Saturday, October 27, 2007

Swinging Me, Soothing Me, Saving Me

Music Break, Ya'll...'Cause I (And We) Really Need One...

It has been one of those weeks for me.

A week from hell.

Where the devil's hounds tear at your ass with acid-dripping fangs.

A week where the crummy events act like a blend of molasses and setting epoxy—slowing things down to an awful, painful crawl.

A week so bad, you'd give a month off your life if you could avoid its gut-churning drama.

It has been that kind of week, ladies and gentlemen. Full of reverses and head-spinning, not good-in-any-way surprises. Personal and professional. A hob-nail-booted “nad”-kick for seven...straight...days.

It darkened my mood, and laid me low. It limited my posting.

But I'm back. I. Am. Back. Thanks in no small part to my family, and my friends here and other places...and believe it or not, to the soothing, healing power of music. Thank God for music!

During my darkest moments in this week, I found myself sitting at work one night at an ungodly hour, dealing with the hell that was there and steeling myself for the trip home, where more mirth and merriment awaited. The Mac was running through iTunes on shuffle, and a song came on that just stopped me in my tracks after a few seconds in. It was The Impressions' “Keep On Pushin”. That spring-woung guitar-lick, the rolling, sisyphean bass line, the cajoling background harmony chorus, and of course...the imploring lead vocal of one Curtis Mayfield, made me stop what I was doing right then and there, and just...“breathe”, as Doc Wendel (Thank you. Jesse) says.

I couldn't shake that song. Something in it just got to me. So, I quickly whipped out the iPod, created a new playlist called “Curtis”, and filled it with about fifteen classic Curtis Mayfield penned jams from my iTunes library (the job library being about 33 GBs) to listen to on the way home. I figured I'd walk much of the distance, something I do when I need to clear my head of the fog that clouds it from time to time, and I saved the “Curtis” playlist for the part of the walk that would take me over the Brooklyn Bridge—having listened to more uptempo stuff in my walk through Lower Manhattan's bustling streets. And it was about 150 feet onto the bridge's pedestrian walkway when I tapped the click-wheel for Curtis's music...and his “It's All Right” came up first.

Now, music's a funny thing. There's something about the sound of particular songs, or the way they come across where they'll just sort of shake you. Maybe it was the song's walking bass line matching to my walking rhythm, and its old-school “work song” propulsion in the beat...but something...something was happening to me. I could feel that hint of a tingle—that thing my father called “Soul Bumps”, when a song or a singer connects with what you're feeling in a song and affects you physically. I shook my head and smiled a little—for the first time in five days—as I plodded on.

“Man...that was a great song.”, I mused to myself as I looked over my shoulder at the twinkling lights of Manhattan falling away behind me. Nosing out over the end of Chinatown below, the breeze off the East River calmed me even more, as the “Curtis” list played on and into me.

Into me.

I don't know just what happened that night as I crossed the bridge, but time seemed to slow down as the music played on. Gladys Knight's ethereal version of Curtis's “The Makings Of You” warmed my heart. “Keep On Pushing” played again, and I loped forward hard—and rhythmically as it throbbed along.

His driving anthem from '68, “We're A Winner” came up in the mix, and I found myself looking heavenward as just a bit of what felt like sea-spray blew past. I blinked twice, and my eyes watered as the song's joyous “C' can do it!” vibe washed over me there. I stopped mid-span at the first main tower and stood there looking back over the southern end of Manhattan, as that beat—that refrain— echoed in my head as my fist pounded out the beat there on the handrail:

“We're a winner,
And never let anybody say,
Why you can't make it,
'Cause a feeble mind's in your way.

No more tears do we cry,
And we have finally dried our eyes,
And we're movin' on up (Movin' on up!)
Lord have mercy, we're movin' on up”

And then...then? “People get Ready” came in next, like a rising tide in the headphones. I let it wrap around me, envelop me. Bells...that plaintive guitar...the haunting, moaning backing vocals, a bass line keyed to the heartbeat...and finally, Curtis's soul-deep, heart-rending lead vocal:

“People get ready,
There's a train a' comin'.
You don't need no baggage.
You just get on board.
All you need is faith,
To hear the diesels hummin'.
Don't need no ticket,
You just thank the Lord.”

I lost it...right there —the way I'm pretty much losing it right now as I type the lyrics and words following it. The song crept into my ears, down my back, and radiated with a tingle. My face stung as my eyes watered freely then, and I felt a wave of warmth and chill roll from the base of my neck, over my head and into my face. I shook my head and found my way to a bench there on the walkway...and sat...listening, as the tears just flowed. I just let my head hang down...and released.

I utterly released.

As the song wound out, I finally looked up into the sky at a luminous, almost full moon. And for the first time in five days felt good about something. I was actually smiling and taking in the night air, the breeze and smell of the river mist. It felt like I'd just shucked off about ten soaking wet blankets of bad juju and re-awakened my senses somehow. I stood up. I felt lighter. I tipped my head from side to side, stretching my neck, and shook my arms out a little. I punched up Curtis's “Move On Up” and damn near bounded down the second half of the bridge walkway—and a couple of times when I was alone, breaking into a near skip/jog as the horns blared and his voice cajoled, “Move On Up!”

What the hell had happened to me?

Art had happened...that's what.

Art at its best is a creation designed to stimulate the senses, to make one feel, and empathize. It moves one, shakes one, inspires one. It can reach from a canvas, or a turn of a dancer's hand, or pitch of a singer's note—into your very mind...and your heart, and sway you, or even save you.

And that's what happened to me on the bridge on Tuesday night. “Art” happened, and I saved me from crushing despair. And it was the late Curtis Mayfield's artistry that specifically got me through that particularly dark time. You see, I'd been listening to music all throughout hell's rising up to singe my brows and blind my eyes, but nobody's music connected for me the way that Curtis Mayfield's music did in those days. I've had Curtis on pretty much non-stop since that day, and he has been an absolute balm to my soul, and I have asked myself “Why is that?” repeatedly since I stumbled across his music's healing power.

It didn't take too long to answer once I looked at the songs I was listening to and thought a bit about the man himself.

The Playlist.

The Music.

The Healing.

Curtis Mayfield if you aren't familiar with him, was perhaps the most versatile, generous, and heartfelt singer/songwriter of the era in Soul music spanning two-plus decades—from the late fifties to the early eighties. He began in Doo-Wop, pioneered Soul (particularly Chicago Soul), and helped create Funk. Additionally, he was THE MUSICAL VOICE of the Civil Rights Era, moreso than Sly, or the stable of Motown stars or anyone else. You see, Mayfield was the most in touch with “the soul” of any of the artist/writers of the era. His songs were simple, yet infectiously musical. With his plaintive strumming, (He tuned his guitar to the black keys on the piano—an oddish, F-sharp tuning; F#, A#, C#, F#, A#, F# that he'd never stray from) he seemingly lived out the character from his Impressions hit “Minstrel and Queen”—that of an ebony troubadour. Curtis was the brotha you sang along with as he played his big guitar 'round the campfire, at the college building takeover, or in a holding cell with you and fifty other freedom riders. He didn't stomp, or swagger...he just made music—incredibly heartfelt, thoughtful music.

He was not a panther-esque, powerful presence like Marvin Gaye, nor was he a feral, explosive Soul beast like James Brown, or the lithe, lissome gazelle like Smokey Robinson was at the pen or at the mic. Curtis was for all intents and purposes, Soul's cuddly and wise Koala Bear, even in his unassuming look. But it was unwise to let his quiet mien fool you, for behind that quietude was a fierce, and caring heart. He was the genre's true humanist, whose range went from the one-to-one, “I truly love you, woman” level, to an all-of-humanity encompassing embrace—sometimes within the same song. And yes, there was an unabashedly spiritual note throughout nearly all of his music. He could do more with NO mention of “God” or “Jesus” in his music then, than horror-shows like Donnie McClurkin and Kirk Franklin do in their seventy-times per song mentioned aural nightmares.

He was spiritual without being preachy. There is a difference. He never exhorted one to “come to Jesus”, or clunkily threw scripture about. What he did was constantly ask the listener to go within one's self and see what was there, and pull from deep-down in that soul, one's own salvation. The lyrics from his 1969 masterpiece “Choice of Colors” spoke volumes:

“If you had a choice of colors...
Which one would you choose my brothers?
If there was no day or night...
Which would you prefer to be right?

How long have you hated your white teacher?
Who told you, you love your black preacher?
Do you respect your brother's woman friend?
And share with black folks not of kin?

People must prove to the people,
A better day is coming for you and for me.
With just a little bit more education,
And love for our nation,
Would make a better society...”

Now...Curtis wrote that in '69...and hit on in those first lines, themes of racial equality, misplaced anger at those who've done nothing to you, misplaced trust in others because of dated, authoritarian ideals, respect for women, caring for those with less...and even the idea and power of true patriotism.

Bit more than just the old boog-a-loo, there.

And I think that's what shook me there on the Brooklyn Bridge Tuesday night. I could have listened to one of about 7,500 songs that night on my iPod. But that little sub-set of 18 or so tunes—many of them stealthy, inspirational “pop-pocket sermons” touched my heart when it was at a low point, and kind of lifted me back up. I wasn't gonna jump or anything like that, but despair was so in my bones that week, that night, that I can honestly paraphrase what Elton John sang 30 years ago and mean it— “Someone saved my life that night”. Saved it from spiraling deeper into the maw of desperation. Those liquid, guitar licks, hopeful words, and yes, that silken, soothing voice, a calming falsetto with a vocal “You're gonna be okay.” nod nestled in it somewhere. Exactly where, I couldn't tell you, but I seriously doubt that I'm the only one who's heard it and had it pull them from a pit of sorrow.

Maybe it was his Church upbringing. A child of Chicago, Mayfield grew up there steeped in the Church (his grandmother was a reverend) and mastered four instruments. (He wrote “the classic Gypsy Woman” when he was 14!) This NPR interview from 1993 with Mayfield sheds a lot of light on his background and influences. Everything from the Bible, to poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, to Sam Cooke and yes, even Dr. Seuss.(!) He joined a group called The Roosters while in High School with his friend and phenomenal vocalist and tunesmith in his own right, Jerry Butler. They would reach stardom under their new name—The Impressions, with the incandescent, and frankly sanctified hit “For Your Precious Love” in 1958—and once stardom hit, so did the pressures on the group from the label and outer forces. The fabulously talented Butler was the sought-after lead singer and would be broken out of the group where he would gain solo fame...and to show what a generous musician Mayfield was, he continued to write for him—an uncommon happening in the music industry, to say the least, but Curtis Mayfield was an uncommon musician. He reconstituted the group with himself as the lead voice, occasionally alternating with his fellow members of the now-trio—Sam Gooden and Fred Cash. And it was there, as the heart balance to Smokey Robinson's brain in Soul Music's songwriting/performer firmament where Curtis would soar to unbelievable heights of success. “Gypsy Woman”, “It's All Right”, “Minstrel & Queen”, “I'm So Proud”, “People Get Ready”, “Keep On Pushing”, “We're A Winner”, “Choice Of Colors”...the list goes on and on.

And beyond the songs just being tuneful, Mayfield manifested another rarified talent—namely the ability to compose timeless “anthems”. Singable, unshakeable, and perfectly pitched anthems that tuned directly into the heartbeat of the then-burgeoning Civil Rights Movement. The aforementioned “People Get Ready”, “Keep On Pushing”, “We're A Winner”, and “Choice Of Colors” were the perfect four seasons quartet of songs that scored the era. One of my earliest sense-memories as a child is of hearing and seeing that 7-inch single of ”People Get Ready” with that spooky ABC-Paramount logo spinning on our old brown-and-white Dansette record player as the haunting, well-of-the-soul sound poured out. I remember we had three copies of that single, as one was worn to bacon-sizzling background noise from overuse, a second one that was in decent condition with some pops, and one that only Mama and Daddy played when there was company over. They were in sleeves marked “Dead”, “Good” and “DO NOT TOUCH!”. This was the only record we had three copies of. Some we had two of—but this was the only triple-header, with good reason. From the time I was four until I was ten, I think I heard that song twice a week. Multiples were necessary, as it sound-tracked the entire late 1960's. Perhaps it was a “comfort memory” of the song that so moved me on the bridge? Nah. I remember hearing Sinatra's “It Was A Very Good Year” repeatedly for 2 years as a child (and somewhere in our attic, there's an old reel-to-reel of me and my brother singing it—as horribly as a four and five year old can, from 1968), and The Fifth Dimension's “Up, Up And Away” was a dizziness-inducing staple for the three years it spun on our turntable in heavy rotation. Those two are comfort menories...but they don't move me like “People Get Ready” still does. I remember assuming as a kid that the song was an ages-old Negro spiritual, as it had such a timeless, almost super-eternal quality to its sound. It implored you to listen, to revere its words, and it touched the heart it pretty much commanded you to place your hand over when you heard it. It still does.

But Curtis's music also did something else. As stated before, that quartet or socially-conscious songs—in addition to a slew of others, were the soundtrack of the Civil Rights Movement, but above and beyond merely rallying people to action with his songs, he also tunefully handled subjects NO ONE ELSE WOULD IN POP MUSIC-i.e. self-love in “We're A Winner”, self-hatred in “We, The People Who Are Darker Than Blue”, respect for women and challenging Black clergy in “Choice Of Colors”. Before Marvin's “What's Going On” and Sly's “Stand” and “There's A Riot Goin' On”, Mayfield was plumbing the depths of socially-conscious music and coming up with rare and perfect sonic gems.

He was also the most ego-free performer of his era. When his pal and group-mate Butler left the Impressions, Curtis continued to write and produce for him, and when Curtis himself went solo, he continued to write and produce for his old group. That artistic generosity extended to other performers, where he plied his trade crafting hits for them—particularly his fellow female stars. He would produce unique, woman-friendly chart toppers for three of the most distinctive and heralded female singers of the Rock and R&B era—Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight & Mavis Staples. That humanistic sensitivity came through in the songs he would write for them with lyrics about “the joy of children laughing”, “the smell of a morning flower, as we pass away the hours”, and “so much hope for material things—are they only in my dreams?”

It's that kind of heart that got to me on the bridge—and that enabled him to write visually and emotionally evocative, music for not one classic movie soundtrack, but four classic movie soundtracks in the 70's: 1972's “Superfly” (Listen to the lyrics—he doesn't glorify the character's criminality. In fact, he keys in on his amorality.) 1974's “Claudine, 1975's “Let's Do It Again”, '1976's “Sparkle” and 1977's “Short Eyes”.

I know. I'm being super-effusive here. But after what his music did for me, I just had to dig around a bit to get at “why” it was so effective in its healing...and in so doing, I realized that this man is one of the most underrated musicians of the last fifty years. His music reached way down inside me and found that dim, little spark of hope and somehow re-kindled it into the burning flame that's getting me through this exceptionally tough time. So you know what? I'm sharing him with you all—because dammit, we all have those moments—those periods when all seems set against you. And when you find that wonderful, simple healing thing that pulls you from the abyss—actual art, doing what art is really supposed to do, well baby...that's something you trumpet.

Curtis unfortunately, isn't with us anymore. After a long career as a hitmaker, (Dig around for his amazing duet with Linda Clifford, “Between You Baby and Me” from 1980), he continued to perform live gigs after the market changed and record sales dropped off. Here in Brooklyn, there's a long-running series of free summer concerts at Wingate Field, featuring long-standing R&B giants. I've seen The Temptations, Parliament-Funkadelic and The O'Jays tear up the stage at the Wingate shows. Mayfield was due to perform at one such show in the muggy summer of 1990. The night of that concert, I stood in my kitchen in Park Slope and looked at the ugly, brownish-grey sky roiling from the window. I had planned to hop a train to see that concert, but begged off after seeing that foreboding sky, figuring they'd rain-date the show. The weather was gonna be too awful for Curtis, who I'd never seen live—to perform. And that night was horiffic weather-wise—40 and 50 m.p.h. gusts tore through Brooklyn with drenching, monsoon-like rains.

But they didn't call off the show, as I would sadly discover on the 11 O'clock news later that night. Curtis was in the process of plugging his butter-yellow Stratocaster into the amp onstage when a huge gust tore a part of the light rigging free and slammed it down onto his neck and back, breaking three vertebra and paralyzing the living legend from the neck down.

Curtis would hang on for nine more years...sadly never again plying those ininmitable liquid lines from his Strat, but still, after extensive therapy, recording again that heart-rending voice. Pleading for peace and understanding, love and redemption...till the very end in 1999.

It's a funny thing. I've long been a Curtis Mayfield fan, but it took that moment of epiphany on the bridge to really look closer at him and what he meant. That lack of ego on his part made his greatness, and power all too easy to take for granted. Not just by me, but the world at large. So, I spent a day or so just reading up on him on the web, and stumbled across great videos of him all over the place—here, here, here, and here for example. By all means, click and enjoy “The Gentle Genius”. a bit of therapy (for myself) and as a tribute to the man himself (Thank you again, Curtis!), here's a little music video I put together to familiarize you with the man's work if you're not up on it—or if you are hip to the monster Mayfield vibe, just to groove to and remind you how amazingly talented he was. Our beloved Steve often spoke of his love for classic R&B, and this little Curtis Mayfield music video compendium that follows shows you some of the reasons why at its best, the style is something to behold.

“I know we've all got problems.
That's why I'm here to say...
Keep peace with me, And I with you.
Let me love in my own way”

from “We, The People Who Are Darker Than Blue”—1970

Rock on, brother. Rock on...and thank you.