Black Rock Betty (a short story)
It's that rush that hits the clit of your soul when you're witnessing something for the first time that will define you for years to come.
— Lisa Jones, 1992
On that rainy Saturday afternoon in '78, when 12-year-old Dyana Sae first peeped pale-faced glitter boy Elton John wailing an ode to electric boots and mohair suits in front of the gawking black teenagers on Soul Train (dressed like a side-show freak, he was the show's first white performer), her life changed forever. Indeed, after watching E.J. intensely bang the piano, she felt compelled to shove all her inherited Motown discs to the back of the clothes closet.
In her frilly bedroom, with its floral spread, pink curtains and antique dresser, there were four worn boxes full of Motown 45s and albums; having once belonged to Dyana's mother, who had abandoned both the records and her baby girl long ago, these were the only records Dyana had ever owned. Still, that day she was ready to hear some brand new sounds.
Afraid to admit it aloud, after hearing "Bennie and the Jets", Dyana declared herself America's latest rock chick. While it was difficult to walk away from papa smooth Smokey Robinson, sequined queens The Supremes and the afro-sheen of The Temptations, as her number spot owning Grandma Virginia (who was now her guardian), a silver haired, freckled face woman in her mid-40s, liked to say, "A little bit of change can be a good thing."
Feeling she had learned enough about dancing in the street, lonely highways and love children, Dyana (whom the nuns at St. Catherine's called "precocious," while her own family thought of as "an old soul") was more than ready for her first brush with pre-teen musical revolt.
That same afternoon, after begging Virginia to chaperon her to the massive Disc-O-Mat on 5th Avenue and 34th Street (where a pale-faced hippie haired clerk helped guide her decision), Dyana became the only young black child above 110th Street digging the electric blue glitter of Roxy Music, Queen, T-Rex and David Bowie.
The following school week, all the young dudes and girls in her sixth grade class teased Dyana, calling her "white girl", because she now blasted the rebel yell of WNEW-FM on her black transistor radio instead of "stereo in soul", WBLS. Though she'd rather rock-out to "Fame" with her imaginary Carlos Alomar air-ax (the fact that rock god Bowie had a black guitarist made her giddy and proud) than spin around in circles learning how to dance to Van McCoy's "The Hustle" in the concrete courtyard, Dyana had underestimated the cruelty of children.
Strolling home that afternoon, still dressed in their gray plaid uniform dresses, white knee socks and black shoes, Dyana and her best friend Camille stopped in the smoky Broadway pizza shop to get their daily slice. Throwing their heavy book-bags, they ordered "the usual" over the din of the Sinatra songbook that played 24/7 on the greasy eight-track machine.
Since first meeting in cranky Sister Angela's first grade, the two girls had been inseparable. With their light skin and hot iron straight hair, they had grown from Barbie doll friends to exchanging boy secrets in muffled tones. "My two ripe tomatoes," Sal, the Italian immigrant shop owner screamed, sliding two greasy slices and fountain Cokes across the Formica counter. Smiling, the girls handed him their respective dollar bills and slowly walked to the rear of the sweet smelling pizza shack.
"I don't know if we can still be friends if you keep listening to that crazy music at lunchtime," Camille blurted. "I've been holding it in, but you should know what it's like being best friends with somebody who is suddenly crazy."
Not quite believing that the same girl who had once cooked chocolate Easy-Bake cakes in her bedroom, played jacks on the ancient stone stoop and read the dirty parts aloud from her mama's Jacqueline Susann/Harold Robbins collection, now stood on the verge of best friend betrayal, and damn near choking on the sweetened pizza crust, Dyana's voice cracked. "What are you talking about?"
"Don't play dumb, Dyana," Camille said. "You know, that crazy white boy stuff you've been listening to the past few days. Jesus, they all look like faggots. No wonder everyone thinks you're turning into some kind of freak."
Stunned into silence, it was the first time she realized the defensive rhyme about "sticks and stones" was as bullshit as Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy. Struggling not to cry, Dyana uttered, "You take that back Camille Vernon. You take that back, right now. I'm not a freak and you know it."
"Well, the rest of the class thinks you are," Camille sassed. "They call you Oreo. You know, black on the outside, white on the inside. So, long you're listening to that white boy music, you might want to find some honky chicks at school to be friends with. Oh, that's right…the only white girl at our school is you."
Dazed and confused, Dyana barely remembered running home that sunny spring day. Nevertheless, there she was, slouched on the sticky marble staircase on the sixth floor of her tenement, crying like a newborn when Miss Yvette heard her moans creeping under the apartment door.
"Is everything all right, sweet heart," the kind, husky voice asked. "Did somebody do something to you?" Not quite the woman she appeared to be, Dyana knew from listening to grown folks conversation that Miss Yvette was really a man who dressed like a lady and performed at different drag balls in Harlem. Looking up, Dyana noticed Miss Yvette wore blood red lipstick, a dirty blond wig, lush fake lashes, fuzzy house-slippers and a multicolored robe; beneath the heavy foundation on her face, Dyana noticed a few whiskers blooming.
"I'm OK," Dyana lied, wiping her pretty brown eyes with the dirty sleeve.
"I would say otherwise," Miss Yvette answered. Walking over to her, Miss Yvette sat down next to Dyana and said, "Now, I want you to tell me what's on your young mind."
If anybody understood the pain of being a big freak, it was Miss Yvette, who, as she later explained to Dyana, "I was a high-heel stepping queen by the time I was 17. And, where I come from, there was no looking back, because there were hell hounds with white masks and burning crosses on a lady's black booty."
Though she knew her grandma would disapprove, moments later Dyana was inside Yvette's space-age bachelorette apartment. With its white-shag wall-to-wall carpeting, framed black velvet paintings of African nudes, fluffy black velveteen sofa and glass coffee table scattered with magazines called Interview and After Dark, Vogue and Viva, it was one of the more stylish apartments she had seen in their leaning tenement.
Sipping her marshmallow-flavored hot chocolate, Dyana tried to forget about stupid Camille Vernon while her new grown-up friend sorted through a rack of records until she found the two she had been searching for specially. "Now, this is a record you should hear," Yvette said, wiping specks dust from the disc with a special brush. Turning the album to side two, her thick fingers placed the smooth black vinyl on the Sony turntable. Dropping the needle in the groove, dead air hissed for a moment, mixing a splash of white noise with the bleak sounds of sirens and screaming children six-stories below.
"They say I'm different, because I'm a piece of sugarcane/ And when I kick my leg, I got rhythm," the singer screeched, her voice a combination of black candle vicious voodoo and the cheese grits Dyana's grand-ma fixed on easy Sunday mornings. Startled by the banshee shriek that roared from the massive speakers, Dyana splattered hot chocolate on her blouse.
Picking-up the crisp album cover from the glass table, Dyana stared at the intergalactic recording angel with her Angela Davis 'fro and multihued space-girl suit, and noticed that both the song and the disc were entitled They Say I'm Different. Betty's dangerous voice built a fire in the young girl's belly and warming her entire body in a way she had never felt before.
Years later, Dyana reasoned in her self-penned tender song "Mau Mau Music & Revolutionary Mama's", hearing Betty Davis's blazing voice barreling through the living-room as twilight approached was like an aural underground railroad leading her into a world of unlimited freedom and possibilities. Looking at black Betty's fierce expression, one could imagine her puffing a Virginia Slims cigarette, and then flicking the still lit butt at some sucker's face. "You've come a long way baby", screams the masochistic fan.
Spellbound by the hypnotic grooves and sexy beast growl, Dyana excitedly asked, "Who is she? How come I've never heard of her?"
"That, my dear, is another girl unwilling to compromise," Yvette laughed, lighting a stick of Egyptian musk incense. "The former Mademamoselle Marby, who walked to the Manhattan in her I. Miller shoes from the red-dirt roads of Philly and soon became the Medusa-haired wild girl muse to both voodoo child Jimi Hendrix and live-evil trumpet king Miles Davis."
This being the first day of their life-long friendship, Dyana wasn't aware that Yvette had a knack for storytelling where lies, truths and half-truths performed a poetic ménage a trios, slipping and sliding on the waterbed of her chatter. "And believe me, there were many folks who thought of her as a freak."
"But, who is she really?" Gazing at the second disc, Dyana clutched the twelve terrific inches of Betty Davis's brilliant self-titled debut album. In the trio of beautiful cover photos, Betty wore silver go-go boots, denim hot pants and a beaming smile bright as a million suns, her skin was the color of the cafe con leche Dyana's grandma ordered from the Domican restaurant on Broadway. "Can you play this song, 'If I'm In Luck I Might Get Picked Up'."
Switching the discs on the turntable, Yvette laughed. Unlike the coy Motown/Philly International chicks, Betty Davis wasn't into wearing knee-length skirts and ballroom gowns as she flirted with her boy-toy desires. "...I said I'm fishin', trickin' and you can call it what you want/ I said I'm wiggling my fanny/ I'm raunchy dancing... this is my night out," she screamed. Like a chameleon, she could change the color of her music at a whim.
Taking a journey through a labyrinth of brutal declarations (Anti Love Song), reverse psychology pimping ("Game Is My Middle Name") and bad bitch persona, Betty Davis was no joke. With a tongue sharp as a stiletto, it didn't matter if she cut you or kissed ya, either way she was going to draw blood.
Under the dim lights, Dyana read the names of the musicians and back-up singers (Family Stone drummer Greg Errico, who also produced Betty's debut, as well as Larry Graham, Sylvester and the Pointer Sisters), but it was the fact that the credits read: All Music Written & Arranged by Betty Davis. "I didn't know women could be songwriters too," Dyana said innocently. "I never saw Diana Ross or Dionne Warwick with a writing credit. Why is that?"
"That'll be our next music lesson," Yvette answered. Glancing at the Tiffany watch on her bony wrist, she did her best imitation of waif Audrey Hepburn. Outside the sooty window, darkness had descended. "But, it's getting late, and I'm sure your grand-mother is gettin' worried about you. I'll tell you what, you can take these records with you as my presents. When those little nasty gals at school start calling you bad names, you tell them bitches, 'I'm proud to be a freak'. And, make sure you say it loud." They both laughed uproariously.
Standing-up from the comfortable couch, they slowly walked to the front door. Holding her gifts tightly in her left hand, Dyana looked Yvette in the eyes for a long time. "Thank you," she said finally; wanting to cry, she sniffled and held back the tears, in much the same way she imagined big freak Betty Davis herself would do.
* * *
Ten years later, a brisk breeze blew through the doors of C.B.G.B.'s as Amazonian soul sister Dyana Sae, having recently graduated from Brown with an English degree and suitcase full of pop poetry, bounded on stage with her aptly named group Bitches Brew. Through a haze of cigarette smoke, Dyana saw Miss Yvette and her grandmother looking proud, but uncomfortable.
The small venue smelt of reefer, spilled drinks and a shitty toilet overflowing downstairs. Opening for Living Colour, the swaggering kings of New York-centric noir rock in the '80s, Bitches Brew lead guitarist and vocalist Dyana Sae teetered on stage clad in sky blue clogs, rattling bracelets, a wild woman scarlet dress and matching boa; her dreadlocked hair flowed down her back like a nappy waterfall.
Since it was Bitches Brew's first New York City gig (they were huge in Rhode Island), the group decided to open with an enchanting cover of Betty Davis's "Special People". Striking a bluesy power-chord on her pawnshop bought Stratocaster, held together with wishes and gaffer tape, Dyana mumbled a silent prayer to the musical memory of a holy litany of electric ladies that included Tina Turner, Heart, Bernadette Cooper, Chrissie Hynde, Stevie Nicks, Chaka Khan, Joni Mitchell, Janis Joplin, Nina Simone, Siouxsie Sioux, Patti Smith, LaBelle, Blondie and, of course, Betty Davis.Baptizing the frantic crowd in a sea of feedback and distortion, Dyana bellowed, "The group is called Bitches Brew and we've come to rock!"