The Words We Use To Describe: Cherish, 1971

A recent project – compiling a playlist for *ahem* a certain recent milestone birthday – reminded me of my earliest music memory.

I’m almost 3, and it’s Christmas – which would make it 1971.

It’s a pretty simple memory, really. I’m in the kitchen with my mother and my sisters. I remember the tiles on the backsplash, the white countertop specked with small gold flakes.

I remember Mom and my sisters laughing.

I can see the cookie sheets, an occasional cloud of flour making my sister sneeze. I’m watching them put the cookies in the oven, or in the case of Mom’s no bake cookies, in the fridge.

A song comes on the radio. It is Cherish by the Association.

That song was released in 1966, so it’s a few years old at this point.

It should be stated here that Cherish is a love song. Most of the lyrics speak to the author’s longing for a particular woman, and the narrative builds through the song. Listeners assume this is a well meaning man in love, though in today’s world we might find the lyrics a bit stalkery.

(There’s a problematic line about the protagonist wanting to “mold you into someone” that may have sounded kosher at the time, but would raise eyebrows today.)

My little almost-three year old brain didn’t catch any of those nuances, though. I just remember the sounds, and the way the music made me feel.

I remember the warmth of that kitchen, and the snow falling outside, and the voices on the radio.

The bells chiming on this song….I admit, until I was much older, I thought this was a Christmas song! Silly, but true.

And that ending! I’m a sucker for songs that kick up an octave at the end. And a chorus of of voices doing that? Gets me every time.

It was a song about love, and to me, a song about the memories and the people we cherish.

I still think of Christmas almost every time I hear it, and of that memory. It’s become much more meaningful to me in recent years. Of the three women in that room, in that memory? Only one is still alive.

So sometimes, when I hear that song, I take a bittersweet time machine back to that moment, those few minutes of sweetness, emerging always with tears in my eyes, but glad for the visit.

Cherish is the word I use to describe
All the feeling
That I have hiding here for you inside

And I do 
Cherish you
And I do 
Cherish you

 

Pride: (You Make Me Feel) Mighty Real, 1978

The selection of this song might seem too on the nose for a post celebrating Pride. But…read on. 

I first heard this particular song in the 1990s, around the time I went to my first gay bar.

Disco was not new to me; I’d heard a lot of the most popular disco acts on the radio as a kid, including The Bee Gees, the Village People and Donna Summer, the queen of disco.

I was around 9 or 10 when suddenly, disco was NO LONGER COOL. 10 year olds are all about this shit, see, who’s cool and who isn’t. We took notes, and promptly shunned what needed to be shunned.

It was also around that time when most of the musicians we’d heard all through the 70s gave way for new artists, like Blondie, who had some of that disco feel with a new, edgy urgency.

Disco was a dirty word for years, so I was surprised when I came out, and started hearing many old favorites within the walls of a gay bar or nightclub.

One night, during a drag performance, one of the queens sang “Enough Is Enough,” replacing “he turned out to be like any other” with “he turned out to be a motherfucker!”

The early 90s had its own popular dance music acts, but as the clubs inched toward closing time, the sounds of Black Box, Janet Jackson or Madonna would inevitably give way to a thumping disco classic or two, which brought everyone out onto the floor.

The club was the first place I’d heard “Mighty Real.”

Well, okay. If I’m being honest, it was the second place.

The first place I ever heard about that song? In my suburban bubble, that first place was  Miss Sandra Bernhard, and my well worn copy of “Without You I’m Nothing.”

There’s a movie version of this, too, but the recorded version is just….amazing.

Before call out culture was even a thing, there was Sandy B, pointing out hypocrisy: “It’s 1988, and you can PRETEND that you’re straight….”

It’s now 2018, and we know things have changed. Certainly, there have been steps forward – LGBTQ people have the right to marry, and increased – if not comprehensive – legal protections in other matters.

But we also have turmoil at the federal level, at an institutional level, that is trying to reverse that.

Media representations of LGBTQ lives have certainly improved by leaps and bounds. But we still have celebrities hiding in the closet, still have the same dividing lines, especially in a time where Them Vs. Us has been elevated to an ugly spectacle of theater.

Many LGBTQ people, even the most loved, embraced and accepted, still feel a duality of sorts. We have to bring out different sides of ourselves around different people. Family gets one presentation, work gets another, friends get yet another.

It’s that way for me, anyway, a result of having to build those compartments years ago.

What does this have to do with disco?

Well, like I said, that whole business where disco was cool – and then it suddenly wasn’t.

I could only hear those changes on the radio, but in Chicago, it took the form of a riot.

If you don’t feel like watching that clip, let me give you the Cliff Notes version: A moronic radio DJ named Steve Dahl worked at a rock station and organized a “Disco Demolition” to burn those hideous disco records that he and his listeners disliked.

This event was supposed to be a “fun” halftime happening during a White Sox game. It ended up shutting the place down, because people rioted.

I’ve heard plenty of justifications for it – that it was a reaction to the oversaturation of disco on the radio, that it was bored teenagers – but it was a huge stadium of straight white men raging, angrily, at the “other” that this music represented.

Because disco was definitely music embraced and created by and for people of color, and by, and for, LGBTQ people.

Dahl has since spoken about this event many times. I am not a fan of his and do not wish to enrich him further on the matter, so enough said about him. The reactions by others have been analyzed in many forms and formats: another excellent summary can be read here.

And so disco crawled back into the underground. It fed the R&B sounds of the early 80s – certainly, disco influenced Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall and Thriller, and, with a rougher edge and some guitars, came through in mainstream R&B, as well as a hybrid of R&B and rock like Prince.

But the exuberance of disco, that undefinable WOW about it? It came home to the clubs, where I eventually heard it in the 90s.

One of my dreams, if I could dream any dream and make it come into existence? Is to create, or write, a TV show. Network, streaming, cable, web series, whatever.

And while others have tried and failed at capturing the 70s music scene – especially the high profile failure of Vinyl – I think about how often that story has been told from the same perspective. Mostly rock and roll, mostly middle age white guys reminiscing about their days as working class punks.

My vinyl collection has a lot of disco, many artists that I never heard about the first time around. And I keep thinking that I’d love to create (or help create) THAT story, from that perspective. The story of how people of color and gay people lifted this music, created it, grabbed a small piece of the spotlight.

A taste of power, of glory, before the demolition. Before AIDS.

That sounds like quite a story, doesn’t it? Several seasons’ worth of story, at least. Still relevant today – with many of the groups still marginalized. A rich story with two big cultures in the middle of it.

Anyway, back to feeling Mighty Real.

I wanted to share this clip. I just discovered it in the last month or so, and it knocked me off my feet.

American Bandstand was a weekly fixture on TV, but I never saw this when it was originally on, way back in 1978, when I was all of nine years old.

It’s all lip synch, smoke and mirrors, but I see Sylvester, Martha Wash, and Izora Armstead, and I ***hear*** the audience.

This is a crowd that LOVED them. A crowd like I’d never seen before on Bandstand, and wouldn’t see again until the New Wave age, until the likes of Madonna appeared on the show.

In the center, Sylvester – a performer that defies categorization. A truly singular artist. The epicenter of the disco scene. A double threat, both black and gay, emerging from a gospel background.

I hear the audience’s applause, the acceptance, the love, and wonder what life would have been like for me had I seen this – had I know sooner that such a corner of the world existed.

There will forever be a part of me behind a brick wall, a duality that many people of color and LGBTQ people are familiar with – the one where you have to hide a piece of your authentic self to protect yourself, to protect blows and punches and violence.

No matter how much the world has changed, a part of me will always find myself in vigilance mode, protecting myself and my crew, remembering when I watched sentry in my younger days, the walls of our clubs and bars and meeting places the one space where we felt truly free.

Save me from suburbia: Boy George’s journey

BBC title card for “Save Me From Suburbia” (Internet photo)

Boy George has been part of a few posts here: one of the main musical sense memories I’ve posted here, talking about the impact he had on me as a young music fan and young gay man, opening  doors in the world at large and in my mind.

He’s also a part of a Christmas post, too. 

George participated in a BBC documentary, “Save Me From Suburbia,” and he, too, had a few guides that opened his world and his mind, out of the dreariness of 1970s suburbia.

It’s available (for the time being) on YouTube here in the States.

I’ve always appreciated and loved George. He has been honest and vulnerable in his art and in his life, sometimes at high cost.

I found the documentary fascinating, providing some great insights into not just his life but the entire scene. And I loved it when he was crate digging vinyl and playing a Bowie LP.

He said something that struck a chord in me, that (and I’m paraphrasing) vinyl records as a physical object are like a talisman or sacred object to many of us.

Such an amazing film, Do check it out.

I’m glad he’s still here, and that he’s still creating and putting his energy out into the world.

Record Store Day 2017

pexels-photo-89845

I’m beginning to wonder if my record collecting hobby has crossed the line from “hobby” to “addiction.”

I mean, I’m traveling a few times this year and part of my travel plans now include researching all the best record stores in town.

But I think the Record Store Day event is a real test of hobby vs addiction…..and it’s one I’ll probably fail.

I’m not competitive. And usually, I am not a “stand in line” kind of person. The idea of being in a long queue for something that will likely be gone by the time I get inside? I mean, why don’t I just punch myself in the face instead.

But there’s one thing – ONE reissue – on the #RSD17 list that has long been on my Ten Most Wanted List.

And so, come April 22, I’ll be in line somewhere. I’m trying to figure out the best place to go – do I go to the popular place in the city, hoping they’ll have secured more than one copy? Or do I go to that store in the ‘burbs, where I might have a better chance of scoring the sole copy he’ll get in stock?

How early is too early to wait in line? Should I bring cookies? All terribly important questions, of course.

Note: this is mostly humorous / tongue in cheek. Mostly….

P.S. This fuss is all for ONE record on the US RSD list. As if to further torment me, there are two additional must-haves on the UK/Europe list. 

The Stepney Connection

I’m been feeding my vinyl record addiction for almost a year now! My collection has grown by leaps and bounds.

A big chunk of it is music I had on vinyl years ago, or music I already own on MP3. But I’ve also discovered some music that’s new to me.

I’ve been asked if I have a favorite record in my collection, or a favorite discovery. I really like them all, but I have to say, I’ve really enjoyed falling into one particular rabbit hole: learning about and collecting music on Cadet Records.

Cadet was one of the Chess Records labels, and its prominence was in the late 1960s and 1970s.

And the primary force that shaped a lot of the records I’ve collected was a man named Charles Stepney.

Stepney was a musician and a classically trained arranger. At Cadet, he became a producer. The acts that he worked with all had a remarkably unique sound. It blended contemporary pop music of the day with soul, and in some cases, with a bit of psychedelic rock.

The band Rotary Connection was one of the main acts Stepney worked with (he was also a member). It was a supergroup of sorts, including some famous names like Terry Collier and Phil Upchurch, and a singer who’d worked in the label’s offices, a young woman you might have heard of named Minnie Riperton.

Stepney would produce Riperton’s first solo album. She’d go on to record other songs, of course, including her most famous track, “Lovin’ You.”

I loved this Stepney sound, so I started to look for it. Easy enough, as almost all of it appeared on the Cadet label. I’ve collected a lot of these albums, so here’s a sample for you of the “Stepney Sound.”

“Oh, By The Way” – Minnie Riperton

“I Am The Black Gold Of The Sun” – Rotary Connection

A stunning cover of “Wichita Lineman/By The Time I Get To Phoenix” by the Dells:

I dare you to find a song as cool as Marlena Shaw’s “California Soul,” also produced by Stepney.

Deniece Williams – “Free”

And Ramsey Lewis – “Sun Goddess”

There’s a few more artists Stepney worked with whose albums I haven’t added to my collection just yet. And oh, yeah – there’s a band who he also helped out, helped them define their sound.

Maybe you’ve heard of them – Earth, Wind and Fire?

Indeed, both Stepney and EWF’s Maurice White worked together on a number of projects in the 1970s, including the Deniece Williams and Ramsey Lewis albums I’ve posted above.

Sadly, Stepney died of a heart attack in 1976. His family has been fighting for some time to gain both recognition for his work and the proper compensation for it, arguing that some of the record companies and publishers he worked with didn’t pay him what they owed him (and now owe his estate).

The story of Cadet, and of the Stepney sound, seems like a no-brainer for a book or movie. But a number of the figures in that story are no longer here. It was only a few years after Stepney’s death that Minnie Riperton lost her battle with cancer. Maurice White died in 2016.

It’s been exciting to hear each new discovery – new to me – of the work of Stepney and of the amazing artists and collaborations.

And it’s been cool to learn more about Chicago and its place in music history. My husband and I lived, for a time, just a few blocks from the Ter-Mar studios on South Michigan Avenue, where almost all of these albums were recorded.

The Stepney Sound may be classic music that is new to me, but it’s impossible to hear it and not get a sense of its substantial influence on so many contemporary artists, especially neo-soul and rap artists.

Memory: Hounds Of Love, 1985

NOTE: While this blog has evolved, and is focusing on vinyl record collecting, its original intent was as my “music memoir.” I’ll still occasionally post memoir-related content – like this new post. 

I am seventeen.

I am in the house where I grew up, in the bedroom I’ve had to myself since I was twelve.

It’s eleven p.m. I am fed. I am warm. I am safe – for the night.

And more than anything else, I want to die.

*****

Everything is fine at home. Every once in a while, my brother’s kind of an asshole to me. But nothing crazy.

We all get along. We have our edges, but nobody’s perfect, right?

I’m OK when I’m inside the house.

But school? School isn’t safe.

It’s always been clear: I am different. As I got older, the differences became bigger, louder. I hit the Triple Crown of different in high school: the smart kid, the fat kid, the gay kid.

School is war. This is not an exaggeration. I cannot walk from one classroom to another without being punched, or kicked, or spat upon.

In my senior year, adults are joining in the fun. The principal. The vice principal. The gym teacher, who looks like Mike Pence, tells the students in his classes on our first day: “Make this faggot drop out.”

I have no more strength to fight. I want to die.

******

There are albums that have changed my life. It is fair to say that Hounds of Love may have saved my life. It saved me on many of those nights, the ones that filled the gaps between school days.

The entire album is a masterpiece. But the second part of the album is all of a piece. It is called “The Ninth Wave.”

It is beautiful, sad, haunting. And when I listen to it, all of a piece, it is cathartic.

To describe the music is to risk projecting my interpretation on yours, but I’ll try to sketch out the basic points.

In the beginning, there’s a sense of peace (“And Dream of Sheep.”) That turns to fear and darkness,  a feeling of being chased.

Conflict plays out, and then there’s a song that – well, I can’t really describe “Hello Earth.” It’s beautiful, and sacred, and it makes me cry every time I hear it.

It reminded me that, no matter how tough things were at the moment, there was something much bigger than me out there. The world, and all of its interconnectedness, was much bigger than me, much bigger than my situation.

The album ends on a hopeful, positive note.

*******

I survived. I graduated. I’m still here.

Kate Bush is still here, too. I wish I’d been able to go to England a few years ago, when she performed live for the first time in almost 30 years, in a multi-night residency.

The title of that tour, Before The Dawn, made me think of all those turbulent high school nights I spent listening to Hounds of Love. 

She performed The Ninth Wave in its entirety. I would have been in tears the whole time, on the journey with Kate and the musicians, thankful for its beauty, thankful for its ability to transport me, figuratively and literally.

I may be well into the throes of middle age, but I must admit: the world seems less safe to me these days. Those same feelings of being chased, being haunted? They’re emerging again, in my peripheral vision. I’m unclear what the future might bring.

Perhaps I need a reminder that there is something bigger than just me out there. The next time I have to fight for my life, I know it’s not just me.

4 things I’ve learned as a newbie vinyl collector

Everyone loves this album - everyone except your local record store.
Everyone loves this album – everyone except your local record store when you try to sell it to them.

Diving head first into the vinyl collector’s rabbit hole has been a lot of fun.

My first records were vinyl, so when I started my new collection, I though I knew everything I needed to know about it all.

But there’s a lot I’ve learned. Here’s a few points I’ll share.

(1) THAT PATCH AT THE END OF THE RECORD MEANS SOMETHING: I always thought that the end of a record was, well, just the end of the groove. A signal, if you will, communicating with the record player’s arm and needle.

But it’s called a runout, and among other things, it has information about the record you’ve bought. Some records can have dozens of different pressings, original issues and reissues, and the information in the runout can help identify which one you have.

I learned this when I started to catalog my collection on Discogs, and saw how some popular records had many versions listed. This Wikipedia article explains it in more depth (and in some technical terms).

There are other similar collector-specific pieces that tell something about an album. Japanese LPs and CDs have something called an OBI – it’s the wrapping around the product itself, an informational piece of paper, and most collectors want their purchases to come with the OBI.

(2) SUPPLY AND DEMAND ECONOMICS ARE A BIG DEAL: I kinda figured that buying albums would be a lot like it was in the 80s, and most records would be about the same price.

But supply and demand, as well as condition, play a big role in secondhand markets.

I’ve probably witnessed at least a half dozen interactions in various record stores, where someone who brought their albums in to sell to the store is wondering why the store won’t buy them, or why they are only paying a quarter or fifty cents for the album.

Yes, you might have a reasonably well-cared-for copy of, say, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours. You and EVERYONE ELSE IN NORTH AMERICA bought that record. Don’t get me wrong – I love the Mac, I love that album, but it’s one where the store probably already has ten copies on hand.

The less plentiful a record is, the more valuable it will be on the resale market. That’s why old jazz and soul records, as well as more recent new wave and indie records made in the late 80s and 90s, when cassettes and CDs were taking over the market, fetch high prices these days.

(Though I’m not really into the 78 market, the same concepts apply. Most collectors want limited editions and regional records, especially soul and jazz. They don’t want the same Kay Kyser 78 that everyone’s great gramma also has in a book with other 78s in their attic.)

I have some pretty quirky, esoteric music tastes, and I’ve experienced both ends of the spectrum here. I’ve been lucky to pay as little as fifty cents or a dollar for LPs of artists I’ve really loved, either because they were super-popular OR because almost no one had heard of them.

But I’ve also seen some of my 90s indie favorites and Britpop bands command over $200 for an album on the resale market. A used album, mind you (though at that price, they’re always in excellent condition). The sword cuts both ways, kiddo.

It’s an important thing to keep in mind to set realistic expectations if you’re buying records or trying to sell them.

And yo, this concept also applies if you’re trying to pawn off that box of albums in your basement to your vinyl-collecting friend. Don’t be offended if they sort through what you have and only pick out a few. Especially if you were one of those assholes people who never took care of your records! We’re not playing anything on our systems if it looks like you let your cat breakdance on your copy of Louder Than Bombs.

(3) THERE’S A LOT OF PLACES TO LOOK FOR VINYL. In addition to places like Discogs and eBay, and brick-and-mortar record stores, there’s a fair number of places to check out.

Thrift stores often have them in stock, though they may not always be in great condition if they’re found there. Antique stores and antique malls often have them, too.

Garage sales can also be a great place to score records, though if you’re looking for the more rare, collectible ones, you’d probably have better luck at an estate sale.

Some of these places are really for the serious collector only. I don’t have the kind of competitive spirit for estate sales, so I’m not falling into that particular rabbit hole.

I’ve paid a pretty penny for things I really wanted, but some of my most treasured finds are the cheapo finds. That’s part of the fun – how little can I spend for this thing on my Want List?

(4) RECORD STORES ARE FUN AND QUIRKY: For me, they’re a lot of fun. Searching through stacks of records is relaxing for me.

Most of them are also, quite frankly, a bit messy. If I had OCD, almost all of them would trigger me into cleaning and reorganizing them.

I’m almost positive I have to buy a surgical scrub mask soon to keep shopping through the winter season. The mold from albums that have sat in a basement for 30 years? That ish is triggering my allergies like you wouldn’t believe.

And, well, the people who run the stores are always an interesting bunch. Many of them are collectors themselves, and I’ve learned something from almost every one of them.