“lean on me” – bill withers (1972)

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One of the fascinating things to observe about the COVID-19 pandemic and quarantine is what it brings out in people.  For example, the things that people keep hidden or even flat out ignore under normal circumstances. This is when we see the disease bringing out the worst in people.  Whether it be higher levels of rudeness or just uninhibited aggression, I have seen some ugly qualities come out in people.  And I understand.  They are scared and acting out is their coping mechanism.  However, it is not tolerable.  This is a collective struggle and the line between acting out in pandemic-induced frustration and committing pandemic-fueled violent hysteria is a thin one. I have not seen any examples of that personally, but we’ve only be quarantined for a little less than a month.

However, I don’t want to focus on the negative.  Times are tough for everyone right now and it does not do anyone any good to think about how terrible people can be.  Acknowledging that it exists is important in understanding the societal impact of the pandemic as a whole, but I have little patience for nastiness.  Especially more now than ever before.  But I wanted to frame the reality of what is happening all around us when I shift and talk about the positive. And I have seen some this situation bring out the best in people.

I am inspired by the how my community, and the communities I see online and on social media, have come together to offer support for eachother.  I’ve seen people make food and supply deliveries.  There are people making cloth face masks.  The sidewalk chalk philosophers and their words of wisdom and encouragement are sustaining my soul. Food banks are getting resources to people in need.  Nurses and doctors are absolute heroes and continue to fight an unimaginable fight every day.  And the essential workers at the grocery stores are just as kind, friendly, and courteous as ever.

And all this has me think about how I am feeling and reacting during all this.  Of course, I have my ups and down like everyone else.  Most days I am fine, but I do get moody and sullen from time to time.  However, that is ok.  During a situation beyond anyone’s control, with what few areas where I have control, I feel as though I am contributing something positive.

I’ve done a few grocery and supply runs for some at risk individuals, and I find that to be very mentally and spiritually engaging.  I keep in close contact with a few friends and keep myself 100% available if they need to talk or vent about their worries and frustrations.  I’ve made pacts with my friends who are also neighbors that, should either one of us get sick, we’ll handle their grocery runs while they stay in and recover.  I’m staying physically active, doing home exercises almost daily and running in alleys when its nice enough out, as opposed to just watching too much television.  All these are small victories, but they keep my spirits up and maintain community and connection during troubled times.  I sometimes think about whether I could do more, but I have to let those feelings go and find solace in the fact that I am doing my best.

Kindness is what is going to be key to survive this with as much mental and physically wellbeing as possible. It is too easy to let the dread sink in and poison you to the point where you feel the only way to cope is to be just be generally awful.  Anyone can be rude and mean because it is just too easy.  It takes courage, strength, and bravery to be kind.  It takes work.  We have to take care of ourselves before we take care of others and taking care of eachother is sometimes the only thing people have during a time of crisis.

Bill Withers passed away last week, thankfully not due to COVID-19.  For someone who was active as a performer for only 15 years, he has had a lasting social and musical impact.  His songs have been covered in virtually every genre and the truth inherent in his lyrics remain relatable decades later.  A member of several music hall of fames, his legacy is secure.  And he had accomplished so much by keeping his message and attitude simple and straightforward.

That is why I love his song “Lean on Me” so much.  The first single from his second studio album, 1972’s Still Bill, “Lean on Me” remains one of his most enduring tunes and is perhaps his most famous.  Withers had written the song after moving to Los Angeles from his home in West Virginia.  He was living in a poorer part of the city and was missing the spiritual and emotional connections he had with his community back home. This song was a means for him to stay connected to the community and he made an effort to keep the lyrics simple and relatable.  And he certainly accomplished that.

Community is very important.  And no matter where we find ourselves in life, maintaining connections to the communities that built and nourish us is important. That connection is one of the most important ones we have, and it becomes essential not to lose that.  And that is why I feel hopeful when I see people treating eachother with kindness and respect during a very difficult time. Otherwise, when all this is over, what would we have left? Nothing.  So, I am here to help the people important to me and those around me.  I’m here with a helping hand, so lean on me.

“art groupie” – grace jones (1981)

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Last week, Grace Jones turned 69 years old.  Jones has been an icon I have come to love only within the last few years.  While there are still bands and musicians I nostalgically hold onto from my high school and college days, I still make active attempts to include room for new inspirations and influences in my life.  I began to really appreciate Jones when I read her memoir I’ll Never Write My Memoirs published in 2015.  Prior to that, I knew a few songs from her but not much else.  Really only a handful of her disco tracks from compilations I owned as well as the single “Pull Up to the Bumper” which was one of her biggest hits.  I had some time to read the book over the Christmas holiday that year and she intrigued me enough as a cultural figure for to invest my time.  Though I wasn’t completely unaware and blind to her as a person as well as the pop culture cliff notes surrounding her, I was still very much a novice when it came to what I knew about Jones and her music.

Born in Spanish Town, St. Catherine, Jamaica in 1948, Jones was a daughter born to a local politician and Apostolic clergyman.   At the age of 13, Jones and her family relocated to the United States and lived near Syracuse.  As a teenager, Jones rebelled against her family and religious upbringing by wearing makeup and going to gay clubs.  When her mother remarried, Jones’ stepfather would beat the children and treaty young Grace the worst of them all.  This religiously motivated violence from her stepfather would be forever cemented in Jones’ mind and influence her career.

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, Jones pursued a modeling career.  While some photographers sought Jones out for her unique look, many felt she was too strange to have a career.  Eventually, she would move to Paris where her fashion career would really take off.  During that time, she would go to the underground disco clubs with her modeling roommates Jessica Lange and Jerry Hall (can you imagine what that apartment must’ve been like?).  During the early to mid-1970s, disco music was still an underground phenomenon and an out for gay musicians and artists who wouldn’t be accepted anywhere else that would be mainstream.  This niche culture appealed to Jones and she started cutting her earliest disco tracks such as “I Need a Man.”

Towards the end of the decade, disco became a mainstream musical culture.  With that exposure came novelty acts that watered down and delegitimized the genre.  Disco was increasingly becoming a joke to after being coopted and appropriated who didn’t respect the origins of the art form established by the early pioneers.  Wanting no part of this, Jones moved away from disco.  Instead, she wanted to approach pop and dance music in unique ways she felt weren’t being done as the industry churned out disco clone hit after disco clone hit.

In 1980, Jones released Warm Leatherette.  While that album really starts to signify a change in artistic direction for Jones, it wasn’t until the release of Nightclubbing the following year that Jones truly came into her own.  So much about Jones’ 1981 masterpiece speaks volumes about the essence of her work, life, and character.  Immediately, you’re drawn to the cover.  While Jones identifies as feminine and a woman, she experimented with gender identities when it came to her work.  She has stated that her forays into masculinity have been influenced by both her grandfather and stepfather; she resembles her grandfather while her stepfather’s authoritative and violence behavior influenced the ferocity of her persona and work.  The cover features Jones wearing nothing but a blazer while the lines, angles, and shadow of her face evoke a masculine visage.  Even her breasts appear like muscular pectorals as they creep out of the blazer.

While the cover is truly striking, the heart of the album lies within the music.  As Jones shifted away from disco, she started settling into synthpop and post-punk with hints of reggae influence.  The big single off the album was “Pull Up to the Bumper” and featured a cool, rocking rhythm produced by Sly & Robbie.  What is interesting is that most of the albums is comprised of covers.  Jones manages to take tracks by the Police, Bill Withers, and Iggy Pop and reinvents them.  The narratives change to accommodate this image and sound that represents Jones as an icon to the point that they lose connection to their originators.  In essence, that makes an amazing cover.  It isn’t enough to merely copy the original.  You must make it your own and Jones does that impeccably.

Though not my favorite song from the record, one that deserves attention is the opening track on side two.  “Art Groupie” is only one of three songs from this nine song record that feature Jones as a writer.  It is a mellow song with a catchy hook.  She opens with this great declaration that she’ll never write her memoirs, that there is nothing in her book, and that her personal life is a bore.  That first line inspired the title of her actual memoir released 24 years later (and she kept her word because she dictated the book to Paul Morley and did not write it herself).

In the song, Jones assumes the role of someone who only embodies the role people push on her.  As an Art Groupie, she conveys that she is all style and substance.  All she needs is love adorned on her picture and for her audiences to admire her in glory.  What is fascinating about this is how this character differs from the real Grace Jones.  Jones, according to her memoir, has led an incredibly interesting life complete with creating art that challenges the foundations of pop music and gender constructs.  That hardly sounds like someone who is a bore.  However, there is a kernel of truth in her claim.  The Jones people hear on records and see in the movies is a carefully crafted image.  Jones even admits as much in her book.  While memoirs and autobiographies are meant to be very personal in that the author opens up their whole life, Jones isn’t going to divulge everything.  She has her secrets.  And there are legends and myths associated with her that she is in no hurry to disprove.  That is part of her mystique and charm.  As someone pours over a picture of Jones and tries to make sense of what they are seeing, Jones doesn’t help and only adds to the confusion.

Jones is still someone that I need to explore more.  Though I have read her book and listened to several of her albums, I haven’t had that much time with her.  It takes years to fully know an artist.  While I am glad I eventually found Grace, I’m certain I wouldn’t have been able to when I was younger.  Artists mean different things to you at different times.  As I get older, it gets harder to discover new things.  People start getting set in their ways and what they like and what makes them comfortable.  Plus, some much is happening that it is harder and harder to stay hip.  The only solution is to just at least try to make an effort.  You may not come across the most new and exciting thing, but you may find something deeply rooted in our culture already but without the visibility it deserves.  Jones’ impact on music and pop culture and so significant, but she has never garnered the respect and accolades she deserves.  As society becomes more open to LGBT and transgender issues, figures like Jones should resurface as icons because they’ve been committed to these ideas before it was fashionable.  I remember when Paper published that photo of Kim Kardashian wear she exposed her ass in an effort to “break the Internet.” That photo was ripped from Jones who did that two decades prior and completely nude.  Since Kim is what is hot right now, people are going to forget or ignore the pioneers that came before.  So, I stand by my love of Grace Jones and champion her every chance I get because she deserves all the attention from big gestures like a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction to the smallest nods such as when a current pop star claims to be an original.  Pop owes so much to this slave to the rhythm.