Sunday, June 21, 2009


Yesterday at the gym, I experimented with the concept of not using my iPod while hitting the weights circuit. I always feel like I’m missing out on something in the gym by wearing headphones, as I well know from my boxing class, where people interact and get to know each other. Well, nothing really happened. Like most people, I’m there to work out above all else, not to meet people. Weightlifting, like the cardio machines, is not a group exercise: you’re on your own.

But what really struck me, as I’m also well aware of via the too-loud PA system in the locker room, was how god awful their music is. I’d gather that as a gym chain, they’re using some prescribed service aimed at their marketing demo (which I’m assuming is 25 to 40, although with an emphasis on 25 as people want to feel “younger” when they work out). Their version of classic rock is No Doubt, Creed and The Goo-Goo Dolls. But a vast majority of what they play is Top 40 pop music, leaning towards club/dance music, erased of hiphop to avoid bad words. It really sucks – the music isn’t awful, per se. It’s just bland, limp, totally devoid of creativity or substance. Top 40 now is worse than ever, and from the 70s onwards, it’s been pretty bad in general.

Soul-less. That’s the quality occurred to me most. I always thought it would be a great idea for gyms to allow the membership to upload MP3 files into their sound system, like a jukebox for people as they work out, chosen by the people. But I gather doing so would be a licensing nightmare and nigh on impossible. Take my word for it – the ear buds are going back in next time I hit the weight circuit! If I make eye contact with some hottie on the seated bench press machine, just write it down to a nice moment while I listen to The Beatles, or Hank Williams, or Chuck Berry, or Supertramp, or The Ramones.

Or any number of other great artists who will never be on the gym P.A. system. Like Otis Redding. I’ve been on a bit of an Otis kick the past few days, tracking down missing songs from his canon that I have mostly covered with a Rhino four-disc box set. It’s got me thinking I need to re-vamp my abbreviated 60s Soul output on the iPod, as I had originally played it very close to the vest when uploading tracks on my more space-limited Nomad player.

I think it would also make a nice read to describe how I got into soul music in the first place, since I wasn’t raised with that appreciation, to say the least. White kids in rural America in the 70s were pretty much into pop and rock music, and nothing else. Soul music was around us, but I remember that being more of a Top 40 singles thing as opposed to a deep, abiding appreciation. Stevie Wonder stands out in my mind. You couldn’t avoid hearing multiple songs from Songs in the Key of Life when it first came out, and for two years after. I somehow willed myself not to like it (while later realizing the guy was a genius, and this was his crowning moment). That horn-section intro to “Sir Duke” … you play that now, and I think summer 70s.

Al Green, Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, Barry White … all these artists were going full gun in the first half of the 70s. Including Wonder, the only physical product I had at the time from any of them was the 45 of “Got to Give It Up (Pt. 1)” by Gaye, and White grumbling the romantic intro to “Kiss and Say Goodbye” by The Manhattans. White artists like The Bee Gees registered with songs like “Jive Talkin” and “Nights on Broadway.” It’s important to mention them, because with the dawn of disco, unfortunately for dumb kids with zero sense of history, that sense of soul music being tied in with that format sort of killed the idea of appreciating soul music in any form for a LONG time afterwards.

Which was a shame, but I think that’s a fair assessment, and not entirely racist. Disco got to be pretty disgusting, pretty fast. Not so much the music itself, more so the sense of lifestyle and party-guy emptiness tied in with it. Its presence was smothering. And all these great soul artists had a choice – veer in that direction or fade away. So disco, in effect, did co-opt soul music, roundabout the mid-70s. (You can argue that Barry White always was disco, but I’d put him more in category of very tasteful, inventive disco, like a lot of it was before it became such a massive cultural phenomenon.) You can see the same culturally stifling shift with hiphop, which has decimated other strains of “black” music in terms of popularity in an extremely negative, empty way. My age-old gripe, of course, was disco lasted less than a handful of years while hiphop has had a stranglehold for close to two decades. To someone who was raised with the concept of pop music culture shifting every few years, this sort of creative stasis is mystifying, and depressing. (I gave up on all this shit by 1995, when it became obvious major record companies were pile-driving hiphop and not looking for any new growth areas, save shitty boy bands and pop idols. We’ve been in that same grotesque mid-90s doldrums ever since.)

But getting back to soul music, I had very little knowledge of it as a kid. Again, as noted, singles. “The Bertha Butt Boogie” by The Jimmy Castor Bunch. “Jungle Boogie” by Kool and the Gang. Even early disco like “Doctors Orders” by Carol Douglas. Stuff like that registered, but 60s soul? I think Motown was the most prevalent at the time, but that was pretty much played only on Oldies stations, despite being only a decade (or less) old. I think my first stirrings with soul came with buying a huge Motown singles box set in my freshman year of college, which would be 1982. The one Motown song that would always slay me when I heard it on the radio was “I Can’t Help Myself” by The Four Tops – eventually realized that I just had to have it. I recall that box set being incredibly cheap for what it offered – dozens of Motown hits.

It was cheap for a reason: all the songs were ruined by “historical” spoken-word intros by DJs and the artists that spilled into the first minute of each song. It was fucking terrible … but I could still recognize how great the music was. In my mind, I used that box set as a bookmark, figuring that one day I’d buy this stuff again without those shitty introductions (and I surely did … a few times over on vinyl and CD). When I went to Penn State’s main campus for my junior year, the used bins at the time had those incredible two-album Motown artist retrospectives, and that’s where I got the full blast of Motown, picking up sets by The Four Tops, The Temptations, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross & the Supremes, etc. I bought those things like candy, and they were great.

This might be embarrassing to admit, but my real immersion into soul music came with a John Hughes movie: Pretty in Pink. If you recall, there was a scene where Ducky, the nerd played by Jon Cryer, dances around a record store to the tune of Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness.” I was floored … not by Cryer, but by the song. I had no idea it was a classic covered by many artists from the Big Band era on. (And I can only imagine how revolutionary Otis’ version must have sounded at the time.) I rushed down to the nearest record store, which was the shitty National Record Mart chain on the main drag, and stumbled upon a greatest hits package for Otis in the shit bin for $3.00. I spent the rest of that week burning that song in particular into my brain.

That kicked open the doors to that great Atlantic Rhythm & Blues series that came out in two-album volumes covering the entire 60s. I’ve found the series was released just before this time period for me (late 1985/early 1986), but now that I was aware of what I was missing out on, I jumped in head first, spending all my money on nothing but them and various Motown compilations. It’s safe to say that the first half of 1986, I listened to nothing but soul music, and most of it was revelatory, stuff I had never heard before that simply blew my doors off.

It was my habit to buy one of those Atlantic sets a week, record the whole thing to cassette, and if I was driving back home that week (a two-hour drive on a Friday night), blast that as I barreled through the woods lining Route 80 all the way. I don’t know if that’s the best way to appreciate soul music, but it worked wonders for me, with a 7-11 Cherry Coke Big Gulp between my legs and the wind whipping through the windows. I drove a yellow AMC Hornet station wagon: badass.

Can’t say too many people shared my enthusiasm! Most of my college friends were headlong into indie music, which was a huge college thing at the time (still is, I’m sure). My old friend PG from the paper did have a pretty solid soul collection, but mainly because she was older and actually bought those records when she was a teenager in the late 60s. Back home? Man, forget it. I think Brother J developed an appreciation for the harder-edge soul songs like “Soul Man” and “Mustang Sally,” but most of it didn’t register with anyone back there.

The oddest connection I made with soul music came one New Years Eve in the late 80s, I’m thinking 12/31/86. Having recently returned from Venice, CA with my tail between my legs, an aborted attempt to strike out on my own, but things just didn’t go well out there, staying with recent college friends on the verge of dumping each other. I was surely at loose ends that winter, the employment situation being awful in rural PA. It wouldn’t be until that fall that I’d move to NYC and get a new start – that period when college ends and your adult life really hasn’t begun can be a genuinely spooky time, or at least was for me.

I had no plans for New Years Eve (which I’ve since realized is the best plan), so neighbor JB put forth that we head out to the Millman’s house out the road, as he’d been invited to a small get-together there. I knew Mr. Millman’s kids, a guy a year behind me at school who was a nice kid, and his two daughters who were slightly older than I was, both hot. I knew Mr. Millman himself from my Little League days, as he coached his son’s team and seemed like a good guy in general, one of the more rational, friendly coaches.

So, we drove out there, and Mr. Millman greeted us at the door … in a prison guard uniform. I had no idea the guy worked at the local federal prison that had just opened up. His being a Little League coach, and a respectable one at that, had conditioned me to seeing him as a staunch authority figure. Which I’ve since learned isn’t a hard number to run on kids. If you are an adult, and you act like one, kids will treat you as one. But … the dude was a prison guard? Man, it made no sense. On top of which, I had a mental image of prison guards being large, nasty guys with attitudes. Mr. Millman was one of the nicest guys you could ever meet, and well under six feet and trim. I’d have expected him to be a guidance counselor, or insurance agent, or something like that.

“Yeah, got double shift at the prison starting at midnight, come on in, guys,” he said with a smile. I should have guessed Mr. Millman wasn’t some executive type just by his house, which was your average small two-story place that must have felt cramped with five people in it. We came in, and his two daughters were there with their boyfriends, along with a few other guys I knew from high school, but wasn’t really friends with. It wasn’t an awkward night, although it was strange to learn that a kid who had positioned himself as a bad boy in school made a batch of toll house cookies that was pretty good. With their father there, the girls were on good behavior. Alcohol consumption was reduced to a few beers, a few glasses of wine. I’ve surely had worse New Years – this one was sedate and pleasant in an odd way.

The night was moving right along when Mr. Millman excused himself and went into the next room. The whole time, he was in his prison guard’s uniform, not sure why he got dressed hours before his shift started. I heard the telltale ker-chunk of an eight track tape being popped into a player. Believe me, that’s a sound I haven’t heard in years, but must have heard thousands of times in the early 80s. Seconds later, it was Otis Redding singing “I Can’t Turn You Loose.” Jesus Christ, that was the last thing I had expected visiting a prison guard in rural Pennsylvania. Then I thought about it. Mr. Millman must have been in his early 20s in the late 60s, so this could have easily been “his music” from that time.

The girls looked at each, than ran off into the other room. I looked in. These two hot girls, a few years out of high school, were dancing with their father in his prison guard uniform, to Otis Redding. And I mean cutting loose, doing all those 60s dances: the Mashed Potato, Hully Gully, The Bird, The Pony, etc. They knew them all. And I could see they had their moves down, i.e., Mr. Millman must have raised his kids teaching them these dances and giving them an appreciation for 60s soul music. And that’s pretty damn interesting, for a guy whose lot in life was to be a prison guard, in a place where, I can guess fairly accurately, there must have been times he popped in that eight track and got, “Get that nigger music off the stereo” in reply.

It was a cool little moment that’s stuck with me years later. I remember him waving me over to dance, and I blew it off, mainly because I didn’t know how, and I didn’t want either of the boyfriends, both former badasses, getting uptight about me. But those three stayed in that room the rest of the night, winding it out to Otis, and I guess that’s a pretty good way to ring in any new year. Of course, Mr. Millman would later put on his tie, grab his hat, and drive through the snowy night to the federal prison to pull his shifts. But such was his spirit that you could meet him after the shifts, and he’d no doubt be just as friendly and open as he always was.

I’ve since realized that there wasn’t a lot of difference between soul and country back in the 60s. Sure, the fast/dancing songs were different, but when you listen to the ballads, the types of music are very similar, in ways that I find encouraging. And in ways that no longer seem to exist, once hiphop flooded over everything and demanded a sharp turn towards all things black as opposed to sharing any kind of common ground with more white musical influences. A real shame, but that’s how the times went, even when disco rolled around. I recall reading a passage in a book where the few white musicians in the Stax/Volt studios in Memphis tried to walk around the neighborhood after Martin Luther King was assassinated, they could feel something was way off, and their presence was no longer welcome there. So maybe it goes back even that far, to the death of the 60s in some sense with cataclysmic events like that. A real shame, but as I learned that New Year’s Eve back in the mid-80s, and in my own life as I grew to love 60s soul, all was not lost.

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