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I Am Not Sidney Poitier by Percival Everett

By saying Not is not Sidney Poitier, the reader is tempted to compare him to Sidney Poitier just as the characters do, when the author is pointedly saying that we shouldn’t.


I Am Not Sidney Poitier

Publisher: Graywolf
Length: 272 pages
Author: Percival Everett
Price: $16.00
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2009-05
Amazon

Not Sidney Poitier, the hero of Percival Everett’s greatly entertaining satire I Am Not Sidney Poitier, has identity issues. He’s an intelligent, down-to-earth young man who, like most young men, is trying to figure out his place in the world. He goes to college. He gets a girlfriend. But even though he is named Not Sidney Poitier everyone confuses him with the actor. And though he is not Sidney Poitier, he keeps finding himself in situations that bear an uncanny resemblance to plots of the actor’s movies.

Everett sets the perpetually baffled Not off the critical image of Poitier as the “Most Dignified Figure in American Culture” (according to the book’s imaginary Harry Belafonte) and generic reference point for all black actors. He also uses the roles Poitier played to tease out a twisted alternate history of African-American men that can be misleading and simplistic, yet can also hint at more complex relationships beneath their surfaces. That Everett writes about all of this with such a suave touch – biting without being obnoxiously didactic – makes for a powerful voice and surprising storytelling in a book about the beauty of unpredictability.

A lot of fun word play is had with the word “not”. By saying Not is not Sidney Poitier the reader is tempted to compare him to Sidney Poitier just as the characters do, when the author is pointedly saying that we shouldn’t. The absurdity inherent in defining someone by what they are not (an infinite number of things) coupled with the possibility that nobody is ever truly ‘not’ something -- that there are no dualities and that something is contained in everything -- makes for a heady comedic juggling act .

Not Sidney Poitier is also a very wealthy young man. His mother died when he was young, but left a vast fortune due to her prescient early investment in Turner Communications Group. Not Sidney Poitier is sent to Atlanta to live with Ted Turner, an hilarious and enormously likeable comic creation who calls Not “Nu’ott,” speaks in non sequiturs (“What is a smithereen?”), and who sometimes offers advice but is very careful that their relationship not mirror the “model of the black child being raised by some great white father” as with that “kidney-sick little boy” on TV.

Ted and Not’s relationship is not quite what we expect it to be. Though they like each other and have a healthy relationship, others are skeptical of it. Not’s teacher Betty warns him about Ted being a “pestilential, poisonous, pernicious parasite”. Once Not sets off on his own, the idea of his being expected to play certain roles is expanded. The book is at root about the different roles and clichés forced onto black men and the alienating affect it can have when it is difficult for anybody to define themselves anyway.

When Not first tries to leave Atlanta he is wrongfully arrested in Peckerwood County, put onto a chain gang, and then escapes with a bigot, Patrice, who looks like Tony Curtis. Though Not is acting out the plot of The Defiant Ones, it becomes clear that he will not come to that movie’s conclusion. He does not befriend his fellow convict or open Patrice to racial tolerance. Not decides to leave Patrice and two others sleeping by railroad tracks since “they would never be going anywhere” and he seems to be rejecting the simplistic tropes of the white/black buddy movie than the people around him.

During this same chapter, Not drifts in and out of a dream where he plays Poitier’s character in Band of Angels, a Civil War-era drama about a mulatto woman who passes for white and shacks up with Clark Gable. In each chapter Everett frequently has Not enter into these dream reveries. They are the obscure B-side to the more mainstream Poitier movie mimicked in the main storyline. (Everett also references No Way Out and Buck and the Preacher in later dream sequences.) The dreams present these films as containing stickier truths about their characters than the often simplistic dualities of Poitier’s more popular Hollywood efforts (and the comic caricatures in the book’s main portions).

Not returns to Atlanta and enrolls at Morehouse College, a lengthy and vastly entertaining episode, where he gets hazed by the famed Omega Psi Phi fraternity, attends a lecture by a fictional Bill Cosby (who berates young black men for being “pathetic” while peppering his speech with shouts of “pound cake” and “pudding pops”), and worries that higher learning might be an expensive waste of time.

For advice he turns to his professor, named Percival Everett, who teaches a Philosophy of Nonsense class. (The real Everett teaches at the University of Southern California.) Everett, the character, is a kindred cousin of Ted Turner and it’s not clear if the non-advice he offers Not stems from his refusal to constrict the world through definition or if he doesn’t know what he is talking about. Everett here pokes fun at the author’s refusal to pin him down or say anything concrete under the guise that he is merely trying to represent reality.

He is also tying himself into the larger themes of identities that resist classification. The examples of Everett and Turner indicate that attempting to make any sense of yourself, especially how others define yourself, leads to madness. Life is like a Marx Brothers movie, and the best way to stay sane is to bubble along with the insanity.

Later Not travels to Washington DC and acts out Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner with his Spelman girlfriend’s light-skinned black family. Confused by their snobbish hierarchy of skin color, wealth, and class-defined prestige, Not phones Everett for help. He tells him to screw with their heads. “Listen, just remember that nothing puts you at an advantage like knowing what someone is thinking when they don’t know you know what they’re thinking.”

Everett, the author, seems to indicate that the quest for the self is a fool’s errand destined to leave one spinning in circles. But, like Everett the teacher/character, he doesn’t offer any real sage advice or an out for Not Sidney Poitier. The Sidney Poitier of this book is just a collection of roles, containing truths and stereotypes and simplicities and a mess of contradictions, not unlike Not.

Everett, the character, shows that he can be perceptive on the details. On how to say “They call me Mr. Tibbs”: “Say it as if a crab is biting your ass, as if someone is peeling an unpleasant and undesired memory from your core, as if you’re feeling a little bitchy, as if you might be gay but even you don’t know.” But on the larger issues, he’s impossible. “And remember, be yourself. Unless you can think of someone better.”

8

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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