Music

He Got the Money, I Got the Good Looks

But Michael Jackson and his brothers opened up and represented the possibilities of a wide, wonderful world for me at a most impressionable moment in my youth.

It was indeed a simpler time, one of lazy afternoons and baseball cards, of spelling bees and stable neighborhoods. And it was a different time, of drive-in movies and family sedans, of AM radio and afternoon newspapers. It was the radio that provided our first gateway into the world we would come to inhabit, but it was an afternoon paper that would rock my world forever.

Sometime in the spring of 1970, the late, great Cleveland Press ran a cover story in its Friday entertainment section on the Jackson 5. By then, the family band had already become a phenomenon: this pop-soul band of brothers, fronted by an impossibly gifted and magical ten-year-old supernova named Michael, had released a handful of singles which consigned the old paradigms of '60s pop music -- from faux-hippie sunshine jingles to affirmations of middle-class black acceptability -- into the rear-view mirror once and for all. We had not heard the likes of them before -- not their brightness, not their concentrated rush of energy, and certainly not their lead singer. And for black kids like me, who were just a tad too young to feel the full brunt of Beatlemania a few years earlier, the Jackson 5 was the pop act that we could feel truly belonged to us. My older sister had all the Supremes 45s, but years after the climax of the Civil Rights Movement and at the apex of the Black Power era, the Jackson 5 was the Motown act that represented the Sound of our Young America.

So all of us kids in the middle-class Lee-Harvard ‘hood devoured that Press article, as well as everything else J5-related we could grab. And it was a pretty good article, from what I remember, in that it had information in it that we hadn’t seen anywhere else. For example, it listed the brothers’ birthdays. I do not remember the other birthdays, or really much else about the article, except for Michael’s birthday: August 29.

August 29 is my birthday too.

Wow, I thought to myself. Michael Jackson and I have the same birthday (he was born the year before I was). How incredible! For a young kid still watching Speed Racer cartoons after school, that felt like the coolest thing in the world.

Later on that weekend, I went to see my best friend, Stevie Givner. His sister, Ramona, usually tolerated me, in that détente unique to prepubescent boys and girls, but when I boasted of my newfound connection to fame, she turned bitter and mean. She, like an untold legion of young black girls at the time, had a hopeless crush on Michael. For any mere mortal, let along her brother’s best friend, to lay any sort of claim to commonality with the star of her dreams and her bedroom wall, the man-child of her promised land, was beyond heresy. She shunned me, refused to acknowledge my existence. It was as though I had committed the ultimate crime, for having the audacity to emerge from the womb on the same calendar day as had the most magnetic ten-year-old kid in the world.

I managed to get past that, and kept my personal piece of trivia in my back pocket. I didn’t have that strong an urge to identify with Michael or the Jacksons, and soon acquired other musical tastes (Todd Rundgren, Gil Scott-Heron, Pink Floyd -- my musical catholicism was emerging even as a teenager). But every now and then, I’d mention my famous birthday sharer, and it would always be good for an “ooh” and an “ahh”.

At some point down the line, I don’t remember when, I decided to turn my link to fame into a one-liner. There was obviously no comparison between my life and Michael’s -- I hadn’t toured the world over, sold millions of records, or landed on Ramona Givner’s bedroom wall -- but I could concoct a pithy quip that let the listener know that I wasn’t exactly chopped liver.

“You know, Michael Jackson and I have the same birthday,” I would confide. Then, as if there were some sort of finite supply of attributes to be dispensed to those born on a particular date, I would continue, “He got the money, I got the good looks.”

That would always be good for a momentary laugh, and sometimes a retort as to whether my assessment of my appearance was accurate (I almost always used this as an icebreaker with a woman or in a group, never around fellas), and then the conversation would move on. It worked because everyone knew who Michael Jackson was, and we could all relate to him having way more money than all of us combined. It reaffirmed my bona fides with the common man, but let me claim a leg up for sport. I could connect myself to one of the biggest stars in the world, and yet boast of having something he didn’t. (And this took more than a slight leap of faith at first, as Michael hadn’t started remaking his face when I started boasting of my superior looks.)

Beyond that, I seldom gave Michael Jackson a second thought. I remember seeing the August 1979 cover of Jet with Michael about to turn 21, looking like a handsome young Prince of Pop, while I was on a college work-study project at an Atlanta community radio station. I did a momentary mental stock-taking of the difference between his life and mine, and then went on with my day. And when Thriller came out, I felt no compulsion to run out and buy it -- Jackson’s music was inescapably in the air anyway, so I saved my pennies for less poppy fare closer to my more adventurous musical tastes (Talking Heads, Sun Ra, early hip-hop). But as Jackson’s fame grew, his eccentricities became public, and his appearance started its full-blown morphing, my little one-liner took on a new life.

No longer was it quite so boastful to talk about my superior looks -- now it had turned into straight-up reporting. Michael’s strapping prettiness had begun to give way to a confounding Otherness, as would the rest of his life and, in time, his art. He had always existed on a different plane than the rest of us; by the mid-‘80s we all thought he lived in some other realm unconnected to this or any other known world. Whether we cracked jokes about it or felt sorry for him (or both), we all know that the brother no longer looked much at all like the cherubic wunderkind, or even the sensitive young star on the cover of Thriller. After all his facial surgeries and complexion transitions, I could claim superiority in the looks department almost by default. I even considered updating the quip to “…but I still have all my original parts,” but decided not to go quite there.

And so it was, right up to the day he died. Yet perhaps there had been more of a connection between Jackson and I than I ever suspected. The first thought that shuddered through me upon hearing the news of his death was of my own mortality. He died at 50, I’m about to turn 50. That may seem like a long time -- and it is a long time from those days of spelling bees and afternoon newspapers -- but from this vantage point, it seems like the blink of an eye, and the road ahead seems vast and uncertain, but not infinite. If 50 is supposed to feel old, I don’t feel old, but here is the biggest star of my generation, dropped dead from a heart attack at 50 (pitchman extraordinaire Billy Mays also died at 50 that weekend, but nothing about his death gave me pause to reflect on my own life). I didn’t instantly feel old, but perhaps just a little bit older.

It became apparent shortly after the news broke that, as in his life, nothing would be simple about his death, and those facts will come out in due course. But when you hear that a superstar who’s been part of your world since childhood died of a heart attack at a relatively young age, it’s bound to make you wonder about your own condition, another momentary stock-taking of the difference between his life and yours. And when you get a call two hours later from your doctor’s office asking you to schedule some follow-up tests, you wonder even more.

And yet the quip lives on, at least for now. I used it the other day, again as a conversation aside, but it has a difference resonance now, and it may no longer be cute or appropriate. But the fact that it was useful for as long as it was says something about how I viewed the distance between Michael Jackson and myself.

After all, he wasn’t the only legendary black American musician born on an August 29. But I never began a self-congratulatory quip with, “Charlie Parker changed the face of modern jazz,” or “Dinah Washington could sing anything they put in front of her.” Nor did it ever occur to me to comment, “John McCain was an amazingly courageous soldier,” or “Ingrid Bergman will be forever remembered for her role in Casablanca,” then boast of my own attributes. Those folks, all born on an August 29 (1920, 1924, 1936, and 1915, respectively), weren’t among that number who changed my world at a very young age, and remained somewhere on the tangents of it ever since.

I’ve come to worship Parker’s bebop, marvel at Washington’s pipes, respect McCain’s form of patriotism, and watch Casablanca numerous times. But Michael Jackson and his brothers opened up and represented the possibilities of a wide, wonderful world for me at a most impressionable moment in my youth. I wanted nothing more for my sixth grade graduation present than the ABC album (Motown, 1970). I was thrilled to see them in concert in 1971, in all their fringe-vested, technicolored glory (in my seventh grade class picture, I’m wearing a red fringe vest). They were my first rock stars.

I haven’t been anything close to a diehard Jacksons fan since those carefree days, but that doesn’t dilute the rush of pleasure and memory that still gets triggered with the opening piano and guitar licks of “I Want You Back”, the effortless, knowing simplicity of Michael’s vocals on “Never Can Say Goodbye”, or any of his soaring, glorious Jackson 5 choruses, full of musical awareness both learned and instinctive, winking sass, and endless, innocent freedom.

This year, my birthday weekend will surely be marked with Michael Jackson tributes all over the place. Once again, he will be inescapably in the air, as I go about kicking out the musical jams of my own catholic choice. But this year, more profoundly than at any other time, I’ll recognize that by making use of that quip for most of my adult life, I manufactured more of a connection between Michael and myself than there ever really was. And it’ll hit me that I did it because back when I was ten years old, having something like a birthday in common with the biggest kid star there had ever been was, indeed, the coolest thing in the world.

I’ll hope that Ramona Givner, wherever she is now, can find it in her heart to forgive me. And I’ll light an extra candle on my cake for Michael, in whichever other realm he’s in by then.

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.


Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09
Amazon

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

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7

Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

The Hall of Fame has been harshly criticized for some of its more inexplicable exclusions and for neglecting certain subgenres of music. Cynicism and negativity over the Hall's selection process and membership is fairly widespread. That said, despite the controversies and legitimate gripes, induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is still widely viewed as a career milestone. The Hall's stature feeds its surrounding controversies: after all, nobody would care to argue so vehemently about the merits of one artist over another if it wasn't important. Very rarely will a newly inducted artist miss the opportunity to appear at the star-studded ceremony to accept their honor.

The criteria for nomination is as follows: "Artists -- a group encompassing performers, composers and/or musicians -- become eligible for induction 25 years after the release of their first commercial recording. Besides demonstrating unquestionable musical excellence and talent, inductees will have had a significant impact on the development, evolution and preservation of rock and roll." Specifically for performers, "This category honors bands or solo artists which demonstrate musical excellence. Such a descriptor includes (but isn't limited to) influence on other performers or genres; length and depth of career and catalog; stylistic innovations; or superior technique and skills."

These standards allow the selection committee wide latitude with their choices, and generating a list that would create zero controversy is an obvious impossibility. As for those deserving artists yet to be included, their time will surely come. There has purportedly been an emphasis on increasing diversity among the nominating committee and voters in recent years, and the list of contenders for the class of 2018 reflects this.

Radiohead, as expected and deserved, are nominated in their first year of eligibility, and there is little doubt they will be inducted. Other nominees include Bon Jovi, Kate Bush, the Cars, Depeche Mode, Dire Straits, Eurythmics, J. Geils Band, Judas Priest, LL Cool J, MC5, the Meters, the Moody Blues, Rage Against the Machine, Nina Simone, Rufus featuring Chaka Khan, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Link Wray and the Zombies. It's a strong and varied group.

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise on the list, however, is the British duo Eurythmics. Even though they've been eligible since 2006, this is their first nomination. Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox certainly deserve recognition for their important contributions to the musical fabric of the last 40 years. While Eurythmics have always been generally respected, they've never been darlings with the critics like some of their contemporaries. It's puzzling as to why. Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting and creative audacity. Lennox is second to noone as a vocalist, not just in her lead parts but also in the creative, often rhythmic way she uses her voice as an instrument. This nomination could boost the stature and perception of Eurythmics' body of work immeasurably.

Although Eurythmics are often consigned strictly to the synthpop genre, that designation fits only a portion of their repertoire. Each of their nine studio albums has its own unique vibe while retaining the duo's core identity. Eurythmics never repeat themselves, often taking bold risks and swerving in unexpected directions. Unlike many of their contemporaries, Eurythmics didn't "sell out" or compromise by chasing after obvious Top 40 hits. Even their most popular singles aren't commercial in the traditional sense, and they've always sounded like nobody else on the radio.

Despite the sudden emergence of their 1983 single "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" as an MTV staple and international smash, Eurythmics are far from an overnight success story. Their story begins in London, 1975, when Stewart fortuitously encountered Lennox at the restaurant where she worked as a waitress. The Scottish singer had recently dropped out of the Royal Academy of Music, which she felt didn't suit her musical interests. Stewart and Lennox strongly connected over their love of music, and they quickly became a couple who were inseparable. Along with singer/ songwriter/ guitarist Peet Coombes, Stewart and Lennox formed a short-lived group the Catch. After one failed single, they added two members and renamed themselves the Tourists.

Coombes was the dominant creative force and primary songwriter behind the Tourists. Lennox and Coombes shared vocals on the band's dour and melancholy power-pop. The Tourists released three albums and managed a handful of chart appearances in the UK. Two of their singles, a peppy cover of Dusty Springfield's "I Only Want to Be With You" and the hard-rocking "So Good T\to Be Back Home Again", made the UK Top 10. The band toured extensively, but their success was fleeting. The Tourists' third album, Luminous Basement (1980), tanked badly despite containing their strongest material yet, and the group dissolved shortly thereafter.

Lennox and Stewart also endured a painful ending to their sometimes tumultuous romance, but they recognized the power of their musical chemistry and decided to continue working together as a duo. They were a pair "who couldn't be together, and who could not be apart", as Lennox reflects many years later in the song "17 Again". History has shown that they made the right decision: Stewart and Lennox compliment each other intuitively through a shared passion for music, the thrill of experimentation, and the need for emotional release that songwriting and performing allows.

The name Eurythmics was derived from a technique used to teach music to children based on sensory and physical methods of learning rhythm. The newly-christened duo signed with RCA Records and in early 1981 headed to Germany to record their debut album with highly-respected krautrock producer Conny Plank.

Plank already had a long string of acclaimed albums to his credit, including collaborations with Neu!, Can, Ultravox, Kraftwerk and Brian Eno among others. The sessions for what would become Eurythmics' debut album, In the Garden, were held at Plank's studio in Cologne. He brought several of his regular collaborators into the proceedings, including bassist Holger Czukay and drummer Jaki Liebezeit of avant-garde rockers Can, Blondie drummer Clem Burke and D.A.F. electronics whiz Robert Görl. Stewart has described the sessions as a learning experience that helped expand his perception of what pop music could be and how it could be created without following any rules, a perspective that served Eurythmics well.

Eurythmics' austere and hypnotic debut single "Never Gonna Cry Again" was released in May 1981. They filmed a low-budget video and landed a couple TV slots to promote the track, but the song's haunted nature did not translate to mainstream success: it barely scraped the lower reaches of the UK singles chart. A second single, the dreamy guitar-rocker "Belinda", followed in August but failed to chart.

In the Garden was finally released in October 1981, but without a hit to generate momentum it was barely noticed. Despite scant sales figures, the album's gloomy psychedelic guitar-pop makes for a rather strong debut. In the Garden exists in late summer shadows, densely atmospheric and shrouded in a veil of dread. Lennox's vocals are understated, subtle and lower in the mix than on subsequent albums. Sound effects, odd vocalizations and bits of sonic experimentation fade in and out like flashes of hazily repressed memory.

RCA wasn't eager to invest in a follow-up to In the Garden after its disappointing reception, so Stewart financed Eurythmics' second album largely through a personal bank loan. Faced with a minuscule budget, they worked in a London warehouse to avoid spending money on studio time. They were able to purchase cheap second-hand equipment for the sessions, including the basic TEAC 8-track on which most of the album was recorded. Adam Williams, former bassist for the ska band the Selectors, helped the duo learn the equipment while co-producing some of their earliest tracks.

The primitive set-up was the ultimate blessing in disguise. Since they were financing the sessions and self-producing, Eurythmics had the freedom to experiment with no oversight. As both Lennox and Stewart were enduring periods of deep personal strife at the time, the sessions evolved into an emotional and creative catharsis that helped shape the mercurial nature of the music. It was out of this environment that a classic was born.

Despite appearing only a few months after their debut album, the first single to emerge from the new sessions proved radically different than any of Eurythmics' prior work. Released in April 1982, "This Is the House" is a flamboyant, horn-driven spectacle on which Lennox belts out a vocal more confident and brash than any of her prior work. The song's odd mix of synthpop, R&B; and latin influences renders it completely unique, but despite its infectious ingenuity and beguiling loopiness (or perhaps because of it), "This Is the House" failed to chart.

The follow-up single that landed two months later is even better. Entrancing and soulful, "The Walk" exudes the anxiety, drama and innovation that became Eurythmics' hallmark. The vocal arrangement is ingenious, and Dick Cuthell (known for his work with Madness, the Specials, Fun Boy Three and others) lets rip a blistering trumpet solo. As in many of their songs, "The Walk" slowly ratchets up the tension through hypnotic repetition and the gradual addition of more layers of sound until it reaches a haywire frenzy. Although a brilliant recording, "The Walk" fared no better than its predecessor.

With the duo's second album Sweet Dreams (are made of this) completed, RCA began a strong promotional push, issuing the opening track "Love Is a Stranger" as a single in November 1982. Lennox's dazzling vocal ranges from icy cool to fiery passion over a relentless electric groove bracketed by sinuous lines of synth. "Love Is a Stranger" rose to #54 in the UK, their highest placement yet, and momentum was finally building for the duo thanks in part to the single's provocative video.

The first significant chapter in a series of visually arresting promotional clips that Eurythmics generated over the span of their career, "Love Is a Stranger" showcases Lennox's dramatic presence and her innate ability to command the viewer's attention. She plays multiple roles, ending the clip with her red hair slicked back and dressed androgynously in a man's suit. Image was quickly becoming an important part of the Eurythmics' equation, with Lennox always compelling no matter which character she inhabits, and Stewart often appearing as her sort of mad-scientist counterpart.

Sweet Dreams (are made of this) hit the shelves on 4 January 1983, along with its title-track, a single that continues to reverberate through pop music nearly 35 years after its release. Suddenly everything changed for Eurythmics. An obscure British duo, barely managing to survive in the music business, soared to the top with one of the more unconventional songs ever to scale those lofty heights.

"Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" has an unusual structure, with no real verses or chorus. Lennox has described it as a mantra, and indeed it is. The lyrics, which Lennox rattled off spontaneously in a matter of minutes, are a simple but profound statement about the human condition: "Everybody's looking for something," the search for meaning and fulfillment, the ephemeral "this" of which sweet dreams are made.

Lennox begins the song with a single line of vocal, then starting with "some of them want to use you" at the 0:24 point it doubles. From there the song gradually builds intensity, with the vocals increasingly layered. A masterful finalé combines all the sonic elements before fading to black, the mantra repeating endlessly, the "this" still stubbornly undefined. The booming minor-key bass riff and the epic string-motif solo starting at 1:31 are played by Lennox on a Roland Juno-6 synthesizer. The main riff (improvised by Lennox while listening to Stewart working on a drum-machine pattern), is a simple two-bar arpeggio that loops throughout most of the song. Two parts were recorded separately and panned on opposite sides of the sound spectrum, creating a richly resonant effect. "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" is no dated relic from the early days of MTV burdened by the limitations the time. Its massive waves of synth flood out of the speakers with enormous power, as inexorably as the tide.

The music video, which became wildly popular on MTV during its heyday, is forever entwined with the song in listeners' collective consciousness. The iconic image of Lennox in her masculine suit and flaming orange flat-top helps to define the new wave era. Her forceful demeanor, nervy confidence and the subtle nuances of her facial expressions amplify the song's inherent tension. She confronts the viewer directly by pointing right in our faces at the 0:24 mark. At 1:56, she offers a sly half-smile with, "some of them want to abuse you", and at 2:15 she pounds her fist just as the song reaches its dramatic apex. Stewart appears throughout the video stoically pecking away on the drum machine he used in the recording of the song, the Movement MCS Drum Computer MK1 (except for that part where he and the cow have, well, a moment… It's all in the eye contact).

After a slow climb up the US pop chart, "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" was finally able to derail the Police's "Every Breath You Take" from its seven-week reign at the top during the week of 3 September 1983. It would be Eurythmics' only chart-topping pop hit in America, and it reached #2 in the UK. In the wake of Eurythmics' new-found fame, "Love Is a Stranger" was re-released, this time becoming a major hit on both sides of the Atlantic.

The album's deep cuts are every bit as strange and fascinating as its better-known singles. The ghostly "Jennifer" is a narcotic reverie of keyboard swells and spectral atmospherics. "I've Got an Angel" and "Somebody Told Me" are serrated neurotic fits, swerving dangerously off-the-rails from anything that would normally be considered pop music. A long and mesmerizing exploration of urban isolation, "This City Never Sleeps" is a powerful finalé. Sweet Dreams (are made of this) is an examination of the human psyche fraught with turmoil, a series of jagged recurring nightmares and anxiety attacks set to music that is soulful and experimental, melodic but eccentric, a stark electronic soundscape that bristles with horns and unexpected sonic jolts.

Next Page: Potent and Ferocious

This film suggests that all violence—wars, duels, boxing, and the like—is nothing more than subterfuge for masculine insecurities and romantic adolescent notions, which in many ways come down to one and the same thing.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) crystalizes a rather nocturnal view of heterosexual, white masculinity that pervades much of Stanley Kubrick's films: after slithering from the primordial slime, we jockey for position in ceaseless turf wars over land, money, and women. Those wielding the largest bone/weapon claim the spoils. Despite our self-delusions about transcending our simian stirrings through our advanced technology and knowledge, we remain mired in our ancestral origins of brute force and domination—brilliantly condensed by Kubrick in one of the most famous cuts in cinematic history: a twirling bone ascends into the air only to cut to a graphic match of a space station. Ancient and modern technology collapse into a common denominator of possession, violence, and war.

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Here comes another Kompakt Pop Ambient collection to make life just a little more bearable.

Another (extremely rough) year has come and gone, which means that the German electronic music label Kompakt gets to roll out their annual Total and Pop Ambient compilations for us all.

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Winner of the 2017 Ameripolitan Music Award for Best Rockabilly Female stakes her claim with her band on accomplished new set.

Lara Hope & The Ark-Tones

Love You To Life

Label: Self-released
Release Date: 2017-08-11
Amazon
iTunes

Lara Hope and her band of roots rockin' country and rockabilly rabble rousers in the Ark-Tones have been the not so best kept secret of the Hudson Valley, New York music scene for awhile now.

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