Yesterday, we lost two major figures of recent American history, Steve Jobs and Fred Shuttlesworth.
The news spread quickly, in Birmingham at least, about Shuttlesworth. For several hours, my Facebook feed was chock full of remembrances and eulogies. They were discussing it on NPR all afternoon too. Shuttlesworth was a true American hero. Kyle Whitmire said on the radio, and I agree with him, that from a global perspective, the Civil Rights movement is probably the most important thing to come out of the United States ever. It happened in the United States, largely, because of events in Birmingham. It happened in Birmingham because of Fred Shuttlesworth.
Sometime in the evening, Steve Jobs passed. The news eclipsed the news about Shuttlesworth, naturally. In recent years, Jobs has certainly been in the news a lot more. Most people have heard of Steve Jobs even if they haven’t heard of Fred Shuttlesworth. There’s no denying that Jobs was probably the Thomas Edison of our time. His impact on the technology industry has been no less than revolutionary. He changed the way we live.
Still, there is something about the coincidence of these two losses happening so close together that bothers me greatly. I don’t want to try to equate the two. I never met Fred Shuttlesworth, and I’m not what you’d call an “Apple fanboy.” So neither of these losses are especially personal to me, but I feel the impact of both deeply. I think the thing is this: I’m a little bit in denial about Steve Jobs until I’ve had some more time to absorb the first loss. If Steve Jobs was the Thomas Edison of our time, it’s not too much of a stretch to say that Reverend Shuttlesworth was something like the Moses.
I suppose I just feel compelled to remind everybody, just not forget that we lost more than one revolutionary this week.
I’ve been the editor of the Birmingham Free Press for about three weeks now, and we just broke our first real news story. I got a hot tip about our local representative in the Alabama House, an openly gay Democrat who may be splitting from the Democratic party because of the homophobic shenanigans of one of her colleagues and the failure of the rest of the party members to address it in any way.
I got the congresswoman on the phone and got the full story. As far as we know, no other media outlet has covered this. It’s not an earth-shattering story, but it’s a good one. It highlights just how backwards even the Democrats are in our fair state.
A friend from out of town came to visit, and I decided I’d take her to the Civil Rights Museum because it was her first time visiting Birmingham. And it happened to be Martin Luther King Day, so there was free admission. However, this also meant that there was a two-hour wait to get into the museum. We stood in the line anyway for a while and watched the parade go by, led by Bishop Calvin Woods singing “We Shall Overcome” through a megaphone. This would have been a powerful image, had it not been immediately followed by a high school marching band doing Solid Gold dance moves down the middle of the street.
We stood there and watched as the parade culminated at the 16th Street Baptist Church across the street, the church that served as a war room for the civil rights foot soldiers in Birmingham, the church that was bombed by the KKK in 1963, killing four young black girls, the church where Dr. King and Reverend Shuttlesworth inspired the people from the pulpit. As the parade wound to a close, the line to go into the museum barely moved, so we decided maybe it would make more sense to just come back the next day when it wouldn’t be as crowded, even though it would no longer be free to get in.
My friend then felt drawn toward the church and asked if we could just go in there. I said it looked like we could, but I didn’t know if there would be anything to see. It’s just a church, I said. She said, “Yeah, but it’s THE church.” So, mainly out of blind curiosity, we followed a crowd inside and up the stairs to the balcony. Before we could see anything, we could hear that a service was starting and we agreed that if we went in, we’d be committed to staying in there a while.
Bishop Woods was in the middle of giving his opening remarks when we sat down. There were a surprising number of empty seats. However, throughout the service people were coming and going constantly. And at the height of the celebration, there were only a few seats vacant, but a large number of people were standing in the back anyway as if it were a full house.
Next, Reverend Luther Williams gave an opening prayer, which was more of an improvised song than what I’m used to calling a ‘prayer,’ complete with backing of the house organist (who was amazing, by the way). As the invocation became more and more impassioned, multitudes of Amens and other interjections whooped out from the pews. I asked my friend if she’d ever seen anything like this before. She said she had not.
Bishop Woods came back and said a few more words about the historical events being commemorated, from the perspective of a man who was there and participated in those events. Then he introduced the Movement Choir. I think that’s when I started crying, and the tears kept streaming through much of the next two hours. I did manage to capture about 30 seconds of video on my phone.
One reason I was so moved was that I realized this is a group of people who do not take for granted their freedom, that do not take for granted the gift of being alive. These are not people who lie in bed for 16 hours agonizing over how meaningless their lives are like I often do. They don’t have time for that shit, and they make it meaningful. I was just overwhelmed by the passion for life that I was witnessing, from the speakers, from the choir, and from the audience.
Speaker after speaker made rousing, inspiring, animated, and colorful presentations, often moved by the spirit to burst out in song. The people in the pews danced, sang, clapped, and shouted out exultation. I’m not going to recap everything that happened. There was just too much. I’ve been to the Civil Rights Museum. It’s great. It’s moving. But this was the real thing–not a museum–a real civil rights rally featuring seasoned warriors of that movement. And that didn’t capture half of what was so incredible about it.
As we were leaving, my friend and I marveled at everything we had just witnessed and how we almost missed it completely, and at the fact that we could even just go in there and see it so casually. My friend said, “That’s the first time church has ever actually worked on me. Ever. It made me want to be a better person.” I felt that same way exactly.
About four and a half hours ago, I arrived at my parents’ house in Birmingham. I’ll be looking for my own apartment here later on this week. I expect to keep this blog more up to date from here on out. I have a LOT of creative projects that I plan to get started on now that I have no excuse not to.
The first thing on the agenda is to get the Southside Fiction Writing Workshop off the ground. I want to use my experience as a writer and workshop leader to help other people in the area to hone their fiction writing skills and also to access the parts of their subconscience that lead to inspiration. I think this is a little like group therapy, and I like that. I believe this is one of the clearest ways that I can use whatever talents I have to actually help people recognize their own potential and be better versions of themselves.
Now if I can just get a few people to sign up…
If you are in the Birmingham area, spread the word.
Other things I’d like to start here, which I’ll talk about in more detail later:
A literary magazine
A 3- or 4-piece indie rock band to do new and old songs a la Eurotoaster
An acoustic band to do new and old songs a la the Abdo Men
My second day in Gainesville was a whirlwind of meeting various people for breakfast, lunch, coffee, dinner, or drinks. I did reconnect with several friends that I haven’t seen in a very long time: former Squeaky frontman Harry Monkhorst and his wife Kristin; my very good friend Holly Ray, who was my first roommate in New York; Gary Brummett, who played bass in my old band Eurotoaster and then disappeared off the face of the earth (apparently he was at Durty Nelly’s the whole time–who knew?); another former bandmate Merryl Malter; and the esteemed poet and cookbook mogul Ian Finn. There were a lot of other people on my agenda, but I pretty much made plans on a first-come first-served basis, and I just couldn’t meet up with everybody I wanted to see in one day.
The next day, I was due to meet another old friend, Corey Thompson Kirkland, in beautiful historic Eufaula, AL. At this point, I had put nearly 3000 miles on my 1998 Volvo station wagon since leaving New York on Dec. 1. And the whole time, I’d been hearing a little rumble from the driver’s side front wheel that I didn’t much like, and I planned to have someone look at it when I was going to be in one place more than two days. But as fate would have it, not long before I pulled into Eufala, the noise got worse–much worse. I called Corey just as I was crossing over the state line from Georgia and said, “Okay I’m driving over Lake Eufaula now. But something is seriously wrong with my car. Is there a mechanic in the metropolitan Eufaula area that you can recommend?”
She directed me to Jac’s, where a very nice mechanic named Keith quickly ascertained that I had a bad wheel bearing and that if I’d driving on it much farther, my wheel would likely have flown off the car. So my timing, as usual, was impeccable. I left the car with Keith overnight, and Corey came to pick me up.
Now I should say that Corey is essentially the queen of Eufaula and knows EVERYBODY, and we got royal treatment everywhere we went. The highlight of the evening, though, was karaoke at a dive bar everyone calls “the airport” because the city air field is literally right behind the bar. This is one of those places where, as the saying goes, they like both kinds of music–Country and Western. Here is a transcript of what ensued when I took the stage for my first song.
Host: Next up we have a city slicker from New York City.
Me: Well, I LIVE in New York City, but I’m not FROM there.
Audience member: You talk like you’re from there.
Despite that awkward beginning, my rendition of “King of the Road” was well received.
Next morning, I picked up my car, which was now running much better, and returned to Birmingham. On the way, I called my friend Warren to firm up plans for the evening. Warren and his wife Tia are friends of mine from New York who just moved down here, and I had promised to take Warren out on the town when I got back. I picked him up at eight and took him to Marty’s to hear some bluegrass music. Then we met up with my friend Adam Guthrie at Metro Bistro where we heard an acoustic duo play a few songs. And then the three of us went to Bottle Tree to hear some rock and roll bands. So we pretty much ran the gamut of the Birmingham music scene in one night, and a lot of it is kind of a blur. But Warren seemed to have a good time.
One of my Birmingham rituals is to eat Indian food with David Clark. It doesn’t always work out that we can get together when I’m in town, but we usually try to arrange it. The last few years, Taj India on Highland Avenue has been our standard destination. The only difference this year was that David brought along his lovely new wife Lira.
David’s brother Adam Clark played bass in one of the first bands I was ever in when I was in 11th grade. In those days, I used to go over to Adam’s house, and David would always be sitting in his room practicing the banjo. Later, when I was at UAB, David was in medical school there, and I got to know him much better. We would sometimes get together to play music, read each other’s short stories, or just to eat dinner. We were both just learning about Indian food then. There was no such thing when we were growing up in Dothan, and the discovery was sort of like opening a portal to a new dimension.
Before dinner, I spent the day just hanging around my parents’ house doing some writing and taking some pictures. My niece and nephew came over for a while. This is Anne Harman.
I spent most of the day lingering around all my old haunts in Five Points, seeing what was still around and what was new. Not much has changed actually. Some bars have closed. Some have different names than they used to. But it’s still pretty much the same place. For those of you who aren’t from the Ham, this curious fountain/sculpture is the centerpiece of the area.
As you can imagine, this installation is a little controversial amongst the locals. When I was in PopCanon (1995-2001) I wrote a song about this area called Ice on the Sidewalk. The song starts off about this time that I literally ran across something on the sidewalk that looked like ice, though it was the middle of summer, and when I touched it I realized it was some kind of gelatin. As was my wont in those days, I was kind of high at the time, and this just sort of freaked me out. That is how songs start I guess.
Anyway, I ate lunch with former Pain trombonist Jason Reid at Surin West, and I had a great time catching up with him. After lunch, I paid visits to Charlemagne Records and Golden Temple. These places are all pretty much the same as they were when I was in college, except Charlemagne has more CDs now than it did in 1994.
Then I headed over the hill into Homewood and dropped by the Alabama Booksmith (which btw has signed copies of my book for sale), to say hello. I worked at this store when I was in college, when it was called the Highland Booksmith and at a different location. Despite the dream I had about the store the night before my visit, it had not been overtaken by lizard-like aliens.
That night, for a lark, I went to the Alabama Theatre to see the Alabama Symphony Orchestra pay tribute to the music of Led Zeppelin. Does anyone remember laughter? I do. After the concert, I caught a partial set of some scary good bluegrass at Marty’s. I couldn’t stay long because I had committed to seeing another former Pain member, Stuart McNair, play a set down at the Barking Kudu.
Now the ASO doing Zep was really just silly, and kind of pointless since they actually had a long-haired singer who sounded like Robert Plant and a long-haired guitarist who sounded like Jimmy Page, so the orchestra didn’t really have that much work to do. But I did see some skilled guitar playing at all three venues. Made me feel like I needed to sit down and practice a little.
On my first full day back in Birmingham, I picked up my friend and former bandmate Brent Stauffer at the pizza place where he works and had a little lunch. Okay, in fact, it was a very BIG lunch–a calzone as large as my head. I had heard that a place called Green Cup Books was the place to go for independent authors like myself. So Brent and I headed over there, hoping to get a couple of books on the shelf and maybe arrange a last-minute reading while I’m in town. But alas, we found that the place was OUT OF BUSINESS. And recently too because there were still shelves full of books inside.
As long as we were in town, I stopped at Jim Reed Books, which is really more of an antiques and novelty museum than a book store. If you’ve never been to Jim Reed Books and you live in the Birmingham area, GO NOW. I don’t believe there is another place like it in the world.
Jim was kind enough to take a couple of copies of my book on consignment, so somebody please go and buy them. Both copies are signed!
On a side note, I should mention that Jim’s brother is the Reverend Fred Lane, one of the most entertainingly insane musicians you will ever go far out of your way to hear.
After that, I dropped Brent off at his house and went to visit another old bandmate, Tym Cornell. Tym is running a fantastic music studio out of his basement in Roebuck these days, so if you are a musician in Birmingham and need a cheap place to make an album, Tym is your man. He is also quite good with video production.
Tym’s wife Mary made some excellent pasta for dinner, and then I headed downstairs to the studio to listen to some of Tym’s most recent work. One of his current projects is to record an album for our mutual friend George Mostoller, whom I mentioned in a previous post. Somehow, Tym has arranged for some first-class musicians to play on this recording, including bassist extraordinaire Oteil Burbidge. I have never heard George’s music sound so good.