We Were the World: 86 Words Aboard the Crossover Express

Fleetwood Mac
Warner Bros.

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.

“She’s a witch, you know,” my friend Miriam would point out every time we spotted an photo of Stevie. “But she’s a white witch, the best kind. She does the good magic”. We’d all nod in agreement with Miriam’s synopsis, Rumours quietly turning on one of our parents’ 20-year-old stereo equipment. Miriam’s description was never in reference to race, just the goodness of a band that could take their lives, full of angst, longing, betrayal, lust, and turn it into the summer soundtrack for a bunch of black virgins in South Shore. We were hooked on Fleetwood Mac. What high school girl couldn’t relate to anything with “rumor” in the title, no matter the spelling? That just made it more cosmopolitan, radical from our pedestrian blocks and blocks of bungalows.

There was more than a tinge of irony that as high school juniors we wished our lust and loves to be as messy as the band. We were on the Fleetwood Mac line, investing our allowances and fast-food jobs’ paychecks into their music and all variants — Andrew Gold, Kansas, Orleans — “get high”, hang on Rainbow Beach, and mellow out to music. “Music to commit suicide to,” my sister quipped when inspecting the new albums I collected. The music was different, but the keen-featured guitarist with the curly ‘fro was special. Lindsey wrote for us. We were black girls who loved sensitive boys. We created an acid test for all prospective suitors: “Ya’ dig California rock, or ya’ dig somewhere else.” The vast majority of our suitors complied and converted. Members of the “Me” generation, our teen suitors quickly came to appreciate “our” music, or perhaps they just wanted to get laid.

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.

Cultural apartheid wafted through every aspect of American art, but Lindsey went ‘round the world to bring it home. Marching bands — their music, costume, the ritual of revving up team and fans — are like mammon for African-Americans fortunate enough to attend Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU). “They should have used the Tigers,” my friend Oscar critiqued over a Martell at the “listening party” in my dorm room. “The Trojans, they’re alright, too”. Oscar was referring to the Grambling State University marching band, legend in the black community for their pre-game and half-time performances, but unheard of in “mixed” company. We could appreciate the USC Trojans on second lead “vocals” on the album’s title track. Though not as perfect in our mind’s ear as the Tigers and lesser HBCU marching bands, the Trojans, we surmised, would hold their own in the yearly HBCU Battle-of-the Bands — a respectable challenger.

That marching band sound behind Lindsey’s 86-word essay of “choose me or else” was downright primal. 86 words for hookin’ up, no commitments; let’s just screw with 747 velocity before someone comes through the door and tells us we can’t; choose the lover that’s gonna’ do your body right; love is for suckers and Republicans. Tubas, trombones, and cornets blaring, African drums beating, calling us back to the Motherland — jungle love on high and higher calling. And Lindsey still had the curly ‘fro, holding fast to the title of “honorary brotha’”.

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.