The early 1990’s had been extremely challenging times in culture I feel rather lucky to have gotten through. At the same times in some ways I haven’t. That may have a lot to do with the fact that even today,that era is not over. It changed pop culture in seemingly irreversible ways. And it changed my personal ability to maneuver within it’s boundaries. At the same time one has to keep going in life,and keep finding things of joy in what it has to offer. A major crossroads in my musical tastes happened in this transition. And it still continues on.
Once and awhile,we encounter that song that is a truly cathartic experience in my life. During the transition between 1993/1994 I was utterly overwhelmed by unpleasant changes. Pop culture continued to be somewhat frightening,I fell out with two friends I valued greatly and life didn’t seem to be improving. I was growing up too much,and too fast. One day my mom,well aware of this came home with a cassette single of a song by a lady I never heard of named Des’ree. She asked me to listen and said I’d feel better. Since I never heard her make a request like this before,I put it in the tape deck and pressed play. I heard a line that I’ll never forget and try,if sometimes struggling to live by since-“Listen as your day unfolds/challenge what the future holds/try to keep your head up to the sky”. It was a line that seemed born in another world,another time from where I was. But that plus the songs moving melody and rhythm,no matter how overplayed it was on the radio or on TV commercials in the months to come,will forever stand uppermost in my mind as a modern anthem for meaningfulness.
In 1994 the radio station WMEB at the University Of Maine had a spring weekend giveaway of all of their vinyl records. Among them one record jacket struck me. It was this album by the Sylvers,who my mom thought were called the Foster Sylvers (it’s youngest member for this album,actually) and at first I thought they were The Jacksons. The album was in terrible shape. But it did include the original fan club sign up sheet inside. When I listened to this scratchy album that skipped in many places,I was treated to some of the most vocally harmony rich and superbly written jazzy funk/soul I’ve heard from the disco era. The fact this album was produced by Wayne Henderson and was equally as huge creatively as it flopped commercially went over my head. Something about it excited my soul. Still does especially now that it’s been at last reissued on CD.
If one lives is a music fan living in a capitalist country the way I do,the first CD you purchase with your own money has a special quality to you. That’s what this album represents. Having picked this up at the now defunct record chain Strawberries I continue to love this album more and more. Especially I only knew about this 1976 Epic label debut for the Jackson brothers from a Michael Jackson fanzine my friend Joseph had. Still gives me goosebumps to hear,for the first and only time Michael Jackson actually singing some of the country music that inspired him,according to Jackson family lore,from his mother sing to him on this album with the song “Show You The Way To Go” . Also made me cry a little on Michael’s first self written song “Blues Away”,where he sings of clinical depression and all his brothers singing ’cause we’re strong enough because the road is tough’ on “Strength Of One Man”. Funky,surprising and often very moving music from a very troubled but talented family overall.
One of the most horrifying events for me was the child abuse alligations of one of my childhood heroes Michael Jackson in 1993. It was a root source of much hopelessness for me. This particular album was his response to that period of his life. Waiting on pins and needles for it to come out,I wounded up buying it twice-first on cassette,than CD. The CD’s were printed literally into gold. And it sounded like gold to me musically. Shiny,beautiful but also very intimating. I’ve never heard Michael Jackson make a full length album that was so personal,and certainly so mournful before. Full of excellent songs two stand out for me. One was “Stranger In Moscow”,where a despairing MJ muses ‘when your alone and your cold inside like a stranger in Moscow’. Also there’s “Little Susie”,an incredibly but genuinely chilling song about a neglected little girl whose murder goes unnoticed by her neighbors. Not always an easy listen but a view into the heart and mind of an increasingly tortured soul I creatively admired,ironically for his positive and big hearted outlook.
Only one compilation album completely altered my musical perceptions forever. One day coming back from a day trip in the Maine city of Portland,a cassette of this was playing in the car. I found myself listening in awe to bands like Con Funk Shun,Bohannon,Parliament as well as Cameo and Kool & The Gang,whose names I knew,as I’d never heard them before. Of course I’d been hearing music like this since my youngest years dancing to Headhunters. But I didn’t really have a particular name for this music that always seemed to get my attention. According to this,it was called funk. The whole funk and nothing but the funk. I learned after this was a series of compilations by each one of the acts presented. Since this time I’ve wanted to know more about funk,the people involved and what the music is all about. This music did for me what the music of Nirvana/Kurt Cobain had done for my personal detractors several years earlier-altered my perception of cultural reality. The results,however,were defiantly positive as opposed to negative.
There are times when one has to here creative genius to know it’s there. I adore Stevie Wonder’s music. Always have since I was little. I read in my fathers AMG Guide To Rock about this album where Stevie creatively liberated himself from Motown and made the music he wanted to. I first purchased this on cassette at Strawberries,than later on CD,after my first exposure to funk as a definable genre. It was difficult music for me to understand than. And it still is today. That’s one of the great and exciting things about this. I’ve since learned Stevie never quite made a record like this before or after. Some of the arrangements are downright free form and rhythmically unhinged for an artist noted for locked tight melodies and song craftsmanship. Every time I’ve listened to it becomes clear why I never used drugs;hearing this music is a hallucinatory experience that’s beyond psychedelia. It’s a dreamy groove. One that never ceases to amaze me.
After hearing the Funk Essentials compilation this book,purchased by my father for him and I to read,was presenting a guide to understanding the music I wanted to know more about. Written by the musics biggest aficionado Ricky Vincent,the book was a complete history and social studies lesson in funk and the culture from which it derived. I still don’t completely agree with Ricky’s cultural observations stated in this book,in particular how he tows the party line about the 1980’s. Still this was an invaluable prose from which I learned about the importance of George Clinton,James Brown and found so much new music to listen to. So helpful was it I re-read it so often it fell to pieces several years later.
I could do an entire blog about the significance of Earth Wind & Fire had for me in my rising adulthood. Myself never religiously devout,they offered a rather secular take on spirituality and self respect in their grooves I find endlessly appealing and vital. There is actually a song on this album named after the band itself that asked a question I am still asking today: “are you satisfied/with your life and times”. Sounds simple. But when digesting it. WHAT A QUESTION TO ASK ONESELF! Ooooh my goodness!
Watching Friday Night Videos one evening,I saw this video by a group called The Spice Girls. The song was musically fantastic. It had a righteous rhythm,a Stevie Wonder-like harmonica solo and some captivating chord changes. I bought the single immediately. And have loved the Spice Girls for it ever since. Shortly thereafter though,the symptom of the 1990’s decade reared it’s monstrous head again in my life. Everyone from people in record stores to family friends made it clear that the Spice Girls were “not genuine”,that they were “manufactured” by producers and that their sound was a “bubblegum guilty pleasure”. I felt like it took a lot of balls for me to say what I still say about the Spice Girls,especially this song. And that is very simple: nothing about the pleasure this song offers is at all guilty.
Again this was another hit video I saw that inspired an interest in a danceable Latin pop oriented song I wasn’t “supposed” to like. Well I respected and liked everything about the Mexican flavored pop/hip-hop song. Still do. It was at this point that I grew to actually rather loath the pop culture fashion police who once frightened me. Just didn’t think it was appropriate to force any type of art on anyone just because a negativistic creative ethic was holding on for dear life in the music world at the time.
My great love for the music of Rod Temperton and the late Johnnie Wilder Jr. of Heatwave is really too vast for a paragraph. I purchased this vinyl record during what turned out to be an ill fated family trip to Rochester NY in 1997,not knowing Heatwave were recording in the 1980’s Released earlier in the same year as Michael Jackson’s iconic Thriller album,this basically captures a similar style and spirit to that album. And the connective thread is one man: Rod Temperton.
Again purchased on a road trip to NYC I was fascinated by this particular CD I got from the now defunct Tower Records in Manhattan by Chaka Khan. Never quite heard music,even expansive as funk,recorded in quite this way before. One particular song caught my ear called “Heed The Warning”, A very harmonically aggressive groove it warns “when you are moving fast,you can’t succeed/just how long can you live at twice the speed”. Who know what that no more prophetic words could’ve been spoken for years to come.
No musician risked more or seemed to have more brash daring among the musicians that I admired than Prince Rogers Nelson. In 1996 he released a triple CD set,declaring his freedom from creative bondage. I was very heavily immersed in the Minneapolis sound at the time. But this was really the first new music I’d purchased in a long time. And although much of what I was listening to was a re-exploration of retro music I’d missed,this helped inspire my re-awakening to music just coming out.
In January of 1998 the state of Maine was engulfed in an enormous ice storm that made national news. It was a state wide emergency. My family only had partial electricity for days. Many people had none. On the first day we could drive in this crisis we all headed to our favorite haunt of the time,Borders Books & Music. While there I discovered this album. At that time the employees would allow you to open brand new CD’s to preview them before purchase. And that is what I did with this. And walked right out the store with it. I’d heard plenty of funky music in the rock section of the record store,but not usually the other way around. This metallic,hard rocking funk/soul album broke a lot of barriers. And the electricity it provided added a sense of life and optimism to the darkest days of the ice storm for me.
I’d known about Chic since back in the WNEPORK days. But upon moving to here I live know,I discovered this cassette tape at a discount store during a walk on a nice summers day and picked it up. I couldn’t believe it! Chic recorded an album in 1983? It sounded like a huge blockbuster hit and it wasn’t? This later lead me to learn about group founder Nile Rodgers’ having been so instrumental in the production of some of the 80’s biggest pop smashes from Madonna to Inxs. But the age of cassettes and records found all over the place at discount stores were fast coming to an end. A new era was beginning. A new millennium, a new century. And even amid obviously ill founded fears of the Y2K bug and the early stirrings of cyberspace paranoia surrounding the internet,I still had no idea what was yet to come for music. And the world at large.
…..To Be Continued