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JT had a lot of baggage (mousey, boy band and otherwise) to unload before I could give him full soul-man props, but he’s lately earned the title. It’s one that he could certainly hold on his own, even though he keeps casting around for a little help.
I’ve never been a huge Jay-Z fan, but it’s no surprise that Justin has to wear his affiliation with Mr. Carter to earn some teen and young-adult street cred. After all, the neo soul that JT now perpetrates would technically sit better with folks of an earlier generation without Jay-Z being glommed on there for broader demographic appeal.
Nonetheless, my awesome cousin Catherine sent me a message via Facebook today announcing this as her new favorite song and a worthy Funky Friday pick. And really, how could I refuse?
If Barry White doesn’t do it for you in the romantic slow-jam department, I’m sure this one might make a good substitute. I’m just going on record (as I must do with all Barry White and Sade songs) as saying that I take no responsibility for any babies manufactured during the consumption of this tune.
My son and I had a conversation the other day that went like this:
Him: “Dad, I don’t understand how some people can listen to music on their earbuds and stay perfectly still.”
Me: “Me, either. Sometimes when I’m listening to music on the train I worry that I’ll be unable to control myself and leap into the aisle dancing like a maniac.”
Him: (Gut-busting laughter)
Granted, the sight of me dressed for “legitimate” work and suddenly busting a move on the commuter express into Philadelphia is pretty funny, but that’s not really an exaggeration. Despite the near ubiquity of earbuds (discrete, once considered cool) or those giant headphones I remember bumming off my dad to make mixtapes (now inconvenient, burdensome and therefore hipster cool), you see very few people publicly responding to the music they’re listening to.
I’m a little biased. I’m the guy you pull up next to on the road who’s singing at the top of his lungs in the car. I’m the guy on the train who simply can’t restrain some little form of rhythmic movement, whether it’s a finger tap or a head bob. God help me if I was a hardcore Rush fan, because I’d either careen off the road or injure my seatmate on the train during the drum solo for “Tom Sawyer.”
Even at live shows it’s unusual these days to see folks really getting into music. Exuberance seems to now be placed alongside social disfunction or mental illness. Honestly, I’d much rather be the crazy guy at the front of the stage dancing and singing the lyrics to every single song than the self-important turd standing in the middle of the room displaying no response whatsoever – no head bop, no finger pop, no air guitar … nothing.
Is that really how you enjoy music? If so, I’m revoking your music card, because you’re obviously not worthy of it.
I’m not going to call for you to dance like no one is watching, A) because that’s been said so many times it now only belongs on lame motivational posters, and B) because someone is always watching. But I will say this. Remember to feel the music once in a while. Tap a foot, play bass on your thigh, or break down and push your pelvis.
So for those about to shake your groove thangs, I salute you.
OK, lemme ‘splain.
Anyone who’s read this blog … you know – ever – has a pretty good idea that I’m an Elvis Costello fan from way back, and there’s a good reason: I consider my discovery of Costello on par with my initiation into a musical world that included the Beatles as its foundation.
But I’ve never really explained why.
Better than why, I’ll explain when. It was 1983, and I was 15, riding with my dad in his tiny Chevy pickup truck to help him out with a rehearsal for a play he was directing at the Chapel Street Playhouse, a tiny but very active community theater in Newark, Del. As we got closer to the theater, this song came on the radio – likely longstanding Wilmington, Del., Top 40 station WSTW. Something about the opening piano chords with the bass guitar right up front grabbed me, then the singer’s falsetto kicked in, followed by a more normal register, and the sound of the female background singers.
That’s about 20 seconds into the song. And man, I was hooked. I did something I rarely did. I asked my dad to just sit there in the parking lot and leave the radio on while I listened to the rest of the song, which turned out to be about a lovelorn writer using literary imagery to explain the ups and downs of a romantic relationship.
OK, I thought. You got me. I’m done. Who is this guy?
But the DJ didn’t say. Because this was the Stone Ages, when there was no handy digital display to tell you the artist if the DJ neglected to, I was in the dark. When I got home, I was doubly in the dark, because my family had no cable TV, and thus no MTV. That might have been the last time I heard it on the radio.
Sadly, even though the song was on the 1983 album Punch the Clock, it took me until 1985 to actually own the song with the release of The Best of Elvis Costello and the Attractions in 1985. It contained the single I had heard – “Every Day I Write the Book” – as well as enough cuts from his back catalog to make me want to investigate further.
What I found was not a gold mine but a friggin’ platinum mine. Here’s this skinny dork (hello, 115-pound theater nerd 11th-grader) who not only rocks with this weird amalgam of new wave pop and pissed-off punk, but who is obviously literate. His songs, dense with words and metaphor and cross references, were like novellas in themselves.
Since then I’ve been a permanent fan, and pretty much anyone who knows me well is aware of this. Example: When I met up for lunch with a former college girlfriend a few years after graduation, one of her first questions as we made awkward smalltalk was, “Still like Elvis Costello?”
I wanted to say, “Yes, because he A) Didn’t break up with me, and B) Writes great brokenhearted nerd songs that helped me get over you.”
But it was more than that. I admired not only the literary quality of the songs, but the fact that his style was all over the map. One minute he was channeling pop-punk rage, while the other he was crooning a country song or paying homage to the sweet harmonies of Motown.
It was that ability to adapt and cross genres that, in the end, kept me as a fan. And, as it turns out, those same qualities are frequently what I look for in the authors I read and the ones I try to apply to my own writing.
As much as I love science fiction in books, film and TV, it’s the work that is able to admit that it’s other things that really grabs me. For instance, one of my favorite authors is Christopher Moore. If you’ve ever read his work, you know he’s hard to pin down as far as genre. Does he write humorous fantasy? Fantastic humor? Is it horror? Scifi? Occult? Why does he say the F-word so much?
Exactly! You never really know where he’s going – only that along the way you will be taken on an absurd and ultimately sweet adventure. Whether it’s a Pacific Island cargo cult, a pesky Native American trickster spirit or a rumination on what happened during the “lost” years in the life of Jesus, you will laugh and you will encounter elements of the weird, fantastic, science-fictional and – occasionally – the kinky and naughty.
Another example: I just watched the movie Safety Not Guaranteed, about a team of magazine writers pursuing a story about the guy behind a classified ad seeking a time travel companion.
Is it science fiction because there’s the prospect – real or imagined – of time travel? I say yes. But what makes it great is that around that conceit is a deep story of real people trying to recapture lost time or bygone days. The emotions are true and the situations believable, even if, at the center of things, is a concept that goes back to the earliest science fiction novels. The same could be said for films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Seeking a Friend for the End of the World.
So, how does this all relate back to the funk mentioned in this post’s title?
In his latest collaboration, Elvis Costello has teamed with perhaps The Best Band in the World, The Roots (hailing from my adopted metro area of Philadelphia), working together to fuse The Roots’ particular brand of neo-soul, funk, hip hop and R&B to Costello’s dense storytelling. It’s what makes me love Costello still, repackaged and re-purposed with a funky back beat, a driving horn section and a noir feel that he hasn’t inhabited in years.
There’s no fear as both he and The Roots venture into uncharted waters of creativity, and the result, as it frequently is when fear is cast aside and new frontiers are explored, are extraordinary.
Some of you might actually be old enough to remember making good, old-fashioned mix tapes (if you do you’ll know the significance of the picture above).
Maybe. But since I have no way to track the demographics of this blog other than by geography, for all I know every one of you could be 8-year-olds sneaking a peek behind your third-grade teacher’s back.
But I’ll assume that if some of you might not be able to remember making a mix tape, you’re at least old enough to be familiar with the concept.
Let me be clear – we’re talking about a mix TAPE here. Not a burned CD. Not an iPod or online playlist.
It’s a tape. That you mix. Yourself.
If you’ve never done this, here’s a short tutorial, compliments of one Mr. Cusack.
Yes, there are indeed rules – rules that you can only learn by doing exactly what John is doing in that clip, which is sitting in front of a stereo system with stacks of records and tapes and CDs and hand selecting the songs you are going to painstakingly record onto a compact cassette of magnetic tape over the course of several hours.
It is an act of artistic devotion. An expression of love. A declaration to the universe and every person that ever rummages through your music collection that this – THIS – is what you believe is music that deserves to be listened to over and over again.
Yes, iPod playlists or other digital media accomplish basically the same thing, Actually, this isn’t the first time I’ve written about musical mixology. In working on Immaculate Deception, I went so far as to create a custom-mixed “soundtrack” for the novel – an album-length collection of music that complemented and/or inspired the narrative. Early readers of the novel got custom burned CDs as little hand-crafted thank-you gifts.
But actual mix tapes were beautiful for one very important reason: whether intended or not, they became artifacts of specific times, places and emotions.
Want to know what songs you compiled to accompany that last minute road trip to the beach the summer before college? There it is, sitting in a long-overlooked box, in its sturdy plastic case, the ball-point lettering on the song list long faded.
Want to know what songs you put together for that desperate first love? Ha! Too bad! Chances are you can’t (unless you married your first love) because you gave it to her as a token of your deep affection and she either threw it away in disgust over your cheating/boring/politically untenable nature or has treasured it always as a symbol of something dear and true she once had.
How about the mix for that Michael Bey-scale epic kegger your junior year? Ha! That’s lost, too, purloined by a friend or random guest who lifted it from the stereo after everyone else had passed out or retired to a corner or their room for less musical (but more rhythmic) activities. But somewhere that person might still have that tape.
And even if it ends up in a landfill, when the aliens come to excavate a dead Earth thousands of years from now, Flmbrg, commander of the interstellar expedition, might dig it up and consider it on par with the cryptic cave paintings of Neanderthals.
And in essence, that’s what a real mix tape is – something that serves as a musical complement to something in life, whether it’s a love affair, break up, an epic party or just … hell, I don’t know, Monday morning.