OK, now that I have solved and dispensed with that pesky drug issue (Done, Done and Done!), I’m going to shift gears. You didn’t ask for this either, but here are my thoughts on funk and soul music.
Marcus’ use of a juju stick onstage with Shocko Bottom (chapter 13) and an earlier mention of how powerful it was to see Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean video for the first time (chapter 11) got me to thinking about how I navigated the worlds of black and white music. I like Motown and Aretha and James Brown. Who doesn’t? I admire the positive and unifying force of funk and soul, but wasn’t exactly born into it. I fell hard for the blues. Blues-rock was more my thing as opposed to folk blues, but everybody listened to Robert Johnson: King of the Delta Blues, which was released in 1961. However, it was all British Invasion for me, plus Bob Dylan. As Joan Jett put it so eloquently, I love rock and roll. After the blues, I was sucked in by energy of white (except for DC’s Bad Brains) punk and new wave: Elvis Costello or the Ramones racing through a set in 45 minutes. Weird chords and guitar interplay of Television. The urgency of The Clash or X. Talking Heads’ autistic anthem Psycho Killer. Art rock like Devo or B-52s. Blondie’s retro late 50s/early 60s style.
I guess the point of this is me wrestling with the whole cultural appropriation thing. I am certainly “allowed” to enjoy funk or soul music or bebop jazz or hip hop, from the first time I enjoyed Gil Scott-Heron’s The Revolution Will Not Be Televised or Grandmaster Flash’s The Message or Kurtis Blow. I just want to acknowledge where I come from: Los Angeles, white, rock and roll. Being Jewish, if I were true to my roots I guess I would have to play klezmer music, except I’m really not into klezmer music. My at-the-time teenage son and I bonded over Prince and George Clinton. I introduced him to the former and he got me into the latter. He dragged me to see both of them in concert and both were great, although we never did make it to the very end of a Parliament Funkadelic show because they play so damn long. Prince was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. I was also impressed by my son’s and - years earlier - my younger brother‘s love of the old school Kool and the Gang, Commodores, Stevie Wonder, and Earth Wind and Fire. Jim Landry of Acrylix (dearly recently departed) was a huge, huge Prince fan.
In the early 1980s, the homegrown Washington DC Go-Go music scene was running parallel to the punk rock scene, sometimes sharing the same bill. The high energy of Chuck Brown, Experience Unlimited, Rare Essence, and Trouble Funk was infectious. I remember reading about Trouble Funk in a music magazine in London when I visited there around 1981, with a photo of the band in front of a limo at the Howard Theatre (7th and U St., NW). It may have looked romantic, but the Brits likely had no idea that Go-Go venues tended to be in underserved areas of the city that could get…feisty. It was tough for a white person like myself to see a show, because of the threat of violence in 1980s Crack-era DC. I really only felt comfortable attending Go-Go shows at the 930 club (newly relocated to 9th and V, NW, site of the old WUST music hall) or perhaps Lisner Auditorium on the George Washington University campus. One time I took some visiting French friends to a club at Georgia Ave and Military Rd, NW around midnight to try to see Chuck Brown but we definitely felt unwelcome and left without getting in to the club. Not long before Chuck Brown died in 2012, I finally saw him play at Ronald Reagan Plaza near my work at 12th and Constitution. It was breathtaking to step outside the Environmental Protection Agency offices at lunchtime. All of us predominantly white, predominantly suburban liberals, like the color film second half of Wizard of Oz, entered a sea of black security guards, administrative assistants, and human resources staff dancing up a storm. Everyone shed their professional, best behavior skins. It was a stark divide, a remarkable transformation into the real Chocolate City that came out to play. Chuck is Go-Go – he invented it and it is identified with DC. I was thankful for the opportunity to see him in action, on “neutral” ground. RIP Chuck.
I had a similar feeling when Smoky Robinson played on that Plaza, although he had more crossover appeal and so the crowd was quieter. But the women still swooned. I have seen BB King at the Santa Monica Civic in LA and at the Carter Baron Amphitheater in DC and it’s different, less sanitized in DC. BB, with Bobby Blue Bland opening, was much dirtier and funkier in DC; they could let their guard down. That’s the great thing about DC; as George Clinton said in 1975, “God bless Chocolate City.” However, DC is now, literally, being bleached out after the black population dipped below 50% in 2011, for the first time in 50 years. The beautiful old houses and previously “sketchy” neighborhoods are now more accessible to all, but the town has lost some soul and feels more like Washington-land amusement park. (I happen to be talking about DC right now, but every major US city is changing. Here in LA, the same pattern of gentrification is making longtime residents nervous in West Adams, South Central and East LA. I’m hoping for some kind of compassionate gentrification that combines the old with the new and supports socio-economic diversity.)
Where am I going with this? Not sure. I am just grateful that so much good music has survived the muck of racism. It is amazing what we do have, thanks to people like Alan Lomax, doing field recordings with the Library of Congress, or Don Law, who recorded those 29 songs of Robert Johnson in 1936 and 1937. Over the years, Billboard magazine has changed the name of their charts to tabulate sales of records marketed to African Americans (blues, jazz, gospel) from the early “race records” to rhythm and blues, rap, soul, etc. Jazz has roots in West African cultural and musical expression and traditions. Blues came from African-American work songs and spirituals. Jimmie Rogers, a white man and the father of country music, helped popularize the blues. In 1958, Muddy Waters toured England and was invited by Alexis Korner and Cyril Davies to appear at their club in Soho, after which Muddy became more widely known and successful among white audiences. Since so many Brit blues-rock luminaries passed through Korner/Davies’ shop (including Graham Bond, Jagger/Richards/Brian Jones, John Mayall, Jack Bruce, Ginger Baker, Jimmy Page, etc.), the impact of that one visit cannot be understated. Same can be said for Howlin’ Wolf and Sonny Boy Williamson when they toured England in the early 1960s. Of course, Eric Clapton was a huge part of popularizing the old blues, and all of that was fed back to white Americans and we loved it. Whatever the particular style, American music and culture owe a lot to African-Americans and the rest of us are just rearranging the building blocks.
PS. My son has since moved on to Hip Hop (“Dad, try to remember: Biggie and Puff Daddy are East coast and Suge Knight, NWA and Tupac are West, and Geto Boys are Houston.”) My next assignment: Kanye West.