Saturday, April 9, 2011

Book Reviews-Chuck Berry, The Mob, and Obama

Brown Eyed Handsome Man
By Bruce Pegg
What thoughts first come to mind when you hear the words "Chuck Berry"?
The TRUE King of Rock-n-Roll? A countrified Black man and the MC Hammer of 1950's popular music? A Black man that was too friendly with white women?  An Oldie McOldster that hasn't done anything new since the early seventies? Someone who Keith Richards stole every lick from? The coolest guitarist ever who popularized such stunts as the duckwalk, riding the guitar, or playing behind his head?  A Brown Eyed Handsome Man? A true poet? A lazy one-trick musician? An extremely mercenary and bitter old man that demands cash up front and EXACT adherence to his contract?

Well all of these descriptions and more make up Mr. Berry's persona. The book Brown Eyed Handsome Man (the title is taken from a Chuck Berry Song) by Bruce Pegg is both a biography of Chuck Berry, a rehab of his image and an history of just how bad it was for Black people-in this context Black musicians- in the forties, fifties, sixties and seventies. I have said it before and I'll say it again and again. I have nothing but wonder and respect at any Black person that came of age before 1970 or so and still managed to keep his or her internal dignity intact. Because it wasn't always easy to do that.

This book discusses Chuck Berry's middle-class origins, his early brushes with the law, his mix of cautious integrationism and prickly if oft hidden pride in his musical skills, business acumen and blackness. "Maybelline", the song that could be said to jump start rock-n-roll was an adaptation and rewrite of an older traditional country tune, Ida Red. With Berry's deliberately "whitened" diction and a mixture of straight-eighth and shuffle rhythms, the tune was a big hit with white audiences but also led to such humiliations for Berry as being turned away from live performances when the promoters didn't know he was black.
Many such Black entertainers, athletes, and musicians have such stories to tell, of course-especially back in the fifties. Nat King Cole was brutally assaulted by the Klan. Bo Diddley's maracas player almost caused a riot/lynching when temporarily overcome by the music, he forgot where he was, jumped into the audience and started dancing with a shapely young Caucasian maiden. Although men like Berry and Diddley were idolized by millions, they STILL had to know their place. Failing to do so could be professionally, legally and personally costly. Ironically some of the same hoodlums who turned out en masse to protest integration or assault civil rights demonstrators were likely Chuck Berry fans. It's a hypocrisy that persists in America to this day.

A musician's life back in the fifties or sixties (or even now really) was not an easy road and it was much more difficult if you were black. Whether it was racial confrontations with Jerry Lee Lewis, royalty ripoffs from his label's owners, the Chess Brothers, shows in which supposedly Berry wound up owing the white promoters money, constant police harassment and intimidation, and spurious "that Negro touched me" charges from white female fans or their jealous boyfriends, Berry has been through the ringer. This culminated of course with his 1962 conviction for Mann Act violations for hiring a 14 yr old hat-check girl of Mexican-Indian heritage. After that sentence Berry became exponentially more caustic, private and distrusting. And he was already moody. The book does not end with the Mann Act conviction but goes up through 2002.

Pegg also does a great job in tracing Berry's musical influences, people like T-Bone Walker, Carl Hogan (Louis Jordan's guitarist), Muddy Waters, Nat King Cole, Charles Brown and Pee-Wee Crayton. This is a great book for music fans and history buffs. Don't be mistaken; it's not a wide eyed fan book. The author also touches on many of Berry's faults: his capriciousness, his refusal to share credit on certain things and his occasional decisions to sacrifice talent for cold hard cash. Chuck  Berry probably isn't someone you would have wanted your daughter around back in the day. Heh-heh. I liked this book. It is a source of confusion and dismay to me that the younger black audience often turns its back on older performers. It's strange. If young whites can appreciate people like Wanda Jackson, Tony Bennett, Keeley Smith, Earl Scruggs and so on, you would think young Blacks might give some of these older Black stars some credit and attention before they're all gone. And there are not many of them still left.

Nothing But Money: How the Mob Infiltrated Wall Street.
by Greg B. Smith
This book is by the author of Made Men and Mob Cops. The title is actually somewhat misleading as in many of the stories detailed the Mob is no more corrupt than any of the Wall Street workers. What the Mob brought to the table was more capital, better connections (a NY mob associate arranges to have would be investors comped at Las Vegas hotels and casinos-the details of which would have been VERY interesting to learn about), and of course the realistic threat of violence. In this story the Mob didn't so much 'infiltrate' Wall Street as it was enthusiastically sought out by rip-off artists looking for well-off partners and the ability to enforce illegal contracts.

The book's focus is on the late eighties through the nineties. Two of the three primary Wall Street crooks in this story made deals with the authorities and either got probation or disappeared into the Witness Protection Program. The fact that one of them was a scion of an old WASP family and the nephew of a U.S. senator likely helped his case. The only one who didn't was Italian-American and he got the longest sentence.

The book does go into the brutish way that the Bonanno Family (the primary family initially involved with the stock scams) enforced discipline. Word to the wise-if the boss has said do not take any sell orders on a stock, do not take any sell orders on a stock and do not let anyone THINK you have taken any sell orders on a stock, otherwise you might get an extended beating with an office chair in front of the entire workforce.

The book shows how the Bonnanos react and respond when other Families get wind of how lucrative and almost risk-free the stock swindles, pump-and-dump and other crimes can be.
Again, though the ideas, brain power and business models for these things were primarily provided by people not in the mob or at best mob associates. Cary Cimino, Jeffrey Pokross and Warrington Gillette were shady (and wealthy) people long before they hooked up with Mafia members Robert Lino, Jimmy Labate or Sal Piazza. None of this criminality would have been possible without the active assistance of non-mob actors like banks (who set up and paid phony id accounts), institutional investors, realtors, and other upperworld people.

Interesting fun fact: Stock swindlers prefer seniors, men and people from the Midwest to target for nefarious deals.
"The operating assumption was that if you lived in the Midwest you were a drooling rube who might be a genius about cow breeding methods but was surely dumb as a fence post about securities.

The Obama Syndrome: Surrender at Home, War Abroad
by Tariq Ali

I have mentioned before that sometimes a book's title and cover tell you exactly what it's all about. I just finished this book. I can't wait to see what Mr. Ali makes of this latest deal between the Republicans and Obama. Look, I'll be very frank. If you are a Obama diehard partisan, please don't read this book. You won't like it. It will raise your blood pressure. You will have agita. You may start by yelling out loud and end up throwing it across the room. You will be interested in finding all sorts of reasons why Mr. Ali is wrong in his argument but you will also find that he has anticipated most of your objections and ripped them apart in the next chapter, if not the next page.

But if you are a progressive, liberal or radical who is not irredeemably wed to either the Democratic Party or to the notion that Obama is just the best President that ever was or ever will be, I strongly endorse this book. It was written shortly before the 2010 midterms and details all the ways in which the author feels that the President is just a continuation of Bush policies. He says Obama is just putting a friendly face on imperialism. This includes a health care reform package that is a bonanza for insurance companies, indefinite wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, total appeasement of the uglier politic in Israel, more drone attacks in Pakistan, etc. The author is a proud hard left man and has no patience for not telling the truth as he sees it. He sticks to facts. He goes down the list and says on issue after issue after issue, "If Bush did A and Obama did A, why is Obama any better".

Ali predicted the Democratic loss in the midterms though I think even he would be shocked at the magnitude of the loss. Ali may come across as pessimistic and even petulant but that would be a misreading of his objections. Ali firmly believes that a better world is possible and he's been working for that before Obama was born. This is not a book based in personal issues. It's about the movement.

Listen to him here. He does NOT pull any punches.
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