AL Letson, Penumbra: Live at Henrietta’s at 9th & Main, Jacksonville, FL (2005)

Al Letson, photo by Billie Anderson

Al Letson is a poet, playwright, performer, and radio and podcast host. This article first appeared on Bill Ectric’s Place in June 2005. Since that time, Letson has hosted and produced the show State of the Re:Union for National Public Radio. He now hosts Reveal, a podcast from PRX and Center for Investigative Reporting.

Top photo by Billie Anderson. Text and other photos by Bill Ectric. Except for the one of Al and me. Does anyone out there know who took that one?

For dedication to his craft, innate talent, and hard work, Al Letson deserves the title of consummate professional, and I don’t use those words lightly. His delivery is precise, the emotion is fresh – Letson never seems to be on autopilot.

“Penumbra,” Letson explained to a full house, means basically “in between.” This night consisted of a mixture of poems and performance pieces that he has done in the past from different shows, as a kind of pause before he begins to put out new work, and to introduce himself to those who have not yet seen him.

Al Letson with Drummers

Al Letson with Drummers

Letson’s live performance, which began at 9:00 PM, was a diverse and exhilarating selection of poetry, acting, and monologue, sometimes accompanied by three percussionists near the stage. Interspersed among the live performances were two of Letson’s videos on a large screen backdrop. I believe we will see more poetry & spoken word videos and Al Letson is already helping to set the standard. Following an intermission, we all reconvened in the theater for a big screen viewing of Russell Simmons’ Def Poetry Jam – the 2nd episode of the season, featuring our man Al Letson as the first guest! He had recently taped the episode and this night was the first time he, or anyone had seen it.

My favorite piece of the evening was called “Eunice.” It’s about a young black girl, a child in 1943, playing her first piano recital after much practice. During the recital she is distracted by a disturbance in the audience. Her parents are being told to move to the back of the room to make room for a white couple. Through this debacle she must keep playing, as her father mouths the words to her, “you know what you suppose to do.” Near the end of the poem we find out that this is a true story and the young girl, Eunice Kathleen Waymon, later changed her name to become famous as the great Nina Simone.

When he wasn’t on stage, Letson was in great demand by fans, friends, reporters, and members of his crew, so I mostly had to ask him questions on the fly. “Who did your videos?” I asked him. “I do most of my own video work,” he said. “The two you saw tonight were filmed by Don Solomon from Jacksonville Beach, but I do all my own editing and effects. I know quite a lot about video production and I enjoy doing it.”

We watched a short film by Letson

Watching one of Al’s videos

I said that I could easily see him acting in films. Someone spoke up and said, “He writes good plays. One of his plays will be on Broadway someday!”

Al Letson and Bill Ectric

Al and me

I asked him, “If you could travel into the past, what historical figure would you like to meet?” As he thought about my question, a young woman approached us, saying, “Al, we need you backstage for a minute.” Turning to me, Letson said, “Excuse me, I need to see what they need,” but as he walked away with the lady, he looked back at me thoughtfully and said, “Kennedy.”

Watching an episode of Russell Simmons Def Poetry featuring Al Letson

Watching an episode of Russell Simmons Def Poetry featuring Al Letson

We got a special treat before watching Russell Simmons’ Def Poetry. Because of last minute complications, the local cable company refused to hook up HBO directly to the club (typical), so someone had to record the show and bring it to Henrietta’s for viewing. To fill in the time delay, Letson performed an electrifying, beat-filled theater piece from one of his plays, called Griot. He was joined onstage by Larry Knight and David Girard Pugh, two other performers from the play.

Larry Knight, Al Letson, David Girard Pugh performing a scene from Griot

Larry Knight, Al Letson, David Girard Pugh performing a scene from Griot

 

Letson was first up on Def Poetry. You can read more about this performance on Literary Kicks, which is reviewing each episode as they air.

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Tim Gilmore discusses The Klan in Jacksonville, FL – Its Repugnant Rise and Hysterical Collapse

Tim Gilmore

Tim Gilmore, Author/Speaker/Educator

The Coniferous Cafe was packed Tuesday night, June 13th,  with every chair filled, many more people standing, and the crowd actually spilling out the door onto the sidewalk. I love this kind of motivated crowd, sincerely and lovingly united against bigotry and racism, ready to stand up for human rights. There aren’t many words I can use to describe the event other than to repeat the original announcement for the event:

This event was the first in a new Coniferous Cafe series called A People’s History of Jax with FSCJ Professor Tim Gilmore. You can also follow his seven-story series on the Klan in Jax at Jax Psycho Geo, starting here: https://jaxpsychogeo.com/all-over-town/ku-klux-klan-in-jacksonville/

Tim is the author of a wide variety of books and articles. Including but not limited to
* The Devil in the Baptist Church
* In Search of Eartha White, Storehouse for the People
* Central Georgia Schizophrenia
* Stalking Ottis Toole: A Southern Gothic

You can read Tim’s articles here -> https://jaxpsychogeo.com/

Suggested $5 – $10 donation
Complimentary libations.

I would also like to bring your attention to the Jacksonville Progressive Coalition, organized by Wells Todd, and Karen who was present at the event.

Also present was Karen Roumillat of the Stetson Kennedy Foundation.

Wells Todd, Jacksonville Progessive Coalition

Wells Todd, Jacksonville Progressive Coalition

Coniferous Cafe_ Mike Todd_Meri Read_Leiah Ann Gustavus_Kristen_Mieman

Mike Todd, Meri Read, Leiah Ann Gustavus, Kristen Kiernan

Coniferous Cafe Kristen Tia Samuels_Downtown Obi Brown 2

Tia Samuels,  “Downtown” Obi Brown

 

Coniferous Cafe_Hurley Winkler_Lisa Brown Buggs

Hurley Winkler, Lisa Brown Buggs

Kristen Kiernan, Taylor Ashey

Kristen Kiernan, Taylor Ashey

 

Connell Crooms, Mike Todd, Leiah Ann Gustavus, Cheri Jones

Connell Crooms, Mike Todd, Leiah Ann Gustavus, Cheri Jones

Connell Crooms, Mike Todd, Leiah Ann Gustavus, Cheri Jones

Connell Crooms, Mike Todd, Leiah Ann Gustavus, Cheri Jones

Coniferous Cafe_Connell Crooms_Mike Todd_Leiah Ann Gustavus

Connell Crooms, Mike Todd, Leiah Ann Gustavus

Tim Gilmore, Karen Roumillat

Tim Gilmore, Karen Roumillat

Next at CoRK / Jax by Jax

folio-weekly-jim-draper-and-hurley-winkler-splitscreen

Happening in Jacksonville, FL

From Folio Weekly:

Hurley Winkler is good at far too many things. Her CV includes helping produce Swamp Radio and Perversion magazine, and she’s just finished her master of fine arts in creative writing at Lesley University. Jim Draper is primarily known as a visual artist whose work has been seen in galleries, in the airport, on the façades of public buildings — on and on. But he’s not just a visual artist. Draper says, “Words are our primary symbols.”

On Feb. 23, each will perform a reading of their work at the second monthly installment of JaxbyJax.

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The David Roberts Interview

Crawfish of Love Septober Octember

No one knew what to think when we first saw a band called the “Crawfish of Love.” The stage was strewn with surreal artwork, a manikin head, several TV sets turned on to random channels or static, guitar amplifiers, drums, and five musicians that looked like they were conspiring mischief among themselves.

Andy King on bass and Scott Sisson on drums were such a formidable rhythm section that they were, and still are, often sought out to work as side-men for other bands and recording artists. Pat Ogilvie was lead guitarist extraordinaire. I remember after one fiery, tone-perfect, feedback-fueled guitar solo, Dave Roberts proclaimed from the stage, “Pat’s been listening to Blue Cheer!” Pat, too, has been sought by area band leaders who need a professional guitarist. The Crawfish line-up varied from time to time. I remember some impressive acoustic guitar fretwork by Steve Pruett at some of the Applejack’s gigs. I’m told that Michael Pearson played some swirling, spiraling electric guitar at some shows I didn’t get to see.  Brian Barr spiced the music with bongos, chimes, maracas, and other percussion. In his tie-dyed shirts and long blond hair, Brian looked like a surfer bohemian straight from 1967 San Francisco.

David Roberts

David Roberts – late 1980s or early 1990s

David Roberts

David Roberts circa 2012

The band was always evolving and full of surprises. On one hand, they were top-notch musicians. Their musical bag included rock, jazz, reggae, and folk. But they also did weird stuff. How can I describe it? Between covers of Minor Swing by Django Reinhardt or I’ll Sleep When I”m Dead by Warren Zevon, the the Crawfish sprang songs on us about a living inside of a green bell pepper, or the Creature From the Black Lagoon looming toward you on Little Talbot Island, or “singing through bread” with actual slices of bread on stage to sing through. Some people I brought to see their shows didn’t like it. They didn’t get it. Among those of us who liked it, there was no need to explain. And there were a lot of us who loved it. At a Crawfish of Love concert, people from all around who had never met each other could share their taste for, not only good music, but a bizarre experiences. Sometimes they headlined shows, other times they became the back-up band for some big-name performers. We’ll talk more about that later in the following interview I did with the Crawfish of Love band leader David Roberts::::

Bill: I remember you telling me that one of your influences was the “cut-up” writing technique used by William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin.

Dave: What I liked most about the Burroughs Cut Up stuff was the absurdity and nonsense of the word flow. I know Burroughs, Bowles, and the others thought eventually the cut ups lead to profound mystical messages but I never had that experience. I’ve just always been tickled by human voices speaking in normal voice tones saying things that violate all rules of syntax. Actually, more than the Burroughs cut ups I was highly influenced by the speech patterns of schizophrenics, particularly undifferentiated schizophrenics, to which I was exposed during viewing training films and doing my internship to earn my master’s degree in psychological counseling from the University of North Florida in 1978. I interned at the old University Hospital Mental Health unit on 8th street and we saw a daily flow of fresh schizophrenics. They speak in a pattern called “word salad,” which really is almost impossible to ad-lib. I was also influenced by the old party game called “Bloopers” where you would fill in a story full of blank spaces with words you had chosen prior to seeing the story. They came printed on pads and there were several series of them. The pre-chosen words sometimes led to hilarious sentences. This goes way back to the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. I’ve also always been able to hear the taste of food in words since I was about 5 years old. For example, the word “example” tastes like the meat filling from Chef Boyardee’s canned ravioli. The word “work” tastes like oatmeal cookies and coffee to me. The word “tape” tastes like butterscotch. Not all words make me taste tastes in my mind. The word “computer,” for example, doesn’t taste like anything but there is a certain “orange” smell to it. I was thinking these thoughts long before I knew who Burroughs was. But I guess the streak of urban discomfort and darkness in my stuff is most greatly influenced by Burroughs sidekick junkie raconteur Herbert Huncke. His book The Evening Sun Turned Crimson from 1975 is the ultimate account of the underbelly of the beast. Look for that one on E-Bay if you can find it. It’s the book Jim Carroll wished he could’ve written. Huncke led the life Carroll tries to capture in his vanilla trust-funded accounts of addiction.

Bill: Your CD, Septober Octember, seems to mythologize North Florida the way Faulkner did with Mississippi, Tennessee Williams with New Orleans, or Jack London and Robert Service did with the Yukon. It’s also got some very funny moments.

Dave: I wanted the CD to reflect the geography of North Florida more than mythologize the region or it’s people. I wanted the slow syrupy water from the swamp-water runoff mud trail. I wanted the heat from a moonless 2 a.m. August moment staring across Trout River at Jackie’s Seafood. I wanted the decayed horseshoe crab shell placed on my head like a helmet while standing in the dunes at Talbot Island…not up to anything in the dunes…just standing. And yeah, sure, there’s Winn Dixie stuff on it too but it relies on the things one might see out of the corner of your eye around here while looking at something else. Like you’re looking ahead at a carousel in the forest but you find yourself noticing the bandannas lying along the edge of the soccer practice field next to the forest…really more interested in the bandannas than the carousel. Septober Octember is not meant to be a comedy CD at all. It’s meant to help you smell the beauty in the vapor coming from a small pot of macaroni as the ice cold wind blows and mixes the vapor into your nostrils blowing across a highly-polished wood floor in a Riverside apartment. It calls to those times in my life when I could pay attention more to the edge of tape grass on a February swamp bank than to a trailer full of lawn mowers following me constantly draining what’s left of my zeitgeist like little gas-powered Draculas. Septober Octember was my celebration of stuffing and gravy, new green onions in the spring, and the weird Gideon’s Bible Dr. John holds on the cover of his seminal 1969 album, Babylon. Recording it was an absolute joy.

Bill: Didn’t you follow the Grateful Dead on tour one summer?

Dave: No. I have a bunch of friends who did, though. Indeed, I was and to a small degree still am a Dead fan, but no, I couldn’t stand to do something like that. The Dead could be disappointing sometimes in concert, particularly toward the end when Garcia was consumed for the umpteenth time with drugs. I also resented the “rules” of the Deadhead world, a supposed “free thinking” group of folks who have very strict rules for behavior, appearance and comportment. But, to be sure, between the years of 1968 to 1995 I was a major appreciator of the Gratefule Dead’s improvisational excursions on their “space” instrumental passages. I was actually consumed by their music from 1973’s Wake of the Flood album up through the last days of the performing Crawfish. I would go running in those days with 90 minutes of Dead on my Walkman and Crawfish shows started to get very Dead-like due to that subconscious influence. Andy King complained about it back then. I disagreed with him then but now I think he was right. When I listen to Crawfish tapes circa 1988 up to the end in 1998 it does sound too Deadish. It kind of ruined the originality thing we debuted with in 86 and 87, probably the heyday of the Crawfish. I remember you up on stage with us at Applejack’s in 1987 singing Let’s Cook the Dog, which I think was your tune. Those were the early days when I had a clearer vision for the band.

Bill: Dave, you’re a teacher. What’s the deal with algebra? I mean, who uses that stuff except people going into science or engineering? Why can’t it be an elective?

Dave: Algebra requires 3rd-level intellectual thinking because it utilizes the problem-solving areas of your brain. Humans hate algebra for the same reasons that humans hate physical exercise…it’s hard, not fun, requires dedication and actually calls for increased challenge. Also, third level operation increases the likelihood for failure and humans fear failure. But the fact is, utilizing this third level of the brain ( called “application” by the way ) forces the brain to function in ways, problem-solving ways, that “pave the way” for future problem solving, and not just in mathematics. You need experience in third-level cognition in everything from changing a flat tire to performing a delicate surgery. It’s like a mental workout for future needed performance the same way that physical exercise prepares one for future needed performance. Algebra is good.

Bill: Well, fine, then. Now that you put it like that…okay. Let’s get back to music. You guys have managed to play with some legendary performers. Tell me about working with those big-time collaborations.

Dave: By “big-time collaborations” I guess you mean the seven shows the Crawfish of Love did between 1996 and 1998 with three of the San Francisco psychedelic Haight-Ashbury luminaries: Gary Duncan from Quicksilver Messenger Service, David LaFlamme from It’s A Beautiful Day, and Sam Andrew from Big Brother and the Holding Company. They were all wonderful and they were all horrible and every shade in between. The Crawfish burned with such intensity of devotion and discipleship in learning and performing the repertoires of all three bands that I’m afraid it burned us up. I did all the financing and lost a small fortune, so that ultimately is the strongest stamp it all placed upon me. Yeah, it was great to play with those guys on a certain level, but what I went through to do it was enough to cloud over the fun. Now, if someone else was paying for it all I could’ve enjoyed it more. My mood and level of crap I was willing to take steadily disintegrated from the first gig with Duncan up to the point where when Sam Andrew showed up to do his shows with us in 1998 I wanted absolutely none of his shit and before long he and I were not really on speaking terms, although technically the Sam Andrew shows were the best of all. He was real hard to deal with and I was real hard to deal with too. I had had it at that point with egos and temperaments and I could tell people had it with mine. We all felt relief when those gigs were over and it really was the end of the Crawfish. Pat (Ogilvie) didn’t even play the Sam Andrew show anyway and if Pat isn’t there it can’t really be a Crawfish gig to me. At that point, in 1998, we were invited twice a year to play Beth and Randy Judy’s Magnolia Fest and Spring Fest on the Suwannee River and Pat and I decided to scrap the group and play acoustic tunes from our 1973 repertoires. It was a period of great cleansing and refreshment to both of us and we formally stopped playing any gigs except the festivals. We developed quite a little following using the Crawfish of Love name but not doing Crawfish material. We turned our backs on it. We recorded what we felt was as perfect a CD as we could record in Septober Octember. It was just what we wanted. No need to do it again. We also hated playing music in bars late into the morning hours so we just went with the festival gigs. We were invited to play the festival up to 2002 and then we stopped getting invited. So our course had been run and now we exist only on the most special occasions. We did reunite the original band last August at Brenda Walker’s Chinacat Festival and played a set of the original 1987 Applejack’s repertoires. It went over well with the hippies old and young and it was great fun but it was enough to keep me satisfied for a long time.

Bill: Would you ever consider more Crawfish of Love concerts?

Dave: The only gigs I really miss are the Magnoliafest and Suwannee Springfest gigs. I loved playing under those mossy oaks lining the Suwannee River. I would gladly reconvene the Crawfish under any format to play on the Suwannee again. But basically, I dislike playing music in bars late at night hanging around a bunch of drunks and drug users and cheaters and club owners and managers and band members who can’t make it tonight and all the absolute shit that goes with trying to play music on this very low rung in which I abide. To me the biggest names I’ve played with are Scott Sisson, Steve Pruett, Andy King, Pat Ogilvie, and a couple more.

Bill: I need to get a petition started. “Bring the Crawfish back to Magnolia!” Seriously.

Some of his former students from Terry Parker High School with David Roberts (front & center with black shirt)

Some of his former students from Terry Parker High School with David Roberts (front & center with black shirt)

End of Interview       Return to Interview Selection Page

Go to Bill Ectric’s Home Page

The Creature’s Lesser Known Cousin

Image

JON M. FLETCHER / The Times-Union -Don Barton, who made "Zaat" in the early 1970s, kept the original creature costume in his garage. 2009 file photo. Above: Photo by JON M. FLETCHER / The Times-Union -Don Barton, who made “Zaat” in the early 1970s, kept the original creature costume in his garage. 2009 file photo.

 

Upon the death of Don Barton, the June 10, 2013 edition of Florida Times-Union (and Jacksonville.com),featured an article by Matt Soergel, who wrote “Don Barton brought “Zaat” to life in the early 1970s, and while the movie about a giant radioactive walking catfish-human monster was quiet for decades, it never really went away . . . The 1971 creature-feature played for a while at drive-ins and movie houses, mostly in the Southeast. It was bootlegged and retitled several times, and Barton learned hard lessons about the cutthroat movie business. It had a renaissance, though, after being mocked in 1999 on TV’s “Mystery Science Theatre 3000,” which featured science-fiction movies generally thought of as bad. By June  2001, “Zaat” made it to theaters again, playing to two packed auditoriums at the now-gone St. Johns 8 Theater on the Westside . . . Mr. Barton was a co-founder of the Florida Motion Picture and Television Association and won several awards for documentaries. In 1984, he became vice president of marketing at what’s now St. Vincent’s HealthCare, and later served on the hospital’s executive board.”  Read entire article

I visited the estate sale for the late Mr. Barton  on Saturday, November 2nd and purchased some memorabilia.

Zaat Memorabila 

Jamie Defrates in the movie ZAAT (1971)Above: Jamie DeFrates as he appeared in ZAAT

 

When I first saw Don Bartin’s low-budget horror movie, ZAAT (1971) I was surprised to discover that Jamie DeFrates makes an appearance! DeFrates is an accomplished musician/composer/producer, who lived in Jacksonville, FL at the time. DeFrates was born in Springfield, Illinois. His parents ran a Christian ministry that included a radio show called “The Golden Gospel Hour.” After college he traveled the country, playing guitar and singing in clubs from New York to San Francisco. DeFrates has been a national opening act for: Willie Nelson, Janis Ian, Leo Kottke, Little River Band, Jerry Jeff Walker, Richie Havens, Doc Watson, John Hartford, John Lee Hooker, and others. He eventually settled in Jacksonville, where he established a publishing company and recording studio. The music in ZAAT is credited to Jamie DeFrates and John Orsulak. 

ZAAT movie cedits

Just below the credits for DeFrates and Hodgin, we see “Electronic Music: Jack Tamul,” another interesting Jacksonville musician and composer. Tamul specializes in synthesized music.

Jack Tamul Above: Jack Tamul

 

The April 2001 issue of Scary Monsters magazine and the ZAAT 2-disc combo DVD set

Ed Tucker is an aficionado of classic and vintage science fiction & horror films and memorabilia. He hosts the Fan Lexicon twice a year in Jacksonville, FL. Mr. Tucker wrote the liner notes for the ZAAT 2-disc combo DVD. The official ZAAT website features an excerpt from an interview with Ed Tucker that first appeared in the April 2001 issue of Scary Monsters Magazine. Tucker begins:

I suppose being born in Ocala, Florida in the 1960’s in some way predestined me to my love and appreciation of motion pictures. The small town of Silver Springs is located so close to Ocala that, today, it is almost considered a suburb of it, but in the 1950’s and 60’s, it was a booming conglomeration of widely varied tourist attractions. Chief among these was Silver Springs itself, with its glass bottom boats, jungle cruises, and wildlife exhibitions. Hollywood often utilized the spring’s clear waters and jungle-like settings for every manner of production. From installments in the Tarzan film series to episodes of Sea Hunt and I Spy. But in my mind it will always be remembered for the underwater footage filmed for the 1957 3-D horror icon, Creature from the Black Lagoon.

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ZAAT DVD Features

Chamblin Bookmine, Part One of Seven

The following was written by the always interesting Tim Gilmore on his blog, Jax Psycho Geo.

Source: Chamblin Bookmine, Part One of Seven

But after what happened with Manson in His Own Words: The Shocking Confessions of “The Most Dangerous Man Alive,” I was too ashamed to go back.

Even years later, when I’d assumed enough time had passed, Ron would give me a deal on a stack of books for trade-in, standing behind the cash register, with his mussed white hair and thin steel-framed glasses, and he’d joke with Frank, “Uh oh, better look out, he’s doing it to us again.”

In the years in between, I missed the strange steep back staircase that ascended to the dark and cramped second floor, and I missed the incongruous juxtaposition of poetry and horror fiction up there in the dark. I remembered particular purchases, Rimbaud’s Illuminations and Baudelaire’s The Flowers of Evil on the poetry side, and the cheap 1970s Ballantine paperback of H.P. Lovecraft’s The Lurking Fear on the horror side.

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Alan Justiss (1943-2011)

Alan Justiss, photo by Shelton Hull

Poet Alan Justiss died on Valentine’s Day in Jacksonville, FL. In a touching tribute on Money Jungle SafariShelton Hull writes:

The light is out on the 17th floor on Lomax Street, at the retirement community Alan Justiss called home at the end of his life. That light has burned out, and it will shine no more. The light, like the man, was a beacon for people seeking the kind of real talk that is getting harder and harder to find anymore. No more late-night phone-calls with the smell of beer and cigarettes and wet typewriter ink digitized and dispersed by satellites into time and space, where scholars in distant galaxies transcribe them now.

The greatest writer our city ever produced will spend eternity nestled in a pine box in the pauper’s field, maybe with a marker or a mention and some care to his last intention. His overworked Underhill went underground, laid across a chest clothed cheaper than the baby Jesus, his hands clasped across corroding keys in propriety and prayer. His entire body gave out slowly, over the course of 20 years, but you see those hands and you know that serious work was done.

Read entire article

 

Chris Hutson, me, and Alan Justiss, listening to someone read somewhere