Rock ‘N’ Roll Heretic: The Life and Times of Rory Tharpe

Front cover RRH

Due March 2021

“Those white boys on the major labels would never give an inch to a Negro woman playing race music.”

It’s the late 1970s, and ex-Pentecostal Black female electric guitarist Rory Tharpe navigates the cutthroat world of corporate rock, dive bars, dusk-to-dawn recording sessions, and shady contracts as she travels the nation in a dilapidated tour bus with her bickering, boozing all-male band.  Much-imitated and little-credited, Rory is in a late career tailspin when she goes on tour with international superstar Jude Justis, a white woman “blues” rock singer who has built a turbulent mega-platinum career out of stealing from Black musicians. Frustrated by the racism, sexism, and ageism of the rock boys’ club, Rory warily joins forces with Jude, then takes a detour through the painful past she shares with childhood nemesis Divinity Mason Mulvaney, a maverick pastor at the helm of the mega church enterprise Revivals, Inc.  

A homage to pioneering guitarist Rosetta Tharpe, Rock ‘n’ Roll Heretic is a bracing look at the power politics, heartbreak and hypocrisy confronting a queer Black woman visionary at the intersection of music and commerce, faith and heresy in a segregated music industry that eats its Black artists.

Advance Praise For Rock ‘n’ Roll Heretic:

If you love fearless, bold, unapologetic strong leads, then Rock ‘n’ Roll Heretic is for you. Paying homage to the great trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe, this book is filled with twists and turns that will leave you rethinking Rock music as you know it. Sikivu, you have created a masterpiece that will challenge history and entertain readers for years.

Malina Moye, electric guitarist, international recording artist, and co-founder of the Drive Hope Foundation

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Meet the Characters: Rock ‘n’ Roll Heretic Rovers, Loners and Thieves

Rory Tharpe

Blues-rock guitarist, ex-Pentecostal, ex-Jesus besotted singer, late 50s, death-obsessed, frustrated and blocked songwriter, fighting to hold it together for her band, finances, creative control and integrity, has struggled with alcohol addiction in the past but is mostly clean and sober, burns through relationships with many wistful backward glances.

Katy Duren 

Organ player, businesswoman, crack the whip motivator and wraith. Mother of Rory T. Sharp-tongued, cantankerous, never fully got her due as a skilled, talented musician in her own right. Micromanages Rory’s career in death as well as life.

Divinity Mason Mulvaney

Sixty-something Pastor of Revivals, Inc. motivational church and call center, childhood nemesis of Rory’s. Ambitious and ruthless in her pursuit of development funds and recognition for her burgeoning church ministry and call center. A rising star in the televangelism industry, fashions herself as a champion of the common worker and bootstraps rugged individualist ethos.

Jude Justis

White woman, late 40s, shambolic global superstar singer-performer, foul-mouthed, swaggering, has built a career off of minstrelsy and stealing from Black women singers, constantly looking over her shoulder as her industry capital wanes.

Cardinal Jefferson

Iconoclast, ace session bassist and raconteur, fortysomething, dogged by career and personal demons, embittered by never having gotten his due with his old record company, the greatest independent Black-owned hitmaker in American history.

Yvette Patton

Right hand woman of Pastor Divinity, fiftysomething, manages Revivals, Inc’s call center and intermediary with women workers, shrewd and calculating with an eye on the bottom line.

Mick Kincade

White male, 50s, de facto road manager to Rory and dabbling bassist, recovering alcoholic, veers between cynicism and optimism, pragmatist, relishes his role as a gatekeeper and grizzled insider, considers himself to have a heart of gold.

Sid Hastings

Twelve year old runaway, dreamer, cult survivor, music lover, and unofficial documentarian of Rory’s sound and conflicted relationship with her audience(s).

Butch

Piano player and keyboardist in Rory’s band, late 40s, level-headed and impetuous rolled into one, longs for more stable footing with Rory, battling heroin addiction and insecurity.

Cruz

Motel owner and businesswoman entrepreneur, 40s-50s, involved in Indigenous community ventures, Rory’s lover, defender and conscience.

Lavender Smyrch

White woman journalist and Jude Justis’ lover, gadfly, fancies herself a feminist muckraker.

AVAILABLE AT Amazon, Indiebound and Smashwords

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Ransack, Butterfly

By Sikivu Hutchinson

From Rock ‘N’ Roll Heretic: The Life and Times of Rory Tharpe, March 2021

When she was six, Sid cut open a radio to see if there were people in it. Disappointed by the sprawl of colored wires and electronic gunk she saw inside. The explanation of voices traveling through the air on waves was less magical than the prospect of little friends she could keep in her pocket forever. To have and to hold. ‘Til death do us part.

            She’d been flipping the dial on the car radio, waiting in the Kmart parking lot for her auntie, when Rory burst through the static. It was what they called a syndicated show with white people playing white music; all folk guitar and country twang, all riding off into the sunset harmonies hawking manufactured heartbreak, murder, and mayhem. Some of it she liked deep down on the sly, not wanting to fuck around with white boy shit and get teased by the blacker than thou sentinels who ruled elementary school.

Listening to Rory’s interview with the deejay on the radio took her back there. To that dumb little six year-old. To the ass whipping she got for the dismembered radio. Each station a gateway to tiny worlds; new pop hits she memorized in one sitting, forbidden sugar rush candy commercial jingles, weather reports screeching at her to rise and shine and brace herself for another eye-gouging West Texas morning scrubbing toilets at the church.

            The night the police took her from the Boise motel she turned into a poisonous butterfly, freeing it from the gut cage she’d built after the massacre when she was on the road with her uncle, and he promised her the moon with his hand between her legs. The butterfly would repel the demons, fuck them up, keep them in check. She willed it to be true, flying through the night above all the stable homes with stable children asleep in stable beds.

Before they sent her to foster care, the motel Indian lady came and sat with her. Held her hand, cracked silly jokes, gave her an envelope full of money, rustled up a used book of Mad Libs someone had left behind. Drilling her for verbs. Ransack. Pillage. Destroy.

            Sid, you got such a big vocabulary for a young ‘un. Use them words, they’ll serve you well.

            She listened to Rory’s singing coming staccato through the speakers and felt her stomach drop leagues. Telling herself that she wasn’t mad at her for giving her up to the police. Nobody in the world owed her jack and she didn’t owe nobody. All she wanted was to play like her, surf the bloodstreams of millions to big shit immortality.

A week after she’d been picked up, she ran away, hitching rides with any black or brown woman who would stop, hoodwinking them sometimes into thinking she was a boy right on the innocent cusp before his voice cracked, plummeted. A cast off in sagging jeans and baseball cap, pen knife warm in her pocket for the predators who wanted her to suck them off in exchange for a few miles. Adults, the demons, saw what they wanted to see. At the Wyoming border, a nun going to Pine Bluff helped her buy a bus ticket to Little Rock, pity shining in her hard eyes. On the bus, Sid took a window seat in the middle, sleeping with the knife blade between her fingers.

Then the butterfly went back into its cage, and waited.

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Helter Skelter, 1978

By Sikivu Hutchinson

From Rock ‘N’ Roll Heretic: The Life and Times of Rory Tharpe

On the toilet, Rory could make out the sounds of tentative gasps and grunts, demon beating, pint-sized exorcisms rising symphonic in the next stall.  Tan white girl, backup singer, drum majorette boots pointing sideways accusatorily.  Katy would wait like clockwork for Rory with a bottle of Milk of Magnesia thirty minutes before big performances when her stomach was in an all-out palace revolt.  If your belly’s not on fire then the stage won’t be lit either, she’d proclaimed, shoving the bottle in Rory’s face for her to drink down in one gulp.  

“Christ, I’m bailin’ to barf city. You got anything for me, baby doll?” the girl shrieked.  

Rory rustled up half a Milk of Magnesia tablet from her pocket and passed it under the stall.  

“Pardon me, baby.  Pardon me,” the girl said, letting loose a fantabulous fart.  “This gonna be where we can hide out when the Russian warheads get launched,” she cackled.  “Whole state of Tennessee will be safe as a steel trap bunker in here.”  

Rory flushed the toilet and left the stall, washed her hands, dabbed water on her makeshift spit curls.

In the mirror, Katy frowned at her disdainfully from behind, appraising the white girl’s doughy thinness in the silver sheath halter dress Jude’s designer had slapped together for the backup singers stitched in the dead of night as they brooded over late tax returns, bounced checks, clingy mates, ditched file clerk jobs, and children left haplessly behind for their  shot at the road and their deep dark heart’s desire. 

Jude had assembled a crackpot sisterhood of Fleetwood Mac refugees around her. An iron wall of bottom feeders who warbled, scratched, and punched through Jude’s bootleg blues repertoire. Rory kept a careful eye on the drama of fourth string white women backup singers. Watched their unspoken assumption of being catered to. Noted the cunning, solicitous once-overs they got from the crew. All the breaks and excuses that rained down on them like candy when a harmony or a dance move went sour. The white women, in turn, were always watching her for a misstep, a slight, a trespass in the wee wrung out hours after they’d dragged offstage, talking shop over a joint and Jack Daniels, waiting for dawn in a flea bitten trailer before they got up and did the same sub-Vegas shtick all over again, prancing around, oozing omnipotent control down to their pink fingertips in the presence of Black men musicians.

“Don’t think we’ve met,” Rory said to the white girl.

“Mooch brought me on.  Dirty goat, promised me at least two month’s worth of work.”

“If you fucked him?”

“Something like that.  More diplomatic about it.  Perv’s got a foot fetish so just wants me to stomp on him a little bit, like they do the grapes in Greece, ‘er, I mean Italy.” 

Rory grunted goodbye and walked out to the arena.  A man pushed an industrial-size vacuum cleaner across the stage as a crew of attendants in gray uniforms and rubber gloves did a final sweep of the seats for trash.

“Afternoon, ma’am,” the vacuum cleaner shouted over the din, face alive with a hundred creases.  “Finally made it back.”

“Pardon?”

“I caught you and your mama at the Imperial back in ’55.”

“Yeah?”

“Coming down in buckets and mama did a solid five nighter, kicking around on a cane but still a sparkplug.” 

“Recovering from a hernia.”

“Nothing could stop that woman.”

Rory nodded, looking around.  “How long you been working here?”

“Since they started hiring Colored. Put me in charge of maintenance ten years ago when the white boy they had doing the job rolled in drunk too many mornings.”

“Figures.”

“I tell these pups to take pride, ‘cause every square inch of this joint’s got our mark on it, whether the bosses acknowledge it or not. Gonna be nice to see you up there.”

“What’s the hourly, if you don’t mind my asking?”

“Just under two bucks.”

“Hard to take pride in scraps.”

“It’s either that or starve.”

“From what I’ve seen around here, looks like some of us is pretty close to it.”

“Well that’s long behind you, sister Tharpe.  It’ll be a blessing to see you play.”

Rory took out her purse, fishing a twenty from her wallet.  She held it out to the man.  “Take it, please. Car fare, bills, something nice for your lady if you have one.”

“Good of you, but I can’t.  Bosses’ eyes and ears are wired into the stage. Besides, might want to save it for rainy days in the next city.”

He turned the vacuum cleaner back on and started working the wings, hoisting the cord against his sagging hip, the stage gleaming back at them.

She felt a hand on her shoulder and turned to see Mick

“Thurston and Butch are going at it again.  You got to stop this.”

“At it over what?”

“Just dicking around. Miscellaneous shit.  Card’s stirring the pot. Gets off on it.”

“They like performing for him.”

“I can’t have it.”

“What do you want me to do, lock them down? We’re on in three hours.”

“Can Butch.”

“Butch? You mean Thurston.”

“He’s a three a.m. junkie drunk and a thief.  Lifts small shit from stores, lifts food, any little crumb that ain’t nailed down.”

“I never seen that.”

“A lot you don’t see, baby.”

She paused.

“Butch’s playing—”

“Is going soft.  You can’t see it and you can’t hear it.  Motherfucker’s coasting.”

You’re soft on Thurston.”

“Please.”

“Always have been.  Birds of a feather.”

“You know that’s crap. Butch can’t do the distance and now we got corporate watching. Think about what’s best for you, for the band, for making a half decent living for the first time in ten fucking years.”

“You blaming me for that?”

“Course not.”

“You want a break to ditch it all, cool your heels, just say so.  Don’t make Butch the excuse.”

“He’s a liability. Card too.”

“I’m smelling something else, Mick.  Jealousy. Stinks to high heaven.”

“I’m not jealous of him.”

“It’s about the bass, isn’t it? Him showing you up? Shit, we got Jude’s people and her white trash audience set to eat us alive in a slow munch if I ain’t at the top of my game. Folks from The House are going to be watching hard. Not the time or place to start nitpicking Butch.”

“We’re bleeding and he’s stumbling over every other note, disappearing after hours to god knows the fuck where.”

“Why don’t you put a tail on him since you’re itching to know?”

“What sense does it make to keep on deadweight with all the bills we have and the debts you’re under?” He was in her face now, wincing from back pain, a phantom of all the years he’d tried to play bass, his rock god daydreams galloping over what little grit and discipline he had. At thirty-three he’d surrendered to the drumbeat of doubt rescued from the walking dead by Rory’s job offer to manage the band.

They did their angry twostep, eyed from the wings by the vacuum cleaner, monitoring the white man’s tone and body language for signs of transgression while he watched the staff double check the aisles for trash. He wanted everything to be correct.  Polished down to the studs, maneuvered by Black hands fading into invisibility for the chanting, overspending, stoned out of their skull whites out for a few hours of packaged abandon. It would be the smoothest ride for her until the deep bend of the Delta, where there had been rumblings of a service workers’ strike at the big arenas.

“You know this isn’t just about me,” Mick said. His voice went hoarse under the roar of drilling in the bathroom.  “Not trying to jam you up at the last minute and suck you into some mess.  It’s just that you’ve turned your back on this shit for too long.”

“And brought Card in, right? That’s what this is really about.”

“Horseshit.”

“Go on, lie to yourself.”

He looked at her hard.  “You ready to go back into the studio?”

“Unless the House or some other wizard pays for it, we ain’t going nowhere.”

“After all this, they’ll give you some time, maybe even a better than decent deal.  But that wasn’t what I asked you.”

“Nobody’s giving me anything.”

“You ready?”

“When have I had any goddamn time to write or think or pee straight, holding together the gigs, the bills, paying for the roach motels we stay in.”

“The last one didn’t seem so bad.  At least you got a little leg for your troubles.”

“Don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“It’s ok to have liked someone, to have fucked someone other than Marie. Cut yourself some slack.”

“Back off.”

“You’ve got to be shitting me. It’s been years since you and she were together. Move the fuck on. For all intents and purposes the lady’s dead.” He paused, waiting for a glimmer of recognition. “You hear anything about that Sid girl? Anything about how she’s doing?”

“No.”

“Case closed on that too, huh? I know it’s still eating at you. That night you were too sick to go down to the police station.”

“I was drunk. Flat out drunk. Don’t sugarcoat it. Or are you fucking with me? You know, you’re a bad psychologist.”

 “I’ll stop psychologizing then. Just thought you might want to talk about it. You keep this crap bottled up—”

“You’re doing it again, Mick. I fucked up. I’m living with it.  If I could snap my fingers and make it right I would, hear?”

“Alright, I’m done.  Just stop acting like a damn martyr.”

“Deal.” She hesitated, looking past him to the backline crew fumbling with a toolbox onstage. “Listen, can you find out what the numbers are for the crowd tonight?”

“I told you, 20,000 or so…How’s your stomach been, you been taking those pills?”

A figure advanced quickly toward them in silvery Beatle boots. “Rory, Ms. Tharpe! Can I talk to you for a minute?” Lavender strode up with a commanding flourish, mustering a dry smile for Mick as she edged towards Rory. She crumpled a package of Saltines between her fingers, cracker bits spraying from her agitated lips.  “Mooch Morrison, know who he is?”

“Vaguely.”

Mick drew himself up, irritated by the intrusion.  “Obnoxious radio guy out of Ohio.”

“He wants to interview you before the show, one on one, live, in studio, broadcasts to mega millions, syndicated across the entire country.”

“I’m Mick, her road manager.”

Lavender looked Mick up and down.  “Mick Guilfoyle.  Yes, I’m familiar with you. The not quite so big man on campus in Vegas and Atlantic City.”

“What?”

“I guess craps is better than shoving shit up your nose. Are you down for the interview, Ms. Tharpe?”

Mick pointed a finger in her face, “All queries need to go through me.”

“They just did.  Ms. Tharpe?”

“When and how long? We got a sound check two hours before.”

“He can do it asap, just need to get you to the studio and mic-ed up.” She stepped closer to Rory, eyeing Mick contemptuously. “And keep your damn hands to yourself.”

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The Toast of Boise

By Sikivu Hutchinson

From, Rock ‘N’ Roll Heretic: The Life and Times of Rory Tharpe

After years of being on the road touring, running down the known universe like a radioactive bloodhound, Rory had stopped checking miles on highway signs.  In these Podunk nooks and crannies she could smell the hair trigger sullenness, the boozy, clawing nicotine cloud despair of the audience before she even stepped on stage; single out the cesspit desperation of the last-chance-for-a –Saturday-night fuck nail biters. All of the second, third, fourth cousins once removed from the manager, the bartender, the janitor who’d coaxed them to come in before last call. She could spot the townies searching for a cozy spot to settle in and get intimately shitfaced with their Jack Daniels.  Looking past them, she could always find a woman to flirt with in her head; a random face to fixate on, to power her through even if the crowd was gruff, listless, evil.  Katy had taught her to find a sweet spot of Zen and stick with it; otherwise you’ll go crazy fixating on what devilment the third row was hatching for you.

There was a gnawing unrest that crept in between gigs.  A dingy coda when the band shape shifted and went back to their lives in shared apartments mired in two months back rent, dirty sheets alive with the residue of old trysts, one night stand phantoms strangling them in their sleep.  Rory could never sleep more than four hours without jolting awake expecting a visit from Katy. Could never settle into the bland set of rooms she’d leased in Baltimore, forever aiming to nestle in, do quotidian things like grow flowers, snoop on her neighbors, laze on the porch in the sun watching the cream of the Negro middle class roll by in a flurry of ambition. She had sold her first house in the late sixties, when riots convulsed D.C. after Dr. King’s assassination. She’d watched stores burn to the ground on the big new color TV she bought with her Memphis Soul Revue money. In the midst of death and chaos it had been one of her best years financially.  The Revue was a seven city tour that dragged through the winter and spring but kept her and her backup singers in Italian shoes, tailored suit dresses, and the stacked to the heavens dos she dyed beet red to keep tongues clacking and ticket sales flowing.  For one set she dueled with Joe Tex and Wilson Pickett, scatting nimbly up and down the neck of her guitar to show who was boss.   Better than fucking, better than the womb kissed tranquility of a soft bed after twelve hours on her feet. Better than a hundred things she could name but the smell of Marie’s neck after she’d washed, pressed and pin curled her hair with that heavenly dab of water and Dixie Peach.

Under the forward churn of the bus, she tried to keep thoughts of Marie at bay; squashed, an ant between her fingers.  It was in idle moments, down moments, frittered away moments that she wished she could get back from the Fates that Marie dribbled down on her in pieces. The way she laughed in half-snort. The way she whistled, winked at Rory, cooing, “hey sexy”, mock-serious during her solos, keeping her going with wisecracks about the opening band’s body odor, their prima donna demands for foot rubs, weed or pigs in a blanket for dinner.  Back then, when she was headlining four out of the five shows she booked, she could pick who opened for her.  Russ would compile a short list and a long list and she and Marie would rank the contestants on chops, looks, manners, charm, fuckability, and who seemed closer to Jesus.

The night Dr. King was killed, they’d been deciding between an Alabama R&B group and a rockabilly outfit from Scotland, dancing buzzed to “Hurdy Gurdy Man” in the living room, kids playing stickball in the street outside the house. The first scream of grief was a gut punch. Then, the neighborhood emptied out onto the lawns, driveways, sidewalks in blind cacophony. The kids going silent amidst the disbelieving wails, mounting rage, a dark pit of sorrow opening up before them. Every radio on the block synchronized to the blow by blow report of .

Marie slumped onto the floor, gripping her brown nylons in knots like they were the only things that could keep her in one piece. “Motherfuckers, they got him,” she moaned.  “Dirty Klan motherfuckers took him out. I knew he wouldn’t be able to go back down there without getting killed.”

“Shit,” Rory whispered, immobilized on the plastic slipcover couch that had barely seen action since she’d gone on tour.

“Screw those bagpipe playing motherfuckers, we going Black all the way with this next one.”

“They don’t play bagpipes girl, they’re more like, uh, Carl Perkins.”

“Well, they white and the other group is black and I know they ain’t gonna ride our backs to an American audience while Dr. King is lying dead in Memphis.”

Marie had more savvy for sniffing out band strategy and compatibility.  That was how Rory hooked up with Butch, blues improv plinker extraordinaire. Always had a raised eyebrow, surveying life with crotchety, salty Baby Ruth bar disdain.  Marie spotted him when they were doing a one-off in Newark. He was seesawing between cajoling and banging on his piano, a flash of kinetic brilliance among a group of milquetoast dead-enders that would’ve played for a dime bag.  She stole him right from under the nose of the band’s pothead front man. Dug his directness instantly. Tall, rat’s ass thin, chain smoking nasty clove cigarettes, his wavy black hair teased into a ponytail streaked with gray. Maybe if she and Marie had been curious and he’d had more meat on his bones they would have done him. She hadn’t been thinking about adding a piano to the mix but Butch was a good stop gap for not having a bass player.

After eight years together, they were going to be the toast of Boise for two weeks.

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White Lady Coin of the Realm

janis-joplin.jpg

By Sikivu Hutchinson (from Rock ‘N’ Roll Heretic: The Life and Times of Rory Tharpe)

They got up from their work stations to see the commotion outside the window, pressing into the pane, agitated, fingers hot and stiff as dynamite sticks from four solid hours of dialing for Jesus dollars.
Would you look at that. That’s her. White woman they play 24-7, one always trying to sound blacker than us.
Trying to sound? Bitch outright steals.
Ain’t nothing halfway about it.
Ears bleeding, girl.
Radio blowing up.
Every time that so-called new song of hers comes on, I’m like, where the fuck’s my .38 Special?
I’d like to scoop out them dj’s brains with a butter knife my damn self.
Girl looks smaller, raggedier and paler in real life.
Rich as sin. See all the bodyguards she brought with her and that tricked out car?                You read what they said about her so-called ‘net worth’ in Billboard?
Ain’t nobody read that crap but you.
Bet she never worked a hard day in her life and look where she is. Making millions off of buck dancing.
Must be real nice.
Don’t matter that she butt ugly. All you gotta do is be white and wet behind the ears.           That’s the gold-plated ticket. They still making movies and shit about Marilyn Monroe and her no-acting flat ass been dead as a doorknob forever. What they ever done on Ethel Waters, Pearl Bailey, Lena Horne?
Difference with them is they black and still breathing. Nothing better than a dead bleach blond white girl.
Whole industry built on it. The young ones shit gold, the old ones wanna be more holy than Jesus. Talked to a white woman today who wanted me to come pray with her on the plantation. Crops failing, defaulted on her mortgage, kids flown the coop. Shocked that none of the neighborhood Negroes would drop all they shit to go wait on her.
Should’ve taken the money and run. Seventy five percent for you and twenty five percent for boss lady.
Hold on, here she comes.
Patton strode in with a new hat, a bowler tipped cautiously over her left eye, flashing insomniac red after a night poring over Accounts Receivable ledgers. “How’s the numbers coming girls?”
“Just fine.”
“Today’s top recruiter gets a front row seat at the revival concert with Miss Tharpe.”
“Oh gee.”
“Don’t be ungrateful.”
“We wouldn’t dream of it.”
“What’s that white lady here for?”
“Don’t worry about her. Take your break and give me a solid three hours then you can be nosy.”
The women grumbled and settled back into their seats. One stayed standing, winding a salt and pepper lock of freshly pressed hair around her trigger finger.
“I can’t do three hours.”
“Sure you can.”
“I got to pick up my babies.”
“You said that last time, Sharla. We found out you went to the track instead.”
The women guffawed, sucked their teeth. “We know they was running some good horses, girl,” one said, ribaldly stressing her words. “And if you got to choose between babies and horses—”
“Can’t do three hours.”
“Calm down,” Patton said, the vein on her forehead starting to throb.
“What’s the white lady here for?” They asked again.
“Business.”
“What kind of business?”
“That’s not your concern.”
“You can’t tell us what’s our concern. We work up in here day in day out nine, ten hours a pop and y’all keeping secrets about who’s really running this joint, this church.”
“There aren’t any secrets about who’s running the church, Sharla. It’s all part of the public record. And maybe you’re forgetting that you get a regular paycheck from this ‘joint’—”
“That don’t mean that you own me, or nobody else in here.”
“Whoever gave you the idea—”
“You, with the way you talk down to us.”
A phone rang in the back row, the workaday commotion, the drumbeat rustle and flow of the room sucked out in the venom of her words as the women leaned in, waiting for a response, squashing grins behind their hands, averting their eyes to hide the glimmers of glee, biting back their anticipation of a bare knuckled brawl.
“Can you get that please?” Patton said quietly.
A woman hovering in the back row picked up the phone, cleared her throat with fanfare, and began her spiel, keeping her gaze on Patton.
“Now,” Patton said, easing onto the table at the head of the room, spic and span pinstripe blazer flaring up gently around her waist. She took in the women one by one, lingering on the more hardened faces, coaxing with pregnant pause. “Our numbers are up but we still need a push to meet our monthly target of one hundred sanctified subscribers who’d be willing to take that extra step and dig a little bit deeper into their pockets, purses and safe deposit boxes before the year is out—”
The woman on the phone stopped her conversation. “I don’t think you heard her, ma’am.”
“In addition to the glory from God, they can count anything they donate as a tax write-off.”
Sharla picked up her purse and moved toward the door. “I said, who’s propping y’all up?”
“Stop talking nonsense—”
“You brought that guitar dyke, now you got that skanky white woman don’t know her head from a hole in the ground when it comes to music to turn tricks for these church revivals while we’re busting our butts with no benefits, retirement or overtime.”
Patton stood up, the life going out of the room, a dying baby bird. “You want to make this into a career with benefits then step up and get serious. You want to talk about busting butts? The Pastor and I are here at hours you didn’t even know existed, keeping the light, heat and water on so you have a place to work, bring your babies if you need to. Remember, ladies, we family.”
“Right, and you the daddy.”
“If I need to be. Whatever I’m called to do.”
“Ain’t that a blip. Growing yourself a pair just like the other peckerwood crooks funding you.”
“Her’s are bigger,” A trembling voice piped up from the back.
A few of the women cackled, then fell silent, turning quickly to their phones in synchronized clatter.
“Clever,” Patton said. “What did God say to Lazarus?” She picked up a phone receiver, playing with the twisted chord. “A paid day off for anyone who knows.”
“Can you give us a hint, Miss lady?”
“Give you a hint about what?”
Reverend Divinity swept into the room with Jude, the white lady, her freshly dry-cleaned minister’s robe on, towering over the white woman blinking wide-eyed at the neat rows of rotary phones, hold buttons flashing like fangs in a maw.
“Miss Lady here is quizzing us about bible knowledge,” Sharla said.
“I’m sorry but I didn’t know you had a new name,” Divinity said.
“I don’t, Pastor, she’s just forgetting—”
“My place? Some of us were wondering where y’all are getting the money to run this thing.”
“Speak for yourself, girl, we just wanna get paid.”
Jude smiled, giddy as a kid lazing through the aisles of a candy store. Divinity clapped her hands. “Some of y’all may know Jude here, Jude Justice, the singer. Well, she’s interested in learning more about what we do. Wants to give to a needy family. Get involved with our program of redemptive education.”
“Just show me the way,” Jude blurted out. “Like I said, I’ve been a longtime admirer of your radio show on that televangelist network thing. Parents got it on all the time whenever I call, which granted ain’t often. It’s better than any of that other Good Ol’ Boy guilt trip shit, I mean stuff, they got on there. Sorry, ladies. I’m always a tad uncouth before dinnertime.”
“Like a zoo animal,” Divinity said. “We don’t have any red meat here.”
“You got me on that one. Looks like you running a pretty tight operation here.”
“You’re lucky. Not many folks get a guided tour of our offices.”
“Then I feel very blessed to spend time with you lovely ladies.”
Patton grunted. “Excuse us,” she said, motioning for Divinity to go into the hallway. She closed the door behind them. “How much is she writing the check for?”
“Undisclosed. At least five figures.”
“Her ass can give more than that.”
“Slow down, baby. Never heard you get vulgar like that before.”
“What’s she doing here, Divinity? The girls are already riled up.”
“Why?”
“A few of them think you’re a front for white boys like Sprat.”
“They’ll have a field day with Jude then.”
“Careful. This isn’t a game.”
Divinity reached over, plucking invisible lint from Patton’s lapel. “I’m depending on you to keep the ship together.”
“Right, I just need to know what your intentions are with her.”
“She’s got money, influence, and she’s a seeker. No mystery.”
“What’s this about her looking for a family to sponsor?”
“Woman ain’t no spring chicken. Filthy rich, no kids. Feds, lawyers circling for the kill. Thinks country Negroes are a good investment opportunity.”
Patton waited for Divinity to continue. Divinity didn’t flinch, qualify or reframe. A drowning kitten caterwaul went up from behind the door. Jude was singing, urging the women to join her, butchering another spiritual in a raspy incantation. Patton imagined the knives in their eyes. Decades of biting down silently on bitterness chewing them up, cyanide in their guts from mopping up the piss of all the Judes that had crowded their lives since birth.
Divinity ignored the sound, turning her attention to a ringing phone in her office.
“I have an appointment with the board. Keep the white girl occupied until I’m through.”
“Occupied with what?”
“You’re a mind reader. I never need to tell you anything.”
Divinity took a step back, giving Patton an approving onceover. Patton drank in her curdled perfume, the familiar stench filling the hallway, the dark, teasing outline of a perimenopausal mustache playing on her lip. The years they’d been together knotted around them invisibly, burnt vines in a forest crumbling to ashes. Who would die first? Who would look up at the victor in gloating lamentation?
“I always liked pinstripes on you,” she said to Patton. “Gives you that landed gentry look. By the way, I thought I heard you offering the girls a day off if they could answer a question about Lazarus.”
“You did.”
“Told you you were a mind reader. My Sunday sermon will be about resurrections. Second acts. What we get in exchange for faith. All the shit hours we’ve put into praying, hoping, wishing, groveling on our knees. Speaking of resurrections, I’ve invited the white girl to sing with Rory and the choir at the revival tomorrow night, shake her pancake ass, rake in the dough. Sprat will have a team film it. It’ll go over like gangbusters with all the Ofays who claim they love them some gospel. Burnish her street cred. Make us a national name. We’ll get first distribution rights in North America and overseas. Instant revenue stream.”
Patton pulled away from Divinity, scratching restlessly at her arms, face gaunt, whittled down to a rusted nub of suspicion. “She shouldn’t be here. You didn’t hear them. They were at my throat before you came. Now you throw her into the mix. The treachery of a white woman is ten times worse than a white man for some of them up in there.”
“Then we’ll use it to our advantage. Which one of them doesn’t want to see her get her ass whupped…figuratively that is.”
“You know it ain’t figurative.”
“Before I was ordained, the head pastor of this church used to take me to cockfights on the low. Used to love to see the birds dance before they ripped the shit out of each other. Said it was training before you graduated to bigger animals. We’ll give ‘em a little training tomorrow night.”

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Lobotomy Wings

By Sikivu Hutchinson (From Rock ‘N’ Roll Heretic)

There were things you could do with dead bodies that were most exhilarating. Things  Katy had only dreamed of as a girl, lusting after the medical instruments the white boys tinkered with at the clinicians’ school she’d been a janitor at long before the fact of Rory’s birth. To study the fledgling path of disease; how it blossomed, zig zagged, sunk its teeth in, nestled, plotting for decades until climax, gloating, victorious. She’d watched her two brothers waste away and die from tuberculosis and been curious. Their once robust, always moving at warp speed bodies turning to dust right in front of her. Bodies that loved cheating at stick ball and sunset lake swims and melted cheese on their County fair hot dogs in greasy gobs. Bodies that sucked out the lynching stares of the white people, spat them back in bullets.

She’d been curious, then mold green with envy, finally, ‘cause they sopped up all the attention, commanded a circus of bawling adults, a war council of aunts in the kitchen conjuring spells to blast them off proper to the other side. Gathered here, Dearly Beloved, to grieve sweet innocence. Their eleven and twelve year-old splendor. Their dashed manhood. What was the taste, the sound, the musical key of the Dearly Beloveds’ premature death. Did the memory of how they molested her in the outhouse go to corn meal mush, leaking into the ground, seeds planted for the next generation of boy wonders.

She’d heard the shrinks used to drill tiny holes into the skulls of the deranged to let the demons flitter flutter out into the world, releasing satanic pollution in the air, the drinking water. Sub-atomic particles that fucked up crops and livestock, feasting on easy prey. She’d spent half her life obsessed with the invisible, and now she had become them. Gratefully dead, ashes to ashes, an eighth of an eighth of an eighth of a dandelion bloom bumping around in the atmosphere.

The undertaker had cremated her in stages, as per the request she’d typed out on Rory’s manager’s Remington. A dank August Monday after her fifty fifth birthday. 1965 in full bloody bloom, and she finalized the papers in the office of the pretty, city mouse lawyer who’d sleazed up to them with his card during a Memphis revival concert.  In one part of her mind she fucked him good on a brand new waterbed with goldfish backstroking inside. In another she watched him fuck Rory then pistol-whipped him with Bugs Bunny sputtering on the TV in the background.

There were two sides of the brain and she took turns hiding from herself in one or the other.  Two sides of the brain, she told Rory, whenever she tried to dig herself out from a gun barrel-to-the-temple night with ten audience members. Three in the toilet, two on the payphones, two at the jukebox, three doing shots in a half-listening, half-sloshing defensive crouch at the bar. Best keep them two sides separate, she told her, or you won’t have nowhere to go.

She’d been suspicious of the preacher Divinity from the beginning. Had only a dim recollection of the girl from their time in Cotton Plant. Only a taste of her pining after Rory’s talent like they all had; goddamn bitches in heat, she muttered to herself, biting down bitter on the memory, as she waited in the motel room for Rory to wake up.

Divinity had worked her developer connections to get the band better rooms. The men were scattered throughout the building, grateful for the hot water, the working toilets, the springy bug-free mattresses that didn’t cave mid-nightmare, the new hotplates for soup and stovetop coffee to steel their stomachs waiting for the revival concert call time.

When sleeping beauty awakened Katy was perched on the end of the bed with a brush and comb.  She steered Rory to the mirror and attacked her hair, pulling off the oil slick pageboy wig she’d fallen asleep in.

“Don’t sign ten months of your life away to being on preacher girl’s shoestring express,” she said.

“What else can I do, mama? Ain’t like I got people banging down my door with offers.”

“What about that white girl Jude? She got money. Ride her for a little while until something better comes along.”

“No.”

“How’re you going to make money? What are you going to do to support yourself and these piss-ants clinging to your tit? The preacher’s desperate trying to make a name for herself and con you paying crumbs in the process.”

“Now that’s funny because that’s exactly what you said about Jude.”

“Least Jude’s the devil you know. Preacher girl makes like she’s a bigshot in Arkansas. What the hell is that worth but some bullshit with some flies in it. Jude’s got a label, white men eating out of the palm of her hand, all you got to do is ride it for a little while, turn it to your advantage, the world is waiting for you to climb back up—”

“The world ain’t waiting for me to do nothing, Katy.”

“Make yourself believe that it is, baby girl.  That’s your problem now. Keep your damn head up. Make that wish into fact.”

“Have you looked at me, mama.”

“Every day since you were born. And??”

“No amount of wishing, praying, hoping or busting my ass is gonna make me younger and white.”

“Who’s talking about that? I’m saying use Miss Ann’s fear of spooks to your advantage. She claims she want to be us, then hold her to it. Don’t mess with no second, third and fourth rate cut and run revivals with preacher girl.  That’s going backwards in time and twisting up God’s word just to cheat women out of their pocket change.”

“You didn’t seem to have a problem with them niggers twisting up God’s word in Cotton Plant.”

“Don’t call men of God niggers.”

“Oh that’s right, I forgot, nigger is too good for them.”

Rory looked in the mirror. Katy put her hands on her shoulders, soothing, massaging out the kinks she’d gotten from hours of playing bent over the neck of her guitar. The familiar reconciliation pattern they lapsed into after shows where they’d been at each other’s throats over the arrangements, the tempo, the tone, the order of songs, a stray look that burned too long. Don’t fuck with the audience loving you, even if it’s just a lightning flash, Katy’d said. It was the first time she’d heard her mother cuss, a Sunday morning shit storm in a teapot when the show booker shorted them twenty bucks the day before their back rent went was due.

“Have you looked at me, mama?” Rory asked again, avoiding her grinning skull eyes while Katy kept massaging to take the pain away. The melt of her fingers like the boring of lobotomy holes into the scalp, the flutter of demon wings letting the plague out loose into the world. Rory took Katy’s hand, guiding it to her breast, her thigh, sliding the skeleton knuckles between her legs, letting them come to rest where the good men of god did their communion.

Katy stood, unflinching, listening to the wings flap, the quiet rasp of her child breathing, older now at fifty seven than she had been in life, the mewling, half-blind sea creature thing that she’d spit out of her own womb decades ago blast now to smithereens, to the four corners of Mars, barely recognizable in the cold light of day.

“Did preacher girl watch?” She asked.

“Yeah,” Rory said.

She kept her hand between Rory’s legs. Feeling her pulse, the damp crease of her lips.  Their blood running in a river of alien women snaking through Cotton Plant to Africa, ending with Rory, leaving nothing.

“Someone has to pay,” she said.

 

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Brian Wilson’s Pipsqueak Twang, 1964*

TAMI show

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Got her first paying job at ten drying dishes in a tea shop, socking away the white lady proprietor’s bottom of the wishing well pennies in a jam jar. Dream was to buy a record store, own a chain of them, produce a few blue-eyed soul singers, groom them pretty, put them in matching suits, syncopated dance moves, fried hair straightened to a T; fly overseas to where the Brits were taking Negro music with their milk and porridge and growing into war machines, death merchants running down governments and whole villages in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos. Goal was to make her own killing for sure. Market the real deal. Everyone else was making bank so why not her. Who better to bottle the hip cock, the language, the math of it all than her. In the body she was living in, the disintegrating one with sickle cell and bile and spit that she used to polish her cut legs after fights with the other foster home girls, she never got farther than the four walls in her plotting. She had an empire when she closed her eyes and made semi-peace with the time she was losing in the gap between vision and execution. Every second, every minute, every hour, getting closer to where the exact nature of her death would be delivered up to her on a silver platter.

She found the T.A.M.I show and Elysian Church around the same time. Getting up and going to work every morning a galaxy away in Hot Springs and the TAMI concert had the biggest R&B and rock ‘n’ roll acts in the world in California. Stone’s throw from miles of golden sand and white ladies laid out in whale blubber formation, buried under dark shades and pop idol magazines on the shore. She’d never been to a beach before, never seen any kind of large body of water that wasn’t in a map or picture book, that churned with the skeleton goulash of doomed boats, planes, explorers, slaves; sea the color of frog hide green and unknown. Mildly obsessed with the concert and all its wriggling, camera-mugging teen stick figures, burnt blond, straight teeth, carefree, euphoric in network TV black and white, or so she imagined, wanting to fuck Brian Wilson’s pipsqueak twang down to a croak, listening to playback snippets on the only radio station that came in clear when she was doing dishes and plotting her bus route home.

Wish they all could be California girls surfing U.S.A. up shit’s creek.

In forty years, she fantasized that she’d be beyond that. Beyond the wet behind the ears awe for simple things, for fat hooks on a summer day, for white girls’ who had the world by the balls, flaunting it to the rest of the universe. By then, her DNA would be ghosting suspect through another generation. By then, music would be a telepathic trick, a sleight, a matter of thought and concentration, crackling brain cells, black vinyl melting on history’s dust heap, first editions the price of a piece of bubble gum race records snug behind museum plate glass.

Elysian helped her recover from the white girls. Impressed from jump by the first Sunday service she attended. All the opportunities they trumpeted. Nursery school for her youngest, a softball team, hot meals and arithmetic prep for her struggling middle boy. She plucked out the friendly faces from amidst the suspicious shifty-eyed ones, the switchboard operators who made a few more nickels a week, the ones wallowing in judgment over her clothes, unkempt babies, no man status, the halting cadence of her speech, how she read scripture with her finger tracing the page. There was something, though, about the way Divinity stood over the congregation and demanded people take stock of themselves in all their quivering, cherry jello smallness. Nobody could hide, make excuses, slouch, bow down to mediocrity or piss on anyone else from on high. ‘Cause all us sinners are naked in the eyes of God.

*From Rock ‘N’ Roll Heretic: The Life and Times of Rory Tharpe

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$15 Motel Room

Jamerson

By Sikivu Hutchinson*

Card watched the Little Rock lightning crack through the sky and took another bite of orange. Rind, sticky pulp, seeds and all. An acid plague in his buck teeth. Rind was medicinal, kept the doctor and the quacks away, would heal his small intestine, make it museum ready, something modern science could slap in a jar, keep him buzzing through the night on the bass guitar when everybody else was six feet under and punked out by god.

Heaven’s a piss pipe dream mothafuckas.

He didn’t know what he was doing now but hanging on by a thread. Following the others. Treading water. Drowning in a sanctified vat of wishful fucking thinking. Matching Mick’s desperation pound for pound with something Tasmanian devil mangier. He was gonna call the service, tap the business card he’d found stuck on the gas station bathroom door when he was buying beer and Cheetos. The fix that stalked him in every city he’d rested his ass in for a week or three. Telling himself not this time, Cardinal Jamerson the III, not this time, son, be upright, be moral, be a secret knight in shining armor for the sake of your baby girl, nestled in her bed next to her mama in big fat foam curlers snoring one fish two fish red fish blue fish.

They were promised a big crowd for opening night at the tabernacle. Top billing before the organ grinders, jugglers and pie eaters. Part of him looked forward to dazzling the holy rollers. They all loved them some Motown. Fucked to it, daydreamed to it, crapped to it, procrastinated to it, blew a month’s paycheck to it, rode elevators to it up and down and down in an endless death spiral of work, the legions who came to the concerts then woke up manic depressive the next morning to climb the spine of whatever starless city they lived in.

He unzipped his pants. He couldn’t get hard if the Confederacy got resurrected and forced him to at gunpoint. The room was cold, his mind going in circles, fixing on the last conversation he had with the Motown accountant, the one where he’d been purged out of the system, his old employee number reassigned to a desk clerk. A whole employee number, seven golden digits of his own. A passport saying he wasn’t just a temp, a shrug of the shoulder paid under the table with a few sticky, mob boss Benjamins. For awhile he’d acted like he was the big shit. Treating family, a mess of aunts, uncles, sniffing around something for nothing second and third cousins to Sunday fish dinners, bowling parties, shopping sprees at the first boutiques to dip their toes in the water of letting Negroes try on clothes. Thinking it was all gonna lead to something better, deeper, permanent. His name in Klieg light white on his own record album. A roomful of studio musicians at his beck and call. A producer who’d snap crackle and pop to his commands. A pad that he could put first and last on, decorate a little, ride into the new decade. His baby girl and boy properly situated with their own separate rooms, weekends at the park, the roller rink, wherever, whenever.

Raining, raining, raining, now. A biblical bullfrog jumping flood.
He ran outside with his shirt open, savoring the rain on his skin, brown strips of it peeling off in stinky orange smut. Mutant dregs of his parents. Cardinal fucking Jamerson, the III. Motown’s heart, lungs, gut, blood stuffed in a fifteen dollar a night motel, aborted.

*From Rock ‘n’ Roll Heretic: The Life and Times of Rory Tharpe, Fall 2019

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White Nights, Black Paradise, The Play: Casting Notice

Stage play casting for White Nights, Black Paradise:
 

Taryn Strayer, an African American lesbian accountant in her late 30s-late 40s. Intelligent and reserved.

Zephyr Threadgill, a fifty-something African American woman who enjoys her unofficial role as Temple “prosecutor”.

Carol, a white woman in her early 30s. Shrewd, realist, right hand woman/lieutenant to Jones and mother of one of his children.

Production run info: November 30-December 2, 2018

Rehearsals: late September-show run

Venue: Hudson Theatre, Mainstage

Salary: Paid rehearsals and negotiable

Send resume, head shot and IMDB reel to

Contact: Sikivu Hutchinson, shutch2396@aol.com
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