On My Friend, Michael F. Hopkins
By Harold Goldberg Everything here is so precarious…That no thing is taken for granted. Water is celebrated. Seedlings are celebrated. Breeding is celebrated. Even death is celebrated. No thing here dies, that its passing doesn’t feed something else. In the great cycle of this world, life lays itself down to preserve life, season after season. And no greater love of life is there than this. -Timmain, Elfquest, Volume 6
He was selling his jazz records along with some rare comic books on the steps of the student union. In the chilly fall of north Buffalo when I was 17, that's where I first remember meeting Michael F. Hopkins. He had on a denim jacket and a black beret and had a wistful and serious look in his eye. Like the world, which was not easy, was fodder for a poem to him. Michael died after a recent illness and that has saddened me greatly.
I didn't buy a record that day in the 1970s, but as we got to talking, we found common interests in music and Marvel. I was still a DC comics fan, and Michael stroked his short beard as he tried to commiserate. I soon became a fan of artistss Jim Starlin ("Thor") and Barry Smith ("Conan') at his suggestions. He soon alerted me to the brilliance "ElfQuest," Sun Ra, Gwendolyn Brooks, Junai Boothe, Juneteenth celebrations and the University Comic Book Store where he'd buy two or three of the new comics he thought might appreciate in value. When he talked about Blackness with fervor and wit, I began to learn about the real history of Black people in Buffalo and in the United States. There were folks he didn't like much, Dimitri and Barbara at the student newspaper, and critic Leonard Feather. Upon mentioning their names, he would turn his face and close his eyes as though he were smelling something bad.
At the time, The Buffalo News was looking for freelance writers for its Friday supplement, a calendar with reviews and features from staff and local journalists. Michael was pretty much blocked as a music writer for The Buffalo News because his work was so creative and poetic. But, thankfully, they did publish his poems many times through the years.
In college, Michael added a "(c)" to signify a copyright on everything he wrote, which may have daunted The News since they bought all rights from freelancers. In Michael's case, I believe the copyright idea was also there to prevent racism. Michael knew how much white people stole from Black music artists, and he'd seen it himself with writing. Indeed, The Buffalo News should have worked with this burgeoning talent - if only because there were so few Black writers are the paper at the time. It's probably not much better now there as far as diversity goes. Indeed, that's Buffalo as a whole. The paper published a recent stories entitled: "Buffalo businesses interested in diversity, but only getting started" and "Diversity lacking or non-existent in area police departments."
Racism wasn't going to stop Michael. He published jazz criticism and poetry at two or three SUNY Buffalo student newspapers simultaneously. He went beyond Buffalo to publish in Coda. He became a professor at the university. He just keep on going.
Together, he and I started a college comic book club, and he was part of the troupe I put together for a comic book-inspired satire serial that aired on WBUF-FM. I think the only time we argued was about a comic book event we put on at the Century Theatre, the same place that the criminal Harvey Weinstein owned before turning to movies. I hated dealing with Harvey and his young thugs at the theatre. Their egos were massive and their threats were real. I recall that Michael may have wanted to pull out of the event, and I wanted to finish what we started. But the argument passed and we continued as great friends throughout college.
After college before I left for New York City, we interviewed Wynton Marsalis backstage at the Tralfamadore Cafe, a small theatre that showcased so many artists popular and indie alike. Shortly after his first album was released, I asked the young trumpeter, who was four years younger than me, "What does the Music have to do?"
"Our music," said Wynton, "has to swing and be Negroid."
Michael nodded and said, "Mmm-hmmm." He always had a wise, sage-like quality to his every move, and this new artist seemed to be steeped in history and politics at a young age. An "Mmm-hmmm" from Michael was like the most thoughtful, full opinion piece in The New York Times. It was deep. But Wynton always appeared mature. It's like he carried the mantle of success and the history that preceded him his shoulders proudly.
When I moved out of town to the Journal Square area in Jersey City for my first Manhattan journalism job at a magazine, all of New York's jazz music was within a walk or subway ride away. There was so much to take in. Susie, a transplanted Buffalonian, and I would go to see Barry Harris at a club he had in Chelsea. I always wished Michael were here to take it all in.
He taught me so much about jazz and the jazz world that serves me to this day. When I moved to New York, I pushed the people at the magazine I worked for to let me interview some jazz legends - like Miles Davis. Without Michael's conversations with me about Miles' landmark work and some of his more obscure compositions, I would've been at a loss. Instead, the Miles conversation was one of the longest and most fruitful, longest talks I have ever had with an artist. I feel I owe all of that to Michael.
So I thought about Michael when I spoke with Miles Davis at a club called The Tunnel. The occasion was a fashion show for a Japanese designer. Miles, clad in black, along with Andy Warhol were the guest hosts. Miles blew one note on his trumpet and walked a few steps in a the long, Matrix-like coat he was asked to wear.
From Michael, I'd heard that Miles could be difficult to talk to. But a request was granted and we hit it off. In fact, we talked for a couple of hours. I think I was channeling all the knowledge Michael had passed on to me.
We were sitting face to face on the small hassocks that litter a VIP room. I'd read that there was a feud between Wynton and Miles. "I've seen a few magazines say that you and Wynton don't get along."
Miles looked down at the ground and said, "That's just what writers make up to sell magazines. There is no feud."
I believed Miles. Michael would have, too.
Michael and I saw movies together. In fact, we went to see Prince's "Purple Rain" on opening day. We loved every moment as we sang along under our breaths. We were so energized as we left the theater, like part of Prince remained with us. During that July of 1984, the heat in Buffalo was oppressive. We weren't making much money as writers. But we were inspired and felt the coolness of camaraderie, one that was unbreakable.
Michael married a young woman whom he called, very affectionately, "the ice cream girl." I'd never seen him so happy and smitten. It was a beautiful, simple, quiet Quaker ceremony in downtown Buffalo with no human officiate present. God himself was to oversee the wedding from above. The couple made declarations of their intentions, and both were ardent and poetic. The marriage didn't last, but I think the memories of their times together did last forever.
The height of our concert-going experience was seeing James Brown together. Brown didn't have a hit at the time, and only a few hundred populated the majestic (yet rundown) Shea's Buffalo theater on Main Street. I'd really never seen Michael dance, but he did that night as we stood in awe of one of the great genius entertainers of all time. Brown didn't care that the crowd was sparse. He seemed to play ever harder, mightier, as Michael would say, more "prodigiously."
And that word is how I remember Michael. He was a prodigious writer. And he was a prodigious friend as well.
Varied thoughts and musing on writing, travel and generally what I've been up to.