“charger” – gorillaz feat. grace jones (2017)

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Talking about music is one of my favorite hobbies.  Hell, that’s why I have this silly blog; to talk about music and whatever inane thoughts I have at the time.  The interest isn’t just insular either.  I make pursuing my hobby social as well.  Whether it is contributing to the social listening parties of “Classic Album Sundays,” going to concerts with friends, or leading a discussion for an album appreciation group over beers, I adapt my relationship to music to suit my moods whether it is listening on my own or sharing experiencing with friends.

For this entry, I was thinking more about the solo adventures I’ve had with music.  I’ve always had eclectic tastes since high school.  Part of my musical exploration stemmed from curiosity.  Pouring over books and magazines, I gravitated towards certain artists and trace the musical lineage leading up to them and what came after.  Music as a journey is important to me.  The story of where we come from, our current state, and the future possibilities are reflected through our art.  You can analyze a lot when you look at what a culture or society is listening to at that time.

Growing up, I listened to a lot of top 40 radio.  We all did.  It is the easily accessible bastion of commercialism that appeals to the masses.  However, at the turn of the millennium, I just kind of quit paying attention to what the hit songs were.  I wasn’t completely oblivious.  The big songs I would hear and most other things would get to me, but it would take time.

During this stage in my life, I was exploring other things.  In 1999 and 2000, I just listened to a lot of classic rock.  The loud, energetic riffs of dad rock just appealed to my rebellious pre-teen nature.  As I got older and heading into high school, my tastes shifted away.  I was listening to the Cure, the Clash, the Police, and other bands that would cement my love for post-punk and new wave during my formative years.  Not that any of those bands weren’t widely successful, commercial, or accessible to a general listener, they weren’t bands that impressionable youth listened to when everyone else in their peer group listened to Nelly or whatever.

Looking back, I’ve held firm to my belief that the aughts would be the worst decade in popular music.  Now, a lot of that comes from the fact I just wasn’t paying attention at that time and nostalgia doesn’t play a factor for me.  However, I’ve had a considerable amount to catch up.  And caught up I have.

The overall issue of music in the 2000s were a culmination of things.  First off, popular genres were terrible.  This is the decade that gave as emo, crunk rap, and the height of cock rock bands like Creed and Nickelback (easy targets, I know, but I’m trying to make a point).  Secondly, this is the dawn of the digital and the correlation the decrease of audio quality and the rise of overproduction.  Vinyl was out and iPods were in.  Music was produced to be loud cutting out the nuance of depth and compressed as low possible so you could fit in your pocket as many songs as possible.  And finally, the technology wasn’t sophisticated enough to handle diversity in listening.  While illegal downloading sites like Napster and LimeWire offered us a seemingly unlimited catalog of poorly compressed and improperly labeled songs to fill our mp3 players, audio streaming platforms had yet make a big splash due to slow internet speeds and limited bandwidth that prevented independent artists from sharing or selling their music.  Take all of that and throw in terrorism and a couple of wars and it is no wonder that the 2000s sucked.

Now it should be no wonder why I missed some artists or just simply didn’t care until years later.  Gorillaz are a band, for example, that just didn’t hit me until years later.  I don’t remember the first time I heard them, but I remember the first time I heard of them.  It was 2001 and I was travelling to England with my mom and sister.  Waiting at the airport during layovers, you take time to look around at shops.  At 13, I would just walk up and down the CD aisles judging the covers.  And I distinctly remember seeing the cover of Gorillaz’s debut album.  It was that album where the animated band were riding in a camouflage dune buggy against a stark background.  Kind of a shitty album cover when you think about it, but hey, it was 2001.  Combine that awful cover with the fact that it had that parental advisory label (music with that label was forbidden to me) and it was something I knew I wouldn’t be interested in let alone be allowed to have interest in.

When Demon Days dropped in 2005, I became a little bit more aware of Gorillaz.  “Feel Good Inc.” was a massive song.  It was inescapable on the radio and in the malls.  Still, it wasn’t something I felt fully invested in.  I liked the songs I had heard on the radio from that album, but I was spending my money on Bob Dylan CDs at that time.  Priorities, you know.

Coincidentally, it wouldn’t be until after the aughts ended that I would care about Gorillaz when their third studio album dropped in 2010 (great timing and out with the shit and in the with the…you know).  Plastic Beach was stellar.  The college radio station I volunteered with put “Rhinestone Eyes” in rotation and it was a hot track.  The DJs loved it and the listeners always requested it.  It wasn’t my pick to be in rotation.  I would’ve preferred “Stylo” or “Melancholy Hill” to go in rotation instead, but you couldn’t go wrong.  It was a solid album and one of the first vinyl records I bought.

On Christmas Day 2010, Gorillaz released a surprise new album for their fan club.  The kitschy thing about The Fall was that it was all recorded on an iPad while the band was on tour.  In less than a decade, the band would release their debut album in a time where physical media was still dominant to recording an entire album on a device that could create and distribute your music while being small enough to fit in a backpack.  I bought the physical release when the album was released in limited quantities to the public on Record Store Day in 2011.  The possibilities a band could pursue with ingenuity, creativity, and technology was practically impossible to quantify and exemplified by Gorillaz.

Then, there was nothing.  Gorillaz disbanded and Damon Albarn, one of the founders, pursued other projects.  Over the years, I still pulled out Plastic Beach on occasion.  I felt that with such a small discography, the band accomplished a lot and made a timeless record with their third release.  In fact, how long could you sustain a virtual band where cartoon apes were the face and voice of your art?  Perhaps that silence on their part signified that people didn’t care anymore.

Last year, news dropped that Gorillaz were getting back together and creating a new album.  And the first single dropped during the presidential inauguration.  “Hallelujah Money” featuring Benjamin Clementine was an apt release because the themes and music video were political in tone.  This was our first taste of new Gorillaz music in several years and it was exciting.

Over the next few months, more information on the upcoming album was released sparingly.  Announcements on the title (Humanz), release date (April 28th, 2017), and guest artists (so many) were released separately.  It was a classic example of withholding information to generate as much buzz as possible.  Even though a few songs were eventually released to give audiences a little taste, you couldn’t even sample the other tracks until the album’s release date.  I was jonesing to stream this album.  I even checked iTunes every day leading up to it’s release to see if I could just listen to a sample.  Nope.  Wasn’t going to happen.  I had to wait.

Humanz released last week and I’ve listened to it several times since then.  While Humanz may not live up to my love and appreciation of Plastic Beach, it is still a solid album complete with danceable tracks and apocalyptic themes.

One particular track I was looking forward to was “Charger” purely on the basis that it featured Grace Jones.  Jones has been someone I’ve grown to deeply appreciate over the last two years after reading her book I’ll Never Write My Memoirs published in 2015.  Jones is a severely underrated and underestimated musical icon whose fashion, vocal range, and pop innovation continues to reverberate in today’s styles.  I was eager to hear how this enigmatic legend worked with one of the defining bands of my generation.

In fact, Gorillaz have always been great at bridging generational divides I music. One of my favorite tracks from Plastic Beach is “Stylo” featuring the soul master Bobby Womack.  “Stylo” is a fun, power driven song that utilizes Womack’s talents well.  Albarn had worked with a lot of the big patriarchs of music on previous recordings.  However, with Humanz, he acknowledged a lack of representation of musically talented women icons in his music and sought out Jones that.  Albarn wanted Humanz to feature powerful musical matriarchs.  As a result, great artists like Jones and Mavis Staples appear on this album.

“Charger” is a fun track.  I enjoy it as one of my favorite from the album.  However, I am disappointed with how little Jones appears on the track.  While Womack on “Stylo” belted out whole lines crisply over the backing track, Jones feels lost in the background like a specter.  And perhaps that’s intentional, but I really wanted more Grace Jones.

I read about the recording process of the track.  Albarn had wanted to work with Jones and brought her in to listen to the song that would eventually become “Charger.”  In that state, the song already had another vocalist which Jones did not like.  When Albarn removed the other vocalist, Jones ad-libbed in the studio for four hours with a level of energy that Albarn described as “supernatural” and “not entirely of this world.”  So, maybe, the foggy guest appearance reminiscent of a ghost kinda makes sense in the grand scheme of Humanz as a whole.  Still, you cannot go wrong with a little more Grace Jones.

I’m really glad Gorillaz are back and Humanz doesn’t disappoint.  While it is easy to get distracted by the cartoon characters of 2-D, Murdoch, Russel, and Noodle, there is a lot more to this band that what meets the eye.  When their first album dropped, it was easy to dismiss the band as a fad.  However, 16 years later, they have really grown into something that is innovative while also connecting the now with what came before.  By bridging a generation gap in their musical style and the company they keep as guest artists, Gorillaz exemplifies a band that respects that journey of music.

 

“overkill” – men at work (1983)

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Spring has finally come to stay in Chicago and I couldn’t happier.  My big coats have been stowed away as the temperatures have been warm enough for just long-sleeve shirts or even plain t-shirts (be still my beating heart).  The sunshine has been generous and I’ve taken every chance to be outside.  Walking around the neighborhoods, reading on park benches, running the lake path, and even enjoying patio season are now filling my itineraries so fast that I need to hire an assistant to keep track of them all.

The crisp mornings and warm afternoons of spring really inspire something in me.  After spending several months cold and inside during winter, spring reinvigorates me and makes me feel more alive.  Though I am a fairly ambitious person, I have been a lot more motivated lately.  In last week’s entry, I talked about taking steps to jumpstart my career.  However, that hasn’t been the only thing I’ve been focused on.

There was a period in my life where I didn’t have the time, energy, or money to focus on hobbies, friendships, or anything else that would contribute to someone’s development as a well-rounded person.  I was working over 70 hours a week for an abusive person and with such a chaotic schedule that it was hard to focus on myself and my well-being.  My health was declining, my relationship at the time suffered, and it seemed as though no other options were available.

Fortunately, that toxic situation ended over three years ago and I’m thoroughly grateful.  My transition after that job was tough, but I got through it.  In some respects, I’ve been living on borrowed time since then.  While, I think, most people would’ve taken some time off, I hit the ground running and started to focus on things that I enjoyed.  In the last few years, I started volunteering for CHIRP Radio, picked up reading as a hobby, volunteered for a few other media arts non-profits, and starting other hobbies that make me happy and diversify my outlets.  Since I knew what it was like to not have a life when someone exerted so much control over you, I wanted to live on my own terms and that involved doing everything I felt like I was missing out on.

I recently joined a gym.  I talked about hating gyms for years.  For the most part, gyms are smelly, overpriced, and you’re surrounded by people who make you more self-conscious.  Plus, I like to run outside and treadmills feel so unnatural to me.  Regardless, I have now become a gym rat.  I recently found a fitness center at a Chicago park near my apartment.  For $20, I can use their facilities to work out and improve my health and physique.  Having been wanting to make more room for exercise, I found this community park gym to be a nice compromise because of the price and the staff has been so nice.  Taking that step and committing to an exercise routine has now become another way for me to live for myself.

I’ve been feeling really good about the life I’ve bene making for myself.  No one can ever accuse me of being lazy.  I love life and I have a thirst for challenge and experience.  And that makes me unafraid to work towards bettering myself.  To do that, I’m engaging on multiple fronts.  I am giving back to the community when I volunteer regularly, I am looking for a new job that stimulates me more, I am working out to improve my health, and I continue to take music classes to stay creative.

For about a year and a half, I’ve been taking guitar classes at the Old Town School of Folk music.  I had wanted to take classes prior, but just couldn’t swing it due to time.  Since starting, I have improved a lot.  I’m still not playing at the level of Jimmy Page or Frank, but I have fun with it.  There are still some aspects I have trouble with.  Barre chords, for example, are my biggest obstacles.  However, with enough time and practice, I’m sure I’ll get there.

This Sunday will be my class’ student show case.  At the end of an eight-week sessions, classes perform on stage in front of an audience to showcase what they have learned.  Classes from all skill levels perform one song.  For my student showcase, we will be performing “Overkill” by Men At Work.  What makes “Overkill” such a good showcase piece is that use of power chords and barre chords.  It is also a song people know so that helps when connecting with the audience.

What is really funny is how apt of a selection “Overkill” is when I think about my life and the changes I want to make.  Written by Colin Hay, “Overkill” is a worrier’s anthem.  In the song, Hay cannot get to sleep because he is up thinking too much about people and situations form his past.  Tossing and turning in his bed, he is driving himself crazy. It is only when he walks the streets and is distracted by the lights that he can momentarily forget about whatever is in the past that is bothering him.

I connect with this song because I am worrier.  Honestly, I try not to be.  In fact, I work very hard not to worry.  I’ve realized in the last few years that it takes a while to make meaningful change.  And any change worth making doesn’t come easy.  It takes time and a lot of work.  Stay committed long enough and you’ll see the results.

I felt like I wasn’t in control of my life for the first few years living in Chicago because of my job.  Things have improved since then and I am happier for those changes, but I don’t want to take things for granted.  We all have ghosts from the past that try to haunt us.  You can either let them get to you, or fight them off by focusing on the future.  And sometimes, despite all your best effort, they’ll still get you.  It will happen, but you cannot stop.  Don’t look back.

As much as I love “Overkill” as a song, it is not a way I want to live.  That’s why I find new professional, creative, or personal outlets for me to explore.  Change will happen and, when it does, I want to feel like I am strong enough to handle whatever comes my way.  So, I am making things happen for myself now.  I am loving this heightened sense of motivation I have recently acquired to be the best friend, lover, colleague, professional, etc. that I can be.  With warmer weather, spring also comes with opportunities.  Whether they be new jobs, new friends, new lovers, or new experiences, I feel fortunate that I have the freedom to work towards what I want in my life.

“makeout king” – showyousuck (2013)

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Ambition is something I never really lacked.  As far back as I can remember, I have always been motivated to do my best and achieve my goals.  It is easy to dream big when you’re younger.  That kind of optimism is something I really miss.  As it increasingly disappears over time, reality sets in.  You’re more aware of your own personal limitations as well as the obstacles put in front of you by your environment or by chance.  It becomes a game that requires an evolving strategy as the game board constantly changes.

I am still very much an ambitious person.  However, the only difference between myself now and myself back then is that I have to try harder as I get older.  I wish I had all the free time and energy I wasted so cavalierly a decade ago.  Now, I have jobs and responsibilities.  I don’t have kids, though.  Young parents who manage to still have some semblance of a personal life are super heroes to me.

My career is something I have been very focused on lately.  In fact, I’ve always been focused on my career.  When I first moved to Chicago, I got a non-profit video production job and did that steadily for three years.  Then, I moved on to some freelance consulting for a film non-profit.  When I finally got a full-time video production job again, things were looking up.  Then, the Chicago branch of this company closed and I was left figuring out what to do next.

What followed was me doing a series of administrative temp jobs. Ultimately, one became permanent with benefits, paid time off, and a 401k retirement plan.  I had never had those things before.  While this new job wasn’t in my field, it was stable and provided me with the ability to pay my bills without worry and have health insurance.  Since I just went through a period of unstable employment due to be being laid off and doing low-level temp jobs, I told myself that I would stay at my new job for two years before I pound the pavement looking for a break in my field.

During those two years, I did a volunteer of volunteer work for a few media non-profits.  In fact, I still volunteer because I love it and it builds my resume.  One is a community radio station where I develop partnerships with local businesses and organizations.  The other is a renowned folk music school where I organize and catalogue records in their archives.  As much fun as I have at these places and enjoy what I do, neither directly contributed to my set goal of working in video production.

My two-year anniversary at my current job arrived in January.  That would be my starting gun in the race for a new job.  Finding a new job takes a lot of work.  You send out a high volume of resumes, get met with a high volume of rejections, and the whole process is tedious, monotonous, and time consuming.  I envy people who have been at their place of employment for over a decade or have had a high enough of a position where their job hunting work is kept at a minimum.  Finding a job is a job itself.

The whole process for me is frustrating because I have a lot of great experience and talent.  However, I have hard time telling my story in a way that is attractive to recruiters or hiring managers.  The main issues are that I am just too honest and direct plus I really undersell my abilities due to lack of confidence.  I am working on these things.

Finding a new job requires more than just a standard approach.  You need flexibility to tackle problems with solutions that come in the form of a dynamic, engaged, and multi-faceted plan.  You have to give your all in every aspect of the process and not just one part, or you just may as well not be doing anything at all.  Contacting recruiters is great and all, but you gotta be hungrier than that.  Getting back out in the job market made me realize that while I did a lot of great volunteer work over the last few years, I wasn’t necessarily focusing in on opportunities that were more beneficial to my job hunt.  The solution to this problem?  Work even harder.

I’ve now started to find opportunities to get back into media production and to use those opportunities as networking opportunities.  My community radio station, CHIRP Radio, has an ongoing artist spotlight series called “CHIRP Factory Sessions.”  In an episode, an artist is highlighted by the station; usually a local or up-and-coming artist.  They perform a few songs during a professional video production session with interview clip interspersed between songs.  Even though I had been at CHIRP radio for three years, this was something I never volunteered to help with.  That was going to change.

The volunteer work for this program is fairly simple.  When the artist and video crew arrive, you just help get their stuff in the building, clear some stuff to make room, and then step back and let them do their thing.  Like all the video productions I worked on before, there is a lot of standing around.  That is just the nature of the industry.  However, you can choose how you use this time.  My goal is networking.  I hung around and talked with the crew.  Nothing too big or serious.  Just general bullshitting.  This was the first time I had met the crew, so I couldn’t lay it on so thick with the “help me get back into video production” shtick.  Gotta take it slow, let them remember you, and then make a move.  As I mentioned, finding new opportunities is a very slow process.

Even though I am committed to the long game and willing to wait, it still doesn’t mean I don’t get a little down and overwhelmed by how slow things can move.  With how my brain operates, I get a little bummed and then I start thinking about all the bad things.  So, that is when I putting my grounding exercises to use and distract myself with something I like.  This was starting to happen when the video crew was busy setting up and I didn’t have the chance to engage with them personally, so I talked to one of the artists who came in to perform.

The featured artist that night was Air Credits.  Air Credits is a hip-hop duo fronted by Clinton Sandifer who is more known in Chicago by his stage name Showyousuck.  Air Credits provides the soundtrack for the not too distant future where the environment is ravaged and the water supply is virtually non-existent.  There is a message to their music that is all too real given the environmentally damaging policies of the Trump administration.  It is political music for a political time.

I got an opportunity to chat with Sandifer for a bit.  The new Kendrick Lamar was a few days away from being released.  A lot of pressure was on Lamar considering his previous album To Pimp a Butterfly was a commercial hit and critical milestone.  With all the secrecy surrounding Lamar’s album, everyone was dying to know if Lamar could deliver a great work of art again.

One of the big mysteries surrounding the album involved the guests on the record.  Only two would be featured; Rihanna and U2.  Given that U2 had become kind of a joke with the kids these days because of recent mediocre albums, lack of chart-topping hits, Bono’s philanthropy, and, of course, the whole iTunes fiasco, people were freaking out.  How were U2 and Kendrick Lamar going to sound?  Was it going to be a sample? Would Bono rap?  No one knew and it was driving music fans and the Internet crazy.  It was unfathomable for both U2 and Kendrick Lamar fans to imagine such a collaboration.  Who had lost their minds between the two?

Sandifer and I talked about the upcoming U2 guest spot.  Sandifer was super skeptical, but open-minded.  U2 had collaborated with hip-hop and rap artists before, but all those tracks were mediocre at best.  Sandifer is a rap artist and aficionado, I am a die-hard U2 fan, and Lamar’s new track was what we shared.

While speculating on the quality of the track, I was talking to Sandifer about some of the comments I had seen online.  A lot of jokes were being made, but that was to be expected because no one knew.  I frequent a message board run by the U2 fan site atu2.com.  Earlier in the day, I was reading through a thread about the Lamar album.  One user had posted the text from a tweet they had read.  Without crediting who wrote the tweet, it said “DOES KENDRICK EVEN KNOW THAT U2 IS ON HIS ALBUM, BECAUSE THEIR ALBUM IS STILL ON MY PHONE AND I NEVER ASKED FOR THAT.”  Three years later and the iTunes jokes are still coming in.

I told Sandifer about that and he looked at me and said “I wrote that.”  Immediately, I busted out laughing.  Not only was it a really great pop culture joke, but I was unknowingly talking the author of that solid joke.  I marveled at the serendipity of the situation and how small our world can be.  I told Sandifer his joke had been circulating on message boards and he flipped out in hysterics over that.  He event wanted a picture of the post so he could share it on Twitter.  It was great and hilarious moment.

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Of course, I didn’t know any of that was going to happen.  I was going into the evening a little tired, but ready to start working so I can meet the right people and get the right job and so on and so forth.  As a really focused and intense person, it can be hard for me to stop and take in my surroundings.  Just pausing and enjoying the simpler and little things can be hard for someone on a mission fueled by their own hunger and ambition.  My goal was to network and get things done.  If I didn’t talk to Sandifer, I would’ve gone home even more tired and a little stressed.  But my conversation with him and that revelation over our shared interests really made my night.

As mentioned earlier, Sandifer is more known by his rap persona Showyousuck.  He’s always been a great friend to CHIRP Radio and always a delight to listen to and see perform.  One of my favorite tracks of his comes from his 2013 EP Dude Bro.  “Makeout King” is a fun party song with a killer synth and laid back lyrics.  Sandifer raps about coming to pick you up in a hurry while making out in the backseat listening to Journey.  Though Air Credits has a more focused and socially conscious message, Sandifer’s music as Showyousuck is just pure fun.  As with “Makeout King,” his other tracks like “80’s Boobs” showcase his penchant for throwback musical stylings and lyrical pop culture references that are fun and great to dance to.

Still very much an independent local artist, Sandifer still makes his mark as a triumphantly creative force in the Chicago music scene.  Any and all success he gets is greatly deserved.  With a catalogue that continues to get bigger and more prolific, Sandifer’s music has the potential for mass appeal with his catchy tracks and meaningful commentary.  Working and talking with him was a perfectly good reminder that I can work hard for what I want, but that I should still take time to slow down and enjoy the things that I would otherwise miss.  That if I’m not going to drive myself crazy looking for work, I need to remember that I have a life to live to stay grounded, balanced, and happy.  And that includes getting the most laughter and fun out of things that I can.

 

“fight the power” – public enemy (1989)

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Growing up, I was enamored by film.  So much so that I wanted to be a filmmaker.  I was in high school when I made that decision for myself because, as we all know, what you decide for yourself as a teenager stays with you forever and you can’t change or else you’ll live the rest of your days as a miserable failure.  But, I digress.

As a plucky teenager in high school, I figured that the first step to becoming a legitimate filmmaker was to study the classics.  To see how people did things before, find aesthetics that appealed to me, and replicate them while making some mistakes that would lead to artistic, personal, and professional innovation.  In other words, I spent a lot of time in my room watching movies and not playing outside.

I tried to watch as many classics as I could growing up.  Any movie that appeared on any curated “best of” list was fair game as I critiques, analyzed, and studied each film to any degree a kid can intellectually dissect cinema.  I was paying attention to framing, composition, blocking, tracking, and any other film trick that was used to project a certain idea.  It was a very academic way to approach a movie and my introduction to film theory.

In college, I watched a lot of films as well.  Before college, I watched movies and listened to talking heads on television tell me why a particular movie was so important.  In college, I watched movies and listened to talking heads at the front of the class tell why a particular movie was so important.  This was the next logical step in my education.  I had the drive and motivation to learn, but now had more tools in my repertoire to really get at the heart of the art form.  Combine that with me studying the technical side in my video production classes and you had all the makings of the next cinematic auteur.

However, things change.  You learn new things, reevaluate your priorities based on what is happening around you, and then explore new facets of yourself you weren’t aware of before.  After college, I lost a lot of interest in studying cinema or even working in film.  I had just worked on a movie in Alaska and I was left wondering if there was more.  I left the experience a little disillusioned which was an extension of inklings of thought I had while pursuing an internship at a major media conglomerate.  I had seen how the industry cultivates a toxic level of egotism and selfishness that just didn’t sit right with me.

My outlook on film changed.  Instead, I applied my video production background in different areas including non-profits where I worked on education initiatives.  I really enjoyed the proactive and socially engaging ways that video could be used to reach people and communicate certain ideas that motivate them.  Plus, I realized that traditional video production was boring.  This is the 21st century goddammit.  Terrestrial media is dying and I can access everything I need on my little pocket oracle.  That attitude my upset purists who enjoy big theaters, but it is truth.  Plus, there is a time and place.  As much as I love sitting in a dark theater watching images on a big screen, video and film have more power than that and how we engage with it is changing.

This also affected my viewing habits.  I stopped watching television and film as much as I used to.  There were other interests and hobbies I pursued.  If I watched anything at all, it was something I hadn’t seen before or was just really goofy entertainment like a John Waters movie.  The classics were no longer a part of my life.  I had seen, reviewed, and analyzed them all. What could I gain from going through them again?

That all changed recently.  After listening to a variety of different Fresh Air episodes and books on film, I started to get the itch to revisit all my beloved classic cinema that I hadn’t seen in well over a decade.  It started with The Godfather when I picked up a copy from the library after hearing Coppola talk to Terry Gross about a new book containing the diary he kept while making that film.  Rewatching it was a great experience.  I remember it was a great film and that it was important in popular culture.  It is so ingrained in our society that whenever that title is mentioned, you know it is considered the pinnacle of great American cinema.  However, watching it over a decade later, I picked up a lot more than when I last saw it in high school.  As an adult pushing 30, I understood a deeper level of complexity and subtlety that I never did before.  I gravitated to different things as an adult.  It was like watching the film for the first time.

That experience led me to think about what I am missing when it comes to all my other favorite classics.  Can I go back and gain a fresh outlook on something I watched so many times already?  I had to find out, so I went to the library and stocked up on a dozen or so classic films that I cherished and challenged me as an adolescence.  Title likes All About Eve, It Happened One Night, 12 Angry Men, and others were calling to me.  So, I’ve begun a journey of rediscovery and becoming reacquainted with the art that inspired me.

One of the films I recently rewatched was Spike Lee’s 1989 masterpiece Do the Right Thing which I hadn’t seen since my senior year of high school.  Lee plays the lead role, Mookie, in the film who is employed to deliver pizza for a local pizzeria in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn run by an Italian-American named Sal and his two sons.  The film takes places over the course of one day and it is one of the hottest days of the year.  As Mookie delivers pizzas to various members of the community, we get little glimpses into the lives and struggles of Mookie’s neighbors.  Da Mayor, a local old drunk played by Ossie Davis, attempts to sweet talk Mother Sister, a kind of matriarch of the neighborhood portrayed by Ossie’s wife Ruby Dee.  A group of three black men, including a Caribbean immigrant, sit on the sidewalk and complain all day about the Korean shop owners being so successful after just coming off the boat.  Radio Raheem strolls through the area blasting his boom box while other people yell at him to turn it down.  Mookie’s girlfriend, played by Rosie Perez, raises their kid and argue about how Mookie is away for so long.  And Buggin’ Out, Breaking Bad’s Giancarlo Esposito, is leading his own version of a revolutionary civil right movement.  Amidst all these interconnecting stories, tensions between races and classes rise along with the mercury until everything break loose.

While Mookie serves as the voice of reason in the film, it is Buggin’ Out who drives the narrative.  Sal’s pizzeria contains a “Wall of Fame” of famous Italian-Americans which serves as a point of cultural and ethnic pride for the owner.  Since the neighborhood is predominantly black, Buggin’ Out demands that Sal puts pictures of “brothers” on the wall.  Sal refuses because it is his place and Buggin’ Out rallies people to boycott Sal’s pizzeria.  During the climax of the film, Buggin’ Out and Radio Raheem storm the restaurant.  Radio Raheem’s boom box gets broken for playing his music too loud and a huge fight breaks out.  The police soon arrive but things continue to get out of hand.  The pizzeria is burned down and Radio Raheem is choked to death by police.

Upon rewatching this film after a decade, it had dawned on me how this movie from 1989 still manages to be one of the most relevant films out there today.  Do the Right Thing is a complex analysis on race relations between multiple races and the systemic oppression that all face by people in power.  In the last few years, there has been a rise in the reporting of the deaths of unarmed black men by the hands of police; a theme explored in such a real way nearly 30 years ago by Lee.  There are even moments that deal with race issues that are not even as extreme as the death of Radio Raheem.  When Buggin’ Out’s Air Jordans get scuffed by a white resident’s bike, Buggin’ Out is shocked and offended that this white man was born and raised in the same neighborhood and blames gentrification for the decline of his role in the social order of the neighborhood.  His shoes, a point of pride for him, represented his self-worth and were disrespected by this figure he identified as an outsider.  As neighborhoods in cities continue to raise rents and seen an increase in the number of white, middle-class residents, people of color are no longer in control of their own neighborhood until they are eventually priced Out.  Again, another issue that is urgent today that was explored so elegantly nearly 30 years prior.

Do the Right Thing also contains one of the most engaging and shocking scenes involving racial issues I’ve ever seen on film.  Mookie tries to connect with one of Sal’s sons, played by John Turturro, and find out why he has issues with black people.  Mookie asks him who is favorite basketball players is, who his favorite rock star is, and so on.  And Turturro keeps responding with historical or popular black figures and then suggests that he can like them because they are black, but not really black.  That they are beyond black in a way to suggest that they are closer to white and, therefore, more respectable.  This dialog between the two characters then jumps to a montage of different characters saying racial epithets and slurs straight to the camera as it tracks swiftly to a close-up.  Mookie looks straight into the lens and launches into a tirade about Italians, Turturro insults black people, a Puerto Rican neighbor spews hate speech about Koreans, a white police office speaks on Latino stereotypes, and a Korean man goes on an Anti-Semitic rant.  This montage ends with Samuel L. Jackson, playing the DJ of a local radio station, yelling that we all need to chill.   This airing of grievances from a variety of different ethnic groups about other ethnic groups makes such an incredible statement about race relations and the environmental and social factors that influence animosity.

With Black Lives Matter, the racist ramblings of our president, and other problems facing people of color that continue to be ignored, Do the Right Thing continues to be the most relevant film out there.  The only way it could be any more relevant to current times is if it included Muslim characters.  It handles the topic and presents ideas in such a subtle and humanistic way.  Even during the finale when the raging mob targets the Korean shop owner, the Korean man is able to diffuse the situation by telling them the black crowd that they are the same.  He doesn’t mean it literally that his skin tone is the same as theirs, but he means it from the perspective that they face the same issues as non-white Americans. Incredibly powerful, the film is certainly one of the most important films out there.

Strewn throughout the film and featured so prominently as to be a character itself, Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” plays throughout the film.  The song famously opens the film as the credits play and Rosie Perez dances against a stage backdrop of colorful New York brownstones.  It is the song that Radio Raheem plays on his boom box and the track that sparks the fight in the pizzeria.  It is an incredibly thunderous song with a lot of anger and poetic rhythm.  In the song, Chuck D is urging listeners to fight the powers that be.  Confrontational and revolutionary, “Fight the Power” is anthemic and a call to action to start a revolution and engage in intelligent activism.  Famously, Chuck D states that Elvis Presley doesn’t mean shit to him signaling the toppling of a white music legend who stole from black artists only to make room for the next wave of music; music of revolution by black artists for black artists.

If you haven’t seen Do the Right Thing¸ take some time to do so.  It is a cultural tour de force with a message that still permeates our culture nearly 30 years later.  You’ll engage, learn, and fight the powers that be once you see it.

“y.a.l.a.” – m.i.a. (2013)

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In the last two or three years, reading has become one of my favorite hobbies.  I’m practically on a new book every week.  Everything is tracked on a spreadsheet including what I have read, when I read it, and what I’m going to read next.  My list of books to read always changes based on library availability, date of release, and general interest at that time.  And I like to keep things diverse, too.  I mostly read non-fiction, but I do enjoy a good novel or graphic novel once in a while.  To help keep things diverse, I compile my reading list based on my interest, recommendation from friends, and author interviews on shows like Fresh Air or Real Time with Bill Maher.

Reading wasn’t something I really did.  Of course, I read books while in school.  However, unless I really cared about a subject or author, I really didn’t read for leisure.  When I started becoming an active reader, I picked up my first book November 2014; my first book in four years.  There’s a story as to how I became a voracious reader, but I’ll save that for another entry.

One activity I engage in to keep me a healthy and well-rounded reader is participating in a book club.  Though, you can’t just join any book club.  There’s so much to consider when participating in a book club.  You have to be interested in the book selections, enjoy the company of people around you, and find the time to actually do it.  Finding the right book club for you is like trying shoes.  You have to go through all sorts of styles before finding the right fit.

I like the idea of book clubs on the surface level, but it is different when you actually go.  My first book club I went to was last year.  I went once.  The people were fine and the book selection was fine (Bonk by Mary Roach), but I just didn’t feel like I really belonged.  Prior to that, the only club I went to was one organized by a colleague from CHIRP, the community radio station I volunteer with.  I only went to one meeting.  Not because I didn’t have any fun or enjoyed the book, but because CHIRP’s book club wouldn’t meet again for another year.  The organizer had just been really busy.

Since October, the CHIRP Radio book club has picked back up and meeting every other month.  And I really like it.  Most of the attendees are friends and colleagues, plus we read books on music.  Consistent themes in a book club are an underrated aspect of the experience.

Last week, the book club was meeting to discuss the latest selection Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution by Sara Marcus.  In short, this book was a history of the Riot Grrrl movement that elevated girls’ and women’s role in the music scene, blended punk rock and fashion, and is attributed to the creation and development of third-wave feminism.  Unfortunately, the Riot Grrrl movement only last for a few years in the early 1990s.

Due to a number of factors such as rainy weather and busy schedules, most of the regulars didn’t show up.  It looked like it was just going to by one of my colleagues and me.  We were even debating on adjusting the normal book club schedule to accommodate such a low turnout.  However, right on time, two women who I didn’t know and were not a part of CHIRP Radio came to attend the book club.

I had volunteered prior to the meeting to lead the book discussion.  Not because I consider myself an authority on feminism or Riot Grrrl specifically, but I just really enjoy talking about books.  My colleague, an educated and fun woman, had me start off the discussion.  I introduced the book and started to summarize the key points when I had a sudden realization.  I was the only man there.  I was the only man there discussing a book about a feminist movement.  I was the only man there discussing a book about a feminist movement to a group of women.  The irony was slowly sinking in.  I nervously laughed it off, addressed the male elephant in the room, and passed off the role of discussion leader to my colleague who had also wondered why I wanted to lead this discussion (Again, I just like talking about books).

Our discussion on the book was fascinating and enlightening.  It was a comfortable space where we shared out opinions and analyses involving the Riot Grrrl movement including what the flaws were, why was the movement so short, or what they could have done to keep it going.  Naturally, since the movement is so heavily associated with feminism, we talked a lot about feminism.  Specifically, what feminism meant to the girls and women in this movement and comparing it the previous feminist waves.

While I am certainly no authority of feminism, I do consider myself a feminist.  And despite my nervousness earlier when introducing the book, I was able to engage actively and navigate very difficult topics.  My colleague had teased me by saying this was a safe space and that it was okay to discuss these things.  That certainly helped and was funny.  I am a straight cisgender white male and my experiences in that world means I don’t always have the most progressive and inclusive views at all times, but my humanist outlook has value and I actively try to be thoughtful and considerate of all people involved in a neutral and respectful way.  For example, my colleague had asked the group if we thought the women in the book hated men and, if so, was that ok.  The other two women in the group stated their points that the women in the book hated men and that it wasn’t ok.  I disagreed and firmly believed the women didn’t hate men and, if they did, that’s ok.  I was asked to explain my answer and I stated that was ok for groups of people with shared physical traits or ideologies to congregate on their own terms.  The girls and women in this book wanted to hang out with other girls and women.  That meant that had to exclude boys to do that.  And I fully support that.  They should have the freedom and ability to do that without question or interference.  This led to a discussion about discrimination and I held onto that belief altruistically.  If a nasty racist group wanted to meet and exclude whoever they wanted to exclude that, that’s tolerable.  It’s not ok in the sense that it is fine or acceptable to let that happen, but it has to be tolerated.  Plus, there are creative ways you can banish those groups to the corner without affecting their rights such as removing their racist posts on social media.  As long as the government doesn’t interfere with their free speech, they can be culturally excluded.  As long as no group isn’t being violent or inciting violence, it’s their right to meet, demonstrate, and be as exclusive or inclusive as they want.  I don’t think the women in the book club necessarily agreed with that point, but I communicated it rationally.  It may not be the most “woke” thing to believe, but I try to learn, be more thoughtful and considerate, and not be a complete shitbag.

The most interesting discussion revolved around third-wave feminism’s relationship to the second-wave and what will the fourth-wave look like.  We discussed why well-established feminist organizations didn’t step in to help support the Riot Grrrl movement.  There may be a lot of answers to that question ranging from those organizations didn’t know to that they didn’t care.  I personally believe it was the latter.  We discussed how the values of third-wave feminists weren’t respected by second-wave feminists who had more limited views on the definitions of femininity and what it means to be a woman. That generational divide applied to both age and ideals and is a logical answer to the question of why Riot Grrrl wasn’t supported by the likes of Gloria Steinem or Andrea Dworkin.

Third-wave feminism is, currently, the last wave that is agreed upon en masse.  The fourth-wave, in terms of what it means as well as the people and ideas that embody it, have yet to be agreed upon.  There are a lot of ideas floating around that fourth-wave feminism means including social media’s impact on feminism, transgender support, reproductive justice, and increased presence of women in senior leadership roles.  All of those are great things.  It is just that there is not solid outline as of yet.

I had raised the question to the group as to what they think fourth-wave feminism will look like and their goals from that movement.  My colleague, a woman of Indian ethnicity, stated she wants the fourth-wave of feminism to be led by woman of color.  We talked about how feminist movements had been led by educated western white women and there had always been issues with inclusivity when it came to woman of color (the Riot Grrrl movement experienced the same criticism in the book).  While a lot of progressive liberals are focused on ivory tower feminist issues such as why Mayim Bialik thinks women shouldn’t be referred to as girls, women of color abroad face issues and unspeakable horrors that simply don’t enter into the lives of white women in this country.

The rapper M.I.A. was brought up as someone who has been valuable at raising awareness over issues facing women of color.  Born Mathangi Arulpragasam, M.I.A. has been an activist focusing on issues facing Sri Lankan Tamils, Palestinians and African Americans.  She cites her voicelessness as a child as being the motivation for her role as a refugee advocate.  While M.I.A.’s activism has drawn a considerable blend of criticism and praise, she has undoubtedly been influential in elevating the role of women of color in not only music but also their place in the world.

I wasn’t really aware of M.I.A. when she released Arular in 2005.  Like most people, my introduction to her music was the 2007 album Kala because “Paper Planes” was a huge hit.  It was all over the radio and featured in commercials and movies.  It was a popular and inescapable song.  And rightfully so.  It is a great song.

I’ve paid attention to M.I.A.’s career since then.  In 2013, she released Matangi.  The fourth single released from that record was “Y.A.L.A.” and instantly became my favorite M.I.A. song.  With its heavy beat and hypnotic rhyming, it is a catchy song that is also poignant and clever.  “Y.A.L.A” stands for “You Always Live Again” and is a direct reference to Drake’s song and the popularization of his term “Y.O.L.O.” (“You Only Live Once”).  M.I.A. uses Hindu themes to lampoon a ridiculous pop culture statement that invites recklessness and thoughtlessness.  She poses the question of why, if we only live once, then why do we keep doing the same shit.  Culturally aware, M.I.A.’s critique of such selfish disregard is enlightening and indicative of her work blending social justice and music.

“everybody’s talkin'” – harry nilsson (1969)

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It always amazes me when I talk to people my age who didn’t have restrictions on their media consumption growing up.  Also, I’m a little weirded out by people who had everything banned from them.  For me, I existed somewhere in the middle of that.  There were televisions shows that I could watch that some other kids couldn’t (The Simpsons for example), but I wasn’t allowed to watch R-rated movies (with very few exceptions) or buy albums with that pesky warning label until I was 17.  The reason for 17 was because that was the age people could engage with restricted media without a parent or guardian.  This was incredibly annoying for a teenager with filmmaking ambitions.  I had to see the classics and figure out how I wanted to not only film, but also score my films.  And, sometimes, movies and music have naughty words.

On my 17th birthday, I got a homemade cake.  Naturally, it said “Happy Birthday” on it but the “R” was super big and accentuated.  The family knew what I was excited about.  One of my gifts that year was a one-year paid subscription to Netflix.  At the time, I didn’t know what Netflix was.  I was living in a small rural farming community.  We had a dinky little rental store.  However, if I wanted to see a movie, just had to buy it the next time I was at Wal-Mart, or when I’m feeling fancy, cough up a few extra bucks at Suncoast.

Back in 2004, Netflix was only a mail-in service where DVDs were shipped to you two at a time.  You got two DVDs in an envelope.  You could hold onto them as long as possible and mail them back in the prepaid envelope when you were done.  Once a movie got returned, the next available film in your queue was sent to you.  This was the greatest thing ever.  I had no car, no adequate rental store near me, and no premium cable subscription services to indulge in all the R-rated goodness that was available.  What a time to be alive!

I had to make up for a lot of lost viewing time.  We did have internet at the house, so I did research on what were universally considered that greatest films of all time.  Also, during the early to mid-2000s, the American Film Institute produced annual countdown shows profiling the greatest movies.  These aired on cable television and were a much sought out event for my hungry film intellect.  They started with their salute to the 100 greatest movies of all time.  After that, they did ancillary countdowns profiling the 100 greatest heroes and villains (50 on each side), the 100 most thrilling movies, the 100 best lines from movies, and eventually the 100 greatest songs from movies.  These were the tastemakers.  They curators of cinema knew what was the best in the craft.  This is where I started.

It was when I turned 17 that I discovered the 1969 classic Midnight Cowboy.  I had known that it was, at the time, categorized as X-rated and notably one the Academy Award for Best Picture despite that commercial and critical suicide rating.  Still, it frequently appeared on all of these lists and I had to check it out.

Even at 17, and still very much a nerdy virgin, I knew this film would be the sexually explosive film it sounded like.  In the film, Jon Voight plays a naïve Texan dishwasher who aspires for more in life.  He’s also a bit of a joke with his cowboy hat, loud shirts, and broad-shouldered jacket.  He’s just a guy who likes to play the part and look good doing it.  He gets it in his mind that he can be a successful gigolo in New York City because “the women are paying for it.  Begging for it too.  And the men are mostly tooty-fruities.”  Being the big handsome stud that he is, he’s sure to strike it rich by bedding rich ladies.

Of course, as well know, that is a ridiculous notion.  Joe Buck’s journey becomes the generation-defining fish out of water story of it’s time.  He isn’t taken seriously the cold, hard streets of New York take advantage of him any which way they can.  He partners up with a seedy, gimp-legged con man named Enrico “Ratso” Rizzo played by Dustin Hoffman.  With no money, they reside in a condemned building with no utilities and very little food.  Joe Buck has to compromise and find unseemly ways to make money while Rizzo dreams about moving to Florida despite getting sicker.

Just as things are starting to look for Joe after the city has beat him down for so long, Rizzo is on the verge of dying.  Being eachother’s only friend, Joe does something completely horrific to get the money for them to get on a bus and get to Florida where they hope to have better lives.  Joe sheds his cowboy identity and accepts that fact he needs a real job.  And even seems to enjoy the prospects of living a normal life.  As they get to Florida, Rizzo dies on the bus and Joe is on his own now.

It is not a very happy story.  However, it left an incredible impression on me when I was 17.  It became my favorite movie.  At the time, what I think I got from it was a great example of a film that blended traditional Hollywood cinema with avant-garde elements.  Joe has flashbacks and nightmares that feature distorted memories, black and white footage, surreal scenario, and quickly paced editing.  At that age, I was learning all about classic Hollywood while only dipping my toes in foreign and cult cinema.  Those would come later, so a movie like Midnight Cowboy with it’s qualities seemed so radical to me.

This past weekend, I watched the film for the first time in nearly six years.  And the movie means differently to me now.  IT is still a beautiful film that evokes certain emotions from me.  However, I am drawn to different elements and have a deeper appreciation for the story and the characters in it.  I have engaged in sexual intercourse since the first time I saw the movie so sex on film no longer seems so otherworldly or sacred to me, but that’s not my real takeaway from the film.  Joe had dreams of making it in a big city, found out how challenging an unforgiving that process was, and reassessed his life as result.  Rewatching the film reminded me of my move to Chicago in early 2011.  I didn’t know anyone in the city, didn’t have a job lined up, and had never been to Chicago before.  I didn’t know what to expect and had no certainty that I would succeed.  I was like Joe Buck in a way.  Though he assumed he would make it big, he eventually started considering falling back into a dishwasher’s life.  For me, I was unsure of what would happen, but I succeeded in getting settled.  I appreciated just how much out of water Joe the Fish was and connected with his plight and the story on a more intimate level.

While the film only has two stars, the music in it practically acts as a third.  Harry Nilsson’s cover of Fred Neil’s song “Everybody’s Talkin’” is prominently featured throughout the film at length.  Initially released in 1968 on his album Aerial Ballet, the song was rereleased in 1969 to be included on the Midnight Cowboy soundtrack after Bob Dylan was late in submitting his song “Lay, Lady, Lay.”  During the opening credits, the song play in it’s entirety while also making prominent appearances throughout.  The song captures the spirit and story of Midnight Cowboy with it’s simple singer-songwriter style.  In the song, Nilsson is talking about going where the sun is shining and where the weather suits the clothes on his back.  He’s a travelling man on a journey to find a place where he can take his shoes off and call home.  However, the listener gets the idea that such a place might not exist.  The singer is lost in himself.  People are talking to him, but he doesn’t hear or understand what they are saying.  Instead, he only hears the echoes of his mind which suggest that the place full of sunshine he is looking for needs to come from within and that no physical manifestation will do unless he overcomes certain mental obstacles.  He must be happy with himself before he is happy where he is.

I had never forgotten either the song or the movie, but I had forgotten how beautiful both are and how much I love them.  Though an incredibly sad movie, it really helps put things in perspective.  You realize your limitations, learn to accept them, and then live your life to the fullest with what you have.  It shows that you can still get back up after reaching rock bottom.  You just need to want that and to listen to what is going on around you as opposed to what is going on inside your head because the voices inside you may not be the right ones.

“havana moon” – chuck berry (1956)

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On Saturday, the world lost Chuck Berry at the age of 90.  As one of the pioneers or rock and roll music, Berry laid a foundation with his mastery of the guitar and set new standards with the poignancy and brevity of his songwriting.  His work influenced dozens of musicians who took those lessons Berry taught them and created something unique and special.  Without Berry, the world wouldn’t have the Beach Boys, the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, and virtually any other major legacy act of the 1960s.  Though Berry hadn’t released a record since 1979, his work still permeated music and pop culture.

There is a lot to be said about Berry’s career.  While Berry’s work as a guitar player has garnered him numerous accolades and the respect of people in the industry, there is also a darker side to his career.  However, before I address that specter that haunts his legacy, I want to talk about my own experience with Chuck Berry and his music.

Pop culture icons often have monikers and labels thrusted upon that are catchy and increase their marketability.  Michael Jackson was the king of pop, Patti Smith is the godmother of punk, and Little Richard is the architect of rock and roll.  While a lot of these labels are well-deserved indicators of their talent and contributions to their respective art form.  However, I always took issue with brand that followed Elvis Presley throughout his career and beyond the grave.  Elvis Presley is not the king of rock and roll.  Chuck Berry is.

Chuck Berry’s music is so ingrained in the lexicon of American pop culture and music. You just grow up with those songs in television shows, movies, commercials, books, and countless other places.  You hear the direct influence of his music in those inspired by him through covers, stolen riffs, or tributes.  I remember buying a CD copy of his famous compilation The Great Twenty-Eight after seeing it listed in a Rolling Stone magazine list of the best albums ever made.  That compilation compiled 28 of his most famous and chart-topping tracks.  In college, on summer days, I would drive through the Kentucky country roads blasting that CD.  I loved the familiarity of the music and just how easy it was to feel so good listening to it.  It was the type of music that immediately made you feel great to be alive. When you heard that guitar and listened to the stories, the weight of the world washed away.

Berry was born with the sin of being black in a time when that could cost you your life.  Not only that, but the music industry was heavily segregated as well.  Rock and roll was music born from blues music performed by black musicians.  And those sounds were deemed demonic and with the ability to corrupt white youth into becoming violent and sexualized criminals.  Black-owned radio stations, such as WVON for example, were the only places where you could hear race records or rock music performed by black artists.  That happened for a long time before white record executives saw that white middle-class teenagers were craving those records.

So, here comes along Elvis Presley from Tupelo, Mississippi.  Elvis was a good-looking southern white boy with a whole lot of charm.  Put him in a suit, film him from the waist up, and you’ve got a money-making music machine that can sell black music to white families all across the nation.

Elvis didn’t really play guitar much or really even write his own songs.  Still, he sold an astronomical number of records in his lifetime and is regarded as the crowned king of rock royalty.  Meanwhile, Berry was a trained piano player, mastered the guitar with innovative techniques, had an electrified and sexualized stage presence that could put Elvis the Pelvis to shame, and even wrote his own songs.  While Berry still entertained crowds and influenced the next wave of musicians, he never got the same respect as Elvis.

Much of what held back Berry’s career has to do with the institutionalized racism of the music industry as well as the country at large.  Berry, a talented black musician, was making money and wooing white girls.  You couldn’t have that.  However, that’s not the sole reason why Berry’s career faced problems over the years.  Early in his career, Berry’s status as a popular musician garnered him a lot of followers.  Many of whom were white teenage girls.  Berry was jailed a few times after transporting teenagers across state lines for sexual purposes.  This presented him released any records for a few years during the late 1950s and early 1960s.  Much later, in 1990, Berry was sued by several women for allegedly filming them in the bathroom of his restaurant. While Berry was never convicted, he did settle out of court with 59 women.

When Berry passed, I saw a lot of social media posts and editorials about the cult of celebrity and how famous people are typically given free passes when it comes to committing crimes or, in Berry’s case, sexual improprieties.  I’m not debating that because it is certainly true.  Celebrities have the money, resources, and charisma to get out of situations that normal people who aren’t famous certainly cannot.  And that’s problematic.  A well-known person doesn’t inherently make you a better person or a person who is immune to society’s rules and guidelines.

However, here’s the catch: no one is completely altruistic and especially when it comes to things we enjoy.  Berry had a history of sex crimes and that is incredibly problematic.  And for all those who hold the position of hating Berry for that, I don’t blame you.  However, I know that every single critic of Berry supports some celebrity with their own issues.  I have friends who still stand by Michael Jackson, R. Kelly, Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, and countless other celebrities with smudges on their legacies, but were quick to criticize and vilify Chuck Berry.  And that’s fine.  You have your reasons.  However, I refuse to accept that those critics don’t have any bias when it comes to their admiration of performers with shady pasts.

We are all biased.  It is human nature.  As much as we try to apply blanket philosophies or logic over everything, there are times where rules get bent or broken that reinforce our own ideals or interests.  For me, it is frustrating when someone is so incredulous about their position that they don’t recognize their bias and come up with some excuse to justify why their perceivably tarnished idol still shines bright to them.  It is perfectly fine to have that bias.  Just own up to it and don’t be so judgmental about who other people enjoy.  There are very few extreme cases where someone’s idolization of a cultural or historical figure truly reflects that person’s own belief system.

As soon as I found out he died, I put my trusted copy of Berry’s The Great Twenty-Eight into my CD player and danced around the apartment.  Released in 1982, the compilation contains tracks recorded by Berry between 1955 and 1965.  It only covers Berry’s first 11 years with Chess Records.

While every song on it is a classic, one of my favorite is “Havana Moon.”  Recorded in 1956, “Havana Moon” is not one of Berry’s most recognizable hits or one that showcases his genius guitar work, but one that showcases his underrecognized talent as a songwriter.  In the song, Berry plays the character of a young Cuban man who waits on a dock with a bottle of rum.  He is waiting for a woman he recently met.  They danced and sang throughout the night.  The lead in the song falls in love with the young woman and she tells him she wants to take him back to America to wait at the dock for this ship.  As time goes on, the lead gets drunker while reminiscing about his time with the woman.  He goes through the motions of being so incredibly excited to be in love to concern about the woman being late to finally realizing that she lied and will never come.  Convinced the American girl lied, he passes out drunk on the dock.  When he wakes up in the morning light, he sees the ship has left the dock and so has the young girl who couldn’t him.  It’s a sad and bittersweet song about love and missed opportunities.  The song is written in short punch sentences that reminds me of Hemingway’s writing style.  There’s not beating around the bush with flowery and vague language.  Let’s get to the heart of the story and keep it short and sweet.

When I first moved to Chicago, I worked for a non-profit in the South Loop for nearly three years.  A couple of blocks south from the office was the former site of Chess Records.  It was so amazing to see the site where so many great black artists recorded their best work.  These were musicians I respected and continue to enjoy.  It was almost a spiritual experience to see so much history concentrated in one spot.  I’d been listening to songs recorded at Chess for years and I never thought I would ever see that building.  So, I stand by my love for Chuck Berry and I don’t give a damn if anyone thinks I’m complicit about any of his indiscretions.  Our heroes are flawed and so are we.