White Man's Book Does Justice to Black Power Music
Pat Thomas's Listen, Whitey! Is History at Its Grooviest
In a cosmic, roundabout way, a 1985 car accident that seriously injured Pussy Galore/Boss Hog guitarist Kurt Wolf is responsible for Pat Thomas's book Listen, Whitey! The Sights and Sounds of Black Power, 1965–1975 getting published.
You see, Wolf, a friend and bandmate of Thomas's in the Rochester, New York, group Naked Lunch in the mid '80s, has a sister named Kathy Wolf, and she and Thomas would tend to Kurt and play records and watch movies with him while he recovered in his body cast.
Although Thomas and Kathy Wolf lost contact after this encounter, they reconnected in 2008 via Facebook. Thomas was living in San Francisco and pondering going back to college while working on his book about Black Power music. Wolf, a visual and graphic artist, had moved to Seattle. Both were dealing with failing marriages. Thomas mentioned his project and sent Wolf his unfinished manuscript.
In the summer of 2009, Thomas moved to Seattle, cramming all the book materials that he could fit into his Scion xA. The couple soon formed a fruitful creative and personal relationship. Wolf made a PDF mock-up of Thomas's work in progress and presented it to her friend Eric Reynolds, a marketing director and editor at the Seattle publishing house Fantagraphics. Impressed, Reynolds showed it to his boss Gary Groth, who quickly green-lighted the book. (Groth wanted the book to be called Wake Up, Niggers, which is a Last Poets song, but Thomas and other Fantagraphics employees convinced him to go with a less inflammatory title.)
Wolf suggested that Thomas take courses at the Evergreen State College. "She knew that their brand of radical free thought would work well with my book," Thomas says. "And sure enough, the moment I arrived on campus, I was befriended by an African Asian American professor, Chico Herbison, who became my mentor for the completion of the book."
Thomas's passion for the Black Power movement and its music has roots in his days as A&R man for San Francisco–based Water Records, where he facilitated reissues of albums by artists deeply involved in improving the lot of their people: the Watts Prophets, Elaine Brown, Gene McDaniels, and Eddie Gale.
That zeal escalated in 2005 when Thomas, then living in Oakland, attended a party where he met Keith and Kent Zimmerman, who, serendipitously, were cowriting a book with David Hilliard, the Black Panthers' former chief of staff when Huey Newton and Bobby Seale were in charge. Thomas mentioned to the Zimmermans his interest in Black Power, and they gave him Hilliard's phone number. Thomas and Hilliard went on to strike up a solid friendship. During their time together hanging out, Thomas would never formally interview Hilliard, but rather he would casually coax out information about his Panther past.
"I called him up one day and said, 'You know, David, by all accounts, you should be dead,'" Thomas recalls. "He said, 'That's right. Either I should've been shot by the cops or I should've punked out when I was in prison. I'm lucky to be here.' The other thing I realized is the average age of the Panther was like 22. Think of us: We were all 22 at one point. We couldn't have dreamed up something like that. That's where the whole [urge to write the book] started."
Thomas's obsession further intensified. After discovering Brown's 1969 LP Seize the Time and helping Water to reissue it on CD in 2007, he found himself amassing more recordings affiliated with the Black Power movement. He estimates he's spent $5,000 to $10,000 on eBay tracking down obscure albums and singles in the jazz, pop, soul, folk, and funk veins.
Thomas had never written a book before Listen, Whitey!, but in the summer of 2008, he went on a writing binge, banging out 40,000 words in two weeks about, he says, "all the politics and the social changes fused with the music during the late 1960s and early 1970s."
"I compare it to Jack Kerouac, who supposedly wrote On the Road in two weeks without stopping," Thomas says. "I'd sleep like two hours a day. I was pumped up on creative adrenaline, only stopping to briefly check a date or fact or two from a book, or double check the credits on a specific LP. I knew the material so well at this point that I didn't really need to reference anything. Then I didn't write anything for months. When I got the deal with Fantagraphics, I thought, 'Now what do I do?' One of the things Kathy helped me with is we made a list of every album that hadn't been written about yet."
Listen, Whitey! reveals Thomas and Wolf's thorough scholarship, trenchant commentary, and keen eye for graphics regarding the music and political actions associated with Black Power during the tumultuous decade from 1965 to 1975. Thomas traces the vicissitudes of key figures in the movement (Huey Newton, Stokely Carmichael, Bobby Seale, Elaine Brown, Eldridge Cleaver, David Hilliard) as well as analysis of contributions by cultural icons and activists like comedian Dick Gregory, literary/music critic Stanley Crouch, and the poet/dramatist Amiri Baraka. The tome also assesses how Black Power attracted white allies like Bob Dylan, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, and, most strangely, the Partridge Family—a 1971 episode of the TV show was dedicated to the vanilla band's encounter with Black Panther members in Detroit.
Thomas, who is white, thinks that his outsider status was advantageous in the endeavor "in the sense that my book has no agenda. There's a book called The Shadow of the Panther by Hugh Pearson. He's black. I don't know him, but it's obvious from reading his book that he decided the Black Panthers were bad guys and he was going to write a detailed but very biased history."
Thomas's informal approach to interviewing former Panthers paid dividends. "Elaine Brown [the only woman to lead the Panthers] paid me a compliment," he notes. "She said, 'What I love about you, Pat, is that you're not trying to be black. People come around me and other ex-Panthers and they want to talk black speak. You're not trying to be black. You're just this white guy who's really into our story. And that's cool.' The other interesting one was Eugene McDaniels, whom I became quite friendly with on the phone. He said to me, 'You know, man, black people don't like black people like me. It's only white liberals like yourself who think we're cool.' This is going to make me sound like I'm speaking for blacks, which I don't want to do, but black militant history is maybe more controversial within the black community in some ways than it is with the whites, who experienced it from the outside."
Thomas says he realized early on that everyone he interviewed had a different spin on events pertaining to Black Power, so he focused on their human side. "Yeah, they're iconic figures, but they're not statues frozen in time. They're living, breathing people. The other important thing I learned about the Panthers: They weren't anti-white; they were just pro-black."
Thomas points out how Black Power was split into diverse factions. "The Panthers were not interested in wearing dashikis, learning Swahili, and going back to Africa. They were like, 'We're Americans. We want this. We claim this land.' Then there were black nationalists who were fixated not exactly on returning to Africa but on embracing their African roots. It was interesting to see those lines were almost driven musically. For some reason, the jazz guys were into the black nationalism thing. The soul guys were more into the Panther thing."
The Black Power movement lost steam in the mid 1970s, Thomas says, largely due to J. Edgar Hoover's COINTELPRO: "Basically a counterintelligence program against radical movements. You gotta remember, the FBI hates commies. Hoover was convinced that not only the Black Panthers but Martin Luther King Jr. were getting money from the Soviet Union and Red China."
Listen, Whitey! presents Black Power's volatile ups and downs with stunning imagery. Designed by Fantagraphics' Jacob Covey, the copiously illustrated Listen, Whitey! is a joy to behold as well as to read. Thomas covers much ground, discussing recordings by politicians/activists (Angela Davis, Carl Stokes), clergy (Martin Luther King Jr., Jesse Jackson), literary figures (Nikki Giovanni, Lorraine Hansberry, Amiri Baraka), and established jazz greats radicalized by Black Power (Max Roach, Archie Shepp, Herbie Hancock, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Pharoah Sanders).
The latter presented Thomas with one of his hardest challenges in writing Listen, Whitey! "I'm a record geek, but the one area that I'm not really able to talk about is free jazz. My research led me to see that free jazz and black nationalism were like hand in hand. So I had to figure out who the fuck Archie Shepp really was. I gotta figure out what the Art Ensemble of Chicago were all about. I gotta figure out who Clifford Thornton was. That was tough going, because I was in uncharted waters. I started circulating the jazz manuscript around to a few friends to see if there were any holes. So that was a bit of a struggle."
Ultimately, Thomas captures the revolutionary spirit of myriad vital strands of the movement and stokes your desire to hear these recordings. Partially to sate that need, Thomas arranged a compilation of spoken-word and musical tracks to be released by Seattle's Light in the Attic Records in conjunction with the book.
Listen, Whitey! The Sounds of Black Power, 1967–1974 is a provocative mix of spoken word by Carmichael, Cleaver, and Gregory, as well as a righteous blend of jazz (Shahid Quintet), soul (the Lumpen, Marlena Shaw, Elaine Brown), rock (Dylan's "George Jackson," never reissued anywhere else till now, Lennon and Ono), folk (Roy Harper), avant-garde strangeness (Kain), and proto-rap (Watts Prophets, the Original Last Poets). Oddly, it's the nonmusician Baraka who damn near steals the album with "Who Will Survive America," an incendiary soul stormer that infiltrates your mind as grippingly as any Motown hit. Thomas received permission for almost everything he wanted to put on this record, but he laments that he couldn't secure a Stanley Crouch track from his There Ain't No Ambulance for No Nigguhs Tonight LP.
Coincidentally, a few hours before our interview on February 13, Thomas received notice that somebody had removed a stack of City Arts magazines, in which his book was excerpted, from a box on 45th Street in Wallingford. This person or persons had stapled propaganda to the pages where the excerpt ran, an article titled, "Black People Are More Criminal Than White People," along with a handwritten note: "To hell with the music of Black Power! Read this!" He/she/they then placed the magazines back in the box. (You can go to www.unamusementpark.com to learn more about the people behind this stunt.)
"What's interesting about it is it's not vehement hate," Thomas observes. "It's couched in this quasi-intellectual thing, like whites are superior to blacks; it's been proven by science. 'February is Black History Month, why do they need that?' Then sarcastically saying, 'Well, they picked the shortest month, so obviously that's all they're worthy of.' We've come a long way, but Jesus Christ, man, right here in Seattle, three hours ago, we found out there's still some wacky shit going on."
Racism notwithstanding, Listen, Whitey! is garnering serious media attention—and it's kind of freaking out its author. Columbia University has invited Thomas to speak about Black Power music, English highbrow music magazine the Wire booked him to lecture at a big event in London in May, and several prestigious London universities and the University of Southern California also requested his presence. Greil Marcus is interviewing Thomas for the Believer, and Spin enlisted respected black academic Mark Anthony Neal to review Listen, Whitey!
"I don't think this is the best book of its kind," Thomas says. "I think it's the only book of its kind. I feel it's a unique angle and there's a lot of shit in there that hasn't been covered in anyone else's books."