Monday, November 21, 2016

Book Review: No Name in the Street, by James Baldwin (1972)

James Baldwin, with a copy of his 1972 book, No Name in the Street.
James Baldwin’s 1972 book No Name in the Street is in a similar vein as his 1963 book The Fire Next Time. (I recently reviewed The Fire Next Time here.) No Name in the Street collects Baldwin’s thoughts on race in America, and comparing it to The Fire Next Time, you can easily see how much changed during those nine years. Although great progress was made legally, with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Fair Housing Act of 1968, and the ratification of the 24th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which outlawed poll taxes, these legal steps forward are not the focus of Baldwin’s essay. Instead, No Name in the Street focuses on the despair that Baldwin felt after the assassinations of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King. Baldwin is angry, and rightfully so. He has seen the civil rights movement’s bright promise fade out.

No Name in the Street is a brutally honest book, and Baldwin pulls no punches in it. Where The Fire Next Time held out the hope of peace between blacks and whites, in No Name in the Streets Baldwin compares America to Nazi Germany.

In both books, Baldwin examines some of the most radical elements in the civil rights movement. In The Fire Next Time, Baldwin is intrigued by the Nation of Islam, but he ultimately rejects their black separatism. In No Name in the Street, Baldwin is intrigued by the Black Panther movement. This makes sense, as the Nation of Islam was the leading radical African American movement in 1963, and the Black Panthers were the leading radical African American movement in 1972.

Along with the difference in tone, Baldwin’s writing in No Name in the Street is looser and more elastic. No Name in the Street is a more rambling and discursive book than the tightly focused The Fire Next Time, as Baldwin often ping-pongs back and forth between ideas. It’s sometimes hard to follow his train of thought. For example, there is a sentence on pages 58 and 59 with 13 commas in it! It might be Baldwin’s anger and outrage that makes it a looser book-he’s no longer trying to convince a skeptical audience-you’re either with him on these issues or you’re not.

There are many excellent passages throughout No Name in the Street, but perhaps my favorite one was this: “Incontestably, alas, most people are not, in action, worth very much; and yet, every human being is an uncontested miracle. One tries to treat them as the miracles they are, while trying to protect oneself against the disasters they’ve become.” (p.9-10)

No Name in the Street is another look by James Baldwin at the complex issue of race in America, and it is as relevant in 2016 as it was in 1972.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Theater Review: Teen Idol: The Bobby Vee Story, at the History Theatre (2016)

Poster for Teen Idol: The Bobby Vee Story, presented by the History Theatre in Saint Paul, Minnesota, October, 2016.

Tyler Michaels as Bobby Vee in Teen Idol.

Sir Tim Rice with Jeff and Tommy Vee and the cast of Teen Idol, October 27, 2016. (Photo by Mark C. Taylor)
In October, the History Theatre staged the premiere of Teen Idol: The Bobby Vee Story. Written by Bob Beverage in collaboration with Vee’s sons Jeff and Tommy, Teen Idol follows Bobby Vee from Fargo to Hollywood, as he shot to stardom as a teenager. Vee got his big break under tragic circumstances, as he and his band were one of the acts that helped fill the bill on the “Winter Dance Party” tour’s stop in Moorhead, Minnesota after Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. Richardson, “the Big Bopper” were killed when their plane crashed. After that performance, Vee started making a name for himself in the upper Midwest. His song “Suzie Baby” became a regional hit, which led to a recording contract with Liberty Records. Vee broke through nationally in 1960 with the Top Ten hits “Devil or Angel” and “Rubber Ball,” which both peaked at #6. Vee went on to score 38 Top 100 singles from 1959-1970, including songs like “Take Good Care of My Baby,” “Run to Him,” and “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes.”

Teen Idol examines Vee’s life as he struggled with balancing performing and having a family; and it also looks at how he dealt with life after the hits stopped coming. Vee married Karen Bergen in 1963, and their marriage lasted until her death in 2015. Bobby and Karen moved back to Minnesota in 1980, and Bobby was able to have a successful family life and still play his music. That’s no small accomplishment in the world of pop music, where success is fleeting, and singers can be washed up by the time they’re 25 years old. 

By all accounts, Bobby Vee was a very nice guy who gave the world more joy through his music and through his positive, joyous personality. Sadly, Vee was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease and retired from performing in 2011. Teen Idol opened on October 1, 2016, and Bobby Vee died on October 24th, just a week before the final performance.

Teen Idol featured a superb performance from Tyler Michaels as Bobby Vee. Michaels looks young enough to convincingly play the 15-year-old Bobby, and he has the same kind of boy-next-door good looks that Vee had. Michaels was able to capture Vee’s rich and expressive singing voice. Everyone else in the cast did a superb job at presenting the music of the early 1960’s-I was especially impressed with Ben Bakken as Del Shannon, who performed a terrific version of Shannon’s hit “Runaway.” 

The program of Teen Idol thanks Sir Tim Rice, and while one might wonder what the connection between Bobby Vee and the lyricist of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, The Lion King, and Aida might be, it turns out that Sir Tim was a longtime fan of Vee’s music, and a good friend of the Vee family. Rice made a trip to Saint Paul to see Teen Idol, and at a reception after a performance he spoke about his friendship with Bobby Vee. Full disclosure: my wife is on the board of the History Theatre, so we got to attend the reception and meet Sir Tim Rice. Even though Sir Tim had never met me or my wife before, he was fully engaged in our brief conversation, and he struck me as a very genuine person. Rice said that he had first met Bobby at Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 50th birthday party, and he had also accompanied Vee to Clear Lake, Iowa, for the annual concert at the Surf Ballroom in memory of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and “The Big Bopper.” 

Teen Idol: The Bobby Vee Story does a great job of keeping Vee’s music alive, and hopefully it will be staged again soon.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Book Review: The Fire Next Time, by James Baldwin (1963)

Reissue paperback cover of The Fire Next Time, by James Baldwin, 1963.

Author James Baldwin, 1924-1987.
James Baldwin was a gifted writer of fiction, essays, plays, and poems. Born in 1924, Baldwin was a member of a generation of American writers that produced an astonishing number of public intellectuals-figures like Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, William F. Buckley, Jr., William Styron, and Kurt Vonnegut. By 1963 he had established a reputation as one of America’s most talented young writers, and that year he would appear on the cover of Time magazine.

James Baldwin’s 1963 book The Fire Next Time was an unvarnished look at race in America, and it’s a book that influenced Ta-Nehisi Coates’ 2015 book Between the World and Me. (I reviewed Between the World and Me here.) I’ve owned a copy of The Fire Next Time for many years, but after reading Coates’ book last month, I decided it was the right time to read Baldwin’s book as well. 

The Fire Next Time is comprised of two essays. The first, titled, “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation,” is a short piece written to Baldwin’s 15 year old nephew. The bulk of the book is the second essay, “Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region in My Mind,” in which Baldwin addresses the pertinent racial issues of the day, including Malcolm X, Elijah Muhammad, and the Nation of Islam. 

In “Down at the Cross,” Baldwin describes his upbringing in Harlem, and his brief career as a teenage preacher. Baldwin’s language is evocative and memorable throughout the book. Baldwin describes his spiritual crisis at the age of fourteen thus:

“Matters were not helped by the fact that these holy girls seemed rather to enjoy my terrified lapses, our grim, guilty, tormented experiments, which were at once as chill and joyless as the Russian steppes and hotter, by far, than all the fires of Hell.” (p.17)

One of the passages that struck me the most was Baldwin’s assessment of being black in America:

“The universe, which is not merely the stars and the moon and the planets, flowers, grass, and trees, but other people, has evolved no terms for your existence, has made no room for you, and if love will not swing wide the gates, no other power will or can.” (p.30)

Baldwin is blunt and to the point, and these sentences are unfortunately as relevant in 2016 as they were in 1963: “When a white man faces a black man, especially if the black man is helpless, terrible things are revealed. I know.” (p.53) 

Another quote that I found very perceptive about race relations was: “Most Negroes cannot risk assuming that the humanity of white people is more real to them than their color. And this leads, imperceptibly but inevitably, to a state of mind in which, having long ago learned to expect the worst, one finds it very easy to believe the worst.” (p.68)

Eventually, Baldwin lost his religious fervor and moved away from the church. In the second half of “Down at the Cross,” Baldwin describes a meeting he had in Chicago with the Honorable Elijah Muhammed, as he was always referred to, the leader of the Nation of Islam, a black separatist movement that had come to prominence in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. Elijah Muhammed’s message of black pride and black nationalism was spread by his charismatic national spokesman, Malcolm X. Baldwin’s meeting with Elijah Muhammed occurred before Muhammed’s split with Malcolm X in 1964. Baldwin is intrigued by the Nation of Islam, but not willing to convert to all of their ideas. 

One of the reasons for Malcolm X’s split with Elijah Muhammed was the revelation that Muhammed had fathered several illegitimate children, and there are a couple of passages in The Fire Next Time that are somewhat humorous given what we now know about Elijah Muhammed’s behavior that James Baldwin didn’t. Baldwin describes the women in Elijah Muhammed’s house as being “…much occupied by a beautiful baby, who seemed to belong to the youngest of the women.” (p.61) One can only wonder if that was one of Elijah Muhammad’s illegitimate children. Baldwin also writes that Muhammed “teased the women, like a father, with no hint of that ugly and unctuous flirtatiousness I knew so well from other churches, and they responded like that, with great freedom and yet from a great and loving distance.” (p.63) Well, it wasn’t so great a distance as Baldwin thought.

Ultimately, Baldwin still believes in integration, and during the dinner says to himself, but not to Elijah Muhammad, “’I love a few people and they love me and some of them are white, and isn’t love more important than color?’” (p.71) At the conclusion of the book, Baldwin repudiates the Nation of Islam’s separatist philosophy, writing, “To create one nation has proved to be a hideously difficult task; there is certainly no need now to create two, one black and one white.” (p.97) 

The Fire Next Time and Between the World and Me cover some of the same ground, but I would argue that Baldwin’s message is easier to swallow than Coates’, as Baldwin was in favor of integration, and Coates never gives the reader any easy answers to the continuing issue of race in America. I prefer Baldwin’s more elegant prose to Coates’ plain and unadorned style. However, both books have many important things to say and are essential reading for anyone interested in the issues that America faces.