Friday, June 17, 2016

Ali Now: An Afternoon with Muhammad Ali

Floats like a butterfly..

(From an article in ActionPact Magazine, August 1994)

If one summer afternoon you were to drive through the back roads of Berrien Springs, Michigan, you might find yourself riding past a pleasant looking non descript neighborhood with black and white children happily playing on lush lawns in front of their homes, middle aged men watering their front yards and women serenely reading the latest paperback novels on their front porches. 

You may not detect anything unusual along your way, unless you were to take a turn down a certain dead end street. At the end of that street, you would find an imposing stone and wrought iron gate. If you were to get out of your car, approach the gate and look beyond the No Trespassing Sign, you would see a beautiful, peaceful looking farm, parted by a tree-lined driveway leading towards several houses in the distance.

This is where the Champ lives, The beautiful one. The Poet Of The Ring. The most Famous Man In The World. The Greatest. MUHAMMAD ALI.
These thoughts buzz through my mind as I and my colleagues Allen Stroud and  John Roach are announced on the intercom and wait at the electronic gates to swing open so that we can drive up to Ali’s office to meet with him, We had just gotten word at the ActionPACT offices that the champ would have time to see us before embarking on one of his frequent trips (he had just returned from Vietnam).  I had scrambled to the local libraries trying to prepare myself as best I could. Though I had loved Ali all my life, I was surprised how little I really knew about the man.
We drive past what appear to be bunkhouses from the days when Ali used to train here. The main houses that earlier seemed so far in the distance now loom large, all painted a conservative white. Pretty flowers line up the side of the driveway, making one feel at ease, welcome. We pass a children’s play yard, complete with swings and a slide. Finally, we pull in front of the houses. Lonnie Ali is standing by the garage, waiting to greet us. As I come up to her, I see she is even more attractive in person, her oval face peppered with freckles. Glancing around, I  recognize portions of the grounds I had seen in photographs, especially the pond where Howard Bingham, Ali’s long time photographer once shot a beautiful picture of Lonnie and Muhammad in a loving embrace.

“He’s up in the office, you can go on up”,  Lonnie tells us. The tone of her voice suggests she knows what it means to be meeting the champ.—it’s one of those once-in-a-lifetime things, and she sees how excited I am despite my efforts to look cool. Ali’s office is located above a garage that has a couple of vintage cars parked inside. We walk up the narrow set of stairs past a life size portrait and down a short hallway.  We finally end up in a small, well-kept office. Strewn around the room are a few mementos, and a bronze statue of the champ in a fighting pose laid at the floor at my feet.  
I look to my left and standing there behind the desk is the Champ. He glances at me as we file by and throws a couple of fake punches, turns, and directs his attention back to what he was doing. The desk was covered with what look like handwritten documents, letters, bills and correspondence. The Champ is standing beside his personal secretary, Kim, looking intently past his shoulder at a computer screen. Kim greets us and motions for us to sit down. Ali says nothing, takes a seat himself and continues to stare at the screen. He’ll be with you in a minute…” Kim says, ”We’re working on Muhammad’s book”. John Roach responds, “You’re writing a book, Champ?” Ali finally turns to us and waves. ”Been working on it for twelve years. It’ll shake up the Pope. It will change the world.”

Ali asks us to wait a few more minutes as I pull out a pad and begin to take notes.  I was told by John Roach, who arranged this meeting with the Champ, that I could not bring a recording device to the interview. I assumed this was because of his well-known speech problems. But I soon found out that if one listened enough, one could understand his every word and that his mind was as sharp as ever.  I write in my notes: “Huge. Powerful looking. Still exceedingly handsome.” I stare at his hands for a while. Hands that when balled into fists, had shattered lesser boxers’ jaws.
His skin has a reddish–copper color and his arms are thick and strong-looking. He carries a barrel chest. But most of all, that face. That pretty rounded, face he had bragged about many times. Yes, it had aged a bit, it is still intact. The man is awesome.

Kim gets up from the monitor, walks past Ali and announces, “We’re done for now. He’s all yours,” Ali rises and motions for us to follow him to the sunlit porch behind his office. There, lined up along its entire length are several mail bags filled to the brim with hundreds of letters. There are also drawings here and there that people had done of Ali.
“People write me wherever I go."  Ali tells me. He points to a letter. I read the return address. It’s from Mecca. After awhile, we head back to the office and Ali tells us all to have a seat. There aren’t enough chairs so John Roach sits on the floor. As he settles on the carpet, Ali stares at him for a moment and says “Look at that, a roach on the floor!” We all laugh, and feel a little more at ease. The Champ has Kim pass around bibles to each of us, and takes a stack of handwritten pages from the desk and holds them in his lap. “This is his research..” Kim goes on. “He works on the book all the time, on planes in hotels..” “What’s it about, Champ?” I ask. Without looking up from his paper, Ali says, “How the bible is full of inconsistencies. Millions of people, all over the world believe its every word. The bible is the most powerful thing in the world. Now, turn to John 5:31."  I clumsily search till I find the passage. It reads: “Even If I bear witness of myself, my witness is not true”. He then instructs Allen Stroud to read John 8:14. “Even if I bear witness of myself, my witness is true.” Allen reads. We all look at each other. There does seem to be a contradiction. He smiles and says, “You see this stack of papers? We just got started.” For the next twenty minutes or so, Ali puts us through the same procedure, and every time, we are amazed at what seems to be complete contradictions.  “See, I believe this is my true calling. Boxing was just to make me famous. I’m gonna tell the whole world about this. See, in the Qur’an, there are no contradictions. That’s why the Muslim religion is the right way. “’Muslim” means “One who surrenders.” It means submission to God, to Allah.” The Champ rises from his chair. “Let me show you how easily you can be deceived.”  He walks to a corner of the room near a doorway and says “Watch me levitate off the floor.” He makes a forward leaning motion, and in seconds he seems to rise several inches off the carpet.
At that moment, Lonnie sticks her head into the room. “Kim and I are going, honey. Feed the cat.”

As I begin to ponder the irony of anyone telling the greatest fighter that ever lived to feed the cat, I look down and see an enormous golden –haired cat at me feet. I was so enchanted by the Champ I hadn’t noticed it. Ali seems to have taken his wife’s exit as an invitation to play and goes off to find his box of magic tricks. As he disappears down the hall, I noticed how he still moved with uncanny fluidity and grace for a man his age, despite his ailments.
He return seconds later with a broad grin on his face that seems to be saying, “That was business before. Now for some fun.” As he unpacks some things I decide to fire a few questions at him.
“Champ, what do you think of having a street named after you?”
Without looking up from the preparations for his next trick he rather casually answers, “Number one! Of all things, all the presents, awards…getting that street in my hometown meant the most to me.” He then asks Allen Stroud to pick a card. I get the feeling that the Champ was used to this type of questioning, but I was determined to keep asking.
“Whom have you personally admired?”
“Sugar Ray Robinson, Nat Turner”.
Who are your favorite musicians?”
“Jackie Wilson, Little Richard”.
“What do you think of young boxers like Mike Tyson?”
A pause.
“Some young guys have no class.”

Ali seems bored with this type of questioning, so I decide to try another tactic. I watch as he performs a marvelous trick where a scarf seems to disappear from his massive hands. We are so impressed he shows us again, slower. We just can’t figure out how he does it. “See? See how easily you can be deceived? All the intelligence in this room, and you three babble like children.”
I decide to personalize my questions a bit. I tell him that when I was a kid growing up in Staten Island, we would sometimes play “Boxers”. And we would fight over who would get to be Muhammad Ali. Because I was a smaller kid, I would always lose. “You and me both”, the Champ smiled.

“Do you remember a comic book they did in the seventies? Muhammad Ali vs. Superman? “Yeah. I loved that. A nigger beat Superman.”

Before I go on, I let the Champ perform another levitation trick. This time with a coin. At the climax of his trick, the Champ’s eyes brighten and he adds a loud “Bam!” for emphasis. “I heard this place used to owned by the gangster Al Capone.”
“Yeah”. Ali was setting up another trick. Allen Stroud chimes in. “Did you ever find anything strange here? A body, or something?” “Well, we found a machine gun out in the woods last week”.

We all look at each other in shock.

“April fool!” You see? You see?”

We smile. The Champ had made his point.

My eyes drift toward the open window, and I look out an marvel at the beauty of Ali’s spread. “How many acres have you got here, Champ?”
“About 88. The Red River runs by it.” He starts to put his toys away. My next question seems to be out before I realize it.

“Are you afraid of anything?”

“Not really. I’m not afraid of death. If a bear or some wild animal came after me, I’d be afraid of the first bite.”

We all laugh uneasily.

“You know, like on a plane, I sometimes get scared of turbulence. Not ‘cause I’m scared of dyin’, just the getting there.” He gestures with his arm. “You know, I’d be afraid if the engines stopped and the plane nosed down, down, down…knowing it was headed for a collision.”

Looking back out the window, I decide to change the subject. “I’m sure a lot of people know you live here. Do people call you on the intercom out front and ask to meet you?”

“Sure,” the Champ says rising, smiling again. “Sometimes they’re coming from far away, all over. If I got the time, I’m glad to see ‘em.”

John Roach asks Ali if he has any photographs we may use to illustrate the article. The Champ picks up the case of magic tricks (which looks to weigh a ton) and we follow him to the main house. As we cross the driveway, I realize all the cars except ours are gone. We are alone with Ali. I recall reading that Ali employs no bodyguards on his travels. He trusts Allah to protect him.

We pass through a small kitchen, and into appears to be a family room, with a large screen TV and comfortable, lived-in looking furniture. The room is modest, reminding me of the den in my parent’s house. Not exactly what you’d expect from a man who has made over 32 million dollars in his career.

Ali brings us a large, heavy box of photographs. “I got more like this in the back.” He proclaims.
He sits with the box on his knees and proceeds to go through the pictures, making comments on many of them. There must be hundreds. There are pictures of Ali with baseball great Ted Williams; with Richard Pryor; with Dustin Hoffman, Jim Brown, Wesley Snipes. Anybody and everyone you could possibly imagine.
My favorite one is one with Wilma Rudolph at the airport arriving from the 1960 Olympics held in Rome. Rudolph looks so young and pretty. Ali (who of course was Cassius Clay at the time) was so handsome. The photo seems to have a strange fantasy like quality.
I watch the Champ going through the box. He is obviously touched by some of the memories the photographs recalled. Particularly the ones that remind him of friends who have passed away like his long-time idol, Joe Louis.

I ask him what he thinks of all the violence going on in the black communities. The drugs, the apparent breakdown of the African American family.     
“Pilots can’t fly without learning to fly a plane. Cooks can’t make a meal without following a recipe. Carpenters can’t build without a plan. We have to follow the rules that Allah has set out for us. They are his law. In this chaos, things will always turn out bad.

It’s getting late. Allen Stroud recommends that we take some photos of our own outside before it gets too dark. But not before Ali presents each of us with souvenirs. He hands John Roach an original ticket from one of his fights with Larry Holmes. Allen Stroud, a vintage collector’s card, and myself an autographed picture.

We take some pictures against the backdrop of Ali’s farm, the Champ clowning and mugging for the camera.

It’s time to go. I give the champ a T-Shirt I had printed for this year’s Kentucky Derby, commemorating black jockeys. The Champ holds it up and looks at it. John Roach tells him that I designed the shirt myself. “You did this?” he asked. You’re not as stupid as you look.”
We all shake hands, and I resist the overwhelming urge to hug him.
I slip in one last queston. “You know this is one of the greatest moments of my life, don’t you?”
To that Muhammad Ali softly replies, “Yeah, I know.”

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Jim Jarmusch

The Leopard has been having a home movie festival lately of films of Jim Jarmusch! His first theatrical film “Stranger Than Paradise” is the one that catapulted him as a major new indie talent was way back in 1984, but still holds up well today. Since then, he’s been fairly consistent with each successive film and incredibly original, each beautifully made and undeniably the work of a singular artist. Favorites: Paradise, Down By Law (1984), Night On Earth (1991), Dead Man (1995), Ghost Dog : The Way Of the Samurai (1991), Limits of Control (2009) and Only Lovers Left Alive (2013). Go check out his work. Great stuff.

Matthew Rybicki - Happy Accident

Working on this album cover for the superb jazz bassist Matthew Rybicki a few years ago, The Leopard was struggling a little bit coming up with a strong visual. Did an ink drawing of Matthew, but it felt a bit static and just wasn’t “moving”. I scanned it into the computer and brought it into Illustrator and used the tool “Live Trace”, to clean up my ink lines a little and make my drawing a vector file and editable. At one point, I accidentally grabbed the figure and inadvertently “stretched” it. I was about to hit “undo” because it looked like a mistake to me
at first, but I noticed it created an interesting effect. All of the sudden the title “Driven” and the art made sense. I framed the top like a vintage album cover with a little scribble where the record logo might be. Matthew seemed to love it. It was just one of those things. Jazz, man.