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Turn Me Loose: Race, Bigotry and Dick Gregory’s Undying Relevance

A black comic paces the stage, microphone in hand, studying his audience. “You white folks up North been voting for a long time,” he begins. “But in the South, we just barely get a chance to vote. You see, down South, if you colored and want to vote, they make you take a test…on nuclear physics…in Russian. Then, if you pass the test, they say, ‘Hey, boy! You can’t vote! Because if you can read in Russian, you must be a Communist!’” Swap out the Soviet references for more modern global threats and the joke is every bit as relevant today as it was in 1963. When it’s delivered anew by Joe Morton, in an off-Broadway theater in 2016, it elicits as much laughter as it did the first time around. The production is Turn Me Loose, and Morton—whose stage career dates almost as far back as that joke, to Broadway’s Hair (1968)—is portraying the comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory. Dick Gregory. The name didn't ring any bells when I heard it a few weeks ago in connection with the off-Broadway show. I suppose I can use my age as a partial excuse—I am a millennial. But I am also a black millennial, and as one, I feel I have a particular responsibility when it comes to knowledge of black culture. I am familiar with most things related to the civil rights movement. I’ve taken my fair share of classes with “Black” and “African American” in the title. I’ve learned about many heroes of color—the heralded and the unheard of. So how could a key black figure such as Gregory—an outspoken civil rights activist, a comedian who paved the way for people like Richard Pryor, Chris Rock and W. Kamau Bell—slip through my radar undetected? “Ah, Dick Gregory...of course I know who he is,” my father said when I told him I was going to see Turn Me Loose. Not only did he know the name—my father's life had also intertwined inexplicably with Gregory’s over the years. Both men attended Southern Illinois University at Carbondale (although Gregory left without a degree almost 20 years before Dad started as a freshman in 1974). Gregory returned to speak at SIU in 1975, where Dad first saw him in person. Gregory climbed the stage aided by crutches due to a leg injury, and spoke on the Kennedy assassination and the CIA. Dick Gregory, circa early 1960s. © Everett Collection He explained that Gregory had been a comedian in the 1960s, performing stand-up routines that raged against racism and bigotry. By the end of the decade, however, Gregory had more or less abandoned comedy to take part in the civil rights movement. Afterward, he seemed to slip out of the spotlight. I did my own research before the show, too. I perused academic articles, read magazine clippings, watched old YouTube interviews. I listened to some of Gregory’s stand-up comedy, chuckling at the absurdity of a black family welcoming the KKK inside their homes so the heat from a burning cross could warm their chilly abode. The more I learned about Gregory, the more I saw his influence all around me. One of the first black comics to speak openly about race, he opened the door for other socially conscious comedians to walk through. “Dick was the greatest,” Richard Pryor once said, “and he was the first.” Asked about his favorite comics, President Obama named Pryor and Gregory—the latter, especially, “when he was really on the edge.” By the time I reached the comfortably intimate Westside Theatre, I felt familiar enough with Gregory’s biography, and was excited to learn even more. I was also curious how Morton would treat the role of Gregory—Morton, whom I remembered from Scandal as Olivia Pope’s delightfully dastardly dad. Turn Me Loose, written by Gretchen Law and directed by John Gould Rubin, is essentially a one-man show (the show’s only other performer, John Carlin, plays various bit roles including a heckler and a cabbie) and is bursting with life as a one-man show must, with a pulse carefully regulated by the very exuberant and hilarious Morton. In the show's final moment, another creative force takes over: John Legend, who coproduced Turn Me Loose, plays it out with an original tune, “The Greatest.” Gregory and Richard Pryor at the Apollo Theater Hall of Fame, 1994. © Everett Collection Law used similar research methods to mine to write the script for Turn Me Loose. She listened to Gregory’s albums. She read his 1964 autobiography, the scandalously titled Nigger. Overall, Law estimates she combed through two-thirds of Gregory’s work. It was agony, she said, to have to cut the material down to just 90 minutes; at one point, the show totaled five hours. Unlike me, Law was no stranger to Gregory when she approached Turn Me Loose. Thirteen years ago, she received permission from Gregory himself to write him into her fictional play, Al Sharpton for President, as a character. Gregory appreciated her treatment so much that when, years later, Rubin sought to incorporate Gregory into a project of his own, Gregory recommended Law to write his life story. She did, contributing one of the 14 pieces that went into Rubin’s composite show, 68, which focused on the year 1968, for Labyrinth Theater Company in 2009. Rubin could see something special in Law’s contribution. He felt that the piece on Gregory, someone he’d grown up watching on television, could stand on its own. Once you removed references to topical issues, like Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis, the material from the 1960s, according to Rubin, “felt utterly contemporary.” Even though Gregory’s biography is well documented, Turn Me Loose is not a predictable story. Chronology isn't its endgame; the play bounces from the 1960s to the present and back with artful facility. Gregory (now 83) ages, becomes younger, and then ages again. The narrative flows as a sequence of highs and lows, of laughter and sorrow, and the audience’s perspective flows just as freely: At times, you’re a fly on the wall in his dressing room. Other times, you’re in the audience of a comedy club. Most of the time you’re right there inside Gregory’s head. As Dad’s memory stirs, his recollections bounce around like Rubin’s storytelling. He recalls 1982, when he was 25 and living out East, and he had the opportunity to speak to Gregory at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. At the time he was a freelance writer without a tape recorder, so he took pages of detailed notes on everything that happened that day. May 29, 1982: The “dark and dreary” nature of the weather; the way Gregory had greeted him with a two-handed handshake and a hug; his surprise at Gregory’s sense of humor despite his public outspokenness on serious social issues. Gregory mentioned that he had recently been in Springfield, Illinois, fasting for the Equal Rights Amendment, and on that day in Hartford he chatted freely about human behavior and social politics. Gregory, 1982. Photo by Frank Harris III. “If black folks in America riot...it won’t be because of a lack of food or jobs,” he had said. “It’ll be because of cops killing someone in the black community.” He deemed alcohol the “opiate of the masses,” discussed John Hinckley Jr.’s assassination attempt on President Reagan and Britain’s war with Argentina, and scoffed at the issue of black-on-black crime. “Such crime is a result of a racist society,” Gregory had said. Those being the days before digital technology, few remnants remain of that meeting. One is a striking close-up photo my father took of Gregory (above), a hand to his forehead, plenty of salt in his thick, peppery beard. I could see Dad’s description in Morton’s portrayal of Gregory. Morton’s monologues—sermons, really—flow effortlessly and passionately, covering everything from racism to government conspiracies to personal diet choices. They are surprisingly touching—especially for me, a 23-year-old who, until a few weeks ago, hadn’t even known the name Dick Gregory. Morton as Gregory in Turn Me Loose. Photo by Monique Carboni. Toward the end of the play is a particularly powerful scene that Law drew from Gregory’s autobiography. Gregory recalls the brutal murder of his friend and civil rights activist Medgar Evers: Evers was killed in his driveway, a few feet away from his wife and children, on the same day as Kennedy’s Civil Rights Address. Morton tearfully invokes Evers’s dying words: “Turn me loose.” Dad ran into Gregory one more time, in a train station, shortly after both men had attended the 1995 Million Man March on the Washington Mall. This time, Gregory was less forthcoming, less conversational—as if the burden of society’s ills was finally weighing him down. “I happen to be a firm believer that you can’t laugh social problems out of existence,” Gregory once told an interviewer. “…We didn’t laugh Hitler out of existence. And the day we find the cure for cancer it won’t be through jokes. It’ll be through hard and sincere work.” After experiencing Turn Me Loose, I understood what Gregory meant. The fact is, no matter what field of work in which a black person might have been during that period—comedy or activism, teaching or singing—death was always lurking nearby. A mere joke couldn’t halt a lynch mob or stop a bullet. Some things never die.

by Zakiya Harris

May 25, 2016

Pathways: Bob Dylan and Me in the 1970s

I’ve been a Bob Dylan fan since roughly 1972. I had inherited a copy of Blonde on Blonde from one or other of my older brothers, along with a record player, and I spun all four sides incessantly. I laughed (“Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat”), I cheered (“Rainy Day Women #12 & 35”), I cried (“Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”), I sang along (every word). Three years later, Blood on the Tracks joined the rotation, followed by Desire in 1976. Those were great years to be a young Dylan fan. This May is a busy month for Dylanites like me. The 16th was the golden jubilee of Blonde on Blonde. May 17 marked 50 years since Dylan was branded a “Judas” for turning from acoustic to electric. On the 20th, Dylan released his 47th album, Fallen Angels, and today, May 24, marks Bobby’s 75th birthday. In this week’s Pathways post I explore that early period of my Dylan fandom, to see what else I can discover about my musical companion of 44 years. 1. “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” to Blonde on Blonde I loved everything about Blonde on Blonde, from the slightly out-of-focus portrait on the cover (right), to the twang and rasp in Dylan’s voice, to the range of emotion, to the arrangement of the words. This was so, even though that voice could veer determinedly off-pitch and those word arrangements could be thudding and hackneyed (e.g., the “Jeeze I can’t find my knees” line in “Visions of Johanna”). In one of my favorite songs, “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat,” Dylan’s verses stack up with expertly constructed rhythm to paint a precise portrait of a relationship gone wrong. I played the song for all my friends. I presented the lyrics in my high school poetry class. The song struck me most for its strange combination of spite and yearning. It could not have been so perfectly cutting without the pile-up of compound adjectives—“brand-new” + “leopard-skin” + “pill-box”—Dylan uses to describe and ridicule that hat. At the time, I didn’t know that the song was about anybody in particular. In the Topics connection (above) to Blonde on Blonde, I learned that Edie Sedgwick—famous It girl and Andy Warhol muse—was the subject of Dylan’s bitter love song. He also had her in mind when he penned the regretful words of “Just Like a Woman.” On the “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” Topics page, I’m delighted to see that several of my favorite musicians have covered the song. Beck’s cover is a straightforward garage-band rendition, entertaining enough, but without the deeply neurotic edge that makes Dylan’s meandering rant so poignant. Two giants of the Austin music scene, Guy Forsyth and Carolyn Wonderland, do a raucous bluesy version with new verses. Wonderland, in a stuttering preamble that belies her musical chops, says that Dylan gave her a writing assignment: “He wanted to hear what it would be like if a girl wrote back verses for ‘Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat.’” Wonderland sings a spot-on rejoinder to each original verse Forsyth sings. To the Dylan line “Tell me baby what it feels like to have your head under something like that, your brand-new leopard-skin pill-box hat,” she responds, “I was wondering when I stole it, it might make my eyes look fat, but it feels so darn good sittin’ there, the perfect itch for the perfect scratch.” Dylan approvingly called Wonderland’s interpretation “nasty as shit.” 2. Blonde on Blonde to Bob Dylan World Tour 1966 Ticket stub from a stop in Stockholm, Sweden, during Dylan's world tour. While Dylan was constructing Blonde on Blonde, he toured with a backing band named the Hawks, later known as the Band. Dylan’s sets during that 1966 world tour mixed songs from his established, mostly acoustic repertoire with the charged, amp-driven tunes he had written for the new album—each set starting acoustic and switching to electric halfway. Dylan had performed that controversial trick for the first time at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. Fans were divided: Some booed the switch, others embraced it. During a performance in Liverpool, England, that year, a heckler demanded, “Where’s the poet in you? What’s happened to your conscience?” Dylan responded, “There’s a guy up there looking for a saint.” At the notorious Manchester concert a few weeks later, another fan ran with the religious theme, shouting “Judas!” during a lull in the set. “I don't believe you,” Dylan rejoined. “You’re a liar!” As the opening bars of “Like a Rolling Stone” came in, he instructed his band to “Play it fuckin' loud!” 3. Bob Dylan World Tour 1966 to Bob Dylan and The Band 1974 Tour The booing, the walkouts and the bad reviews during the 1965–66 tour took a toll on Dylan and his band. Hawks lead guitarist Robbie Robertson later remarked, “After those shows we were lonely guys. Nobody wanted to hang out with us.” The Hawks would become the Band, and gain the first measure of fame on their own with the 1968 album Music From Big Pink. By the time they joined Dylan for a two-month tour in 1974, the Band had pressed an additional four albums. This tour, according to the Topics connection, was Dylan’s first since the exhausting jaunt of 1966. The 1974 tour yielded a double live album, Before the Flood, which featured songs by Dylan alone, songs by the Band alone, and songs by the Band backing Dylan. Its enormous success was a testament to the popularity of both acts. Robert Christgau wrote in Creem, “Without qualification, this is the craziest and strongest rock and roll ever recorded. All analogous live albums fall flat.” 4. Bob Dylan and The Band 1974 Tour to Before the Flood In the 1970s, in my hometown near Woodstock, New York, the Band attained a level of renown almost on par with that of Dylan, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell. I missed out on seeing the 1974 tour, and I still regret that each time I spin the concert album Before the Flood. I did, however, get to see the Band in a glorious outdoor show at the Music Inn in Lenox, Massachusetts, just after they finished their tour with Dylan. It was in the days before cell phones, and I have no photos or videos, just age-softened memories of sitting on a blanket in the sunshine and singing along to all the great songs: “The Weight,” “Up on Cripple Creek,” “Ophelia.” Bob Dylan and the Band in Chicago, 1974. Photo courtesy of Jim Summaria. Just two years later, the Band announced their breakup. They played a farewell concert, with many of their great musical contemporaries joining them, including the Staples Singers, Ron Wood, Young, Mitchell and, of course, Dylan. My friends and I attended screenings of the Martin Scorsese–directed concert film The Last Waltz as a pilgrimage. In the audience at the movie theater we cheered as if it were a live show. Feature Photo: Everett Collection

by Amy K. Hughes

May 24, 2016

This Week, in Limerick: Bernie, Bill and Trouble in Brazil

Wednesday, May 18

by James Waller

May 20, 2016

Hey! Ho! Let's Go! The Ramones Return to Queens

At the business end of the Queens Museum’s current Ramones exhibit, Joey Ramone (a.k.a. Jeffrey Hyman) stands almost motionless, his body pitched forward over a microphone like a figurehead on the prow of a ship, leading his raucous craft into a sea of hopping, happy humans. The footage, projected larger than life on a wall, is from a 1977 New Year’s Eve show at London’s Rainbow Theatre—the Ramones’ self-proclaimed “greatest moment as a band” (the soundtrack of which became their concert album, It’s Alive). Take a seat for half an hour (that’s enough time for loads of economical punk songs), next to a case displaying the group’s 2002 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction trophies, while the looped screening provides a fitting, immersive close to Hey! Ho! Let’s Go: Ramones and the Birth of Punk. Coproduced with L.A.’s Grammy Museum (where the show will move to in September), the exhibit celebrates the 40th anniversary of the seminal punks’ self-titled debut album, which contains such groundbreakers as “Blitzkrieg Bop,” “Judy Is a Punk” and “I Don’t Wanna Go Down to the Basement.” I’ve written elsewhere in this blog about my personal history as a Ramones fan. And after living in their home borough of Queens for nearly 20 years, I’m even more proud of them—the singular Ramones, who attempted to save America from Emerson, Lake and Palmer, and whose nonstop shows and joyous noise helped define New York City in the 1970s. This exhibit is, above all, for the fans. The Ramones with Chrissie Hynde and Captain Sensible, 1976. Photo by Danny Fields. It begins with a specially commissioned map by Punk magazine cofounder John Holmstrom, charting the Ramones’ path from Queens to CBGB, the Bowery’s ground zero for punk rock. The background music playing in the galleries is from a Ramones demo, circa 1975, the typewritten cover letter of which, written by then-manager and drummer Tommy Ramone (né Erdelyi), describes the band’s origins in Forest Hills. Explaining that the “kids who grew up there either became musicians, degenerates or dentists,” the letter astutely concludes, “The Ramones are a little of each. Their sound is not unlike a fast drill on a rear molar.” This first gallery also contains early family photos of all four original members, including shots of Johnny (né Cummings) in the military school he attended before Forest Hills High, along with report cards for Dee Dee Ramone (Douglas Colvin) and Joey, who, according to his teachers, did “not function as a member of class.” Cover for Punk #3, 1976. Drawing by John Holmstrom. Courtesy of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame/Queens Museum. The show perforce displays plenty of Ramones memorabilia. You’ll see tour badges, visa applications, passport photos, riders, stage-setup schematics. There are magazine articles and pictorials, including the iconic 1976 Punk magazine cover (right) featuring Joey Ramone illustrated à la Edward Gorey, lurking on an urban street corner. There’s no shortage of the band’s vintage stage equipment and props: Marshall stacks, Rickenbacker and custom Mosrite guitars, Schott leathers, Buckwheat and Uncle Floyd Show tees, fingerless gloves and torn Chuck Taylors, as well as a Pinhead mask, gown and “Gabba Gabba Hey” sign (with attendant inspirational banner from the Coney Island Side Show). Gracing the walls are photos by Bob Gruen, Mick Rock and early Ramones manager Danny Fields, along with every album cover, dozens of posters and promo shirts, and a “merch table” case including everything from button packs to a logo-emblazoned cloth purse from Japanese brand Hysteric Glamour. Other corners feature the group as depicted in cartoons, notably some by Mad magazine’s Sergio Aragones and an original cel from the band’s 1993 birthday serenade for The Simpsons’ Mr. Burns. Video stations are set up for personal listening and feature the trailer for perhaps the most adorable musical film ever, 1979’s Rock and Roll High School, starring the Ramones. Joey Ramone, 2015. Mixed media (stencil, silkscreen and collage) on canvas. Art by Shepard Fairey. Additional sections show the band’s life on the web, with fans’ Pinterest pages and Tumblr posts, seemingly incongruous photos of such celebrities as Elijah Wood wearing Ramones T-shirts, and evidence of those keeping the flame alive, such as all-female Ramones tribute band the Hormones. There are original portrait tributes by artists Shepard Fairey (above), Mark Kostabi and Yoshitomo Nara, as well as original paintings by Dee Dee and humorous, intricate drawings by Joey. The show especially spotlights the work of Ramones art director Arturo Vega, creator of the iconic Ramones eagle crest logo. A photograph of Vega late in life shows the artist’s back, tattooed with a version of the famous crest that includes his own name along with those of the boys. None of the founding Ramones survives today. Joey, whose birthday we celebrate on May 19, died of lymphoma in 2001, and Tommy’s was the most recent loss, in 2014. You’d be hard-pressed to find a better way to commemorate their lives and influence than by visiting this show in the borough they enshrined in song. How about just “Sitting here in Queens / Eating refried beans / We’re in all the magazines / Gulpin’ down Thorazines.…” Hey! Ho! Let’s Go: Ramones and the Birth of Punk is on view at the Queens Museum through July 31. Photos courtesy of Queens Museum

by Camille Cauti

May 19, 2016







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