Under the Influence of a Groove (funk fiction)
Ever since I was kid, music and reading have always been two of my passions. In my Harlem household, the radio was always playing, and there were enough books, magazines and comics to keep me occupied for hours. Even before I began merging my two loves -- combined with a third: writing -- I also enjoyed reading music criticism or essays about jazz, pop and soul stars; I suppose it started back in the 1970s when I discovered Right On, Creem, 16, Black Star and Rolling Stone. As I got older, I also began seriously diggin’ those scribes that wrote about music in a different way than just straight reviews, including the Nik Cohn/Guy Peellaert tome Rock Dreams and my mom’s copy of Nappy Edges by Ntozake Shange, who wrote so lyrically about jazz and was another book I read and re-read constantly.
In the ‘80s, guided by the literary spirits inside the original St. Mark’s Bookstore, I discovered writer Al Young when I stumbled upon his wonderful book Things Ain’t What They Used to Be (1987). Although I’d never heard of Young, I was intrigued by the beautiful Stephen Henriques watercolor cover illustration of a jazz trio. Flipping through the trade paperback that was billed as the third volume of Young’s “musical memoir,” the book was actually a collection of essays and short stories inspired by various artists, songs or aural situations ranging from Charles Mingus (a friend of the Young’s, who would become of one his favorite subjects), Marvin Gaye, Billy Strayhorn, Aretha Franklin and others.
“What I tried to do in these books was take a piece of music and conjure in prose, in one form or another, what the music meant to me,” Young explained. Not only was his writing poetic and smart, but his musical taste was diverse as he boogied from tales of be-bop, Motown pop and girl-group teardrops. Reading Young’s essays was like listening to the stories of one of my elders as we sat on the back porch sipping lemonade. His style excited me in the same way that the music writing of David Henderson, Greg Tate, Carol Cooper, Nelson George, Lisa Jones and Barry Michael Cooper did during that same period.
Within weeks, I bought Bodies & Soul and Kinds of Blue, the earlier books in Young’s “musical memoirs,” but it was Things Ain’t What They Used to Be that had the most impact on me as an aspiring music journalist/ essayist and fiction writer. Twenty-nine years later, I thought hard about Young’s writing, as well as the various subjects the piece was inspired by, including my old bass-playing buddy Malcolm, a young cat I knew back in the day who grew up in 150th between Broadway and Riverside. Malcolm was a tall, lanky dude with long arms and a giant Afro; he reminded me of one of the cool guys in an Ernie Barnes painting.
I’m not sure how we became friends, but whenever I saw him in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s, we always talked about music, as well as the progress he was making on his instrument; he often praised dudes like Stanley Clarke and Marcus Miller, and he spoke with such excitement that I just knew (though, admittedly, I’d never heard him play) that one day he, too, would be one of the best.
Although I couldn’t play anything, I, like him, was an old-school electric bass funk head who’d been reared on Larry Graham, Bootsy Collins and Louis Johnson, so whenever Malcolm and I bumped into each other, we would have these hour-long convos.
Throughout our discussions, one could always hear the passion in his voice and see a gleam in his eyes. However, one day in 1984 (or ’85), I ran into a mutual friend from the ‘hood who shocked me with a truth I wasn’t ready for. “Yo, did you hear about Malcolm, man?”
“Naw, what happened?”
“Car accident, man. He got fucked up pretty badly.”
“Word? What the fuck, man?”
“Yo, broke a bunch of bones and shit. The doctor told him he won’t be able to play bass anymore.”
“You serious?” I was gobsmacked.
For a moment, the world felt like a very dark place. I tried to imagine how I’d react if I suddenly lost the ability to read or write. I tried to imagine what it would be like if a doctor told me I could no longer do the one thing I loved the most.
A few months later, I ran into Malcolm, who told me himself about his accident and showed me where there were pins in his arm. In that macho way that men often portray to one another, Malcolm pretended it wasn’t such a big deal that he’d never play the bass again. He knew I didn’t believe him, but I held back the tears, for both of us.
After that day, I may’ve seen Malcolm once or twice, but he eventually moved away, so I haven’t seen Malcolm in decades. Still, his story never left my mind. A few years back, while song surfing on YouTube, I fell into a wonderland of ‘70s funk (Bootsy Collins, Sly Stone, Ohio Players) that made me think about my old friend and the car crash that changed his life.
Taking a few tokes of my peace pipe, which often serves as a tiny time machine, I sat down at the computer and knocked-out the first draft of my funk fiction “Under the Influence of a Groove." The story was written as a tribute to my old friend as well as the many other bass playing mavericks that rocked my world and opened-up my earholes.
Earlier this year, I became friendly with movie expert and Art Decades publisher Jeremy Richey. Along with his wife, Kelley, they produce one of the smartest and smartly designed magazines I’ve seen in years. Having contributed an essay to the special David Bowie issue that was Art Decades #7, I was very impressed when I saw the magazine, as it reminded me of old-school publications like Evergreen Review, View or the ‘90s U.K. journal Modern Review, which billed itself as "Low culture for high-brows."
For some reason, I thought about the funk fiction piece that was gathering computer dust on my hard drive. After doing a slight remix, I sent the story to Jeremy, and he replied a few days later saying that he dug it deeply and was going to publish it in the next Art Decades issue, #8. A few months later, when he sent me the opening page (see above) I knew my story had found the perfect home. I’d like to thank the Art Decades folks, as well as writer Al Young, whose masterful Things Ain’t What They Used to Be helped put me on the path of writing more personally and deeply about music.
For more info on Art Decades, go to: