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Saturday, February 01, 2014

The Song Tracks of Our Lives

I suppose every generation has a song track that plays in the background whenever memories surface.

Or, sometimes, it's a song that brings back a memory.

You hear a song and suddenly remember where you were when you first heard it - or where you were and who you were with when it once played.

The music of my generation - the 60s and 70s - was, probably more so than any other modern generation, intimately intertwined with and reflective of what was going on in our contemporary world. It also helped to change our culture and our society.

There were the "folk singers" like Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Joan Baez, Peter, Paul & Mary, Buffy St. Marie, Odetta, Judy Collins, The Weavers and The Staple Singers who were singing songs about love and peace and harmony and protesting the Vietnam War - or any war - and advocating civil rights and rejecting the status quo and being a non-conformist, while reflecting the absolute best of what was good about the "simple life" of living closer to the land and being kind to one another as generations before us had done.

So, when I hear Dylan sing "Blowin' In The Wind" or "Like a Rolling Stone", I can see myself in bell bottom flower print pants with a peasant shirt, my hair long and thick and out of control, and I can even smell the patchouli oil I used to use. I can also catch an occasional whiff of pot, which, of course, the patchouli oil was used to mask.

Oh, and for the record, yes, I smoked AND inhaled. Truth was, I didn't like it. Just made me . . . um . . . . ."excited" . . . . and hungry for Oreo cookies. I'd eat a whole bag and a quart of milk, which was really so I didn't act on my  . . . um . . . "excitement".  At least, not in public.

Even more clearly, I can see the confusion mixed with disgust and more than a modicum of concern on the faces of both my parents.

And then 'rock 'n roll' really began breaking sound barriers as well as marking clear barriers between  generations. The night that Elvis "The Pelvis" Presley appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show marked a schismatic shift in my family life.

I. LOVED. Elvis.

I couldn't really explain why. His music seemed dangerous. Raw. What was suggested by the words and music were made explicit by the movement of his body.

It was "Rock 'n Roll" and even I got the euphemism for what happened in bed.

I was absolutely transfixed.

My parents were absolutely horrified.

The combination made Elvis and his music absolutely irresistible.

About that same time, I became more and more aware of music that was known as "Motown".  Some of it sounded a lot like the music Elvis sang - coming from a deep, dangerous, raw place in the human psyche, a place my adolescent self was just becoming aware of and simultaneously wanting and fearful to explore.

The night that Diana Ross and the Supremes appeared on the Ed Sullivan show was also another huge watermark in my life and that of my family.

Here the truth of it: At that age, I had never personally seen an African American - male or female.

I lived a very isolated life, ensconced as I was in my neighborhood which was, in actuality, a little Portuguese village, where everyone spoke English and Portuguese and everyone knew everyone else and a neighbor was as likely to smack you upside the head if you did something wrong and then march you by your ear or the back of your neck to your parents where you were smacked again.

We were intentionally isolated. It was protective. We were the butt of jokes and object of scorn and prejudice among the lighter skinned previous immigrants from England and Ireland and Canada who were brought in to work the mills and the factories.  We looked different and smelled of different spices. We were the "greenhorns". The "dirty Portuguese".

Our parents kept us isolated to keep us from being ridiculed and hurt. It didn't work, of course, but that was really the impulse. I don't think it's much different from some immigrant groups today.

Oh, I had seen Africans, but only on the pages of National Geographic or the Encyclopedia Britannica. They were always naked from the waist up, sitting or standing in front of straw huts with thatched roofs.

But, beautiful black-skinned women? American women? In glamorous gowns? With beautifully coiffed hair? Singing, "Come See About ME."? Or, "Stop in the Name of Love"?

Well, they crooned more than sang. And moved their bodies slowly and gracefully and beautifully.

Everything about them sent strong messages about a woman's sexuality to my newly awakening adolescent hormonal level and sense of my own sexuality as one whose skin was darker than many in my high school class.

I. LOVED. Them. 

I was absolutely transfixed.

My parents were absolutely horrified.

I mean, what was the world coming to?

It was 1964. The war in Viet nam was still raging. The Civil Rights Movement had gained a powerful momentum.  The Women's Liberation Movement was in full swing. The whole world seemed chaotic. So were our personal lives.

It was one thing, huffed my father, that Nat King Cole had achieved stardom, but his talent was undeniable. My father could barely stand Johnny Matthus - he thought he was too "effeminate" (who knew my father had 'gaydar'?).

But this - THIS - was beyond the pale for my father.

"Colored people" (well, that's what he called them when he didn't use the "N-word") enjoying the same status as "White" people? Well, that just wasn't my father's understanding of the way the world worked - or, should work.

Pretty soon, he figured, they would start taking jobs away from White men, and you know that wasn't right. Not in my father's immigrant world which had fought for unionization of the factories because, well, they had previously been treated "like slaves". What right, asked my father, did former slaves have to come in and take away a job from a white union man? (Emphasis on the 'man'.)

Meanwhile, of course, the white rich folks who owned the factories and sweat shops still raked in the profit and laughed up their sleeves as they watched the immigrants and working class do their dirty work and fight with the African Americans.

It kept us right where they wanted us. Fighting over crumbs while they had the largest share of the pie.  It was ever thus. 

Before long - and just to keep the peace - I was going over to my friends' houses after school "to do homework" but, truth be told, we watched American Bandstand first and THEN we did our homework.

We watched - and danced - as Chubby Checker sang and did The Twist, and Marvin Gaye and Jackie Wilson and Otis Redding and James Brown sang in ways we never could and moved in ways we tried - we really, really tried - to emulate, but failed miserably.

Some of us even began to question why the kids who danced on American Bandstand were overwhelmingly Caucasian. Slowly, slowly, slowly, even that audience began to change.

Mary Wells sang "My Guy" while the Temptations sang, "My Girl". Aretha Franklin did me in every time she opened her mouth. "R.E.S.P.E.C.T. Find out what it means to me. R.E.S.P.E.C.T. Hey boy, TCB". Sock it to me. Sock it to me. Sock it to me"

The sexual innuendos were not lost on this budding adolescent.

Groups like the Marvelettes and Gladys Knight and the Pips and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles and the Shirelles and the Four Tops, and Commodores, and the Jackson 5 were simply, absolutely, amazingly, undeniably talented.

The first time I heard Little Stevie Wonder play his harmonica and sing "Everybody say 'Yeah!"on his first major hit, "Fingertips," I knew I would be a fan for life. And, that hasn't changed.

So, when the Beatles began The British Invasion with their 1964 appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, we were ready for them. When John Lennon sang, "Twist and Shout", we not only loved their music, we marveled that a White (and British at that) man could sing almost as well as a Black man.

That, in my estimation, really signaled that integration, despite the protestations and other evidence to the contrary, had begun. By the time The Stones sang their R&B and bluesy, sexy music, we knew that the deal was signed, sealed and delivered.

Well, at least musically.

Nevertheless, it was a powerful symbol which was not lost on the previous generation.

I recently saw "Motown The Musical" on Broadway, and all those memories came flooding back. It was different for the people of color with whom I attended the performance.

They knew the facts about the performers the way some people keep track of stats of their favorite sports teams.  One was highly critical of the performers, not because of their performance, but because the actors didn't resemble the originals closely enough.

The guy who played Stevie wasn't tall enough. The woman who played Diana wasn't thin enough.

And, hey, "everyone" knew that if you wanted to sing in a black male group at that time, you had to have all "Three T's": "Tall. Thin. Talented." The guys who played The Temptations on stage had only one of the three. They were talented, alright, but neither particularly tall nor thin.

What's up with THAT?

Of course, since Berry Gordy, the founder of Motown Records, wrote the play, the man who played his character all but wore a halo, and you know that ain't right. 

The symbolic importance of the integration of The Motown Sound into the fabric of the life of this country seemed not as important to her as it was to me.

Motown music, for her, was the triumph of equality for a people long oppressed that was, of course, important; so important that she wanted all the facts of the story to be right.

I've been thinking that 'integration' sounds on some ears the way 'inclusive' sounds on mine.  I can only be "included" in a congregation if the people think I'm not already. But, I am. By virtue of my baptism, I'm already included. How "white" of them to "include" me into "their" home!

I don't know for certain, but I suspect there may be a similar sentiment, at least among some people of color, that "integration" has a similar odious ring. They are citizens of these United States. They are part of "We the people". How "white" of us to include and "integrate" people of color into of the foundational rights of "liberty and justice FOR ALL."

What part of "All" don't we understand?

Music, I think, does understand that.

Which is why music remains so important to me and to so many of my generation.

It provides a song track to the events of our lives. It's one of the reasons I love the movies "Forest Gump" and "The Big Chill," and, more recently, "The Butler". 

In some places, music fills in the blanks of parts of the story when words fail. In other places, it provides the crucial conversation - the conversation just below polite social banter - where the real meaning is kept hidden.

I understand that Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start The Fire" is included in some high school history classes. Its lyrics include brief, rapid-fire allusions to more than 100 headline events between January 1949 (Joel was born on May 9 of that year) and 1989, when the song was released on his album Storm Front.

Every time I listen to it, I hear - and remember - something different. 

If you have Pandora Radio, listen for a while to the music of the various decades. The music of the 40s and 50s gives you a very different feel than the music of the 60s and 70s.  As far as I'm concerned, we could forget the music of the 80s and all be better for it, but those were the Regan years, weren't they? I'd like to forget those, thank you very much.

The emergence of Rap and Hip-Hop tell us some very important things about what was going on, culturally, at the time. Even those musical genres have undergone significant transformation.

Even with all the variations, tune into some of your local radio station sometime. I know many stations these days are "specialty stations" - Latino, Rap, Oldies, etc. Listen to a sampling of them all. Listen to the music people are listening to in your area. Listen to the commentary from the DJ.

You may just learn more about what's really going on in the world - in the lives of people - from the music you hear than any "fair and balanced" news broadcast can tell you.

Even in retrospect, Motown music has important history lessons to teach us.

If you've got the chance, go see Motown The Musical.

You'll leave 'dancing in the streets' - and gaining renewed respect for the history lessons music has to offer us. If we listen.


8thday said...

Thank you for this musical stroll down memory lane. I was lucky because my parents grew up in NYC and always respected diversity, in people and in music and exposed me to much. Although I do remember by father constantly grumbling about the length of the Beatles’ hair.

I also want to thank you for your thoughts about the word inclusive. I once had a friend who stated that her church was “inclusive and welcoming” and that those words were code for allowing LGBT folks there. Code!!! They needed to use code!

I tried to get her to see the insult, but she just insisted that she had gays friends who didn't mind that term. Our friendship ended when she told me that this issue was just a “burr under my saddle.” So thank you for so eloquently explaining why this word is a problem. The friendship is over but at least I do feel some validation that I am not the only queer person for whom this term insults.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Hi, 8th Day -

I am sooOOoo over "inclusive". It's insulting. Seriously.

And, just to prove that we use words and we don't know what the hell we're saying or talking about, I'm also over the word, "missional".

And, if I hear someone else say, "missional imagination", I'm going to vomit right on their shoes.

Do they really think we're that stupid?

JCF said...

"As far as I'm concerned, we could forget the music of the 80s and all be better for it, but those were the Regan years, weren't they? I'd like to forget those, thank you very much."

Oh my goodness, NO!

...but then again, I'm a late Boomer/early GenX. That's MY music (though strangely, so is the music of the 70s, 60s, 50s, and even 40s and 30s. I'm weird that way. Benny Goodman, the Beatles and Prince: love them all!)

[If you haven't seen it, Elizabeth, check on CNN's program on The British Invasion: really a lot of fun, a lot of great music packed into just one hour.]

I'm sure you gained a lot from growing up in your tight ethnic enclave, Elizabeth. And was my predominantly WASP-y suburb really any less isolated? [It really wasn't that WASP-y though: we had Armenians across the street, and Catholics all around. You had to travel about 3 blocks over to find any African-Americans, though, and they were very raisin-in-the-sun exceptions]

Ah, memories...

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Hey, JCF - I guess my "stuff" about the 80s music is because it's so tied to the Regan years. They were just awful. Trust me on this. So, when I hear the music of the 80s, my memories are painful. Sorry. Nothing on the music. I own my own stuff.

I'll look for that CNN program on The British Invasion. Sounds like fun.

I did gain an enormous amount from my ethnic enclave. But, it did have its downside. It certainly didn't prepare me for the realities of the world. That was a pretty rough entry, as I recall.

Martie Collins said...

Thanks for "We Didn't Light the Fire". It brought back memories of running around in the morning trying to get the kids off the school, the dog walked, the cats fed and myself off to work while it played on the radio or MTV. (I can see my younger daughter eating her breakfast in front of the TV.) I never thought I'd think of this as a happy memory! But I guess that over the years chaos can be remembered with smiles!

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Hi, Martie - Some of my best memories were the worst experiences (or so I thought at the time) and all are the ones associated with music.