Monday, April 6, 2009

Monday Evening in Harlem: George Nelson & "City Kid" at the Hue-Man Bookstore & Cafe

It's spring break at two of the four colleges where we're teaching this term, so we had Monday night off for the first time since the snowstorm a month ago. Unlike then, we were free from shoveling this evening and were able to have the privilege of going to one of Manhattan's great indie bookshops, the Hue-Man Bookstore & Cafe, to see Nelson George, a writer's writer from Brooklyn whose work in various media we've admired for a long, long time.

We've been so busy that we haven't before been able to attend any of the wonderful-sounding events we read about in regular emails from co-owner Marva Allen.

So we were thrilled to have the night off and can only recommend that the Hue-Man Bookstore & Cafe, which opened in 2002, is definitely worth the trip up to 125th Street, even from Brooklyn.

The store's on Frederick Douglass Boulevard, right near the Magic Johhson multiplex, and it's a physically as well as intellectually appealing place, with a warm atmosphere. Here's a video:

We've been really excited about Nelson George's new memoir because of our longstanding appreciation of his long and varied career. His Wikipedia entry doesn't even cover half of it but still is impressive:
Nelson George (b. September 1, 1957) is an African American author, music and culture critic, journalist, and filmmaker. He has been nominated twice for the National Book Critics Circle Award.

He attended St. John's University, after which he served as a music editor for Billboard magazine from 1982 to 1989. While there, George published two books: Where Did Our Love Go: The Rise and Fall of the Motown Sound in 1986, and The Death of Rhythm & Blues in 1988. Nelson also wrote a column, entitled "Native Son," for the Village Voice from 1988 to 1992. He first got involved in film when, in 1986, he helped to finance director Spike Lee's debut feature She's Gotta Have It.

He has been a lifelong resident of Brooklyn, New York.

The just-released City Kid: A Writer's Memoir of Ghetto Life and Post-Soul Success covers that and a lot more. As Publishers Weekly's review noted:
In his vivid and charming memoir, novelist and screenwriter George (Hip Hop America) recounts incidents from an eventful life that has ranged from a tough upbringing by his single mother in Brooklyn in the 1960s to a career of assorted writing gigs in music journalism, television and film. Early in the book, George captures the anxieties of an intelligent child in a dangerous neighborhood, finding solace in his mother's soul records, screenings of Planet of the Apes and Hemingway and Fitzgerald novels. Later, George provides a welcome and appropriately nerve-wracking portrait of a young New York writer, interning at the Amsterdam News and writing concert reviews for Billboard. Slowly, the mature writer and tastemaker emerges, witnessing and shepherding hip-hop's sometimes rocky transition into the mainstream pop-music world, as exemplified by a bizarre concert bill featuring the Commodores, Bob Marley and hip-hop pioneer Kurtis Blow. George's life has been blessed by the presences of an eclectic array of black entertainers, including a young Russell Simmons and a struggling Chris Rock, and he sketches these characters with affection. . . George provides tempting glimpses of the vibrant New York of the recent past.

Nelson first read a section of his book about getting a job writing for The Amsterdam News around 1977 or 1978. At that point New York's major African American newspaper was "trapped in the past" and in a kind of "malaise" - which proved a "fantastic time" for a young, in-the-know writer like himself, who could do stories on topics like black studies programs at local colleges that the old guard at the paper either didn't care about or know about.

He also covered sports for the paper, under the wing of the legendary Art Russ Jr. (whose voice we remember well from years of radio listening: "Yesterday is a canceled check, tomorrow is just a promissary note"). Actually, Nelson said he didn't enjoy sports that much. Lots of the players seemed arrogant, although he had a good relationship with Willie Randolph, who'd been his neighbor growing up at Brownsville's Tilden projects in Brownsville.

There were, though, limits to their friendship, as Randolph told him not to ask the temperamental Reggie Jackson about racial insults occasionally shouted at Yankee Stadium. Although Nelson worded the question delicately, Reggie blew up totally and began cursing. Of course the reporter ended up with a great story: "Jackson Blasts Racist Fans."

But Nelson said he was actually more interested in what was going on outside Yankee Stadium even in the team's back-to-back championships. This was not just the era of the team's turmoil as "the Bronx Zoo," in the neighborhood "the Bronx was burning" and hip-hop culture was being born. So more and more Nelson gravitated toward this exciting new world.

Skipping to another section, Nelson read some fantastic anecdotes about attending hip-hop shows in Harlem (including at CCNY years before the infamous stampede) and in the Bronx and Queens.

Nelson's cultural commentary here is never less than astute, as he recounts the mixture of exhilaration and apprehension he felt each time he went. He tried never to stay on the floor because violence would sporadically break out. Nelson began his friendship with Russell Simmons around this time, although "Yo! Yo! I'm with him!" didn't always work, and Nelson sometimes found himself on the wrong side of the velvet rope.

The writing here is sharp and stylish, as in all the excerpts we heard. But for us, the highlight was this evocation of an era and Nelson's description of the commingled sense of fear and freedom at these early hip-hop events, when hip-hop was all mixed up at times with other acts more soul or R&B. There's a wonderfully vivid scene of D.J. Hollywood at one club and another detailing a consistently violent but thrilling 1981 Sugar Hill Convention at the Harlem Armory as rap records take over uptown.

After that excerpt, the author gave the crowd of about forty or fifty in our folding chairs a choice. Did we want him to read a section about Spike Lee, another about coming to L.A. with Chris Rock as the city burned following the Simi Valley acquittal of the cops who beat Rodney King, or one about "Black Hollywood." The latter won, as Hollwyood usually does.

A congenital New Yorker (non-driving variety), Nelson said he's had a love/hate relationship with Los Angeles since his first visit in 1981. He knows L.A. better than he knows some parts of Brooklyn. The images in the following section were vivid, from low-rider convertibles cruising Hollywood Boulevard blaring Rick James' "Give to Me Baby" to hanging out at Quincy Jones's hours (where, when Nelson asked for apple juice, he was quickly served just-squeezed fresh juice from organic apples) to the scene at Carlos & Charlie's on Sunset Strip or Roscoe's House of Chicken & Waffles, which Nelson said "crystallized the Black Hollyood experience."

One anecdote we loved was when Nelson told of the time he asked Quincy Jones what separated great performers from just good ones, and Q gave the examples of Michael Jackson and a singer we won't name since at this point the author asked that the videotape be turned off (so we assume this is off the record, but who it is, is both juicy and non-surprising). Michael Jackson would go into the recording studio and work for hours late into the night, exhausting himself to get every track just perfect while the R&B legend with a drug habit as big as her hair basically just punched the clock.

"Ass power," Quincy Jones called it, a phrase that stuck with Nelson and will stick with us. We think it's similar to what the Germans call sitzfleisch.
Nelson discussed his other experiences in Hollywood and his enjoyment of it but also his knowledge that he is not really part of it, being more a bookish observer than a hustler. He spoke about the distinction between Black Hollywood and Black L.A., which is centered in places we know well like Inglewood and Ladera Heights.

With prodding from the audience, he was also persuaded to read a brilliant section of City Kid, a report of arriving in Los Angeles with Chris Rock during the 1992 uprising (he called it a riot). Probably this section alone, and its analysis of Chris Rock's career by a longtime acquaintance-turned-friend, its images of smoke plumes across the area as seen from aloft, and and ground-level reports of La Cienega Boulevard and elswehere during the chaos, is worth the price of the book.

During the Q&A period, the author discussed his HBO film Life Support. Shot partially on location in the East New York/Brownsville area where Nelson grew up, the movie with Queen Latifah is based on his family's story and the community's experience dealing with HIV infection and living with the AIDS virus.

We asked him the only question and probably the most boring one amid lots of audience discussion of hip-hop, Hollywood, and African American culture, about the effect growing up in the Tilden projects had upon him. Because our family all came from the neighborhood and we were born there and grew up nearby in East Flatbush (where people have been erasing memories by taking drugs long before local medical researchers made their recent "discovery"), where we went to junior high with kids from the Tilden projects, we were interested in his answer and his take on the community today.

Nelson said that in many ways he is a product of that neighborhood, although he was a bookish boy who fell in love with Wright and Baldwin, Fitzgerald and Hemingway (in those days lots of us did), and he confirmed our observation, based on recent visits and talks with our students who live in Brownsville, that things now are appreciably worse - perhaps because of, not in spite of, gentrification and the mentality that conflates living in Brooklyn with brownstone and hipster culture (see the current L Magazine's skewed Brooklyn Cred quiz.)

If you haven't read "Strangers on His Street," his wonderful article in the Sunday Times moribund City section about his reflections on the changes in Fort Greene, where he's lived for decades, it's just another one of Nelson George's sharp cultural commentaries based on personal experience.

We were especially interested in his wondering if he felt the same upon seeing all the new white faces in the neighborhood as the older Italian and Jewish residents of Canarsie and East Flatbush felt when they saw him and other black people on the streets where white people predominated for decades. (Speaking as a representative of old white people, we're frequently in East Flatbush, Canarsie and Flatlands - including the blocks we grew up on, which are now almost entirely African- or Caribbean-American, and we think it's not the same. The race of the people may be different, but they are still from the same working-class and middle-class mindset. If anything, what's surprising to us is how much the neighborhoods, though outwardly changed, still have the same feel as they did in the fifties, sixities and seventies.)

Nelson George: City Kid from Nelson George on Vimeo.
Anyway, we're rambling. . .We could go on with more of Nelson George's fascinating observations and stories during the session at the Hue-Man Bookstore tonight, but we're sure that as grateful as we are for seeing him in person, reading City Kid will provide even more pleasure.

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