Wednesday, December 1, 2010

A great year for funk lp reissues on CD

2010 is the best year for funk reissues since the 90s

My funk collection is way too big, but I always keep an eye out for CD’s of classic or rare funk, just so the lp’s don’t get worn out anymore. I had figured that after the major labels exhausted their big hit makers’ catalogs there would be no more classic funk to come out on CD. But I was way way wrong here.

The big hitters like Earth, Wind & Fire, Parliament, Sly & the Family Stone Rufus & Chaka Khan now have just about all of their catalogs on CD. Columbia gave us all the Isley Brothers, all of the Herbie Hancock jazz/funk, and a great deal of the Philly Sound – O’Jays and Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes. Other labels have released Grover Washington (“Reed Seed”), Patrice Rushen (“Shout it Out”) & Ramsey Lewis’ funk period (“Salongo”), and it keeps on coming.

Warner Brothers has finally brought out all of Charles Wright & the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band, Graham Central Station, and Bootsy’s Rubber Band. Zapp and Prince CD’s have always been easy to track down. Thru Rhino you can get nearly all the Average White Band, War, Slave, and Tower of Power.

Polygram/Universal long ago (thanks to Harry Weinger) put out their entire Ohio Players, Parliament, Barry White, Stevie Wonder & Marvin Gaye, and most of their Kool & the Gang, Cameo and a handful of Bar Kays and Con Funk Shun from back in the day. Their James Brown reissues are legendary, although there are still a few JB albums in their original form that are waiting out there.

But waiting right behind these radio hit funk bands are a slew of lesser known (but just as funky) groups that are FINALLY getting more of their catalog out.

First off, itunes is making available all the JIMMY CASTOR BUNCH from Atlantic! This is an incredible find, and any fan of the funk should look into what is available from him there. Check on “E Man Groovin” “Life Truth & Death” “Maximum Stimulation,” “Equal People” and one of my all time favorites: “Bertha Butt Encounters Vadar.” You can also get the complete STEVE ARRINGTON solo albums, like “Positive Power” with the ridiculous “15 Rounds of Lovin’”. Other groups like Mass Production are finally available in full. Now and then a stray funk classic like ADC Band’s “Long Stroke” would pop up on itunes that you can purchase, but that has become a hunt too, although somewhat easier and less dusty than perusing lps at a record shop.

Out of nowhere it seems, a number of indie and import labels (Soul Brother, Wounded Bird, FunkyTown Grooves, Demon/Edsel, Verve, Strut, Soul Jazz, Harmless, Ubiquity, Light in the Attic, Luv & Haight, Thump, etc.) have cranked up their reissuing of great funk, and I can’t be happier. Most if not all of these can be found at, and I’m happy to shamelessly promote them. I can often find the used CD at somewhat cheaper, but nobody give you discs weeks before the scheduled release date like dustygroove.

Since I like to hold CD’s in my hand (it helps doing radio to have disc info, liner notes, etc handy) I am thrilled to be able to finally complete my record collection with some of these long LONG lost funky albums.


This was a lost album in between Roy’s transition from Polydor to Columbia around 1983. It is one of his most party blasting - and most Fela-influenced. An absolute MUST HAVE!

Their 2nd lp after joining Mercury in 1976, the Bar Kays are in full effect on this one, total funk and soul blowout. Unfortunately this lp is available on a 2in1 CD with “Too Hot to Stop” (most of us already have this one) and the mix is not very good. And something horrible happened to “Let’s Have Some Fun” it is an alternate mix and not the complete song. That track (the hit single) is unplayable. A real disappointment. It also sounds like it may have been from someone’s lp – played to a CD player. Not cool if it is sold as an original mix. But at least I can put that album in my Bar-Kays collection, a definite for any funkateer.

This is an incredible surprise!! This lp is way hotter than the first lp from this Bahamas based funk outfit, their big hit “Funky Nassau” was great and this is a brilliant follow up, with better songs and a totally great feel. If you like “Funky Nassau” get both lp’s (now on CD) from this fantastic band!

BRICK – AFTER 5 (1982)
Nobody knows about this one but it is ON HIT! The last album from Brick on their great run on Bang/CBS in the late 70’s, this one did not even chart, but it is HOT! Killer tracks like “Free Dancer” and “Wild and Crazy” are as hot as anything from the “Dusic” album. A great surprise because I figured it would NEVER come out on CD. It is packaged with “Summer Heat” as a 2-in-1 CD.

A 1980 session produced by Ray Parker jr, with a lot of crazy-cool grooves. “Sweat (Til You Get Wet)” was the single. The sound is a little polished - but to me Brick needed no one’s help - but that’s alright, it’s extended Brick, ‘nuff said! Comes in a 2-in-1 cd with After 5, a real bargain.

Their 4th album, after “Good High” “Brick” and “Stoneheart” This is a very deep pocket session that will have you tripping off the advanced groove consciousness of Brick. These guys are very mature here, and their vocals and riffs are just exquisite. It is not your typical 1980’s R&B, but some of the songs here will become your favorites.

Unrepentant disco-funk genius here! If BC1 was a 10, then this is a 9. A must have for any fan of Brass Construction, and anyone that wants some HOT dance grooves. FINALLY available after 34 years! This jam session is the reason I was moved to make this list.

Randy Muller was trippin on BC 3 and BC4, but he gets back into a killer funk pocket with thumpers like “Right Place” and “Get Up to Get Down” This is advanced thump for those who know what I mean. ADVANCED.

A little known masterpiece, the entire album of Chuck Brown & the Soul Searchers is just a soul/funk/go go delight! It is really the album that started Go Go! It is upwards of $30 to try and get the import CD reissue of this, but you can download the entire album from itunes and its all good.

This was one of my all time favorites back in the day, for me right up there with Kool & the Gang’s “Light of Worlds” and some EWF as deep conscious, creative, grooving funk genius. But the sound was always too scratchy and murky to enjoy the old RCA lp. Now it is finally available (along with “Milky Way” as a 2-in-1 CD) and I’m in Chocolate Milk heaven.

P-Funk madman Junie has a number of outrageous solo albums, from Westbound and later on CBS, most of which have yet to be reissued. But you can finally get his outrageous 1984 Island release “Evacuate Your Seats” in full noisy techno-funk effect on itunes I would start with the mixes of “Techno Freeqs” and “Stick It In” and go from there.

MANDRE – MANDRE 4 (1982)
Mandre (Andre Lewis) is a stone trip. Guitarist, arranger and writer, he produced his wife MAXAYN’s three trippy early 70’s albums, then did a stint as bandleader with Frank Zappa. After that he recorded for Motown some spacey dance groove albums as “Mandre.” His mysterious monicker left him and his cosmic groove music on the margins for years, and collectors and re-issuers MUST get to the three Mandre albums on Motown. After Motown, Mandre did one more lp on a tiny indie label, which was just as funky and trippy as the others. A recent lp reissue of Mandre 4 generated a lot of excitement, but my copy was terribly scratchy. Then a CD reissue came out – with just as many scratches as the lp!! A huge disappointment ‘cause the music is great.

A fantastic groove music session from the house band at Philly International. This one has a ‘summer’ theme throughout. The only other album as tightly themed from this time is ‘Motor Booty Affair” the underwater album from Parliament. The work is truly creative here, and the CD comes in a 2-in-1 CD with their “Philadelphia Freedom” another killer session from around 1976.

I never thought a release as odd as this one would ever get reissued, but it came in a 2-in-1 CD with a live Philly stars album. This is the lp with the killer all-star track about the trash on NYC streets, and choruses from Teddy Pendergrass, O’Jays, Lou Rawls etc. Was hunting down the long version of that song online and the whole album popped up.

For my money the best album from Portland's jazz-funk masters, Pleasure. The legendary title cut is only slightly above the awesome jamz throughout the entire disc. I gave it five stars ***** in my book back in the day. Ace finally woke up and put this record out on its own. Two more Fantasy lp’s from Pleasure still need to be released: “Future Now’ and “Special Things.” A 1982 Pleasure album “Give it Up” came out this year, but aside from the (hot) single “Sending My Love” that lp is forgettable.

This is a real trippy lost gem. Roger Troutman is at the top of his game, producing the legendary Sugarfoot of the Ohio Players. A highly original session, with a fantastic sound, but no hit single left this great disc forgotten for years.

Another long lost masterpiece from a living legend. This lp followed up the great “Live at Carnegie Hall” album. Then the label (Sussex) folded, and it seemed like Bill wasn’t heard from again until “Lovely Day” in 1977, but he had been putting together some strong, creative, original funky soul here.

A powerful session that just got lost in the shuffle of other great funk band breakouts, but this is a VERY STRONG record. Bill has Louis Johnson on bass on some incredible cuts, and some all-star musicians with him. Bill is in full effect, but again, no million selling single just left this piece of genius on the margins.


There are probably others that came out this year, but these are the ones I’m bugging on. One noticeable theme with these 2010 CD reissues is that most of these records did not have a monster radio hit to support their sales, and the blockheads at these record companies over the years never knew the music in the first place, so it just sat around.

That is why the efforts of the reissue labels to the the REAL SH+T out there should be commended. There is still a great deal of great funky music from the classic funk era, if folks just keep on digging.

Friday, October 29, 2010

San Francisco Overload - Sly Stone and the SF Giants

Thursday October 28th will go down in history for SF Giants fans as one of the highest highs of the teams 50+ years in The City. Anyone at or near the stadium, or watching it knows what I’m talking about. Nonstop unrelenting joy and pride in The Bay just spewing out is a beautiful thing.

I had another experience that night as well. Just as the game finished, I remembered that there was a film showing of the long awaited movie about Sly Stone, at the Roxie in the Mission. You don’t get much more San Francisco-ish than that, and I took the opportunity to cross the bay and headed out through the San Francisco streets. There was great weather that night -- after gloomy forecasts of rain – that reinforced the notion that Giants Fans in Heaven were making sure the stars were aligned for that nite.

The drive and walk were jovial, magical, and very hard to compare to anything else. Everyone from the panhandlers to the limo riders were flying high, no doubt about it. My mission was another Giant High, and that was to see the latest incarnation of the film about Sly Stone produced by Willem Alkema and "starring" the Dutch twins Edwin and Arno Konings. The three had been “Searching for Sly" like many others for years but their dedication and insatiable desire to find Sly Stone has finally paid off.

The film is titled “Coming Back For More” because as fate would have it, Alkema and the twins tracked down Sly Stone and engaged him with perhaps the first filmed interview in decades, and certainly the first frank and fresh interview since Sly did David Letterman in 1983 (those were the early years of Letterman, late late on NBC after Johnny Carson).

I got to the Roxie a few minutes into the film, and the scene on 16th street was nuts. People partying in maximum Giants ecstasy, and some Sly fans still milling about the theater entrance. Sly couldn’t have had a better entrĂ©e. The early segments of the film were incredible: fantastic early footage of Sly Stone, never ever before seen, and stories and vignettes of the great old days of 60’s San Francisco with a funky multiracial twist.

The song selections themselves denoted a level of love for the music that truly has stamped a generation, or many generations at this point. Alkema and the Koning twins did a good job of capturing the musical magic of the early Sly & the Family Stone, although it would have been nice to hear from Freddie or Larry about the nuts and bolts of the groove at that point.

The Woodstock days kind of fly by, but Sly’s underground genius period, the Riot album and the Fresh album are lovingly portrayed. There is a live rendition of “Family Affiar” with just Sly and Rose on piano from that time, that just made me weep. Then the craziness really begins, and Sly’s “wedding” at Madison Square Garden is shown, and all kinds of crazy things Sly either gets into or accused of are discussed.

Somehow in the midst of Sly’s shenanigans in the 1980s and his time with George Clinton, the story shifts to the Koning brothers’ attempts to locate Sly Stone for an interview. The turn is quite satisfying because the filmmakers had made sure that Sly himself was definitely a worthy target for their search. Anyone seeing the flavors of those spirited times, the brilliance and joy of the Family Stone early on, and the nonstop mischief Sly got himself into, anyone would want to put themselves into the twins’ places and do their own Search for Sly.

Most of us know that in 2006 Sly had agreed to do the Grammy awards, and Alkema & the twins bring their cameras there like the ultimate groupies they were, and they get some initial shots of their hero. Connections made there lead them ever so closer to Sly, and with the help of new technologies, and new financial burdens on Sly, Sly’s isolation dissolves, and the inevitable interview is finally accomplished.

There are some incredible sequences in the interview. The man is more brilliant, humorous and charming than we might have expected, yet he is also more worn down and broke than we might expect as well, and we are faced with a combination of transcendent genius, a life force of our generation, coming to grips with the struggles of a senior citizen in our modern times. The juxtaposition of fantasy and reality are mind blowing, and ultimately very satisfying in this powerful film.

When the film ended at the Roxie, Greg Errico, Cynthia Robinson and Sly-book author Jeff Kaliss did a question and answer period, and felt the love of the house (not packed but well attended), and I made a few connections and re-connections, and made my way back onto the San Francisco streets, where the endless World Series celebration was taking place.

It was an amazing night that I am still trying to process. I lost my dad last year, and he was a hardcore Giants fan, and if there is a Heaven, I know he is one of those souls directing events so that this joyous title can finally come to the Bay. My dad also turned me on to Sly & the Family Stone, and I know he would appreciate this night as I did. There was definitely some San Francisco magic in the air that nite.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

5 Transcendent Moments from the Long Beach Funk Fest

On August 7th, Bobby Easton put together the 2nd Long Beach Funk Fest, in which 5 blocks of downtown Long Beach were converted to an all day free festival of fun and music. Once again the entire party went off without a hitch, and some moments were magical...

Some transcendent moments from the Long Beach Funk Fest:

1) The pure shouts from the crowd as the Original Stone City Band brought the house down and brought Rick James back to life. The songs sounded EXACTLY like Rick James was in the house. You could see and hear the shouts from people who had that kind of visitation – an unforgettable feeling.

2) When Dawn Silva and her massive band – featuring Blackbird McKnight on guitar, & Cherokee on bass, brought the ‘Mothership Connection’ and Dawn called out to Gary, to Catfish, to Mallia, to Glen and all of the fallen funk soldiers. Then when the badass women Jeannette Washington, Dawn Silva, & Sueann Carwell blew such stirring soul, you knew it was heard by the spirits jamming with us all.

3) An incredible thing happened when Jimmy Castor hit those classic notes to the break beat standard “It’s Just Begun” – a spontaneous break dance cipher took place by the stage as youngsters were cranking, crimping and popping to one of the greatest break beats of all time – PLAYED LIVE IN THE STREETS BY THE ORIGINAL E-MAN HIMSELF – All of a sudden hip hop and funk were breathing the same air. An overwhelming experience for me.

4) Bloco Nove’s rock hard Go Go grooves and world funk beats that punctuated their set. Their relentless rhythm assault was one of the hardest rhythm funk overload sessions I’ve heard since Trouble Funk came to the Bay Area in 1986.

5) The delicious groovallegiance of Weapon of Choice featuring Meganut and the ever so dynamic miss Eurie...

6) ...and when the big ol nasty getdown got down and spooked folks with some stirring funk standards, driven by guests Patryce “Choclet” Banks and her daughters Unique and Cynthia. I can still hear echoes of “I Wanna Testify” blowing through the streets of downtown Long Beach.

+ The entire vibe in which people came for the love of The Funk – not for profit, not for the hustle, but to give and get the most natural positive life force out in the world…

Saturday, July 3, 2010

I Have Accepted Disco Into My Life

A few months back I purchased a trippy instrumental album from DJ/collector Oliver Wang thru his website. The disc had a crazy riff on Barry White’s “Love’s Theme” and I thought the beat just had an infectious groove. The album was from jazz arranger Peter Nero and was clearly a throwaway disco effort by him (It is called “Disco, Dance and Love Themes from the 70s”).

But the crazier part for me is the fact that I went out of my way to get all up into this record, an album of derivative disco interpretations! First off, and it is well documented in my book, I am very adamant that the rise of disco meant the death of The Funk on the radio and untold damage to the careers of so many of my super funky heroes.

At the time I considered disco records to be utterly shallow, monotonous, non-musical assaults on the integrity of music in general, and definitely the kryptonite for the funk. It was hard to enjoy even the most pleasant productions because of what the entire disco movement represented.

Now, thirty years later, that period of funk and disco dance is all mushing together, and good dance music from the late 70’s is standing on its own, regardless of source or style. It is also the richest untapped ground for CD reissuers digging around the greatest era of dance music ever. At the time I considered that time (my high school years 77-79) to be the best time for dance music because great funk bands had been forced to stretch out their music for ultimate dance satisfaction. Thus, stormers like “It’s All The Way Live” by Lakeside, “Movin’” by Brass Construction and “Rigor Mortis” by Cameo all broke through the dance funk blackout on the strength of their party licks, but were 100% funk to boot.

Other artists like Marvin Gaye (“Got to Give it Up”) Johnnie Taylor (“Disco Lady”) and Chaka Khan made the most of the new style and stayed relevant, even if their music was dumbed down a bit from what it once was. Of course Kool & the Gang was the worst offender, turing their back on the Afro-centric genius of “Let the Music Take Your Mind” and “Jungle Jazz” and producing “Ladies Night” instead. At the time I was easily offended by these disparaging digs at the funk. When jazzmen like Herbie Hancock and Lonnie Liston Smith drank the disco kool-aid I was about through with it all.

But with the endless onslaught of talent-challenged jokers masquerading as pop stars, the lameness of the music has put disco songs in a new light. There were actually melodies on some disco cuts. There was actually some singing on some of the songs, and some musicians actually played on some of the tracks. At the time, when Nile Rogers of Chic talked about how he was using jazz chords and putting them on a disco beat, I wanted nothing to do with what he was saying.

Now that we have been lobotomized by the standardized nature of American pop beats, even the disco beat features a relatively lively rhythmic interplay, one that does not drone into eternity like so much techno and tired club rap.

So I’m digging into my dance compilation CD’s that have disco and funk hits, and finally checking the other tracks and discovering that some songs aren’t insultingly insipid. Maybe it is just generational, but I’m finding more satisfaction in disco tracks than I ever thought was out there.

Recently I played Yarborough and People’s “Don’t Stop The Music” the O’Jays “I Love Music” and “You + Me = Love” by the Undisputed Truth. These are all very good songs, but would have had a hard time making my “History of Funk” playlist in the past. These songs were all informed by the funk, so they belong in the funk family, and some put a new perfume on the funky mix.

Not that I’ve forgotten what’s really going on. Certainly, to be sure, we as a generation have suffered from a very deep lack of musical leadership, and standards of dance music in America have dropped so low, that one does not need to sing – or even rap – with any quality to get a big hit. This is all real, but my respect for some disco is not entirely based on a rejection of modern music. Okay maybe it is.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Obama and Carter, too many paralells

Now that we are 1/1/2 years into Barack Obama’s term, a fuller appraisal of his strengths and weaknesses has emerged, and with world events going south on him, a picture of his long term legacy is emerging also.

We all knew how charming he was in 2008, and how he used that to overcome the race barrier and to tap into sense of fairness within even the most cynical voters to parlay that into an ‘opportunity’ to transcend doubts about his race and get elected.

It is important also to note that Obama played on a sense of hope that America’s populace had the potential to save the country in the wake of the Bush administration driving the US into the ground. In short, Obama was elected in part because the Bush era was a new low in American political life and Bush was roundly dismissed as the ‘worst president ever.’

Former President Jimmy Carter used that term on Bush, which is interesting because Carter had some of his own troubles as president. Not that he was anything close to the ‘worst president’ in fact, he may be one of the most morally sound people to have served the nation in that office. But his situation bears eerie parallels to Obama’s:

Carter gained the presidency after the American political system was in ruins, after Watergate and the resignation of Richard Nixon, a time when nobody thought America’s government could sink any lower (sound familiar?). The Democrat Carter emerged as a decent man in my opinion, that was overwhelmed by the sheer forces of raw power and evil that surrounded his term as President.

Operating on a platform of ‘human rights’ Carter had to manage the US out of the shame of losing in Vietnam in 1975, out of the Energy crisis and the new humiliation of the US being beholden to Middle Eastern Oil interests, and then the domestic “malaise” that was both cultural (think disco) and economic (industrial base in the Northeast collapsing), as well as the crises caused by the so-called “Marxist” revolution in Nicaragua and the fundamentalist revolution in Iran. Carter appeared to be timid and confused when these crises emerged, and as most of us old enough still remember, things would get a whole lot worse.

The Iran Hostage crisis began in 1979 when Iranian students stormed the sovereign territory of the US and held US staff members & citizens hostage in their own Embassy. The situation was an international embarrassment that never seemed to end. It fact, it only ended when Ronald Reagan was elected, and the hostages were released the day Reagan took office in 1981.

While rumors swirl that a back-channel deal was engineered to keep the hostages in Iran until after the 1980 Presidential elections, (look up the book “October Surprise” by Gary Sick) the fact is that there were far too many sharks in the waters for Carter in his little shrimp boat of a foreign policy to try to manage. The Hostage Crisis ruined Carter’s presidency, and opened the door for Ronald Reagan’s radical right wing restart of America’s national image.

To me, Obama needs to study this period closely, because the gulf oil spill is starting to look like Obama’s ‘hostage crisis,’ a disaster that never ends and derails his presidency. The media is using the “count up” that was used during the hostage crisis. As of June, the gulf oil disaster is around “Day 55”, and the hostage crisis went past “Day 440” so it is not the end of the world…yet.

Obama is trying everything he can, calling out the oil fat cats and using slang (“So I know who’s ass to kick”) to show he’s tough, but it may not be enough. The sharks in the water may be able to frame Obama as weak against the very interests they support (big oil) and convince the populace that a ‘traditional’ a**hole is a better way to go.

I want to be optimistic about Obama’s chances, considering he worked the administration on the financial bailout, the stimulus plan and healthcare reform, he is definitely a doer. But Jimmy Carter engineered the Egypt Israel truce that stands to this day, and yet he is regularly ridiculed by the media as a limp noodle that just presided over US defeats.

The Democrats did ok in midterm 2010 primary elections, but this fall will show us whether or not the haters now have the crisis that can sink the first black president from re-election: an ocean of black oil.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Golden Years of The Funk

Many of us funk fans have been giving our thoughts and prayers out to Garry Shider and the entire George Clinton family of funk. And his determination to continue on stage even after his diagnosis with brain and liver cancer is all the more inspiring and distressing at the same time. It has been especially hard for our super-hero --and for many of us, dear friend --George Clinton because he lost his mother, and son Georgie over the past few months, as well as everyone’s best friend in the funk, the one and only Mallia Franklin, who also passed earlier this year.

George and his son Georgie

That is a lot of loss for one person to take, regardless if they are the indestructible, indomitable Dr. Funkenstein.

I think it is ironic, yet emblematic of The Funk that despite these very real losses and setbacks, the touring P-Funk show over the past couple of years has been the strongest it has been in about a decade. P-Funk is of course hard to measure because there are no comparisons, except to other P-Funk jam sessions, but the new blood, the new guitarists, the new drummers, the new singers, the new keyboardist Danny Bedrosian all are holding up the banner very well. Many of the folks aren’t ‘new’ exactly, but they are fully formed entities in the act, and there are no down spots anywhere in the show, except when one steps back and wonders how long it will continue.

It has become possible now to imagine P-Funk even after the Clinton era is over. This is not really conceivable for me, considering I figured the good doctor would live to be 205. But if he were to retire at this point, no one could possibly blame him, (except for maybe a few creditors) and a few bandmembers that might selfishly want to keep the gravy train going.

But The Funk Mob as we know it is easily 40 years into it now, and I’m only talking about the touring psychedelic monstrosity that was and is Parliament-Funkadelic / P-Funk All Stars that began its road assault as a black rock funk soul band on the road around 1970. That is quite a long time for anyone to be doing anything, even something they love, that is in their bloodstream, and will be in their dust once it scatters.

So I’m looking forward, cause funk ain’t never looking back, it’s always comin’, and I will consider it a blessing that we still get so many legendary funkmasters still cranking at the highest level. Ain’t nothing like it. Ever.

Just talking about the funk stars themselves only tells part of the generational story. I’ve been doing radio – funked up radio – since 1983, and I think I’ve been doing a weekly radio show just about every week since 1985. That is a LOT of funk. And some shows are still on an advanced level of groovallegiance, which is a joy to be a part of. But there are days and times when I’m looking at winding this up too.

I have been at KPFA radio since 1991, and have been on the same Friday night slot since 1997 doing “The History of Funk.” It is what I always wanted to do, so I ain’t never gonna complain about it. But my homie and co-host The Funkyman, has had his own overnight show at KPFA for about ten years, and he just “retired” from it, announcing it last Friday on my show. He simply needed to get back to his life and quit trying to sustain the funkativity of his fans at his own expense. Another friend and colleague of mine, Gary “The G-Spot” Baca, had been on KPFA for around 20 years, and basically burned out this year too. His great overnight Saturday night/Sunday morning show “Live From Aztlan” was a fantastic trip through funk and soul, and G was and still is one of the best interviewers in the Bay Area I’ve ever heard. KPFA management removed him earlier this year from his show, and just like that a radio legend is blowing in the wind.

RV and The Funkyman

Dang, so now I’m hanging on with this funk, watching generations pass, waiting for the revolution to come that The Funk promised us, embedded so deep into our soul. I must now conclude that may never happen, but as George Clinton always says, ‘funk aint about getting there, it is about the pursuit’ And I guess we are all in pursuit of the funk, till the edge of time…

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Avatar spelled backwards = TARZAN

I was hoping this film would just go away, but after winning Golden Globe awards as best picture of 2009, and breaking all attendance records, it looks like Avatar is here to stay. Yet another epic spectacle of American exceptionalism and White Privilege has been playing in 3D, in IMAX and in every theater across the country.

It should not be such a big deal, but huge grossing fantasy films have a far reaching impact on their audiences, of all races and nationalities. The similarities to Tarzan, the mythical white man that becomes “King of the Jungle” were too hard to ignore.

The Tarzan tale, first written in 1912 by American author Edgar Rice Burroughs, details the story of a white man left in the jungle and raised by apes, who by his sheer skills and ingenuity goes on to become “King of the Jungle.” The idea was popular among young Americans looking for an escape for much of the last century, but it also represented the worst examples of white privilege– that a white man can “Go Native” , join the “tribe” like Kevin Costner in Dances With Wolves – and then emerge as their leader!

The story would be incredible except for the fact that it is ingrained in our thinking process as Westerners. Whether the ‘tribes’ are Pacific Islanders, Native Americans or Na’Vi from the planet "Pandora" , it is very hard for Hollywood (or any American fiction) to break out of this mold.

It may seem silly, but characterizations of members of racialized groups in American fiction have a sad way of affecting public opinion, and affecting social policy toward those groups.

As for Avatar, I really thought that the juvenile plot would be exposed by folks critical enough to see the colonial baggage hanging over every “exotic” flower, every “magical” ritual of the natives and every alpha-male effort of the protagonist, (named Jake Sully, if you can believe that).

Yes the film is gorgeous, and that is the draw on the way in, but I’m afraid the lasting images on the way out of the film do a lot of damage to the “Native” in the imagination of the audiences. Since Pocahontas in the 1600s, the (false) story of the benign tribespeople enabling the courageous white patriarch has been indelibly (and often cruelly) marked on our national psyche. For director James Cameron to bring this tale to the largest venue on earth comes as no surprise.

I’m afraid this film represents the best and worst of American film-making. As a technical project, this is one of the most ambitious and overwhelming experiences ever put in a film theater. But technical achievement in Hollywood films has just as often led to some of the most backward racial characterizations.

How about these examples:

In 1915 “Birth of A Nation” was hailed as a “cinematic triumph” in 1915, replete with its fiercely racist characterizations of “free” Negroes;

In 1933 “King Kong” was one of the greatest sci-fi productions ever made at the time, complete with the giant “super nigger” chasing the white woman across the jungle and dragging her up the Empire State Building;

1939 -One of the first ‘color’ films was “Gone With The Wind” that lamented the demise of the Old South (and the old ways of the Confederacy) with spectacular visual imagery;

In 1963 the most expensive film ever made (to date) was “Cleopatra” a four hour monolith that featured a white woman in the lead role, Elizabeth Taylor commanding her multi-colored subjects.

In 1969, As a reflection of the cynical, revolutionary sixties, racial domination was flipped in “Planet of the Apes” a hugely popular film (with four sequels and a TV series) that imagined the mess that would incur once apes (read:blacks) took over the world.

In the late sixties things began to change. It was a time in which visionary sci-fi producers imagined space journeys in which the humans were not the dominant species, but mere trifles on the galactic road map. Stanley Kubrick’s essential 2001: A Space Odyssey imagined a distant – incomprehensible intelligence that sought to guide humanity through its transformational phases. It was clearly a break from the colonial mentality of so much sci fi.

Much of the appeal of the original Star Trek for many of us was that the intrepid Enterprise crew were not merely understood as space police, but that they regularly encountered beings far more advanced than humans, beings that were annoyed by the trivial and savage ways of earth beings, and the humans were lucky to get out of orbit in time without getting vaporized.

In 1979, and reprised in 1984, Sigourney Weaver single-handedly pushed the feminist envelope in sci-fi as the indomitable (yet still complex, courageous and feminine) Ripley. But by this time however, the overblown era of hyper-masculine bombast began to overtake the imagination of film makers, as steroid enhanced Austrian body builder Arnold Schwarzenegger became the #1 box office sci fi action hero in the 90’s.

We are back full circle now. With American Empire on the precipice, no Hollywood film maker wants to spend their money openly critiquing the system that created their privileged space to begin with.

So we are left with a story of a white man who “Goes Native” and joins the tribe, a la Dances With Wolves (another blockbuster white man fantasy of the other), and after disowning his own people, joins the fight against them and becomes essentially the greatest of the native warriors, the King of the Jungle, a la Tarzan.

We see once again the benevolent and naive ‘earth people’ that put their trust in the invaders without serious suspicion, and we see the European invader magically obtain powers and status of a ‘chosen one’ that outpaces the warriors and leaders of the people there. What, these natives were afraid of the big bird all these years, and the whyteboy is the only one courageous enough to fly it? Give me a break.

And don’t get me started on the tired broken English accents, straight out of movie westerns and Mutiny on the Bounty. All this praise about ‘creating a new language’ for the aliens, but the actors deliver them like Pat Morita in Happy Days.

As a film with a “message,” despite its anti war and corporate greed overtones, in terms of its characterization of the other, it is warped, tired, abusively stereotypical and ultimately unwatchable. So much energy, so much effort, so much care and precision, down the drain. But that’s just me. I’ll probably watch it again and hope I don’t feel the same way, but it is hard to hide from what you can see in 3D.