Search Results for: Paul Collins

A. N. Devers' Top 5 Bathtub Longreads of 2011

A. N. Devers‘ work has appeared online in Lapham’s Quarterly, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and in other publications.  Her most recent essay, about poet Robinson Jeffers’ Tor House in Carmel, California, is in the Winter 2011 issue of Tin House. She is the founder and editor of Writers’ Houses, a website dedicated to literary pilgrimage.


Maghag (n.): 1. A compulsive reader and hoarder of periodicals and magazines to a magnitude that endangers the well-being of the hag’s housekeeping ability, family relationships, and punctuality. Identified by a pruney skin that develops from spending an inordinate amount of time in the bathtub 2. Writer and procrastinator known as A. N. Devers.


1. I always go for Scientology exposes. I’m cheap that way. “The Apostate” by Lawrence Wright for The New Yorker, with its heroic fact-checking effort, is so Xenu-shattering that it inspired a rebuttal from the Church of Scientology in the form of a poor-executed satire of The New Yorker.

2. My fandom of Paul Collins goes back a ways. His work exposes my periodical-weeding inability. If you came over to my apartment and demanded some Paul Collins, I’d be able to run to dusty stacks and the file cabinet and deliver a dozen essays of awesome. So I’m not surprised that his piece about the disappearance of child-writer Barbara Follett in the Lapham’s Quarterly Celebrity issue is perfectly constructed story of intrigue and wonderment, mystery and disturbia.

3. Anything I can say about Hungarian industrial designer and ceramicist Eva Zeisel’s Prison Memoir (A Public Space, issue 14) of being arrested in Stalinist Russia doesn’t do her charm and intellect justice. Just listen to this voice: “He put a number in front of my chest and I thought, This will make me look like those pictures of criminals one sees, Wanted for Murder. Then they took me to be fingerprinted, one finger rolled in the ink after the other, and again I thought, It’s like the movies. Again, we walked through many courtyards and the funny thing was that I did not see anybody. It was all empty. Finally, I was in my cell, and I still did not know what it was all about.”

4. Once upon a time, I was a professional archaeologist. Freelance survey and excavation work paid some of my bills my last year of college and my first couple of years out of school. I was waitlisted for a PhD to study caves with a famous spelunking archaeologist at Washington University and had determined if I didn’t get in I’d go a different route. By then I realized that archaeology and literature have more in common than people realize—and I love them for the same reasons. They are both, I believe, about our need to seek and excavate truth. But archaeologists, like many breeds of scientist, aren’t natural storytellers, and I am always glad when a writer happens upon archaeology and finds a way to explore the people and projects of a fascinating field. John Jeremiah Sullivan does this in his wonderful Paris Review essay, “Unnamed Caves” (purchase req.), and it’s now in his excellent collection, Pulphead. Go spelunking with him. Here’s a bonus: another favorite writer of mine, Elif Batuman, dug into Turkish archaeology in her essay, The Sanctuary” for The New Yorker (sub. required). She visits the world’s oldest temple and deftly unravels its history and mythology.

5. I would be lying by omission if I didn’t admit to reading a ton of celebrity dish in the tub. I think my favorite this year was “Lowe, Actually,” the excerpt in Vanity Fair of Rob Lowe’s memoir. I don’t really have a thing for Rob Lowe. Never have. (For instance, I loved West Wing but for the overuse of pancake makeup on Lowe’s face.) But I spent 6th grade idolizing S. E. Hinton for The Outsiders. And I was hooked again when I finally got to see the movie. So, yes, Rob Lowe had me at his mention of Ponyboy. Stay gold, y’all. 


See more lists from our Top 5 Longreads of 2011 >

Share your own Top 5 Longreads of 2011, all through December. Just tag it #longreads on Twitter, Tumblr or Facebook. 

The Believer's Karolina Waclawiak: My Top 5 Longreads of 2011

Karolina Waclawiak is a novelist and screenwriter. She is also the deputy editor of The Believer. Her first novel, How To Get Into The Twin Palms, will be out July 2012 from Two Dollar Radio.


I’ve always been fascinated with religion, Russia, and missing persons stories so these five nonfiction pieces really captured my attention this year. The fallout from The New Yorker‘s Scientology piece turned out to be as compelling as the essay itself—and I had to put The New Yorker on here twice because the recent piece on Vladimir Putin is spectacular and continually evolving. Paul Collins’ piece on missing Barbara Follett was utterly haunting and Paul is a master of uncovering long-hidden mysteries. Everyone should check out all of his work, and I’m sure many have after reading that piece. And really, for the other two, who can turn away from secret cults and dead bodies found on beaches? Not me.

1. “The Civil Archipelago,” David Remnick, The New Yorker

2. “The Apostate,” Lawrence Wright, The New Yorker

3. “The Body on Somerton Beach,” Mike Dash, Smithsonian

4. “Inside ‘The Order,’ One Mormon Cult’s Secret Empire,” Jesse Hyde, Rolling Stone

5. “Vanishing Act,” Paul Collins, Lapham’s Quarterly


“Love in a Cold Climate,” Nancy Jo Sales, Vanity Fair

Say what you will of Ms. Love, but she’ll always have a fan in me. 

“To Have and Have Not,” Matt Tyrnauer, Vanity Fair

I found myself endlessly quoting this piece on screen legend Lauren Bacall.

“Judy Lewis, Secret Daughter of Hollywood, Dies at 76,” Paul Vitello, The New York Times

NY Times’ fascinating obituary of Loretta Young’s illegitimate daughter with Clark Gable, Judy Lewis.


See more lists from our Top 5 Longreads of 2011 >

Share your own Top 5 Longreads of 2011, all through December. Just tag it #longreads on Twitter, Tumblr or Facebook. 

The Awl's Choire Sicha, Carrie Frye, Alex Balk: Our Top Longreads of 2011

(Left to right: Choire, Carrie, Alex)

Because there are three of us, we trilaterally decided to go for 15. But it’s not really five each; that becomes complicated, too, but… well, anyway, no matter how you cut it, surely at least one of us hated some of these stories. Also to be fair, this list, which is not in order, should really be called “The 15 Best Longreads That We Can Still Remember From 2011—What A Year, Am I Right, Oh Man, It’s December Somehow—After Extensive Googling and Mind-Nudging (Also Only Stories That We Didn’t Publish Ourselves, Because We Could Easily Cough Up 25 Longreads From Our Own Archives That Are Totally As Good Or Better And Also Have Better Gender Parity Probably But Anyway We Don’t Roll Self-Promotionally Like That).” FUN BONUS: Only three of the 15 best stories of the year (yes, sure, that we can remember) were in The New Yorker, so they are ranked in order. — Alex Balk, Carrie Frye, Choire Sicha of The Awl. (See their #longreads archive here.)


• James Meek, “In the Sorting Office,” London Review of Books

• Tess Lynch, “No Actor Parking,” n+1

• David Roth, “Our Pizzas, Ourselves”

• Paul Ford, “The Web Is A Customer Service Medium”

• Katie Baker, “The Confessions of a Former Adolescent Puck Tease,” Deadspin

• Emily Gould, “Our Graffiti”

• Jim Santel, “Living Out the Day: The Moviegoer Turns Fifty,” The Millions

• John Jeremiah Sullivan, A Rough Guide to Disney World, The New York Times Magazine

• Anna Holmes, “Spotlighting the work of women in the civil rights movement’s Freedom Rides,” Washington Post

• Michael Idov, “The Movie Set That Ate Itself,” GQ

• Evan Hughes, “Just Kids,” New York Magazine

• Tim Dickinson, “How the GOP Became the Party of the Rich,” Rolling Stone


The year’s three best New Yorker stories, in order:

3. Keith Gessen, “Nowheresville: How Kazakhstan is building a glittering new capital from scratch” (sub. required)

2. David Grann, “A Murder Foretold: Unravelling the ultimate political conspiracy”

1. Kelefa Sanneh, “Where’s Earl? Word from the missing prodigy of a hip-hop group on the rise” (sub. required)


Paul Collins’ “Vanishing Act” (Lapham’s Quarterly), about Barbara Newhall Follett, was published in the last twelve months, but on December 18, 2010, so to avoid the problem of the year-end list that’s published before the end of the year, ahem, we include it here honorarily.

Longreads Best of 2011 e-book

Announcing: Our first-ever e-book!

Longreads: Best of 2011 includes seven of our favorite stories from the past year.

The e-book is a unique partnership with the writers and publishers—we want to help celebrate outstanding storytelling, and this is just another way for us to do it. Additionally, money from the ebook sales will be shared with the creators, and we’re excited to have them participating.

Longreads: Best of 2011 is available now and includes:

• “Travis the Menace,” by Dan P. Lee (New York magazine)

• “Vanishing Act,” by Paul Collins (Lapham’s Quarterly)

• “In Which We Teach You How to Be a Woman in Any Boy’s Club,” by Molly Lambert (This Recording)

• “What Really Happened Aboard Air France 447,” by Jeff Wise (Popular Mechanics)

• “Autistic and Seeking a Place in an Adult World,” by Amy Harmon (New York Times)

• “The Girl from Trails End,” by Kathy Dobie (GQ)

• “Inside David Foster Wallace’s Private Self-Help Library,” by Maria Bustillos (The Awl)

Buy the e-book at Amazon

The Top 10 Longreads of 2011

I should preface this by saying I didn’t plan to do a list, because all of your Top 5 Longreads of 2011 really represent what the Longreads community is all about. But, in true WWIC form, I couldn’t resist. 

Thank you for an incredible year. Special thanks to the entire Longreads team: Joyce King Thomas, Kjell Reigstad, Hakan Bakkalbasi and Mike Dang. 

-Mark Armstrong, founder, Longreads

Support Longreads by supporting our partners:

Read It Later: Save your favorite stories for reading on the iPhone/iPad, Android or Kindle Fire.

You can also support Longreads by becoming an Official Member for just $3 per month, or $30 per year. 

1. Travis the Menace

Dan P. Lee | New York Magazine | Jan. 24, 2011 | 24 minutes (6,096 words)

The heartbreaking, horrifying story of a chimp named Travis and the Connecticut couple that raised him like a son. Lee followed Travis’s path from local celebrity to fully grown (and violent) adult:

“Stamford’s animal-control officer was more concerned. After contacting primatologists, she spoke with Sandy, arguing that Travis was by now a fully sexualized adult (chimpanzees in the wild have sex, nonmonogamously, as often as 50 times a day); that he had the strength of at least five men; that adult chimpanzees are known to be unpredictable and potentially violent (which is why all chimp actors are prepubescent); and that maintaining Travis for the duration of his five- or six-decade lifetime was not viable. Sandy seemed to pay an open mind to the officer’s warning but ultimately concluded that Travis had never exhibited even the slightest capacity for violence.”

“Travis” was the first in a “tabloid-with-empathy” trilogy from Lee: He also brought humanity to the story of Anna Nicole Smith (“Paw Paw & Lady Love”) and wrote about Harold Camping, the elderly doomsayer who never quite got his apocalypse calendar right (“After the Rapture”). 

More Lee: “Body Snatchers” (Philadelphia Magazine, 2008)


2. Vanishing Act

Paul Collins | Lapham’s Quarterly | Dec. 17, 2010 | 15 minutes (3,837 words)

A child-prodigy author mysteriously disappears. Barbara Follett was 13 when her first novel, The House Without Windows, was published in 1927:

“Through the door could be heard furious clacking and carriage returns: the sound, in fact, of an eight-year-old girl writing her first novel.

“In 1923, typewriters were hardly a child’s plaything, but to those following the family of critic and editor Wilson Follett, it was a grand educational experiment. He’d already written of his daughter Barbara in Harper’s, describing a girl who by the age of three was consumed with letters and words. ‘She was always seeing A’s in the gables of houses and H’s in football goalposts,’ he recalled. One day she’d wandered into Wilson’s office and discovered his typewriter.

“‘Tell me a story about it,’ she demanded.

“This was Barbara’s way of asking for any explanation, and after he demonstrated the wondrous machine, she took to it fiercely. A typewriter, her parents realized, could unleash a torrential flow of thoughts from a gifted child who still lacked the coordination to write in pencil.”

This was from December 2010, but it came out after last year’s best-of list was published. It’s also on The Awl editors’ best-of-2011 listI still think about this story constantly.

More Collins: “The Molecatcher’s Daughter” (The Believer, 2006)


3. In Which We Teach You How to Be a Woman in Any Boy’s Club

Molly Lambert | This Recording | Feb. 22, 2011 | 11 minutes (2,825 words)

A manifesto for the modern woman:

“‘What If I Love Being The Only Girl In The Boys Club?’ Megan Fox Syndrome, aka Wendy from Peter Pan. It is the delusion that you can become an official part of the boys’ club if you are its strictest enforcer, its most useful prole. That if you follow the rules exactly you can become the Official Woman. If you refuse other women admission you are denying that other women are talented, which makes you just as bad as any boys’ club for thinking there would only be one talented girl at a time.

“You will never actually be part of the boys’ club, because you are a woman. You are Ray Liotta in ‘Goodfellas.’ You are not Italian, therefore you are never going to get made. And you don’t want to be a part of the boys’ club, because it is dedicated to preserving its own privilege at your expense. Why wouldn’t you want to know and endorse the work of other women who share your interests? How insecure are you?”

I can think of at least ten other personal essays that blew me away this year, but Lambert’s seemed to completely take over our conversations, online and off.

More from This Recording in 2011: “Where We All Will Be Received” (Nell Boeschenstein)


4. A Murder Foretold

David Grann | The New Yorker | March 28, 2011 | 57 minutes (14,318 words)

A political conspiracy in Guatemala and the murder of lawyer Rodrigo Rosenberg, who created a video predicting his own killing in 2009:

“Rosenberg told friends that his apartment was under surveillance, and that he was being followed. ‘Whenever he got into the car, he was looking over his shoulder,’ his son Eduardo recalled. From his apartment window, Rosenberg could look across the street and see an office where Gustavo Alejos, President Colom’s private secretary, often worked. Rosenberg told Mendizábal that Alejos had called him and warned him to stop investigating the Musas’ murders, or else the same thing might happen to him. Speaking to Musa’s business manager, Rosenberg said of the powerful people he was investigating, ‘They are going to kill me.’ He had a will drawn up.”

Obviously, with David Grann, it’s never so straightforward.

More from the New Yorker in 2011: Clarence Thomas, Michele Bachmann, a small-town pharmacist and a Jamaican drug lord


5. A Brevard Woman Disappeared, but Never Left Home

Michael Kruse | St. Petersburg Times | July 22, 2011 | 10 minutes (2,735 words)

A reporter retraces the last years of a woman who slipped away from society:

“Kathryn Norris moved to Florida in 1990. She was intelligent and driven, say those who knew her back in Ohio, but she could be difficult. She held grudges. She had been laid off from her civil service job, and her marriage of 14 years was over, and so she came looking for sunshine. She knew nobody. Using money from her small pension, she bought the Cherie Down townhouse, $84,900 new. It was a short walk to the sounds of the surf and just up A1A from souvenir stores selling trinkets with messages of PARADISE FOUND.

“She started a job making $32,000 a year as a buyer of space shuttle parts for a subcontractor for NASA. She went out on occasion with coworkers for cookouts or cocktails. She talked a lot about her ex-husband. She started having some trouble keeping up at the office and was diagnosed in December of 1990 as manic depressive.

“After the diagnosis, she made daily notes on index cards. She ate at Arby’s, Wendy’s, McDonald’s. Sometimes she did sit-ups and rode an exercise bike. She read the paper. She got the mail. She went to sleep at 8 p.m., 1:30 a.m., 6:30 a.m. Her heart raced.

“‘Dropped fork at lunch,’ she wrote.

“‘Felt depressed in evening and cried.’

“‘Noise outside at 4 a.m. sounded like a dog.'”

Once you finish this piece, read the annotated version of this story, in which Kruse breaks down exactly how he reported each fact from Kathryn Norris’s life. Incredible. 

More from the St. Petersburg Times in 2011: “Spectacle: The Lynching of Claude Neal” (Ben Montgomery)


6. What Really Happened Aboard Air France Flight 447

Jeff Wise | Popular Mechanics | Dec. 6, 2011 | 17 minutes (4,253 words)

A fatal human error, repeated over and over again, as the reader observes helplessly. Writer Jeff Wise uses pilot transcripts to deconstruct, conversation by conversation, wrong move by wrong move, how bad weather and miscommunication between the pilots in the cockpit doomed this Airbus 330, which plunged into the Atlantic in 2009, killing 228 people: 

02:11:21 (Robert) On a pourtant les moteurs! Qu’est-ce qui se passe bordel? Je ne comprends pas ce que se passe. (We still have the engines! What the hell is happening? I don’t understand what’s happening.)

“Unlike the control yokes of a Boeing jetliner, the side sticks on an Airbus are ‘asynchronous’—that is, they move independently. ‘If the person in the right seat is pulling back on the joystick, the person in the left seat doesn’t feel it,’ says Dr. David Esser, a professor of aeronautical science at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. ‘Their stick doesn’t move just because the other one does, unlike the old-fashioned mechanical systems like you find in small planes, where if you turn one, the [other] one turns the same way.’ Robert has no idea that, despite their conversation about descending, Bonin has continued to pull back on the side stick.

“The men are utterly failing to engage in an important process known as crew resource management, or CRM. They are failing, essentially, to cooperate. It is not clear to either one of them who is responsible for what, and who is doing what. This is a natural result of having two co-pilots flying the plane. ‘When you have a captain and a first officer in the cockpit, it’s clear who’s in charge,’ Nutter explains. ‘The captain has command authority. He’s legally responsible for the safety of the flight. When you put two first officers up front, it changes things. You don’t have the sort of traditional discipline imposed on the flight deck when you have a captain.'”

This, along with “Travis the Menace” and Wired’s “The Incredible True Story of the Collar Bomb Heist,” was one of the most heart-stopping of the year.

See also: “The Unlikely Event” (Avi Steinberg, Paris Review)


7. Autistic and Seeking a Place in an Adult World

Amy Harmon | The New York Times | Sept. 18, 2011 | 30 minutes (7,524 words)

A year in the life of an autistic teen moving into adulthood—a time when support systems can begin to fall away:

“Many autistic high school students are facing the adult world with elevated expectations of their own. Justin, who relied on a one-on-one aide in school, had by age 17 declared his intention to be a ‘famous animator-illustrator.’ He also dreamed of living in his own apartment, a goal he seemed especially devoted to when, say, his mother asked him to walk the dog.

“‘I prefer I move to the apartment,’ he would say, reluctantly setting aside the notebook he spent hours filling with tiny, precise replicas of every known animated character.

“‘I prefer I move to the apartment, too,’ his father, Briant, a pharmaceutical company executive, replied on hard days.

“Over the year that a New York Times reporter observed it, the transition program at Montclair High served as a kind of boot camp in community integration that might also be, for Justin, a last chance. Few such services are available after high school. And Justin was entitled to public education programs, by federal law, until only age 21.”

Harmon’s was one of several outstanding pieces this year on the subject of autism. Also see Steve Silberman on John Elder Robison, an author with Asperger syndrome.

More from Amy Harmon: “A Son of the Bayou, Torn Over Shrimping Life”


8. The Girl from Trails End

Kathy Dobie | GQ Magazine | Sept. 6, 2011 | 26 minutes (6,657 words)

Revisiting the Texas gang-rape story, and a reminder about protecting our youngest victims. Dobie spends time with the girl’s family and attempts to understand how some members of the community could jump to the defense of the 19 men and boys accused:

“While the gag order did silence the defendants and the officials, it didn’t come close to quieting the rumors and accusations, the ill-informed but passionate opinions, the confusion and muddy thinking that obscured what should’ve been a clear-cut case of statutory rape: An 11-year-old child cannot consent to having sex. But a deep misunderstanding of the law persisted—of why it exists and the morality it is meant to express, as did an even deeper ignorance of children’s brains and the true nature of vulnerability.

“The most confused of all were the young people of Cleveland, the vast majority of whom sided with the boys and men and blamed Regina [not her real name]. The peer pressure to take sides—if you can even call it that, for at times it seemed like a mob versus one girl, all alone—was immense. Even the kind ones, the ones who called themselves her friends, had decided against her. In a Facebook conversation, a 13-year-old who was a cousin of one of the defendants said that Regina was ‘like my best friend n i love her’ but went on to write that ‘she ask for them to do that to her i do not care becuss thats just gross n i will never do that…. she like a slut type of girl.’ At 13, this girl could no more grasp the susceptibility of an 11-year-old than an anorexic can see herself clearly in a mirror.”

Just one of many outstanding pieces from GQ this year, including “The Movie Set that Ate Itself,” essays from John Jeremiah Sullivan“Blindsided: The Jerry Joseph High School Basketball Scandal,” and a fun collection of oral histories.

More Dobie: “The Long Shadow of War” (Dec. 2007)


9. A Sister’s Eulogy for Steve Jobs

Mona Simpson | The New York Times | Oct. 30, 2011 | 9 minutes (2,383 words)

The final moments, and unforgettable last words, of a technology visionary’s life:

“He told me, when he was saying goodbye and telling me he was sorry, so sorry we wouldn’t be able to be old together as we’d always planned, that he was going to a better place.

“Dr. Fischer gave him a 50/50 chance of making it through the night.

“He made it through the night, Laurene next to him on the bed sometimes jerked up when there was a longer pause between his breaths. She and I looked at each other, then he would heave a deep breath and begin again.

“This had to be done. Even now, he had a stern, still handsome profile, the profile of an absolutist, a romantic. His breath indicated an arduous journey, some steep path, altitude.

“He seemed to be climbing.

“But with that will, that work ethic, that strength, there was also sweet Steve’s capacity for wonderment, the artist’s belief in the ideal, the still more beautiful later.

“Steve’s final words, hours earlier, were monosyllables, repeated three times.”

Steve Jobs tributes poured in during October and November, including a touching tribute from veteran tech journalist Steven Levy. Some of the best reading came from Steve himself, with his 2005 Stanford Commencement speech.

See also: The Steve Jobs archive on Longreads


10. Inside David Foster Wallace’s Private Self-Help Library

Maria Bustillos | The Awl | April 5, 2011 | 38 minutes (9,439 words)

The ultimate DFW fan goes on a road trip to see what was on his bookshelves and pore over the marginalia for clues about his life:

“One surprise was the number of popular self-help books in the collection, and the care and attention with which he read and reread them. I mean stuff of the best-sellingest, Oprah-level cheesiness and la-la reputation was to be found in Wallace’s library. Along with all the Wittgenstein, Husserl and Borges, he read John Bradshaw, Willard Beecher, Neil Fiore, Andrew Weil, M. Scott Peck and Alice Miller. Carefully.

“Much of Wallace’s work has to do with cutting himself back down to size, and in a larger sense, with the idea that cutting oneself back down to size is a good one, for anyone (q.v., the Kenyon College commencement speech, later published as This is Water). I left the Ransom Center wondering whether one of the most valuable parts of Wallace’s legacy might not be in persuading us to put John Bradshaw on the same level with Wittgenstein. And why not; both authors are human beings who set out to be of some use to their fellows. It can be argued, in fact, that getting rid of the whole idea of special gifts, of the exceptional, and of genius, is the most powerful current running through all of Wallace’s work.”

After this was published, Bustillos kept going. In 2011 she also dissected the work of the late Christopher Hitchens, as well as Wikipedia and Aaron Swartz, among other topics.

See more longreads from The Awl in 2011

Our Top 10 Longreads of 2011


Barbara Newhall Follett, the child prodigy who began her first book The House Without Windows at the age of 8, and the subject of Paul Collins’ essay “Vanishing Act.” 

“My dreams are going through their death flurries. I thought they were all safely buried, but sometimes they stir in their grave, making my heartstrings twinge. I mean no particular dream, you understand, but the whole radiant flock of them together — with their rainbow wings, iridescent, bright, soaring, glorious, sublime. They are dying before the steel javelins and arrows of a world of Time and Money.”

Did you read this yet? 

Read This Over the Weekend: Vanishing Act

Read This Over the Weekend: Vanishing Act

How Four Americans Robbed the Bank of England

The Great City Forgeries: Trial Of The Accused At The Central Criminal Court. Austin Biron Bidwell; George Macdonnell; George Bidwell; Edwin Noyes; Henry Avory, Esq., Clerk Of The Court; Mr. Justice Archibald Alderman; Sir W.r. Carden, 1873 Engraving. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Paul Brown | Longreads | June 2020 | 22 minutes (5,961 words)

On April 18, 1872, Austin Bidwell walked into Green & Son tailors on London’s renowned Savile Row and ordered eight bespoke suits, two topcoats, and a luxurious dressing gown. Bidwell was 26 years old, 6ft tall, and handsomely groomed with a waxed mustache and bushy side-whiskers. If the accent didn’t give it away, his eye-catching western hat marked him out as an American — a rich American. London tradesmen called Americans with bulges of money in their pockets “Silver Kings,” and they were most welcome in upmarket establishments like Green & Son, which charged as much for the strength of their reputations as for the quality of their goods.

Read more…

Funk Lessons in Sonic Solitude

Universal Music Group

Read an introduction to the series.

DJ Lynnée Denise | Longreads | April 2020 | 16 minutes (4,096 words)

Hive is a Longreads series about women and the music that has influenced them.

* * *

As a teenager, Luther Vandross co-founded his favorite singer’s fan club. I can see him now, watching her seasoned shoulder bounce and measuring the funk in the Black church two-step she makes in post–chitlin circuit venues. He’s standing stage left, holding onto the curtain for balance; he’s lip-synching every song, calculating the mastery of her diction and phrasing; he’s studying her like a text, setting the stage for his own practice — one that would place him at microphones behind David Bowie, Chaka Khan, Barbra Streisand, Cissy Houston, and Donna Summer. This Luther was Twenty Feet from Stardom and rising.

Young but wise, Luther Vandross the teenage boy understood how Patricia Louise Holt from Philadelphia became the legendary kick-your-shoes-off and snatch-your-own-wig when the tension builds between music, voice, and audience type of singer. Luther Vandross presided over the fan club of none other than Ms. Patti LaBelle.

Strange things happen when an artist is moved to a new depth by another. We become fanatical about the fantastical beings who place us deeper into the abyss of craft. The management of details of who these artists are and how they come into being become a rite of passage. We obsess over the decisions they make to bring an album to fruition and take pride in knowing as much as we can, from the major to the minor: collaborations, music video direction, hair color, shoe size, inspiration behind the lyrics.  We fancy ourselves experts of our muses. And when it comes to Black music, the stakes are higher — people stay questioning our responses to the brilliance of Black artists; reading them as tribal reactions as opposed to a focused study of mastery. But no. I’m from the school of Luther — and by that, I mean I’m a listener committed to homemade scholarship, community-based research questions, and an organic framework to interpret the artistic offerings of those I crown as legends.

Kickstart your weekend reading by getting the week’s best Longreads delivered to your inbox every Friday afternoon.

Sign up

There’s a strong chance that I became the unofficial president of the artist Joi’s fan club 25 years ago. For 25 years, I’ve paid attention to her musical movement and to the ways she holds court on stage. Today, I feel confident that if asked to write a dissertation that argues the genius of what I refer to as her crunk-funk sound, I’d have my Ph.D. Dr. DJ Lynnée Denise. Joi occupies space in the lineage of artists who thrive across genre lines. How is that possible? Ask Prince, ask Aretha, ask Nina, ask Stevie. Black people live hyphenated lives, so it’s fair to say our musicians embody and shift the context of what W.E.B. Du Bois called “double consciousness,” musical cross-pollination made available to the Souls of Black Folk

The three of us — Joi, Du Bois, and myself — have something in common: Nashville.

* * *

I saw Joi for the first time while I was sitting in the living room with a group of artists I met during my freshman year at Fisk University. She was in a video wearing a trench coat, hanging on a meat hook in a blue-lit walk-in meat refrigerator. She was squirming on beat with the hope of being released. The video was for her first single, “Sunshine & the Rain.”

Black people live hyphenated lives, so it’s fair to say our musicians embody and shift the context of what Du Bois called ‘double consciousness,’ musical cross-pollination made available to the Souls of Black Folk.

It was Du Bois who taught me about the Fisk Jubilee Singers, a masterful a cappella ensemble, who with their carefully crafted compositions saved the university from collapsing in the face of mounting financial struggles in 1871. They toured cities along the route of the Underground Railroad using harmony to trace the path of freedom before eventually landing a paid gig in England, performing for its Queen. Du Bois graduated from Fisk in 1888, 109 years before I did. In his famed essay “Of the Sorrow Songs,” credited by Black theologian James H. Cone as one of the first pieces of writing in the 20th century to treat Black music with serious academic inquiry, Du Bois reflects on Fisk’s institutional significance: “To me Jubilee Hall seemed ever made of the songs themselves, and its bricks were red with the blood and dust of toil. Out of them rose for me morning, noon, and night, bursts of wonderful melody, full of the voices of my brothers and sisters, full of the voices of the past.”

In 1993, I stepped onto the campus of Fisk University less than three months after the L.A. Riots. I had Latasha Harlins on my mind: a young Black woman who was gunned down by a Korean shop owner in South Central Los Angeles for allegedly stealing an orange juice. When the shop owner was sentenced to probation in November 1991, less than six months before a jury acquitted the officers responsible for the beating of Rodney King, L.A. blew up in flames. I arrived on campus with inspiration brought on by Martin Luther King, Jr.’s insightful observation that riots are “the language of the unheard.” That outburst of symbolic rage brought me a sense of peace. With one suitcase and a green trunk plastered with stickers that ranged from images of Marley to Meat is Murder slogans, I showed up ready to learn and receive.

Upon arrival, an upperclassman escorted me to Jubilee Hall’s third floor, and just as Du Bois described, it was pristine, brick-based, and towering above my West Coast head. In this place of Black music history, I had a room of my own and a branch from Joi’s family tree was down the street.

Joi is the daughter of legendary NFL football player Joe Gilliam. A member of the Pittsburgh Steelers, he was the franchise’s first Black quarterback to start as a season opener. Both Joe and Joi were legacy students at the historically Black public university Tennessee State, walking distance from Fisk.

The local artists in the room witnessing me witness Joi’s video for the first time knew who she was and dismissed my awe with, “Oh that’s Joi.” I was in her hometown. She was their hero. “Joi from down here,” they said with regional pride from blunt stained lips. “She been on that different shit for years.” I took that to mean Joi was ahead of her time and an inspiration to the folks who watched her take shape.

Her absence in the city of Nashville, or more accurately the ghost of her dopeness, made me think about what it meant to leave home in order to be seen. Like when your ambition outgrows your zip code and the only way forward, as you’ve been told through myriad migration narratives, is to move north from the South; even though what you offer the North is rooted in the back-homeness of the funky South. Joi journeyed to Atlanta — 250 miles below Tennessee. She complicated the idea that Southern folks have to leave the region to become known or relevant. So, when André 3000 proclaimed at the 1995 Source Awards that “the South got something to say,” Joi was one of the leaders in saying, through her music, what needed to be said.

[Joi] complicated the idea that Southern folks have to leave the region to become known or relevant.

After my encounter with the “Sunshine & the Rain” video, I listened to the song on repeat for what felt like a year. It filled the void created by LaFace’s TLC and the Sean Puffy girl group hip-hop soul phase that I struggled to embrace as I was figuring out my own listening practice on an HBCU campus where musical tastes were shaped, almost exclusively, by homecoming anthems and Top 40 hits. Don’t get me wrong, I loved to see the Chicago students at Fisk rush to the dance floor when hearing the first two bars of the “Percolator,” and I fucked with Mary J. Blige from day one and still do. But I had real questions about the war on originality that was creeping into the Black musical lexicon in a Bad Boy kinda way. The art of sampling was now complicated by intellectual property laws and there was less cutting and scratching, which meant that turntablism was, in certain ways, becoming a less crucial, or at the very least a less prominent, part of the sonic footprint of the culture. Plus, audiences of the music seemed to be growing less and less concerned with the original songs — and by default less concerned with the Black musical lineages shaping my ear as a DJ. It was a pivotal moment for me, defined by my acceptance of the loneliness that comes with walking against trends. I made up for it by going in deep. I had a campus radio show on WFSK where I organized weekly themes that explored different eras and genres of Black music: Black women funk artists 1970–1975. New Wave 1983–1987. Jazz trumpeters 1963–1969. In the face of my early days of digging through the crates, the corporatization of hip-hop was creating what music scholar Harold Pride calls “pedestrian listeners” out of my peers and further alienating lesser known artists whose work stretched listeners with innovation. For me, Joi was a bridge.

* * *

Dallas Austin is one of the minds who, alongside Pebbles, gave the world TLC. Around the exact same time, Austin was working on Joi’s debut album The Pendulum Vibe — together they created a call to arms for folks looking for sophisticated melodies and enough lyrical depth to drown in. Songs like “Fatal Lovesick Journey” had me pondering codependent relationships while puffing Black & Milds and drinking Alizé. There was well-placed wailing, playful and unapologetic sexual confidence, and a genre-defying Southern-rooted sound. Anti-formulaic, the music from this album spoke to my heart and gave me hope that Black America had something to compare to the brilliant U.K. soul coming out of London. Though raunchier in her approach, Joi was in the Mica Paris and Caron Wheeler category for me. I even had fantasies of her settling down in London like Jhelisa and her cousin Carleen Anderson did in the ’90s, leaving their Black American (Mississippi, Texas) imprint on the British sound and reinforcing Paul Gilroy’s notion of the Black Atlantic.

I recognized these women and Joi as kindred spirits. After about the 50th listen of the Pendulum Vibe (and after spending that year with “Sunshine & the Rain”), I sat myself down and said with all honesty, “This a bad bitch and the masses ain’t gon’ understand.” Predictably, critics have long used the abstract term the underground in describing the spirit of Joi’s work. I’m skeptical of the word “underground” because it makes an assumption about what success looks like and sometimes strips the agency of artists who don’t aspire to have commercial appeal.

But was I happy to have an “underground” to turn to when H-Town wasn’t enough? Yes indeed. Sitting with the work of these artists, both from America and overseas, felt like a humanizing way to break from the overly familiar. Humanizing because the music compelled me to listen with insatiable curiosity. Something that white men who own record stores and collect Black music are not only allowed but encouraged to do. Knowing that Joi existed was a way for me to stay aligned with wayward women. Excavating their sonic stories, the way Saidiya Hartman does Gladys Bentley’s, became a primary interest to me. Joi was a gateway into a world made up of women musicians who, compared to their male counterparts, were pushed to the sidelines of Black music history — Nona Hendryx, Lyn Collins, and the women of George Clinton’s P-Funk empire: The Brides of Dr. Funkenstein and Parlet. Embedded in Joi’s vocal cords is a deep knowledge of Funkentelechy and “Dandelion Dust” cosmology, a heavy load of legacy to carry. I was a believer. 

* * *

Ever since I can remember, I’ve been one of those people who rolls their eyes when I hear my favorite song from a new album that I’m spending time with being played on the radio. I’m suspicious of what becomes widely accepted, afraid to see the artists I love hand over their authenticity to the police of mediocrity guarding the door of pop music in America. And yeah, everybody gotta eat, but why eating gotta equate to contractual agreements that alter your purpose? Prince’s decision to pen the word “slave” on his face in the ’90s gave us an idea of what can happen when sitting down at the negotiating table with corporations who measure your worth by your marketability. Our collective ear becomes less sophisticated, we develop a forgetfulness that separates us from our pasts. I wanted to keep Joi in my personal library of “underground” artists where she was protected from the fuckery — following her own North Star to musical freedom like the Jubilee Singers.

Joi’s recorded performances embodied all the funkiness my little soul had been waiting for at a time when Black radio was pinned under the thumb of payola. She’s cut from the same cloth as Jimi Hendrix, Betty Davis, and Vanity. One minute she gives you seasoned performer on a FunkJazz Kafe stage alongside Too $hort; then range and multidimensionality on stage with FishBone and De La Soul the next. I traveled to see both of those shows from Fisk University, leaving “the yard” for places like Memphis and Atlanta to experience Joi in action. My fellow Joi-chasing friend and I coordinated our travels so that we could make it back in time for 10 a.m. classes the following morning; driving along the highway, we passed various symbols of the Confederacy — flags, bumper stickers, and Cracker Barrels. We were two women from Cali on a mission. We invested time and our scarce college-level income into loving her work because Joi always delivered, which made the payoff immediate.

* * *

Between 1996 and 2006, Joi recorded three more studio albums. Amoeba Cleansing Syndrome, from 1997, became a highly desired cult classic, shelved before its release due to the collapse of EMI. It was then picked up by FreeWorld, Dallas Austin’s newly formed label following EMI’s collapse, which folded shortly after. Fortunately, it can now be purchased through her website, a gift for fans who were searching high and low for a copy. Her next two albums were 2002’s Star Kitty’s Revenge and 2006’s Tennessee Slim is the Bomb, which was released on Raphael Sadiq’s Pookie Records. The music industry’s instability led Joi to reissue both albums independently, in the spirit of Prince. He had become one of the first major artists to market his albums through a personal website to be in direct conversation with fans in an effort to cut out the middle men — middle men who were typically attached to the bodies of white record company executives or Black music moguls like Berry Gordy or Suge Knight who modeled their music businesses after them.

Joi’s recorded performances embodied all the funkiness my little soul had been waiting for at a time when Black radio was pinned under the thumb of payola. She’s cut from the same cloth as Jimi Hendrix, Betty Davis, and Vanity.

In addition to her solo work, Joi had a major hand in shaping the Atlanta Dungeon Family/Organized Noize sound. She sang background on Goodie Mob’s classic first album Soul Food. Equally impressive was her work on projects with a range of artists like George Clinton, Sleepy Brown, Big Krit, 2 Chainz, Queen Latifah, and Tricky from London. She collaborated with Raphael Sadiq’s on his Lucy Pearl project, replacing former En Vogue songstress Dawn Robinson and adding a welcomed edge to the group’s live performances. In addition to studio collaboration, she joined Outkast on their final tour in 2014 and was a backing vocalist for D’Angelo’s The Second Coming Tour in 2015. And still, with curriculum vitaé in hand, Joi found time to help, as she would say, “wipe down” a few aspiring singers through her artist development business, Artisan Polishing.

* * *

The very first time I met Joi was in Nashville in 1995. With the same woman I had traveled to Memphis for Joi’s shows, I was trying my hand at concert promotion. We had a little money, a venue, and enough love for Joi’s two-album catalog to take a chance. Within a week, Joi agreed to perform for an amount that had little to do with what was acceptable for her craft and effort and more to do with her willingness to help us see our dreams through and to come home to show her people where she had been. It’s no small feat to have Joi on your roster of events as a young promoter in the industry, and she gave us the cultural capital and experience we needed to break into that world as young Black women. Almost a decade later, I would connect with Joi again when she was featured in an event I produced in Brooklyn called Slum Beautiful: Music from the Gut of Black America in 2010. The title of the event was taken from a song from Outkast’s Stankonia album. I wanted Joi to do the work of reminding New York of its connected history with Black Southern culture and people — it’s a city that tends to forget. The next time I saw Joi was in Atlanta for an event I organized called Erotic City Weekend, bringing the work of Prince and Joi’s unique performances back together again.  

In 2015, I made my way back home to Los Angeles after being away for nearly 20 years. Synchronicity had it so that Joi had left Atlanta and moved there a few years before me. We connected on a more personal level and spent significant time talking about our shared love of the many interconnections of Black music. It was through our conversations that I learned about the Caravans, a 1950s soulful gospel group that featured among its members Shirley Caesar, Inez Andrews, Albertina Walker, and James Cleveland. They were responsible for ushering a new style of gospel that complicated the notion of sacred music with their collective blues ministry sound. She also encouraged me to pay closer attention to Parliament singers Glen Goins, Garry Shider, and Walter “Junie” Morrison, as their voices, too, embodied the tension that exists between Black faith and psychedelic funk. I learned in those moments what it means to be a student of the artform you’re undertaking.

Shortly after landing, I began creating events in L.A. and inviting Joi to make various appearances. My work had taken a turn over the years. I was excited about my developing relationship with the academy, as I had become a lecturer at California State University, Los Angeles in the Pan-African Studies department. I worked closely with the department to shape the social experiences of Black college students who often found themselves at the mercy of and/or ignored in official university events. In 2016, I invited Joi to conduct the Q&A following the screening of the Afro-Punk documentary with the festival’s original founder and the film’s director, James Spooner. During the conversation, Spooner shared with the audience that it was the first time he had been invited to screen his film and talk about the roots of Afro-punk since his departure from what had become a corporate funded cultural institution. Most recently, I invited Joi, along with Jessica Care Moore, to be on a plenary for a conference I coproduced with UCLA in honor of the late, great Aretha Franklin. What I love so much about Joi is her proven record that she is committed to blurring the lines and steeped in the art of interdisciplinarity. She engaged with students, wowed faculty, and in the process, brought a funky sensibility to the art and practice of scholarship. Upon spending a considerable amount of time listening to her latest album, I decided to visit Joi at home, which brought our multi-decade relationship into its third dimension. 

* * *

In 2018, Joi sat her ass down in a studio and pulled diamonds from a year of solitude to create her most recent album, S.I.R. Rebekkah Holylove. The journey of the album begins with three words that push us to the other side: Bitch I’m Free. S.I.R. Rebekkah Holylove is what happens when anticipation meets expectations. It is noteworthy that this album, too, was produced independently. Joi’s is the only voice on the album. Don’t be fooled into thinking that there are three other bad bitches in the studio making it happen. It’s just her. She wrote all the album’s lyrics, arranged all its vocals, and produced some of the tracks. She used very little of the vocal compressor, an effect that most contemporary singers rely on, creating distance between authenticity and the voices you think you love.

Here I was, 25 years after seeing her on a screen swinging on a meat hook, sitting in Joi’s L.A. studio — a live/work space she calls “The Funky Jewelry Box.” Inspirational posters and Dolly Parton, Led Zeppelin, Natalie Cole, and Minnie Riperton album covers draped the walls. It was an incubator for critical artistic thought up in there.

As I settled and began to think about questions that would unlock the door to the mysteries of this project, Joi unwrapped detox products from Dr. Sebi that Erykah Badu had sent her. “It’s a perfect time to fast,” she said, while removing the bubble wrap from a dark brown bottle of bodily goodness. She sat at her recording station in an electric blue velvet cushioned vintage chair, “a rare find from a spot in L.A.,” she bragged, “undiscovered by hipsters and still affordable in its dealings.” The chair, shaped like a throne, was perfect for the matriarchal-themed nature of this album. Above her was a classic studio microphone that looked committed to its job and familiar with the racy nature of Joi’s spirit. There’s an intimacy between the two. We agreed to listen to the album. She pressed play and guided me through the sonic journey — joint in hand, ears on guard.

Joi’s racy songs stand out on the new album, and they have a long history. On “Narcissia Cutie Pie” from Pendulum Vibe, the artist explores sexual fluidity and bright dark fantasies about the spectrum of desire, while songs like “Lick” from Star Kitty’s Revenge and “Dirty Mind” from Amoeba Cleansing Syndrome help us remember sex as a powerful creative tool. S.I.R. Rebekah HolyLove builds on Joi’s collection of sex-positive cantatas with “The Edge,produced and arranged by Joi with additional editing by Brook D’ Leux. A bass-heavy funk monster that promises listeners a key to cities where “we can fuck until the dawn, making love til’ cherries gone.” Another Paisley Park parallel. I mean, yeah, you’re married boo, but this is a complicated situation, the song implies. Cheating could become an option if good dick [or fill in the blank] is involved, and not many of us are willing to share that kind of ethical vulnerability on wax. And I don’t mean no disrespect to your official union, she asserts, but you fuck me right and you’re mine tonight. We never once forget that Joi is a human being dealing with the most undesirable and the most pleasurably outrageous scenarios that life asks us to consider: infidelity, heartbreak, orgasmic accomplishments. The appeal is that she’s aware of the costs. I’m standing on the edge with you / so if I jump will I fall or fly

S.I.R. Rebekkah Holylove is a tribute to an album culture long forgotten. With the push for iTunes singles and music streaming culture, the intimate relating of album between artist and audience has been compromised. The album holds its own against a culture that produces music at a rate almost impossible to enjoy, I’ll be listening to S.I.R. Rebekkah Holylove for years to come, and The Pendulum Vibe brought me here years ago. Joi said she drew from various experiences to produce this album. She continued to work on other major projects (both in television and music), without compromising the integrity of her solo work. In her words: “I have one of the most peaceful lives [of] anyone I know, but I recognize that solitude and peace is something I earned and it was necessary for this particular juncture.” 

* * *

Writing this piece felt like that time when Patti LaBelle and a fully established writer and producer, Luther Vandross, shared a stage one glorious night in 1985. It’s that moment when student, fan, and gatekeeper of the musical masters graduate into a league of their own, with a platform to articulate the many ways they’ve been shaped; a tribe of fellow artists marked by the legends. And because Joi’s work has been canonized by a global community, my work to unpack her work is really a citational practice. S.I.R. Rebekkah Holylove, is on a Black Atlantic continuum — a fantastic voyage will be had.  Catch up on your future. 

* * *

Also in Hive:
Welcome to Hive: Series Introduction by Danielle A. Jackson
Miami: A Beginning, by Jessica Lynne
On Watching Boys Play Music, by Eryn Loeb

* * *

DJ Lynnée Denise was shaped as a DJ by her parents’ record collection. She’s an artist, scholar, and writer whose work reflects on underground cultural movements, the 1980s and electronic music of the African Diaspora. Lynnée Denise coined the phrase ‘DJ Scholarship’ to reposition the role of the DJ from party purveyor to an archivist, cultural custodian, and information specialist.

Editor: Danielle A. Jackson

Copy editor: Jacob Z. Gross