Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Tapia

At the end of the month my new short story "Grace's Love Theme" will published in the UK collection The Global Village: Tell Tale IV edited by Courttia Newland and Monique Roffey. One of the best things about the internet is meeting creative folks like writer/editor Courttia Newland, who has written novels, essays and short stories; his 2008 book Society Within was turned into the BBC drama West 10. Besides our mutual love for Chester Himes, Stevie Wonder and hip-hop, I feel Courttia and I are on the same wavelength when it comes to the social science of post-soul/post-
millennium fiction.

As part of the '70s era fictions I've written in the last few years, "Grace's Love Theme" is perhaps one of the most gentle. A love story about a Harlem native named Dorian Parker and his first real girlfriend, Jamaican transplant Grace Campbell, "Grace's Love Theme" centers around a group of friends going to see Superfly and the magical wonders of Curtis Mayfield's brilliant soundtrack.

Perhaps one of the most romantic stories I've written, "Grace's Love Theme" is also about my passions for New York City and my old neighborhood movie house the Tapia. Located uptown at 3589 Broadway between 147th and 148th, the spot reminded me of that run down theater in the Fat Albert cartoon where the gang watched monster movies and screamed in the darkness. I suppose the Tapia was a hood grindhouse with sticky carpets and broken seats (we only went to the bathroom in groups), but it was also our little piece of cinematic heaven above 110th Street.

Along with my own crew from 151 Street (lil brother Perky, Darryl Lawson, Beedie, Kyle and Marvin), it was at the Tapia where I saw Blaxploitation classics The Mack, Black Caesar, The Education of Sonny Carson and many others. It was also where I was introduced to the pop culture universe of Bruce Lee, Hammer Films, Burt Reynolds, American International Pictures, Charles Bronson flicks, Dirty Harry, redneckploitation (which was always movies about guys running moonshine), The Doberman Gang and Willard.

Every Saturday or Sunday, we trooped the four blocks and saw a double feature for .75 cents. The big lobby between the box-office and the concession stand was filled with posters for upcoming features. As a fan of comic books and album cover art, movie posters for Cotton Comes to Harlem, Shaft's Big Score, Five On the Black Hand Side, The Book of Numbers, Cooley High, just to name a few, opened me up to artists Robert McGuinness and Jack Davis.

Inside the theater, as I ignored the heckles and weed smoking of the rowdy audience,
it was at the Tapia that I developed a passion for films that continues to this day. Years before, when one of my favorite writers, an uptown sister named Toni Cade Bambara (who mentioned the theater in her wonderful short story "Gorilla, My Love") used to go there, the theater was called the Dorset; by the time I started college in 1981, it had become the Nova.

Today, as can be seen on one of my favorite websites Cinema Treasures, it is a .99 cent store. Though the landscape of Manhattan might be an ever changing, at least with "Grace's Love Theme," I was able to capture a little piece of the Tapia's history.

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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Chrisette Michele Rocks the Canal Room

This past Monday night LA Reid threw a small bash for singer Chrisette Michele at the Canal Room in New York City. Bringing back memories of yesteryear def jams, there was a flow of delicious sushi and a old-school open bar. There were also interesting folks in the house including singer/producer Ne-Yo (who produced most of Chrisette's new album), stunning publicist Jana Fleishman, former De La Soul dancer Asia Minor and Uptown magazine editor Tomika Anderson.

Of course, the highlight of the night was a short, but sweet set Ms. Michele rocked for us. Dressed in a fashionable white jacket and sporting blonde highlights in her short hair, Chrisette Michele opened with the title track of her upcoming album Epiphany. While the song is cool as an evening breeze, my personal favorites were “All in What You Do” and “Blame It On Me.”

On stage, Chrisette Michele was in total control with a charming presence and laid-back style. Epiphany is due on May 19th. Below is an interview I did with the ever-lovely Chrisette Michele while she was driving to church in her native Long Island.
It has been two years since sultry voiced singer Chrisette Michele released her stunning gold-certified debut I Am. Blessed with a gorgeous instrument and described as a “soulful songbird” by Entertainment Weekly, the Long Island native proved to the world that she could live up to the hype. Nominated for a BET Award for Best New Artist as well as two Grammies, I Am was both a critical success and a fans delight.

Two years later the singer returns to center stage with her follow-up Epiphany. Still, when it first came time to begin recording, the singer realized the need to challenge herself. “I felt like I was a little too shy and laidback my first time out,” confesses Chrisette. “On my new project I wanted to raise the bar and step-out of my comfort zone. I wanted to make songs that were more edgy, youthful and urban. I still have an old soul, but I’ve learnt how to flip it so I can be cool too.”

Recruiting talented collaborators that include Ne-Yo and Rodney Jerkins, the singer/songwriter has set aside her bluesy jazz vocal style for a more pop friendly soundscape. Marking a transition away from her traditional leanings to a fuller integration of hip-hop soul, Chrisette Michele was clearly conscious of the next level. Yet, as can clearly be heard on her newest single “Epiphany (I’m Leaving),” the 27-year-old has not sold-out, but simply expanded her musical palette.

Constructed by Ne-Yo and Chuck Harmony, the title-track is a beautiful broken-hearted song that reveals the emotional misery behind Chrisette’s lovely smile. “I sat down with Ne-Yo, and just talked about everything that was on my mind,” says Chrisette. “He’s such a humble guy, and he listened to me for hours. I spoke about my many joys and the pain of breaking-up with my former boyfriend.”

Opening with spacey keyboards and girl group backgrounds, Chrisette’s bold declaration of flye girl independence (“It’s over,” she sings) on “Epiphany (I’m Leaving)” sets the tone of most of the disc. “That word ‘epiphany’ just meant so much to me, because it was during the time that I was preparing to record that something clicked in my spirit.”

Even rougher was the fact that Chrisette Michele’s former boyfriend is also her former manager; the two have been in an ugly lawsuit for a year and a half. “It’s been grueling and the lawsuit is still going on,” she says. “Sometimes relationships can be too much to handle, but there comes a time when you realize you just have to let go. Believe me, this was a hard album to sing. I felt more vulnerable, but my singing is much tougher.”

Nowhere does that toughness come across more than on the soulful “Blame It on Me.” An awesome ballad that colors itself with a little Muscle Shoals soul, there is red dirt earthiness that is just completely raw. “You can say whatever you want, as long as its goodbye,” Chrisette wails coldly.

“The words to that song just popped in my head at 4 in the morning,” remembers Chrisette. “The next day in the studio, I talked to Chuck Harmony and he played me something a few hours later.” A producer/ songwriter who is part of Ne-Yo’s production collective Compound Entertainment, Chuck has worked on projects with Mary J. Blige, Janet Jackson and Celine Dion. “Me and Chuck actually met by chance at BMI about a year ago,” Chrisette recalls. “We were fooling around on the piano in the waiting room, and I just got a great vibe from him. A few months later my A&R played me a track, and it was Chuck.”

Since the release of her I Am, Chrisette has always toured the world with the Roots, Raheem DeVaughn and Solange. “To me, nothing is more important than touring,” she says. “Commutating with the audience through song can be magical. Singing in the studio is one thing, but you must be able to bring it to the stage too.”

Citing Japan and Barbados as two of her favorite spots, Chrisette explains, “In Japan, it is just about the music, and an artist is judged by the material, not the latest gossip. While, in Barbados audiences just show such a passion, like they can pick-up what is going on in your heart.” In addition, Chrisette also found time to record with The Roots (“Rising Up”) and The Game (“Let Us Live”).

“Honestly, I was a little scared when I went to work with Game, but he turned out to be one of the nicest people I’ve ever met,” Chrisette admits. “He said I was like his little cousin.”

As if that was not enough, Chrisette also started working on her acting chops after appearing on an episode of Girlfriends. Playing herself in "What's Black-A-Lacking," an episode directed by series star Tracee Ellis Ross, she says, “That experience was amazing, because they allowed me to have so much input and let me to write my own scenes. Truthfully, there is no feeling like seeing myself on TV.”

Currently studying with noted acting, Chrisette has set serious goals for herself. “I want to be able to do Shakespeare or a Rodgers & Hammerstein musical.”

Though Chrisette admits to being rather conservative, it did not stop producers Harmony and Ne-Yo from trying to get her to be more risqué on record. “They used to joke about the ring that I wear that is basically my promise to myself to remain a virgin until I get married,” she admits. “As I told Essence magazine last year, I feel as though I represent for young girls.” In addition to working with the young girls who sing in the choir of her father’s church, Chrisette has set-up the American Young Ladies Foundation summer camp. “BET may not play my videos as much as others because of it, but I got to rep for my babies.”

It was from talking about her chastity that the Ne-Yo and Harmony were inspired to write “Another One.” Opening with a lovely acoustic guitar and Chrisette singing quietly, “Another One” slowly builds to the point of explosion. “That is my favorite song on the album,” Chrisette admits. Mixing rock guitars with hip-hop drum patterns, the track is an obvious winner. “Nobody capture New American music like Ne-Yo and the Compound crew.”

Working with producer/songwriter Rodney Jerkins was also another treat for Chrisette Michele. “Anybody who thinks they can go into the studio with Rodney and not work is kidding themselves,” she laughs. “When we worked on ‘Playing Our Song,’ he pushed me to the limit. Rodney is a genius who also works hard. I just kept thinking how lucky I was to have him on my album.”

While angst and heartbreak is part of Chrisette Michele’s persona on her sophomore project, the power and strength of Epiphany will not disappoint.

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Monday, March 09, 2009

On Howard Chaykin
(American Flagg and Times 2 art copyright Howard Chaykin, all rights reserved)

This past Christmas writer Miles Marshall Lewis and I were having a chat about comic books. Since we share a similar sensibility that ranges from Paul Pope to Frank Miller to Bill Sienkiewicz (though I’ll never understand the boy’s love for John Byrne), we somehow got on the topic that those of us raised on the four-color sensations of comics were somehow more creative.

After several glasses of white wine, I was convinced that the reason former geeks like Rza, Jonathan Letham, Andre 3000, Darren Aronofsky and, of course, ourselves, were so creative was because we all grew-up in the shadows of Jack Kirby’s two-page spreads, Ditko's weird surrealism and John Buscema's hulking barbarians.

“I once read an interview with Sonny Rollins where he said Kirby’s artwork inspired his style.”

“But, what artists do you think influenced your style?” Miles asked. Indeed, for those who might not be familiar with my fiction, I tend to write in a cinematic manner that is cool, urbane, noirish and colorful as an oil rainbow floating in a puddle.

Depending on the kind of story that I am writing, I find myself looking at certain artists and styles that include Pedro Bell, Marshall Rogers, Robert McGinnis, Romere Breaden, Alex Nino, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Howard Chaykin. Out of the group, Chaykin is the artist I most often revisit when it comes time to construct my own New York based fictions.

I was thirteen years old when I first discovered the art of Howard Chaykin in an obscure fanzine published by the great Wally Wood called Witzend. Since I wasn’t into superheroes as much as other comic fans, I was always looking for something different. I had already peeped the work of absurd sexy world Robert Crumb, the strangeness of early Heavy Metal's and the college rawness of National Lampoon, and I must have felt that Witzend #10 was going to rock my world.

Moreover, in its own way, it actually did.

Although I haven’t seen the issue in years, I remember it had Wally Wood wrap around cover and some amazing interior art from Alex Toth, Mike Zeck and Dick Giordano. But, what changed the way I looked at comics was a haunting three-page strip that Howard Chaykin wrote and drew called “On March 17, 1969.” It was about a serial killer roaming the streets of Manhattan; published during the time when the Son of Sam had just started his killing spree, it scared me to death.

Since this was a year before Chaykin's acclaimed Star Wars adaptation, I really had no idea who he was or that he had studied under Gil Kane, Wally Wood and Neal Adams. All I knew was that I had never seen comics drawn with a freshness that was sexy and creepy at the same time.
During this period of his development, so I believe, Chaykin was getting into the painting styles of Baron Storey, Bob Peak, Robert McGuire and Robert McGinnis (to name a few), and applying them to comics.

Yet, unlike some so-called comic book artists who just do illustrations and try to call sequential, Howard Chaykin knew how to tell a story. Experimenting with various design styles and page layouts, he broke ground for future upstarts Bill Sienkiewicz, Kyle Baker, Kent Williams and Dave McKean.

There was something about the jazzy rhythms and revolutionary style of “On March, 1969” that laid the groundwork for Chaykin's brilliant creations years later including American Flagg, a cool Bud Powell comic he did for a French magazine (it was later reprinted in Reflex), Empire, The Shadow, Black Kiss and my favorite, Time 2: The Epiphany.

Speaking in a visual style that had more in common with George Gershwin, Miles Davis or Henry Mancini than other comic book creators, Chaykin helped uplift the genre, if only a little. Original characters like Cody Starbuck, Dominic Fortune and Iron Wolf, which came out in 1974, but I didn’t it see until years later, were cocky existentialist cats who were smooth with chicks, quick with a gun and sharply dressed.

In addition, Chaykin’s women were smart and stylish fashion plates with many shoes and different outfits. Recently, while writing my latest erotica short “Brooklyn Bound” for the preview issue of Bunnie (see below), I dug out my copy of Thick Black Kiss. A stunning tranny/gangster graphic novel that was first published in 1988, this was Chaykin at his most weird nasty. Nevertheless, 21-years later, the book still stands up, and often helps me to visualize the landscape of my own characters and their erotic escapades.

Another element that first drew me to Chaykin’s work was the New York City aesthetic that was always a part of his style. Being a city kid raised in Washington Heights and Harlem, I was sensitive to Chaykin’s vibe; it didn’t matter how deep in space the characters might be, it was always New York as Rear Window, The Sweet Smell of Success, The French Connection or Annie Hall. And, as he showed in his revivial of The Shadow in 1985, when given a chance the cityscape becomes another important character.

Perhaps the biggest compliment I ever got from a critic was in the pages of Time Out New York when a writer compared my short story “The Whores of Onyx City” (from The Darker Mask: Heroes From the Shadows) to Chaykin’s masterwork American Flagg. While it was actually more influenced by Time 2: The Epiphany, I suppose us fanboys can’t be choosey.

Excert to: The Whores of Onyx City

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Sunday, March 08, 2009

Catholic School Blues

It was 1973 when my mother took me out of the dreaded Modern School, a Black private academy that I loathed, and placed me in St. Catherine of Genoa. After enduring the pretentiousness of the Modern School for three years, where my third grade teacher Miss Williams had a crooked wig and played the same Mozart record everyday during lunch, mom thought it best to stop wasting her money (I pretended to be sick a lot) and transfered me.

Unlike friends who have told me parochial school horror stories, I loved going to St. Catherine. The nuns, for the most part were actually nice (except for Avon selling Sister Regis, who got on my nerves), the lay teachers were exciting and the priests were not molesters.

Entering the school in fourth-grade I was soon christened and became an alter boy. It was something straight out of Bing Crosby, kind of corny and cool. To this day, I think back to those early morning masses and badass Tom Lowe sneaking wine in the rectory; a few tears ago I heard Tom had been in jail for years.

Ironically, though I’d discovered that same year that I wanted to be a writer (after rehashing the plot to “The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight” to my playwright godfather), I was placed in a special reading class. At the time, I was really shy and scared to read in front of the class, so Sister Karen thought that meant I couldn’t read at all.

Still, my most stinging memory had nothing to do with nuns and everything to do with Miss Barry, our eighth grade teacher. Tall, blonde and in her early thirties, she was the object of desire for more than a few boys in my class. Miss Barry had been our English teacher since the sixth grade, so by eighth you would think she would have known that I was on my way to being a great American wordsmith in the tradition of Oscar Madison.

At some point in the eighth grade, we were studying poetry and Miss Barry assigned the class to write our own verse. Ever the hustler, I wrote more than a few poems for my classmates, charging them a quarter apiece. Yet, when we turned in our poems, Miss Barry read my masterwork and accused me of plagiarism.

In my mind I was puzzled, because I had written like ten other poems (making a total of $2.50) in the batch, and now this chick was accusing me of copying. “I wrote this myself,” I uttered, feeling like I was going to cry.

“Well, I think you got it out of a book and I want you to write another one.” Believe me, if thoughts could kill, Miss Barry would have been choking on her own vomit. Any sane kid would have told his mom and got a chance to laugh when she told Miss Barry that her son sat in the middle of the living room floor typing poems, plays and short stories on a gray Olivetti.

Instead, I simply wrote another poem. Though I can’t remember if I scribbled it at home or in front of her, when Miss Barry returned it, I had received the lowest grade in the class. Though this incident happened thirty years ago, it still haunts me. Sometimes I wish I could find Miss. Barry and show her my published works; sometimes I wish I could just ask her why she doubted the authorship of the poem.

Whatever her reasons might’ve been, another side of me is convinced that my drive as a writer streams from that experience. Every essay, short story, article and poem the I write right, I write to prove Miss Barry wrong.