The Tin Whistle

counterculture history and conspiracy theory

Rock’s First Diva

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After I finished my book on hip hop (and been basically pushed out of the my own Beat Street film project), I turned my attention to finding out what happened to the biggest stars of early rock history in New York City. Rap music was starting to catch on around the country, and I was afraid the original creators of hip hop were going to be ripped-off by the many corporations that were moving in to cash-in on the new movement, just like their historical counterparts many years earlier.

My investigations led me to Frankie Lymon and Arlene Smith. Frankie was long-dead, so I ended up meeting Jimmy Merchant, who’d co-written one of the biggest hits of the era, “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” and had been a founding member of The Teenagers with Frankie. I eventually discovered Arlene was living in the South Bronx, not far from some of the hip hoppers I’d spent the last three years hanging out with.

My sister had just moved to a cabin in Woody Creek, not far from Hunter S. Thompson, so when Christmas came, I flew out there to spend the holidays with her and visit the famed town of Aspen and its spectacular ski slopes. I’d never skied before, but I fell in love with the Highlands. I got an unexpected call from Harry Belafonte one night. I guess he was having problems with the director Orion had selected, Andy Davis, and Harry was wondering why I wasn’t hanging around the production office. When I found out I wasn’t going to be the scriptwriter, I basically walked away from the project, although David Picker made sure I got story credit (thanks again, David!). Harry wanted to see me as soon as I got back to New York.

The next night, I got a frantic call from Arlene Smith. Stupidly, I’d sent her a copy of my manuscript at the same time I’d delivered it to my editor at the Voice. Tulani Davis had already told me she loved the article, and I was confident I was about to get my third major feature (and possibly another cover story), following my articles on Bambaataa and the Fun House. But Arlene’s new manager didn’t like the article at all and wanted me to kill it. After I told Arlene I couldn’t do that, the manager called me. He was pretty rude and aggressive and indicated he knew Robert Christgau, head music critic at the Voice, and he was going to get the article killed, whether I liked it or not.

Imagine my surprise when Tulani told me several weeks later that the article was not going to run because Christgau had vetoed it, even though she loved it. I was so flabbergasted and upset ( I’d put a lot of gumshoe reporting into the piece) that I sent a copy to someone I trusted who knew a lot more about the music business than I did, David Bither (who now runs Nonesuch Records), and asked for his opinion before I went to war. David basically said there was some good stuff in the story, but my analysis of the business side of early rock history was a bit over-simplistic, so I dropped the whole thing. But I never wrote another story for the Village Voice, or even talked to Tulani again. I completely forgot about the whole episode until I started putting my greatest hits on my smashwords site and realized, this is one of them!

You can read the article the Voice rejected by clicking the link that says “click here for free eBooks” in the column on the top-right of this page.

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