Saturday, September 17, 2016

Book Reviews: Chin, Party Music

Chin: The Life and Crimes of Mafia Boss Vincent Gigante
by Larry McShane 
Mafia boss, clotheshorse and media junkie John Gotti sought and received attention during his rise and short stay as head of his organization, the Gambino Crime Family. But the Dapper Don was not as powerful or as wealthy as Vincent "The Chin" Gigante, secretive boss of a different New York based organization, the Genovese Crime Family. Unlike the flashy, vain and extroverted Gotti who was insistent that everyone in or outside of the Mafia know he was boss, Vincent Gigante or "The Chin" as he was known in some circles (the nickname was a shortened form of his Italian born mother's pronunciation of Vincenzo) shunned the spotlight. 

He rarely left the neighborhood in which he had lived for years. He did not like people knowing he was boss. In fact Gigante initially didn't even let many people in his own organization know when he became boss. He kept his advanced status a secret from other families for years. Gigante used cutouts and front bosses to misdirect law enforcement. Because Gigante was very worried about surveillance and betrayal he announced that anyone in his family who used his given name (and eventually even his nickname) in conversation was risking a death sentence. If a mobster needed to refer to Gigante that mobster was supposed to either touch his chin or say "this guy". 

Even mobsters in other families were advised to follow this edict. But Gigante was most infamous for perpetrating a decades long scam to fool law enforcement and the medical establishment. Gigante pretended to be crazy and possess diminished capacity. Sometimes luck can put a man on a different path. In the late fifties Gigante was a low level thug who got the assignment to murder Frank Costello, gentleman gangster and boss of the Family once led by Lucky Luciano. The man who gave Gigante this assignment, Vito Genovese, wanted to be boss. And the brutal Genovese had the backing of a sizable portion of the Family's roughest crews. Gigante dutifully shot Frank Costello but didn't finish the job. Costello survived. Unusually, for some reason Genovese didn't follow his normal procedure and have Gigante murdered both to set an example about the perils of failure and remove any link back to him.

Genovese was notorious for this sort of devious maliciousness. According to mob turncoat Joe Valachi,  "If you went to Vito and told him about some guy doing wrong, he would have the guy whacked for doing wrong and then he'd have you whacked for snitching!". At the ensuing trial Costello claimed to have no idea who had shot him. Gigante was acquitted. 

Costello "retired". Genovese became boss. However via Costello's political machinations both Genovese and Gigante would be arrested and convicted on possibly fraudulent drug charges. Genovese would die in prison. Gigante was released in the mid sixties and returned to his Greenwich Village haunts. The former boxer gradually became a feared power in what became known as the Genovese Family. 

During a few encounters with his parole officer and other law enforcement officials Gigante started complaining of exhaustion or other unspecified sickness. He would voluntarily check himself into hospitals--often when some investigation or arrest warrant was occurring. Eventually he claimed to hear voices and talk to God. In his later years relatives or criminal subordinates would lead Gigante around the neighborhood. Gigante stopped showering or shaving every day. He would usually be seen in public in a ratty old cap and bathrobe. As a result for years after Gigante became boss law enforcement really did believe that he was too unstable to be the boss. Gigante avoided indictments and prosecutions where other men didn't. 

It's worth mentioning that as Gigante's public behavior became more eccentric other Mafia leaders in New York and beyond were assured that it was all an act. This was important because the Mafia's typical solution to dealing with an unstable, talkative or unreliable member is murder. In private Gigante was anything but crazy. He had made a reputation for himself as a violent enforcer, prized earner and stickler for the rules in the sixties and seventies. Upon becoming boss in 1981 Gigante continued to ensure that what he said went, in his family and even beyond. Gigante ordered at least one assassination attempt on John Gotti in revenge for Gotti breaking the Commission rules. Gigante was popular among the Genovese Family members at least in part because he wasn't greedy as bosses went, defended Genovese turf against interlopers and didn't require constant public displays of loyalty. 

Gigante avoided meetings, internal or otherwise, as much as possible. John Gotti, on the other hand, upon becoming boss required everyone in his family to check in with him regularly at his social clubs, despite law enforcement surveillance. Refusal to do so was an insult worthy of death. The FBI and Justice Department were thus able to identify Gambino mobsters they had no idea existed.
I was already familiar with this topic but still enjoyed the book. The book had a fair amount of detailed investigation about Gigante's relationship with violent mobbed up businessman, Morris Levy, who ran Roulette Records and was,willingly or not, a money launderer for several East Coast Mafia luminaries. Although Levy was a corrupt and physically dangerous hoodlum he was submissive to his Mafia overlords. Vincent had a Catholic priest brother who was, depending on the storyteller, a loving defender of Vincent or a cunning enabler.

Ironically just as Gigante's rise came from an unusual act of mercy from the otherwise merciless Vito Genovese, Gigante's fall came from his atypical refusal to sanction the murder of one Peter Savino. Savino was a business partner with Gigante and other mafiosi in an extortion scam of NYC schools. Gigante's fellow mafia big shots warned him, correctly as it turned out, that Savino was an informer who needed to be handled. Gigante liked Savino, and did not give the order. Along with some others, Savino provided testimony that proved that Gigante wasn't crazy and was the boss. Gigante was finally convicted and ultimately died in prison just like his mentor Vito Genovese. There are discussions from other Mafia turncoats about their encounters with Gigante. All told this was a solid look at a criminal and a crime organization that did their best to stay out of the limelight.

Party Music: The Inside Story of the Black Panthers Band and How Black Power Transformed Soul Music
by Ricky Vincent 
This title claims to offer a lot. But as the saying goes it ain't boasting if you can back it up. This book is quite enjoyable. I think it's less about the Black Panthers band or The Lumpen and more about that heady time from 1964-1975 where black music was overflowing with creativity and self-love. This book is best understood as a sequel and a more scholarly expansion on Vincent's previous excellent book Funk. It is just as much a history tome on social movements and political struggles as it is a look at an unknown band. The detailed information and history about the band and their ups and downs is pretty small portion of the book. As anyone who has tried to organize or educate people knows it's often not just enough to lecture people or harangue them. 

You have to entertain them and relax them, make them feel good about the message you're trying to get across. In the late sixties and early seventies the most effective way to do this in the Black community was to wrap your messages in the popular music of the time, funk and soul. 

The Black Panther hierarchy believed that the lumpen or lowest of the low, could, once properly educated and motivated, be the catalyst for revolutionary change. Certain leading members rejected the idea that all Panthers were humorless doctrinaire brothers and sisters who wouldn't be caught dead doing anything as frivolous as singing or dancing. Other leaders worried that the inherent apolitical nature of the music industry would corrupt any Panthers who became involved. They thought that a Panther needed to be learning his/her Fanon and Marx, not practicing music. Fortunately for The Lumpen, the Black Panther Minister of Culture, the famed Emory Douglas, believed in the idea of using art and music to educate and inspire. With Douglas as a patron the band became a fixture at events for Party faithful and for the larger community. Many of their songs were reinterpretations of current soul or funk hits or of pop standards. For example they reworked the show standard "Old Man River" into "Old Pig Nixon". 

The members of The Lumpen were well aware that not everyone in the Party was a fan of an official Black Panther band. Throughout the book the band members were keen to point out that music was decidedly secondary to their role as Panthers-teaching, setting up medical clinics and free breakfasts, providing security, selling newspapers, monitoring police, attending conferences and doing everything that any other Panther was expected to do. They did not seek or receive special status from other Panthers. They certainly didn't make a lot of money.

In the late sixties and early seventies some people really did feel that revolution was at hand. This sense of imminent change suffused the culture. Although the hook for this book is music this book discusses many topics, including but not limited to women's rights, gay rights, the reactionary backlash to the civil rights and black power movements, challenges of interracial coalitions, and all the various contradictions experienced by the various movement participants, musicians and otherwise. The Panthers saw themselves as socialist revolutionaries. Founders Huey Newton and Bobby Seale had little interest in attempting to restore lost African mores, names or religion as they viewed much of that as problematic from a socialist and gender standpoint anyway. But black music at the time had a strong strain of cultural nationalism involved. 

Cultural nationalists tended to think that healing or in some cases creating an African-American culture with distinctive language, religion, worldview, folkways and clothing was a precursor to any sort of revolution or even economic development. The book delves into how these competing ideas tore some organizations apart and even (for example with Karenga's US) caused shooting wars to break out. You can see echoes of this today in spats between people who were excited about the social significance of having a black President and First Lady and those who were more concerned with policy than black faces in high places. Party Music gives a cursory look at how Stax Records was impacted by then current black nationalist and revolutionary rhetoric. The 1972 Wattstax festival was a example of music, business and social concerns all working together.

As people who were at least theoretically open to the idea of cross racial unity and progressive teamwork the Lumpen had no problem having white or other non-black musicians in their backing band. This would occasionally cause some issues with more culturally nationalist minded audiences or promoters. The Lumpen never backed down on this. The big problem with recruiting the lumpen section of society or as the Nation of Islam would have called them, the lost-and-found, is that without constant oversight, financial opportunity, discipline, purpose and re-education, people who have gotten used to chaotic, self-centered and self-destructive modes of behavior often bring those behavior patterns into the organization. 

This makes the organization more vulnerable to state repression and murder and also reduces the support and commitment of the organization's non-lumpen members. Bad behavior alienates the organization from the community. Left unaddressed, lumpen tendencies can even corrupt other organization members. Band members talked sadly of being out on the street trying to recruit people or serving breakfast to children only to hear that Panther Chairman Huey Newton got high on cocaine and assaulted someone or that another Panther was shaking down drug dealers or pimps. As a result of this sort of counterrevolutionary activity and unrelenting state violence by the mid seventies the Party and several related nationalist organizations were all but defunct. Perhaps not coincidentally the popular music changed from politically charged funk and soul to the apolitical and relatively speaking far less soulful disco. If you are just curious about the times and want to get an idea of what happened from the people who were there or if you are already familiar with Vincent's writing style you should read this book. It's a little over 300 pages. It's dense and very well researched. Many people do not know that future music stars Chaka Khan and Nile Rodgers started out as Panthers. Music for good or bad is always connected to the state of the community.
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