Race Music

champagne
Champagne – with Morris Day, Andre Cymone, and Prince.

My Grandma Rose came to America from Romania on a boat when she was twelve years old with my uncle Sol, who was nine. For those of us who travel across oceans, watching our choice of the latest movies in the comfort of a modern aircraft, the enormity of that perilous trip is impossible to comprehend. The fact that my grandma and her younger brother, two dirt poor Yiddish speaking Jewish kids from Tulcea, Romania on the coast of the Black Sea, came to America on an aging merchant steamship at the turn of the last century surely must have left some unnamed and unforgettable impressions on them both.

Perhaps that’s why my grandma never ventured very far from her circle of Yiddish speaking friends or from her extended family, most of which shared her very same experiences. The most salient memories I have of all my grandma’s stories are the ones about people dying on that boat; a speck of smoke and steel traversing the Atlantic, the crew wrapping up the newly dead in canvas, mostly old people who sucummed to the rigors of the trip, but sometimes young children too, and my grandma Rose watching as the bodies are lifted off the deck and heaved over the side of the boat into the grey waves.

My grandma, who died in 1984, just a month after my dad, had been in America for nearly seventy-five years. Though she spoke English well I’d never once heard her use a sentence that didn’t contain at least some Yiddish. Then, there was her Yiddish song, the saddest song ever written. The song I imbibed slowly beginning as an infant, then more deeply as a young boy, and then finally, etched permanently into my cells as a ninth grader. Never was there a Mississippi blues or an Irish lament sadder than this true Yiddish folk song.

As my grandma Rose told it, the song was composed spontaneously; by a young mother who, for a loaf of bread and a pear, hired my grandma to watch over her sick child. The woman’s husband had died only days before of tuberculosis and in the cradle lied her infant daughter, the tiny girl herself just days away from death. My grandma was nine years old when she first learned the song from the young mother, hearing the mournful tune over and over as she rocked the cradle. The song wasn’t ever given a title of course, it was just something made-up. My grandma called it, Ein Shlafe Min Kindt, after its first words.

Sleep my child, close your eyes

Your father has died and I’m alone

Who can bear such sorrow

Who knows from such loneliness

What trouble life brings

Only to soothe you does my heart yet beat

Sleep my child, close your eyes

This was the song my grandma Rose would sing to my siblings and me before bed, while giving us baths, and in all manner of quiet moments. To be sure, it was not your standard lullaby.

***

My jeans and my ski jacket are bulging. I’ve just stolen six feet of plastic tubing and some Pyrex beakers from the ninth grade chemistry lab hoping to create the world’s most elaborate hookah pipe in my bedroom. On my way downstairs to my room I pass my grandma Rose in the kitchen as she sits at the table chopping green pepper, eggplant, and Spanish onion. “Are you hungry mine tir’e kindt, I’m making potli’jel” she calls out. “No thanks grandma,” I say. “I’ve got a lot of homework to do.” Romanian eggplant is not on my mind at this juncture.

After quickly unloading the tubing and placing it on my bed, I reach under my mattress and slide out a well-thumbed copy of Penthouse. There are two women in a lesbian scene  featured in this particular edition that I find myself coming back to again and again. The four photos of them joined together, all slick fingers and tongues, are so graphic and so compelling that not even an Atomic Clock is sensitive enough to measure the speed with which I ejaculate into a wad of Kleenex.

With that activity out of the way I put on Neil Young’s, After The Gold Rush and set to work on the pipe. After meeting my meager standard of excellence, I reach up into my closet, move some of the sweaters from the top shelf, and pop loose the ceiling tile that I use to secrete my ever-dwindling stash of Minnesota Green. The THC level in this pot is so low that I’ve got to smoke nearly a quarter ounce to get high. I open the window to the window-well above my bed, light up the hookah, and let the smoke draft out my room. After twenty minutes of water-cooled splendor, I do in fact get high, very high, and I walk back upstairs to find my grandma Rose still busy chopping vegetables and humming quietly to herself.

I’m struck by how old she looks as I stand in the kitchen staring at her now, with the sun streaming through the back door and shining on her busy hands. I look at her hair, grey and thin, and the creases on her cheeks. She’s no longer my plain-old grandma Rose, she has suddenly transformed into something sacred; something so beautiful my eyes start to tear up from just the sight of her. Sure I’m pretty fucking toasted, but still, I am profoundly cognizant, (and perhaps for the first time ever,) that someone I love very much will one day, and likely very soon be dead and gone. “Peter, do vant a bissel Potli’jel on some coilige,” my grandma asks, apparently oblivious to my state of mind. “Grandma,” I say, “No thank you, but…would you teach me that song? The Yiddish one that you always sing.” I can see her face brighten at the request and she sings the song over several times until I have a perfect transliteration of the entire thing.

It’s embarrassing to me now, because it was so wrong and so foolish, but because my grandma’s accent was as heavy as it was, I used to feel in some odd way, that she wasn’t very bright. I see now though, that she understood everything, she understood way more than I ever did and perhaps ever will.

A couple years later, when my grandma finally lapses into senility my family calls on me to sing Eine Shlafe to her, as if to pull her back to us. It works for a while. Hearing me sing it makes her sit up straighter and makes her eyes lighten a bit. Sometimes, she’d even mouth the words. “Ein Shlafe mein kint din egelach,” Sleep my child, close your eyes.

***

One thing you’re sure to notice, and I want to point it out before you do, is that my Grandma Rose was overtly racist. Racist in the strange way that many older Eastern European Jews can be, particularly the ones who’d never actually had any real dealings with black people. When the story about Clipper’s owner Donald Sterling broke a couple years back, almost every Jew I knew was ashamed of his overt and horrible racist comments, but each of us also knew some old uncle or grandparent that would have said the exact same thing. To these old timers, the sense of otherness engendered by such an encounter was too much to process. They had no context, no points of reference with which to create an understanding and so, in their fear and the stupidity engendered by such fear, they gave way to their baser instincts and said impossibly dumb-ass and hurtful shit.

I mention this by way of caveat, and so you’ll believe me when I tell you that my grandma Rose was overall, the more loving and tender of my two very loving grandmas. If it ever came down to a choice between which grandma us kids would rather have babysit when my parents went to Florida or Mexico or Japan (my Dad used to win a lot of free trips to Tokyo because of his Suzuki shop. {That’s also how he happened to have those Japanese playboys I spent have my pre-adolescence searching for}) my grandma Rose would win out in a heartbeat.

Once, while my parents were away, my Grandma Min woke us at 5:00 AM to lecture us on the proper way to squeeze a toothpaste tube. Funny how effective that was. To this day, I have yet to pick up a tube of Crest without thinking about how to squeeze it properly. Bat-shit crazy teaching method yes, but not abusive. Well… not substantially abusive anyway.

I was incredibly proud of my Grandma Min and in spite of the toothpaste incident, I loved her a great deal. She was a rule breaker and a rebel, and there’s no doubt that I picked up some of my rebellious spirit from her. She was among the first people in Minneapolis (still a highly segregated city) to march for civil rights and she was certainly one of the few Jewish women in Minneapolis to have ever hosted a large contingent of black community leaders in her apartment. She fed them some of the deepest soul-foods on the planet, stuff she knew they’d like; her blintzes, her noodle kugle, her borscht, and her mandelbrot. I, and every single person she touched, are the direct beneficiaries of her outspokenness and her bravery. Here’s how she introduced me to the greatest guitar teacher in the world.

***

One Sunday afternoon, in the midst of a brilliant sun-shower, Lester Williams pulls up to our house in Saint Louis Park in his pale-yellow Fleetwood Brougham for my guitar lesson. Without a doubt, Lester was the first black man to park his Cadillac on our block and walk up the steps to the door of a Jewish kid’s house to proffer a guitar lesson. “Petah,” he says, “I’m gonna teach ya’ll some big cards.” This concerns me because I’m not at all interested in cards but I soon learn that Lester doesn’t mean cards, he means chords.

His becoming my guitar teacher was my Grandma Min’s idea. The first time she met him he was singing selections from Fiddler On The Roof at a Hadassah Women’s luncheon. He’d play his big arch top Gibson while tapping out time on a tambourine that was perched on the end of his shoe. “If I were a rich man…Ya da deedle deedle, bubba bubba deedle deedle dum…”After the luncheon she asked Lester if he’d be willing to come to my house and teach me guitar.

Lester and I spend hours going over exercises and scales to strengthen my fingers and to develop what he calls, “fingah independence.” “Petah” he says, “Ain’t no one gonna touch you with cards like these.” He was right. No kid I knew could play an Eb major 7 or an Amin 7 flat 5. Lester teaches me West Texas blues and Sam Cooke’s You Send Me. Mostly, I just watch him, the way his big fingers slide over the worn fretboard of his archtop. I watch his eyes close when he sings and I love to make him laugh with the stories I tell him about our first gigs. “Yeah, dats right Petah,” he’d always say, “You jus’ gotta keep on woodsheddin’ on that guitah o’ yours.”

After one particular lesson, my mother and my grandma Rose come in from the garage carrying groceries. They meet Lester and me at the foot of our stairway. “Ma, this is Lester, Peter’s guitar teacher,” my mom says. My Grandma Rose, who quite unlike my Grandma Min, is no fan of black people, and she reluctantly shakes his hand. Would you like to meet Lester’s wife, she’s waiting in the car?” My mom asks. My Grandma turns to her and in Yiddish whispers: “Ich hab shoyn aynem Schvartzer bagegent. Far voos sol ich bagegenen an anderen?” Translation: I’ve already met one Schvartzer, do I need to meet another?

For a long while I had the sense that being Jewish and coming from a stable family meant I didn’t have a right to contribute to the “conversation.” Never having been abused (toothpaste tube not withstanding) or hungry (Yom Kippur doesn’t count – especially when I’d gone to the Anchor Inn for all-you-can-eat fried shrimp with my cousin Jeff after services two years in a row,) or feeling like I never really had to struggle (little did I fucking know what was coming,) meant that I was somehow unworthy to tell my story, or worse, that I had no story to tell.

At some point, I’m not sure exactly when, I made a sort of unconscious decision to take on the persona of a black man. The fact is, white can feel dorky, (sorry if this offends any KKK’ers) and black feels cool. No one knows why this is but it doesn’t make it any less true. It’s just that in my earliest musical days, (1973 or so,) a thirteen-year old Jewish kid echoing black America by taking up and the guitar and learning how to play funk and blues simply wasn’t a thing. Now of course, this is done everyday. The pop music we hear is made almost almost exclusively by black artists. Not so in the seventies. Back then we had the Eagles and Jethro Tull, today we have Kanye and Kendrick. Imagine for a second juxtaposing Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly and the Eagles’ Take It Easy. It’s just plain hard to believe that those two songs exist on the same planet at the same time. Where artists were once influenced by black music trends, today there’s no need to mine the influences, we are going apparently, straight to the source.

The first thing my taking on this persona meant of course, was that I was listening to a lot of black music, and I’m not talking about just Hendrix – which of course is technically black music since he’s black, but I mean: Marvin Gaye, The O’jays, Stevie, Curtis Mayfield, Aretha, Ray Charles, and blues players like Lightning Hopkins, Howlin Wolf, John Lee Hooker and my favorite of all, Luther Allison.

What listening to these guys did for a person like me, a person who longed to be different, to be cool, to be untethered; was to provide a window, not so much into a style of music, but into a whole way of life. It’s hard to explain but there’s a certain life-rhythm that you took in osmotically through that music. It was truthful, sophisticated, sardonic, and most of all, it was sensitive towards the human condition. It swung, with an edge and a rawness that in the best cases, could sound like a combination of pure sex and pure Godliness. Something you could put on the stereo and feel good reproducing the human species to.

If you wanted to adopt a black persona you also had to develop a lilting free-swaying southern accent that was pitch perfect. You couldn’t fake the accent (that would be stupid and dangerous,) it had to be so real that you became the person you were emulating. I got mine down at around eleventh-grade. Once you had that accent you had to adopt a vocal style. In my case it was a style that that echoed Sly Stone as opposed to say, a Cantor from your local Conservative Synagogue.

I wasn’t the first to do it to be sure. Every rock and roller from time immemorial has done it. Mick Jagger sounds pretty black on record; if he hadn’t been tuning into to late night radio to pick up the faint strains of Lead Belly or Muddy Waters, he would in all probability have sounded as white as Harold Champion, of Boiled Beef and Carrots fame, arguably the whitest sounding pop singer in London during Mick’s formative years. The blues, reggae, and funk music that I loved; it all came from seeing myself through a prism of something I never was, at least not in appearance: a black man. I was about fourteen when I started thinking this way, not coincidentally the same time I started having sex. Back then I saw my black inner-muse as a vigorous, slinky, and handsome thirty-year old. (At the time of this writing he’s a still-spry, 71 year-old.)

I always had an affinity for those who were “other than” or “apart from” the mainstream. As a kid almost everyone I knew seemed to be squeezed into a stultifying cubicle of whiteness; hockey, beer keggers, Sadie Hawkins dances, all that homecoming shit. I loved the idea of forgetting who I was, erasing the margins that someone other than me had drawn around my life.

The times I was actually able to do this were admittedly, very rare and when they did, they happened most often when I was making music or having sex, (but let’s stay with music for now.) Sometimes when I was jamming with other musicians the world lost its edges. You don’t forget that stuff. You don’t forget when the interplay between you and another players became so deep it was as if you become one spirit in two, barely separate bodies. That’s how I felt sometimes when I was playing with Alexander O’Neal, a velvet-voiced Rhythm and Blues artist that hardly any white person (outside of Minneapolis) knows, and who every black person between the ages of thirty-five and seventy recognizes immediately.

***

Near Cedar Lake at my cousin Jeff’s house, everyone’s winter coats are slung over the ping-pong table and some old couches that have been retired from the living room. Downstairs where we’re setting up to play, the ceiling’s unusually low. A tall person’s likely to clunk his head if he doesn’t watch himself. No one uses it these days, but twenty years ago Jeff’s parents thought it was a good idea to install a shuffleboard court made of vinyl tiles, right into the floor. Tonight some black guys, a rhythm section and a couple horn players from the north side, just a little older than us brought over their gear and some weed and some Ripple wine. I’ve never tried Ripple before. It’s sweet and good and I drink a lot of it.

Now the drums are being set up, the amplifiers switched on, the reeds moistened, the guitars tuned, and soon you can hear the faintest beginnings of people touching each other with their sounds; a few chords tossed off here and there, a couple bars of rhythm from the drums, and then it all stops and starts again. I love this burgeoning pre-music when no one has truly committed and the sounds are still echoey and amorphous.

Soon we’re up and running, jamming now with these guys. One of ‘em named Jimmy plays sax and he’s real good. I’m on guitar, playing rhythm mostly, some stuff I picked up from Curtis Mayfield, and Jeff’s on Fender Rhodes. ‘Damn, Jeff’s gotten so good over the last year. Fucking genius,’ I think. The bass player and the drummer are wearing some approving faces; Jeff and I are tearing the shit up.

After an hour or so Jimmy, the wiry alto sax player, says we’ve got to meet the soul singer, Alexander O’Neal. “Really” I say. “Tonight?” “Hell yeah,” he says. “He lives north. I know where, his band’s gonna be there too.” “Alex is gonna approve of you motherfuckers.” At half past eleven Jimmy drives my cousin and me out of the safety of white suburbia, past Theodore Wirth Park, and north, past Highway 55, toward north Minneapolis.

“North Minneapolis…”

It’s always had a foreboding overtone. North is where the Jews of my parent’s generation once lived. They’ve long since moved though, out to the suburbs, and then the black families, some from Mississippi, some from Chicago, moved into their houses. I always heard it was a dangerous part of the city. “People get murdered there all the time,” is what they’d say.

But suddenly, Jimmy remembers something and we head south on 35 W, to someone’s house near the airport to pickup some weed, then we drive to Saint Paul to do hell knows what, and then finally, to the Northside to meet Alex. Good thing my parents are outta town and Jeff’s are fast asleep. Tomorrow’s a school night for fuck’s sake.

When we finally get to Alex’s place around one AM, there’s blue light pouring from the window wells and I can hear the muffled sound of a bass guitar and someone playing a drum-set. Jimmy raps on the front door, first with his knuckles, and then with a rock for a full minute… nothing. And just as we’re about to head back to the car, Alex O’Neal opens the door. He’s a big man, not tall, but barrel-chested, and handsome as hell, with massive shoulders and a smile that lives somewhere between welcome and menace.

We smoke some more weed and play into the night; jams in E9 that go on for thirty minutes or more, some Stevie and some Lou Rawls too. Alex likes what he hears and before the night ends, my cousin Jeff and I are made official members of Alexander O’Neal’s band.

The band consists of five guys: Alex on vocals, Billy and Bobby on bass and drums, a white guy with a shaved head named Larry Crags on lead guitar; along with my cousin Jeff on Fender Rhodes, and me on rhythm guitar. Alex has us practicing four nights a week for several months. Sometimes Jeff and I leave school early and take a city bus to the practices. Other times his brother Barry, or one of our parents has to drive us since neither of us has his license.

We do a total of two gigs inside of a year, the first one was at some corporate lunch in an office building. My dad comes to that one and introduces himself to Alex. “Alex seems like a really nice guy,” he says. The other gig is on New Year’s Eve at the Holiday Inn, Downtown. Aside from my uncle Sonny, Jeff and I are the only white people in the entire ballroom.

For some reason our band, officially known as Alexander O’Neal and the Black Market Band is scheduled to headline the show. In other words, we would appear last on the bill. Unfortunately, (and here’s a bit of music-bizz insider’s shit:) when you go on last at 2:00 AM on New Year’s Eve, when everyone’s gone home to sleep or to fuck, you’re not really headlining at all. The band who goes on at midnight is the real headliner and that night it’s a band called Champagne, featuring none only, than the kings of the Northside music scene: Morris Day, Andre Simone, and this little dude with a huge afro who calls himself Prince.

Jeff and I watch these guys with a mix of awe and envy. Andre Cymone has a device at his feet called a Mu-tron Funk Box that makes his bass sound as if each note is being processed through some insanely good Wah-Wah pedal. His playing is phenomenal, with a degree of finesses and rhythmic sophistication that we can only marvel at. Morris Day is kicking it on the drums, tight, crisp, unlike anything I’d ever heard live. And Alex keeps motioning to me, pointing towards Prince. “You see the way he’s choppin out that rhythm in his right hand? You see the way his rhythm don’t stop? His name is Prince. They say he’s got a record deal on Warners.”Alex leans in so I can hear him better over the funk. “Peter, that’s what you needa do if ya wanna be more than jus’ a basement guita’ player.”

No offense at all to the efforts of our Black Market Band, but Champagne was a very hard act to follow. People were wild for these guys. Andre was their frontman, not Prince and he was tremendous, and they even had their own theme song: “We are Champagne and we’re here to please you.” If it weren’t so fucking catchy it would’ve been corny as hell.

When our band comes on, closer to 3:00 AM than 2, we play well, but we perform for about 17 people including my uncle Sonny and the bar staff who are mopping the floor as we go through our set.

***

During a break one night at one of our innumerable practice sessions Larry Crags tells me in strictest confidence that he’s an expert in Kung Fu. Though he seems pretty scrawny to me, I have no reason to doubt him, plus he’s got that scary-looking shaved head. One day after band practice Larry packs up his guitar and says, “Alex, I’m afraid I’m gonna have to quit the snap.”

“What the fuck did you just say?” Alex asks. “I said I’m pretty sure I’m gonna have to leave the group.” Alex looks over at Larry and glowers. “My wife just thinks it’s not a good idea for me to be practicing all the time since we don’t appear to have any gigs lined up,” Larry explains. The air in the cramped rehearsal space arcs with something hot and electric. Alex walks up to Larry, gets very close and starts poking his fingers into Larry’s bony chest.

Now I wonder if Alex has any idea what he’s getting into with this furtive Kung Fu master. But he keeps on poking at Larry and finally says, “Larry, are you sayin’ I’m not a man.” Larry doesn’t respond, he doesn’t seem to know what to say. Alex’s question is puzzling to me as well since it doesn’t seem to me to be at all what Larry Crags said, but before Larry could answer, Alex hauls off and smashes him in the face.

Alex might not yet be the most refined person I’ve ever met, but still, I like him a great deal and now I’m truly worried for him, given what I know about Larry Crag’s martial arts expertise. As one who watches the TV series Kung Fu fairly religiously, I know exactly what’s coming. Larry Crags took the first blow (as any gentleman should) but now, Larry will do what he must. With nose bent and bloodied, he gets up off the floor, and into a ferocious looking fighting stance.

Completely undeterred, Alex smashes him with a powerful right hook to the side of the head. Larry flies across the room and lands on my amplifier, which crashes to the floor and makes a terrible noise. Moments later, without any Kung Fu moves whatsoever, Larry is whimpering and crawling on all fours with his guitar case, up the stairs and straight out of the house.

Out of sheer fright, my cousin Jeff plays Rock-A-Bye Baby on the high notes of his electric piano as Alex paces in circles and pants heavily into his microphone, which sounds like a windstorm because of all the reverb. From behind his drum kit we hear Bobby say in the most offhand way “Why don’t someone shut off that amplifier?”

Sweating now and still breathing hard, Alex turns to me. “Peter, now I suppose you wanna quit this snap too since you jus’ seen a black man beat up on a white dude.” “No Alex,” I say. “I love being in this band.”

The truth is, I really do love being in this band. And it’s even better now since it appears that I’ve just become the new lead guitar player.

 

 

 

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5 thoughts on “Race Music

  1. cool story…….it reminds me a great deal of the “louie” tv show episode(s) where he reminisces back to stealing scales form his lab for a local dealer…..wonderful stuff…thanks peter.

    FYI, impermanent things is one of my favorite tunes, by anyone.

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