they’d order I’d say to myself, ‘Oh my goodness, they’re away from home so much they don’t give him enough to eat!‘ So I decid­ed when he came in, I was gonna make sure he had enough to eat — an extra glass of milk, a double order of collard greens, a big order of potato salad. I was tryin’ to fatten him up, see? But I had no idea he sang the record I loved so much.”

Then Henry Polite, the house detective and night manager for the Coleman Hotel, introduced her to Jimmy Scott. “He says to Jimmy, ‘I just want you to know this young lady spends all her money listening to you!’ and Jimmy said, ‘Oh yeah?’ with that little voice, and I said ‘OH MY GOD — I’ve been feedin’ this little fella thinking he was a little boy and here this was a grown man!’ I was so embarrassed I didn’t even come back for the dishes!”

To complicate matters Jimmy had fall­en for someone too. While at a friend’s house Jimmy fell in love with a picture of a girl he saw on the dresser.

His search for the glamorous woman in the photograph landed him at Earlene’s house, where she was dressed in her dowdy waitress uniform, getting ready for work. “I said, ‘What are you doin’ here?’ and Jimmy said, ‘What are you doin’ here?’ He said he was waitin’ for the girl in the picture. That’s when I told him, ‘Well you gotta stay an’ wait for, her, ’cause I gotta go to work!'” A little while later Jimmy figured it out, then ran back to the Coleman Hotel. “He asked, ‘Why didn’t you tell me it was you in the pic­ture?’ I just laughed.”

Unbeknownst to Jimmy, Earlene already had a man — her husband John, who was trying to drag her into his dope habit. The next time Jimmy visited they were in the middle of an argument. Jimmy threw John out for yelling at Earlene. “After he was gone, I said to Jim. ‘Y’know, that was my husband.’ And he said, ‘What’s wrong with you. woman­ — you tryin’ to get me killed? I didn’t see Jimmy for quite a while after that.”

But even though it took months and sometimes years, Jimmy would always come back to Earlene. “Her innocence made you respect her,” he says, who often shielded Earlene from the wilder sides of the entertainment world. “Where Earlene came up on Broome Street, there were so many girls usin’ dope, or out in the street tryin’ to be slick trickers, and here’s this one girl amidst all this shit tryin’ to make a living. She was totally supportive. I had never had that attitude out of a woman.”

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The Loneliest House on the Street

“NOBODY ASKED me to leave, I just walked off,” says Jimmy of his final split from the Hampton band in ’53. Dis­gusted with the music business, Jimmy went back to Cleveland. A jealous father was waiting for him at home. “I’d want Dad to be proud of me, share in my success,” says Jimmy. “But as soon as I walked into some joint lookin’ for him, he’d start yellin’ — ‘Jimmy Scott, come over here. You ain’t NUTHIN’. I still run you, boy.’ He would bulldoze me, and I could never understand why.”

Yet Jimmy was obsessed with reuniting his family. Others thought he was crazy. “I’d say quit kissin’ their ass — they ain’t thinkin’ ’bout you,” says Channie Sum­merville, the next femme fatale in Jim­my’s life. “I bet half of his family never even seen Jimmy perform. They were grown by then, anyway — they had their own lives. Sure, Jimmy wanted to buy a big house an’ get ’em back together, but he was livin’ in a dream world. The fact that his family is separated is somethin’ he still can’t deal with.”

Jimmy met Channie at the Paddock Bar, a Cleveland hangout, in 1954. “My brother Roger kept tellin’ me, ‘Look at her — bet you can’t get her,’ so I went up to her and rapped — and I copped,” says Jimmy.

“I said, ‘I like to sing — would you give me some lessons?” remembers Channie, who idolized Billie Holiday, a singer she was related to through her cousin, Louis McCay, Billie’s last husband. Channie and Jimmy soon married.

“She was an olive-complected girl with dyed-blond hair and an hourglass figure, just beautiful to look at,” says Jimmy. “But once she opened that mouth it killed all the beauty in her. Unfortunately I didn’t know that at the time.”

“They’d fight all the time, all the time,” says r&b singer Nappy Brown. “Channie wanted that money, and she’d put a spankin’ on Jimmy if she didn’t get it. He had to dance by her music.” Chan­nie insists she was devoted to the singer. “When we first got together, Jimmy was down and out,” she says. “I bought him a yellow Cadillac convertible, a pink suit, even died a lock of his hair blond to match mine.” She prodded the singer back to New York, where he signed with Savoy Records and the Jimmy Evans booking agency.

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Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool

WHEN JIMMY was first summoned to Savoy records, Herman Lubinsky was running the company out of a cramped office above his electronic parts store in Newark. A short, cheap man with a lousy temper, Lubinsky knew little about the black music he recorded, but he knew how to pick a winner. “You know the song would be a hit if he danced, with his goddamn bald head, smelling like God knows what,” says Lee Magid, an A&R man who recorded much of Savoy’s early r&b.

Horror stories about Savoy in the old days are endless. Rose Marie McCoy­ — who along with her partner Charlie Single­ton wrote some of Jimmy’s greatest songs — says the team often saved their worst material for Lubinsky, knowing he’d only pay a flat rate of $100 per song. Nappy Brown almost broke Lubinsky’s neck on more than one occasion. Lu­binsky put his name on a big tune Brown wrote, “The Night Time Is the Right Time,” and Brown’s never seen a dime in royalties. Jimmy says he only got paid $50 a session.

Booking agents were often another nightmare. Most of Savoy’s r&b stars were dumped on the late Jimmy Evans, a booking agent who operated out of Times Square. “One-eyed Jimmy was an asshole, a real asshole,” says Lee Magid. “He dealt with people nobody else would handle. A schlock guy.”

“Jimmy Evans would play artists against each other,” says Channie. “One week it would be ‘Oh, Maybelle’s got the big hit, she’s the star in this office.’ A week later it would be Nappy Brown who had the hit. ‘Nappy’s the boy, we got Nap. Where’s Nappy at? Send him in. Nap, m’boy, have a cigar.‘ And everybody else is sitting around the office like damn fools. I don’t think the entertainers thought it was funny. He’d play one per­son against the other like a mother do her kids.” Jimmy claims that because he warned other artists to keep track of their earnings, Evans froze him out of gigs.

Evans has his supporters, those who say he was just a tough businessman in a tough business. Even Lubinsky has his defenders, although they usually end up criticizing him the most. Fred Mendel­sohn — an A&R man who worked on and off at Savoy for nearly 20 years before taking over the company — insists that “90 per cent of the artists never earned royalties because of the way the contract read. He was a cheap s.o.b., but as far as his honesty, I will never question it. His problem was he wanted to be a big man. He’d get in fights with artists many times — he’d have people crying over the phone. Listen, I’d have to mop up after Lubinsky quite a bit. The artist was his enemy.”

Lubinsky and Mendelsohn fought con­tinually. Tall, soft-spoken, and a real fan of the gospel and r&b he produced, Mendelsohn was the antithesis of his boss. His name is revered by the black musicians he worked with. The six sessions in ’55 and ’56 that Mendelsohn produced on Jim­my — including songs like “Imagination,” “Don’t Cry, Baby,” “If You Only Knew,” “Oh, What I Wouldn’t Give,” “Address Unknown,” and “Guilty,” — defined him as a singer. (Half of these sessions are on the first and best Sayoy reissue, Little Jimmy Scott.)

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Mendelsohn surrounded Jimmy with top musicians, even though some didn’t appreciate the singer’s style. Bassist Charles Mingus walked out on the first Savoy date, aggravated by Jimmy’s free­wheeling sense of time.

The minimal jazz combos that backed Jimmy on those first sessions — usually led by pianist and arranger Howard Biggs — played at graveyard tempos, crafting slight melodies that left huge spaces for Jimmy’s daredevil phrasing. He dragged words across measures, then cut them into such precise, frozen sylla­bles he seemed to be writing definitions for Webster’s. The result was a narcotic drone that never lost its edge.

It was scary. The youthful kid singer was gone, replaced by one who had been too many places, seen too much. Beneath that world-weary cool was a bottomless empathy. “I’d be singin’ and get so filled up the tears would just roll,” he says, explaining his nickname in the streets of Newark — Cryin’ Jimmy. If the band didn’t know the tune, Jimmy just plunged in without accompaniment. The singer held nothing back from his audience, almost suicidally went all the way. Still, so much remained unknown about Jimmy Scott.

“Everybody knows/How the story goes/I have nothing to conceal,” he sang, swinging lightly through the line, oblivious to the irony: everything about the singer is a question mark, starting with his maddening, asexual voice. It could shoot stratospherically high, trail off into a sob-stained vibratto, then descend into a cry so low-down it could shatter the toughest r&b singer. And for all the emotion, he never sounded piteous or weak. Jimmy had no use for falsetto histrionics or on-the-knees pleading. No wonder gospel singers whispered his name, women fol­lowed him home, junkies and drag queens idolized him. Jimmy Scott understood.

Yet Jimmy had his own agonizing limi­tations. “Oh, what I wouldn’t give/To walk down the aisle with you,” he sings. It’s an impassioned rending, but that nameless sorrow in his voice tells us the singer is going to get the girl. Jimmy sings of a pure, idealistic love; real life fell short. Jimmy kept the one he really loved on a distant pedestal, afraid his boozy nightclub netherworld would cor­rupt her innocence. “I am only human, but you are so divine,” he cries in “When Did You Leave Heaven?” and he’s singing to the one he couldn’t have — Earlene. Seldom has the battle between spirit and flesh been so elegantly realized in jukebox terms. The labels should read, “Recorded in purgatory.”

Though Jimmy had a couple of modest hits, he just didn’t fit the r&b market. Mendelsohn was the only one at Savoy who understood the singers talents, and when he left the company temporarily in ’57, Lubinsky sought ways to commercial­ize Jimmy’s sound. He should’ve been presented as a song stylist, like Billie Holiday or Dinah Washington, and if Savoy tried for elegance, the results were strictly kitsch. Jimmy was drowned in cheap strings, turgid arrangements, and the mediocre material Lubinsky owned publishing for. With few exceptions, the recordings from ’58 to ’60 were uniformly awful (masochists can check out the Savoy reissue All Over Again). The nadir of his Savoy career was a 1958 rock & roll session. “I’ll be what I’m not, if that’s what you want,” Jimmy warbles on the aptly titled “What?” For once I don’t believe him.

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“HE WAS lazy,” says Channie. “Jimmy didn’t want the responsibility of bein’ an entertainer. One time he went out an’ got a factory job — just so he wouldn’t have to sing.” Jimmy would squander his big money buying food and drinks for the house, or gamble it away in after-hours joints, then come home without a cent. “I had to make all the financial arrangements, pay all the bills,” says Channie. “It was like he was the woman an’ I was the man. Jimmy put me in a damn-ass trick bag.”

Jimmy disagrees. He says his wife was so hungry for his cash, she’d show up at his gigs with a boyfriend or two to ensure he’d hand over the loot. He admits to spending the money as fast as he could. “When I realized Channie was trying to hog all the bread for herself — I didn’t care how it went then. I’d rather give it away.”

Alcohol was Jimmy’s way out. As Channie puts it, “Booze turns Jimmy into Mr. Hyde.” Jimmy would wait until his last set was over, get roaring drunk, then pick on the biggest guy at the bar, inevitably chal­lenging him to a fight. Friends often talked strangers out of killing the singer. A few drinks and Jimmy wanted to take on the world.

“Sure, I’d get wild and crazy as hell,” admits Jimmy. “I’d drink one night and shit, you couldn’t get me to drink for months and Sundays after that. It look a toll. I know now I was fighting this thing within me — fighting myself, because of all the things I was seeing and living with. Not only are you tryin’ to scuffle with your career, but ya gotta go home and scuffle with your old lady, too. You look up and say, ‘These suckers done used me all this time?’ ”

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We drive all day and still show up late for the gig. Jimmy heads straight for the bar. These days he rarely drinks, but when he does the demons are there to greet him. The gig is at an empty bar in a rundown block in Queens. Not exactly last night’s show — a Washington. D.C. jazz festival with Ray Brown and Milt Jackson. But Jimmy seldom gets gigs like that.

I look around the bar, dreading another three-people-in-the-audi­ence Jimmy gig, but stepping into the back room I come face-to-face with a few hundred black couples dressed to the nines and chanting for Jimmy Scott. Jimmy throws back a drink, hops on the stage, and belts out “All of Me.”

A few more sets, a few more drinks, and Jimmy is flying. He dances across the stage, joking with the audience. “Summertime” turns into an apocalyptic blues, strange new lyrics are improvised to “Geor­gia.” The performance never ends. As the crowd files out, Jimmy even brings Earlene up on the stage, an­nouncing his love affair to the emptying house.

The show is over, but Jimmy won’t leave. I try to get him in the car and he climbs a lamp post. Fi­nally he slides into the passenger seat, although he tries to crawl out the window. After unleashing a tor­rent of abuse on the guy hired to drive, he stops suddenly, turning around to face Earlene. Jimmy’s tux is wrinkled, his hair sticks straight up, a big grin crosses his woozy face. “Give me a little kiss,” he asks his wife. She does. Then he whips back around to the front seat, snarling “Hey motherfucker, what’s your problem?” at the driver. His response is to step on the gas, and we go flying down the highway.

Minutes later Jimmy pops over the front seat, demanding another kiss from Earlene. Then he returns to cursing out the driver. This routine goes on the whole ride home. I hide in the corner of the back seat, hoping he won’t pick on me.

Everybody steers clear of Jimmy once we’re back at the apartment. About to run out of energy, he paces the floor like a tranquilized panther. “Nobody knows me,” he boasts. “I’m the world’s greatest actor.” He begins to sing an old Irving Berlin tune, a song I’ve heard him sing many times when he’s in the middle of despair. “All by my­self in the morning,” he says softly, a horrible grimace smudged on his face. He reaches out to me, but I turn away. Jimmy isn’t surprised. “All by myself in the night.”

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All or Nothing At All

ONE NIGHT after a gig in Connect­icut, Channie tried to run her husband down in the couple’s blue Coupe De Ville. It had been raining; the road was covered with mud. Jimmy and Channie were drunk. “He came outta that club without a dime,” says Channie. “I said, ‘I’m gonna kill this motherfucker.’ It just so happened the car swerved an’ that saved me from hittin’ his ass. Later I realized it wasn’t worth it — I could’ve gone to prison for life. I didn’t even have any life insurance on the nigger.”

On the next trip to Connecticut, Jimmy tried to kill them both. Channie had begun the long drive back, unaware that Jimmy was silently fuming about the gig money he had just handed over. There they were — four in the morning, in the middle of nowhere on some old country road, when Jimmy took his foot and slammed it down on Channie’s, flooring the gas. “I started pushin’ and kickin’ and hittin’ him with my elbow an’ he was hittin’ back at me,” says Channie. “Jimmy was drunk. He was tore up.”

Channie jumped out of the car and went running down the road, screaming for help. Officers of the law arrived, and they turned out to be Jimmy Scott fans.

The cops offered to let the singer go if he promised to behave. Jimmy politely agreed, much to Channie’s surprise. “I thought, ‘Damn, this man done got hisself together. He done sobered up quick!’ ”

The couple didn’t get too far. Minutes after they got back on the road, Jimmy repeated his trick, and this time the cops were waiting. The couple spent the night in jail. Their relationship continued to deteriorate back in New York. Jimmy’s body is a road map of scars he received one way or another from Channie, and she doesn’t deny it. “Sure I whupped him — he’s little, but he can take them blows. Maybe he don’t feel it.”

There is one record that expresses all the confusion Jimmy was going through. In 1957, during Fred Mendelsohn’s brief stay at King Records, he arranged for Jimmy to cut 12 sides with producer Hen­ry Glover. The best of them was “What Sin,” another blow-by-blow account of a doomed relationship. Jimmy’s voice soars­ above the beat like a sad air-raid siren. “What sin have I committed?” he moans. “What crime am I guilty of? Where did I go wrong, dear? How did I lose your love?”

Jimmy Scott was falling apart. His family was still separated, his marriage to Channie was a disaster, and his career had ground to a halt. He tried to escape it all by turning to the bottle, and for an artist that idolized Paul Robeson and longed to be an example to others, that was the worst failure of all. Jimmy was killing himself.

But those were only his real problems.

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What Sin?

“WOKE UP an’ thought I had a cold,” says Joe August. “Turns out I had a habit.” By the early ’50s, heroin had gone from a secretive hipster high to a more common affliction. In Newark, at joints like the Downbeat Club and the Joy Tavern, musicians could cop from house dealers the minute they stepped off the bandstand. “Everybody got high back then — everybody,” says August. “Who knew it would kill us?”

Narcotic use destroyed many great mu­sicians. But so could suspected narcotic use. Even the squarest performers had to be extra cautious in New York City, New­ark, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. Para­doxically the town where Jimmy drew his biggest crowds, Philly had a notorious reputation for harassing black musicians the minute there was any rumor of drugs. One afternoon in the early ’50s, it hap­pened to Jimmy Scott.

“I was playing in a club on Market Street with a piano player, Red Garland,” says Scott. “I walked into the club, ordered me a drink, and pow! This cat dragged me outside, slapped me upside my head and shoved me in a car.”

Another entertainer had fingered Jimmy for smuggling narcotics out of Cleve­land. “Somebody had the idea I was carryin’. Carryin’ what? Buddy, I didn’t have a damn thing — I didn’t know anything about sellin’ dope.” Yet he wasn’t surprised by the accusation. “They wanted the guy to name names, so bein’ from Cleveland he picked me. Entertainers were lyin’ on each other all the time — just to get the man off their back.”

The detectives found he was clean, but his troubles were far from over. Curious about the singer’s high voice and delicate looks, they demanded he strip naked. Jimmy rarely discusses this incident, and when you hear him mimic the officers’ gruff voices, you understand why. “‘What is he, a boy or a girl? His name is Jimmy. Must be a girl, has a high voice anyhow. Take off your clothes, faggot!’ Then they pushed me around, in front of everybody. I think today, why did I let that happen? But shit — these were officers of the law.”

The cops hounded Jimmy throughout ’50s, knocking down the door in the middle of the night, ransacking his apartment in search of contraband. Then they’d take the singer downtown for inter­rogations that more than a few times ended with Jimmy doing a nauseating striptease for the law. He was never formally charged with anything, yet the damage had been done. Word was out — Jimmy was a junkie. Why else would the cops be messing with him?

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Jimmy openly admits to his one experi­ence with heroin — a disastrous late ’40s encounter snorting the drug in Milwaukee that he insists scared him away forever. If he was using, he fooled those closest to him. Channie, who certainly has no vested interest in protecting her ex-husband, says, “It was a lie. I was married to the man for five years an’ he don’t have a needle mark on his body.

For some people, just watching him perform was evidence enough. Not only did he look high, but he sounded it, with the weird way he stretched out the notes. And there was the company he kept. “I was with guys who were coppin’. I was with guys who were kickin’,” says the singer. “Some entertainers turned their back on ’em because of their habit, but I couldn’t — these were my friends. Big Maybelle, Sonny Stitt, Bird, all of ’em. They’d be sittin’ in front of me shootin’ theyself, sayin’, ‘Look here, Jimmy Scott, if I ever catch you doin’ this shit, I’m gonna bust your brains out.’ ”

Once the rumors started, they were impossible to stop. Dealers approached Jimmy in every town he played. Other entertainers talked behind his back. Just last year, a New York news show lost interest in doing a story on Jimmy when Earlene informed them he hadn’t been a junkie. Jimmy says the music industry spread the lie, that they used any dirt they could find on black artists to further con­trol their careers. He says the worst vic­tims were people like Big Maybelle. While token efforts were made by booking agen­cies and the record companies to get her off drugs, Jimmy insists this was only to cover up the way they robbed her blind.

Others say self-destructive artists like Maybelle would have done themselves in anyway, and feel Jimmy is just making excuses for his real problem — alcohol. “The record company squeezed black art­ists — they figured if they didn’t somebody else would,” says Lee Magid. “But it doesn’t matter if they’re faggots or dopers or boozers, they’re gonna blame the rec­ord company, the promoters, the wives. The world did it to ’em. They don’t take the blame themselves.”

I try to argue this point with Jimmy, but he quietly maintains that he’s not just speaking for himself, but for all the artists he watched go down the drain. “Every­body I knew back then, believe me, baby, they’re all dead. They’re actually not on this earth. Can you blame all that on self­-destruction?”

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“Tell me about Willie John, Jim­my.” I’m always asking about Willie John. With records like “Need Your Love So Bad” and “Suffering With the Blues,” John’s one of the few singers who matched Jimmy’s inten­sity. The two ran together in the ‘5os. What a lethal combo — small, tough, and willing to fight until the end, although Willie didn’t make it, having died in prison after stabbing a man in a crap game. Jimmy doesn’t like to talk about Willie John, but tonight he says he’s got something to show me and goes off into the other room.

He returns with a tiny black-and-­white picture. “Somebody gave it to me in Detroit,” he whispers. Willie John sits in a chair, all dressed up in a flashy gangster suit and hat, a nasty grin on his teenage face. In his lap sits Etta James, her overripe body stuffed into a skintight dress, her big face caked with makeup. They are a magnificent couple, but look too young for the roles they play. They seem trapped. Jimmy stares at the photo and smiles. The picture is impenetrable to me.

I plan to blow the photo up so Jimmy and I can study every detail, but as he sticks it in a drawer I decide to put it off. The following week I ask him for the picture. He looks everywhere but it’s gone.

A few days later, I call Channie. She’s had a few drinks. We talk about her favorite singers — Judy Garland, Big Maybelle, Billie Holi­day, and Jimmy Scott. “They’re all dead ‘cept for Jimmy,” she says. “Ain’t that funny?”

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The Masquerade Is Over

THE END for Jimmy and Channie came on July 17, 1959. “He had worked in Connecticut again,” remembers Channie, “and we had gotten into a big fight. I said, ‘This is it — you never have no mon­ey, you never do nuthin’.’ And in the middle of it all, a voice came over the radio — ‘We interrupt this broadcast to tell you Billie Holiday is dead.’ Oh my good­ness, it was the saddest day.” The couple stayed together to officiate over Billie’s funeral — Jimmy’s sunglasses hiding a black eye from Channie — then went their separate ways after a messy divorce.

On November 30, 1960, there was one last session at Savoy. Lubinsky — too cheap to succumb to payola demands — went back to cutting gospel records. Al­though hampered by the usual $1.98 string section, Jimmy was in top form, particularly on the single released from the session, “My Romance,” pouring his heart out in the lament for a mythical love. The record went nowhere.

The early ’60s were tough on jazz and r&b artists — or anybody else who didn’t play rock & roll. The sense of community Jimmy had enjoyed with the struggling musicians around him — his surrogate family, really — was about to end. Artists were fighting one another over the few gigs left; others killed themselves with heroin. Jimmy sunk to the bottom of rock & roll bills, backed by musicians who didn’t know the tunes and didn’t care.

The singer went to California for a gig and wound up staying. Ray Charles, who had shared the bill with Jimmy in his Hampton days, had started Tangerine, his own label, and Jimmy was the first singer he wanted to record. Charles played piano throughout the impeccable selection of standards and put a string section behind the singer.

“I finally got the chance to sing with the instrumentation I wanted,” says Jim­my dreamily. Jimmy was deeply affected by working with Charles. and calls their collaboration as “a meeting of the souls.” The record was titled Falling in Love is Wonderful.

It was a profound combination — the blind pianist and the so-called “little” singer with the womanly voice. Both knew how it felt to be considered an outcast; both had experienced more than their share of controversy. “People who are born with limited equipment — or what they perceive as limited equipment — they find each other,” says Doc Pomus. “There’s a fraternity of fucked-up people in the world.”

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“Why can’t I be more conventional? People talk, people stare, so I try,” sings Jimmy in “Why Try to Change Me Now?,” the desperation of his Savoy rec­ords replaced by a languid defiance. “Let people wonder, let them laugh, let them stare,” he decides, his voice as cool as a Central Park snowfall. Why try to change Jimmy Scott now, he is saying. I am what I am. I can dig it — can you?

Charles had no problem with Jimmy’s strange sense of time. “You don’t insult people,” he says. “If they’re good and they know what they’re doin’, you let them do it. You don’t go makin’ ’em somethin’ you want ’em to be. It wasn’t a complicated thing. Everything was very easy-flowin’, man. Just like Jimmy.”

Jimmy sent for his father to come out and watch the sessions. At first Arthur was impressed, but seeing his son receive the star treatment day after day drove him crazy. Jimmy left behind everything in L.A. to drive his father back to Cleveland. “Dad, he wasn’t gonna go home on the bus,” says Jimmy. Back in Ohio, he wait­ed for the Tangerine album to come out. “You couldn’t have told me that record wasn’t gonna be a hit.” he says. It almost happened.

“Every time I played the record, there’d be some new person asking, ‘What is the name of that woman singing — she is incredible!’ ” says Joel Dorn, then a jazz DJ in Philadelphia. “Every­body thought it was a chick singer. So naturally, in explaining that Jimmy wasn’t a chick it called so much attention to him that every record store in the area got hundreds of calls. The response was stun­ning. Until the lawsuit came out.”

Herman Lubinsky had an injunction placed against the record, claiming Jimmy was still under contract to Savoy. Rather than face a lawsuit, Tangerine stopped distribution. Lubinsky made certain no record company would go near Jimmy for another six years. “To this day I don’t know what Lubinsky gained from it,” says Joe Adams, longtime business associate of Ray Charles. “I just think he did Jimmy more harm.”

Few people heard the record. The only copy Jimmy owns is full of scratches and missing a cover. “All you wanted was a decent home life, a decent opportunity to express the depths of what you were all about as a singer,” he says. “But it never happened. I never really got over.”

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Address Unknown

JIMMY REMAINED in Cleve­land, remarrying in ’65 and taking a job as a hotel shipping clerk. His spare time was devoted to a study of world religion, particularly the teachings of Yogananda. He contemplated entering the ministry of his mother’s religion, the Spiritualist Church. Music was confined to occasional weekend gigs. In 1969, Joel Dorn — now a successful producer at Atlantic Rec­ords — brought Jimmy back. An uneven record, The Source is marred by an over­dubbed string section and material that strains to be contemporary, but on three cuts — “I Wish I Knew,” “This Love of Mine,” and “Day by Day” — Jimmy took his singing to new extremes.

“Day by Day” is the album’s center­piece and the singer’s greatest recording. Jimmy ‘s subtle phrasing and dramatic time changes had grown so sophisticated that the song sounds devoid of melody, but the more one hears it, the more its riverlike tempos sweep you away. Unbe­lievably, Jimmy was singing even slower than he had in the past, stripping lyrics down to their barest meaning, rendering each phrase so succinctly you could stick it in a fortune cookie. And while the sadness in his music was more devastating than ever, a Zen calm permeated every note. “There isn’t any end to my devotion,” he murmurs. “It’s deeper, dear, by far, than any ocean.”

Jimmy had made sense of his life, come to terms with the past. He credits this to his religious, studies and the time he away from the business. “After a while you grow up,” says Jimmy. “It’s like the old saying goes, ‘when a man reaches the end of his rope, he comes to the begin­ning of God.’ ” Unfortunately the world didn’t share in his knowledge. The Source received no promotion, and many of those who heard it failed to comprehend. “I remember people hearin’ the album and sating, “Wow, that’s weird!’ ‘” says producer Dorn. “Jimmy makes me feel the way Edith Piaf does; he can reach that far into emotion. But it’s so much emotion it’s just not comfortable for people.”

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“Why was I born?” Another night, another gig, and once again Jimmy Scott is singing all by himself. The thrown-together band doesn’t know the tune. so Jimmy has graciously asked them to sit this one out. “Why am I living?” This old show tune from the ’20s once served as background music for many a suicide.

“Why do I cry … You’ll never hear me.” The white audience at this jazz club doesn’t get it. Some people fidget in their chairs, others look at the floor. One guy winces at the singer, as if he has stared too long at the sun. “Why was I born?” Jimmy cries, letting the question hang in the air for an eternity.

“Why was I born?” he asks again, his arms outstretched to the crowd before him. “To love you,” he says softly, dropping his head to his chest.

Day By Day

IN 1970 JIMMY fell while on the hotel job, severely damaging his back. The injury still causes him continual pain, particularly onstage. After Lubinsky died of cancer in ’74, Mendelsohn cut one last Savoy album on Jimmy in ’75. Begin Again was a disaster. The arranger he hired showed up drunk, without any charts, and the young musicians didn’t know Jimmy’s material. The record was ignored.

Jimmy’s third marriage ended in another difficult divorce, and he moved into a senior citizen’s home, becoming president of the building’s council. “He would always be helping somebody, driving them to the grocery store or the doctor,” says Lucille Chapman, a neighbor and friend. Chapman couldn’t help but notice the sorrow that hovered over Jimmy. “It was always there — even on the good days. Something was missing, you could tell. It was his mother. He missed her quite a bit.”

In ’79 Arthur Scott had a stroke. To pass the time Jimmy took his father fishing. Since he was paralyzed on one side, Jimmy would ready his line. “Dad said, ‘here boy, cast this out for me,’ and handed me his favorite fishing pole,” Jimmy remembers. “I went to cast it and the thing just lifted out of my hands and flew into the water. Oh man, I felt so bad about that. He loved that pole.

“But it was the funniest thing. I said, ‘Let’s go buy a new one. I’ll get one, let’s go somewhere.’ I really wanted to replace it. But he said, ‘No boy, don’t worry about it. Forget about it.’ It was like he knew nobody else would get to use that pole.”

A few months later his father was back in the hospital. Jimmy went to see him. “Visiting time was up so I started out the door. He raised up und said, “Boy, don’r think too hard of me, hear?” Arthur Scott died the next day.

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My Romance 

THROUGHOUT THE years Jim­my had kept in touch with his old flame, Earlene. “Sometimes I’d get down in the dumps and play Jimmy’s records,” she remembers, “and my mother would say, ‘Uh-oh,’ ’cause she knew what was comin’ next. I don’t care when I’d play them, he’d call. If it wasn’t that night it was the next day. So help me, it was like he knew I needed him.”

Long separated from her husband John, Earlene was still in Newark, living with her mother, when she received a letter from Jimmy Scott. After all these years he wanted to get back together. “I called him up and asked what he was doin’, and he said, ‘Nuthin.’ He told me he was gonna be a minister. Jimmy had given up singing altogether.”

Earlene went to Cleveland. “He al­ready had all these pens, cups, and statio­nery that said “James and Earlene Scott.’ I couldn’t believe it,” she remembers. “I asked him if I got him an interview on the radio would he come back to singing, and he said, “Only if you promise to marry me.’ ” She returned home and, being a longtime contributor to Newark’s jazz sta­tion, WBGO, pleaded with them to put Jimmy on the air. At first the woman on the phone insisted Jimmy Scott had died long ago. Earlene was furious. “I said, ‘He is not dead. He’s in Cleveland!’ ”

That following week, Jimmy appeared on Bob Porter’s show and ended up stay­ing for hours, talking to fans. Not long after, Jimmy made his first professional engagement in years at Newark’s Mirage Club. “That place was packed,” says Ear­lene, who had married the singer on Feb­ruary 14, Valentine ‘s Day, nearly 40 years after their first meeting. “Jimmy had tears in his eyes. He didn’t know that so many people enjoyed and missed him. He thought they had forgot.”

The happy ending stops there. Jimmy’s reputation is still so underground his comeback has meant little. He’s playing the same kind of dives he sang in 30 years ago. Jimmy has to hire inexperi­enced musicians who can’t handle his time changes, and most of the gigs are unadvertised. I’ve seen him perform to an audience of three — Earlene, her mother, and me. He has no record company, no manager, no band. And Jimmy is singing better than ever.

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One day Jimmy hands me three sheets of legal paper. Across the top of the first page is written,”For Whatever the Reason.” The elegant longhand is Jimmy’s.”My Prob­lems did not take effect until my Thirteenth Birthday in that year my mother was killed by a car accident immediately I realized I was totally alone.” Both he and his brother Kenny were born with Kallmann’s Syndrome, a hereditary condition that affects one in a thousand. “The brain doesn’t secrete the proper hormones to stimulate testicular functions,” says Dr. Joann C. Findley, an assistant professor of medi­cine at University Hospital in Cleve­land. “Essentially, those born with it haven’t gone through puberty.” Jimmy’s voice has the power to break women’s hearts, make men cry. Even his saddest songs have saved marriages from divorce. His voice has joined the world, and sep­arated him from us.

When Jin1my was born, Kall­mann’s was a mystery; now it can be treated. Kenny Scott only found out a few years ago about hormone shots. “It’s helped me a lot. but you know Jimmy, he can’t stand to take a needle, and besides,” Kenny pauses for a moment, “it would probably do to Jimmy what it did to me. Change his voice.”

A few days later I leave Jimmy’s after a long interview. In the last week, his life has begun to make awful sense. I stand and wait for the elevator, thinking about the father that never loved Jimmy. The doomed marriages.”Little” Jimmy Scott, the dopefiend afraid of needles, standing naked before those fucking cops. What would I have done in his shoes? Get drunk and go crazy or put a bullet through my head? “God made me this way,” Jimmy says. “It’s too late to change it.”

As the ancient elevator rumbles up to my floor, I notice a discarded old picture by my foot. It’s an old watercolor illustration of Jesus. He’s dressed in a flowing white robe, sitting in a sunlit garden. Around him are gathered three little children, dressed in their finest Sunday school clothes. It is an idyl­lic image, seductively innocent. Un­til I look closer.

A small blond child is sitting in the lap of Jesus, pointing to his paint. “What happened to your hands?” she asks.

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All the Way

JIMMY SCOTT stands in front of the microphone, his first real recording session in 12 years. On the other side of thc glass sits his producer — me. When I interviewed Quincy Jones, he said that if I got him a demo tape of Jimmy with a good pianist, he’d take care of the rest. So I took him up on the offer, using the money I’d make from this article to produce the demo myself.

Lottery tickets would have been a wiser investment. The session began with a good omen — the studio turned out to be where Jimmy had cut his first records with Hampton. But there was no money, no arrangements, and the pianist was just the wrong choice for Jimmy. Instead of slicking to the melody and staying out of the singer’s way, he kept second-guessing the next note Jimmy would land on, What were once songs had become exercises in dissonance.

The atmosphere in the studio was grim. Each new take sounded more vague than the last. I got uptight. Jimmy got uncom­fortable. I put my head down on the console, figuring I was just contributing to another disaster in Jimmy’s career.

Then Jimmy changed everything. Before the session, I had asked him to do a couple of a cappella numbers. He was noncommittal, so I dropped it. But Jimmy hadn’t forgotten.

A long drag off the cigarette, then Jimmy closed his eyes and slowly began to sing an old Sinatra tune. For once nothing held him back, and his colossal voice echoed around the studio. “When somebody loves you, it’ s no good unless they love you ALL THE WAY.” He sounded so sad. And so full of hope.

Nobody said a word when it was over. The pianist’s head was bowed; the recording booth silent. I wanted to hug Jimmy, but he was on the other side of the glass.

Back he went to his cigarette, awkward­ly shuffling the pages on his music stand. Jimmy looked frail, spent. He seemed indifferent to the past four minutes, even though he had said everything there is to say about Jimmy Scott. As usual, he had done it the only way he has ever done it. All by himself. ■


Daniel Johnston at the Crossroads

Chord Organ Bluesman
March 27, 1990

Drove those demons, out of my head
With an organ and a pencil full of lead
And when I’m dead, like to have it said, 
“He drove those demons out of his head”

DANIEL JOHNSTON’S wavering voice gives even the most casual listener the creeps. Listening to his nine cassette and three album releases, Robert Johnson, Roky Erickson, Jonathan Richman, and Neil Young come to mind. Johnston has a painful sincerity that obliterates the distinction between performance and life, that grips and repels, that threatens to collapse on itself. His story has been a series of fuck-ups, small and tragic. At 29, living at home under close supervision, he acknowledges what he has done: “I’m really very, very sorry that happened. I know it’s gonna follow me for the rest of my life.”

In August 1988, Johnston had finished recording Jad Fair/Daniel Johnston in Fair’s living room in Union Town, Maryland, and was heading home. According to legal documents, his manager, and Johnston himself, he got off the bus in Chester, West Virginia, near New Cumberland, his hometown. But Johnston did not go home. Instead, he spent the night wandering around, apparently in a manic state. He had not been taking his medication. At 7 a.m., on the 26th, he found himself in front of an apartment building, where he began making a lot of noise. A 68-year-old woman came to her second-floor window and told Johnston to shut up. Daniel says he was positive that Satan had possessed her, and he felt a duty to help her. He entered the building, climbed the stairs, and, as the grand jury charges put it, “committed the offense of ‘Burglary’ by kicking and forcing open the entrance door of the dwelling house.” Terrified, the woman jumped out of the window, breaking both of her legs.

“I never wanted to hurt anybody,” Johnston says. The Hancock County Court apparently agreed, and after a seven-month stay in a state hospital the singer was released in the custody of his parents.

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I guess I lean a little bit towards the excessive
But that’s the way it is when you’re a manic depressive

JOHNSTON IS A religious outsider, and to him the devil is as real as dirt. His conviction is so powerful that professional music margin walkers as diverse as Maureen Tucker, Texas Instruments, Kramer, the Butthole Surfers, Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo, and Glass Eye have covered Johnston’s songs or recorded with him. Listening to his music, you can smell the devil’s breath; it makes your spine sweat. Johnston makes you feel that any second evil can come crashing down on your own head. On his most recent album, 1990, he preaches to a CBGB crowd with keening ferocity, “DON’T PLAY CARDS WITH SATAN! HE’LL DEAL YOU AN AWFUL HAND.”

From 1980 to 1985 Johnston recorded hundreds of songs by himself, many of which were released and are available on Stress, his manager Jeff Tartakov’s cassette­-only label. Each cassette bore a Johnston art brut drawing — frogs, boxers, people with missing skull caps. The tapes’ lo-fi sound is so cruddy that the Radio Shack machine Johnston used becomes an instrument in itself, an ever-present rumble. With his nephew’s chord organ­ — “a little kid’s instrument; it’s a little electric keyboard, like half a keyboard, with a little fan in it… and little buttons you press for chords, y’know?” — and a voice so unsteady it might have given Alfalfa the shakes, Johnston stayed in his folk’s basement for days, for years.

He works that organ with frenzied syncopation, one hand playing the melodies, the other pounding chord keys for a percussive effect that sounds like a marching army. Johnston also plays guitar, awkwardly. On the ’83 cassette Yip/Jump Music (20 songs, released as a double LP last year by Homestead), he only uses the guitar on one cut, “Sorry Entertainer.” His atonal pluckings reinforce the lonely, eerie mood of his voice. “I heard the Beatles when I was 19 and was disappointed when I found out I couldn’t sing just like them. So I didn’t know what to do for awhile. Then my friend turned me on to Bob Dylan, and I said, ‘Yeah, I can sing like this guy.’ ” Sometimes he sings a cappella, as on Yip/Jump‘s “King Kong,” a mourning sexual psychodrama about Johnston’s favorite movie.

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His songwriting pumps blood back into the deadest clichés. He sings about the splendor of the mountains that God created (“God”), the enduring beauty of love (“Love Defined”), the pain of a broken heart (“I Remember Painfully”), or how great the Beatles are (“The Beatles” — “I always wanted to be like him/But he died”). Coming from most anyone else, these sentiments would be sappy, but in Johnston’s voice they offer, to use a line only he could get away with, glimpses of the naked soul. His stories of (terrible!) angst and (immense!) love are so believable because in Johnston’s world, agony and ecstasy intertwine. Not to say that he can’t distinguish between the two, but they elicit the same feeling. Love always leads to despair, and in despair he’s conscious of nothing but love. Johnston is a bluesman.

Yip/Jump Music is Johnston’s most uplifting work, his purest pop expression, recorded during his most fertile period so far. He followed it in ’83 with the densely crafted Hi, How Are You. With songs like “Despair Came Knocking” and “Poor You,” Hi is even more haunting than his first releases, Songs of Pain (’80) and More Songs of Pain (’81). As the fanzine Your Flesh put [it] in a favorable Hi, How Are You review, “It’s damned hard not to feel like a voyeur listening to this album. I mean, there’s absolutely no attempt on Daniel’s part to be discreet or private or embarrassed.”

Yip/Jump Music is the best introduction to Daniel Johnston, because there is very little vanity in the music. It’s the soundtrack of Johnston discovering the depth and power of his emotions. Later things would get more complicated when he got an audience. When he became “famous” (an appearance on MTV, Rolling Stone and Spin articles), his delicate reality instruments took a beating. For one thing, the attention inflated his ego, which aggravated his problems.

The most recent release is 1990, and it’s a drastic departure from the midget-in-a-tin­can sound of the earlier tapes. The album was recorded during his visit to Manhattan in April 1988, before his collaboration with Jad Fair. That’s when Johnston got to meet some of his fans, crashing here and there, including a stay with Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley. (Shelley and Lee Ranaldo trance out acoustically on “Spirit World Rising.”) The 11th and last 1990 song, “Funeral Home,” an adaption of Bruce Springsteen’s “Cadillac Ranch,” was performed live at the Hoboken record shop Pier Platters. You can follow along as the in-store crowd goes from stunned silence to a rousing sing-along:

Funeral home, funeral home,
Going to the funeral home,
Got me a coffin shiny and black,
I’m going to the funeral and I’m never coming back

Though Johnston suffered a breakdown during the recording — Bellevue one night, CBGB the next — 1990 is among his most coherent albums. Kramer produced and re­corded it with an unusually light and subtle hand coming from the Shimmy-Disc/Noise New York mogul. Johnston’s voice has nev­er sounded steadier, more sure of itself — ­even during the two CBGB tracks. But the biggest difference is in the dominant subject matter: Satan.

A few months after finishing 1990, in 1988, he went on to record with Jad Fair, and then got on the bus for the ride home.

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THE LATEST NEWS from Daniel Johnston has been quite mixed. One of his goals for the new year was to write 2000 songs, but finding himself way ahead of schedule, he changed it to 1000 albums. An L.A. gallery is planning his first art show, and in March, he performed live for the first time in two years, traveling with his father to the South by Southwest Music Convention in Austin.

In February, he appeared on Nick Hill’s Live Music Faucet show on WFMU, via the telephone. With an intricate setup of backing tapes, vocal mikes, and the live studio accompaniment of Yo La Tengo for three songs, Johnston presented his own radio show. For much of it, he had recorded his own piano and backing vocal accompaniment and, all of it being picked up by his phone, shouted out 1990 cuts. The performance was pretty good at first, though it was hard to tell how much of Johnston’s self-aggrandizement was in jest. (“Ladies and gentlemen, tonight it’s the King Kong of show business…”) As manic as ever, the sorry entertainer ended the segment by accusing Tartakov of ripping him off, embellishing the attack with bizarre anti-Semitic insults.

Tartakov, a model of patience — “Daniel is currently as lucid as ever” — later received an apology from the singer. Johnston lamented, “I’m always making stupid mistakes like that.”