Pat Thomas, recording industry executive by day, longtime Bay Area resident and music historian, transformed his encyclopedic understanding of late 60’s and early 70’s music into 2012’s captivating coffee table book Listen Whitey! The Sights and Sounds of Black Power. It is published by Fantagraphics Books, accompanied by a CD featuring some incredible—and often overlooked—Black Power musicians.
Listen Whitey! was named one of the top ten music books of 2012 by Spin. I spoke with Pat Thomas this week about his life, work, and ambitions.
Shoshone Johnson: What does Black Power mean to you, Pat Thomas?
Pat Thomas: (Laughs) Well, first of all, I’m a white, middle-class, middle-aged guy, so I don’t make any claims that I know what it’s like to have been in the struggle, I don’t make any claims that I’ve been ostracized for my race or gender.
I’m the typical middle class white guy. I guess what attracted me to writing about the Black power movement is that I felt it’s been unjustly maligned over the years. The Black Panther Party were more than just a bunch of guys wearing berets and carrying guns.
My book goes a long way towards presenting the Panthers in a different light. It’s not merely about the history of the Panthers but also how it intersected with pop culture and music and everything else.
I want to make sure I’m not skirting the issue, but as a historian, I felt that I had to set the record straight. I tell students that they should read Elaine Brown, David Hilliard, Aaron Dixon. They each have autobiographies. Then they could look at something more critical, like Hugh Pearson’s Shadow of the Panther. Those are like the two extremes. The autobiographies tend to be the more positive side. Pearson is probably too critical. I decided in my book that I wasn’t going to explore the demise of the party because it’s not what the party was about.
SJ: What do you think of Maulana Karenga’s US Organization, who invented Kwanzaa?
PT: All of the Black Power organizations provided Blacks, especially young Blacks, with a sense of pride and purpose. So all organizations had the best intentions of their members at heart.
A lot of Panthers are personal friends of mine. I have to admit that I have a bias. Kwanzaa is the US Organization’s lasting legacy, in the same way that the Panthers’ lasting legacy is the free breakfast programs, sickle cell programs, and so on.
At the end of the day, all of these organizations need to be celebrated for the positive things that helped bring the community to 2013.
SJ: After a long hiatus from recording political singles, Bob Dylan released a single about the San Quentin inmate and Panther, George Jackson, which he never re-released until he gave you permission to put the song on the Listen Whitey! CD. What are your feelings on Bob’s involvement?
PT: I would never compare Bob to…Obviously, he’s white, like me, so he’s no Huey Newton or Ron Karenga, but in his own way, writing that song was incredible, like when he wrote the Hurricane Carter song. That was really great.
For whatever reason, that song sort of got buried not long before it came out. It was never on a CD, or a “best of,” or a box set. It’s out now on the Listen Whitey! CD, and it’s the first time anyone’s been able to buy a new release of it since 1971, which is awesome, you know?
SJ: Yes! How did you contact Bob Dylan?
PT: Well, my day job is that I’m in the music business. I didn’t have any special connection to him other than that I knew how to reach him. I wrote a letter to Dylan’s personal management explaining what I was doing, what the book was about, what the CD was about, and within 24 hours, the management wrote back saying, “yeah, we talked to Bob, he loves this.”
The super cool thing was that when the book and CD came out—there’s a website, BobDylan.com—that is all approved by him. He has a section for the things he’s into. Normally, frankly, it’s just things about himself that he likes, like maybe a good review or a good interview. And, so, in a very very rare case, last year, he put the LA Times review of my book on that website, which is unheard of, and the next day his personal manager wrote to us and said “hey, me and Bob really love this book and this CD, we’re really proud to be part of it.”
So that was really cool, you know. As a long-time rock’n’roll fan who’s been listening to Bob since the 70’s, that really meant a lot to me.
SJ: The sheer amount of legal work you put into getting the rights for the compilation shows the amount of experience you have in the industry. What’s the key to that?
PT: You have to be diligent and patient. It can take weeks or months for people to get back to you. And you have to have sincerity.
A compilation like that is not a moneymaker. It’s not like the Greatest Hits of the Beach Boys, or Super-Hits of the 60’s, Volume 1, so the people that you’re talking to—when I’m talking to Dylan’s people, or the Smithsonian owned a few pieces, Eldridge Cleaver’s estate—they need to know that your heart is in the right place and that you’re sincerely interested in that. And that was the key to the success of the CD.
SJ: There’s a famous story about Martin Luther King, Jr. asking Stokely Carmichael of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to stop using the phrase “Black Power,” at a speech and Carmichael saying he could not stop. What do you think motivated his decision?
PT: The 60’s is where the term “generation gap” came from. So you had a bunch of people that had been born right around WWII—the Baby Boomers. These were young people in the 60’s, maybe 25 at the oldest.
Then you had the older generation: King, other members of SNCC and SCLC (the Southern Christian Leadership Conference). Martin was great, but he was old-school. He wore a suit, he was a minister, and he knew that that was the way that he needed to get his work done. Carrying a machete and a machine gun wasn’t going to work for him.
And then Stokely, you know, it’s the power of the young. I think it was Malcolm X who once said, “the movement needed me and Martin.” It needed both sides. The Panthers were a direct extension of Stokely and SNCC.
David Hilliard of the Black Panthers told me that in the South, for Martin or the early SNCC guys to go to a lunch counter and protest was enough to stir up some s***. In the city of Oakland, you probably could sit at the lunch counter, so that wasn’t really gonna change much. In the North, you needed to carry a gun walking down the street, The movement needed the paramilitary as well as the nonviolent vibe in order to pull it all together, in my opinion.
SJ: Do you believe that the very early Panthers were not explicitly in favor of overthrowing the government, and the later Panthers were?
PT: That leaves out the fact that there was a divide between Huey P. Newton and Eldridge Cleaver. Eldridge thought that overthrowing the government was the way to go, OK? And Huey believed that it was the food programs and that type of stuff. So it goes like this: early Panthers (66-68) are Eldridge and Huey on the same page. It’s kind of paramilitary, they’re carrying guns, they march on the Sacramento State Capitol. Then, as we get into 69-70, Huey starts to back off from the gun thing, and starts to say, let’s start doing the feed the kids, sickle cell.
Meanwhile, Eldridge is in Algeria and he’s saying let’s get machine guns and tanks. What finally happens is that Huey is in Cuba, Eldridge is exiled and can’t come back, and Elaine Brown and Ericka Huggins come along, and they run for city council, they set up an amazing school in East Oakland, and the next thing you know, Elaine Brown is meeting with Jerry Brown, of no relation, the governor of California, and she becomes very active in the political system of Oakland.
I think that’s where the Panthers made the biggest changes, because they were able to sway which judges got nominated in Oakland…
I lived in Oakland for fifteen years. For me, one of the Panthers’ greatest legacies is that if you go into city hall, whether it’s to get a building permit, or pay your taxes, or change your shoes—whatever you have to do there—99% of the employees there are African-Americans. The city of Oakland has a very strong Black presence now in the government, which is great.
A lot of the Panthers were geniuses. Huey P. Newton memorized the entire state of California penal code so that if a cop was messing with him he could say, “according to paragraph 5, chapter 1, you can’t say that to me.” That’s f***in’ incredible!
Elaine Brown, super smart, Eldridge, a deep thinker. Fred Hampton, 19 years old, this guy’s probably one of the greatest public speakers that ever walked the face of the earth! These people were like 22, 23, 24.
These are young people building this s***. I look back, and I think, wow, that makes it even more intense. This was pre-internet, too. There was no Black Panther Facebook page. These guys were doing this one house at a time, making phone calls, using mimeograph machines. This was really one person at a time joining. Grassroots, one blade of grass at a time.
SJ: So you’re white, but what’s your ethnicity? What’s your family like?
PT: I’m half Sicilian and half Welsh. The Sicilian side, I guess, has got a lot of piss and vinegar. Some might argue the Welsh side has a lot of piss and vinegar too.
My parents were not lefties. My dad was a more conservative, Republican type. My mom was a little strong on women’s rights, but we didn’t sit around and read Mao’s Little Red Book. They were not demonstrating against the Vietnam war or anything like that. I had a brother who was ten years older than me, so in the early 70’s, he was already a teenager, and he discovered this book by a white guy named Abbie Hoffman, who was a radical activist. And he let me read it.
The book was called Steal This Book. It’s got a lot of humor. It talked about how you could go on a college campus in 1971 and, by hooking one phone up to an electrical circuit, you could probably cook every phone on campus in one go. It was full of little secrets like that. I’m like ten or eleven, reading this, and it’s funny to me. It’s not even a political thiing so much as a humorous thing.
As I got older, I started to really respect what the white radicals had done in terms of protesting the Vietnam war, the Chicago riots in ‘68, and through them I began to hear about Bobby Seale and the infamous Chicago 8 trial.
And then, frankly, my feelings on most of this stuff were pretty much dormant for probably a decade or so, and then I moved to Oakland around 2000 or so, and I just decided, hey, I live in Oakland, I’d like to know more about the Panthers. I started reading books, I started befriending Panthers.
I had this incredible, once-in-a-lifetime experience where I could read a book about the Panthers, and then I could ask Panthers their views. So I’d say “hey, last night I was reading this book and they said that in April ‘68 this happened,” and they could say, “well, yeah, but I think it was more like this…” And I didn’t formally interview.
That’s one of the things I stress to journalists is that I never put a microphone in front of anybody’s face, because, as soon as you do that, the dynamics of the interview change. Obviously, you and I are being taped, I assume, but that’s fine because I’m not telling you secrets of the ’60s because I wasn’t really there. But when you ask someone who was on the front lines what happened, they’re probably going to tense up.
What makes my book a little bit different from an academic book is that I quickly realized that no two Panthers remember things exactly the same way. For instance, one Panther might say, “I remember there was 500 people there and it was raining,” and another Panther might say, “I remember there was 300 people there and it was sunny.” I decided that the facts were not as important as the feeling behind the facts. Does that make sense?
SJ: Yes, absolutely.
PT: I consider myself a historian, but I argue with other historians about the fact that I don’t give a s*** if it was a Tuesday afternoon or a Wednesday morning. Who gives a f***? That’s not important. What’s important is, what did that particular moment mean? That’s what makes my book a little different from other books.
I’m not trying to nail down the facts: I’m trying to create a feeling, and I’m using music as the main feeling of the feeling.
SJ: Like a meta-feeling.
PT: Yeah, exactly.
SJ: Have you ever felt like your whiteness gives you safety, like it’s the reason you don’t worry about being taped?
PT: I don’t have an FBI file, I’ve never been in prison, I’ve never been jailed.
There’s the term “white privilege.” I do believe it exists.
I think what allowed me, in some ways, to befriend the Panthers, is they realized that I didn’t have an agenda or an axe to grind. The fact that I was sincere about wanting to know more and appreciating what had happened. I’m not saying that a Black person couldn’t do that either, but I wasn’t trying to say “I’m Black, and this is how I feel about the movement, and I’m going to compare it against yours.”
Obviously, race was not really ever discussed, frankly.
Elaine Brown said, one day, “One thing I like about you is you’re not trying to be Black. You’re not trying to interject some lingo or rhetoric. You’re not hanging out with Blacks and trying to pretend you’re the white rap guy.” I think she appreciated that I was not trying to immerse myself in the culture so much that I was looking like a clown. I’m coming at it from a bit more of a pop culture angle than a racial angle.
There’s a gender angle, too. This is something that’s come up quite a bit for me and others I’ve talked to. For example, Aaron Dixon (founder of the Seattle chapter of the Black Panther Party, which influence Jimi Hendrix) came to Los Angeles recently, and he’s a good pal of mine, so we were hanging out, and I attended a couple of his book lectures, and several other Panthers came and spoke, asked questions, and told stories.
They were talking about what I call the “post-Huey years,” when Huey was in Cuba, and Elaine and Ericka Huggins andPhyllis Jackson were running the show and doing the hard work. I think that somebody should do a book specifically on women Panthers. The Black Panther Party is looked upon as a very male-based organization and, I’m sure, in those early years, I wouldn’t have wanted to be a woman in the Party. But once a lot of key members are in jail, or left the Party, or were in exile, it was the ladies’ chance to shine, and those female Panthers kicked some serious ass!
There are male Panthers who resent Elaine because they had to take orders from a woman. That’s hard to do for any guy, especially in the ’70s when men are not exactly liberated yet. So that’s an interesting side angle: the gender issue versus the race issue.
SJ: Are there any musicians recording today who carry the Listen Whitey! spirit?
PT: The best example for me, personally, is Boots Riley of The Coup. Boots has strong roots in the Panthers—his parents were both radical activists. Maybe someone like Michael Franti. I’m trying to focus on SF Bay Area people because that’s what I know. I don’t follow a lot of rap. Nas recorded a Panther tribute. I think he even took a photo of himself in a wicker chair.
There’s some very political rap that I may not be aware of because I’m not following it. But I will definitely say that Boots and the work he’s doing in the Occupy movement is very impressive.
SJ: What drew you to Oakland?
PT: I’ve always had an interest in counterculture. I met Abbie Hoffman briefly in the ’80s. I was very, very obsessed with Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. Kerouac died in ‘69 so I never met him. But in the ’80s I met Ginsberg, I interviewed him, I traded a few letters with him.
Wherever I’ve lived geographically I’m always kind of curious. Before I lived in Oakland, I lived in San Francisco for about a decade, so I immersed myself in the history of San Francisco, like the Fillmore West, the history of North Beach, the Beatniks, Golden Gate Park… I have a natural attraction towards anything that happened from about 1965 to 1975 in any city I happen to be living in.
My interest in the Panthers started casually.
I was trying to buy a house and it was way too expensive to buy a house in San Francisco, so I looked in Oakland and bought a house in the East Oakland hood, frankly. I moved there and I decided I’d learn more about the Panthers.
I didn’t write that book because I wanted to write it—I wrote that book because I needed to write it.
It became like, why do people climb Mount Everest? Because it was there. Why did I write a book about 300 obscure Black Power recordings? Because they were there, you know? I just felt it needed to be done. There’s a lot of passion in that book.
SJ: There’s a metaphor I hear the Panthers use a lot about the American Indians. I am a Cherokee on my father’s side. So I’ve always noticed the references, and I noticed in Stokely Carmichael’s speech, he said that the “white man succeeded in wiping out the red man.” I’ve been getting to know the American Indian cultures, and they still exist, and they’re still vibrant. Why would leaders refer to the genocide as though it were finished?
PT: I think he means it in the broadest strokes of the term. There was a time when the entire country was all Indians or native Americans and there was no white guys. So by the time California is settled by the end of the Gold Rush, effectively, they’re gone. I can assume, if I was native American and I was living on a reservation, that I might listen to that comment and it might piss me off a little, but I don’t think it’s meant to be demeaning in any way.
SJ: It sounds like a rallying cry.
PT: This is something that I probably should explore more. There were rumors, and even some facts, that the US government was planning to rebuild internment camps and put white and black radicals in there. Somebody could probably find a letter that describes that. I think that was a real fear, and there was also a reality of COINTELPRO. It goes back to the killing at UCLA: one of the best ways to get rid of organizations is to have them turn on each other. Even though I’m kind of anti-US Organization, they were probably pushed a little bit by the Federal Government. What helped kill the Panthers off was this big division between Eldridge and Huey. The FBI accelerated and deepened that division. Huey kicked out hundreds of East Coast Panthers because they were on Eldridge’s side, and a lot of that was fueled by the FBI feeding people’s paranoia. What might seem paranoid or grandstanding by Stokely was probably closer to the truth than any of us would want to believe. The FBI didn’t just kill the Panthers off with guns: they killed them off with these bulls*** trials. That wiped out the New York Panthers.
SJ: Whatever happened to (short-lived, but influential, Black Power record company) Black Forum Records?
PT: It’s great that Berry Gordy funded the company and gave it the thumbs-up. Ultimately, Berry was a businessman: he was more interested in putting out the new Jackson Five record.
The other thing was that Motown, its distributors, the record stores, and even the fans weren’t quite sure what to make of this. I mean, yeah, Langston Hughes, he’s a legendary writer, but, “there’s this Temptations single, that looks really cool!”
It was hard for them to sell and market Black Power stuff, so by the mid-’70s it started to slow down. And also, the landscape was changing,
I mean, disco music was starting to come in and become more popular, the Panthers were disintegrating, the Vietnam war was over, and the political climate was changing, and it began to be more about having fun. The Panthers were now in their 30’s, and they were going back to school, marrying, having kids. You couldn’t wake up every morning and think about the revolution; you probably had to think about getting a good day job and taking care of the wife and kids and things. The demise of the Black Forum label came at the time of that changing demographic.
SJ: So now that you’ve distributed this book worldwide, what have you been working on and what can we expect in the future from you?
PT: I’m doing a book on white radicals next, specifically focusing on Jerry Rubin and the Yippies. It won’t have as strong of a musical background, although Rubin intersected with John Lennon a lot, and Phil Ochs. It’s not gonna be a music book. This one will be not overly political, but it will have a pop culture view of the Yippies and anti-war movement.
But, like Listen Whitey!, it’ll be a coffee table book, with a lot of photos, and a lot more first-person quotes. This time, I amsticking microphones in front of people’s faces.
SJ: Good idea!
PT: I’ve done about thirty interviews, so that’s a very different angle. There’ll be a lot of people talking in their own voices in that book. There’ll also be a second volume of the Listen Whitey! CD focusing on jazz. Weird, cool, free jazz and soul jazz.
SJ: It’s interesting also to frame your book as “about white radicals.” I also notice a real intense Jewishness in Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin-
PT: Oh, yeah, totally! It’s all about the Jews! Jerry Rubin is a Jew, Abbie Hoffman—
SJ: Bob Dylan.
PT: Their lawyers, Bill Kunstler is Jewish, yeah. Some people have told me that I need to explore the Jewishness of the movement!
I’m not quite sure how I’m going to do it. I’m glad you brought that up. It’s both a little funny and very serious at the same time.
SJ: I know you’ll find a way. Thank you for this interview, Pat. It’s been fun!
PT: Yeah, thank you, Shoshone!