Wednesday, February 27, 2008

White Boy Music

Elton John,Captain Fantastico Y El Vaquero Cafe,Mexico,Deleted,7

Growing-up in the seventies, me and my baby brother Carlos had more differences than just our musical tastes. While he was a small boned boy, I was squeezing into husky sized pants; while he played stickball in the street, I devoured Jack Kirby comics; by high school, while ‘Los pumped iron and marched with R.O.T.C., I was puffing reefer and scribbling poems (“…like some kind of sissy,” he teased) in my notepad.

Living in the concrete circus of New York City, we were surrounded by an array of cultural rhythms that soared like soft winged birds throughout the neighborhood. From the open window of our shapely Rican neighbor Miss. Soto, the frantic salsa sound of Ray Barretto, Celia Cruz and Eddie Palmieri blared; up the block, hard knock hustlers parked their ornate rides and chilled to the chocolate bubble bath splash of the Isley Brothers, Barry White or Issac Hayes that sloshed from their speakers.

Across Broadway, the flour-covered men behind the Formica counter at Tony’s Pizzeria digested a steady diet of ballroom ballads sung by Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin or Tony Bennett; while around the corner, the old black man who worked in Leo’s Laundromat listened to sacred gospel songs, contentedly nodding his head to the hallowed hymns.

While Carlos listened to wah-wah funk bands and strobe light disco singles, I had somehow tripped into a wonderland of screaming guitars, blaring banshee vocals and thunderous drums. Beginning with sneaking peeks at Elvis Presley flicks on the CBS Late Movie when I was seven, I had a serious jones in rock-n-roll.

One humid summer evening, hanging-out with our neighborhood crew playing the dozens in front of a flickering street light on 151st Street and Riverside Drive, my brother snapped, “At least ya’ll don’t have to listen to that white boy music Michael be playing. Those loud ass guitars and screaming drives me crazy.”

Brooding like a baby, I ran into the crib, and drowned my sorrow in Freddy Mercury’s falsetto. Indeed, the rock acts that attracted me were the flamboyant glam of Kiss, David Bowie and Elton John. My “Bennie & the Jets”/”Pinball Wizard”/”Someone Saved My Life Tonight” obsession got so bad, I had started scribbling “Elton” as my middle name on school papers.

In class, handing me back a yet another history test I had failed, beefy Mr. Waters snidely screamed, “I’m sure Elton John managed to pass history, but, at the rate you’re going, you may never get out of sixth grade.”

The entire class snickered as I visualized myself bedazzled in neon boots and a mohair suit as electric music and solid walls of sound crumbled at my feet.


For me, television was yet another passion. Forget about the former Tom Verlaine/Richard Lloyd band, I’m talking about the glowing glass teat that hypnotized my generation with its Technicolor gamma rays: Schoolhouse Rock shorts, nappy-headed Fred Sanford heart attacks, pictures of Patty Hearst robbing banks, soulful Fat Albert playing funk tunes in a Philly junkyard and ivory picket fence Brady Bunch images was my thing.

Still, it wasn’t until a few months past my twelfth birthday that I got my first peek at punk rock, and realized there was a universe beyond Elton’s radiant rhinestone eyeglass, Freddy Mercury’s spandex jumpsuits and Ziggy Stardust partying with spiders on Mars.

One Saturday night, lying on the pudding brown linoleum in the living room, ‘Los and I watched a NBC news show called Weekend. Hosted by Lloyd Dobbins and Linda Ellerbee, a groundbreaking program came on as a replacement to Saturday Night Live once a month.

With subjects that ranged from comic book collectors to incest, one could never predict the topics that would be featured. Still, it was quite a surprise that winter night in ‘77 when Weekend aired a segment on “the punk phenomenon in England.” Open-mouthed, I gazed at the television screen with a glee as The Sex Pistols wreaked havoc in countless unsuspecting households through out America.

Broadcasted “in living color,” this crew of wild Brit boys clad in worn jeans, ripped t-shirts, chunky black boots and numerous piercings stalked the stage of a tattered venue in brutish abandon. “That’s disgusting,” Carlos mumbled sleepily as lead “singer” (screamer, shouter, shrieker) Johnny Rotten lobbed gobs of spit into the frenzied folks in the front jumped up and down. It was as though they were being baptized “You would never see The Jackson Five spitting at their fans.”

The more these “self-styled barbarians,” as Brit writer Nigel Williamson later described The Sex Pistols, taunted their fans, the more maniacal the crowd became. These crazed scenes inside the club were edited with shots of the band’s infamous boat ride on the Thames to promote the single “God Save the Queen,” an interview with their trickster manager Malcolm McLaren and footage from their demented appearance (pre-Sid Vicious) on a BBC talk show.

Until that night, I had never of thought of rebelling against the system or my mother, but one glimpse of The Sex Pistols changed my perspective on the world, which at the time was limited to my Harlem hood, a massive comic book collection and more than a few pop records.

For months after watching the broadcast about the social revolution of punk, I worried about the fragile state of civilization and badgered my mother with inane requests to be sent to an English boarding school like my cousin Calais, who upon returning to the states spoke incisively in her affected accent and gushed about seeing the Sex Pistols in person.

Next to the poof pop of Elton and Queen, punk rockers were a bunch of rowdy kids who could barely play their instruments, but perfect pitch and harmony hardly seemed the point.

Enraptured by the sheer emotion, vibrant energy and defiant anger directed at the plastic people populating our world, the Pistols planted a germ of creative discontent that encouraged me to write angst ridden poems overflowing with images of anarchy and sorrow, question the teachings of my Catholic education as I strived to survive in a no-future (a slogan the non-punk Black folks in my hood could well understand) world of posers and squares.

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