We Were the World: 86 Words Aboard the Crossover Express
In the second of our Tusk pieces, Alice Singleton explores how Fleetwood Mac fleetingly broke racial barriers in music and captured the heart of black girls raised on funk, R&B, and segregation politics.
It was 1977’s Rumours that grabbed our collective attention span, and how could a bunch of high school juniors not be pulled into the beaten-to-a-bloody-pulp of free love, infinite drugs, communal living, and sexin’ it up with your best friends? It didn’t matter that we were stuck in African-American middle class blight, Buppies in-training, and Fleetwood Mac were white SoCal hippies looking the worse for wear and much closer to Peter Paul and Mary than Parliament Funkadelic -- Fleetwood “jammed the box”. The old looking bald guy who had the temerity to be the businessman and keep to the background, Stevie Nicks (the “white Billie Holliday” my older sister christened her)... and then there was Lindsey, young, skinny, white, and with an afro that pulled the interests of all of us with afros. His lyrics were intellectual and reaffirmed our freedom to wonder and rhapsodized about the world that we thought awaited us.
Our parents were “colored” on a good day, “negro” and “nigger” on challenging and dark days, but their children got to be “Black” with a capital “B” -- the first generation to think and feel and say what we wanted without the worry of societal consequences, my father was always quick to remind me. My dad and my uncles were among the first generation of recognizably educated black men. They were high-brow intellectuals with an image to maintain in the Chicago black community. During my toddler years, they mixed in their “white” albums and eight track tapes with communally acceptable black artists. Sinatra, Lanie Kazan, and the Association (yep -- “[they] harmonized as good as the Dells,” swore my Uncle Jeff) were their kiddie porn, black people’s “race music”. It was music not be shared in "same" company, racially speaking; a fetish that could cause huge embarrassment and misunderstanding amongst "the peeps", especially for my black nationalist, black is beautiful, "death to whitey" Uncle Jeff. They had no problem with their reading of Playboy and Esquire being public knowledge, but "that" music was listened to at low volume and with windows -- car and home -- closed, and was their way of setting themselves apart (and maybe a little above) their working and middle class cousins and neighbors.
Come the '70s, and the walls of my bedroom walls blared out with Sean Cassidy, David Bowie, and the Average White Band competing for space alongside Bootsy Collins, a shirtless and unsanctified Al Green, and the Jackson 5. Apartheid in music had vanished, “crossover” was the order of the day, and even some country spun on the turntables at black radio stations. I could go my own way, indeed.
If the Rumours album was indeed the soundtrack of the suicidal, Tusk was the battle march of the homicidal -- the angst, reconciliation, and unrequited yet hopeful lust had curdled. “Don’t say that you love me / Just tell me that you need me”... or else.
I was 19 in the fall of 1979, “stuck” at a Jesuit college with midnight parietals, a zero policy on dispensing birth control at student health services, and enough interracial tension to recreate Nat Turner’s slave rebellion. We were to stop “thinking about tomorrow" and start thinking about yesterday, by order of the two juntas: Reagan and our school administration. We were being prepared for full-on sexual contempt wrapped in patriotism and nationalism for what would be the lion share of the coming rest of our lives. Yet Tusk blasted away day and night from my Marantz turntable, and other turntables in the dorms.
Stevie’s “Sara” -- was it about her best friend betraying her with Mick, or her aborting Don Henley’s baby? We debated openly the messy politics of sexual lust and the respectful co-opting of “race music” as American race and sex politics in became less honorable and more contemptible each passing day until the '70s ended.
The '80s brought an unabashed and proudly apartheid moment in music. MTV entrenched itself. Music was to be seen and not heard. Artists that looked more carnival geek (hello, Joe Jackson) or over 30 (goodbye, Fleetwood Mac), no matter the beauty and intellect in notes and lyrics, found themselves the musical equivalent of a televangelist, stuck in the 3AM time slot, if their videos rotated at all -- as was the case for black artists looking for purchase on MTV. Corporate entities that produced wire hangers and air fresheners bought up every radio station in America, leaving behind a hard-wired playlist not to be diverted from. Music for the respectable misogynist/racist/ageist/homophobe became the flagship of the American Cultural Armada.
Fleetwood Mac continued to play in the sandbox they built a decade before. Stevie and Lindsey took their raw assessments of angst, regret, and love’s insanity to solo projects, Bella Donna and Law & Order, respectfully, with Lindsey continuing to communicate his true heart via a 4/4 beat and “world” music, well before there was, officially, world music.