Friday, October 28, 2011

Alondra Nelson: Health care and the 99 percent

The Black Panther Party's 40th reunion in 2006 in Oakland, California. October 2011 marks the 45th anniversary of The Black Panther Party's founding. From the beginning of today's Occupy Wall Street movement, Alondra Nelson argues, activists have raised the issue of health-care reform with underappreciated deliberation in a manner that also suggests the influence of prior African-American activism. Image from Creative Commons, copyright MDCV@ 10/15/2006.

Associate professor of sociology at Columbia University

The Occupy movement has been a mostly peaceful campaign. At the same time, it has not been without drama, ranging from the protesters’ riotous parade of signage to raucous street theater.

Prior to the violent turn of recent days, when members of the Oakland police department shot tear gas and rubber bullets at the city’s occupiers, one of the Occupation’s most climactic moments involved civil rights paragon Reverend Jesse Jackson. On the evening of October 17, Jackson joined arms with the Zuccotti Park protesters to block the NYPD’s efforts to dismantle the OWS medical tent as the world watched via Twitter and Ustream. When this tense standoff was over, an interracial, inter-generational phalanx of activists had successfully bent the course of a determined thin blue line.

This moment literally and metaphorically linked civil rights activism to the contentious politics of today’s Occupy movement. Playing out over the fate of the protesters’ medical tent, the episode also shined a light on one of the lesser-noted dimensions of both the Occupy movement—its health politics—and how the civil rights movement offered a template for it.

From the beginning, activists raised the issue of healthcare reform with underappreciated deliberation. Healthcare issues were foundational to the OWS protests and those that soon followed across the globe. As Washington Post columnist Ezra Klein observed, close to half of the 500-plus posts published on We Are the 99 Percent between August and early September mentioned “health concerns,” from “the cost of medication to forgoing treatment to treatment denials,” as their chief complaint. Although some have criticized the Occupy movement for lacking a focused message, these activists have a clear understanding of the many facets of health inequality.

Moreover, the centrality of concerns about health and medicine in the Occupy movement are apparent in the very topography of the activists’ ad-hoc communities. Medical tents like the red-cross emblazoned one that served as the backdrop for the OWS confrontation are cornerstones of Occupy encampments. These makeshift medical clinics comprise part of the social infrastructure that has sustained the OWS these many weeks, alongside multi-platform communication networks, People’s libraries, and community kitchens. The tents also suggest the influence of prior African-American activism: Zuccotti Park has been renamed Liberty Park, just as the Black Panther Party renamed Oakland’s Defremery Park after Bobby Hutton—one of the first members of the Party. Here and in their clinics, the black radicals dispensed healthcare services and health outreach and education.

The Occupy medical tents are stocked with donated supplies and “a broad array of remedies.” And they operate through volunteer efforts, including those of health professionals who count themselves among the ranks of the Occupy movement. At OWS, a rotation of about two dozen medical volunteers including doctors, nurses, lifeguards, and EMTs provides round-the-clock care. Patricia Hughes, a home care nurse, served as Occupy Denver’s primary medic before she and others were ousted from their medical tent in that city’s Lincoln Park after just two weeks. In some instances the Occupy medics also fill “healthcare gaps” among the protesters themselves. Maria Fehlig, a nurse who traveled from Las Vegas to New York to work on the OWS effort, said that they treat protesters “who otherwise have not sought out healthcare in five, six years because they have no insurance.”

Hughes and other volunteers served as the principle source of medical services for their fellow activists. Like the black and white health activists who participated in 1964’s Freedom Summer, Occupy health volunteers observed and quickly responded to the unmet healthcare needs of the local community. During the civil rights movement, H. Jack Geiger, Alvin Poussaint, and others established free clinics in poor southern neighborhoods; Occupy Denver dispensed basic healthcare to the city’s homeless population.

The Occupy healthcare corps includes a group of street medics that trace their efforts to the civil rights movement and claim affiliation with the decentralized hacker group Anonymous. AnonMedics is working with the Occupy efforts in Oakland, Berkeley, San Francisco, and in the “Deep South.” Although Occupy Atlanta did not allow civil rights pioneer Representative John Lewis to speak at its general assembly, the AnonMedics explicitly declare that they were inspired by the antiwar and anti-racist activism of the 1960s and 1970s: “Street medics are not a new concept. Originally seen during the African-American Civil Rights Movement and the protests against the Vietnam War, street medics are volunteer activists who attend political actions equipped with the knowledge and inventory necessary to give medical aid to protesters and civilians in need.”

Like the Medical Committee for Human Rights that was the “medical arm of the civil rights movement,” AnonMedics’ mission is to provide care for injured protesters. The group’s primer includes instructions on how to treat exposure to tear gas and pepper spray. They were on the scene in Oakland on Tuesday night when dozens, including Iraq War veteran Scott Thomas Olsen, were injured in confrontations with police.

Other health workers involved in the Occupy movement have taken to the streets, rather than working in the medical tents. In New York City, physicians from Montefiore Hospital, including a group that calls itself Doctors for the 99 Percent, marched with signs that read “Health not Wealth.” One of the doctors was Arash Nafisi, an internist at Montefiore. Nafasi explained to Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman that healthcare matters were “one part of the struggle, one part of the fight. We believe in healthcare for all just like people here believe in housing for all and all sorts of other rights.” Magni Hansel, a primary care specialist at Montefiore, told Goodman that there was a connection between income inequality, health inequality, and medical ineffectiveness: “people are unable to afford their medicines . . . people are unable to deal with their health issues because they’re dealing with housing; they’re dealing with jobs.” Doctors and nurses marched on Wall Street again last weekend.

The issue of health writ large lies at the center of the Occupy movement. Rich in its own health politics, the civil rights movement is one tributary of influence for this recent wave of protest. The activists seek accessible medical services and affordable health insurance. They have asserted the value of life over profit and a right to healthcare. To say that the Occupy activists have no message is to ignore the panoply of efforts in play to supply healthcare to the 99 percent, now and into the future.

This post also appears in Dissent Magazine.


Alondra Nelson is associate professor of sociology at Columbia University, where she also holds an appointment in the Institute for Research on Women and Gender. She is author of Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight against Medical Discrimination.

"In Body and Soul, Alondra Nelson combines careful research, deep political insight, and passionate commitment to tell the little-known story of the Black Panther Party's health activism in the late 1960s. In doing so, and in showing how the problems of poverty, discrimination, and access to medical care remain hauntingly similar more than forty years later, Nelson reminds us that the struggle continues, particularly for African Americans, and that social policies have profound moral implications."
—Rebecca Skloot, author of
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

"This book is a revelation. Alondra Nelson uncovers two remarkable histories in Body and Soul. First, she provides the deep context for our current conversation about the health disparities that plague the African-American community and that are, as she puts it, ‘quite literally sickening.’ Second, she adds immeasurably to our knowledge of the Black Panther Party, complicating its commonplace designation as a radical, militant organization to unearth its dedication and hard work in advocating for and providing equal and quality health care for even the most underserved African Americans. Nelson is the first scholar I know of to bring these two histories into dialogue with each other, and she does so with spectacular results. This is a tremendously important book."
—Henry Louis Gates Jr., Harvard University

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Richard Lindberg: My Swedish Family, My American Life

A young Richard Lindberg poses with his father, Oscar, and Oscar's 1959 Lincoln. Richard's new memoir, Whiskey Breakfast, is a tale of his own experiences in often turbulent times.

"The longest journey of any person is the journey inward."
—Dag Hammarskj√∂ld (1905-1961)


Twenty-two years ago I had an idea for a book about my enigmatic father, the radical socialist Oscar Lindberg. It would be a book that blends memoir with a history of Swedish immigration to Chicago framed through the lens of two disparate families, those of my mother and my father. I had invented a title for this book back in 1989 – Whiskey Breakfast – then fretted that some other author would take it. Thankfully, that did not happen.

I am a Chicago writer, and the author of 15 earlier books dealing with politics, history, sports, true crime and ethnicity, all revolving around the city I have lived in all my life; a city I have come to cherish and revile, a city of great contradiction, but what a wonderful setting in which to write!

I have been writing since the age of eleven, when I began the lifelong practice of keeping a diary—a habit inspired by reading The Diary of Anne Frank in the sixth grade at Onahan School on Chicago’s far Northwest side. Those were troubling and sad years for me. I am the product of a broken home. My father, Oscar, was a Swedish socialist born in 1897. He was 56 when I first saw the light of day in 1953. He had emigrated here in 1924, ostensibly as a personal revolt against the Swedish military draft. In truth, he fled Mother Sweden for altogether different reasons, which remained hidden from my view until after his death in 1986. He had sired two children and abandoned them in Sweden. The impoverished mother of the boy Osborn (born just a few days after Oscar sailed for America in November 1924) had no money to care for the sickly child, who died in an orphanage before his first birthday. The other half-brother, I discovered between two journeys to Sweden, died before his fifth birthday, killed on a construction site. Did my father suffer any pains of conscience for turning his back in so cavalier a manner? Throughout his life, he gave no indication of any lingering regret.

The nuptials of Richard's parents, Oscar Lindberg and Helen Marie
Stone (middle), 1958.
My father was married four times. He was once a widower and twice divorced before settling in with his fourth and final wife in 1967. I was his second U.S.-born son, and my mother, Helen Marie Stone, was his third wife. She grew up on Clark Street – Chicago’s last Swedetown. Inside Simon’s Tavern on Clark Street, a relic of the Depression Era that still serves the neighborhood people, my mother’s father, Richard Stone, brokered the marriage of Helen to my father—a marriage she never really wanted.

Duty and obligation beckoned. Her family was poor, but my father was older and gave the appearance of being quite wealthy. He built fashionable homes up and down Chicago’s North Shore as he buried his family secrets and presented a veneer of probity, respectability, and good business sense. Privately, his radical Swedish socialism belied his lifestyle of conspicuous consumption in Skokie, Illinois, an affluent suburb north of Chicago. My mother suffered an unhappy seven-year marriage that ended disastrously.

This is the backdrop of Whiskey Breakfast, a painful and haunting echo of the past; divorce, alcoholism, lives torn asunder, and my own experiences in turbulent times. Oh yes, Onahan School.

Wither Onahan.

I was a student there from 1958-1967. And in so many ways the pain and the hurt of being the school pariah, bullied, hectored and terrorized for eight full years shaped much of my outlook on life to the point where I never wanted to have children of my own. Nowadays we hear a lot about “cyber bullying.” Educators are much more on guard today and are better prepared to deal with this once-neglected form of child abuse – peer abuse. It wasn’t so back then and my childhood was destroyed by cruel, thoughtless and heartless children who revealed the ugly prejudices of the adult world in shocking ways. I will never forget that my champion, a Jewish girl named Marcy, was ridiculed and shunned by the more popular girls in our class for being the only Jewish girl in the school. For Marcy and me, the bullies penned their customized “slam books” – listing the 50 reasons why they hated us, and then circulated them around the class for everyone to sign. What kind of irrational hatred inspires such rabid behavior in young children? Where do they learn it from?

I have often wished that I could sit down one-on-one, as adults, with the worst of my youthful tormenters just to ask them, “Why?” What would they say to me today? How often I wonder.

Whiskey Breakfast discusses bullying within the context of growing up. Perhaps, hopefully, it may offer some fresh new insights for parents today who struggle to build up shattered self-esteem in children who suffer these same tortures. Whiskey Breakfast is also a trilogy; it is Oscar’s story, Richard Stone’s story and finally, the account of my life bearing witness to the family travail. It is my most important work, the centerpiece of my career.

I have re-written the manuscript at least four times over the 22 years. It had gone through a round of rejections in New York (beautifully written, they said, but “way too regional”); a harrowing and truly bizarre event in which I was promised publication by a large commercial publishing house by a longtime con in 2001; my having developed prostate cancer (which is, thankfully, in remission) in 2008; and nearly seven years of having been under contract and seeing the manuscript through edits and re-edits. Finally, after almost two decades since I first put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard, if you will), it was and is finally, officially, in motion.

The odyssey to publication was long. I do not really know what future direction my book writing career will take me in, but perhaps when all is said and done, maybe this deserves a sequel.


Richard Lindberg is a the author of fifteen books, including Whiskey Breakfast: My Swedish Family, My American Life. He continues to reside in Chicago.

"Richard Lindberg does not spare himself or his ancestors in this poignant and powerful memoir of his family’s entry to the United States. I was reminded of the great cycle of emigrant novels by Vilhelm Moberg, the noted Swedish novelist I first read and so admired in my youth, who wrote vividly and sometimes brutally of the downtrodden classes of his forebears. Lindberg evokes the same haunted landscape of poverty and superstition from which his ancestors fled to America . . . only to suffer different demons in that new land. In the end his story is a redemptive one of endurance and survival."
—Harry Mark Petrakis

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Mark Amerika: The art of literary mashup

Media theorist, artist, and novelist Mark Amerika explores the book as a live, "liquid" object and uncovers its potential beyond the printed word. Today, he discusses his own research-and-perform methodology as well as a sampling of remix projects that utilize the works of Jack Kerouac, Jacques Derrida, and Sol Lewitt, among others.

Cult novelist, media theorist, web publisher, VJ artist, and professor of art and art history at the University of Colorado at Boulder

One of my collaborators on the new website, Gary Hall, also a University of Minnesota Press author, recently published a blog post entitled "What do we have the right not to call a 'book'?". In the post, Hall writes:
What seems much more interesting is the way certain developments in electronic publishing contain at least the potential for us to perceive the book as something that is not completely fixed, stable and unified, with definite limits and clear material edges, but as liquid and living, open to being continually and collaboratively written, edited, annotated, critiqued, updated, shared, supplemented, revised, re-ordered, reiterated and remained.

This description of the emerging forms of what we might refer to as a book per se, directly applies to the recent appearance of remixthebook, my new hybridized print / web / publication / digital / performance of contemporary art theory. The professionally edited and designed print component is something I am proud of and is clearly situated within the cutting-edge editorial direction of this prestigious press. The UMP editorial and marketing team were very excited by and encouraged the development of the digital / web / performance aspects of the Web site and its array of innovative remix contributions that further expand the concepts of experimental writing and publishing in digital culture.

Isarithm from remixthebook on Vimeo.

But what exactly is the print book composed of and how does it relate to the digital remixes found on

The print book is an extended remix of source material found in my improvised blog posts from the Professor VJ blog which, during the years 2006-2010, I approached primarily as a publishing vehicle to distribute what I refer to as my spontaneous theoretical performances. These performances are similar to the kind of "cite-specific" scholarly writings associated with innovative academic essays that mimic the rhetorical style we find in works like Derrida's Glas, or Avital Ronnel's The Telephone Book, but I flip the script by no longer prioritizing the print-centric mentality of the expert scholar who feels the need to conform to a particular academic standard and instead put into play a research-and-perform methodology that I refer to as surf-sample-manipulate (S-S-M). With S-S-M, I surf the net for useful source material, sample the bits that resonate most with the rhetorical flow being captured as part of my realtime theoretical performance, and manipulate that improvisationally sampled source material as part of a live, online remix that uses theory as a trigger inference.

This notion of the trigger inference is something that Amiri Baraka (as LeRoi Jones) refers to when writing about the spontaneous bop prose of Jack Keroauc. My hope is that this more fluid, experimental, and digitally networked use of source material as part of an ongoing — what Hall refers to as "living" and "liquid" — writing and publishing performance, will open up contemporary theoretical discourse to other anti-disciplinary artists who are just as stimulated by contemporary thinkers as any tenured humanist might be [anti-disciplinary = antiauthoritarian + interdisciplinary].

This is where comes in. It was a total blast putting the whole thing together and features many different remixes of the source material generated around the remixthebook project. For example, I lifted a lot of the theoretical maxims distributed within the print version of the book and then filtered them through what we might call the "Sol Lewitt 'Sentences on Conceptual Art'" format. Lewitt wrote his famous mock-manifesto of that title in 1969. In this now classic work of conceptual art writing, Lewitt published thirty-five sentences in all, with phrases like "Banal ideas cannot be rescued by beautiful execution." Instead of remixing his actual words per se, I decided to remix his style and formatting, and wrote "Sentences on Remixology 1.0" -- and then I video recorded myself delivering those lines in front of a green screen thus producing both more audio and video source material for further manipulation. Various versions and remixes of this multimedia data — the text, video, audio — were then sent to an internationally distributed network of artists, theorists, musicians and anti-disciplinary remixers. The result of this network distributed remix jam session is the compilation of multimedia art and language works on the site.

remixthebook Video Book Trailer (Extended Play Remix) from remixthebook on Vimeo.

Is the video above, made available for free via Vimeo, still a part of my "book"? How could it be mine? And what about the notion of authorship? Are the theoretical performances in the print book all mine and the remixes found on the site merely supplemental to the what appears to be bound by copyright? Do the various remixes on the Web site indicate ways to move beyond the print book per se and render it an ancillary object for those who fetishize such things?

In addition to all of the collaborative remixes on the Web site, there is a very experimental version of the syllabus I use for the Remix Culture seminar I teach at Colorado. I put it up there so that others can sample from my ideas and exercises when teaching the book in conjunction with assignments or supplemental readings in courses focused on contemporary forms of postproduction art, collage, appropriation, digital détournement, and remix in general.

In fact, at the book launch in Boulder, one of the grad students I am teaching read a remix of remixthebook for me, and for himself. I think if students are given a chance to actually play with and perform (i.e. embody) theory in live and/or multimedia formats and events, they will build a closer relationship to theory's source material and its inherent potential to trigger thoughts that enable them to see the world anew.

An Artist Yapping About Art X 4 from remixthebook on Vimeo.


Mark Amerika is author of many books, among them The Kafka Chronicles, Sexual Blood, META/DATA: A Digital Poetics, and most recently, remixthebook. His artwork has been exhibited in several national and international venues, and his literary writing and artwork have been featured in Times Magazine, the New York Times, and the Guardian, among others. He is professor of art and art history at the University of Colorado at Boulder and principal research fellow of media studies at La Trobe University. You can find more information at

"Think of remixthebook as DJ Tool made from rhythms downloaded, ripped, mixed, spliced, diced, and burned into our collective hard drives, then re-uploaded. It's a piece of conceptual hardware that exists somewhere between how we experience information and how information aesthetics has transformed the human condition. It's that deep."
—Paul D. Miller aka DJ Spooky, That Subliminal Kid

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

194X and 9/11: Are the repercussions really that easy to compare?

A Zurn plumbing pamphlet features men planning for 194X. An exhibit at MoMA has chosen to tackle the ways in which the post-9/11 era might mirror 194X in terms of architectural revolution. (Image from A New Era of Building is Only Marking Time, Erie, Penn., J.A. Zurn Manufacturing Company, 1944.)

Assistant professor of architectural history, University of California, Berkeley

The current MoMA exhibit “194X-9/11: American Architects and the City” uses the conceit of the temporal divide to frame an exhibition of mostly urban projects by major figures, from Mies van der Rohe to Rem Koolhaas.

194X – the unknown date of the end of World War II – was a pivotal moment in the development of architecture and urbanism in the United States, and in particular of their relationship to each other. In this moment of anticipation, after more than a decade of being beaten down by the Depression and war, architects awaited a building boom: V-Day would also be B-Day, or Building Day, when all of their forestalled dreams and desires would be unleashed in a frenzy of development. The same conditions led architects to believe that the domain and scale of practice had shifted. Henceforth, many leading architects believed, the profession would concentrate on larger planning issues. The master architect would become a master planner and the city and not the individual building would be the main focus of design. As befits the sloganeering of magazines that used the term 194X, some of the most progressive architectural and urban thinking was laminated onto consumer culture.

While the MoMA show takes its cue from one of four wartime issues of Architectural Forum that used 194X, as a group they demonstrate a shift in thinking from the house to housing to neighborhood planning and finally to comprehensive urban planning, all between late 1942 and the end of 1944. Cities, once unimaginable as objects of consumption, were placed side-by-side with lawn mowers, toasters, kitchens, and houses. The MoMA show has little to say about these realities, but they are at the heart of how architecture changed after the war.

There is a measure of bathos in celebrating the decennial of 9/11 with a show pairing it with 194X. While New Yorkers have been obsessed with the architectural ramifications of the destruction caused on 9/11, unlike 194X, it is largely a local issue – focused on 16 acres in Lower Manhattan – but given national exposure through the prominence of the New York Times and the high profile of the city. Of course, many have observed the unfathomably complex politics behind rebuilding the site and some of the world’s most famous architects and urbanists have been engaged on it. There is also a small library of writing about it. This is understandable. The wounds are still fresh, the hole still visible, the architectural possibilities still open-ended. MoMA is, after all, a museum, and it is prescient to take measure of the site at ten years’ distance.

Still, in sixty-five years – the distance we are from the end of 194X – the coupling will appear comically asymmetrical. There is absolutely no connection between 194X and 9/11. We might allow that they share the phenomenon of temporality, of a hinge-event after which the dimensions of architectural thinking and practice shift irreversibly. For 194X, this is certainly true. We shall not know for some time if 9/11, which has profoundly altered the nation economically and politically, has had any meaningful architectural or urban dimension. In this way, the show is premature, less an intellectually defensible move than a way for the museum to juxtapose compelling individual projects by the leading lights of modern architecture in a rather long string of decades.

An alternative tack would have been to take temporality more seriously as the intellectual spine of the show and propose any number of divides, including 1929, 194X, 1984, 9/11 and Y2K. This would allow an understanding of how changes in consciousness that come with pivotal dates alter the built environment. There is a rich literature on the power of dates and the temporal imagination. With the exception of a few attempts to see how this plays out in architecture, the field is still wide open.


Andrew M. Shanken is assistant professor of architectural history at the University of California, Berkeley. His work has appeared in numerous publications, including Art Bulletin, Design Issues, Landscape, Places and Planning Perspectives. He is author of 194X: Architecture, Planning, and Consumer Culture on the American Home Front.

"Andrew Shanken offers a fascinating, compelling, and altogether convincing new lens for understanding the burst of creative and visionary design that accompanied America's engagement in the Second World War. Situating this ephemeral moment in relationship to forgotten economic mantras of the ‘mature economy’ and the end of frontier, Shanken provides a whole new framework for understanding American modernism and a bittersweet analysis of the country's brief faith in a planned future."
—Barry Bergdoll

"If Shanken’s book sheds light on an important moment in American architecture, it also offers a thoughtful frame for considering the state of contemporary culture."
—Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians

Monday, October 10, 2011

Peter Smith's Lesser Horrors: Welcome to Dullsville.

Advertising may not seem like a dull business, but it sure has its mind-numbingly dull moments. As in Peter Smith's early ad-agency job.

This is the final installment of Peter Smith's series of "Lesser Horrors." Missed his previous entries? You can catch them here.


Lesser Horror: Any glimmer, thought, or memory from one’s personal past that for whatever reason causes a small, brief but recurring episode of psychic pain or piquancy.

Author and MPR contributor

It was a big, mediocre, post prime advertising agency full of has-beens and never-weres. And politicians. And people slumping under the weight of their consciences. We had, each and all, sold out.

We specialized in big accounts, and our clients came to meetings stacked five or six levels high—from lackey to product manager to marketing manager to senior marketing manager—all the way up to senior VP of marketing.

We matched them lackey for lackey, manager for manager, VP for VP until the long tables in the big conference rooms (there were several) were full, and the walls lined with overflow people sitting attentively, pens and pads poised. Meetings were our most important product.

There was always an overhead projector at one end of the table. Crisply starched agency people paraded up to it, one after another, showing charts and graphs.

Sales trends. Competitive spending analyses. Demographics. Psychographics. How many target viewers the spot would reach. How many times each viewer would see it. Eisenhower pulled off D-Day with a smaller staff and less information.

We simply wanted to sell more. More Golden Grahams. More Toro snow blowers. More Northwest Airlines passenger miles and Honeywell thermostats. More Northwestern National Bank Certificates of Deposit. More of any of the products and services of the big, clunky companies that had come to us for our unique, “Dare to be dull” brand of advertising.

We were known for our inoffensive, formulaic clutter—for commercials so bland they were basically invisible. Our safe, simplistic one-size-fits-all strategy was to have the client spend millions of additional dollars to air our invisible commercials thousands and thousands of extra times—to win a share of your mind through rote repetition rather than grabbing your attention with riskier, more memorable high profile spots that would get the client’s message across for cents on the media dollar.

We were dull. We were obvious. You could write our kind of crap in your sleep. On the plus side, it paid well. I’d taken the job because I’d thought it was time to cash in. I’d planned to disengage my brain, take the money, and ride the huge profit sharing plan as far as I could.

It was a terrible mistake, and I knew as much when, during orientation that first morning, the human resources lady handed me a company coffee cup with fifteen cents Scotch taped to the bottom.

“It’s for your first cup of coffee,” she said, looking like she’d just spiffed me fifty bucks. “It’s on the company.”

Fifteen cents. A nickel and a dime. Walking past the coffee machine on the way back to my new office, I caught my first glimpse of my new coworkers. They were queued up, company cups and nickels and dimes in hand, waiting for a cup of that nasty, tepid, “fresh brewed” instant the company fobbed off on them. At five that evening, the same people ran—actually ran—to the elevator lobby.

I thought there was a fire.


These people had logged their eight hours in hell. They had buses to catch and lives to resume.

In a matter of days, I had developed an absolute aversion to the place—an indignant sanctimony. What was wrong with these people? Didn’t they owe the client an honest day’s work?

The battle for my advertising soul had begun. I could shut up and join the army of the mindless or I could go out there and try to do what seemed right for the client.

In truth, I could not do either. I was still a young adman in a hurry. I was not ready to simply ride the profit sharing. I couldn’t shame that bunch into action either. The culture of the sold out was too ingrained, and the job of enervating the place into action was too daunting. The weight, torpor and inertia of the place would be impossible to overcome.

The whole shop had seen guys like me come and go before. So they smiled and nodded quite a bit. They didn’t budge, but they smiled and nodded.

Ultimately, I could not shoehorn myself into the organization, and 89 days after I arrived, I departed. I concluded my exit interview with the woman from human resources and ran for the elevator like a veteran employee at closing time.

The coffee was free at the agency where I landed. And, arriving home from the office around 10 PM one night, I found a check in the mail from the big dull agency. It was about forty bucks. The annotation said, “Profit sharing.”


Peter Smith is a thirty-year veteran of Twin Cities advertising and a regular contributor to Morning Edition on Minnesota Public Radio. He is author of A Porch Sofa Almanac and, more recently, A Cavalcade of Lesser Horrors. He blogs at Peter Smith Writes and tweets at @petersmithwrite.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

100 Years: The life and "times" of jazz luminary Papa Jo Jones

“Papa Jo exists on the level of folklore, myth and parable; the cracker-barrel philosopher; teller of tall tales; venerable keeper of our oral traditions.”
—Chip Stern, “Papa Jo Jones.” Modern Drummer, January 1984


Freelance writer (Slate, the Root, and the San Francisco Chronicle, among others), doctoral student at Stony Brook University, and editor of Rifftide: The Life and Opinions of Papa Jo Jones

October 7th, 2011, marks the one-hundredth birthday of Jonathan David Samuel Jones (1911-1985), better known to the world as revolutionary jazz drummer Papa Jo, “the man who played like the wind.” One hundred years after his birth in Chicago, Papa Jo is not forgotten—and never was—but he is also not as well-known as his music and his unique personality warrant. The music he made with Count Basie (for which he is best known), as well as with Billie Holiday, Lester Young, Teddy Wilson, Coleman Hawkins, Ida Cox, Tyree Glenn, Benny Carter, Charles Mingus, Milt Buckner, Bob Brookmeyer, Milt Hinton, and Duke Ellington (not to mention his work as a solo artist) is the epitome of taste, skill, and elegance, and can never be dated, as it rests on a deep historical foundation.

While very much a man of his time and engaged with the issues of his day (and should we mention he referred to himself as a "fashion plate"?), Jo Jones was also like a figure from an earlier era. Among his favorite books were James M. Trotter's Music and Some Highly Musical People (1880) and Reverend William J. Simmons' Men of Mark: Eminent, Progressive and Rising (1887). Papa Jo hoped there would some day be a book on the autistic African American pianist Blind Tom Wiggins (1849-1908), and indeed today there are several about him.

Papa Jo entered show business at age twelve and spent years working on and off in traveling circuses and carnivals. He performed as an actor, dancer, and musician in vaudeville and on the Chautauqua circuit. When the bassist Milt Hinton interviewed Jones for the Smithsonian's Jazz Oral History Project, he was keen to ask about this period. While Hinton was actually a year older than Jones, it seemed to him that Jones had access to a broader and, in many ways, unique historical base of knowledge. Along these lines, Jones told Albert Murray: “The people I'm talking about, I started meeting them from 1923 on up. I had had a head start. By the time when I was like 12 and 13 years old and was meeting these people [in show business], these people were like 45 and 50, 60 years old then.” Jones was fearful about history being lost and adamant that history - particularly African American musical history - must be preserved. And this is the first book about Papa Jo.

Jo Jones was able to use his historical knowledge of music (and culture) to chart new territory. I recently re-listened to the Jones-Murray interviews (featured in Rifftide) and came across one of the very few moments that I regret not including in the book. On a January 1937 studio date with Billie Holiday, Teddy Wilson, Buck Clayton, Walter Page, and Benny Goodman, Goodman quizzically asks Jones where his bass drum is. Jo replies “I don't use it. Sock cymbal, snare drum, that's all. Benny, I ain't supposed to keep time for you!”

(I doubt that those who knew Papa Jo would doubt that the exchange went exactly that way! Of course, Jones didn't mean that he wouldn't keep time at all, but he would do so differently than before, and not on the bass drum.) It is uncanny that in 2011, in an article by Greg Thomas about pianist Bill Charlap in the New York Daily News, Charlap quotes saxophonist and composer Phil Woods expressing the very same idea: “Everybody's gotta be a drummer,” said Woods.

Papa Jo Jones bedazzled many with his outrageous,
volatile personality and his innovative drumming.
Image from Drummerworld.
While the time of day is more or less available by looking at the sky, for centuries time was officially kept, at least in the west, by institutions. Hourly church bells marked off the hours for peasants of medieval Europe toiling in the fields. The advent of privately owned clocks and watches of course parallels many of the developments of the world from the Renaissance until now. Jo Jones had the vision to institute this in a jazz band and to unequivocally tell this to Bennie Moten. (Incidentally, Jones often called Bennie Moten the greatest band leader of all time. It's a long story, but the Count Basie Orchestra was in many ways like “the Bennie Moten band 2.0.”)

Jones's musical achievements are manifold, but what is often described as his signature innovation is that Papa Jo imagined a new way to play time, moving it away from the bass drum and onto the high hat (which he preferred to call a sock cymbal). As the master drummer Michael Carvin said in the trailer for Rifftide, “you touch that hi-hat, that's Papa Jo Jones.” The legendary drummer Roy Haynes recently told me that the Count Basie record that influenced him the most, aside from the Basie standards (“One O'Clock Jump,” “Moten Swing,” “Jumpin' at the Woodside,” “9:20 Special”) was “The World is Mad (Parts I and II).” On “The World is Mad” you can really hear the “woosh” that earned Papa Jo his other famous moniker: “The man who played like the wind.” Needless to say, that was something new and must have sounded completely revolutionary. The reason that the music of the 1920s sounds a little clunky in comparison to that of the 1930s is in many ways because of Jo Jones (though Jones would always give credit the bassist Walter Page for being the architect of the Basie's groundbreaking “All-American Rhythm Section.”)

One of my favorite records (perhaps, secretly, my favorite record) by the Count Basie Orchestra is their rendition of “Five O'Clock Whistle” (1940) in full-tilt swing. A popular number in the early 40s, “Five O’Clock Whistle” is a borderline-silly song sung from the perspective of a young girl whose father is stuck at his factory job in perpetuity because the five o'clock whistle has not sounded. It is a song about institutional time keeping, and there perils thereof, on which Jo Jones showcases the styles with which he backs different instruments. Toward the end of his solo album The Drums (1973), on which he entertainingly narrates the early history of jazz drumming (even describing how to create sound effects for silent films), Jones gives a lesson on how to back all the major jazz instruments. He shows how he changes the sound of the drums to complement the sound of the instrument taking a solo (but without the other instrument actually playing). He had also demonstrated this decades earlier, with other instruments and with great verve, on “Five O'Clock Whistle.” Basie's up-tempo version (without vocals) does not appear to exist on the Internet in its entirety, but Amazon has a long preview. For comparison, here is the version Duke Ellington recorded around the same time (with vocals).

On this slightly corny but sociologically interesting pop song about the nature of time, the Basie band subtracts the vocals, ramps up the tempo and for his part, Jo Jones, an original theorist of musical time, shines in a sort of reversal of the song's theme of being hostage to time as rigidly dictated and defined by someone else. That said, keep in mind that he was a character of Shakespearean boundlessness and complexity. Indeed, like Shakespeare himself, Jo Jones was not for an age but for all time.


Paul Devlin is an English doctoral student and prolific writer. He is editor of Rifftide: The Life and Opinions of Papa Jo Jones, which was assembled from taped interviews Jo Jones did with Albert Murray. It includes an afterword by jazz historian Phil Schaap, a close friend of Papa Jo.

This week, you can tune in to WKCR to the Jo Jones Centennial Festival, which is happening all week through Oct. 8th. You can also tune in to WNYC's Leonard Lopate Show on Friday afternoon, when Paul Devlin will appear on the show. And in November, Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City will host a discussion of Rifftide as part of its "Listening Party" series at 7PM on Thursday, Nov. 17th, 2011. Paul Devlin will be interviewed by Ken Druker, coordinator of educational programming at JALC and host of its "Listening Party" series.

Don't forget to check out that trailer!

"Albert Murray has helped keep the incomparable Jo Jones alive through the voice of Count Basie in Good Morning Blues and fictionally in The Magic Keys, but in Rifftide, thanks to the persistence of editor Paul Devlin, we get to hear Jo himself in all his dynamic, adrenalized, anecdotal, no-bull glory—riffing with words as heartily as he did on the hi-hat."
—Gary Giddins, author of Warning Shadows and Jazz

"Jo Jones, an elegant, swinging dude, always had a style of his own. When he was with us, you could hear him, feel him—everything was right there."
—Count Basie

Monday, October 3, 2011

Peter Smith's Lesser Horrors: "Innocent until proven guilty"? Not if you ask my old seventh-grade principal.

You know that feeling when you're being accused of something, know you're innocent, but still somehow feel vaguely guilty? It's awkward, says Peter Smith, but at least it makes for good writing.

MPR's Peter Smith's series of "Lesser Horrors" will run on Mondays for one month on this blog. Missed his previous entries? You can catch them here.


Lesser Horror: Any glimmer, thought, or memory from one’s personal past that for whatever reason causes a small, brief but recurring episode of psychic pain or piquancy.

Author and MPR contributor

One tedious afternoon in the doldrums of seventh-grade science class, the school principal made a surprise visit and livened things up. He delivered a fiery three-minute soliloquy on the evils of throwing those thick brown paper towels into the urinals in the boys’ lavatory, and he seemed to look directly at me the whole time.

He had it all wrong. I confess I was more than capable of mischief, but this was not my brand. I was innocent. The school janitors had befriended me the way janitors befriend certain kids. I had too much respect for them to go around throwing paper towels in the urinals.

And yet, sitting there, I felt guilty somehow. I had a rich vein of guilt, both warranted and unwarranted, running through my soul, and whatever schoolboy transgression was committed, whoever committed it, part of me always felt I had a hand in it.

Other children sang “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” cheerfully. Not me. I sang it as a dirge in a sulking minor key. To me the song always seemed a confession. An “Okay. I admit it. I have been working on the railroad. There. You got it out of me.”

Back then, the words, “I’ve been…” sung to the same tune afforded an open-ended musical opportunity for me to come clean about wrongdoings I really had committed, if not to the proper authority, then at least to myself.

“I’ve been drinking from the milk jug.”


“I’ve been fighting on the playground.”


“I’ve been smoking in the alley.”


“I’ve been looking at a Playboy.”

Or any of a thousand-thousand other adolescent crimes and misdemeanors. I was always vaguely guilty in my own mind, and in many ways, I remain vaguely guilty to this day.

In fact, I believe there is a clear connection, a symbiosis, between my guilt (real or imagined), my lesser horrors, and my compulsion to write. The guilt fuels the horror. The horror fuels the guilt. The guilt and the horror fuel the writer. It’s a vicious circle; a 24-hour cycle. Guilt-horror-write. Guilt-horror-write.

Maybe other writers can modify this symbiosis and use other peoples’ guilt and horror in lieu of their own. Not me.


I have to draw guilt from my own well and horrify myself with it. It has to be my fault, my fault, my most grievous fault or the words just won’t flow.

Fortunately, in addition to that vein of guilt, I’ve always had a certain simple-but-dishonest smile—almost a smirk on my face with which to refill the well. One look in my direction and any hypersensitive authority figure is apt to think I’m challenging them or that I’m in on some conspiracy or coup. They reflexively check vacant chairs for whoopee cushions. They make mental notes and assign me to pigeonholes labeled “Troublemakers.”

The principal had me in just such a pigeonhole on that long ago afternoon. I looked guilty. That’s all. I just looked guilty.

In truth, he had nearly caught me dead to rights in a number of cases where I actually was guilty. Leaving school to eat lunch at Rudy’s Diner without permission, for example. Or slipping away to buy lunchtime candy at the small, dark Royal Blue Grocery Store.

Perhaps most egregious of all: Buzzy Nereim had shown me a ragged, grainy, pocket-creased magazine photo of a naked woman at the bus stop one morning. She was slightly over the hill, possessed of a certain avoirdupois, and in need of some form of depilation, but she was naked enough to induce a little guilt. Which I suppressed.

A teacher caught Buzzy with the photo later that day, and the principal broke him down quickly. In a matter of minutes, Buzzy Nereim denounced me.

The principal summoned me via the public address system and I took the long, lonesome walk through the empty halls to the office, where the school secretary waved me into the inner sanctum.

I did not break. I denied it all. And when I got through denying it, I denied it all again. And again. Word of the event never reached home.

So I will forgive the principal for suspecting me in the Paper Towels in the Urinals Caper. In his defense, I will remain eternally and deliberately guilty of something.

How else can I possibly continue to write?


Peter Smith is a thirty-year veteran of Twin Cities advertising and a regular contributor to Morning Edition on Minnesota Public Radio. He is author of A Porch Sofa Almanac and, more recently, A Cavalcade of Lesser Horrors. He blogs at Peter Smith Writes and tweets at @petersmithwrite.