Friday, September 01, 2006
Something To Be
“I heard what he had gone through, and would continue to go through until he came to rest in this earth.” --James Baldwin, “Sonny’s Blues”
In his book Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century, Greil Marcus gets as close as anyone has to defining the significance of the late 70s punk rock explosion. Marcus describes the punk response as a “No” to the spectacle of both the political and popular culture of the late ‘70s. To illustrate this, he describes the Sex Pistols’ lead singer Johnny Rotten, as “a medium”—“as he stood on the stage, opened his mouth, and fixed his eyes on the crowd, various people who had never met, some who had met but who had never before been properly introduced, some who had never heard of some of the others, as Johnny Rotten had heard of almost none of them, began to talk to each other and the noise they made was what one heard . . . . because this tradition lacked both cultural sanction and political legitimacy, because this history was comprised of only unfinished, unsatisfied stories, it carried tremendous force.”
And the force of that “no” to the dominant culture led thousands of kids who knew next to nothing about music to pick up instruments for the first time and make the loudest, angriest noise they could possibly make. Beyond the big “no,” the aims were virtually non-existent and self-destructive because, as Marcus puts it, the antidote to crowd spectacle is crowd panic, the tension he felt when he saw the Sex Pistols perform their last concert at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom in January 1978.
I grew up a long way from San Francisco, and my memory of the Pistols’ visit to Tulsa’s Cain’s Ballroom--covered on the nightly news like a true threat to Oklahoman youth--was only a puzzle to me. But though I was a rock fan, the music hadn’t yet turned my world upside down.
Music had always been a part of my life, particularly as a connection between me and the older brother whom I idolized. Some of my earliest memories are of Elvis and the Beatles, whose records were always in the air, and the covers of which I would contemplate on the floor of my brother’s room. No adult or even teen (at least without psychedelics) could ever appreciate the light dancing vibrancy of the Magical Mystery Tour album cover the way that a child can. And then there was James Brown’s Cold Sweat, with thrilling and scary album art of a man so drenched in sweat, robing and disrobing in multiple frames, that he looked like the most vibrantly alive person I’d ever seen and somehow near death at the same time.
When I was six, I got my parents to buy me a copy of Eric Burden and War’s “Spill The Wine,” and I remember dancing in my room to that song and the b-side “Magic Mountain.” As my parents’ marriage disintegrated and my brother disappeared from the home into a throng of his cowboy hippie friends, alongside children’s records, I played my first real album, the one my brother gave me for Christmas, The Beatles Again or Hey Jude or whatever it’s called. Later, I would learn Paul wrote “Hey Jude” to console Julian Lennon after his parents’ divorce. Whatever it did for Julian, I got the message and will always be thankful for it.
The summer my parents divorced, the summer of ’74, I would become enamored with my blue ball-shaped (more than a little like a pod out of 2001) transistor radio and Casey Kasem’s Top 40. My soon-to-be-step-sister and I would call in and request such kid-friendly schmaltz as the Heywood’s “Billy Don’t Be a Hero” and Paper Lace’s “The Night Chicago Died,” along with the more mysterious sounds of Steely Dan’s “Rikki, Don’t Lose that Number” and Michael Murphy’s “Wildfire.” I began buying more singles, one of my favorites being the Hues Corporation’s “Don’t Rock the Boat,” which was as soothing and hopeful a dose of soul as any child could hope for. In 1976, Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life became my first favorite album of music outside of the Beatles’ canon.
But 1977 became a sort of turning point for me, when I was fourteen and initiated into the wonderful world of adolescent girls by my cousin Julie and her beautiful best friend Pam. Through them, Fleetwood Mac became my soundtrack. My junior high buddies and I also started going to mobile disco dances at the American Legion Hall where songs like Heat Wave’s “Boogie Nights” excited my imagination, and I lucked into my first slow dance to the Bee Gee’s “How Deep Is Your Love?”
But all of that music was still distant in some way from the shy world where I lived most of my life. 7th Grade marked the beginning of a 4-year crush on a girl named Lisa, whom I couldn’t talk to without a stammer, even though she drew on my back every day during my Spanish class. I just froze when I felt her pencil touch my back, and I thought about the things cool guys would have turned and said.
The summer before high school, I would ride my bike all over town and visit my brother in the trailer park where he lived with his girlfriend. I remember the music we listened to because it left a special imprint on me—various jazz artists including and especially Ornette Coleman and James Blood Ulmer’s Tales of Captain Black, Van Morrison’s Wavelength, Jackson Browne’s Running on Empty, Patti Smith’s Easter, Lou Reed’s Street Hassle and Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town. I was fascinated by all of this music, which wasn’t (aside from Patti’s “Because the Night”) on the radio, but which sounded more immediate and personal to me, maybe simply because it was part of my brother’s refuge.
Darkness on the Edge of Town , in particular, said something to me that most of the superstar music on the radio didn’t say. It was in the rough-hewn texture of it—the chugging intensity of guitar, bass and drum and the almost untrained sound of that wailing voice. I didn’t know what it was, but that sounded like my world. The album art even felt approachable in a unique way—with the smudged, hand-typed lyric sheet and Bruce’s rumpled picture on the jacket. He looked somehow like what I saw in the mirror , and he took that self image that always came up lacking and made it seem cool.
I’d met this girl at a high school football game where her friends were talking to my friends. Kristi Hall was wearing a pink satin jacket and chewing gum, and she was the prettiest thing I’d ever seen. A few weeks later in school, a mutual friend told me that Kristi liked me and gave me her phone number.
The night that everything changed, I sat staring at her number with the phone in my hand, and I kept trying to think of what to say. I put on my favorite record, and the urgency of the opening song said “Wait a second there, bud.” “I got a head on collision smashing in my guts man,” Bruce sang, and I knew the feeling. The entirety of the song that followed—particularly that bridge that said “it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive"-- told me that I had to go back in that room, pick up that phone and dial that number.
And I did, and rock and roll never again meant to me the same things that it had before.
The entirety of Darkness raged against my sense of helplessness. I heard my secret self, in a family where I’d always played the role of the good child, in “Adam Raised a Cain.” “Something in the Night” placed me in a mythical nightmare where I might have been defeated. But the determination of the drum and the jangling of the guitar that answered it said there was still a chance. “Candy’s Room” whispered to me of my fantasy of being seen and appreciated, and “Racing in the Street” paid tribute to the nobility of refusing to surrender one’s soul to a world bent on beating it down.
Around the same time, my favorite writer would become Dave Marsh, whose biography of Springsteen I all but inhaled. It helped me get a handle on what I was experiencing. Of the lyrics to “Racing in the Street,” Marsh wrote, “There’s love in those words, and understanding, for precisely those people who are ordinarily shut out of American life: commonplace, anonymous Americans, undistinguished by ethnicity or other cultural memory. These are the sort of people who are romanticized, depicted as the backbone of democracy, but almost never allowed to speak for themselves. Darkness on the Edge of Town is an album about such people. It’s not an accident that the end of “Racing in the Streets,” where Danny Federici’s organ blends with Roy Bittan’s piano in a fugue like cry, is the warmest, most affectionate moment on this stark album.”
This may seem like heady stuff for a 15-year-old to get out of that moment when he first called a girl up on the phone, but I think that’s why adolescence haunts most of us all of our lives. One of the most pervasive fiction archetypes—the tale of initiation—deals with this precise moment in our lives when we are robbed of our childhood’s self-centered vision of the universe, that sense we have that our existence and our ideals really matter to others. James Joyce’s “Araby” offers one of the most beautiful examples of such a tale, in which an Irish boy realizes the girl of his dreams has her sites set on an exotic world beyond his own. When he gives up on this girl, he looks up into the dark, and the older narrator describes it this way-- “I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.”
As we move from childhood to adulthood, we are confronted with demons we never knew before, and we don’t know their names, and we sure as hell don’t know how to fight them. Darkness on the Edge of Town sketched the crucial outlines for me and gave me a role I knew how to play—myself, unapologetically.
Particularly on the second side of that album, I saw my environment drawn more clearly in music than I’d ever seen it before. The small-town characters that believe in “The Promised Land,” being beat down each day by the “Factory,” walking alone through “Streets of Fire” and determined to “Prove It All Night” lived in a bleak, hopeless landscape like the one that surrounded me. I would get my driver’s license about that time, and most of my high school experience is laced through with my experience prowling the streets of my small Oklahoma hometown with that music on my 8-Track.
In that era of rock superstardom, there’s no coincidence that the sounds of unemployed and disillusioned youth in England and the sounds of unemployed and considerably more visionary black youth in the South Bronx and Philadelphia would give birth to two currents of music that still inspire today’s hits. In an extraordinarily segregated period for popular music, after so many walls seemed to have been torn down only a decade before, white youth and black youth built guerilla movements out of music that countered the spectacle of the Top 40 by speaking more immediately for them.
It’s important to me to point out that I heard Darkness on the Edge of Town as a piece with these new things that were happening in music, particularly punk. But Bruce’s “no” to the slick, mainstream culture that had become so remote from its listeners carried with it something more than a “no.” It said “yes” to me. It told me that who I was and where I lived and when I lived were all something to be. For the first time in my life, my sense of self was not tinged by nostalgia and yearning but was defiantly present tense and hopeful. And like so many of that era, I started playing guitar and writing songs, encouraged by a new spirit that wanted to kick down the walls that had grown up between the rock star world and the world that inspired it.
Against the mantras of insignificance most of us have beaten into us by adulthood--that our hopes and dreams really don’t matter in the great scheme of things; that we, individually, don’t matter either and that we really can’t change the way the world works--rock and its kin have repeatedly insisted just the opposite. The music says you matter and you can change the world.
A song like “Johnny B. Goode,” became the signature song of the rock and roll era because it encapsulated such dreams, not incidentally for someone American society would just as soon never hear from, an uneducated kid from a log cabin in the backwoods of Louisiana. While the fact that this kid plays guitar “just like a ringin’ a bell” makes it pretty plain that this is thinly veiled autobiography, the “Go, Johnny, go” chorus casts Chuck Berry and his audience as this would-be star’s cheerleaders. Berry then serves as his own champion, urging himself to play the guitar and throw in a duck walk or two—fulfill the dream by putting that name in lights and keeping it there. Similarly, two years earlier “Roll Over Beethoven” finds Berry tackling the behemoths of Western European classical tradition by celebrating the kids at the jukebox and a teenage girl’s dance moves while he supplies the arsenal of riffs to mount the siege.
So much of rock history—from Eddie Floyd’s “Raise Your Hand” and Sam & Dave’s “Soul Man” to Salt-N-Pepa’s “Shake Your Thing” and Prince’s “Cream”-- is in this stance of the star celebrating the power of the fan and, ultimately, fueling his or her own thunder. It’s the same anarchic salvo that connects Little Richard’s working man Friday night on “Rip It Up” to Detroit rockers the MC5’s psychedelically ambitious “Kick Out the Jams.” And it’s this same sense of identification with one another against established power that fuels every variant on the Who’s “My Generation” as well as the more explicitly political vision of a song like Sly and the Family Stone’s “Stand.” It’s also the tie that binds the relationship politics of Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” to the larger demands of the Civil Rights Movement and, more particularly in a song like James Brown’s “Say It Loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud,” the Black Power Movement.
But at least as significant as the political anthems are the songs that reach down to individual insecurities that would be all but untouchable in any other forum. As only such pillow talk will, the lovers’ conversation in “We’ve Gotta Get Out of This Place” says volumes--with a line like “Watch my daddy in bed and tired”--about what goes unsaid between working class fathers and sons. This no doubt descends from Muddy Waters’ roar, “I’m a Man,” in “Mannish Boy,” voicing black male rage against 400 years of slavery and cultural emasculation in a way that also gives a voice to those same working class kids of all races who didn’t want to follow their daddy’s down an early path of despair.
And music is arguably unique in its reach to give voice and story to those private places where we often lose our largest battles. Madonna’s “Live to Tell” may be the clearest example for the way it plainly speaks the hopes and fears of an abuse victim, probably a child being abused, who never feels certain that she will live long enough to tell her story, and even if she does, that the story will save her life (or anyone else’s). With that #1 single in 1986, the sort of unheard voice writer John Edgar Wideman gave surreal form to in his short story “newborn thrown in trash and dies,” the kind of voice Woody Guthrie feared would go unheard 50 years before, whispered in millions of ears worldwide, and millions whispered the lyrics back, offering that kind of reassurance against insurmountable odds only a song can offer.
That’s the heart of the beauty in a love song like Guns ‘N’ Roses “Sweet Child O’ Mine” or Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush’s “Don’t Give Up.” And it’s the secular gospel extension of such lovers’ dreams that sounds so triumphant in a song like Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” And that’s the same gospel that a son uses as a balm for his former--“crack fiend”/always--“Black Queen” mother on Tupac Shakur’s “Keep Ya Head Up.”
The nature of rock itself is to shout and scream and bang drums and power chords and thump bass and make a loud noise with old records and keyboards and synthesizers, a loud noise that borrows heavily from the Pentecostal gospel tradition to shout on high that I matter, you matter, we matter, and none of us plan to go down quietly.
What has especially come to speak the most profoundly to me in my adult years has been the space created in music that Mary A. Bulwack and Robert K. Oermann tackle in Finding Her Voice: The Saga of Women in Country Music, the voice women have found in the music. Bulwack and Oermann write, “The story of women in country music is a window into the world of the majority of American women. It describes poverty, hardship, economic exploitation, sexual subjugation, and limited opportunities. Sometimes it is self-defeating and reactionary, painful and despairing. But it also contains outspoken protest and joyful rebellion, shouts of exaltation and bugle calls for freedom.” And this truth is nowhere more apparent than in the music made by black women in the rock era. It’s a truth Black Noise author Tricia Rose tackles focusing on women rappers:
“They are integral and resistant voices in rap music and in popular music in general who sustain an ongoing dialogue with their audiences and with male rappers about sexual promiscuity, emotional commitment, infidelity, the drug trade, racial politics, and black cultural history.”
Two moments come to mind most vividly in the better part of two decades I have spent writing about music, a period in which I have written about women’s voices, particularly black women’s voices, more than those of any other particular group.
The first of those two moments was what some might have seen as nothing more than a moment of filler in a Salt-N-Pepa concert from the late ‘80s. Midway through the show, Salt-N-Pepa’s deejay threw on the “We’re All in the Same Gang” record, which was made in response to the era’s increase in gang violence. The b-girls dropped down off the stage and danced on low risers and at crowd level to align themselves with the crowd. As the entire arena rocked along with the record on the turntable, the unity the music professed felt heart-warmingly real.
Years later, I reviewed an outdoor concert that featured a half a dozen or so teeny-bopper groups. I was old enough to be the father of most of the young girls that made up the majority of the crowd. When the Orange County ska band, No Doubt took the stage, a song I found likeable enough, “I’m Just A Girl,” took on proportions I’d never imagined. Watching a sea of young women declare along with Gwen Stefani, “I’m just a girl, just a girl in this world,” it was very clear that being a young girl in this world was a sublimely beautiful thing to be, and in that moment it held all the promise of the biggest dreams in rock and roll. No one could be more surprised than me that most of those five minutes I watched the bobbing crowd through tears in my eyes.
from Monsters, Marx and Music