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O Magazine

“Six degrees of separation” is that game in which you unite very distant concepts, people, animals or things, in six steps that reveal that everything can be connected.
Maybe this pastime originated from a playful reading of chaos theory is nothing new. That’s why, instead of settling for only six degrees, we’re making up a map of connections with… a million degrees of separation!
This is a Universal History of All Things told through the links that united these seemingly unconnected facts. Miqui Otero unconsciously slides down the sledge of free association of ideas in this holistic craziness in instalments.
Each episode of this epopee has six degrees as a sign of respect towards the original reference. But as that famous The Wire claim used to say, “Everything is connected”: the end of each episode of A million degrees of separation will always be the beginning of the next one. And thus, we’ll go on to infinity and beyond..

illustration by
Sergi Padró

A million degrees of separation

by Miqui Otero

Chapter XVI

Where Tommie Smith raises his gloved fist, symbol of the Black Panthers, at the podium of the 1968 Olympic Games, accompanied by son of Latin parents John Carlos, who could have been part of some New York teenage gang friend of the Ghetto Brothers, a band leaded by Benji Meléndez, a brilliant musician and spiritual leader who organised a meeting with all the rival bands in the big apple that would settle the bases not only for a short period of peace, but also for a much more successful subculture: hip hop. While those kids fought on the streets, New York’s high society received members of the Black Panthers in their huge mansions, a scene perfectly described by new journalist Tom Wolfe, who penned the report of a weird soirée with Leonard Bernstein as host. The almost bipolar and worldly famous conductor composed the soundtrack of On the Waterfront, a film co-written by Budd Schulberg, the man who wrote one of the worst scripts in the history of cinema with Francis Scott Fitzgerald, king of gin and jazz.

1968 had a tendency towards the epic genre that has rarely been seen again. In fact, during that year’s Olympic games in Mexico, feats went well beyond mere sport. As we recently said, it was in that edition of the games when a certain Dick Fosbury reached glory by using, for the first time, a back flop in the high jump. But he didn’t even go down in history as much as two other athletes who lived at the same Olympic village… until they were kicked out.

16th October, 1968. 200 metre final. Photographer John Dominis cleans his lens without knowing that one of his images will become history. The two US athletes that crouch at the starting line might have an idea about it: Tommie Smith will end up first and John Carlos, third. Olympic pomp will place a podium under their feet, which they will climb step by step with no shoes on. They will be barefoot, wearing simple black socks. Besides, Smith will wear a scarf of the same colour and Carlos, his tracksuit top open in solidarity with the poor labourers that work in assembly lines or building sites. Both of them, and also the Australian whitey who was second and shared honour and fight with them, will sport on their chest pins from the Olympic Project for Human Rights. bu the 50,000 spectators in the stadium will only become silent when, after receiving the medals, the two US athletes will listen to the national anthem looking at the floor and with their fist in the air. A fist, besides, wearing a glove, a black glove, symbol of the Black Panthers, a movement against racial oppression at the time when the US was like a pressure cooker.

Nowadays, their feat is universally applauded; but back then they were insulted, screamed at, spitted at. The same Olympic Committee that hadn’t opposed to Nazi salutes during the Berlin games in 1936 decided to kick the two African American athletes out of the Olympic village and of the games. When they got back home, Time magazine, which now devotes all sorts of nostalgic pieces to them, mocked them with the headline: “Angrier, Nastier, Uglier.”

The truly beautiful thing, apart from the gesture, resides as usual in the almost invisible anecdote. If you pay close attention to the John Dominis photograph that would go down in history, Smith raises the right fist and Carlos, the left one. This wasn’t related to their political options or ideological lines. It was simply that John Carlos, that kid that had chased Malcolm X in the streets of their hood when he was a teenager had forgotten his gloves, so he borrowed one from the champion. In that too they were like brothers.

John Carlos, the most brilliant bronze medal in the history of the games, would become history by being part of the black power movement despite his father being Cuban. At the end of the sixties, black and Latin teenage gangs still hated each other and fought against each other without stopping to think who was really exploiting them all.

At he time, the streets of New York were the set for thousands of mythical tales. Bands had their own logotypes and colours that they painted or sew on their denim jackets, and one couldn’t go through enemy territory with their war uniform on. In South Bronx, the most prominent band were Ghetto Brothers, a gang set up by the Meléndez brothers and lead by Benjamín, a teenager who as kid wanted to hide his Puertorrican origins but at the time had strong links to his country’s nationalist movement. In one of the many street fights and settling of scores, a certain Black Benjy, an important member of his band, lost his life in 1971 trying to pacify an area.

Benji Meléndez could have moved thousands of followers to action seeking revenge, but he wanted to change his tactics. On December 8th, 1971 he called a peace meeting in Hoe Avenue that most of the island’s gangs would attend. The leaders of each gang joined heated arguments. There was, for instance, Afrika Bambaataa at fourteen (for his connections with Los Chunguitos and between black and gypsy culture, see previous instalments of this saga). The thing is that from this peak meeting came a ceasefire between the south of the Bronx and Manhattan that not only changed (for a while) the history of ultraviolent teenage gangs, but also the course of music. Many of those street gangs formed their own music bands to fight the same fights but through dances or records. That’s where many aspects from hip hop culture come. The Ghetto Brothers even recorded a precious and very inspired albumPower-Fuerza, although there thing wasn’t so much rap as Anglo-Saxon pop with perfect melodies combined with hot rhythms and disjointed though charming Latin soul. Benjamin would leave his won gang years later to discover he was of Jewish origins. And so he’d begin other more metaphysical battles. But that rival gang meeting would go down in the secret history of New York streets.

That same conflict that was taking place down there, was also seen uptown. At the time, Afro hairdos were considered acceptable for New York’s high society. The elite had a fascination verging on hysterics towards dangerous Latinos, grape collectors and those spectacularly beautiful black activists who called themselves Black Panthers.

The owners of those luxury flats were intellectuals looking for some street excitement, people who suffered from “nostalgia of the ghetto” (a term coined by Barcelona writer Juan Marsé) and were eager to invite a black to the soirées they organised with the excuse of raising funds for fair causes.

The perfect example of the report of this kind of event was penned by new journalist Tom Wolfe on the June 1970 issue of Time magazine (barely two years the Mexico 68 incident, remember). Wolfe appeared at the reputed conductor Leonard Bernstein’s Park Avenue duplex to discover the tensions between black rage and white guilt, but above all to write a satire about the sick fascination of the white that wants to be as cool (for a few hours) like (and probably hook up with) and African American. Let’s visit for a moment Lenny’s party as described by the exhilarating Radical chic:

“Shootouts, revolutions, pictures in Life magazine of policemen grabbing Black Panthers like they were Viet Cong—somehow it all runs together in the head with the whole thing of how beautiful they are. […] God knows the Panther women don’t spend 30 minutes in front of the mirror in the morning shoring up their eye holes with contact lenses, eyeliner, eye shadow, eyebrow pencil, occipital rim brush, false eyelashes, mascara, Shadow-Ban for undereye and Eterna Creme for the corners . . . And here they are, right in front of you, trucking on into the Bernsteins’ Chinese yellow duplex, amid the sconces, silver bowls full of white and lavender anemones, and uniformed servants serving drinks and Roquefort cheese morsels rolled in crushed nuts— But it’s all right. They’re white servants, not Claude and Maude, but white South Americans. Lenny and Felicia are geniuses.

Thus, it was Tom Wolfe who better described that radical chic, the exquisite left-wing that has survived to our days, but it was Leonard Bernstein who sublimated it in his mega flat.

But not only in his home sweet home: Leonard Bernstein was a great celebrity that enjoyed himself less on the red carpet than on floors sticky with spilled beer, to put it somehow. That famous night of 1969, when he premiered Mahler’s Third as conductor of the New York Philharmonic, when everybody was celebrating with expensive champagne, he asked his chauffeur to pick him up and take him to the Jimi Hendrix gig in Madison Square Garden.

Bernstein used Beatles’ songs in his lessons and was as interested in atonal music as in pop melody. He gave ambitious conferences such as The Unanswered Question, but also others on Broadway musicals as popular as West Side Story (the lyricist of those songs affirmed that Bernstein considered himself far too important). He was a complicated man with at times simple taste and these dialectic even popped up in a bisexuality he methodically exercised. A figure like his can be felt in a current show such as Mozart in the Jungle, but in fact his vision has more to do with classical composers than with the moth-eaten conservatives present in conservatories nowadays. He didn’t make too many concessions to film, to which he only contributed with the soundtrack of On the Waterfront, in 1954.

This multi-Oscar-awarded story of denunciations and syndicate control that Bernstein put music to was, in many people’s opinion, the for its director, Elia Kazan, to explain the fact that he had denunciated his peers during senator McCarthy’s witch hunt. Whether true or not, the person that wrote the script with him found himself in the same situation, trapped by a similar feeling of guilt.

Budd Schulberg, that scriptwriter, had also been a member of the Communist Party and had also played the unpleasant role of being one of the main informers of the ultraconservative anti-red crusade carried out by McCarthism. Maybe that’s why they got along so well. A son of Hollywood royalty (his father was the president of Paramount), he managed to portray Hollywood social climbing in such brilliant novels as What Makes Sammy Run?, from 1941 and published in Spain (like most of his works) by Acantilado. He was an intimate friend of Muhammad Ali, shared drinks with Ernest Hemingway, flirted with Clara Bow and was the first person to be with Robert Kennedy at the Ambassador Hotel before he was shot. However, what really inspired him was another relationship.

In 1939 he was a young wannabe writer who wanted to get his place inside the industry without using his daddy’s influences too much. He fell into a huge trap when he was asked to finish the script for film Winter Carnival with Francis Scott Fitzgerald, his favourite author. Or his favourite author when the author was right in the head, but at the end of the thirties, there wasn’t much left of the genius that had turned the world upside down (and at his feet) during the raring twenties of jazz and gin. Budd had to deal with an erratic and megalomaniac author and put up with this titanic hangover for life. The experience, however, would be useful to write the amazing key novel The Disenchanted. An intimate portrait and at the same time one of the best satires written of Hollywood (with paragraphs that any current reader could apply to his surroundings, and even more to his cyber-surroundings):

The social and financial extravagance was reflected in verbal extravagance. People were forever calling pictures sensational that were just all right; men called each other honey and sweetheart when they weren’t lovers or even friends. It’s a world fenced in with exclamation points, Shep thought, a world where hyperbole is the mother tongue.”

“Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy”, Francis Scott Fitzgerald used to say. When Schulberg met him, Zelda, the talented and crackpot wife of his idol, had been locked in hospital for seven years (she has memorable cameos in the novel). Probably the rise and fall of FSF might be an indication that writers are better off with fingerless gloves and at home, and never checking their bank accounts for fear of being in the red. All those roaring twenties ever left were tons of empty glasses and a a few good novels. “Some became speculators and jumped out the window. Some became banker and shot themselves. Others became reporters.” End quote. Although the real tag line is: “and had severe kidney and divorce issues”.

When he met young Budd, Fitzgerald was only trying to pay some bills writing Hollywood scripts (for many writers, the worse the movies were, the less they felt they’d sold their souls). Through his hands had passed such legendary (for chaotic and cursed) scripts as the one for Gone With the Wind. That manuscript was edited so much, with so many different coloured pens and had so many different coloured post-its on its pages that it was known in Hollywood as “the rainbow script”.

And Fitzgerald battled with those pages, while swearing, “I’ll never be thirsty again”, since after the 1919 Crack he had been left, as many of the protagonists of these degrees of separation, linked to a feeling that dominated his existence. He describes it on The Great Gatsby thus: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”