The Big Lookback: Ghost Dance

The struggle to make sense of how things felt — and sounded — 20 years ago


The 9/11 bombings fucked me up, as they did every New Yorker I know. On that date I was still posting to the National Arts Journalism Program’s ARTicles blog, where on September 8 I put up an appreciation of musicologist Christopher Small. There wouldn’t be another post till November 26, and it wasn’t just me—soon ARTicles itself bit the dust. But of course I still had a job at The Village Voice, an emotionally sustaining one at that, and by October I was staying alive by clubbing at a furious clip abetted by the rescheduled CMJ Music Marathon: among many others Cachaito Lopez, the Ass Ponys, Joe Strummer, Burnt Sugar, Clinic with their eerie face-mask shtick, several times the Moldy Peaches who I’d spent September 10 with, and the Coup, whose excellent Party Music came out late because they they felt moved to change a no longer metaphorical cover that depicted Boots Riley and Pam the Funkstress blowing up, true story, the World Trade Center.

I began my 9/11 at around 8:45 by walking over to 11th Street, where I was surprised to see a rubber-coated firefighter emerging from a tenement, to move my car to 12th. Then I got on my bike to deliver something to my daughter’s pediatrician on Broadway north of Canal. There I learned from a pool of people on the sidewalk that not one but two planes had struck not one but two WTC towers. In the minute or two I stood there stunned before racing uptown, I flashed first on Al Qaeda, who I knew had bombed the S.S. Cole a year before, then Iraq, which I knew the Cheney-Rumsfeld-Bush troika would do everything they could to blame. It took Carola and me hours to determine that students couldn’t leave Nina’s Long Island City high school without a guardian, whereupon I peddled uptown with every quarter in the house in my pocket—we’d never bothered to get a cellphone. On the crammed Queensborough Bridge younger pedestrians helped me hoist my bike from walkway to roadway. Nina was one of the last students to be fetched from her school. We watched TV in the Piccarellas’ house in Astoria until no one could stand it anymore and took the 7 train home when the subways went back up that evening.

While I was being a dad, Voice editor Don Forst had literally stopped the presses so that theater critic Alisa Solomon, who’d not only witnessed the south tower get hit as she emerged from the Chambers Street subway but had the presence of mind to get contact info from a nearby photographer, could get her saga into the issue that had already been put to bed. But next day I was back at work, where I made myself useful by biking over to a firehouse on 2nd Street to research what we weren’t yet declaring an obit about punk rocker Johnny Heff of the Bullys, who worked as a firefighter like my own dad—presumably the very guy I’d glimpsed on 11th Street the morning before. It included a punk-flavored screed from from the band’s website that began: “The government of Afghanistan, is waging a war against women. Where the fuck is Afghanistan? I gotta get a fricken map for that one. Anyway, it must be one tuff motherfucker to wage a war against chicks, huh?”

But that tiny contribution to the Voice’s coverage was just delaying the inevitable—the column I had due for the issue that would go to bed September 18. I had no idea what I could say until the Web radio show the Voice had me doing provided a frame for the labor of pain that is this month’s Big Lookback, “Ghost Dance.” Wondering how that music would sound now, I playlisted the songs it mentions. Except for the quickly deleted “Rock and Roll Nigger,” which sounded even worse than I’d feared and which I doubt I included in my show, it still proved tremendously evocative. Muslim-Christian Ivoirian-Rastafarian Alpha Blondy, antiwar noise-bomber Lemmy Kilmister, leftwing punks the Clash, leftwing Christian Bruce Cockburn, Sufi healer Orüj Güvenç, and uxorious atheist John Lennon still contextualize the unhinged, accidentally apposite transformation of waste that is Patti Smith’s Easter.

“Ghost Dance” is the keystone of a section of my Is It Still Good to Ya? collection called “Millennium,” which leads with “Music From a Desert Storm,” originally “A Little War Music,” a thoroughly researched 1991 piece about the music of what was tragically and disastrously only the first Iraq war. The section also includes essays on the Moldy Peaches, Steve Earle, Youssou N’Dour, and M.I.A. It’s followed by an African section that ends in Mali with a piece I retitled “Music From a Desert War.” At the 2001 CMJ, which was supposed to begin September 12 but got put off a month, I chaired a 9/11 panel that included Danny Goldberg, Joe Levy, Tom Calderone of MTV, Iraqi-American journalist Lorraine Ali, Israeli-born techno artist Raz Mesinai, and Iraqi-Cuban bizzer Fabian Alsultany. My opening remarks, during which I teared up, were considerably less impressionistic than “Ghost Dance,” as was the CMJ column I later published in the Voice.

Wednesday there was e-mail from Jessica Hopper of Hyper PR in Chicago, apologizing for having to tell us where her bands were headed now that CMJ had been postponed. “Nothing like profound tragedy to make our myopic punk rock world and scene squabbles seem truly meaningless,” she began, struggling like everyone else for language that would grab and hold. “We’re planning to donate the cost of our unused seats out to CMJ to the Red Cross and various rescue funds. It’s hard to know what to do, a feeling I’m sure everyone can identify with.” Perhaps it was because I’d learned from Charles Cross’s Heavier Than Heaven that Hopper was staying in Kurt Cobain’s house the morning Cobain shot himself (undetected, in a separate building) that I found her use of the exhausted, inescapable “tragedy” so much more striking than that of, say, Justin Timberlake, who seemed every bit as honorable and distraught. I mean, this woman had some expertise—Cobain’s death was a profound tragedy too. But the difference in scale is qualitative. Rock and roll overcame tragedy in Cobain’s music as surely as tragedy overcame rock and roll in his life. This time, it’s tragedy in a clean sweep.

Talk blues till you’re blue in the face, cite all the music we love that has a darkness to it, and rock and roll still remains a uniquely American reproach and alternative to what a European existentialist long ago dubbed the tragic sense of life. Invented by and for teenagers in a time of runaway plenty, it’s not blues by a longshot, and from Chuck Berry to the Beatles to the Ramones to Madonna to OutKast a fair share of its masters have made extinguishing darkness their lifework. They come in knowing that love hurts and everybody dies, but they have the inner confidence to remember there’s more to life, and to prove it. The music’s confidence—in addition to its deeply democratic form, its African slant on melody and rhythm, and its Cadillacs with cherries on top—was why rock and roll took over a Europe that was only a decade past World War II. We were too, of course. But our mainland hadn’t been attacked by a hostile power since 1814. War had never endangered our lives, ravaged our world, happened in front of our eyes. Now, as we count our dead, adjust our expectations, replay those crumbling towers in our minds, and prepare for horrors to come, it has. Tragic-sense-of-lifers like to grant the Bomb a crucial role in rock and roll consciousness. I’ve always suspected that was liberal rhetoric, that at most ‘50s nuclear fantasies added edge and flavor. Now I’m sure of it. Our inner confidence, if it’s there at all anymore, will never sound the same. If I live long enough, I’ll finally have something to get nostalgic about.

Of course, what made the confidence doubly winning was its commonness—its commitment to music/language at its most vernacular. That’s why the worst flatline of our president’s Oval Office chat the night of the attack came when he avoided the King James version of the 23rd Psalm for one of the Business Writing 1 translations that palliate well-heeled fundamentalism all over suburbia. “The folks who did this” was mind-boggling enough. But how could even George W. have imagined that “You are with me” would get anyone’s heart beating like “Thou art with me”? Just when we needed a jolt of moral certitude, the glad-handing frat boy grayed out like the policy wonk we wish he was. We vernacular fans can see the connection between “the folks who did this” and the hard-wired rootsiness that afflicts a gamut of fools from Pete Seeger to Lee Greenwood, just as we can connect “You are with me” to L.A./Stockholm megapop. And I hope we sense that in this time of unprecedented trouble the long-impacted grandeur of “Thou art with me” is the kind of vernacular we need. As a Bible-believing Christian turned convinced atheist, I never miss a chance to shout that rock and roll is secular music. But that hardly means it doesn’t have religious sources or express religious feelings. I know, religious feelings got us into this hell. And I can now guarantee that there are atheists in the valley of the shadow of death. I doubt there was anyone without religious feelings last week. Death is every atheist’s window on the eternal.

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I hadn’t yet pinned this down Tuesday when I finished retrieving my daughter from school in Queens. But I already knew I wanted to begin my next show on the Voice’s fledgling Web radio station with the atheist’s hymn: from “God is a concept by which we measure our pain” to “I don’t believe in . . . ,” John Lennon’s “God” summed up a mood, and for Carola and me that was reality. Soon I figured out where I’d end, too: with Sufi shaikh and Istanbul medical professor Orüj Güvenç chanting “Bismillah ar-Rahman,” one of the names of God. But though devising a playlist was the only way I could think of to pretend I had a use in the world without confronting my own inanity, finding the right songs was a lot harder than it was during the attack’s geopolitical cause and CNN forerunner, the Gulf War. “What’s Going On” seemed way corny, and “From a Distance,” unfortunately, was no longer an apposite metaphor. This was a time for some of the rage music that I love as art and rarely need in life. Punk for sure, “Hate and War,” but before I even got there I was on the only metal band I care for deep down, Motorhead.

“Bomber” is a classic piece of hard rock power-mongering, identifying with the thing it loves and hates: “Scream a thousand miles/Feel the black death rising moan/Firestorm coming closer/Napalm to the bone/Because you know we do it right/A mission every night/It’s a bomber/It’s a bomber/It’s a bomber.” But it doesn’t vaunt itself the way metal usually does—it’s too fast, too crude, too prole. And though the poorly read might get the impression Lemmy thinks napalm is cool because he too attacks every night, he doesn’t—the only reason Motorhead fans don’t know he’s written as many antiwar songs as Bruce Cockburn is that they’ve never heard of Bruce Cockburn. I prefer Lemmy’s because he understands better than Cockburn--whose greatest moment, to his undying credit, expands on the theme “If I Had a Rocket Launcher”—the attractions and uses of violence. The same goes for a lot of loud rock and roll, where what’s praised as sexuality is often sublimated aggression. But that didn't make my song hunt any easier, and casual listening, to escape or find solace or get some fucking work done, was a trial—most records I could hardly bear to play. Everything lacked the proper focus and gravity. Everything seemed too sure of itself.

As the trauma recedes, my ears are coming out of their shell a little. So I suspect it will take more than one unspeakable catastrophe to destroy the aesthetic I’ve made my calling, and wish I had faith there won’t be another. But for all the solace I’ve derived from other people’s nominations—Joy Division, Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush, and especially the Ramones’ class-proud Too Tough To Die, a favorite of missing firefighter Johnny Heff, known to his fans as punk rocker Johnny Bully—the record I’ve played like a teenager is one I ransacked for my show that first night. I wanted a victory song, which in rock and roll too often means a plodding march steeped in the European triumphalism metal takes from the symphonic tradition, and I also wanted a reconciliation song, a rebirth song. These cravings weren’t rational; maybe I should have known better. But I felt compelled to locate my copy of Alpha Blondy’s formerly nutty “Yitzhak Rabin.” And in some crevice of my memory, prised open perhaps by the artiste’s Rimbaud-worshippin’ penchant for desert mysticism and other Islamic BS, I zeroed in on Patti Smith. And that’s how I got to Easter.

Amazon bestseller Nostradamus has nothing on Easter. The booklet says “Till Victory” is about “the destruction of the machine gun by the electric guitar,” and I hope that’s a prophecy. Meanwhile, an anthemic melody, one that like all great Kaye-Kral-Daugherty reclaims European vainglory as Americanese vernacular, channeled my rage into “Take arms, take aim, be without shame” and “God do not seize me please, till victory.” After the Springsteen-styled hit that seems so beside the point now, “Ghost Dance,” a Plains Indian chant meant to resurrect anyone’s forefathers, segues to the minute-and-a-half spoken-word “Babelogue,” where I was amazed to hear Smith ranting “In heart I am Moslem; in heart I am-an-am-an American” before launching the fierce and no longer suspect “Rock N Roll Nigger.” And only later in the week did I register “25th Floor,” an unhinged rocker about fucking in a men’s room high above Detroit: “Oh kill me baby/Like a kamikaze/Heading for a spill/Oh but it’s all spilt milk to me.” It spills into another rant, about shit and gold and alloys and “all must not be art,” and also “the transformation of waste,” repeated like a mantra. Great song. It’s aggression changed back into sexuality, it’s “some art we must disintegrate,” it’s the music I’ll take away from the death of the World Trade Center and God knows what else. It’s a transformation of waste. It’s a dream of life. It’s a small thing that will have to do.

Little Records With Big Holes

The Big Lookback: A 1971 piece on singles from Tommy James, Jean Knight and Freda Payne, the joys of AM radio and the dark forces of shlock-rock.


This piece, published half a century ago as a Rock & Roll & column in the August 5, 1971, Village Voice, documents both my long-term fondness for AM-radio pop and hippie-era hopes for “progressive” FM that I was soon to half disown in the June, 1972, Newsday piece “All My Friend Call Me a Fool.” I’ve edited it very slightly for clarity and felicity without misrepresenting the meaning I intended at the time. I considered including it in my 1974 Any Old Way You Choose It collection—there are faint penciled comments from editor Harris Dienstfrey on the Voice version I clipped and filed—but was omitted, at least in part because it wouldn’t have fit conceptually with the structure we came up with, although “All My Friends Call Me a Fool” sure did. Further explanatory footnotes below.

Like the skyline rising over the Jersey flats or the hard plastic seats on the RR train, WABC is something familiar and apparently permanent that lends shape to my life. Speeding home from some rural retreat, trying to pick an unmuddled signal out of the night and feeling the swell of disappointment as the Rolling Stones of Baltimore joust inconclusively with Chicago of Rochester, I punch the second button and there he is, Cousin Brucie, as shrill and loathsome as ever.

Yes, WABC is awful, despite its necessarily heavy quota of black music (there are still stations between Chicago and California that play virtually none) and the gradual expansion of its playlist over the past few years. And yes, WABC is hurting. Already, WOR-FM is challenging its ratings the way WINS and WMCA never did, and the Hackensack country station, WJRZ, has given up the good fight and its call letters to become WWDJ, with Dan Daniel and Dean Anthony and an as yet vague host of shouters rocking it out, not only against WABC but against the superior wattage of WINS, fallen from the best AM station in New York AM history to the spearhead of the all-talk reaction. Perhaps even more significant are the new call letters of WABC-FM, WPLJ, which as you probably know stand for either Peace Love Justice or White Port Lemon Juice. WABC-FM was always the best music station in the city for people like you and me, but it never overcame its alphabetical stigma. A new regime, headed by alternate media honcho Larry Yurden, made some good changes and went on to purer pastures. The station is still very good—it sponsors concerts, employs the martyred Alex Bennett, and plays a lot of nice music, much of which is rock and roll. I listen to WPLJ at home, and would probably do the same in my car if my car were FM-equipped. That’s why it isn’t.

I think the American Broadcasting Company’s investment in the new format is significant, and although the demise of my beloved ugly radio is obviously far off, WPLJ represents the future more than WABC does. Going over the Billboard Hot 100, I find many reasons to listen to WPLJ. These boil down to two categories. The first results from a trend of the past couple of years, in which an LP gets FM support and begins to sell, inspiring AM programmers to play the single, transforming the album from a moderate success into a monster. Sometimes an artist’s FM following is so intense that big AM sales seem inevitable (Elton John, Carole King, or James Taylor, currently the number-one singles artist); in other cases, one exceptional cut (like Carly Simon’s “That’s the Way I Always Thought It Should Be” or Delaney & Bonnie’s “Never Ending Song of Love,” a delightful left-field hit) can make an album.

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But although this pattern has made AM more various and pleasurable, even for a sorehead who usually can’t stand Taylor or Simon, it has made it less necessary, because the same music is available on FM anyway. The other trend I have in mind simply makes AM less bearable, and I’m sorry to report that it’s definitely a rock and roll trend rather than some easy-listening inroad: the crystallization of schlock-rock as a form. Time was when I really liked almost anything on the radio as long as it had a beat, but no more. The rock and roll our parents thought they heard—the stuff that all sounded alike—has arrived, with the Grass Roots (current hit: “Sooner or Later”) in its vanguard. More often than not, this music is dominated by deindividualized vocal ensembles that avoid both harmonic tension and the quirks that always humanize a single voice. As in White Plains’ definitive “My Baby Loves Lovin’,” lyrics and melody tend repetitious to a point that can only be called sing-song. The beat is obligatory rather than compelling, all the histrionics of heavy rock are carefully avoided, and if any fun goes into the production I don’t get the joke. My old AM head is turned off. Caught between music that is self-consciously good and music that is self-consciously bad, I listen to WPLJ at home. But something is missing—I begin to get this dull headache that comes from not getting off.

You remember getting off, right? Well, turn on WABC or find WWDJ and maybe you'll get off again. My three nominees this week in history: “Draggin’ the Line,” by Tommy James, on Roulette; “Mr. Big Stuff,” by Jean Knight, on Stax; “Bring the Boys Home,” by Freda Payne, on Invictus. These records don’t have much in common, but what they share is worth noting. All are on independent labels, although as is customary in these conglomerate days, two are tied to majors by distributions deals. All are by artists unlikely ever to record a good album. And although two of the artists are familiar names, each of these records is a surprise hit rather than a follow-up.

My reservations about albums does not apply to greatest hits collections. The Best of Tommy James and the Shondells1, on Roulette, is a very good album indeed. Tommy’s problem is that at any one point in his career he can only concentrate on one small idea—he lacks artistic breadth, but he really does that one idea until it starts to moan. His first hit, “Hanky Panky,” was dubbed “the all-time definitive piece of crap” by Derek Taylor2, the patron saint of hip publicists. Despite his critical flair, however, Taylor did not add that in five years “Hanky Panky” would sound a lot better than “Eleanor Rigby.” But it does, and in the meantime James has been turning out more definitive crap. “I Think We’re Alone Now” is the great Hempstead3-discovers-fucking song. And now “Draggin’ the Line” is the great Hempstead-discovers-country-roads song. It is also James’s first big hit since splitting with the Shondells over a year ago, and it continues in the technological tradition of his previous period, but with a tight studio-rock overlay, less pretentious than the Moody Blues and ballsier than Argent. It seems appropriate that a record about hugging trees should be synthesized to the consistency of butterscotch Cool ‘n Creamy. Yum.

“Mr. Big Stuff” is a minor flash in the girl-group mode. Jean Knight has her own name, but she’s no more individual than Bobb B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans. Her voice isn’t strong, but it’s perky, and the producer, someone named Wardell Quezergue4, has framed its distinctive quality with a nice little horn riff that hooks quite effectively right after the title. I am excited mostly about the record’s theme, a rare one in black music: a woman rejects a man and sounds quite happy about it. Little Richard has suggested that Mr. Big Shot is a pimp, but didn’t we always know Mr. R. had a dirty mind?

“Bring the Boys Home” on the other hand, seems to me a major achievement, by the same singer who had a hit about wedding-night impotence called “Band of Gold” just this spring. Although it sounds just like another skilled romantic tearjerker, this is in fact the most outspoken antiwar hit yet recorded by a soul artist, made all the more stirring, in a standard pop reversal, by the exploitation it involves. Holland-Dozier-Holland, who started Invictus after breaking with Motown, want to groom Payne into another black beauty of the nightclubs. That’s one reason her albums are so lousy. As any student of Diana Ross or Dionne Warwick must learn, single hits are but a vital early link in the great chain of becoming, and it is crucial that they never offend. Yet everyone decided it was not only commercial but career-building for Freda Payne to sing and shout “Turn the ships around,” a line which in full context can still bring tears to my eyes. Vietnam with violins! A black sister calling out for peace with her brother content to exhort from the background! Is this obscene or beautiful? Can WPLJ provide such melodrama? Not on your ass it can’t.

I also really like the new Creedence single.


I left The Best of Tommy James and the Shondells out of the ‘70s Consumer Guide book because it came out in 1969. I did, however, review James’s invaluable autobiography in 2011 and collected that review in Book Reports.


Derek Taylor, as I apparently assumed my readers would know, was the legendary publicist for the Beatles and later Apple. He was also chief publicist for the Monterey Pop Festival, where he treated Esquire’s reporter, me, with his trademark wit, tolerance, and savoir-faire as well as hondeling me photos for another Esquire feature. I never forgot it.


“Hempstead” was a Flushing-boy-turned-East-Villager’s shorthand for “boring Nassau County suburbia.” Six months later said East Villager would be traveling two or three times a week to the Hempstead hamlet of Uniondale, where Newsday was located. There I quickly dubbed myself the Dean of Long Island Rock Critics and found that Nassau County was considerably less boring than I’d believed.


Wardell Quezergue, whose strange-looking name I originally misspelled off the tiny 45 label as Quezerque, turns out to have been the genius who also produced the Dixie Cups’ immortal “Iko Iko” and “Chapel of Love” and King Floyd’s eternal “Groove Me” as well as Dorothy Moore’s merely well-remembered “Misty Blue” and most of the Neville Brothers’ output.

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Out of The Box

Red-diaper baby gets the Attica documentary she deserves


Because Al Pacino shouts it so passionately in Sidney Lumet’s 1975 Dog Day Afternoon, the word “Attica” has remained in the American vocabulary as a rallying cry of protest against repression. It became such a resonant signifier of life-or-death desperation that in 2014 Wussy named a song after it—a love song that embodies and articulates the kind of anguish that animates Pacino’s wails as he tries desperately to pay for his lover’s sex change operation by ransoming bank hostages while ignoring the historical event that engendered it.

Michael Hull’s new HBO Max documentary Betrayal at Attica is an altogether different kind of film that excavates that event: its life-or-death becomes literal as it revisits the heinously suppressed September 1971 prison rebellion at the New York state penitentiary of that name, which fixed the word “Attica” so vividly in the public mind that Lumet didn’t hesitate to hook his film to it. Anyway, by 1975 public memory of the rebellion had blurred drastically, in part because Nelson Rockefeller’s state government had done all it could to obscure the facts and in part because they were too gruesome to think about. So with the 50th anniversary of the rebellion upon us, the inevitable reconsiderations are enough to make you appreciate the news business’s weakness for birthday parties.

True, in her obscure 1974 documentary Attica, young Cinda Firestone used TV news footage and a healthy complement of interviews to lay out the brutal facts credibly and coherently. After a decent interval, three cinematic fictionalizations followed as well. And soon Showtime will air a film that’s also called Attica by award-winning Black documentarian Stanley Nelson, who will reexamine evidence and interview survivors with what it’s reasonable to expect will be balanced outrage. But though Hull admires the Firestone film and expects the best of Nelson, Betrayal at Attica is rather different from either for one reason above all: Liz Fink. Then 29, Fink joined the Attica Brothers Legal Defense team two weeks after earning her law degree in 1974 and was still leading it decades later, when she and her sizable complement of clients finally won a piddling $8 million settlement in what began as $2.8 billion suit.

You don’t have to take my word about self-described “red diaper baby” turned legendary leftist legal eagle Elizabeth Fink, whose death at 70 in 2015 occasioned a lionizing Times obit. A nonstop reader who knew more about eating in Chinatown than anyone I’ve met this side of Robert Sietsema, Liz had a blunt, jocose, spellbinding way of talking, usually about politics and/or her clients but sometimes too about the novels she scarfed up, that is reason enough for Hull to let her carry his narrative. Another is that her command of the details still has no peer. A third is that Hull intended this film not only as justice for the Attica Brothers but as a tribute to Liz Fink the person, who he loved as did many others of her numerous friends. And then there was what I’ll just call The Box, although actually there was more than one.

Part of the state government’s systematic obfuscation of the troublesome Attica matter was the claim that somehow its records of the case had gotten lost. And symptomatic of Fink’s stubborn and resourceful legal brilliance is that somehow she figured out where the box of records was—and then “stole” it, she tells Hull, only soon she judiciously softens the verb to “expropriated.” In addition, she found considerable paper documentation in another location. The Box contained hundreds of photos and 60 hours of videotape, the latter divided into three main categories: (1) footage documenting an early investigation helmed by an NYU law school honcho, (2) footage documenting interviews with both prisoners and guards who survived the armed, sadistic September 13 crackdown on a protest that had begun September 9, resulting in the deaths of 10 hostages and 29 inmates, and (3) footage of the crackdown itself that also included footage from all four days.

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It should surprise no one that this footage is excruciating to watch, or that it’s rendered more so by Fink’s commentary. Fink insists and most other accounts agree that although one guard died accidentally in the September 9 uprising, the safety of the other guards held hostage was a priority for most of the nearly 1300 inmates who occupied D Yard for four days. Black Muslim prisoners were active in keeping the peace, but the head of security was a formerly apolitical hustler named Frank “Big Black” Smith, who post-prison would work for Fink as an investigator. When Rockefeller’s henchmen moved in to end the uprising on the 13th, however, hostage safety went out the window. As Fink puts it: “Inmates couldn’t believe that the state would kill its own and the state couldn’t believe that the inmates wouldn’t kill everyone.” But she also emphasizes that even if we accept that by then negotiations had reached an impasse, four-term governor Rockefeller, who Fink believes was “horrified that these people thought had any right to oppose him,” had two options for taking more aggressive action: the National Guard and the state police. The soldiers, she’s convinced, had the will and training to minimize violence. Rockefeller chose the cops.

Fink ended up spending a lot of time in Wyoming County, where Attica’s so-called “Correctional Facility” is located, and she’s not a fan: this is a county in the far-west of New York State that Trump would carry 75-25 and that still gets federal civil rights funding due to a five percent black population almost entirely imprisoned and hence denied the vote. All state troopers do there, she tells Hull, is write traffic tickets. So this was a rare chance for “crazy white people filled with race hate” to kill at will. The Box provides more than enough brutal photographic evidence of the consequences of Rockefeller’s decision, which Fink likens to the 1914 massacre of 21 Ludlow, Colorado, coal workers at the behest of Nelson’s grandfather, John D. Rockefeller. Their name tags taped over, the cops were the embodiment of what Fink reminds us is called “depraved indifference” as in just six minutes they inundated D Yard with 4500 rounds of buckshot, killing nine guards held hostage and severely wounding a tenth who died later, supposedly because by then prisoners were holding at their throats scissors and even swords that were somehow never recovered. Also among the dead, of course, were inmates, 28 of them, with the rest then stripped naked and tortured. Their bones were broken; they were beaten on their feet and faces and genitals; they were warned that if hot bullet casings placed upright on their flesh fell to the ground they’d be shot; they were forced to run a hideous gauntlet on the way to cells where they’d then lie for hours or days without treatment.

In The Box Hull found visual documentation of these atrocities, both stills and motion pictures. But almost as hard to take is heart-rending testimony, sometimes relatively contemporaneous but often from years later, in which survivors of these atrocities recall them for the camera. Whether tough men or nonviolent criminals—one of the dead was a teenager in on probation for joyriding because his family couldn’t make his fine—they were so palpably traumatized by what they experienced that day that their interviews here are almost as painful as the September 13 footage. One of the longest and most affecting is by none other than Frank “Big Black” Smith, an engaging and imposing guy who I met a few times when he was working for Fink—and could never have imagined being reduced to such pain and, strange though the word feels as I type it, humiliation.

If this strikes you as a flick you may just skip, I get it; I felt obliged to watch it twice through to write about it, and the second time my wife chose to stay in the bedroom and read. Moreover, it is safe to guess the Nelson film will assemble testimony that corroborates most if not all of what I just tried to sum up in written language, and that much of that corroboration will be gut-wrenching. But since Attica’s 50th anniversary coincides with a moment in history when racist law enforcement is a hot issue that may once again slip from our grasp, I would argue that Betrayal at Attica’s sensationalism—a term I use advisedly to stress how vivid Hull’s version and indeed vision of these awful events turns out to be—is tonic. Progressives’ and just plain ordinary young people’s renewed or sometimes freshly held conviction that racism in law enforcement is an injustice that must be mitigated has engendered a reaction that’s all too real. Cops are making a comeback; the economic fallout of the pandemic has supposedly engendered a rise in petty crime that is being exploited to frighten the middle class. We need a booster shot. Betrayal at Attica provides one.

Also, Liz Fink is gone now. This is your chance to spend time in the same room with her gripping, irrepressible voice. Which is definitely something worth doing.

Xgau Sez: August, 2021

Pleasure without guilt, inspirational verses, the generosity of Sonny Rollins and David Bowie (et. al.), bridging the language gap (or not), and the selling of bridges and other products of capitalism


Hi Bob, I was wondering if there is any music/album/artist that you thoroughly enjoy personally but as a critic wouldn’t feel comfortable defending or recommending to anyone. I suppose the common term for it is “guilty pleasure,” although I would want to object to the insinuation that it has to be associated with the idea of guilt (or even shame). Another way to ask this question would be: Is there a difference between you as a human being who enjoys music and you in your role as a critic, and if the answer is yes, what does it look like? — LD Schulz, Hamburg, Germany

I don’t believe in guilty pleasures, as I explain in the prologue to my Is It Still Good to Ya? collection, which began its life as a lecture at a PopCon devoted for better or worse to the guilty pleasure idea. And as far as I’m concerned, any critic who doesn’t write as a human being who enjoys the art form at hand—although “cares about,” “is interested in,” and other less hedonistic verbs could be subbed in there—is doing a disservice to criticism and indeed humanity.

Anyone addicted to your website has undoubtedly come across the “Inspirational Verse.” Sometimes it’s clear you deem the IV the crown jewel of a record, and other times, like in your slightly harsh review of the Prince side project The Family, it is hilariously sarcastic. How did the IV come about and when do you choose to deploy it? — Joe, U.K.

I don’t have the fortitude to come up with an exact date, but it seems to me I’ve been using the Inspirational Verse device since very early in the Consumer Guide’s history even though I don’t find it in any of the scant CG material I included in my 1973 collection  Any Old Way You Choose It. It serves two functions: a) a readymade way to single out lyrics worthy of note for better or worse that can also be b) a quick way to end a review I don’t have a capper for. A Google search of my site suggests that I’ve put it in play something over 200 times. Glad you enjoy it—that’s the idea.

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Listening to Saxophone Colossus this unseasonably rainy morning reminded me that you recently referred to Newk as an artist of a certain “generosity” (also Coltrane, Parton, Aretha, Lamar, among other inveterate favorites of mine) and you seemed to suggest that this quality of generosity (or “spirituality”) exists distinctly from anger and wit. A Google Search led me to a few other instances where you’ve made reference to a musician’s generosity—Young Americans was Bowie’s “generosity of spirit” renewed, for instance. What a lovely turn of phrase—it almost sounds utopian—but I can’t seem to grok what you mean. In what ways is Rollins’s generosity like Bowie’s? Is it qualifiable or hopelessly nebulous? Personal note: I’ve been reading your work since I was 17 (I’m now 30) and your anger, wit, and (dare I say?) generosity has shaped how I listen to and think about the world around me. Engaging with you in this forum is a tremendous privilege. Thank you and stay safe out there. — Daniel Tovar, San Antonio

“Generosity” can mean many different things, and while it’s generally distinguishable from both anger and wit, most of those things can certainly coexist with anger and wit. In Rollins’s case, however, I’d say generosity, along with facility and the more closely related ease, is at the center of why we care so much about him. (Spirituality, I should add, seems to me a rather different thing.) Love of music and the sounds he can make with his horn is discernible or maybe just imaginable in every phrase he plays. Bowie is far more a poser and ironist plus someone whose rather European aesthetic sense stopped hitting me anywhere near where I live in the mid ‘80s. But on Young Americans in particular, which was much earlier, it felt like he was reaching out to his rapidly expanding fanbase and hence embracing his own stardom head on rather than holding it at an ironic distance. This impulse soon engendered Station to Station, which remains the only album of his I love wholeheartedly and play for sheer pleasure. To which let me add that the idea that I can convey any of this to listeners half a century my junior is an equally tremendous privilege.

You once answered a question about which foreign language you’d like to master saying it’d be Portuguese. Given that you’re a big enthusiast of Tom Zé's work and have also reviewed other Brazilian big names such as Gil, Veloso, and Elza Soares, I’d like to know why haven’t you reviewed any other Jorge Ben album except his collaboration with Gil (which you liked)? Do you have any thoughts about his music? Thanks a lot! — Mateus Paz, Rio de Janeiro

No, but I admit I haven’t tried that hard. A friend once gave me a copy of Africa Brasil, which I played dutifully more than once at the time and replayed again when I read your query only to find myself once again unable to breach the language barrier—or maybe I just don’t get Ben, a rhythm artist for whom lyrics aren’t necessarily paramount, due to some glitch in my general response mechanism. There are clearly great lyricists in African music—Franco and Youssou N’Dour by all accounts and some translations come to mind. But the musicality of those two artists and so many others subsumes the verbal content. In contrast, Brazilian music tends more pop in the Tin Pan Alley sense, which means among other things that it’s designed to accompany or even showcase lyrics and thus can’t fully connect with those who don’t understand them. There might well be other negative factors as well—there’s a classiness about the Brazilian pop ideal that’s not my kind of thing. But the language differential makes it harder for me to bridge that gap.

In your review of Wanna Buy a Bridge? [younguns: legendary 1980 Britpunk comp], you singled out Delta 5’s “Mind Your Own Business” as one of the highlights, and I’m wondering if you have any thoughts on the song’s recent appearance in an iPhone commercial. (Greil Marcus praised it in his June Real Life Rock column.) And/or any thoughts in general on the practice of using punk songs to shill for corporations? (The Buzzcocks, Iggy, Sonic Youth, Jesus & Mary Chain, and Gang of 4 have all authorized such spots.) — Scott Woods, Toronto

This goes back to the vexed circa-1969 question of whether Aretha should do a Coke commercial, which neither I nor my more Marxian then-partner Ellen Willis had any problem with. Let artists we loved shovel up more money—this was capitalism, and rock and roll was a product of capitalism. So I’ve seldom moralized about such machinations, though these days I guess it would depend on the corporation: no fossil fuels, no big banks, probably not much international agribusiness either. But much as I distrust big tech, that’s a much closer call. I mean, I own an iPhone myself, albeit one I inherited from Nina. And drink loads of Diet Coke too. There are so many graver economic injustices and disconnects to address.

FROM AMAZON: “Vintage presents the paperback edition of the wild and brilliant writings of Lester Bangs — the most outrageous and popular rock critic of the 1970s — edited and with an introduction by the reigning dean of rack critics, Greil Marcus.” Gee, maybe “rock” critic  Christgau should have a pissing contest with “rack” critic Greel? Whip ‘em out, boys! Us ladies are waiting! — Coco Hannah Eckelberg, Key West, Florida

Gee—what faux-female commenter could be so interested in Lester Bangs books that s/he peruses Lester’s Amazon entries for typos and so overawed by the Greil-Xgau cabal that s/he wants to check out their dick size? I wonder.

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