Sunday, April 22, 2007
ICEBERG SLIM by Tosh Berman
What is the definition of ultimate cool? The answer is Iceberg Slim. He was a pimp, drug addict, prisoner, and writer. He's called Iceberg because he never showed any emotion to his whores and low life business associates. He's bad-assed, sexy, straight forward, and a master of inner gender relationships. He could make any woman a slave, and he could pull off the ultimate cons. Iceberg Slim is the man. He is also one of the great American writers. No, not just a great African American writer, but a great writer in any genre, country, or race.
Born as Robert Beck in 1918, he became Iceberg Slim by emulating his ultimate role model - the neighborhood pimp in Chicago circa 1940's. When he saw the Pimps in his neighborhood with their nice clothes, big cars, and foxy hos, he knew that was the life to lead. In quick succession, Iceberg became a Pimp, and a student of con games, and a first-rate psychologist who understood what women wanted in life. What women wanted was to hump (fuck customers AKA tricks) on the streets and give the entire mo to Iceberg. Life was perfect. Unfortunately, Iceberg had an I. Q. of 162. Also he felt a sense of guilt for what he was doing to his women, and specifically - Black women.
He quit the Pimp game when he turned 42, an age which was considered over the hill in that particular occupation. After time spent in prison and a damaging drug addiction, he moved to Los Angeles and took care of his Mom, who was dying. Her death seemed to seal Iceberg’s interest in the straight life. He got a job selling Insecticide – similar to another over-the-hill would-be writer who changed the landscape of modern literature: William S. Burroughs.
Within three months Iceberg wrote PIMP. He then went to Holloway House Publishing Company specializing in black literature and culture, and dropped off his manuscript. As they say, the rest is history.
PIMP (1967) is the ultimate look at the whore trade. Iceberg, with his command of the rich language of the black ghetto (there’s a glossary at the end of the book) tears into the rich philosophy of the pimp. A Pimp is not allowed to show emotion to his whores, and Iceberg was the extreme expression- thus earning him a nickname that prefigures rap avatars two decades hence.
According to the Ice, "a pimp is happy when his whores giggle. He knows they are still asleep...All whores have one thing in common just like the chumps humping for the white boss. It thrills 'em when the pimps makes mistakes. They watch and wait for his downfall. A pimp is the loneliest bastard on Earth. He's gotta know his whores. He can't let them know him. He's gotta be God all the way."
All seven of Iceberg's books are great, but in my mind, his one total masterpiece is MAMA BLACK WIDOW. This book written in 1969 is the ultimate crazy melodrama. If you compare his work to a film (and all his books are cinematic in its vivid imagery) I would have to compare it to the works of John Waters or better yet, Ed Wood.
Plot wise, the book is beyond kitsch, but the language and the violence of his images are amazing. How's this for a description:
"The fiend had hacked off her nose to the whitish bone of the
bridge, and her lips had been raggedly slashed away to give the awful visage a grisly blood stained grin. Where her breasts had thrusted, there were blackened stumps." This is one of the nicer moments in MAMA BLACK WIDOW.
The story is about a black homosexual queen whose Mom accidentally kills one of her twin daughters and her unborn baby during a do-it-yourself-with help-from-your-mom-even-though-I-want-my-half-German-white-baby-abortion.
Plus you have the other twin sister, a whore, killed by a sex manic trick, whose date was arranged by a 'white' pimp. Why stop there! The homosexual queen's brother decides to commit revenge for his sister’s murder, and ends up getting life in prison. Oh, and then you have the father, who ends up as a total loser and drunk, or as the main character comments ". My reason for telling my story is not money. I'm doing it for my poor dead Papa and myself and the thousands of black men like him in ghetto torture chambers who have been and will be niggerized and deballed by the white power structure and its thrill-kill police."
Of course, the homosexual queen goes through one bad relationship after another, including a horrible gang rape in prison, and basically tells the tale of being black, gay, and living the poor life in Chicago1946.
The saddest book is THE NAKED SOUL OF ICEBERG SLIM. This collection of essays places him firmly with the black militants of the 60's and 70's. Beck spent his final years lecturing at schools and collages, trying to sway others from the pimp life. He fully embraced the imagery, the passion, and fury of the black movement of the day, but unfortunately, the Black Panthers saw Iceberg Slim as a relic from a horrible, bygone era in Black history.
Iceberg tried to come to terms with his past, yet there was great
sorrow that he can't be part of a movement that reinforced a more positive image of the black man. Ultimately, Robert Beck was full of regret for being Iceberg Slim.
The 'naked soul' had seen what was (and still is) happening to the black world, and he was sick with grief and despair. His way out of that despair, or least his way to express it, was to become a writer.
THE NAKED SOUL OF ICEBERG SLIM is one of the better books by a writer dealing with writing. What he offered was a first-person vantage on an era where blacks had to survive by what one might be called 'questionable' means. One thing that remains clear in all of Iceberg’s books is the need to survive at any cost.
Iceberg Slim sold six million books, mostly in black communities.
What is criminally insane is that his work is not well known in mainstream white America. At the very least his work matches up with the likes of Jim Thompson, David Goodis, and other great 'hardboiled' crime writers.
Iceberg Slim is also the Godfather of Blackplotation. Without
him, there would be no Superfly or Shaft. He also looms over the hip-hop world - not only with his ultra- cool image, but also with the sheer power of his language, which reads like butter melting on a hot toast. Like another Black icon, James Brown, Iceberg was a genius that defined his own era with unique artistry.
Iceberg Slim died in 1992, from liver failure.
THE BOOKS OF ICEBERG SLIM:
MAMA BLACK WIDOW (1969)
TRICK BABY (1967)
AIRTIGHT WILLIE & ME (1979)
LONG WHITE CON (1977)
DEATH WISH (1977)
THE NAKED SOUL OF ICEBERG SLIM (1971)
All books are available through Holloway House Publishing Co.
REFLECTIONS (1994, Infinite Zero Archive)