Baldwin, Watts, Zappa

A CIRCLE GAME
It’s exhausting, watching hordes of strangers and at times familiars, find their tensions rising. We know at every turn, disenfranchised groups of misbegottens, their tempers on fire; rubbing up against more of the same. People can feel they don’t matter as much in the cresting number of a world population.  How can we keep reaching for the light, if all we see are cannons to the left of us, cannons to the right? Call this a balm offering for what ails us.
A half century ago in Los Angeles I was stolen from my everyday sunshine, along with millions of others across the nation, to squirm in a chair in front of a TV with Walter Cronkite. The riots that began in Watts, that swelled from a minor traffic stop and escalated into one more horrible human tragedy, would end. By that hot summer in Watts of 1965…our nation had been through living hell for a number of years. Fear ignited by anger ignited by more.
It’s an unfriendly proposition to imagine what sort of people can take in the reality of August, 1965. The burning, mean-hot week resonates from back there to right here. And it’s re-purposed into the current unbearable social condition; violence, racism, prejudice…waging a war against good old humanity.
The steam and heat greeted us all in Los Angeles that too hot summer.
In 1965, 34 people died in the Watts Riots. Thousands were arrested. Millions of dollars of loss of property; personal and commercial.
 It was serious-hot that August in 1965……I was a no more than a slow-strutting high school junior, living outside downtown L.A.; swinging along with Hispanic, Italian and Japanese and bleached surfers at school. In a sea of pale yellow, I sauntered around in black fish-net stockings; barely tolerating anything else. My je ne sais quoi had set in.
My own temperature would rise at the slightest provocation; given the mother was not to be found, and a father adapting to California instead of Indiana and a new wife who did not like large families; of which we were seven. What to do with that?
Exposure can mean everything in small pockets. It can keep things snug while there’s a hurricane outside. It happened in that city; expansive thought that caught me on fire. Seeing a first live play, at 16 in Hollywood THE AMEN CORNER,  by James Baldwin at the Theatre of Being Workshop; produced by Frank Silvera, starring an incomparable Bea Richards put its hooks into me and held on…… The most human of narratives, with the pellets of the repressed human condition, set a tone that would partly shape my entire life, the impact that profound.
Smart African-American writing; a voice of reason.
What could possibly go wrong in L.A?
AMENCORNERBLACKWHITEPLAYBILL
My 40-year old father worked in the heart of Los Angeles with fellow engineers from around the world. Simmering shades of caramel, yellow, black, brown, red (India, Finland, Russia, rural America, Detroit) showed up at work to draw plans for pumps; big red fire-truck pumps, oil pumps, hydraulic stuff. It was a very big deal back then.
But the day the riots began August 11, a safety curfew was immediately enacted; this caused the working men of every color in Los Angeles to not return home to their suppers and kids. Instead, they raced along with my Dad to the rooftop of the Byron Jackson Pump Company on Third Street; they held up there for 7 days with the riots that burned, killed, and terrorized the thousands impacted by racial injustice. This incident, echoing today’s news, was a remarkable half century ago. My father, a WWII submarine veteran/survivor…never spoke of the Watts Riots the rest of his life.
3rdandTractionAerialandParcelmap.jpg
3rd and Traction Aerial and Parcel map
Our Midwestern transplanted, double-jointed family lived 20 miles east of the Watts Riots epicenter that summer of ’65. We older teens were left at home to fend for ourselves in the Quaker-settled suburb of Whittier (birthplace of President Nixon and 1/2 hour from the surreal, dream-come-true-ville: Disneyland). Brady Bunch lawns sprawled endlessly. Our step-mother was all but invisible: a fact. Summer lunches were the quintessential flour-corn tortillas and fried salami, in-between watching the news on KTLA; not so much terrified, but alarmed with hope our dad and his buddies of color would still be on the rooftops. Everyone  in the country was experiencing that stunned feel we knew too well as a nation watching for  years riots, violence and terror on TV, or getting a dose ourselves..
Back in 1962 we five children had already been On The Road, and I do not mean good Mr. Charles Kuralt. Near vagabonds, we’d traveled on the same highways the Trailways buses took the Freedom Riders…we’d already been introduced to startling drama on the road….our renegade mother conducting her own personal journey; what she called her independence.  Living month by month in Indiana, Pennsylvania, Florida, we were running neck and neck with the Freedom Riders’ buses arriving at stations, we kids and the other bus travelers on their journeys, would stand frozen in front of the segregated restrooms and drinking fountains.  A super travesty on humanity…I could see that even at age 14. The Best Gift Ever was given to our nation in the form of a full-length film on Christmas Day, 1962; ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ was released. A story lesson by Harper Lee in human relations, reminding us of what we knew is the best civility for the ailing nation. Regrettably, at our palmetto-laden Florida backroad/cementblock house, we were too strapped for money to see it. In adult time I own a copy; for an annual check-up on good humans of saintly proportions.
The summer of 1963 demanded the March on Washington, D.C. Dr. King led the passion of a society gone very wrong into enlightenment, for a gathering that would seal the cause. The civil rights movement (in agonizing slow motion) was still unfolding and being incredibly resisted. In those days, lynchings were still what happened in the South, and we all knew it. We’d seen churches bombed in the impoverished South (kind of since the Civil War more or less)…little girls in their crisp Sunday dresses never making it home from Bible Class. We dug in and developed some hope; but it drifted into fail. The autumn of 1963, we’d barely caught our collective breaths when our JFK was fatally shot through the head by a sniper bullet in Dallas, in front of thousands of people in a parade; kind of sound familiar?
Fast forward back again (deja vu this) to the Watts Riot, 1965, twenty miles north of my Whittier home; in Echo Park, 25-year old Frank Zappa grabbed a writing pad and wrote his epic “Trouble Every Day”. A rant-rap tune written from poetic frustration and alarm, that resonates so exquisitely in our nation today, I can barely discern between my Los Angeles fifty years ago there, from my Ohio July present-tense on my keyboard here.
Here’s the first of  many verses Zappa penned on “Trouble Every Day”.  A real stream of consciousness this one; certainly a candidate at Columbia University for a lecture titled:  Full-Tilt Angst in Contemporary American Rock n’ Roll Sociology.
______________________________________________________________
Courtesy of Watts Riots
August, 1965
ZAPPA LYRICS
“Trouble Every Day”
Well I’m about to get sick
From watchin’ my TV
Been checkin’ out the news
Until my eyeballs fail to see
I mean to say that every day
Is just another rotten mess
And when it’s gonna change, my friend
Is anybody’s guess
_____________________________________________________________
Those lyrics reads like some disgruntled Facebook comments, media headlines, hive-mind talk, you’ve checked out today, don’t they?
Well they’re not……it’s Frank Zappa, full of angst a half century back from this day, which beckons anyone with a discerning temperament backward and forward.
I see the media and our nation reeling from shooting incidents that have warranted the presence of our President at a commemoration for the dead. I ache for this…what is different from the hot-tempered summers in other cities in the 60’s and 70’s? The very same scenes I’ve stood and watched a half century ago. I had such trust that violence, oppression and divisions in our nation would have come to a stand still over time; through collaborative efforts and everyone bowing to the peace and understanding of it all. But no, we’re still in the streets with torches and guns at each other’s throats.
I’m nearly ready to give it up in thinking change is but a subtle thing the climate does.
Circling round events, fires, gunfire, mobs and tears, I see and feel a zillion years of events and human stories orbiting back toward a point of origin inside my mind; I trust it’s headed for a slightly tarnished landing of solace, peace, love and understanding. After all these decades with no end in sight, the prevailing human travesty is running a nasty river through all our lives; town and country, shore to shore.
Don’t we all feel this if  we just glance over our shoulders into the past?
JAMESBALDWINQUOTE
Reeling back to other hot days and tensions in our nation’s history (because what I write here is one of thousands of accounts on hundreds of intolerable human ills in this nation we inherited, (I’m 68, let me past) I see the circle just meets itself. We can’t just stand back, but we can put what we know into the equation of what happens next.
In short:
Where we’ve been is where we’re going all over again”. 
The lesson here is you want to make sure you put out the best part of what you’ve got to give when the present tense/future comes knocking; because it’s going to come back like a big shiny boomerang.
James Baldwin and Zappa are on this, both behind us and ahead of us.
Advertisements