Monday, August 22, 2011

Run Red Run

Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller

The year 1960 started off an era where pop musicians began to speak out on social issues. Before the decade’s end, even the most ambivalent pop musicians felt compelled to include at least one “protest song” per album, at least if they wanted to be thought of as “serious” artists. But the first pop music salvo that specifically attacked the white power structure in the U.S. was not a protest song at all. It was a novelty tune about a gambling monkey, penned by a team of Jewish songwriters and performed by a black doo-wop group more known for songs about comic book characters than racial politics.

The 1959 song, “Run Red Run,” by The Coasters—a group that was already famous for a string of pile-in-the-jalopy novelty hits—is a fierce indictment of racism, a brilliant detournement of a nasty stereotype and a provocative taunting of fearful whites, nervous over the reckoning to come. The genius of the song, written by consummate hitmakers Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, was that it used a ridiculous comic parable to convey an insurrectionist message. It works as a joke, it works as a call to arms, and most importantly, it works as a pop song.

“Red went and bought himself a monkey. Got it from a pawnshop broker. Taught that monkey how to guzzle beer, and he taught him how to play stud poker.”

This first line is classic Lieber/Stoller, whose songs for The Coasters often featured wonderfully bizarre settings and characters. Sharing the 1950s fascination with all things “exotic”, Lieber and Stoller served up scandalous and weird story-songs like “Idol with a Golden Head” alongside summertime fun like “Charlie Brown” and “Yakety Yak”. While much of what they wrote about was just silly, their early work included songs like “Framed” and “Riot in Cell Block No. 9” which, in their own jokey way, spoke to the unfairness of the American justice system.

Run Red Run peaked at #36 on the Billboard Top 40
It was a system that was under strain in the late ‘50s, as the civil rights movement was just gaining the momentum it needed to push back against the segregation and oppression directed toward blacks of the day. It’s pretty well acknowledged that the pop music of the 1950s and ‘60s had a buoyant effect on America’s civil rights movement, first by granting African Americans access to the cultural mainstream, and secondly by celebrating the social and economic freedoms brought on by the end of World War II. While exploration of those freedoms often amounted to little more than goofy teenage fantasies (like when Eddie Cochrane beseeched the U.N. to find a cure for his Summertime Blues), they still spoke to an awakening desire for new liberties that suddenly seemed possible in American life. In black America, that awakening was about much more than fast cars and itsy-bitsy-teeny-weeny-yellow-polka-dot bikinis, even if sometimes black pop performers didn’t, or simply couldn’t, explicitly say so.

Take Chuck Berry, one of the few pop stars of the 1950s who actually wrote his own songs. While he sometimes dropped hints about racism (“Brown-Eyed Handsome Man” is either a fist pump for Black Pride or a celebration of sexual prowess, it’s hard to tell which), he mostly told white teens what they wanted to hear. Berry’s classic “School Days” first blared from jukeboxes in 1957, lodging its grievances of too much “history and practical math” and how “the guy behind you won’t leave you alone.” Serious complaints to be sure, but they start to look downright petty when you consider that 1957 was the same year President Eisenhower had to send 1,000 troops to Little Rock, Arkansas, to protect nine black high school students from being torn to pieces by segregationist lynch mobs.

The Coasters
Set in that context, it seems even more astounding that “Run Red Run” was able to sneak into the top 40. The Coasters’ reputation as a “funny” band must have distracted people, because even the shallowest analysis of Lieber and Stoller’s lyrics point to Red playing the part of the (white) corrupt oppressor and the monkey being the (black) underdog hero. It should be noted here that the racist comparison of blacks to monkeys is one of the main ideas being attacked in the song—a long-discredited stereotype that Lieber and Stoller use to jab at listeners who might actually still think that way.

After Red corrupts the monkey with drinking and card games, the song sets up the conflict:
“Last night they were gambling in the kitchen. Monkey, he was taking a beating. Monkey said, ‘Red, I’m gonna shoot you dead because I know darn well you been cheating…’”

Lest anyone think I’m reading too much into a jokey Coasters song, here’s what Jerry Leiber says about his lyrical intent, as quoted in Peter Buckley’s Rough Guide to Rock: “Once the monkey knows how to play [poker], he knows how to understand other things. And once he understands that he’s being cheated and exploited, he becomes revolutionary.”

Was it Leiber/Stoller’s place to try and speak for blacks in this way? I don’t know. But if there’s any doubt as to whether their black colleagues approved, The Coasters’ recorded performance of the song settles the matter. Riding on a propulsive train beat, lead singer Carl Gardner* shimmies through the song with a giddy smirk on his lips, hitting a wicked stride for the first chorus of “Run, Red, Run ‘cuz he’s got your gun and he’s aiming it at your head!” and sending it home with a jeering “Boogity boogity boogity!”

Not only does Gardner seem keenly aware of the irony of the song, he appears to revel in it, delivering lines like “Monkey said, ‘Red, you made a man out of me, now I’m gonna make a monkey out of you!’” with a sublime and vengeful satisfaction. 

The song’s climax is set in a downtown parking lot, where the monkey holds Red at gunpoint. “Give me your car keys and give me your watch, give them to me or I’ll shoot,” croons Gardner. “I’m gonna put on your brand new Stetson hat and go to town in your new brown suit.”

Taken seriously, “Run Red Run” is about overcoming injustice by any means necessary. The fact that it was meant to be taken seriously is evidenced by the bittersweet flipside of the single, “What About Us?”, a soulful appeal to the conscience of white America: “He eats steaks at the Ritz… Big steaks, that’s the breaks. We eat hominy grits from a bag. What a drag.”

“Run Red Run” b/w “What About Us?” was released on the ATCO label in 1959, three years before Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” and eight years before James Brown’s “Say It Loud - I’m Black and I’m Proud”. That puts the most unlikely group in the world, The Coasters, at the absolute forefront of the modern Civil Rights movement within American popular music.

*Carl Gardner, founding member and lead singer of the Coasters, died on June 12, 2011. He was 83.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Haunted Workshop, the Literary Highlight of my Year

 I’m so stoked to be driving to a haunted hotel in the mountains this weekend to meet with Intera Cirklo, my writer’s group and best pals from Antioch ULA. I’m lucky to have found such a talented group of writers and such a goofy bunch of weirdos to get lit with. That’s “lit” short for literary, of course…

Left to right: Andrew Panebianco--his fancy last name means “white bread.” Scott Miller, math genius and algorithmic poet. Seth Fischer, Rumpus maker and splinter technician. R. Neal Bonser, fiction phenom (and my roomie). Jane O’Keefe, long form master and rodeo queen. Hazel Kight Witham, stunt driver and prose wizard. Lisa M-G, Class President and future U.S. Poet Laureate.  

I’ll be posting lots about these folks here. Reading their work this time around has inspired me to step up my game, because I don’t want to be left behind when they all get published and famous! 

Last year at our annual Haunted Worskhop I submitted an early action sequence from "Rough & Ready Island." This time around I'm sending the revised first chapter, just because first chapters are so important and I want to make sure I'm grabbing readers. I'm also throwing in some very rough character sketches from my next novel, which I hope to have at least halfway drafted by this time next year.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

On Demand

I just read these two great interviews on PopMattters with a couple of cutting edge Print-On-Demand publishers . One of the companies, Publication Studio, is run by is a group of ex-punks in Portland who put out hundreds of cool titles for a diverse group of authors. Instead of marketing books, they say they “tend to their social life,” which  is wonderful because it shows they think of books as living things, not just numbers on a spreadsheet. The other interview is with a small reprint press—and I didn’t even know they did this with POD—putting out cool, old, pulp novels from the ‘50s and before.
I think POD really is the future of publishing, just like small record labels that help bands cultivate niche audiences  are the future of the music biz. Anyway, it sure looks like where I’m headed.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Good Company

As some of you know, I wrote a novel. It’s a modern retelling of Treasure Island, with Jim Hawkins recast as a homeless kid hunting the loot from an armored car heist. I’ll be sharing chapters online soon.

Anyway, I’m sitting here thinking of ways to get my book “out there” and I remember reading part of a modern sequel to Treasure Island in the library. I was thinking of writing the author and see if he had any insight to share, so I looked him up and was surprised to find he wasn't the only writer to try a Treasure Island sequel. There was another. And another. And another.  

Robert Louis Stevenson
Amazon has 19 books that appropriate Treasure Island. These include six entitled “Return to Treasure Island,” plus four prequels, an account from Long John Silver’s point of view, and one called “Treasure Island: a Novel” in which Jim Hawkins is a teenager in the 1950s, the treasure is Nazi gold and Long John Silver is an American vet who left his leg at Iwo Jima.

I have to say, my mind was blown. I knew from the start I didn't have the most original book in the world, but I had no idea I was working such well-tilled ground.

Robin thought it was a disaster and that I would freak out. But you know what? I love it! It proves there’s a market, however small, for RLS wannabes like me. And my book won’t be lonesome on the shelf.

I’m especially intrigued by this other retelling! I ordered a copy and can’t wait to see how a more established author handled the same challenge I had—to bring the Treasure Island myth alive in the present day.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Weird Turn Pro

H.S.T., an early hero of mine.
A few months ago I was catching up with a friend I hadn’t seen in a while and he recalled seeing my byline at (I think he read this book review.)

He said the writing was really good, and I was happy to hear it, but something in the way he said it bothered me. It was like he was surprised! So instead of just being glad that someone, anyone, had read and remembered something I worked hard on, I shipwrecked on the fact that my byline didn't automatically translate to "Excellent piece! Read now!"

I wallowed around in it for a while, blaming my lack of recognition on the fates who ceaselessly scheme to ruin me, but in the end I realized it was my own fault. I’ve published hundreds of stories, won journalism awards, appeared in lit journals and recently completed a novel. But my efforts to promote myself have been halfhearted and lame.

That changes today. I’ve got a lot of published work out there but it’s scattered to the winds and floating around on the web. My goal for this blog is to gather those stories and corral them in one place so when people ask me what kind of stuff I write, I can point them here and let them figure it out for themselves. 

I also hope to connect with other writers, develop my publishing platform and tell the world about my latest projects.

So there it is--my mission statement. Thanks for reading, and please, please, please share your thoughts and reactions to my work. Just don’t act so surprised if you see something you like!