Electric gypsies

Pub date May 6, 2009
SectionArts & CultureSectionLiterature


Tommy Weber ( Thomas Ejnar Arkner, 1938 — 2006) was a trickster, so I cannot help but love him.

Comin’ from where I’m from — three tribal peoples: Pamunkey, Scottish, mystery African — I have always adored the Afro-Kelt über alles, and been at least inchoately hip to the centrality of the trickster, whether Eshú Elegbara, the Diné Coyote, or the Danes’ own Loki and his spawn Fenrir the apocalyptic Wolf. Such figures surf the spaces between the rational world we animals feel duty-bound to shore up for civilization’s sake, and the great vast unconscious world beyond the reach of imposed order.

The disenfranchised, rejected Dane and deracinated Anglo-African Tommy Weber — the fatally charming and irrepressible antihero of Robert Greenfield’s new A Day In the Life — One Family, the Beautiful People, & the End of the ’60s (Da Capo) — seems a trickster by default. He was left to his own devices by his estranged parents to play among the excreta of Empire well before any 11th-hour attempts by his roguish grandfather, R. E. Weber, to finish him off as a proper, upper-crust, English gentleman. The man famously dubbed "Tommy the Tumbling Dice" by his pop doppelgängers Keith Richards and Anita Pallenberg had an ingrained loathing for authority, yet the right accent to charm anyone in his relentlessly class-obsessed society.

I spent the 1980s back and forth between Africa, Europa (especially not-so fair Albion), and Ray-Gun Amerikkka, chased by those primordial Saharan tricksters Wepwawet and his altar-ego the Pale Fox Yurugu. One film my late Mamanne, sister, and I loved during that period was 1984’s Another Country, starring Rupert Everett as aristo U.K. spy-turned-Russian defector Guy Bennett (i.e., Guy Burgess). The character’s final line has stuck with me. Queried about whether or not he missed the Motherland, his response is, "I miss the cricket." This immortal bit of immortal dialogue is key for Tommy Weber, me, and anyone else brought up along the black Atlantic continuum. It sums up Tommy’s unconscious longing as a patchwork Englishman to rove to the British Empire’s far-flung, dusty, darker outposts. It applies to the cricket pitch desires of émigré "Indians" (from East and West). And I connect it to my early-1980s Anglophilia, stoked by Top of the Pops, Melody Maker, Smash Hits, and NME.

Having (perhaps foolishly) strived to find myself in those sonic fictions, I feel connected to a description of late-period Tommy by Spacemen 3’s Pete Bain: "He’d come staggering in, talk shit at you for an hour with garbled words like a radio that had to be tuned to a certain frequency, and then stagger out again like a drunk" We are all animals of the machine age, hoping to belong, struggling amid turbulent cultural waves. We navigate denatured empire (which yields ordered beauties like cricket, classical music, and the world-famous English gardens tended by such experts as Jake Weber’s aunt, Mary Keen) and the dirty, excreta-slathered murk of primordial tribal tradition (which yields transcendence).

Accompanied by a soul mate nicknamed Puss, Tommy the Tumbling Dice gambled on a folkway that would provide that transcendence — a Swinging London milieu of sex-drugs-rock ‘n’ roll wherein religious and social apostasy was de rigueur. When he crapped out, as a Trickster always does, what came next was relentless nihilism at the prick of a needle. Yet here’s the thing about tricksters: death often means rebirth for them — And Shine swam on, you dig?

Once upon a time, circa America’s bicentennial year, I chanced to view a strange, twisted, little film called Performance (1970) that was far too advanced for my innocence. Every summer in Virginia, my favorite pastime — even above slopping hogs and barn dancing — was handling the snakes. But lil’ ol’ me was yet unprepared for being ensnared in Anita Pallenberg’s chamber of smoke-and-mirrors.

My old soul arose like the fabled Kemetic Bennu bird of prehistory from that befuddling, dazzling screening, leaving me a lifelong devotee of the occultist, pirate triumvirate that is my beloved doom fox Pallenberg, interiors aesthete Christopher Gibbs, and the film’s auteur par excellence — the late, great Scot Donald Cammell. (Yes, Nicholas Roeg was essentially the technical director, but the film’s peculiar psychosexual tangle and audacious vision could come from no other brilliant cerebellum than Cammell’s.)

And so I was transfixed by the cover of Day In The Life. There stared a witch even more lovely and remote than my muse Anita. Looking inside, I discovered that she was Puss Weber, and that the young Fata Morgana boy from a Stones memorabilia photo that I’d long obsessed over was her eldest son, Jake. Alongside his bruh’ Charley, he had an inadvertent ringside seat to Mick and Keith’s maiden voyage into the rough black Atlantic. You can read all about it in this book, a great gift from the cosmos.

"Fantasy" by Earth, Wind, & Fire was the private, tacit anthem of my family’s feminine trio in the 1970s — which paralleled that of the Weber boys. Strange and beautiful it is that Jake, son of Tommy the Tumbling Dice, should find himself co-starring on a show called Medium, wherein his character, Joe DuBois, has a witchy-empowered wife he must support and nurture much as he once did his beloved mother Puss. As Marshall McLuhan proclaimed during the year of Jake’s birth (in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man): "The medium is the message." Although W.E.B. DuBois (no relation) famously said the problem of the 20th century of is that of the color line, it can now also be argued that the past century-plus has been marked more than almost anything else by the problems stemming from the interface of man and machine — spirituality vs. technology.

In this light, it seems no accident that Tommy Weber has become an antihero fit to rival his fellow Archer, Duane "Skyman" Allman, in my internal spiritual pantheon. I would hazard a guess that both of his sons are currently fulfilling what Tommy wrote to Jake in 1982: "There is a very important secret. Work is much more interesting than play and if you are lucky enough to be able to make your work your play and your play pay, well then you’re in clover."

One cannot claim "Tommy the Tumbling Dice" and his beautiful, free spirit wife Susan Ann Caroline "Puss" Coriat should not have had children, for their now grown sons are vital contributors to our black Atlantic culture and are fine human beings. Still, these rather tortured Swinging Londoners’ families rival the pathology often on display around the corners of my ‘hood in high Harlem.

I am far less enchanted by A Day in the Life‘s testimonials on Puss and Tommy’s pre-Stones circle in London than I am arrested by their families’ collective African history. Greenfield’s book aims to shoot an arrow straight into the heart of Boomerville, yet it also unwittingly works as a strong resource for the far opposite realm of postcolonial studies. In fact, with some tweaking, it could serve as one of that discipline’s core works — a testament to its riches.

One of my most cherished passages in Greenfield’s book deals with Tommy’s haphazard management of the pioneering Afro-rock band Osibisa. A crazy trip through northern Africa is bookended by him, Jake, and Charley enduring a harrowing stay in jail in Lagos. To a degree, Puss and Tommy were confined by being products of their class and times. Yet they cannot be judged now via the uptight lenses of today. On the strength of their private soul-gnosis and Herculean striving to escape the lot dealt them by the hands of cosmic fate, these extraordinary Webers are folk out of — no, beyond — time. We’ll still learn from them on the far side of 2012.