Journalists, critics, essayists, run it down, pick it apart, polish and regurgitate the myth: so-and-so hit the stage, rocked the house, made a few bucks, became disillusioned, quit music, faded away, only to become (a lifetime later) the subject of countless articles, biographies, reissues, a whole body of work far removed from the moment it happened. That critical distance, the bread and butter of scribes, dilutes the visceral; the moment the music penetrates both your mind and your body.
Someone was there, on the ground, part of the story, regardless of whether they say so. That information sits there, unknown, forgotten, until one day, out of nowhere, a friend of a friend declares, “I once saw Betty Davis at the Sugar Shack.”
Otherwise, nowadays (and forever), we are left to consume the Betty Davis (nee Mabry) PR loop, that she socialized with superstar musicians, that she bagged it after three albums, that her take on sexuality influenced this or that contemporary pop-star.
But try and dig yourself out from under that pile of marketing: act like you just came across an album in the discount bins of a branded record store, the album with the cover depicting an Afro-ed outer-space-costumed in-your-face woman, just like I did … when not many people were paying attention. She had already come and gone.
All that contemporaneous information does make for a good story. But back then, I just went home and listened to the album. I was at least settled on a more obliging level of hype. I did know that she had taken part of her confusing but memorable moniker from her short-term husband, Miles Davis. But before the myth went any further, I got to the music, or more properly, the music got to me.
It’s not just the backstory or media profile that lands Betty Davis into the cult of the great but obscure (necessary qualifiers for those in-the-know) but the music itself isn’t quite like anything else. It’s hard, and I don’t mean difficult, but steely, strong. The vocals are rough, in both aural address and lyrical content.
On the other hand, it’s easy enough to cite a comparison: put They Say I’m Different up against Sly Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On. It appears it’s Betty’s attitude that makes all the difference. Certainly, double entendre and/or overt sexuality are far from unknown within the annals of African-American music, but here it comes in a new strength, and as I said, the quality of the sound coincides with the meaning of the word.
It’s funky, and though I’ve used the descriptive “in-your-face”, and all the discomfort that may cause some people, it’s also playful. As Betty states in the song “Dedicated To The Press” (which as should be inferred, directly addresses her critics), “. . . it ain’t nothing but some music, it ain’t nothing but some fun . . .” The fun is heard, on other songs from Nasty Gal, when male background vocalists deliver comedic asides; at the end of “Getting Kicked Off, Havin’ Fun” a strange voice drops the non sequitur, “I eat them with my finky fingers”.
I wasn’t considering any of that when I first listened to They Say I’m Different (Light in the Attic, 2007) it was, once again, the sound that addressed my needs, with the bass lick landing front and center. It was the shout-out quality of the title song that denotes what else makes Betty different: growing up with the blues, listening to the records spun by great granny, name checking everyone from Robert Johnson to Jimmy Reed to Chuck Berry.
Somehow parts of that also slipped by me, the way the future can be disconnected from the past in the ears of the present; like we might declare we don’t like jazz while listening to hip-hop that samples jazz. It was not until I came upon someone else’s ears, the ears of a typical East Coast hardcore blues aficionado, the type who put aside the latest R&B for what sounded, to my ears, like the warbling dead as opposed to the living artist. I put on “Walkin’ Up the Road” (from Davis’ first release) and I saw his ears perk up and I said to myself, “Of course, the blues.”
Betty Davis makes that debt clear (for those of us who, at first, weren’t so savvy): “I was brought up with the blues, and the blues is a very pure art form … Being brought up on the blues and integrating that with people I was into in the 1970s, that’s how I came into myself.” (Nasty gal: Betty Davis, Jessica Hundley, Dazed Digital, 15 June 2014) It was an update, one that surely put the sassy blues shouter into futuristic costume. Perhaps a more apt comparison, as far as her contemporaries, puts “They Say I’m Different” next to Taj Mahal’s “Going to Move up to the Country, Paint My Mailbox Blue“.
The timeframe of my discovery discounted the reissue’s media barrage, but I was still prey to a kind of a myth. When I came across the eponymously titled first album (mentioned above) I was flummoxed, having assumed that Betty had only released one album and then disappeared. I can’t be sure when or how I came across Nasty Gal, the third and last album of the ’70s, but its hardness competed well with anything punk I might have been listening to. In fact, Nasty Gal, if it’s possible, contains a harder pulse than the previous two albums. Yet another set of ears (as we drove down the road, listening to one of my mix-tapes) alerted me to the similarities in approach between a song like “This Is It” (off of Nasty Gal) and “What We All Want” by the post-punk band, Gang of Four.
It’s easy enough to understand that Betty Davis is not for everyone, that the exuberant media build-up (since her come-back) might preclude a fresh, unbiased assessment of her music. I even understand (despite my cynicism concerning the tropes of journalism) that her historical circumstances and aesthetic impetus are ready elements for the cult. But I have also seen how adherents connect to Davis’ music on a knowing, subtle level.
For a spell at the end of the ’80s, when I was living in Boston (on Mission Hill), I worked as a DJ for two French independent nightclub promoters. They would sublet a space and sponsor some kind of unique event for their entourage (and whoever else would show up). The venue I worked in landed on the city’s demarcation between black and white, edging closer to the black neighborhood than the white one. The bulk of the audience would shift accordingly, sometimes randomly, one or two nights in the direction of the neighborhood, most nights towards the producers’ contacts. I was supposed to be the what-might-be-called the “rare groove” guy, spinning danceable gems from the past mixed in with some newer hip-hop. I would try the occasional Betty Davis, but despite its hardcore funk, it wasn’t exactly what was demanded under those circumstances.
I recollect the times I spun the mix correctly, my James Brown/sampled James Brown sets. I remember how my pay went up and down, depending on the promoters’ pockets and at the end of the night, I remember anxiously waiting for a taxi, standing with crates of records on the deserted curbs outside the club at 2AM.
But what also stands out were two women, two distinct types who responded to my Betty Davis forays. One was a waitress at the nightclub, who, before the night really got under way, came into the DJ booth and in quiet, discreet and respectful manner told me that her parents used to spin Betty Davis, like it was a family secret, and anyone else who did that was “special”. The other was a friend of the promoters, who used to come and sit in the DJ booth, incredulous of the regular club-hoppers. She hadn’t heard Betty Davis’s music before, but quickly fell for it. When I played her request off of Nasty Gal, she wouldn’t dance, wouldn’t move, but simply sat, listening, with a dreamy look on her face.