Truth be told I was barely eight months old when John Lennon was assassinated. Therefore I have no personal connection to his life aside from that event. Although Lennon was an enormous presence in New York City during the years my mother was growing up there,she was living in Brooklyn at the time and had no such association with him in her life either. Surprisingly,the only person in my immediate family who did have a personal connection to John Lennon at all would’ve been the one most interest in such a thing occurring in his life: my very own father. This story has been recounted to me through random tidbits. I may not actually be able to tell this story completely accurately. But between withholding names for privacy purposes and the distance in time with which these stories were told to me? Its so worthwhile a tale to tale about John Lennon the best thing is just to give it a try regardless.
It was during Christmas break while my father was a collage student that this event occurred. He and another friend had traveled to New York for a little holiday vacation. This friend had managed to procure tickets for the David Frost Show filming on one of those days. Though my father was apparently only marginally interested,he decided to take up his friends offer and go anyway. As it is today there would be lines of people around the block outside the theater to see any talk show in NYC. Of course it was also a dank,rainy afternoon when my father and his friend queued up for David Frost and that wasn’t encouraging either. While their scuttlebutt within the long queue there began to be talk that John Lennon and Yoko Ono would be appearing on Frost’s show that day. Now my father suddenly became concerned that if the theater filled up that he would not get a change to see Lennon.
My father had “been” John Lennon in a mock Beatle group performing in his cellar as a preteen and had followed Lennon and the Beatles career with great vigor-as did many of his generation. Luckily my father and his friend got into the theater where they found John combing Yoko’s long hair before the show began,and later during commercial breaks as well. John and Yoko were there with the Elephants Memory Band,discussing political issues of the Nixon era with various activists with whom they were associated-occasionally performing songs from their Sometime In New York City such as “John Sinclair” and “Woman Is The N*gger Of The World”. While at one point David Frost had to abruptly go to a commercial break when Lennon got into a very heated yelling match with an apparently reactionary conservative audience member,this was all part of the hugely exciting experience that seemed to be an important point of reference in my father’s life and one he’ll never forget.
When discussing this article with my father,he asked me why I felt it was important to write about a subject without any first hand perspective? The answer is that no one can have a first hand perspective with everyone and everything they admire. Some of these things and people are going to be gone or dead-some for long periods of time in fact. Writing about an event from a second hand perspective,especially as it pertains to ones own family,not only helps you better understand the bonds that tie you to said family member but for generational reasons as well. I cannot honestly say that there was anyone who artistically and philosophically moved my generation on quite the same level as John Lennon did my father’s. The closest I could say for me to that would be Janelle Monae,whom I was lucky enough to see live in concert. Still she still doesn’t come close to holding the same cultural significance Lennon did,though perhaps she should. So just who will be the John Lennon for the new generation? Who will be able to blend the personal,creative and political atmosphere of their environments and bring the world in as their audience? And when men of my generation enter late middle age,will they have stories like this to tell their children?
Thanksgiving has always been a favorite holiday of mine. Not only is it presented in a way that is unoffensive to even the most politically correct person,but also some of my favorite foods are served on that holiday. Its also the time of year when one of my favorite events of the holiday occurs: the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in NYC. One of the best parts of this event today is that,for a late riser such as myself,it is aired twice on Thanksgiving day-once in the morning,again mid afternoon. Many people of my generation might ask me why I’d want to spend Thanksgiving morning watching a program that embraces quote on quote “crass cooperate commercialism”? The answer is simple: because the very much alive joyous side of me enjoys seeing the flying helium balloons and floats they present. Over the years I’ve become aware of the creative effort that goes into creating all of these things. While I’m aware less than half of the actual parade is televised,the one element of the parade I’ve never come into it for is the one many others might: the featured musical guests.
In all honesty the musical guests on the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade have tended to appeal mainly to preteen children. Either that or a one hit wonder type pop act who have an enormous popular song (usually featured in a hit movie out around the time of the parade) are featured. And there is nothing at all wrong with this. This is a family show so youth oriented entertainment is not only to be expected,but encouraged. This year I actually ended up out of bed early enough to see at least one hour into the first broadcast of the parade. Generally speaking the musical guests tended to be contemporary country stars and the usual teen oriented acts with a strong middle American flair. The Roots,featuring the highly important contemporary drummer/musicologist Questlove did appear. But did so behind their headliner act Jimmy Fallon and a rather uninspired modern day cast of the iconic PBS series Sesame Street. Towards the end of the parade I was extremely surprised to see Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings appear on one float singing “Ain’t No Chimney’s In The Projects”.
Also taking into note how the often completely neglected American Indians,largely responsible for the first Thanksgiving feast,were honored in floats the appearance and song choice of Sharon & The Dap-Kings was very happily surprising to me. Not only did it make a total about face from the usual middle class American Caucasian teenage character celebrated on this occasion,but also presented a truism for the subject matter of the song in a manner that wasn’t dour and stereotypical. I cannot honestly say I’ve ever seen funk music represented in such a strong,assertive and even joyful way on the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Extremists might counter that this was presented once,and only at the end of the program. Yet we all know how so many vitally important historical events in music don’t get to have auspicious starts. And the fact that Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings,who are not particularly enormous in the American pop culture lexicon at the moment,even made an appearance on here indicated it was far from a token gesture. And a sign that in a musical sense,Thanksgiving parades could have a musically futurist aestetic after all.
Whatever their cultural reputation have been at any given time,there isn’t one time when I can say consciously that I ever finished an Award Show. Growing up I always watched them with my family,usually my mother as she was more inclined to be interested in music from a visual perspective as opposed to an aural one. One of the first and favorite memories I can recall clearly is Michael Jackson’s appearance on the 1988 Grammy Award’s performing his then current hit “Man In The Mirror”-very much at the height of his performing abilities. It actually enhanced a song with a great message,but seemed perhaps a tad held back on record. The next award shows I remember clearly were in 1993 and 1994 when Mariah Carey seemed to almost humorously win the award in every single nominated category. Of course one of my very favorite award show moments was one I only saw online over two decades after the fact. It was a live synthesizer based medley of the hits of Stevie Wonder,Herbie Hancock,Thomas Dolby and Howard Jones. Not only was it a biracial statement of four extremely funky talents,but considering their general abhorrence for 1980’s pop culture many of my generation seemed to have condemned the performance as not being genuine and featuring prerecorded music. Though seen belatedly its probably my very favorite moments of any award show.
Following the passing of Ray Charles,I began to notice a drastic decline in the quality of award shows-which considering my absence from them might’ve been occurring for far longer. The presentation of the acts became very extreme,closer to what one would expect on the Academy Award presentation. The performers,usually of the most adolescent variety, would usually appear featuring an extremely overdone costumes and severely over-singing their performances,or rock bands imitating some mild variation of the early 90’s punk “grunge” sound-full of incoherent rage. This culminated in a what I saw as a very unhappy appearance by Earth Wind & Fire at the 2005 Grammy’s on which host Ellen DeGeneres referred to them as “Earth Wind & Fiber” and the band altered the lyrics to their hit song “September” to reflect the commercial sponsors of the award show’s telecast. This all culminated in a period from around 2007 to 2009 or so when most performing at any award ceremony would put on musical displays that seemed more appropriate for a post modern Bacchanal/Romanesque orgy: fireworks,acrobats and simulated erotic choreography performed before versions of said acts current hits performed with sometimes huge symphony orchestras. It all seemed to be a giant and decedent parody of how award shows has always been satirized. So I self consciously stopped watching them. Last week,that changed.
At the suggested of my mother again,I decided to tune into the American Music Awards. Mainly due to the indication Justin Timberlake would be a featured performer. Of course I was also aware that Rihanna and Miley Cyrus,two artists who represent the reasons why I no longer watched award shows,would be participating as well. While typically I never finished watching the show,what I did see was so personally rewarding that its possible to comment on the pleasant changes I observed. First a hip-hop duo consisting of Ryan Lewis and Seattle native Macklemore appeared via video screen as they prepared for a Florida gig,as you can see in the picture above. During their video announcement to the award show,Macklemore dedicated their message to the unjustly slain Treyvon Martin and the continuing promise of racial fairness and justice. For the first time ever watching an award show,I actually found myself applauding for a totally non musical aspect of it. While the flamboyantly juvenile antics of the hip-hopper Pitbull,who was hosting the show,hearkened to what I remember from award shows a decade ago even the performance of current teen sensations Ariana Grande and One Direction showcased young artists with an elegant and even very soulful presentations. Even including Ke$ha,an artist I typically place in the same performance level as Pitbull actually focused attention to performances that were more classy and surprisingly eclectic.
As for Timberlake’s performance? It was something I’d never seen on an award show before. Here we had a contemporary artist,once associated and stigmatized for his membership in Disney based boy band N’Sync,appearing before an audience on network television slicked up in a tuxedo and finger waves in his hair. He then launched into the song “Drink Me Away”,a heavily blues/country influenced funk rocker that is a rather obscure album track from the second half of his recent and ambitious album project The 20/20 Experience. And in the setting of a juke joint from across the tracks no less. This wasn’t angst-y alternative rock. This wasn’t some ostentatiously presented theatrical dance-pop. This was something entirely new for me to see in this setting. And more than a little refreshing. Though her new album Artpop is the most creatively impressive album I’ve heard her make,Lady Gaga’s collaboration with Miley Cyrus-which apparently included visuals of a kitten floating in space,held no interest to me. Not sure as of yet if even this unexpectedly exciting and happy section of the AMA awards I did see represents an interest in watching future award shows. And the basic idea of encouraging outright creative competitiveness between artists seems rather insipid. But still if,as lead by Maclemore’s assertions against racism and Justin Timberlake’s magnificent performance? Perhaps award shows have a change of at least expressing musicality over mere facade.
In 1981 Gil Scott-Heron recorded a song entitled “B-Movie” on his album Reflections. The brilliance of the song comes not so much from it’s subject matter of Ronald Reagan’s presidency,but from the fact that Gil’s typically pointed observations on America becoming “the consumer rather than the producer” came so early on in the Reagan administration. Even before the term Reaganomics was ever coined in the first place. This song continues to stand as an example to humanity that,sometimes, the best qualified person to make an accurate sociopolitical commentary on a give time period is a visionary futurist who can effectively communicate with the common human being. Since Gil referred to himself as a “bluesologist”,that would seem to go back to the original meaning of the music: singing the blues to release ones inner blues,not (as illustrated by fictional Simpsons character Bleeding Gums Murphy might say) to make people feel worse and making a few bucks while your at it. That’s the easiest misconceptions of the blues even Miles Davis had to contend with: the music as exploitation. And to some,that misconception lies in some of the appeal of the blues for some people to this day. Considering how generationally oriented this blog has tended to be? Just how far have these types of cultural misconceptions gone?
As has been stated here before, I’ve all too often had to contend with a great deal of difficulty in being a funk admirer. Of course that comes from the fact I personally process the music from a very different standpoint than many of those around me. But ever since I heard Gil Scott-Heron talking about America being a nation of consumers and not producers,that line has grown to have continual resonance with me. Seeing life from this end from the outsider looking in perspective,a good vantage point to notice this would be in the types of employment people have. More people seem to have and seek employment in some variation of retail/sales positions than anything that involves creativity. And if creativity is embraced,its often the most masochistic end of it where something is being tirelessly manufactured for retail purposes. Of course those who control the nations finance do much the same thing-eliminating the middle man and creating an anti foreigner attitude by producing goods and services mainly in other nations. The end result is that many people I know see anything outside of their own social network of friends,family and (if applicable) employees much like concentric circles-all the same shape but diminishing in size,and therefore significance,the closer one gets to the center of it. Therefore the perception of one of our most human forms of social communication,creative arts and culture,have had similar fates.
Some people,even some family,have spoken of me in terms of being a person who has a cultural aestetic closer to that of someone who,at present is in early/late middle age. That would mean that I have the attitude of a baby boomer era American somehow displaced in time. Its a source of great discomfort sometimes, at least outwardly. Inwardly though I’ve come to think of it as something I am proud of. Funk music is actually a good way to measure that aestetic. In fact the history of that has been mulled over on many different levels on this blog already. However one thing I have learned of late is that Gil Scott-Heron is very right about America becoming primarily a consumer-both industrially and culturally. The end result of that is cynicism which,as I’ve learned from personal experiences,runs anathema to creative potency. Its hard not to feel it necessary to repeat this. However when you base a society on ideas such as “keep it simple”,”keep it real” and “keep it economical” the thrill of creative innovation will inevitably begin to disappear. Its hard to believe,even now as popular music is currently improving a great deal, that funk music of the type made by Stevie Wonder or James Brown were once the culturally driving force of creativity-the way often foul mouthed and even ignorant mainstream hip-hop and heavy metal has been for so long. Since it is more a visually than aurally based culture still,there may be an even better way to articulate this impulse: the public perception of film and television.
Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who,a British science fiction television show about an extra terrestrial space/time traveler whose time/space craft has larger dimensions inside than on the out. From the very beginning,people who’ve traveled with him don’t (and often refuse) to understand how an object can be larger within than without. The entire program is like that: it revolves around bending reality and stretching your imagination. Since it’s height of popularity was in the 60’s and 70’s,I can certainly see how a funk oriented person such as myself could be interested in the show. Yet the same applies. With a television show especially,the majority of the public are all too fast to condemn something that was not given the financial focus that it deserved-focusing in on the most superficial element of what they see. As with the original Star Trek series and other science fiction of its era,the perception of such things are very much like what I once observed here about the perceptions of funk. The phrases “so bad their good”,”cheesy” and “kitsch” are terms that are often used. Personally I doubt that,in the example of Doctor Who,that people at the BBC working at a lightening fast pace with barely any money at all to produce forward thinking and socially progressive television would see such attitudes towards their work as more than,at best ostentatious condescension. At worst,flat out bullying.
It is very easy to become cynical. That’s easy enough to admit. The true exploitative low quality television,ironically musically based such as American Idol and the many other series based on it,have been elevated to certain people as a major event-some waiting an entire television season for themselves to be completely exploited into thinking the types of musical talent presented by these types of show personify America’s ideal cultural consciousness. Extending the metaphor even further I don’t conceptualize funk or television science fiction such as Star Trek and Doctor Who as being in bad taste at all. Rather the reverse. If one appreciates these things only on an ironic level,chances are they may find themselves in the contradiction of elevating the cultural importance of what is truly designed to be exploitative and insignificant. Did Simon Cowell ever go out of his way to help prevent violent rioting the way James Brown did following Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination? Did Justin Bieber ever sacrifice his musical career and even his citizenship for matters of social principles as John Lennon did during the early 1970’s? No more than… say a movie about weeping women being jilted by unfaithful husbands and boyfriends will inspire female audiences as an eccentric alien travelling through time allowed the women he traveled with to be better people. Or even a starship peacefully exploring space where class,religion and race are something to celebrate-not something to fear. Are Americans seeing funk as a producible art form? Or are they merely consuming what from their perspective might be seen as something bad?