Home, Strange Home

May 18, 2019

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Unless you’ve lived in the same house all your life, you can’t pinpoint the moment when your place became your home. It happened while you weren’t looking.

The longer you live somewhere (excepting a war zone, I guess), the more you get attached to it — or at least you can take comfort in everyday normalcy. To be pulled away permanently is wrenching, but those attachments can anchor like a root system in an entirely different place. 

I attended my first seven school grades in Norfolk, Virginia, home of the world’s largest naval base. Many of my friends were the sons of officers — it was an all-boys school — so it was very common to have to say goodbye after Dad’s two- or three-year assignment was up and new friends rotated in. Navy brats were used to it. They moved around all the time. I was the stable one: my dad was a civilian. So it came as quite a shock when one day he announced that we were going to move. I loved my house, my street, my school, my friends, and now they were all going away. I mean, this time I was.

We moved much farther South, to Jackson, Mississippi, where my father was joining a bunch of Virginia grocery executives to roll out a regional supermarket chain. In the summer of 1962 — the midst of the Civil War centenary — Jim Crow still ruled, and there was a meanness that hadn’t been shoved in my face in the Commonwealth. We seemed to be on Mars: the atmosphere was viscid and foreign, the heat so stifling that simply mowing the lawn used up most of my juice. I hated everything. I wasn’t traumatized or clinically depressed, just good Ole Miserable. And I’d been such a happy little squirt, too. My folks pondered what to do.

I’m not sure I could have come up with such wisdom, but my parents were struck by genius. (1) My dad solemnly promised that if I would just give Jackson a chance for exactly one year and I still wanted to go back at that point, then we would. (2) They enrolled me in summer band class at my junior high school. We rented a saxophone — my choice  — and I took as many lessons as I could cram in before band started.

Action (1) gave me the reassurance of a firm deadline. I began writing my grandmother a letter every day. (She lived down the street — how idyllic had my life been, folks?) Each one counted off the days remaining until I’d be back in Norfolk. Action (2) was designed to get me something I needed achingly badly: friends. Sure enough, the commonality of band practice helped me sink the first tendrils. I met two of my lifelong besties in that rehearsal room, the oldest continual friendships I have. For years my grandma would tell people the story of my letters. She said they arrived daily for about two weeks. Then I started missing days. Then maybe once a week. A month. Then it was down to the annual birthday card. She would smile through all this because she understood the reason: I was forming a new life and sloughing off the misery. (I’m sure I hadn’t been the only one who was sad when I left Norfolk, but she handled it like an adult.)

We drove back “home” for a visit every summer for several years, and even though I was building relationships in Mississippi (shut up, there’s such a thing as a girl?), I still felt like a displaced frontiersman. But by the time some buddies and I celebrated high school graduation with a car trip to New York and stopped in Norfolk on the way up, enough life had passed to change the appearance of houses, shutter beloved mom-and-pop shops, and render my boyhood hood unfamiliar. I didn’t belong here any more. I remember noting this at the time: in only five years, “home” for me had become Jackson, Mississippi.

I lived there for 22 nonconsecutive years. Four intervening years in Athens, Georgia was time enough for it to become “home” too. But when I went back to Athens for a writers’ conference twenty years later, all I could recognize were the street names. (Turning indie-hip with the B-52s and R.E.M. transformed the place.) By that time I had become a book editor, a result of my most radical lifestyle change ever. That happened when I moved from Mississippi to New York.

Ask any progressive in a red state — they are definitely there, in each and every one — and they’ll nod when you describe the low-grade wariness you have to carry around every day. Living in an overwhelmingly reactionary society doesn’t change your mind, but it makes you mindful of your surroundings. If I still lived in Jackson and continued my independent corporate communications work with big, connected companies and agencies, I’d need to watch what I say in public. If I wanted to do business with the powers that be, I wouldn’t have to lie, but I would have to remain silent about our current president or any other president. I’d imagine it’s only a tame cousin to the way closeted gays are still made to feel, but in my own small straight way I do get it. The most immediate, and unexpected, surprise after my move up north was a sense of political and cultural exhalation. It was so relaxing to be able to abandon self-censorship. 

It’s not that everybody agrees with you, far from it. Or that injustice and prejudice don’t exist. (If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my undeservedly charmed life, it is this: there are rednecks everywhere.) It’s just that up here, no state-sponsored point of view makes most everybody’s heads nod like drinking ducks. I couldn’t figure out my oddball sense of calm relief in one of the world’s most frenetic cities for a long time. I think I’ve finally pegged it. Namaste.

But once again, societally I found myself on Mars. Lots of life was new again. I can amaze people in both cultures with fun facts about myself. New Yorkers: I didn’t know what a bagel was until I was 38 years old. They’re everywhere now, but they weren’t always. Mississippians: I haven’t owned an automobile for 31 years. (Now you know how old I am!) I do not have the slightest inkling what a gallon of gas costs until I top off my rental car two or three times a year.

In a strange clime, you notice little things. The accents and idioms. “Mou’ain” for “mountain,” no T. “I’m a Met fan.” Singular. “Have a goot one.” Rhymes with “soot.” That singsong recitative that is spreading nationwide: “I went to the GYM, I rode on the BIKE, I walked back HOME, I picked up the KIDS…” Standing “on line” instead of “in line.” That distinctive overloud New York sigh (usually heard while waiting “on line”) that says, I don’t like this but there’s nothing I can do about it so I shall express my displeasure to all within earshot. Yiddish words that just osmose: I’d been misusing and misspelling “macher” my whole life without realizing it, but not any more, and now I have a few other choice ones in my vocab. The overhonking of car horns. When I’m in traffic anywhere else, it seems strangely quiet; back home I even feel for the semi driver who spends all day navigating double-parkers on already-snug cross streets until he finally looses his frustration with the ole air horn. 

Did you hear that? “Back home.” 

I used to say, “On a hot day back home, it smells like dirt and pine needles. Here it smells like garbage and dog doo.” But now I say, “On a hot day down South…” I don’t know when my perspective changed. It happened when I wasn’t looking. Headed into New York on an airplane, I used to think, wow, look at all the people who live here, and there’s Central Park! Now I just think, I’m home. Many, many New Yorkers came from somewhere else, as I did. But if they managed to stick it out, they became New Yorkers themselves, and that means they found a home. Norfolk, my favorite place ever when I was a kid, is but a wisp of a memory now. (Have I just stumbled upon the dadburn meaning of life?) I’ve planted roots elsewhere. And even though the location of home may zig and zag throughout a full human span, it’s so soothing to know it when you’re there. Wherever that may be.

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My home right now.

 

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Civil Righting

February 25, 2018

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I expect the new Mississippi Civil Rights Museum to become a regional travel destination: if you’re anywhere near Jackson, Mississippi, you will want to take time to stop by. I lived in Jackson for more than twenty years, beginning as a 12-year-old in 1962, so I was made keenly aware of the prevailing Jim Crow culture, so starkly different from that of my native Virginia (which had sported its own share of slaveholders, to be sure). But it’s so hard for a white man to truly appreciate what it was like to have the wrong skin color in the most notoriously racist part of the United States. This place helps us get it. For the victims of civil injustice, and their descendants, there’s yet more. Their long struggle has been laid bare for all to see. Their bottom-line emotion must be something beyond gratitude. Something like pride.

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The museum is a well-heaved stone’s throw north of the Old State Capitol, where generations of elected bigots made black life miserable, first with enslavement and later by exploiting Dixie whites’ inbred revulsion to the notion of racial equality. Racism is by no means restricted to the Deep South (neither were lynchings, which took place in your state too — look it up), but that is the stereotype. Give Mississippi credit, though, for owning up to its past: this is the first museum about the U.S. civil rights movement to be sponsored by a U.S. state. (The National Civil Rights Museum is in Memphis.)

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There are actually two museums under the same roof in the new complex. You can also visit the Museum of Mississippi History, which unless I miss my guess was floated by white legislators as a quid pro quo to allow the civil rights exhibition. It begins with dioramas of cavemen — there’s lots of history down in Mississippi — and it’s fun in its own way. But the headline grabber is the civil rights side.

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The facility is managed by the state’s Department of Archives and History, a stand-up agency which pored through its own files as well as those of the vile, secretive Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, sort of a state-run White Citizens’ Council which prowled the political sewers from 1956 to 1977. The people who put this campus together are scholars, not partisans. Nothing is spun or sugar-coated. Nowhere in either museum did I find anything but unvarnished history, nor did I read a single word which I knew to be untrue.

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The Civil Rights Museum is intuitively easy to navigate. The exhibit halls radiate out from a large central rotunda, where you return after each exhibit. Keep going clockwise, and you’ll see it all in order. (A two-day “Dual Admission” lets you into either museum or both, which should give you all the time you need. If you are very interested in the subject and a physically fit museum-goer, you could easily spend a whole day at each one. I barely scratched the surface.) The first exhibits have to do with the slave trade: the physical passages are close and cramped, to give you a slight sense of discomfort. As you approach the birth of the activist movement, the rooms become larger, suggesting possibility, solidarity, and eventually freedom and triumph. This joint was built by pros.

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There’s lots to read, which suits me fine, also a nice helping of tastefully programmed a/v. Little built-in theaters let you sit down and watch very well-produced short pieces on, for example, Medgar Evers (they also have the rifle that killed him, which is worked into the presentation). Hidden audio speakers startle you every so often by blasting an angry voice: “Whatchoo lookin at, boy?” Some of this stuff was happening while I lived there (e.g., Evers), but I was a white pre-teen and while I was dimly aware, I was not yet, you know, woke.

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This movement is about blood and grit and passion. It can be emotionally exhausting before you come to the end — and you’re only in a museum! But you can’t make it through without hearing the glorious strains of songs like “This Little Light Of Mine” wafting past. That returns the mighty, overwhelming slog back to the shape of one human heart. Now the brave Freedom Riders feel like nervous soldiers engaging a fearsome enemy, and that’s exactly what they were: heroes in a long, grim battle.

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The museum was dedicated last December 9. You may have read something about the ceremony. Gov. Phil Bryant, a Republican — these days they’re almost ALL frickin Pubs down there — decided to invite Donald Trump to the dedication. (I assume it was Trump’s people who ordered the invite from the feckless guv. At the time, you’ll recall, he was stumping for fellow racist Roy Moore in neighboring Alabama.) The NAACP pleaded with Trump not to come. Nearly every civil rights leader, aghast, stood on principle and regretfully boycotted the ceremony. But it gets worse. Trump didn’t even attend the dedication. Instead, he took a private, 30-minute (?!) tour of both museums while protesters marched outside, then gave a ten-minute speech to a small, Trump-approved group of worthies. And then he went away. He did what he does best: he stuck his fingers in the eyes of anyone to whom this museum meant anything. He blew up what should have been a reverent dedication ceremony without even having to frickin go. His slimy work in Jackson was finished before the first Big Mac was unwrapped on AF One. (Civil rights leaders returned to the museum for a Trump-free “christening” on February 24.)

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Well, this museum is going to outlast the current White House gang and the fool who lives there. I’m so glad to be able to pay tribute to this indefatigable movement, which fundamentally changed our country against all odds, political and physical. I’ll definitely be back. The museum was full of school groups when I was there. Maybe more than one child — of whatever race — will pause and look and listen. You want role models, kid? This place is packed full of them.

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Bill Minor, 1922-2017

March 29, 2017

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The great journalistic lions who reported the civil rights movement from behind enemy lines are inevitably passing away, even those who’ve led long lives. This year alone, we’ve already lost John Herbers, who reported for the New York Times but was revered by us in the Jackson, Mississippi UPI bureau for his previous work there. (He was still an icon when I got to that same bureau in the late Sixties.) And now, just as sadly, legendary reporter Bill Minor left us yesterday.

“Real news” journalists in the Deep South during the civil rights era were essentially war correspondents. Telling the truth from inside the Jim Crow culture was dangerous. The entire political and legal establishment was set against these guys, and as far as home-grown journalism was concerned, well, the local press was under local rule and it would call out “Yankee agitator” reporters by name. Good ole boys still ran things, including the state legislature and every significant institution.

The Paul Krugman of Sixties Mississippi was a nasty little bigot named Tom Ethridge, whose “Mississippi Notebook” column ran several times a week in the Clarion-Ledger, the state’s largest paper. In one titled “NAACP Witch Doctors,” Ethridge wrote, “The NAACP and their associates, seeking to exploit the unfortunate (Emmett) Till affair, have dug deeper into their bag of tricks. In a sense, they have reverted to ancient tribal instincts.” He liked black people just a tiny bit less than he liked union organizers: UAW founder Walter Reuther was the “top labor-fuehrer.” The paper printed no opposing point of view. There was your op-ed culture.

People like that were emboldened back then: they thought they represented the state as a whole. Reporters who spoke truth to power were on the bidness end of hate mail, death threats, and the occasional bit of vandalism: broken windows and even some flammable crosses. Then as now, none of the intrepid white patriots responsible had the guts to identify themselves, by day or by night. Bill Minor was one of the few public people to display the courage they so pitifully lacked.

Bill’s original podium was the Times-Picayune, the New Orleans paper, where he worked for almost thirty years reporting on Mississippi affairs (it’s next door to Louisiana), starting with the 1947 funeral of the notorious arch-racist Sen. Theodore G. Bilbo. He covered every important development along the way: the Dixiecrats, Emmett Till, James Meredith, Medgar Evers, Goodman-Chaney-Schwerner, John Stennis, Ross Barnett, Trent Lott, and a lot of stuff you haven’t heard of, like the Mississippi contingent of influential Goldwater supporters who licked their wounds in 1964 and then helped jump-start the Republican Party across the entire Deep South, paving the way not only for Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, but arguably the current guy too.

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Bill at work in his heyday, when everything was on paper.

In Jackson, the state capital, Bill had a reputation as a liberal, but only by comparison. He came from Louisiana, also a white-oriented culture — hell, in the late Forties the whole country was white-oriented — and it took some observation and soul-searching after his Navy hitch in World War II before he gradually came to appreciate that a society in which segregation was legal and proper was not a just society. But if you’re open to new ideas in a state where change is the literal enemy, you must be a pinko. In reality, all Bill was, was honest.

When the Times-Picayune shut its Jackson bureau in 1976, Bill bought a paper called the Capitol Reporter and printed a weekly broadsheet for about five years. I published a few articles in the Reporter in the late Seventies — it was also a great paper for arts and culture, kind of a down-home Village Voice — but the reason people picked it up was to read Bill Minor on politics.

Racism and xenophobia have hardly been extinguished in the South — nor, I submit, where you live — but Mississippi has not stood still. The paper which ran those Tom Ethridge columns is under new ownership, and until a couple years before he died, one of its most popular columnists was…Bill Minor. I never ceased to be amazed by the genuine love he showed for his adopted state: his famous “Eyes on Mississippi” column always had its own eyes on the potential that sometimes, it seemed, only he could see. He was a stalwart, a treasure, an exemplar, a damn fine newsman, and today Bill Minor is remembered fondly and tearfully at the state Capitol and far beyond.

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A documentary on Bill’s life screens next month at the Crossroads Film Festival in Jackson.


Jim Dollarhide, 1952-2016

March 18, 2016

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Jim Dollarhide apparently died on Wednesday in a fire at his lakefront home in Madison, Mississippi. I say “apparently” because they found a body in the still-burning rubble of his 3800-foot house and Jim is missing, but it will require some dental examination to make sure. The firefighters said the “structure was fully involved” by the time they got there at 10:41 p.m. after an emergency call from a neighbor, and the upper levels had already collapsed. It’s almost certain Jim is gone. If I have to retract this piece, I will do so with great joy.

I’ve known Jim since my advertising days in the Seventies. He was the first filmmaker I got to spend quality time with. I like movies and all, and I took enough production courses in graduate school to get some idea what filmmaking feels like, but this was the first guy I ever met who had already decided to make a living at it. To Jim, a beautiful image might be all well and good, but it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing: it has to move.

You meet lots of gifted photographers in the ad game, but they produce a different kind of art. The still shooter shows you an instant in time. The filmmaker shows you the passage of time. Jim had the eye for nifty composition which any good fotog possesses, but it was that third dimension, the depiction of duration, that fascinated and obsessed him.

Jim was a blue-collar filmmaker. By that I mean he was no rarefied sissy on location; he could get down and dirty in physical labor with his crew, made up of people he liked and respected. But he demanded professionalism and courtesy. Once my ad agency hired Jim to do some films and tv spots for Yazoo Mowers, those big-wheeled monsters built like tanks. I was the agency producer, meaning all I had to do was stand around and nod, and guzzle the occasional soft drink. But even with my light load of responsibility, it was the most horrible shoot I’ve ever been on. For two weeks it was steaming even by Mississippi standards (Jim’s grips showed me how to dip a neck scarf in Sea Breeze astringent and ice water to cool down the circulation), we were in a severe drought so most grass was brown and we had to figure out how to color it (the mayor had even forbidden people from watering their lawns), and too many of the setups were on undulating spreads that required time-consuming engineering to lay dolly track for smooth camera motion. But we made it through somehow, and celebrated with a wrap party at Jim’s house. I decided to buy each of the crew members a really nice knife to say thanks for going above and beyond. I guess I’d gone there too: one of them said, “This is the first time a producer ever gave me anything.” Jim was walking by, and over his shoulder came, “He gave you a job.”

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Me, trying to look productive on that godforsaken Yazoo shoot. Jim is peeking out from my left armpit.

Jim’s page on IMDb notes that he “founded a production company called ‘Imageworks’ two decades before Sony Pictures used the term.” I know it does because I’m the one who put it there. We were both running teensy little outfits in the Eighties and we had a symbiotic relationship. He was doing fewer commercials, which are tightly scripted beforehand, and more industrial films and longer documentaries, where he could call in a writer at the pre-production stage. The difference between our two companies was that, unlike my lo-tech professional wordslinging, Imageworks was hugely capital-intensive. Jim had to keep up with emerging technologies, so he needed new equipment all the time. He originally had one of those honking Steenbeck flat-bed editing decks, where to make an edit you physically snipped the film and spliced it back with tape, which is how movies had been cut since time immemorial. In those days some bigger houses were using a process called “negative to tape” for their first baby steps into online editing, but Jim had to separate wants from needs in order to survive in the more frugal environment of central Mississippi. Now the Steenbeck is as quaint a relic as the X-Acto knife, but Jim had long since moved on. It’s a shame that he largely missed out on the digital revolution of the past few years — shooting on location is cheaper and nimbler than it’s ever been before.

Jim not only loved his craft, he also loved his native state of Mississippi, but not in a Confederate way. He was a huge music fan and cherished the rich tradition of Mississippi Delta blues. He shot thousands of feet of B. B. King and became a good friend; Jim’s documentary plays every day at the B. B. King Museum in Indianola. After all the years slogging and working together for industry and commerce, I guess my favorite film of Jim’s is the scriptless HARMONIES: A MISSISSIPPI OVERTURE (1994), a labor of love and a piece of pure cinema that tells you everything you need to know about him in just 25 minutes. He was a kind, upstanding, talented man whose generosity of spirit mentored so many young men and women; their praises and tears are pouring in equally today. Goodbye, Jim. You were one of a kind, and you are already missed.

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The boys in the day. Jim is front row left.


Eudora Welty, 1909-2001 (Late)

January 17, 2016

eudora-welty-205x302I wrote this the week Eudora Welty passed away and just found it again after all these years. It’s for her friends and admirers.

Eudora Welty died at the age of 92, in Jackson, Mississippi, the town where she lived most of her life. Until her health became frail a few years prior, she had been a fixture of daily life in her quiet, wooded neighborhood, but not in the way William Faulkner once prowled the streets of Oxford, where the bemused locals referred to him behind his back as “Count No-Count.” Miss Welty—for that is how everyone addressed her until they were sweetly admonished to use her first name instead—was a genteel, beloved, active member of the community. She could be seen pushing her grocery cart through the aisles of Jitney Jungle #14, inside its absurd and incongruous “English Village” façade, straining to reach a can on the top shelf but always bearing her beatific smile. She was a regular at Fannie Mae’s hair salon, where gab was as important as styling. One might easily pass her walking on the street in the sultry summer twilight. Never did anyone stop, point, whisper that they were in the presence of one of the towering figures in American letters.

That’s because Miss Welty did not tower. Her work did that for her.

She possessed two talents that many writers of prose tend to overlook, and about which most hotshot screenwriters, judging from their output, can only dream: Eudora Welty had exceptional eyes and ears. Her authorial might derives from a gloriously detailed visual atmosphere, and from her uncanny ability to replicate, and then enhance, the quirky Southern idiom she heard every day and had stored in memory from her girlhood. She enjoyed watching others exercise those talents, too, and was an ardent theatergoer in a time when Jackson sported more than one credible company. She served on the board of directors of New Stage Theatre, the pioneering group that had opened its doors in the mid-Sixties with a raging production of WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? at a point when the community was more accustomed to the likes of SOUTH PACIFIC, and she saw nearly every show there. That’s how I got to know her, and that’s when she became “Eudora” to me.

At cast parties in the ornate residences of Southern ladies who lunched, in the rarefied social strata unlocked by her accomplishments, she would come up to the smitten amateur actors and bestow the kindest praise. She didn’t like everything she saw and she told you so, but her scorn was usually reserved for the playwright. I always wanted to say, compared to what you do, we’re five-year-olds putting on a show with flashlights in Daddy’s living room. I even suspected that her enjoyment might be something like what Daddy feels for his lisping children. But that’s not how one accepts a compliment gracefully, and Eudora was the living embodiment of grace.

Once Ivan Rider, then New Stage’s artistic director, invited me to dinner with Eudora, just the three of us. Wow! I looked forward to the event eagerly but nervously. What could I possibly say to amuse her? After a cocktail or two—and she was never shy about cocktail hour—I realized she was using a conversational gambit that comes in handy any time: we were talking about me. But whereas most of us coax someone onto the subject of themselves just to break the ice, Eudora was simply feeding the natural curiosity that made her an unique cross between an artist and a journalist. Ivan had conspired to serve barbecued shrimp, a New Orleans delicacy. To partake, you throw some old newspapers on the table, dump out the shrimp, put on bibs and any other protection you might have, and peel your way through the spicy, delicious mess. Eudora said this was a great dish because its sloppiness washed away any pretense, and diners would always “rise from the table as friends.” By this time, she was talking about herself. She’d just read a novel by a then-fashionable and wildly successful Southern author, and was not impressed: “Honey, you may think you’ve got it. But you don’t.”

The last time I saw Eudora, a friend had asked if I might facilitate some inscribed books for Christmas presents. Eudora insisted that we both come over. On the day, I was mortified that my friend was lugging an imposing stack of COLLECTED STORIES—I thought too many. But its author couldn’t have been more gracious, as ever. On her table was the current issue of Newsweek, with its stark black-and-white cover photo of John Lennon. She was quite disturbed over Lennon’s murder, not as a Beatles fan—she said she liked some of their melodies but I didn’t sense any particular passion—and not just for the potential work that the world wouldn’t get to hear, but chiefly for its meaninglessness; why slaughter an artist who had never hurt anyone? The culture of insanity had already introduced itself with Charles Manson, but we had not yet arrived at the point where schoolchildren took revenge on their tormentors with bullets. Eudora was perplexed over Mark David Chapman. Her vast empathetic skills were of no use here. She couldn’t put herself in his place. In the ensuing years, I’m sure she had to wrestle with this problem again and again, but by then I had moved away, to New York. And then she was gone.


Cassandra Channels Billie

April 25, 2015

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She was just billed as “Cassandra” back in Jackson, Mississippi in the 70s-80s, when she was the featured singer with Sergio Fernandez and his band at local spots like POETS in “The Quarter” on Lakeland Drive. All caps because the name was (rumored to be) a response to the overly cheerful T.G.I. Friday’s: it (supposedly) stood for “Piss On Everything, Today’s Saturday.” At first you said, Cassandra? I just want a pint or two; I don’t want to hear about how everything’s falling apart.

But this Cassandra melted you down within five minutes. Her worst quality, I have been told by more than one POETS server, was that her voice made customers forget to keep drinking. That’s how smitten we all were. Most decent-sized cities with local music scenes have one or two standouts who make you think, this individual is good enough to go pro. Well, ours went and did it. Her name was, and is, Cassandra Wilson, and she’s been a shining light among jazz vocalists in the wider world for more than 25 years.

After all that time and all that adulation, Cassandra has become so confident in the recording studio that she’s willing to take a few chances, and has it ever paid off on her latest release, COMING FORTH BY DAY. It’s an album of mostly covers of, and a tribute or two to, Billie Holliday, a singer whom Cassandra respects, admires, even adores. But this is no impression, not an attempt to resurrect a style or a voice. This is Billie through Cassandra, and she had the guts to engage Nick Launay, the longtime producer of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. (Did anybody else see that documentary, 20,000 DAYS ON EARTH?) The supporting musicians thus range from T Bone Burnett to Nick Zinner, with Van Dyke Parks supplying the string arrangements.

The best way I can describe the result is, it’s as if Billie Holliday were sitting next to you and singing softly into your ear. Yes, there are some out-front dynamics, but in most cases Cassandra makes you lean in to her; the only other producer I might have trusted to get a similar ambience would be Daniel Lanois. You will never consider “All of Me,” “You Go To My Head,” “These Foolish Things,” or even “Strange Fruit,” the same way again. It’s the midnight set after the playboys and their girls have all gone home.

This album is not for everybody; Cassandra has plenty for you jumpin’ jivers in her catalog. But in a way, it’s a wonderful summation of her career, and never have I been prouder of Jackson’s knock-em-dead chanteuse.


Synchin’ ‘n’ The Reign

January 13, 2015
John Epperson at work.

John Epperson at work.

We went downtown to see the final performance of THE PASSION OF THE CRAWFORD, a show that we just couldn’t miss for two reasons. One, I met the co-star, Steve Cuiffo, last summer at Ricky Jay’s magic immersion weekend. Steve mentioned this piece from the stage and I made the mental note to see it next chance I got, because he then called out the second reason by name-checking the star, an old friend of mine from Mississippi theater days, John Epperson. John’s better known now by another name, as audience after audience screams with laughter and delight at the antics of his alter ego: the fabulous Lypsinka!

Calling Lypsinka a drag act is like calling Segovia a guitar player: it’s technically correct, but man, are you missing the point. What Lypsinka brings onstage tests the limits of a theatrical tradition and then explodes them. John Epperson isn’t just the best at what he does, he has no serious competition. That’s how five, six, ten years can pass between New York Lypsinka shows and her many fans, both gay and straight, will still be clamoring for tickets. Lypsinka rules, like the grande dame she is.

Drag itself is a venerable art form, and not only in gay-oriented places. For many years, “female impersonators” like Jim Bailey have been perfectly welcome in mainstream venues, including big Vegas rooms, the Sunday-night Ed Sullivan Show, even Carnegie Hall. I remember watching Bailey impersonate Garland, Streisand, or Phyllis Diller on Sullivan from my home in Jackson, Mississippi. About thirty miles away in a town called Hazlehurst, perhaps tuned to the same tv station, John Epperson was doing his best to cope.

John Epperson in mufti.

John Epperson in mufti.

John is years younger than I — discretion forbids the exact figure — and for his higher education he moved to Jackson and Belhaven College. I’d long since graduated from Millsaps College, two or three miles away. For years afterward, I used to tell people I had a “conservative-arts” education, bada-boom, but I kid Millsaps College. To a Mississippi just barely emerging from its Klan-ruled era, Millsaps (Methodist) looked, and felt, like Berkeley. Today it features MBAs and its own Phi Beta Kappa chapter. John’s Belhaven (Presbyterian), on the other hand, was the real deal: mandatory chapel, all of that. Not exactly the prime breeding spot for future underground musical comedy stars.

Because of the age difference, I didn’t meet John until after college, when I returned from Georgia and both of us hung around a troupe of local players at Jackson’s New Stage Theatre. I well remember a solo show John put up in the Hewes Room, a small performance space at the Jackson Little Theater. Just him and a piano. It must have been an early stab at what eventually became JOHN EPPERSON: SHOW TRASH (1), the makeup-free portion of LYPSINKA! THE TRILOGY, in which three of his already-established shows recently ran “in rep” for two months in New York. The other day, we saw THE PASSION OF THE CRAWFORD (2), to which I’ll return in a moment. The third piece was a full-blown Lypsinka show called LYPSINKA! THE BOXED SET (3). My favorite of such amazements is a long-ago production called I COULD GO ON LIP-SYNCHING! This is the uncut stuff that has made Lypsinka (like Cher, she’s fabulous enough to need only one name, but she is actually a scion of the Von Rasputinas) literally world-famous.

Every Lypsinka show requires its creator to produce not just one single miracle, but three of them. The first miraculous step is the prerecorded audio track. John assembles this personally, with an engineer (here, Alex Noyes). A typical Lypsinka piece employs hundreds of cues from radio, movies, tv, records, interviews, anything, all mashed into a bizarre lickety-split throughline that makes sense only in the performance. It’s far beyond simply lip-synching songs; a Lypsinka track is composed of tightly-cued bits of speech that play like music. About half of the CRAWFORD show reproduces the notorious interview conducted at New York’s Town Hall by public relations man John Springer on April 8, 1973, only weeks after Marlon Brando had sent a faux Indian to the stage to decline his Oscar for THE GODFATHER. While generational change is all around her, La Crawford is still living in the Forties, the obsequious audience applauds every mention of any past screen luminary, and this mindless adoration gets ever funnier as it continues. Then we have some shorter audio pieces, such as Miss Crawford reading the cloying but briefly trendy “Desiderata” on a tv appearance. Finally we descend into a major fantasia, with pantomimed telephones alternately ringing into her left and right ears to introduce lurid Joan Crawford snippets wrenched out of potboilers ranging from classics to STRAIGHT JACKET to TROG. This last surreal section is a full-throttle Lypsinka sound assembly, so artfully devised that it might kill all by itself just coming out of an iPod. But then you wouldn’t know where to look.

The second miracle is memorization. I would love to be a fly on the wall at rehearsals for a new Lypsinka piece, especially this one, which uniquely requires TWO lip-synching actors. Last summer at the Ricky Jay weekend, Steve Cuiffo — who plays Springer, every other interrogator, and even that classic announcer Dick Tufeld Speaking — discussed this show in that very sense. He described how lip-synching demands a radically different form of preparation than for a more traditional role. Here, timing is everything and the cues are instinctive. I imagine they must sound something like music, but without the reassurance of countable rhythm. Anybody can learn a play’s worth of dialogue, trust me. But there has to be a certain natural awareness by which John and Steve can memorize the pauses too. For many years John’s day job was as rehearsal pianist for American Ballet Theatre; you can see him in this capacity in a crucial scene in Darren Aronofsky’s film BLACK SWAN. Imagine the innate timekeeping ability required to support a classical dancer’s precision; he has to be more on-the-nose than most drummers. Maybe that’s how he’s managed to limber up that split-second timing. Steve was responsible for queries and pauses for perhaps two-thirds of one show. John performed all thirds of that same show, plus a full-length solo piece requiring the same unflagging concentration, not to mention SHOW TRASH as himself, and all of it in random order as the two-month “rep” engagement continued. No more complaining from any other actors struggling to get off book!

Steve Cuiffo (l.) and Lypsinka performing THE PASSION OF THE CRAWFORD.

Steve Cuiffo (l.) and John Epperson performing THE PASSION OF THE CRAWFORD.

The miraculous trinity is completed in the visual performance. With classic-era diva makeup slathered on, Epperson is able to amplify the recorded track with movements so minute and dead-on that it’s possible to occasionally forget that Lypsinka isn’t actually speaking. For CRAWFORD, I was sitting in the stage-right front row, no more than ten feet from the two performers, and I noticed only five, maybe six slight “sync” errors during the entire hour-plus piece. (Those came at points where there was really no way to anticipate the cue, and each time the actors recovered instantly.) That’s all the imperfection I could see, and I was right on top of them! Lypsinka’s addenda are her eyes, lips, coiffure, diva-esque turns, and occasional drop-dead gazes at her interlocutor. Clothes hang nicely on John’s model-thin frame; Lypsinka is born to fashion (and has actually graced some famous runways), not some dragette stuffing himself into a costume. Sitting very close for the first time at a Lypsinka performance, I expected the show to be aimed beyond me, like some Broadway actors will do (Jason Robards Jr., for example, was an inveterate spitter, and some of his downstage histrionics could actually reach the front row). But I noticed some very subtle things between the two actors which might not even have projected. Or maybe I’m wrong about that: the reason you wear makeup on stage in the first place is so the folks in the back row can see your features plainly. Epperson’s makeup looks good up close in a maturing-diva sense (in other words, his Crawford’s no longer young enough to try to appear natural), but you can see every overly dramatic lip-tremble from the back row too. You can probably see it from the frickin International Space Station.

After the show, John came out for a very rare curtain talk: I’d never before seen him appear on stage out of character. It was the last night of the run, the final CRAWFORD, and in two hours he would end the entire engagement with a late-show performance of SHOW TRASH. As he thanked us, the soft-spoken Hazlehurst accent appeared, unamplified, and he seemed to lose an inch or two in height, in clear contrast to the over-the-top boisterous razzle-dazzle he’d just presented. Then a sly grin. “If we decided to do this again, maybe in a year or so, would you tell your friends…and come back?” Of course, the place went nuts. What a wonderful body of performance art this talented actor has created. Whenever you’re ready, just say (or sync) the word, man, and you can count on me.

P.S. It’ll take a little longer, because a year from now John is already booked, as we learned in the New York Times.

6/2/15: Jim Bailey, referenced above, left us this year.

1/10/18: But I did get to see John (can I say “Johnny,” which is how we addressed him back when?) out of character again, in a Wallace Shawn piece that was one of my favorite nights of theatre in 2017.


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