I am a member of America’s first rock ‘n’ roll radio and TV generation. I’ve been fascinated by and obsessed with American contemporary music all my life. Jazz, blues, R&B, world music, funk, hip-hop, punk, reggae, cheesy pop songs, yadda yadda yadda. Can’t get enough. Teen idols: James Brown and the Beach Boys. I’ve been an Anglophile-for-Life since the first British Invasion. First music concert: the Dave Clark Five (‘64, Newark’s Masonic Temple). Thanks to my British-Jamaican girlfriend Vanessa, in the ‘80s I spent alternate summers immersed in London’s various music scenes. Passions: XTC, Colourbox, Waterboys.
From 1975 to ‘90 I was pulling hella DJ gigs. A regular turntablin’ Paladin—have crates will travel—funking black folks at house parties and cabarets, rocking white folks at the 9:30 Club and on WHFS-FM. Tour-managed Steel Pulse, Celtic harpist Alan Stivell, and Thomas Mapfumo. Roadied for James Brown (one gig). Booked Washington, DC’s 1985 New Year’s Eve Celebration. Wrote global pop reviews and features for the City Paper. One night in ‘88, David Bowie invited me to eat Vietnamese with him and Billy Connolly (I blew that one, but eight years later I did break bread with Randy Weston at his home in Brooklyn).
On a Sunday in May, ‘90, I moved into Sara Lee’s (bass player for Gang of Four, the B-52s) East Village apartment. The next day, I was the National Promotions Manager for Mango/Antilles. Subsequent gigs were as Gee Street Records’ GM and National Publicity Manager for Verve Records. Paid-in-full music journalist since April Fool’s Day, 1996.
“Who says a jazz band can’t play dance music? / Who says a funk band can’t play rock?”
Over the last 27 years, I’ve smoked, joked, reasoned, and chilled with George Clinton, UB40, John Lydon, Stevie Wonder, Paul Weller, Mikey Dread, and Roy Ayers. Interviewed and bonded with Bob Marley, Bryan Ferry, Taj Mahal, Lou Reed, Vernon Reid, Adrian Sherwood, Lee “Scratch” Perry, Andy Partridge, Mick Jones, Rickie Lee Jones, Fela Kuti, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Patti Labelle, Chaka Khan, and Pharoah Sanders and, deejayed Ornette’s 70th birthday party at Joe’s Pub (at his request).
I have lived through the times when black and white cats played rock ‘n’ roll music. I remember when, during the ‘60s, rock ‘n’ roll split into two racially-codified pop culture ciphers: rock and R&B. From the Beach Boys ‘til today, rock has been just for white boys. Black cats flossing similar rock grooves were ghettoized as R&B. I’ve watched with dismay and sadness as even the writers, publications, radio stations, and labels I loved unwittingly / willingly promulgated a subtly racist pop-cultural agenda that excluded black rockers and/or denied the validity of their contributions.
I’ve seen rock in America descend from a vital archetype to imitation to self-parody stereotype to redundancy. I’ve rejoiced when Prince, RUN-DMC, Public Enemy, and Living Colour cold bumrushed rock’s apartheid show. When hip-hop in the ‘90s became the new rock ‘n’ roll for white and black youth. When Limp Bizkit, Rage Against the Machine, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Kid Rock, and their homiez burned down the rest of the house.
All of the above life experiences have shaped the views I’m about to express. What I’ll state herein will be controversial, racially subjective / objective, personal / not personal, unapologetic, no joke, and pessimistically optimistic. I believe to my soul that a blue man can sing the whites; that when the Big Music—the shit that grabs you right there—is rocked epically by a musician who feels / claims it as birthright, he or she will render ethno-cultural-lingual-racial barriers moot every damn time. Muthafuck that old-school skin game con.
Popski—Tommy Sr.—was a tool and die maker. In high school, Popski and his childhood pal Tony Williams were the lead singers of a popular regional band (Tony would later become the lead singer of the Platters); in the early 52nd Street be-bop days he and Dexter Gordon were running partners. My Moms Zoma was a popular runway model—designed and sewed her outfits—on the NY / NJ metro area black fashion-show circuit. Moms and her partner Killer Joe Piro were regulars at the Savoy Ballroom’s famous Saturday night lindy-hop contests. They won often. (At the height of the early ‘60s twist craze, Killer Joe parlayed a gig teaching the dance to the swells at NYC’s legendary Peppermint Lounge into international jet-set dance guru mega-celebrity.) They gave me and my three sisters a big love of all kindsa music.
I was born on July 16, 1950. Same birthday as Albert Einstein and Desmond Dekker. I grew up in Vauxhall, NJ, amongst first-generation Italians, Germans, Polish, and their second-generation progeny. The majority population was black folk (role reversal; most of the white folks were working class, half of the blacks were middle-class and college-educated). Vauxhall had its own school, Jefferson Elementary. We lived in my mother’s mother’s house. Over a two-bedroom flat was one floor above my Grandmother Eliza Maxwell’s apartment / confectionery store. Across the street was the poolroom. All the cool-ass older brothas hung out there. Gramma ‘Liza’s store had the only jukebox in town. It was one of those classic jukeboxes. Jazz, jump blues, doo-wop, pop, and rock ‘n’ roll. In the summer, the music played non-stop from noon ‘til the street lamps came on.
One of my best friends was “Chick” Chicarelli whose father was a member of the Sons of Italy Social Club. The first time I saw Chuck Berry was over Chick’s house. We were outside playing when his mother yelled for him to come in “right now!” We ran into the living room. Chuck Berry was on the Ed Sullivan Show playing “Maybelline”. Chuck started duck-walking and Chick’s moms was squealing like a schoolgirl. Poppa Chiccarelli looked at the TV and snorted, “It’s just a colored guy playing that stupid rock ‘n’ roll.” Mrs. C. giggled and said, “I don’t care, he’s gorgeous! And I loooove that song!” From that moment on, I knew that great rock ‘n’ roll music transcends all ethno-cultural-racial pigeonholes. Sadly, the music industrial complex has rarely ever shared this hopelessly utopian point of view.
Shit was irrevocably set in motion once Bill Haley blew up the spot with “Rock Around The Clock” in ‘54. The cat had a spit curl, was chubby, and wore a cheesy tuxedo. Jackie Brenston had recorded “Rocket 88”—the first rock ‘n’ roll song—in ‘51, but Haley was white. Y’all know who got the props. Things got worse. Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and Bo Diddley were just as crucial to the evolution of rock as Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Buddy Holly. They came from parallel hard-knock spaces, shared the same teenage fans and radio stations, and rocked American Bandstand, yet never got the mainstream ghetto pass granted Pat Boone and his fellow Caucasian cover manqué.
Of course, back then I was a Child of Innocence and Light. I liked Pat Boone. Saw that movie he sung “Bernadine” in. The guys from the poolroom would just as soon play “Runaway” as “Mr. Lee”. The first time I heard “Chantilly Lace” and “Bye Bye Love” was on a “colored” AM station: WNJR. In Vauxhall, it was all rock ‘n’ roll to me. Then the Beatles blew the lid offa Pandora’s Box. Opened my eyes to what the game was all about. The Beatles were both a blessing and a curse. The immaculate miscegenation of black and white American rock ‘n’ roll music. Creators of modern rock and the unwitting progenitors of its future irrelevancy. This is the crux of the biscuit. Let me run it down…
“Denial is not just a river in Egypt.”—The Unknown Comic
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Watch for Racisim Killed Rock: Part 2 to publish next week