When I wasn’t playing records in the 70s, I was listening to FM radio. Early FM was a euphemism for underground music, serious DJs and few ads, before the format gurus bought up all the good stations and turned them into clones of each other.
I was absorbed in late Beatles, Hendrix, Cream ‘cause I saw them once, then Traffic, Blind Faith and Allman Brothers ‘cause those boys I saw so many times, Santana, Buffalo Springfield, then CSN&Y; Joni Mitchell–it was a long, glorious list such that Marvin Gaye barely made it through the haze.
Seemed like the soul brother was trying to go long-hair with this song, Inner City Blues. He’d always been the cool crooner, only now he was finding some serious stuff to mull over. This song was anthem material if you lived in the inner city. Inner city meaning ghetto. Russian oligarchs didn’t own penthouses in Brooklyn then. The vocals Marvin Gaye sang made the point without raising an eyebrow, like whatever anger he held inside was redirected to these soulful observations. Then What’s Goin’ On, Mercy, Mercy Me and I needed to start paying attention.
We did a field trip to Bed Stuy in ‘72. Took a couple rented vans down from Yale to study the community development beginning in the ghetto. Originally sponsored by Robert Kennedy, the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation was attempting what seemed like an impossible task: raising the black community from poverty through the creation of new businesses, better jobs, housing and schools. To a Southern outsider, it was difficult to see the difference from places like the Bronx where you did not want to break down driving that I-95 canyon carved through the inner city, Robert Moses’ knifing of a once-vibrant community. I’ll admit it’s always been a challenge to look past the ruined places in New York City to ever want to live there.
Until his Inner City Blues did, Marvin Gaye’s singing didn’t grab me. Too much in the Motown soul vein. Stevie Wonder’s work went deeper earlier. A song like Superstition has that driving rock beat with Wonder’s syncopated organ chops. Innervisions and Songs in the Key of Life stand out in a time when there was so much good rock music being recorded. Marvin Gaye was the more traditional Motown artist. They both came out of Berry Gordy’s Motown Records; both got their starts at Motown.
Hitsville: The Making of Motown was on Showtime this past August. Back at the height of Motown Records heyday, I wasn’t too interested. Early Temptations maybe, the first couple of Supremes’ hits. Then Stevie Wonder and Marvin came along. Berry Gordy and Smokey Robinson are the main spokesmen. Well worth watching.
So while I wasn’t particularly engaged in Motown, it didn’t mean it could be ignored; the larger country wasn’t about to ignore it. Motown led the country into another part of black culture, based on the blues, on jazz. Whatever black musicians were brewing, the larger American culture–the world–benefited.
I began this piece last month after watching the Louis Gates’ program on the Reconstruction Era, a several hours’ recounting of hate. Gates calmly tells the history like he’s inured to it, though he couldn’t be further from that. If I had been dragged off a boat in chains, whipped, raped, starved of family and a future, hung from trees, I’d never find it in my heart to forgive like the preachers said I should. I know for dead certain I’d never be a Christian–the religion of a hypocritically hateful culture. And I couldn’t find much solace in the blues either. Make me wanna holler.
When they write the full story about blacks in America, I hope they remember to depict how close we, in the 60s and 70s, lived in their music. We being the country’s larger culture. How is it you can beat a man with chains, cheat him, abuse his children and love his music? What kind of hate does that? The optimistic view is that we learn–ever so slowly, though we do.
The Case for Reparations is a New Yorker interview with Ta-Nehisi Coates. I read Coates’ essay in his book We Were Eight Years in Power. In the book’s intro, Coates makes the sly comment about the book’s title referring to the brief Reconstruction Era, before blacks were driven out of government when white racists reclaimed their rule in the South–and not Obama’s eight years in office.
In the original Atlantic essay, The Case for Reparations Coates approaches the subject primarily as one of justice. Like a good lawyer he lays out the facts of an ongoing subjugation. On that level, it’s hard to dispute. But as I read the essay, what kept running through my mind was: what’s the goal–what can we accomplish? Tell me that and I’m on board.
The Virginia Theological Seminary announced they were establishing a $1.7M fund. The Washington Post article article explains the seminary’s history associated with slavery. Georgetown University students (students, mind) are self-taxing themselves toward a similar position
How can you kill your own son? So many stupid ways it seems. Marvin Gaye's Death How do you bring ruination down on your own country? Same way. Steal from your brothers and sisters and claim it’s your right. Insult and belittle them until they believe it themselves: we don’t need those people. We’re far better, smarter–OK, meaner and more selfish, but it’s all good. Until it isn’t anymore. Until African Americans (and Native Americans) are fully free, none of us will ever be.
That’s what Martin Luther King preached.