True story # 1: It’s a late spring Thursday in New York City in the late ‘70s and I’m a kid in high school. For reason I can’t recall, the entire student body was dismissed at noon. A halfaday!
Free! What to do? What to do? My pal Joel has an idea. He opens his copy of the New York Post–yes, we read newspapers back then–to the movie section and points to a small ad. It’s the final day of Pam Grier film festival at the RKO Warner in Times Square. Yes, indeedy, five, count ‘em, five of her finest efforts–Coffy, Foxy Brown, Bucktown, Sheba Baby and Friday Foster–for the price of one three dollar ticket.
The funny thing was while I was a devoted moviegoer and an admirer of Ms. Grier’s looks and overall avoirdupois, somehow I had missed all of these films. I looked at my watch. If we hurried we could catch the first show. A brief train ride later, we were in front of the theatre. Today, two shortstatured–we’re talking Hobbits with Afros here–obviously underage boys might have trouble getting into seeing an R-rated film much less four of them and one PG. Not in 1970’s New York City. Six singles, two tickets and five minutes later, Joel and I are catching the beginning of Coffy while sitting in the middle row of an empty semi-darkened theatre. (For safety reasons, Times Square theatres always provided their customers some illumination.) Our book bags were tossed on the two aisle seats to my left. The only thing bigger then the Warner’s curved Cinerama screen is the smiles on our faces at the first glimpse of the ravishing Ms. Grier. As her movies continued to unspool throughout the day, the Warner’s began to slowly fill up with a predominantly male audience. Just as the fourth film started–Sheba Baby, the lone PG-rated one–out of the corner of my left eye I could see a guy coming into our row. (Actually, I heard the clicking of his Cuban heels before I saw him.) He was wearing a plaid cowboy hat cocked to the right with a matching coat. And judging by the rustling sound he made when he walked, I was certain his pants were made of velvet.
He was just about to sit down on Joel’s book bag when I implored him to stop. “Hang on a second,” I said as I reached over and grabbed Joel’s stuff and placed it with mine on the seat on the left next to me. He pointed to the bag as he sat in the aisle seat. “Books?” he asked. “Schoolbooks,” I clarified. “Oh,” he said as he tugged on his considerable lapels. “College?” “Nah,” I responded while pointing to Joel next to me. “We’re high school students.” “Really? What do you wanna be when you grow up?” “Taller,” I said. He laughed and we began to chat. The conversation was sporadic and since we were watching a PG movie with no nudity and light violence, the talk was unobtrusive.
Eventually, he told me he was in the procuring business. I had to laugh. Even as young as I was I knew a pimp when I saw one. He laughed too then told me to seriously consider a career in law. “Three careers always make money: funeral parlor owners, liquor store owners and lawyers,” he opined. “And procurers,” I quickly added. “And procurers,” he repeated with a hint of a smile. He told me he’d been to the Warner every night for the past week to catch at least one of Grier’s films. “But I must have fucked up the time this time,” he said while pointing to the screen, “I saw this one Tuesday.” “Which one haven’t you seen?” I asked. “Friday Foster,” he answered.
“That’s next.” He looked at his watch. It was gold. Even in the semidarkness I could see the glint. He shook his head. “No can do,” he said. “Got to get back to business.” He was about to get up when onscreen a bare backed Pam Grier awoke in her bed. Instead, he slumped back down in his seat, slowly shook his head from left to right and said with a wistful tone: “Pam, Pam, Pam…the money I could make off that bitch.” Then he rose, gave me a nod and clicked his way out of the theater and into the night.
That encounter verified everything I had suspected about pimps. Yes, they could be affable and loquacious but their predatory, misogynistic side was never far away.
Such a mindset permeates the most famous work by an admitted procurer: Pimp: The Story Of My Life by Iceberg Slim a.k.a. Robert Beck. Published in 1967 in paperback by Holloway House, the book, set mainly in the Midwest, purports to detail the then 49 year old Beck’s life story from his rough-and-tumble childhood to his drift into the criminal lifestyle–Beck termed it being “street poisoned”–to his becoming a pimp between various brutal incarcerations to his eventual renouncing of the street life.
Pimp became an underground sensation. It’s easy to see why the book has sold millions of copies since its original publication. Even by today’s permissive standards, Pimp remains a lurid, profane, compelling read. But the book provides more than an oft-violent view into a secret street society relegated by segregation to African American neighborhoods. Written with the help of Betty Mae Shew, his common-law wife and mother of his three children–when Beck was supporting his family as an exterminator in Los Angeles, there’s a palpable desperation in each tale being told. The neophyte author may have christened himself “Iceberg” but the words on the printed page are anything but cool. This is a book by a man with his backagainst-the-wall trying to achieve his version of the American Dream.
But as author Justin Gifford points out in Street Poison: The Biography Of Iceberg Slim (Doubleday), like so many before and after him, Beck was to find the Dream to be an illusion. Although he did find fame–especially after a masked appearance on Joe Pyne’s television talk show–the bulk of the money went to the publishers at Holloway House. Beck made a pittance. A $1,500 advance, 4 cents a book royalty–based on the sales figures provided by Holloway House–and an onerous contract for future works like the novels Trick Baby and Mama Black Widow. (In other words, like many an eager first time author, Beck got pimp-slapped by his publishing house.)
Yet despite this undeniable financial injustice and Gifford’s exhaustively detailed and researched retelling of Beck’s hardscrabble life, it’s tough to find much sympathy for his subject. This was a man whose income was based upon the exploitation and brutalization of women. And whose fame and minor fortune years later was, in turn, based on the repurposing of that exploitation and brutalization! To gloss over that point is folly.
But many do. According to Gifford: “Chris Rock, at the wrap of every one of his movies, hands out copies of Pimp to all cast and crew members, telling them: ‘All the questions of life can be answered if you read this book.”’ Seriously? All? This from the comedian who once rightly pointed out the brother coming home from lockdown will get the welcoming hugs from the folks in the neighborhood while the one graduating from college will be ignored? (Dave Chappelle’s description of Pimp as “the capitalist manifesto” strikes me as far more insightful and accurate.)
The same misappropriation applies to the flicks of the Blaxploitation era. While pimp figures were certainly a mainstay of such movies, they were portrayed as destructive influences and/or mocked in films like Friday Foster. (Mockery that was amped up by actors like Antonio Fargas in I’m Gonna Get You Sucka and Katt Williams in Friday After Next in the post-Blaxploitation period.) Both The Mack (1973) and Willie Dynamite (1974), for example, end with their main pimpcharacters on the run, haunted by human collateral damage they’re responsible for. (I can only recall one exception: The Candy Tangerine Man (1975) with a title character who, after spending his weekends as a normal suburban dad, commutes to Los Angeles where as the vicious pimp “The Black Baron” he cruised the Sunset Strip in a Rolls Royce replete with machine guns hidden behind the headlights!)
The tragic endings of pimps were consistent with the oft-overlooked morality of Blaxploitation films. Take the reworked conclusion of the movie version of Beck’s Trick Baby (1972). In the book–full title: Trick Baby: The Story Of A White Negro–Beck/Slim meets in jail a confidence man who can and does pass for White. This man named “White Folks” then tells him his life story. A narrative device that enables Beck, the writer, to detail elaborate cons as well as the racist context for them back in the day. By passing, “White Folks” is privy to the “real” conversations between rich White people.
The movie–for which Beck received $25,000–offers an even subtler angle on racism than the book. The Mob is out looking for “White Folks” and his older Black partner “Blue” because of a scam they pulled. The mob has enlisted the assistance of a corrupt Black neighborhood cop. What the Mob doesn’t know– though the corrupt Black cop does–is that Blue’s partner looks White. The mobsters catch up with Blue and shoot him. White Folks and the corrupt Black cop both arrive at the scene as Blue is dying. White Folks immediately kills the corrupt cop and the Mob guys–blinded by their own assumptions and prejudices–let him go. (The fact that they just witnessed a cop being killed doesn’t even register because it’s a Black man slain by a White man.) The film’s bleak ending with Blue–the only father figure White Folks has ever had–dying in his arms resonates more than Beck’s original prison-bound framing device.
Gifford makes the case for Beck as being the progenitor of both street literature and gangsta rap. That rings true. Beck certainly opened the doors for such hardcore writers as Donald Goines. And he did have literary aspirations. He even modeled Pimp after The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Except the horrific pimp scenes in the Autobiography were suffused with a sense of contrition that in the case of the former Detroit Red appeared to be genuine.
As for gangsta rap, Beck not only recorded an album of pimp toasts over a jazz backdrop, Reflections, in 1976 but rappers and fans of his books such as Ice-T and Ice Cube named themselves after him. Snoop Dogg–who counts former pimp Don “Magic” Juan amongst the members of his entourage–and JayZ among others have recorded shoutouts to him.
But, as with the Tony Montana character in Brian DePalma’s Scarface, what’s being celebrated seems wrong. Tony Montana–a fictional character–lives a life of ‘80’sfueled excess: Wine, woman and blow. That same lifestyle ends up destroying him and everyone around him. “Iceberg Slim” didn’t outrun the fast life either. He never fully capitalized on his reinvention as an author. He never made as much money as he felt he should have. He lost his wife Betty and family along the way and despite a few devoted fans such as Mike Tyson, he died broke and in relative obscurity in 1992. Again, what exactly is being celebrated here?
Actually, the clearest insight into Beck was provided by his avowed acolyte Ice-T courtesy of the 2012 documentary he produced, Slim: Portrait Of A Pimp. Directed by Jorge Hinojosa, it contains a fascinating scene where Beck meets one of his former whores in a bar. They sit across from each other warily sizing each other up. Whatever her biological age, the woman looks twenty years older. The streets have used her up and spat her out. As Beck speaks to her–and he did have the most amazing mellifluous baritone never on FM radio–she has a semi-smirk on her face. As when he apologizes to her for whatever horrors he put her through she laughs a brief mirthless laugh. That’s because she’s looking dead into his eyes and dead is what she sees. There is no life in Beck’s eyes. None. No humanity or recognition of such. What she sees isn’t cool. It’s cold. Cold as ice. And whatever remorse is being acted out in this booth, in this bar and, most importantly, in front of this camera, none of it, not a single word is sincere or true. So she laughs her little laugh secure in the knowledge that this once she’s not going to get smacked in the face for it. Then and only then does she accept his apology. And then it’s Iceberg Slim’s turn to smile…..
True story # 2: It’s the ‘80s and I’m at the Ritz concert venue in the East Village. It’s about 3 a.m. George Clinton and Parliament/Funkadelic have been on since midnight and they’re still going strong. The dance floor is packed but the turnover has been continuous. Where the night began some 5 hours before with an opening set by Zapp and a mainly White college-age crowd, the audience is now predominately Black. I look to my left. Right next to me is a tall long-limbed older brother in a tan leather outfit–hat, coat, trousers and boots–with his arms around four provocative dressed sistas. Pimp alert, I thought. He spots me looking at him and smiles before he speaks to me: “I was on the Deuce with my girls when word came down that George and the boys were jamming. I told my girls here that we was taking the rest of the night off. We was all gonna feel the funk tonight!” I laughed and gave him a nod. He reciprocated but I could already see his attention was drawn elsewhere. I turned to see what he was looking at. It was a drunk White guy in his mid-tolate thirties swaying to-and-fro while making the sign of the horns with extended pinky and index fingers on both hands. The pimp whispered in the left ear of the sista closest to me. She quizzically looked back at him. He lightly shoved her away and with his right hand gestured to the drunken dude. She sashayed up to him and they began to speak. The pimp never took his eyes off their interaction. Not even two minutes later when Sly Stone staggered onstage to the sounds of “Dance To The Music.” He just kept watching his girl at work and smiling the same smile that Iceberg Slim would smile in that documentary some thirty years later.