“It seems that fighting is a game where everybody is the loser.” — Zora Neale Hurston
Stand by for another big book release from a Bloomington author in 2013.
Phil Ford, professor of music history at Indiana University, looks to August for the debut of his “Dig: Sound and Music in Hip Culture.”
Ford’s got a publisher, Oxford University Press, and is now in the process of securing his last copyright permissions — “I had a ton to manage for the book” — and correcting the odd punctuation mistake.
“Dig conceives hipness as a part of the intellectual and cultural history of the United States from the 1940s through the 1960s,” Ford says.
The hip aesthetic has structured art and thought here since the end of World War II, according to Ford. He says American intellectual life has been profoundly affected by the storied postwar alienation from society.
The beatniks and the cool jazz cats of 20-year period after 1945 saw themselves as outsiders who had nothing to do with you, yet now you act and think in ways they did more than you or they would have ever dreamed.
The larger, dominant culture, Ford explains, aims to “foreclose” on creativity, self-awareness, and self-expression.
“The hipster’s project is to imagine this system and define himself against it,” Ford says. Think Jack Kerouac or Timothy Leary. “While hipsters have always used clothing, hairstyle, gesture, and slang to mark their distance from the consensus culture, it is music that has always been the privileged means of cultural disaffiliation.”
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Ford tries to define the concept of hip in the book and then follows its path from what he deems its birth year, 1948. For instance, Ford has found rare recordings of Beat Poets singing along to jazz records in 1949. “You can hear them trying on the hipster persona like a new suit,” Ford says.
Ford enshrines Norman Mailer, author of the seminal “White Negro” essay in Dissent magazine, into the hipster pantheon. “He couldn’t carry a tune in a Hefty bag but he developed a notion of writing as existential challenge that remodels the act of writing to something more like the act of sounding, something like a musical performance,” Ford says.
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Ford has been published in the academic journals Representations, Journal of Musicology, Jazz Perspectives, Musical Quarterly, and others. Dig is his first book.
One of the jazz titans Ford covers in Dig is the late pianist, songwriter, arranger, composer, and Zelig-like figure, John Benson Brooks. He worked with everyone from Zoot Sims and Cannonball Adderley to Tommy Dorsey and Les Brown but remains unknown today. Ford feels Brooks’ life in New York City’s arts scene from the 1940s through the ’60s would serve as a great basis for a history of that capital of hipness. Ford just might start writing that book once he gets the final Dig manuscript out the door.
So, be cool until August and then dig Dig.
HAPPINESS IS A GUN
You know it had to happen.
A Bloomington High School South kid has been overhead saying he’d pull off a Sandy Hook-type incident at the school tomorrow. Bloomington cops have found a small arsenal at his house and the kid’s been suspended. The guns belonged to adults in the home but the BPD confiscated the artillery nonetheless.
And a kid at Batchelor Middle School has been suspended for bringing a BB gun to class.
Hard to know if the kids were just being, well, kids, or they were real threats to their classmates and teachers. Just this moment, though, no one’s taking any chances.
One observer has said that the BHSS kid needs immediate psychiatric treatment. Maybe.
Let me tell you a little story.
When I was 16 and 17, my circle of hippies and ne-er-do-wells that hung out day and night at Amundsen Park on Chicago’s Northwest Side faced a migration of gangbangers from the near West Side.
A Polish and Puerto Rican gang, the Almighty Jousters, started hanging around the park after they’d been rousted from their turf farther east by the cops and rival gangs. These guys were tough. They thought nothing of bloodying someone up for the slightest imagined insult. One of the Jousters, Little Willie, found himself in competition for an Amundsen Park girl with a guy from the neighborhood. Little Willie settled the dispute by breaking the guy’s jaw, ribs, and arm in an impromptu negotiating session held during the midnight showing of the movie “Gimme Shelter” at the Mercury Theater.
Backdrop For A Beating
The Jousters also liked to pack heat.
Even though I was a devoted peacenik, there was something about the Jousters’ hard coolness that attracted me. I became friendly with several of them. I even fantasized what I’d feel like carrying a pistol, as they did. In my fantasy, I’d feel important.
By and by, a consortium of neighborhood demi-gangs — the North & Nagle Boys, the Corner Boys, the Bank Boys, the Stompers, and others — agreed to join forces and try to evict the Jousters. The issue would be settled the old fashioned way, with a war. A date was set. It was a chilly Wednesday night in October. The park was packed with grim-looking teenagers from the area. The Jousters were due to arrive at about 8:00.
We had any number of guys in our midst who could handle their fists quite well. All told, we had about 50 guys ready to rumble. We smoked and chattered nervously, waiting for the Jousters.
At eight sharp, a couple of cars full of Jousters squealed up in the front of the park. “Let’s fuck these guys up,” someone said.
My pal Whitey and I had felt obligated to join the local army, even though neither of us was particularly noted for toughness. We glanced at each other, a wordless reminder that we’d previously agreed to run around the periphery of action and do our level best to avoid inflicting or suffering any kind of pain.
The Jousters exited their cars and stood gazing at our little army for a brief moment. We had them outnumbered five to one. “This is gonna be sweet,” another guy said.
At that moment, one of the Jousters named Crate — a guy even Little Willie gave a wide berth to — reached under his long coat and pointed a sawed-off shotgun at us. None of us budged — not because we were brave and tough, but because we were petrified. Whitey and I were on the verge of tears.
Like that, Crate squeezed off several blasts. The 50 of us local guys turned and ran like deer when we saw the first flash from Crate’s shotgun. I clearly remember hearing the pellets screeching and clattering past me across the pavement as we ran. Judging by subsequent audible pops, several other Jousters had outed pistols and began firing.
Only later did I realize I was concerned about soiling my pants for a hot minute.
The Jousters beat it as soon as they heard police sirens. The cops, who’d been miffed the gang had settled in our neighborhood but seemed to tolerate their presence to that point, now decided to get rid of them. None of us ever saw Little Willie, Crate, and the others again.
But for a while afterward, I remained enthralled by that image of the Jousters, standing before us, confident that they possessed the means to make us run.
At the time, I was working in a hot dog stand owned by a minor Outfit figure. Let’s call him Pat. I also served for a brief period as a driver for him and his “boss,” “Mr. Martin,” an Outfit member of slightly higher standing than Pat. Whenever Pat or Mr. Martin needed to do some business down on the West Side or in Little Sicily, they’d call for me to drive them there in their Cadillacs and wait for them outside. “Keep your eyes open,” they’d advice me as they got out of the car.
I never knew what I was supposed to be on the lookout for.
Pat carried himself with a Mob mien that “Goodfellas” and “The Sopranos” aficionados today deem cool. Pat never raised his voice. When he was mad, he wore The Look — his jaw set, his lips a line, and his eyes staring. You couldn’t read any emotion on his face. That’s what was terrifying about The Look.
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Pat kept a small pistol in an ankle holster in the backroom of the hot dog stand. Every now and again, he’d hold it lovingly and warn me to be careful. “Don’t touch this unless you gotta,” he’d say. He never elaborated on when that would be.
As Pat came to trust me, he left me alone at the hot dog stand more often. I started formulating a plan to wear the pistol home after closing the place at night.
I wanted to feel invincible.
For a period of about two months, I’d strap the holster to my ankle and walk around the hot dog stand toward closing time, just to get the feel of it. I wore bell-bottom pants so the bulge wasn’t noticeable. I learned to position the holster just so, so that I wouldn’t brush against it with my other ankle as I strode.
I practiced standing with my leg propped up on a carton of soft drink cups so that the bottom tip of the holstered gun would be visible just beneath my pants leg. After all, what’s the point of carrying a gun if other people don’t know about it?
I couldn’t wait to summon the courage to wear it home and, naturally, to Amundsen Park. Who knows? Maybe there’d be a moment during the course of a typical evening of hanging out when I’d have to pull the pistol out, just to make a point.
Then I’d be invincible.
Somehow, some way, the three of us — Pat, Mr. Martin, and I — all got into hot water with the cops at the same time. Pat’s and Mr. Martin’s photos ran in newspaper accounts of their troubles. Mine was kid’s stuff.
In any case, the hot dog stand was closed and I was out of a job. I never got a chance to wear that holstered pistol home or to the park.
I was lucky.
That BHSS kid who bragged about planning to shoot up the place tomorrow was lucky as well. And that middle school kid was lucky he never fired his BB gun in the Batchelor hallways.
I don’t know if these kids need psychiatric help, any more than I might have needed help when I was 16 and 17, just for wanting to carry a gun
Guns are awfully seductive, and insecure teenagers are primed to be seduced by them.
Rather than worry about putting kids who dig guns on a psychiatrist’s couch, we ought to consider treating the adults who manufacture these things by the millions in this holy land.