André Cymone’s 1969 casts a deliberate and watchful eye toward the past, taking its title from a most tumultuous year in American history.
The chalk outline: Richard Nixon becomes president, Woodstock, Altamont, Manson, Black Panthers, Fred Hampton, and Mark Clark shot in their sleep during a raid. A lottery-based draft, failed peace negotiations and a growing suspicion of the political process and shifts in the lines that once so clearly defined it. There was a growing sense of fatigue settling in: The assassinations of Robert and John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X in years prior had set a course for the growing unrest within the nation. Traditional leaders had died or failed to chart the course toward future progress and now the shabby refuse of a once-promising counterculture had washed ashore. A nation looked at itself and winced.
Time marched on.
For all the dark clouds that gathered, there was still at least great music. Sly and The Family Stone released the forward-thinking masterpiece Stand!, the first Led Zeppelin LP rolled out, the MC5 brought Kick Out the Jams, and James Brown issued his proud rallying cry, “Say it loud I’m black and I’m proud!”
Cymone will tell you that he drew inspiration for 1969 from both the upheaval and the art. He will also tell you that recent events set in motion the notions that form the basis for this new LP. 1969 speaks to the concerns of our age and holds a deep reverence for history. It arrives just three years after The Stone, a record that ended a nearly 30-year gap in his solo discography.
After 1985’s AC, Cymone busied himself with a variety of writing and production jobs, including significant contributions to Jodi Watley’s early, classic releases. (The two were married and have a son together.) He carried production credits on Adam Ant’s 1990 effort Manners & Physique as well as the debut from Pebbles. You can also hear him on Tom Jones’ 1994 release The Lead and How to Swing It.
Speaking from his home in Los Angeles, Cymone proves a thoughtful and generous interview subject. It is, in some ways, his generosity that let in the themes and ideas heard across 1969. A few years back Cymone, the youngest of six children, found himself charged with sorting through family effects after his father died.
“Nobody else wanted to do it,” Cymone says. “A lot of his stuff was down in the basement and it was like a labyrinth. I’d just look in there and go, ‘Oh hell no.’ But I went through there and found stuff from so many different eras. He had Life and Time magazines down there from the Civil Rights era. I just wound up getting completely immersed in all of that stuff. I realized how many things about that time inspire me: the songs from back then and the history. There was so much upheaval. It was like a country trying to figure itself out, trying to sort all of those changes out.”
Cymone’s father, Fred Anderson, played music with Prince’s father, John L. Nelson, and later worked for the Minneapolis-based supercomputer firm Control Data. As Cymone thumbed through the pages of the early, mid- and late ’60s, he began thinking more deeply about what he saw and what he read. “It was like a country trying to find itself,” he offers. “It was like the nation was trying to figure out how to sort through all these changes. Everything was coming to a head.” He began wondering what kind of music he might have made during that era. “Back at that time I couldn’t play,” he says. “I didn’t know how to write, I didn’t know how to produce. Then I thought, ‘Why can’t I do something like that now?'”
In casting his artistic mind toward the past, Cymone created a record that speaks to the spirit of both ages. The opening “We All Need Somethin'” boasts a groove and vibe akin to classic Sly Stone. Though it touches on the past, it’s not a retread. There’s an intensity and sense of the now pervading the beats and lines within. Cymone’s voice, as clear and pure as ever, cuts through the buzzing guitars, funk-flavored bass and earth-shaking rhythms. “Money” marries garage rock and Afro-futuristic vibes while the poignant lyrics of “Black Man in America” and “Black Lives Matter” speak the same truths heard in classic works by Curtis Mayfield and Gil Scott-Heron. It’s hard to hold back frustration and sadness at times as one realizes that the themes Cymone touches upon in these songs (and others) are still painfully relevant nearly 50 years after 1969.
“People are starting to make the connection between that time and now,” Cymone says. “Back when I started working on this, that wasn’t so. Donald Trump was still on The Celebrity Apprentice. There was still an underlying current of unrest, especially when you talk about Michael Brown and Freddie Gray and Trayvon Martin. At some point it made sense to me to make an album that tried to point out the connections between 1969 and 2017,” He continues, “I just wanted to say, ‘We’re still circling in the same zone and we need to step outside of that and start finding the pathway forward.'”
He points to the titular piece to illustrate this point. “If you listen, there’s a broken record that’s playing in the background. At the start there’s a woman talking about a young man being shot, at the end, it’s a man saying the exact same thing. It’s a broken record. It’s symbolic of where we’re at.”
In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, a number of racially-motived crimes have come to light and there are suggestions that the cultural divide in the United States is deepening. For some, the notion that their co-worker or neighbor harbors racially-charged animosity may come as a surprise at time just a few years after some were proclaiming that we lived in a post-racial America. Had we actually moved forward? Have we actually moved back?
Cymone offers this: “There were songs that I had written where I thought, ‘That will never see the light of day.’ They were reflective of a state of mind and a mentality that I thought the world had moved beyond. I guess what some people didn’t understand was that there was always an undercurrent. I still don’t think that it’s a majority. But it’s frustrating. It’s like if you learn how to walk and you break both your legs and you gotta start all over again.”
He adds that his artistic thoughts aren’t focused solely on struggles within the United States. “The other day I wrote a song about Syria,” he says. “I think music has been so marginalized and placed within such a sad state within our consciousness, it’s become almost nonsense. Just noise. But music is so powerful and I think that if people can come back to that reality we’ll be better off.”
Cymone’s interest in social justice was a determining factor in his return to music. “I think when these atrocities happen, somebody needs to step up and say something,” he says. “Whether it’s writing a song or picking up a pen and just writing words on a page.”
Speaking to the questions of the day, he says, was part of his mission from the start. It was a vision that he shared with his friend and bandmate Prince.
“Part of the reason I stepped away from music was that I figured, ‘Hey, he’s got this.’ When we first started out we were always talking about the things that I’m saying right now. The people, the artist and what’s going on in society,” he recalls. “We were going to be these musical vigilantes. All this stuff that you say when you’re 13-14-years-old. That always stuck with me. He was able to do stuff like that. I wanted to do stuff like that but my record company would cut out the charts for the Top Ten R&B acts and say, ‘We signed you so you’d do stuff like this.’ I said, ‘You know what? I’m not going to record anymore.'”
Cymone’s re-emergence as a solo artist began in 2012 with the release of the single “America”, intended to benefit Barack Obama’s reelection efforts. An appearance on the 2013 compilation Purple Snow, which examined the foundations upon which Prince built his sonic empire, generated more talk as fans began to wonder why they hadn’t heard more from Cymone. By early the following year he’d issued his first full-length recording since 1985, The Stone.
It had its feet in the contemporary though it also acknowledged his artistic past. Anyone expecting a tentative, meandering effort with no flare was sure to be disappointed. He followed that in 2016 with the EP Black Man in America, which burned white hot in its frustrations and musical ingenuity. If anyone had considered his return temporary, they needn’t have worried.
It becomes apparent, speaking with Cymone, that he considers this reemergence permanent. His mission, he says, remains to speak loudly about perceived injustices, citing a number of artists who were at the forefront of social consciousness in the year 1969, including John Lennon. He points to Bob Dylan’s 1964 cut “The Times They Are a-Changin'”, a song he’s been covering of late. “It’s as relevant today as when he wrote it,” Cymone says. “Turbulent times then, turbulent times now.”
By 1969, Dylan had essentially abandoned the material from the earlier part of his career. These would become the “finger-pointin'” songs that would remain part of his repertoire but which would ultimately represent a small portion of his output. That said, it’s hard to imagine an artist recording music in the twilight of the ’60s who didn’t have some political tinge to their work. Though some music historians have suggested that Jimi Hendrix was virtually apolitical, that his rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” at Woodstock was more an homage to the enlisted and the dead and that “Machine Gun” was his only real direct acknowledgement of the Vietnam war, Cymone shoots laser focus to the late guitarist’s eye and ear for social upheaval and unrest.
“He was a living, breathing political statement,” Cymone says with one of his characteristically warm laughs. “His look, the fact that he was out there doing what he was at the time. For a black man? It wasn’t like it wasn’t being done at all. You had Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters. Blues men. But nobody was doing it the same way in rock. It was psychedelic But you can take ‘Castles Made of Sand’:
A little Indian brave before he was ten
Played war games in the woods with his Indian friends
And he built a dream that when he grew up
He would be a fearless Indian chief
Many moons passed, and more the dream grew strong until
Tomorrow he would sing his first war song and fight his first battle
But something went wrong, surprise attack killed him in his sleep that night
“He talks about domestic violence in the first verse, then the crippled girl who couldn’t speak a sound,” Cymone says. “There’s a lot of political things that are all in that but I think a lot of times that stuff goes by people. But the message is, ‘You should build your foundation on solid ground.’ It’s poetic and political at the same time.”
That Cymone can recall an entire verse of Hendrix lyrics is perhaps no surprise given the musical obsession that visited him at an early age. He recalls staring at record labels and picking apart logos and liner notes, every part of the packaging. And more.
“I got in trouble for taking my stereo apart and putting it back together,” he says. “It was this thing that my dad would always tease me about because there were three or four screws left over. He kept them and said, ‘If you ever figure out where they go, I want to put them back where they were.'”
Today, the musician wonders if an absence of tangible product has changed the relationship listeners have with music itself. Though he’s quick to point out that he doesn’t constantly pine for a bygone era he’s adamant that forming a physical bond with albums is integral to one’s relationship to the music contained on them. He points to a time more than a decade back when he was offered a position as a label executive. Though he turned it down without hesitation, he warned a colleague about the coming days of streaming and downloads. Surveying a world in which Napster and Kazaa were finding purchase in the marketplace, he told his would-be colleague to monitor the trend closely.
“People wonder why there are only 12 major artists now. You look around at awards shows and it’s the same faces,” Cymone says. “Music is all about your phone plan now. Record companies get paid in different ways and it’s not in anybody’s interest to change anything. But people are getting music that’s been so dumbed down that I don’t blame them for wanting to get it for free. I wouldn’t want to pay for a lot of that stuff.”
When it comes to creating with new technology, he’s equally cautious. “I don’t think you can ever simulate real writing, real storytelling, you gotta learn how to play. There’s a road of discovery there. You can try to write hit songs and get on the radio and all of that but if you’re a real musician you realize that’s not what it’s all about. It’s about playing.”
The conversation turns to the moment when imitation becomes inspiration, when one struggles to learn another artist’s work, makes a mistake and then discovers that the mistake is a conversation starter, the path to a new form of expression.
“I have to give a lot of the British blues artists,” Cymone says, “because they never forgot where they got their inspiration. They always gave credit to some of those old black blues artists. I get into trouble for this but I think black folks hardly ever give their own history any love. You think about Chuck Berry. That dude is the king of rock ‘n’ roll. Period. He came up with the massive part of the concept, along with Little Richard. But it takes another culture to step in and say, ‘You know what? These guys were amazing. They shaped my teenage years, there needs to be a movie about this!’
“Who does it? Keith Richards. He steps up and makes a film [Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll]. They argued like cats and dogs but Keith took the time and put Chuck Berry out there. They did the same for Howlin’ Wolf. They put him on Shindig when there were people who had no idea who he was. I get into trouble with some of my friends when I talk about how people need to step it up. Things get glorified that don’t need to be glorified but forget about things that were pivotal to a lot of peoples’ lives.”
He points to a line of artists that includes Curtis Mayfield, whose incisive looks at American life in the ’60s and ’70s is frequently overlooked in the contemporary landscape to James Brown. “At a time when a lot of blacks were feeling marginalized he was saying, ‘Say it loud, you’re black and you’re proud,'” Cymone offers. “There’s nothing to be ashamed about. I think it was important for him to make that statement. I think it’s important for Muslims to make statements right now. When people are being held down and being discriminated against you have to get out of the local mindset and talk about the world that we are in now.”
He adds, “I think there was a time when America was stretching out and trying to become what it became. I think other parts of the world are going through the same thing now. We can’t look at it like, ‘There’s an American over here. An Asian over here. A European here.’ It’s global. That’s how we need to look at it. We need to look at everybody as our brothers.”
If the lyrics found across 1969 said anything less than that when taken as a whole, one could suggest that Cymone was just another artist speaking in platitudes. But like, Mayfield, Brown, Berry, and others he’s proven himself a man and artist with convictions that step out of the speakers and into our lives. Maybe, too, these convictions will let the needle come unstuck from the groove and allow us to march toward some better tomorrow where we stand under stars, bathed in their scintillating beauty.