Friday, November 05, 2010

George Cain, African-American Novelist (1943-2010)

George Cain

When you grow up in the inner city you come in contact with an assorted cast of characters. Characters quite unlike those found in a Mark Twain novel. In my neighborhood, the characters had a greater resemblance to those described by the great Charles Dickens; rogues and criminal geniuses. In my neighborhood, con-artist were many while creative artist were few. Unfortunately, some men combined the best of both worlds to become creative con-artist whose treachery was legendary. 

It is easy to learn bad things from bad people, the ill-gotten gains of their treachery are easily on display in bad neighborhoods. Even good kids will dabble in the "devils work" because it's the most readily acceptable currency and commodity. The villain and the outlaw have a greater power of seduction when you live "on the other side of town"

George Cain was a good kid once, a neighborhood legend. He was a high school basketball star and he went to a well known private school. He was hyper-intelligent and he received a college scholarship that should have been his passport out of my neighborhood. Unfortunately for George, he could never turn his back on our neighborhood, never give up his membership in the underclass. He would be tied by a string of remembrance to my neighborhood forever. He would hold fast to the rope of heroin addiction until it took its toll on him. 

What made George stand out, was not his addiction to heroin in a neighborhood filled with heroin addicts. What made him stand out, was that he wrote about it and his novel, "Blueschild Baby", was published by a major publishing house, McGraw-Hill, in 1970.

It is a major accomplishment for any writer to have their first novel published by a major publishing house. Yet George's accomplishment would be soon buried under the debris of a lost opportunity.
Still, when I choose to remember George Cain, I prefer to recall his loving support for my musical creativity and hopes for my career as a recording artist. 

As my big brother's best friend, George occupied a place of reverence for me because he was cool, tall and intelligent. He appreciated good music and he recognized my talent early on. When you are a child growing up in the ghetto, encouragement is a precious sentiment. Young men remember the kind words
from the "big brothers" in the neighborhood. Sometimes, their influence is of greater importance than those of real family. When I was growing up, many a failed ghetto genius saw in me the potential to escape from inner city doom. Many a neighborhood heroin addict recognized my musical ability as a one-way ticket off the block. Those who had seen the dark side could clearly see the light in me.
 I never would have imagined that George would one day be that failed ghetto genius.

One summer day, before George would join the ranks of the "should-have-beens", he would jump-start my musical career as a recording artist with one kind act. Oddly, this summer day would forever connect me to George Cain's first and only novel.

I really cannot remember any of the details of that day as much as I can recall the outcome. What I do remember is that I encountered George on the street and he told me that he had just received his first royalty advance check from McGraw-Hill to complete his first novel. He was glowing, as happy as a young man could be. He told me to come with him, that he was going to take me someplace. I don't remember if we walked or how we got there but we soon arrived at Sam Goody's record store in midtown Manhattan. At the time, Sam Goody's was the most incredible warehouse for all of the world's music. It was to me like some giant exotic candy store. I would make pilgrimage to Sam Goody's just to look at the beautiful LP record covers. Unlike today's CD cases, these were big beautiful works of art that held the secrets to the musical universe. The most fascinating of all were the Jazz albums because the covers would be so cool. Blue Note covers were fascinating but all of the labels had fantastic artwork designs.

I was young but I was already very knowledgeable, since my dad always brought home DownBeat magazine. I would always read the musician's blindfold test reviews and along with listening to WLIB, New York's premiere jazz station, I had many albums on my imaginary must buy list. Yet, the truth was, I was just a kid and I could not afford to buy any of these albums. Until that summer day when George Cain's largess and loving generosity changed my life forever.

 I can only remember how he made me feel. He told me to get whatever music I wanted to get and he would pay. I can recall being repressed by the social mores of my Caribbean upbringing. Though this was a grand gesture, I didn't want to be greedy or thoughtless. Though my mother wasn't there, I could hear her voice in my head. We were always raised with this sense of propriety and dignity that Caribbean parents impart to their children. So, I would mull my decision with great care since I had self-imposed limits that George never imposed. I don't remember all the albums I bought as much as I remember George urging me to let myself go and get what I  truly wanted!

I do remember that I reached for my biggest hero first; Miles Davis Quintet's "The Sorcerer" was my prize selection. Then I had to buy two John Coltrane albums; "Africa Brass" and "Expression". I think I bought McCoy Tyner's; "Expansions" that day and I know I bought the classic Sonny Rollins recording; "East Broadway Rundown". Max Roach's fascinating; "Drums Unlimited" was definitely on the list that day.

I cannot remember just how many albums George bought for me that day but I do know that they were the start of my Jazz collection that now exceeds hundreds of recordings. His joy at receiving his first advance check included doing something special for me!

Unfortunately for George, after his first novel was published and sold in book stores, he would get more royalty checks that financed his addiction to heroin. The money he received from McGraw-Hill for a second novel never provided it's intended outcome. There never would be a second George Cain novel.
Today, George Cain's first novel; "Blueschild Baby" stands as the only testament to the life of a brilliant ghetto genius.

George Cain, who wrote the critically acclaimed novel "Blueschild Baby" died on Saturday, Oct.27th, a day that what was to be his 67th birthday. His novel was published by McGraw-Hill in 1970.