Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View | 1960s
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When journalist Seth Rosenfeld wrote in a San Francisco Chronicle article in August that Richard Aoki, the mysterious Japanese American who was one of the leaders of the radical Black Panther Party, was an FBI informant during the turbulent 1960s, the revelation exploded within the Asian American community. The bombshell brought on a fussilade of defenses of Aoki's place as a...

The poster for the documentary "Aoki" about Richard Aoki, the Japanese American who was a founding member of the Black Panthers.Here's another reason why we wish we lived on the West Coast: "Aoki," a new documentary about Richard Aoki, the third-generation Japanese American who was one of the founding members of the revolutionary African American Black Panther Party in the late 1960s, is premiering in Oakland (where the Black Panthers were formed) on Nov. 12. At "Here and Now," an event for Asian American non-profit organizations in San Francisco yesterday that Erin and I participated in, someone handed out cards promoting the premiere. And this morning, Angry Asian Man had more information about it. Like most Americans, and probably many Asian Americans, I wasn't aware of the role Aoki played in such a turbulent period of our history. It turns out (the documentary reveals for the fist time) that Aoki, a veteran by the mid-'60s, was the man who gave the Panthers their first guns, from his personal collection, and taught them how to use firearms. Although there were AAPI members of the Panthers, Aoki was the only one in a leadership poition, given the rank of Field Marshall. He went on to be one of the leaders of the emerging Asian American consciousness of the 1970s. He died just this year. It humbles me to learn how little I still know about the history of Asian America. I'm glad people like filmmakers Ben Wang and Mike Cheng are making documentaries like "Aoki." On the "Aoki" website you can read about see clips from the film.

Our friend JozJozJoz came across this TV commercial on YouTube and posted it on the excellent team blog, 8 Asians, with a poll asking what aspect of the commercial was most racist. For me, it might be the fact that the person who posted it to YouTube titled it "Borderline Racist 1960's Jell-O Ad" and in the description says it's...

Although I covered pop music at a time when punk, hardcore, "alternative" rock, rap and hip hop were the coolest sounds, I always had a soft spot for the sweet sugar of pure pop. I once wrote an essay comparing Michael Jackson to Prince, as if Jackson were the Beatles and Prince were the Rolling Stones. In my essay, MJ won out (but this was before MJ got weird). I was, it's true, a Beatles fan over the Stones. And a lot of the reason was the vocals, not just the pop brilliance of the Lennon-McCartney and Harrison songs. I loved the Beatles' harmony. When I listen to Beatles songs, I can hear their voices dancing and meshing with each other; sometimes trading melody for harmony, sometimes taking an aural upfront position, sometimes laying back. That's the same quality that turned me on to artists such as Simon & Garfunkel in spite of Paul Simon's brainy-nerdy lyrics (I was a brainy nerdy kid, after all, so I identified with him). Simon and Art Garfunkel's voices were a natural fit, and I still love to hear their duet vocals, especially on their earlier, unadorned music. Their solo recordings, even when they're great records, don't thrill me as much as the ones they made together. Peter, Paul and Mary were for me, the pinnacle of the melody/harmony interplay. Like the Beatles, they could sing high or low parts, and the sound was fuller than a duet to have all three filling in gaps. Yes, PP&M were an "artificial" group, the folk version of the Monkees, who were assembled as a hit-making enterprise by their manager to cash in on the urban folk boom of the times. Following the success of the Weavers, the Kingston Trio and others, Albert Grossman's formula for pop success was to bring together "a tall blonde, a funny guy, and a good looking guy" and watch the cash flow in. That it did. But they also rose above their commercial crassness and made some fine music for the ages. The trio, Noel Paul Stookey, Peter Yarrow and Mary Travers were earnest lefty-touchy-feely folksingers, a natural progression from the Woody Guthrie balladeer of the Depression era forged with the commercially viable groupthink of the '50s Weavers (where Pete Seeger made his original mark). They had a string of hits, including folk songs like "500 Miles," pop ballads like "Lemon Tree" and protest songs like "If I Had a Hammer" and "Where Have All the Flowers Gone." They popularized the emerging voices of the new generation's "protest singers" like Bob Dylan (the trio's take of "Blowin' in the Wind" is still my favroite of many cover versions and the original). They also sparked the public's imagination with the silly controversy over "Puff the Magic Dragon" (was it or was it not about smoking pot?), and closed out their hitmaking career with a pair of terrific sunset singles, John Denver's "Leaving on a Jet Plane" and " the gospel-infused "Day Is Done." They caught the zeitgeist of their times -- a spirit of searching and questioning of values, the possibilities of youthful exhuberance, and a lust for life. They still perform to nostalgic crowds, but their golden era was inexorably and permanently affixed to the folk era's comet.

Betty James just passed away. Who's that, you say? She's the woman whose husband invented the Slinky, and the woman who headed the company that manufactured all the wacky variations of Slinky, from Slinky Dogs to Plastic Rainbow Slinkys, for decades. My friend Leland Rucker, with whom I co-authored "The Toy Book" in 1991, just posted his thoughts about the time we were lucky enough to meet her while researching the book. I vividly remember meeting Betty James. She was appreciative that a couple of aging boomers like us were interested in her company. She was a giant, but unknown to the zillions of kids who grew up with her toy. She gave us brass special edition Slinkys after meeting us. I still have mine on my desk…. The story of the Slinky, which I'll include below from "The Toy Book"'s first chapter, is pretty fascinating, because it was discovered by chance, and was a bellwether -- the first truly original toy for the nascent generation, because it was first sold in the fall of 1945 in the flush of the post-war holiday season. That's why it led off the book. But Betty James was a fascinating story herself. Richard James may have invented the Slinky but Betty made it a generational icon. Around 1960 Richard James left his wife and six children to join a religious cult in Bolivia. He died in 1974. Betty James took over as CEO of James Industries when he left, brought the company out of its debts (her husband had apparently "donated" a lot of profits to the religious group), and then started diversifying the Slinky product line and running the TV commercials that many Boomers can still sing along to. It's because of her efforts that to this day, if you say "Slinky" to almost anyone in in the US of almost any age, they'll hold out there hands, palms up, and wave them up and down to mimic playing with the spring.

Barack Obama's victory last night in the U.S. presidential election brought tears to my eyes not only because of the incredible historic nature of his mere candidacy, and the poignancy of his life story, and the righteousness of overcoming the odds and connecting with the majority of Americans to win the White House. The emotions welled up because of his ability to engage me throughout the campaign -- even though I was early on a supporter of Hillary Clinton -- at a personal level. It wasn't just the emails and text messages and the idealistic ubiquitousness of his campaign's eager, enthusiastic volunteers and supporters. The enthusiasm certainly was catching, however. It was simply the man, and his seeming thoughtfulness and determination. And his determined disregard for the most historic part of his grand run: his color. He didn't really disregard it. He simply refused to make it the focus of his identity. The only time he addressed it head-on was with his speech during the primaries about the nature of race in America. But last night, during his victory speech in downtown Chicago's Grant Park, he acknowledged that he understands the enormity of his accomplishment very well. He mentioned it right away, in a reference to his place in the racial narrative: "It's the answer that led those who have been told for so long by so many to be cynical, and fearful, and doubtful of what we can achieve to put their hands on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day. "Its been a long time coming, but tonight, because of what we did on this day, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America." That last line struck a familiar note with me. It was a reference to a 1964 Sam Cooke song, one of the former gospel-singer-turned-pop-star's lesser hits. "A Change Is Gonna Come" was Cooke's own acknowledgement of his place in the race narrative, but it was one of his last singles, released after he was killed under mysterious circumstances. (A Los Angeles motel manager claimed she shot him in self-defense.) Cooke had written "Change," his only protest song as a follow-up to Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind." Dylan returned the favor after Cooke's death with "The Times They Are a-Changin'." The slow, measured ballad is not one of Cooke's well-known, bright, sugary love songs like "You Send Me" or "Cupid," where he mixed gospel style with pop sentiments. The powerful chorus of the song, which went on to become a familiar refrain to those in the civil rights movement, is, "It's been a long, a long time coming, but I know a change is gonna come." Like Obama said last night, that change has come to America, at last.

I know some of my friends think of me as a gadget freak, but I only get crazed about a new toy every once in a while. iPods, for instance. Or digital cameras before that. Walkmans (Walkmen?) in the '80s. Here's my newest gadget recommendation: We recently bought two Flip video cameras and we're having a blast with them. I had checked out the Flip last year when they were first introduced -- Costco sold them for a few weeks and then stopped carrying them. Several months ago, our pal Bill Imada, founder of the IW Group media and advertising firm, held up a Flip after giving a presentation to the Colorado chapter of the National Association of Asian American Professionals, and told us we have to get one. At Denver's Cherry Blossom Festival in June, my brother Glenn Asakawa, a former photographer at The Denver Post now working for the University of Colorado, held up his Flip, and I was reminded that I wanted to get one.

Although a small label had unsuccessfully released some singles in 1963, most American rock and roll fans were introduced to a new band from England via Capitol Records’ 1964 album, “Meet the Beatles.” That album, and the subsequent visits by the mop-topped Liverpudlians to the U.S., sparked by appearances on TV including historic performances on the “Ed Sullivan Show,” re-set an entire generation’s emotional gyroscope. Beatlemania brought with it a different kind of music, pop that popped with surging harmonies and was driven by hard, clangy rhythms, shot through with the soul and R&B of rock’s roots but also energized with a new kind of electricity. The Beatles were the prototype for power pop, a genre that generations of bands, fans and rock critics have been seduced by ever since “Meet the Beatles.” The list of power-pop artists that have been critically heralded is long even though few have hit the charts and become rich and famous: the Byrds (as much power pop as folk-rock and later, country); Alex Chilton and Big Star, Marshall Crenshaw, Windbreakers, Bram Tchaikovsky, the Records, Flamin’ Groovies, Let’s Active, Bangles, Nick Lowe, Matthew Sweet, Rubinoos, the Shoes… the list goes on and on. One power pop band that actually has hit songs to its credit, the Smithereens, has gone full circle with its latest recording, “Meet the Smithereens.” It’s a song-by-song replica of “Meet the Beatles,” only done as the Smithereens.