Ode to Guitar George

In W.P. Norton on February 23, 2012 at 2:44 pm
me and N

G.M. Norton; Afro-Cuban demon mask; the artist as a young man.

When I was 15—before Russia, before Obama, before the internet, before Chapman and the Dakota—when I was 15 me and my father, G.M. Norton, lived for a while in an abandoned sauce factory in Madison, Wis.

They’d long since stopped making the sauce there. And it would be a while before the property would be transformed into the condominiums of the Johnson Building that stands there now on East Washington Avenue, next to the car wash with the big Octopus head.



But it was a building with a couple of floors and the kind of elevator with a heavy mesh cage that you fling open or shut with a crash, and we were there for a couple of strange months in the winter of 1979, and so was Uncle George for part of that time. My honorary Uncle George, that is.


Uncle Guitar George

And it came to pass that on certain nd nights, there we’d be at a table in the former break room of the factory under the fluorescent lights, George and me.

There were cases of cold Huber beer, and Camel filters, and a guitar, and warm-hearted hours of instruction in the classics: the warm, curvaceous and supple notes of the beginning of “Norwegian Wood.” The breathless dextrousness of the rapid-fire blues plunked out of the little finger on “I Feel Fine.”

It seems I played in 15 bands after that, and mainly the bass, because there were many better guitarists in the vicinity at the time.

But in that Madison factory on a cold winter’s night, with Huber and Camels and a beat-up old acoustic held together with duct tape, Guitar George sat across the table and taught me how to coax more than notes from a piece of wood and catgut strings.

So thanks Uncle George, and cheers to you for those times you made the factory feel almost like home.

I happened to be in New York City when George Harrison died in 2001. At dusk I gathered amongst the many hundreds at Strawberry Fields, singing along with the throng while two brave buskers strummed every number in the Fab Four catalog on acoustics. I don’t recall a single mic or amp being used: just the two steel-strings. It was a joyful thing, much in contrast to Dec. 8, 1980.

AWP17 puts literature on the map in D.C.

In Association of Writers & Writing Programs, Literature, W.P. Norton on February 16, 2017 at 6:54 pm

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Still sifting through the trove of literary treasures and takeaways from the nation’s largest annual gathering of the literati, the Association of Writers & Writing Programs, hashtag #AWP17.

Herewith a few visual highlights:


Meeting Viet Nguyen, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Sympathizer.


Only 10 percent of optioned books get made into movies. That’s the consensus of these panelists who number in that exclusive club. From left: Fobbit author David Abrams; Claire Bidwell Smith, one of whose books is being made into a film starring Jennifer Lawrence; and Andre Dubus III, who penned House of Sand and Fog and Dirty Love, among others.



Members of The Anthropoid Literary Collective, a humanesque journal, make me feel welcome on conference Day 1.

Royko vs. Robinson’s Ribs

In African America, Barbecue, Black America, Black-owned businesses, Charlie Robinson, Chicago history, Mike Royko, Mississippi Delta, Racism, Royko RibFest, The Charlie Robinson Story, W.P. Norton on February 16, 2017 at 2:49 pm

A reflection of an editor in Robinson’s Oak Park storefront.

The excitement of this year’s annual gathering of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (#AWP17) in Washington, DC, took me back to the first book I edited — The Charlie Robinson Story: From the Son of a Mississippi Delta Sharecropper to the Top of the Chicago Barbecue Charts.

Charlie Robinson

OAK PARK, ILLINOIS — Chicago’s Mississippi-born baron of barbecue is sharing his story with the world.

Robinson seared his name into the Chicago annals of African-American history at RibFest 1982, where a centuries-old family barbecue recipe took him to first place over legendary Chicago newspaper columnist Mike Royko.

In 2012 I finalized the editing of Robinson’s manuscript, The Charlie Robinson Story: From the Son of a Mississippi Delta Sharecropper to the Top of the Chicago Barbecue Charts. The book is now available in limited edition.

The first book written by the Mississippi-born, Oak Park-based restaurateur looks back with surprisingly little anger on life begun in a Mississippi Delta cotton economy that seems little changed since the days of slavery.

Robinson recalls in stark detail the daily indignities of the race-based world that forced him at the age of 12 to address white children no older than him with the words “yes, sir” and “no, sir.”

You can almost feel the hundred-degree heat of Mississippi burning your skin as he describes his first job picking cotton 10 hours a day for thirty cents an hour.

But you can also share the joy of a young man whose skill on the basketball court earns him a scholarship to a Great Plains college where he learns about the world beyond the Mississippi Delta.

No less striking is the pride that shines through Robinson’s retelling of how the black-owned Chicago Defender newspaper urged the descendants of the enslaved to come to Chicago on trains staffed by black porters.

Or the sense of wonder that pours off the page when he tells how his life changed that late September day in 1982 — a moment captured by a Chicago-Sun Times photo showing Royko raise Robinson’s arm in victory as RibFest judge Don Rose and WLS-TV anchorman Tim Weigel look on.

The unforeseeable outcome of the 1982 contest I call “Royko vs. Robinson’s Ribs” is a quintessential Chicago story about a newcomer who rises from obscurity to a seat at the table with room to spare for any flavor strong enough to reach toward the skyline of a city defined by its power to redefine itself.

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