Marsha Music

A Grown Woman's Tales from Detroit


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Ode to John R. – The Red-Headed Girl

 

One day, I started writing about my trip to work each day down John R., the street that runs through Detroit, parallel to Woodward, the city’s East-West divider. A paragraph turned into an epic poem, just havin’ fun.

I had lived on the Highland Park end of this street since my 50’s childhood and remember when the downtown part of it was part of Paradise Valley. 

In the 90’s I moved back to the old house, that sits on a corner of John R; on the way to work each day I began to see a young girl with red hair.

I’ve never been sure why it’s called “John R”.

***
This all started when we moved to my family home,
several years and a few thousand dollars ago.

 

Much too big for my Ma, she decided to move
my then-husband and I moved back to my old ‘hood.

The community was built about a century back
for execs of the first Model-T Ford plant,
the plant still stands – though still, for sure
just a few blocks away from our front door.

 

 
Renovation fever left before our work was done
no extreme makeover, and the work isn’t fun,
But you can easily see that even dis-repaired
the beauty of the house is still clearly there.
  
All oaken doors, floors, and mantles and beams,
it’s a classic, even falling all apart at the seams,
a stucco behemoth in the Mission-Style,
built by the first disciples of Frank Lloyd Wright
(in fact, a house built by him is just nearby).
My family moved here in the core of Detroit
back in the mid-fifties, first Blacks on the block;
the streets, homes and lawns so familiar to me
that on a day of perfect weather it can seem to be,
as if I don’t happen to be outside,
but in a tightly sealed globe of memory and time.
Some blocks unchanged since I was a child
every house and tree familiar as lines of my palm.
***

I’m close to my job – no rush hours for me.
I walk out the house, drive onto John R street;
Twelve minutes most days, though I’ve made it in nine,
when I’m running real late and make every light.

There’s a lot of good memories on the drive,
same route my Daddy took back when I was five,
in his whale-sized Buick with the gills on the side.
like an big ocean-liner it was quite a ride

With the giant fins that made the car look sweet,
as we drove to his record shop on to Hastings street.
Sometimes he’d stop, and to defy my Ma,
we had hamburgers for breakfast at the Piquette diner,
the old wax paper in a greasy bag kind.

I pass a cop station that was there in those days,
with its red-brick stables where police horses graze.
How I’d beg my dad to let me see the giant things,
nostrils flared big as baseballs as they studied me.
And even today, if I’m not running late,
I watch their slow, quiet movements in the noise and haste.

I pass rough-around-the-edges neighborhoods like mine
That were once great places all lush and fine.
With grand homes and lawns back in the day,
and even with the problems of the last decades
some of the city’s awesome housing stock stands today.

I pass the leafy neighborhoods of old auto barons,
majestic brick as well as giant sandstone mansions;
and over the years the transition was seen
when these became the homes of Detroit’s elite
a rich Black professional’s and working man’s town,
The people of the auto and the Motown sound.

***

These years however, time has brought on change,
and there are now suburbanites who are less afraid
of the Black center city than their parent’s day,
who are tired of commuting from such long, long ways
and are glad to renovate an old, majestic place.

Some of the blocks I pass are scarred and maimed,
one house gone for each three that remain,
‘hoods barely left standing since crack had its way.
The blocks look bombed, blown asunder in war;

Yes, battles were lost against jobs that have gone
and the drug trade that came and made itself at home.
But some houses have lawns and new bright paint,
owners still try to “make a way from no way”.

The Blessed Sacrament is one of the first things I pass,
a magnificent cathedral where the Pope held Mass,
and where at night crack hoes rest at the stairs
flagging down the tricks who are diving pass.

Those blocks pass and there are hip new lofts,
a Potemkin urban village with a gentrified gloss,
the quasi-quaint homes of the artsy classes,
surviving next to the impoverished masses.

John R makes a curve past Northern High,
where I long ago marched, my fists held high,
as I raised my voice up into the Sixties sky.
I see school kids from blocks harder hit than mine;

Unlike middle class black kids from down the way,
they’re not chauffeured by folks on their SUV’d way,
but some maneuver the streets un-chaperoned,
bold and boisterous, to hide the fear being alone.

***
So on the way to work, in my daily world,
is where I first saw the red headed girl.

She had a freckly face, all tawny and gold
what folks in the South used to call “Redboned”.
Hair red like my Daddy’s old Georgia clay,
as the bricks of the stables where the horses grazed,
or the fires that burnt half the neighborhood away.

Her hair matched the fiery trees in fall,
and beamed against the winter snow like blood;
and in the last gray and cold of spring‘s hard mud,
her head was a small, bright crimson bud.

She walked by herself almost every day,
and I’d slow down to see if she was safe on her way.
For the days are gone of nice lonesome walks to school,
like Hansel and Gretel all alone in the woods.

Oh, how I worried for her, for I surely know
how the vultures hover for the innocent souls.
How could she be allowed walk to school alone,
was there no one grown to walk her to and fro?

I wondered if her mother was a red-head too
Why didn’t she take her red-head child to school?
Did she work with a schedule that didn’t allow,
or was she down on Woodward Ave., broken and wild
turning tricks on their way to suburban domiciles?

Did her father wear red cornrows, was he freckled and fine?
Was his red-head in jail like so many young guys?
Or did her red hair appear from nowhere known,
nameless genes raising brows and innuendos?
Red heads can inspire such a primal awe,
arising so often from family unknown,

For sometimes there are no obvious kin
to explain the fragile skin and all that melanin.
They seem to constitute their own carotene race,
across the boundaries of colors and states.

Each time I passed, I’d pray she was alright,
I was relieved when I saw her walking down John R.
for winos walk our streets like Thriller at night,
and crack-heads skither ‘round in ceaseless connive.

But year after year the girl seemed fine as she walked,
an orange-red blossom on a tall, thin stalk.

One day I turned the Holbrook curve on John R.,
a car hugged the curb as she walked ’round;
she ignored a shouting driver, who wouldn’t pull off.
I followed as she rushed and grabbed her books close;
I leaned on my horn and the man drove off.

Never looking back, she began to flee;
I thought of what could happen,
and was filled with relief.
It made me wonder about all the folks unseen
like angels in my life who had watched over me.

***

I hadn’t seen her for a year when an autumn day,
I was on the way to work in the usual way,
when ‘round the John R corner her red head came,
striding tall and red as a chestnut bay.

During summer she’d grown up hot-house style
all legs and hair done up ghetto-style,
a pubescent wonder, her red hair piled high.
Oh, my how fast the pass of time!
a child turned woman during work-bound drives.

It’s been quite a while since she was in my view,
I wonder if she, like so very few
had beaten the odds of ‘hood and hue.
And was able to succeed like only some can do.

I’m a bit afraid to look for her too hard,
for fear stats and environment had won out.
I don’t to see want her freckled face dope-fiend hard
or her red-head turned street-addled and wild.

No, I choose to think she strides ‘cross college lawns,
with a bag full of books, red dreadlocks long.
She’ll never know that I watched her grow,
as I passed her by every few days or so.

And maybe she thought her safe passage was luck
but sometimes there was a lady driving in a truck
who decided to take her foot off the gas
and slowed down to make sure that she had safely passed

I think of her in my real mirror’s view,
as she walked along John R Avenue,
her hair a red afro, or braided tight,
a copper halo of urban light.

Whenever I think of her carnelian curls,
I say a little prayer for the Red-Headed girl.

Marsha Music

Epilogue:

I passed a John R. duplex one June morning, and there on a porch was the girl with red hair, standing still while a lady helped her to adjust her graduation Cap and Gown.

 

 
 
 
 
 
 

 

 


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The Death of Isaac Hayes and Memories of a First Date

I received an email from an old friend; my first boyfriend, in fact.

P

He had moved to the South few years ago, after retirement, and when he heard the news about the death of Isaac Hayes, he emailed me an anecdote that he had posted on one of the websites he frequents.

P
 
It was about the day, almost 40 years ago in Detroit, when we went on our first real “date”, to see Hayes in concert. He wrote that it was November 30, 1969; How he knows this, I don’t know, but I’ll take his word for it. I decided not to reply right away, but to write about that day, and send it to him.

____________
 
Memory being what it is, I’d always remembered that first date was our going to see Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway, two new artists on the music scene at that time.
 
But, we were both right. Roberta and Donny were the opening acts for Isaac Hayes that night. It was to be a concert of the “new music” – not the Motown sound, the soundtrack of our town – but the new hip, “conscious” soul.
 
 
Roberta‘s sweet “Strumming’ my pain with his fingers” was sweet, exhilarating, but downright odd back then. Donny, in his “apple cap” and turtlenecks, made bassed-up dance songs about “the Ghetto” – before the term was a prejorative – on LPs mixed-up with madrigals, blues and cowboy songs. We classically trained orchestra and band students loved him.
 
 
Isaac’s Stax Soul sound was familiar, like the Southern Blues of our fathers, but funked up for our new, hip times. We knew he was something altogether different – in a day of sharp-suited Temps, Tops and Pips, Isaac broke on the scene with chains draped on his buck naked chest. A thrilling, disconcerting next step into some new realm of Negritude.
 
 
He turned his masculinity upside down, posturing like Mandingo while singing sweet songs of women (Walk on By), children (Never Can Say Goodbye) and white country boys (Phoenix); so secure was he in a Black manhood that he was helping to define.
 

Heck he even sang silly stuff – Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymstic. I was chagrined in later years, when one of my sons knew him only as the voice of a cartoon, but I was delighted when he met Hayes and asked him to record his voicemail message – so I could hear Isaac Hayes every time I tried to call my son

But I digress.

My boyfriend had gotten tickets for the concert -to be held at the regal Masonic Hall, and I had been getting my outfit together for days; the excitement had rubbed off on my mother, who not only agreed that I could go on the date, but gathered up all her gumption and drove me to the rough and tough part of the East Side, to get my hair done at “Dicky’s”, the premier barbershop of Detroit at that time.

 
It was Afro-chic for girls and women to get our hair done in barber – not beauty – shops in those days, and despite all the long-haired styles that were driving both black and white barbers out of business, Mr. Dicky had taken the ‘fro to it’s beautific, architectural heights and making a whole new career out of Black is beautiful. You had to wait in line for the privilege of getting your cut and “blown out“ for the night.
 
 
 
His barbers were masters of the ‘Fro, cutting styles straight out of Ebony and Jet, with such precision that my hair stood around my head in a centrifugal halo, the Afro Sheen sprayed on ‘til it glowed.
 
 
 
I had made my outfit myself, sewing furiously for days; a pair of extra-wide bell bottoms with a green halter that exposed waist, back and arms – might as well had on a swim top. In November? I now wonder how.
 
I was a Black Power mermaid, all pubescent curves and a ball of hair.
 
It never occurred to me that this first date was a passage of sorts not just for me, but for Momma too. It was she, after all, who had brought the Isaac Hayes record home, playing it on the record player in our oak-beamed den; stepping out of her characteristic reticence, cigarette in hand, popping her fingers and singing to herself. My brother and I loved Isaac Hayes, in part, because she did; he was someone the grown folks liked whom we could share. He was a bridge between Motown smooth and Southern, Stax Blues.
 
 
Or maybe we were just getting older, our teen ears now understood the meaning of songs about love lost and found. And I suppose that all kids have a time when they realize that all parents have an inner life obscured from their familial gaze
 
 
Mama’s strict church upbringing – though she’d been distant from church for years – made her shy away from really dancing, but she‘d shimmy around the den and raise her famously pretty hands when Isaac sang “By the time I get to Phoenix”.
 
 
It was the longest record we’d ever heard, it even had a Part 1 and 2! The AM radio stations couldn’t even play the whole thing, and we started listening to the new “FM” in order to hear all the new extra-long records and rock LPs.

 

It was a country song, a “cross-over” hit by Glen Campbell, and we knew it well already because in those days we listened to all kinds of music – most often on CKLW Radio, broadcasting from across the Detroit River in Windsor, Canada.

 

It was a stunning incongruity that Hayes – who called himself “Black Moses” – remade this country song as an urban ballad, with its Hammond B5 intro and plaintive soul wails. He, the Ultimate Black Man, all big nose and bared chest and draped in chains, revealing both heartsick vulnerability and the power of the Black male.

As Hayes moaned about making it to Albuquerque, having left his woman behind, I worried as to what invisible audience my mother sang, for she and my dad were often in the midst of drama, involving Johnny Walker Red, slammed doors and separate beds. But, being young and in love, I could care less that my mother was helping me to get dressed, so that I could go to see her favorite new singer sing her new favorite lovesick song.

My date arrived. In the email he’d sent to me last month, he said he’d gone out with “the prettiest girl in the world” – and at that moment, 40 years ago, I felt like it. He surely was the cutest guy, with an Afro even bigger than mine.

Mama stood on the porch, looking out on John R street, and waved us goodbye with my little sister and both brothers. We’d doubtless conspired to keep this date thing WAY under Daddy’s radar; he was known for meeting potential suitors at the door with his .38 caliber father figure.

My boyfriend and I walked to the Woodward bus. Yes, neither of us could drive, and in those days – unlike today’s couch potato kids – we were used to treking miles at a time. We walked and took the bus everywhere, all day long.

I held onto the rail of the bus really tight so that my hair and outfit wouldn’t get mussed. I was very aware of a guy across the aisle snickering at my date and I all dressed up, in a city where autos were a birthright. I snuggled closer to my date to pledge my allegiance to our pedestrian love.

We arrived at the grand, old Masonic Temple, and were surrounded by a crowd of late 60’s Black humanity. There was nothing like Detroit back in the day. Folks of every shade of cream, brown and black, everybody “sharp as a tack”, vibrant and young and full of Temptations cool and Sly Stone funk, hip talkin’’ jive walkin‘, “dressed and pressed“.

A group of local black militants, whom I had seen outside our high school, were there too, passing out leaflets on the struggles of the day. I nodded at them in smug, grown up recognition, and told my date – “let’s talk to those people when we get back to school” (we did – and kept talking to them for the next few decades)

I don’t remember much of the concert. I remember Isaac Hayes was smaller than I thought he would be. I had thought he’d be 8-feet tall from his double-faced album cover and stretched out form. But no, he was a regular-sized guy.

I remember the “wah-wah” guitars, a new thing back then, and Donny Hathaway in his apple cap and maple syrup voice. And Roberta, who sang such a different type of music we weren’t sure what to make of her; not saucy like the Supremes, not soulful like Aretha, but something new.

We felt all smooth and grown up listening to her sing; a new hip mix of Nina Simone, Bessie Smith and maybe Edith Piaf, too.

_____________

These things came back to me when my friend wrote to me about the death of Isaac Hayes and our first date, back in the day. I had just heard too, that the comedian Bernie Mack had died, and I thought about that old superstition, “death comes in threes”.

I began writing this story, and my friend’s wife called. Her husband, my friend, the guy of my first date, who had become like an elder brother to me after all these years, had had a heart attack. He lay in a coma, a thousand miles away.

Immediately, my memories began to rearrange themselves around this new shock. I had never even thought of him – more “fit”, I thought, than any of us in our circle – leaving this earth before me. In fact I counted on him saying droll and clever things about me at my own “home-going”, whenever that might be.

He was trying to leave this world and I had the feeling that he would be taking sizable chunks of me with him, in the form of a million memories,  critiques of me, down through the years. He was on life support. My mind flashed to my mother, dying on a respirator this year, her frail body still working but her lungs unable to breathe.

I talked to his wife each day about his progress, trying to reassure her that it wasn’t his time to leave, when I wasn’t so sure about that myself. fter many days, he began to recover; thank God he is better now, and eventually came back to Detroit.

So I write this so he will know that I remember, too; that years ago when we were young in Detroit, with Afro’s like dark cotton candy, we went to see Roberta and Donny and Isaac Hayes, on a crisp, 60’s night, under a Detroit moon.

And I am glad that he has not joined Donny and Isaac and Bernie Mack, all gone too soon.

Marsha Music

[first posted on the BelleLettes forum of ThePuristS.com, Oct, 08]


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Waiting for Steveland

At the annual, Holiday, Motown Review, it was pandemonium when we heard the trumpet’s blare, the horn’s fanfare, the introduction to “Fingertips” – the signature song of Little Stevie Wonder.
For he might be blind and he might be a genius – different and exotic in our eyes – but like all of us young ones who’d stood in line in the snow with our parents or older cousins during the Christmas vacation- he was a KID.

***

Stevie Wonder is not his real name of course, but Steveland Morris. In fact his name at birth was not even Morris, but Hardaway, he was given his stepfather’s name in childhood. He was not born in Detroit, but moved here as a child from Saginaw, an hour away. He was not born blind, but lost his sight due to oxygen depravation as an incubated, premature infant.

He was not my age, but just a few years older and his ever-present wrap-around shades disallowed even a peek at his hidden, sightless eyes. He moved in a rhythmic bob and weave on some still, invisible axis, pulling sound like a satellite from the dark around him; an unfathomable existence that we imitated but never mocked.

He was led onto the stage and for the only time in our well-mannered young lives we could openly stare at a blind human being. He was called a genius and we never questioned this title as we watched him tread his unseen path to every instrument on stage and play like an adult virtuoso.

His dancing lacked the precision turns and moves of the other acts, but was instead a rhythmic clap and wobble, awkward and ecstatic. We held our breath terrified he’d fall into the orchestra pit when he hurled himself from the piano to the edge of the stage.

Always, before he stepped one last dire inch, he’d be snatched back from certain catastrophe, though perhaps this too was a choreographed performance, each hop to the abyss carefully counted out in Stevie’s genius head.

His blindness was a profound thing, a multiplier of his already extraordinary gifts, though it was clear that he played and lived much as a sighted child. I was fascinated with the blind and deaf Helen Keller and was endlessly curious about the signing and speech of my own deaf cousin.

My early interest in the deaf and blind coincided with the emergence of Little Stevie Wonder, perhaps a reason he left such an imprint on my heart. Regardless of how the blind and deaf joke at themselves, few things bother me more than jest at their expense.

No matter what acts performed at the Motown review, in my mind he was always The Star. Each year during the holiday season, in line in the freezing cold, I was always glad to wait once more for Stevie.

***

My father’s record shop was just blocks away from the Motown studios. I always called him when I got home from school; one day someone who was clearly not Daddy answered the phone.

“Joe’s Record Shop” said the strangely familiar voice.

“Who is this?”

“This is Steveland”.

“Stevie Wonder?????”

“Yeahhhh”.

To my astonishment, he said a few more cool-boy-in-high-school kind of things in that Signed, Seal. Delivered voice. I dropped the phone in my excitement; it bobbed on its cord and I hung up, stunned! I was shocked to be on the receiving end of this bona-fide heart-throb conversation.

I called right back but by then it was Daddy’s voice; his young guest had apparently been playing on the phone long enough.

“Daddy, who was that???”

“Well it was Stevie Wonder, didn’t he tell you?”

I begged my Mama to get in the car and take me to meet him but at that moment, probably knee deep in dinner cooking, she had no such time, and it was probably in the days when we only had one car.  I had been exposed to more than a few artists by that time, but I’ll always remember that phone call with Stevie.

***

Over the years of afro’s, braids and locks – on he and I – my love for Stevie has never waned, regardless of his hits or popularity. He pioneered innovations for the blind from his work with computerized sound and was recently willing to try radical surgery to restore his sight, though it was determined that it would not be successful. His birthday song became the anthem of a national holiday; Signed, Sealed, Delivered was  the clarion call for Barack Obama.

Still, I was not alone in ridiculing his rather loopy metaphysical ramblings that were increasing in songs he wrote after a near fatal car crash in the early 70‘s. But one anguished, sleepless night his latest record played in my headphones through haze of drink and psychic pain, and in a songwriting conceit that few achieve without controversy, he sang as the Voice of God into my fevered mind:

“You will know, troubled hearts will know, problems have solutions, so I made it so”.

I listened to this mystical musing and in an epiphany became willing to consider – finally – that some Higher Help might fix my troubled life; it was the beginning of the end of my hopelessness.

I keep a magazine photo of Stevie in a special place, a reminder of that night when some Other Voice used his to speak to me through headphones in a song. Finally, the Gospel According to Stevie made some sense to me, after years of waiting for that too.

A old, worn copy of a surreal magazine photo of Stevie, that I've had for years.

In the summer of 2001, Stevie Wonder, who had been living in Ghana, West Africa, came back to headline Detroit’s Tricentennial Celebration. No event equaled the excitement of the chance for Detroiters to see him again.

Almost a million people packed the Riverfront for his concert; but of course that many people means that in order to see, you had to have a seat many hours before the concert began.

I didn’t of course, so I pushed my way as close to the stage as possible, which in fact wasn’t close at all. The sight of almost a million was terrifying, til I realized that the multitudes were oddly peaceful, a synthesis of urban souls so remarkable we looked at each other stunned that we could get along in such close Detroit quarters – old folks, suburbanites, crack-heads, kids. We pushed and shoved, laughed and danced – and waited for Stevie.

I tried to find a place where I too could view the stage, but folks were packed so tight that I could barely see; I burst into tears like a child. Finally, surrendering to the immensity of the crowd, I watched with others on giant screens from a block away, and the hundreds of thousands partied as if we could see him in the flesh, satisfied just to be a part of the multitudes on such a glorious night.

I realized the real “wonder” was not just Stevie, but Detroit’s polarized humanity dancing in peace “without incident”, singing his songs still, after 40 years.

I had waited to see Stevie on that hotter than July night with almost a million others, just as I waited in the cold during holiday week as a child. And as long as we’re in both in the land of the living, I’ll still not mind waiting for Steveland.

Marsha Music

[originally written for thepurists.com, BellesLettres forum in 2003]
 
 

 

 


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Musin’ on the Motown Review

 I remember the holidays of my childhood. During the Christmas countdown my Momma And Her Sisters shopped in a frenzy of  yule-time acquisition; the intensity of their excursions should have obliterated all of our belief in the North Pole. 

We were taken to visit Santa, nevertheless, at a Winter Wonderland created each year at the Ford Rotunda, a legendary automotive building –  for this was Detroit after all.

When the Rotunda burned down in the early 60’s (in my child’s mind, the end of the world, I thought there would never be Christmas again) our visits to Santa switched to the biggest, best downtown department store.

At the J.L. Hudson’s Christmas extravaganza I was on best behavior, standing proudly next to the elegant Colored women who worked the elevators, some of the most beautiful ladies in Detroit, regal and serious performing their floor-to-floor labors. That they weren’t allowed to work the sales floors I didn’t know ‘til I was older, and many such things had changed for us all. 

I remember Christmas Eve vigils, nearly sick with excitement, hot chocolate and cookies at the ready, even after I, the eldest, made them disappear to insure my younger sibling’s continued belief in Santa – a noble sacrifice indeed.

Unable to wait for parental rising, there was the 5 a.m. race downstairs. We swam in the wrapping paper of Hot Cars and GI Joes, Barbies and Easy Bake Ovens, and for me – books, always books. We visited cousins in our new Christmas clothes, opened more presents and ate under Grand Mamma’s firm church gaze, that warned that we best not forget “the real meaning of the day”.

With the exception of a squabble over a sibling’s gift, or later years of toppled Christmas trees from too much paternal drink – traumatic then, now fading into that hazy place where, if one is lucky, unpleasant memories go and are softened into funny family anecdotes – our Christmases were idyllic indeed.

But few of my holiday memories are better than the Motown Revue.

***

In an annual Christmas week ritual of the 60’s, for a few years Motown’s “Cavalcade of Stars” staged shows for throngs of Detroiters, black and white, who lined up around the Fox Theatre. It was better than the movies, the circus and Ice Capades wrapped up in one.

Standing in line we shook with cold and anticipation as we waited in our new coats and dresses, crinolines starched tutu stiff and quivering like antennae. Excited boys pulled loose from grown-ups, finger-poppin’ and Temptation Walkin’, imitating their favorite singers on the icy sidewalk.

Finally the doors burst open and the show began. Some of the artists were famous, some new; grueling bus tours, concerts and the Motown machine were molding them all into professionals.

The Contours, one of the earliest Motown groups, clowned and sang in the old soul way, a doo-wop vaudeville that was smoothed out of Motown’s newer acts though we loved them just the same.

The Marvelettes were fine with hair piled high, fringes shimmering in the lights. They sang “Mr. Postman” with the counterpoint claps and we thought they were as good as the Supremes – though of course there was no use arguing, the Supremes were the Supremes.

There was light eyed, light skinned, light voiced Smokey, he and his Miracles made the girls swoon and scream, though I assimiliated my Momma’s judgment, that he could neither really dance nor sing so well, but was still a genius.

“Just like Pagliacci did, I try to keep my sadness hid”, a cultured if ungrammatical lyric, one line out of thousands that Smokey inscribed. We danced to his intellect, sang to his rhymes; each new record proof he was a gifted urban bard.

Then there was the moment when the incredible 4-Headed Microphone appeared onstage, heralding the coming of the Temptations. The medley of their songs began and they took the stage: the sleek, dark archangels of cool, archetypal urban Black men, symbols of the Motor City.

Marvin Gaye and Mary Wells, Velvelettes and Vandellas, took and shook the stage. We applauded the “stars”, though they performed at local clubs and high schools and roller rinks, and could be seen outside the headquarters of Motown, or driving around town in pastel Cadillacs.

We knew each word and nuance of all the Motown songs, and endlessly choreographed our “routines” as if we would one day, in some fantastic emergency, be asked to perform. Still, the Temps, Four Tops, Supremes and all were almost a generation older than us; we were way too young for affairs and heartache, or the sweet seductions and lost loves of their songs.

No matter, we loved them, and their popularity had exploded across the land. Before us was the Sound of Young America, the hopeful, young America of John F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, and we cheered them on in our hometown Detroit.


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Standing in the Light of Detroit

 

         This was written after a spectacular Funk Brother’s performance on a hot, end-of-summer night in Detroit in 03‘.

 

It was their first major appearance in the city (or at least their first big, free outdoor concert ) since the movie that featured them, “Standing in the Shadows of Motown”
After this concert, pianist Joe Hunter died, and there was a serious falling out of the movie’s producer and members of the group – no surprise – and the group does not perform with all of the same, original members who appeared that September night.

This made this concert even more magical, for the group will never play together like this again.

******

The Funk Brothers headlined tonight at the Detroit Festival of the Arts, on a stage nestled between the Detroit Science Center, Detroit Institute of Arts, and the Museum of African American History.

A triangulum befitting the Funk Brother’s genius, artistry and Black Detroit roots.

They’d come a long way since playing the clubs and joints of Black Bottom, or even, from their more recent years of relative obscurity.

The concert was a celebration of their stupendous gifts, and, as we knew out, our good fortune of being fortunate enough to have grown up with their music in our own aural and literal backyard.

There were thousands waiting for show-time in the balmy night, and standing ovations before a note was even played. The band seemed moved to tears at such an ecstatic reception.

We raise our heads to the sky in wonder – rain had been predicted all week, but no rain ever came. It seems that even the skies would honor these men and bless us all on this clear and special night. The crowd is more than electric, it is a part of the performance itself, undulating with outbursts of adulation.

Jack Ashford, venerable,  dignified, respectful and respected, looking like a science teacher or a old time preacher,  his tambourine blinging in the lights, ringing like church, sizzling like a rattlesnake in the night.

Bob Babbitt, the bass-man got much applause and we were glad to honor him so; how cool must this white man be to have played and lived around these extraordinary Black men, to have had to come behind the great James Jamerson.

Eddie Willis, Mississippi prince on a throne, sitting down front, the guitar his sceptre; talking like down-home.

Uriel Jones, Ivory Hunter, Messina, all of them on the stage; they create an amazing monument of sound – a massive, complex, joyful noise. They are actually symphonic, a heavenly, orchestral blast of pride and joy.

They are getting old, there is no denying this, and one can feel the crowds silent, collective prayer, that these men be allowed to savor their new good favor and fortune for as long as they can.

The band is so tight, so familiar, so………..Motown; they sound surreal, as if actual humans can’t possibly be playing. This music has been in our heads and hearts and histories for so long, the idea that there are actual people playing like this is almost unbelievable.

We know every single word and note of every single song.

***

There are moments that can only be described as transcendent – dreadlocked women do the STOP! In The Name of Love; we cast aside our 70’s and 80’s poli-sci judgments of crossovers and compromises to return to our original, pure and giddy loving of this sound.

With now wide hips and swelling ankles, we danced the Shingaling, the Shotgun, the Four Corners, like we did when we were fast, fine and young.

White guys with beards and bellies sang My Girl into invisible mikes, and a few young dudes from the hood did the Temptation Walk with old suburban guys.

The audience breaks out in loud, spontaneous applause when they hear the lyric “War is not the answer..” from Marvin Gaye’s song from more than one generation ago, a song that must now be sung again for a brand new war.

 

A solid row of folks, blacks and whites, do the Temptation walk, like The Wave at a football game – an amazing sight in this most segregated of metropolitan areas, a reminder of a brief time when, many years ago, we danced to one great sound.

I’m there with my brother, a rare excursion for he likes quiet life; dislikes crowds. We dance and holler like the kids we once were, screaming about our days at the Motown Review, and remembering how we know the first note and beat on every Motown record, a necessary requirement for working in our Daddy’s record store.

 

We know that we are experiencing something special, and we are grateful to share it with our mother frail but excited sitting next to us, remembering the days when she finger popped to the 45’s in our living room. She, old and fragile now, and she and her sister saw the Funk Brothers at the Twenty Grand club in their young fine days. 

She remembers the days when Jamerson, Joe Hunter and others of the Brothers found their way around the corner from the Motown Hitsville house to my father’s 12th street shop, where they’d have a “taste” or two between gigs. 

 

Our father is long gone, and this summer my mother’s sister joined her husband, in that concert in the sky. We all speak of her and miss her, and all of our youth gone by.

During the band’s tender tribute to it’s members now gone, we wipe our eyes at the thought of those we loved, maybe listening to Funk Brothers above, making celestial noises to the Lord.

It was one of those nights that years from now, people will say that they were there – even people who weren’t.

***

 

It occurs to me that on this night, something happened. When Motown left Detroit a part of our collective heart stopped; I could feel on this sweet Saturday night that the triumphant victory of the Funk Brothers was a sign, another cornerstone in a rebuilding of Detroit had just been set in place; a soul had been breathed back into its rebirth.

I was glad I was there to honor these men, and yes, to pay respect to the one who finally told their story. It was a hallowed night, a spirit filled night, I realized that this music was always something like a religious music to me and to many others.

I was blessed to have seen the Funk Brothers on that beautiful Saturday night. It was one of those times when I remember why Detroit was the center of the modern musical universe.

 

Marsha Music,

[I wrote this in September of ’03, my mother passed away in 08’, earlier this year, joining her sister who had just passed away before this concert, of whom I speak above. I think of them, along with my father and uncle and all of them who were “hanging like wet clothes”, together now on the “other side” maybe remembering the 20 Grand Club, wherein they saw every Motown act that ever was, back in their day.]

 

 

 


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Jolene

2-women-new-yorker

Cover of a New Yorker Magazine

I once worked in a factory with a girl named Jolene. We were 17 and I had lied to get hired; we couldn’t legally work in the plant for another year.

          She was white, from somewhere around “Taylor-tucky”, a name that mocked the southern roots of working class whites of the suburb of Taylor, Michigan. I lived in Detroit (still do). I was black, and I still am, as a matter of fact. Without the factory we’d never have met.
           We were young and shapely then, which now, I’m not so much; I don’t know about Jolene, I haven’t seen her since those days in the ’70’s. She had just been hired at the plant, and – like they say it is, in prison – you depend on those who know the lay of the land, even if it’s just a day more than you.
           The factory, on a barren industrial stretch off of I-94,  was a mechanized hell of extreme temperature, convoluted steel, and people at all levels with power, the wielding of which – for us – never did bode well. Women wore hairnets for “quality control”, but mostly to prevent decapitation; the long-haired guys wore them too.
          I wore old-fashioned braids weaved to my waist; the specter of hair and heads caught in rolling gears was so horrific, we all wore the ugly nets in willing resignation; just one more theft of our outside, normal lives.
          Jolene and I circled each other with cat-like territoriality, two girls used to inhabiting the center of any attention. After a while, we relaxed in the knowledge that our appeal could be divvied up without threat – there were plenty of male eyes for the both of us. We became friends, revolving around each other like planets, the type of friendship that burns too hot to last.
          Jolene was blond, the type of blond that’s white in childhood, that leaves a fuzz of white on the arms and brows white as snow–what they call tow-headed. She had high cheekbones from a Nordic ancestor, or maybe some long ago blood of Native America that gave her face high hills and low valleys in all the right places.
          She had a mole near her mouth and perfect teeth and she laughed all the time at everything when she wasn’t mad about something. She was as beautiful as the mod girls in my teen magazines and proof that good looks were not exclusive to the rich and high class.
          Ours was a work-hours friendship, walking our fast, hip-rolling walk down the cement runways of the packing lines, lithe and nubile. We flaunted our tiny waists and drum-tight thighs and switched past the high seniority ladies with tired feet and eyes, who had left their younger bodies back in some other lifetime.

We ate in the lunch-room, laughed and drove men crazy and pretended we didn’t know. We held court with the tradesmen and machinists, flirted our way through the long, hard overtime days. Even so I was dead serious, in ceaseless examination of my surreal, hard surroundings – Alice fallen onto the wrong side of the looking glass, wanting to know just where and why I had landed.

I was forced into the blue-collar world by pregnancy at 16 and a hard-headed refusal to return to school –  my post-sixties rebellion against the strictures of formal education, but also – though I’d never admit it – the humiliation of too-young motherhood. These were the days when there was still shame in such a thing.

The prospect of the factory met with the dismay of my businessman father and my mother (whom at that point, had never worked a day in her life except a brief stint in his employ).

Mine had been the first black family on the block in Highland Park, a then prosperous “suburb” in the middle of Detroit. My father was a record shop man amidst white bankers, salesmen, doctors–the solid middle class, in the days when that term didn’t apply to blue collar folks, before proletarians had stock options and portfolios. As more of “us” moved into the neighborhood, my Talented Tenth peers were preparing and poised for success in the form of a piece of the professional American pie.

The bottom line is, working in a factory was not exactly what was expected of me.

Jolene was a young mother too. Though for me, young and unwed meant abandoning my destiny–for Jolene, from the poor and working class “down river” suburbs,  it meant not escaping hers. If work in the plant was for me the fall from grace, for her it was the height of good fortune, key to a future other than trapped in a trailer home.

***

There were a handful of blacks in the plant, among them Miss Loretta, a bashful, hard-working woman from Down South who called our job at the plant the “plant-ation”; Indiana, small and yellow, who could work faster than anyone but fell behind on purpose so they couldn’t her wear out like the machines.

Fast Freddy dressed like a Technicolor pimp before he changed from his dancing clothes into his uniform each day; years later he had a 6-page spread in GQ magazine – largest in its history. There was brown-skinned Edna from Yazoo City, Mississippi, bright and funny, with sad eyes blacked from a husband’s fists, before she finally got tired of it and he went to jail.

Big, slow, tie-tongued Bob, who never missed work; he was so soft-hearted that any woman so inclined could take all of his money, and we often did. Fine as wine Lynnette, who looked like a movie star and knew it; who dreamed to be a flight attendant and leave us behind in the factory (which eventually, she did).

In the plant, the Blacks were an island in a sea of  suburban white and they kept their eyes on me, lest I prove to be too smart and fast for my own good or theirs, causing trouble with my brick sh…house body or rebelling against the ways that they’d learned to survive.

I was unaccustomed to the whites of the working class, and I eyed in amazement these folks at the plant too – Willadean with a Tennessee twang and black-dyed hair, who knew the most important things one could have were good work shoes and a good man.

There were white men born in towns Down South that had aimed dogs and hoses on brown girls like me, bikers in full regalia with chains on long wallets holding money and Zig-Zags, for long days of work and nights of play.

There were engineers and machinists, exacting and smug in the security of their skills, who more or less looked out for all of us–the machines and people–and we grudgingly looked up to them, even if some of them spent hunting season with the supervisors.

I managed a wary co-existence with all my new co-workers at first, then settled into the realization that they were all “just people”. Eventually, I became their leader. But that’s another story.

***

We wore skin tight, high-waist Levis, denim corsets that noosed our torsos into tight circles small enough for a man’s hands to wrap around and touch fingers front to back. Even childbirth could not destroy our strong, young curves; motherhood only gave us more of what got us in trouble in the first place.

Our jeans were threadbare in all the right places that implied rubbing against all the wrong things. We were locked together in beauty and failure and rebellion. We never buttoned our uniforms; the white lab-coat hems flew behind us as we sashayed down cinder block halls. We raced past the women with wisdom and seniority to get to the source of real attention – the guys we looked right in the eyes as we smoked cigarettes on the loading docks, letting them think they were smarter than us and might have a chance, never letting on they were wrong on both counts.

Bra’s burned on TV and we didn’t wear them, proud that no one could make us, and mostly, because they stood quite nicely on their own. A supervisor, Phil, had his eye on Jolene and I, and when we’d burst into his office to report a mishap on the line or stomped about some new imposition on our lives he’d sit up, unable to tear his eyes away from breast level, calling us “High Beams” as if he was being original. We’d roll our eyes and swivel back to our machines, letting him know that whatever he was thinking, it was out of the question.

When the line broke down or shut down early, we jumped in cars and hit the gravel road behind the plant, and flew to the bar where we’d we stay til last call. By closing time we’d be knee-deep in beer and Southern Comfort and 7-Up, or Jack Daniels with a Pepsi chaser (this was back in the days when I still ruined my liquor).

By closing time we’d be sloshed and stumbling, the bar full of eye-lined, hard-drinkin’ women and wanna’ be cowboys chained to assembly jobs and wives who read Harlequin Romances. Sometimes we’d sing, drunk and off-key:

“You picked a fine time to leave me Lucille…with four hungry children and a crop in the field….I’ve had some bad times been through some sad times, But this time the hurt it won’t heal…You picked a fine time to leave me Lucille”

The jukebox was full of those Kenny Rodgers songs, and ballads of Elvis and Patsy Cline. Some barmaids could fight you like a man, and, by night’s end,  sawdust and sickness lined the bathroom floors.

I know I was watched by some God I didn’t believe in at the time, on those nights after last call–a drive home to the Far East Side cold drunk on a coal black highway, hand over one eye to keep the center line of 1-94 from blurring into two.

That I didn’t die or kill, I now attribute to a force miraculous.

***

It was June – suddenly summer – and I’d been at the plant for six months. The weather turned glorious and I left it outside each day while I went in for the afternoon shift at three. Day after day I was missing the summer, getting off work at midnight, or two or three a.m. I should have been graduating, going to the prom, and here I was, punching a clock.

In an awful epiphany, it occurred to me that there was no more “summer vacation”, like in school, year after year since kindergarten. In this new world of work you might get a week off,  or two, but certainly not a whole summer. This revelation was a bad surprise, and hit me very hard.

Jolene and I were working in separate departments, and the summer heat combined with the inferno inside turned the plant into a sauna. Grease oozed from the gears of the conveyor belts and even up out of the bricks in the floor; both working and walking were a dangerous proposition. We toiled in a steam bath of production quotas, eight, ten, twelve hours a day.

Some vomited in the heat, some passed out, the supervisors handed out salt tablets. From the catwalk, you could see waves of heat quavering over our steaming heads; in the flat and flickering fluorescence light the sweating, moving limbs and machinery were a vision of a different kind of hell.

Angry conflicts spit into the air at the smallest provocation or supervisory order. There was talk of a walk-out but no one dared to face the wrath of the company and union both. Still, out in the parking lot on breaks and at lunchtime, parties sprang from trunks of cars and the backs of station wagons; 8-track tapes played Willie Nelson, Bowie, Marvin Gaye; the beer and weed hidden from the security guards – who got high among themselves.

In this cauldron of heat, rage and music, love affairs bubbled up among single and married alike; furtive grapplings behind storage rooms and rows of stacked wooden pallets, full-blown trysts during the midnight shift in motel rooms on the way home.

The next day was still hot – and you still went back to work.

***

One day, during a break-down on the line, I slipped away. Not far of course, for the line would start up and I’d better be there, or else. I hid behind boxes and machines to furiously read a page or two of Flaubert, Hegel, Hershey.

Not just me, for in the plant there were real scholars. Some discuss issues of the day like career diplomats from their designated spots in the lunchroom, while others study in silent, desperate reading, their brief and hungry moments of escape.

I looked for the best route to dodge the foreman and slipped through the back of the line, tipping careful on the oil-slick floors past the press where a lady had lost two fingers–one in one year and one the next, past the maintenance tool shed, over a skid of supplies, past bins of packing boxes, around the hi-lo shack. Finally, drenched in sweat, I reached my destination, the railcar dock.

Away from the suffocating heat in the plant, it was a fine June day of a hot and bright new summer. I blinked in the clean, clear sunlight, I could smell the hay used to pack equipment and the blue wildflowers and wheat that grew along the railroad tracks. The plant was built on old farmland and there was still a rural beauty to anything that had escaped the industrial maw.

The dock was a massive barn, high and open ended so train cars could be maneuvered in and out on tracks embedded in the floors. A car would be uncoupled, unloaded and emptied of raw materials, then days or weeks later, hitched up and rolled back down the tracks.

The train was a mammoth thing, wheels higher than the top of my head; a sleeping mastodon of black steel. Sometimes a car would be bright red or yellow depending on the cargo, or huge tankers filled with oil.

Young guys, restless and trapped in the plant on the hot summer days, would climb up the sides, twenty feet high, and smoke a joint on top of the car, unseen by nosy supervisors or worrisome chicks.

I listened closely; I was lucky today, all alone. I walked the length of the car and snatched off my hairnet, to feel the breeze blow cool through my braids.

A beam of sunshine from a vent in the roof made a square on the floor ahead of me, and I watched the motes of dust and grain float in a tube of light from the sky to the floor. I walked over and stood in the patch of sun, as if that square of floor-bound light held the last vestige of my life long-ago.

Suddenly, reality and self-pity swirled around me like snow in a globe–my ruined life, friends at proms and graduations, going to summer parties before running off to college, and here was I, a teenager with a child who refused to let parents or welfare help too much, now paying the price for my young lust and pride, defiant and rebellious, tying my fate to those who labored.

I looked into the light but the sun held no answers, I let the sweet June heat replace the steam-bath that I had left on the line. I saw myself, movie-like, from outside myself; a dark, lonely seraph in a column of defeat and light. In a few minutes, it was time to go back to the line.

Well, I thought, I’ll stick it out a while longer, then decide what to do.

A dozen summers later I was still there.

***

I started out telling you about Jolene. It’s been three decades since we met, and,  actually, there’s not much more to say; we stayed friends for a while before she was fired, or walked out of her own accord;  her pretty smile didn’t make up for her smart mouth after maybe too many beers or too much anger about a direct order she didn’t want to follow.

I wonder if she started going with a man, the kind you couldn’t be with and stay beautiful; you had to turn brittle and hard and ready to take a whippin’. I wonder if her face got that punched up look of too many schnapps and bar-fights, if her pretty teeth were gone; if she added many children to that first one, if she met up with cocaine.

Or, if her life turned different than the one she had; if it took an unexpected turn. She maybe ended up a lady with a cultured laugh and high cheekbones, with white-blond hair and pearls. In my memories she’s still young; raw and beautiful as the hills.

I don’t know what happened to her; after those first years of seniority I never saw her again. Even now, when I see a white-blond woman of means – or of no means – I think, sometimes, of Jolene. There’s not much more to tell about her.

So maybe I told you about her so that I could tell you about me. For looking back, of course, my life was not near over, my factory days were clearly no defeat. It was just another row of pieces in the puzzle of my life, a twelve year long stop in my journey of years.

Maybe I just wanted you to know that once I was young with a waist so small a man’s hands could fit all around, with thighs like congas and hip-length braids that blew in the breeze. Once upon a time I had another life.

I once worked in a factory with a girl named Jolene.

by Marsha Music

[This was originally posted on the BellesLettres forum of ThePurists.com, then, in 2002, published in the online magazine Counterpunch, thanks to editor Jeffrey St. Clair and music critic Dave Marsh. It was subsequently published in the hard-copy anthology Serpents In The Garden: Liaisons with Culture and Sex. It is a true tale about working in a suburban Detroit factory, years ago, when I was young.]

 
 
 
 
 
 


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A Black Woman Remembers Elvis

I think that Elvis was my first love. I was 5 years old in the 1950s, and I sat in the sun on the living room floor with my legs criss-crossed, album cover on my lap, in a pool of light from the leaded-glass window near the fireplace. Motes of dust bounced and drifted in the beam of sun, fairy-like. The sun shined on Elvis Presley too, on that cover; guitar strapped across his stripe-shirted shoulder, as he gazed upward into a faraway sun, or maybe into the light of Heaven itself.

I was besotted by such beauty in a man. The errant forehead curl, the pull of his lip that made the tiny sneer; imperfections that rendered him more beautiful. The sun was golden and Elvis was too. Yes, he was tawny then from a life in the Delta sun; his hair a slick, golden crown. This was years before his hair was dyed black for photos and film, and later, to hide the signs of time. Oh yes, back then, as I gazed at the album cover in my living room, he was a golden boy.  He is Elvis, the light shines on him, and it shines on me.

 There is a familiarity about him, a softness of speech and manner that is not unlike my own Southern father and uncles. There is none of the frantic crispness, the stiff, staccato notes of the North. No, his way is soft; he moves more like folks move in my world. I am 5 years old, yet I know this.  There is too, an oddness about him, something untold. I learned later of a twin who died still born, and oh, the mystery of that child unknown. Another Elvis in the world was too much to contemplate.  Maybe the spirit of the long gone child made Elvis become more than if they had both survived.  His too lush beauty hints, to me, of long-lost secret ways, his eyes too heavy, lips too full, the nostrils spatulate. I wonder just what other blood flowed in those Delta veins, what long ago dark ancestor through him sweetly sang.

My daddy was a record shop man. Produced, wrote, recorded, pressed, published, and sold records. Growing up, I was surrounded by records, and as a child, I read album covers and liner notes – my earliest history class of the world and the people in it. Our house was full of records, 45′s, 78′s and the new “LPs”. Records were recorded even in our living room, the high, oak-beamed ceilings made for great acoustics. There were records all around – Stan Kenton and Oklahoma! and Bobby “Blue” Bland and Jerry Lee Lewis and Louis Jordan and Dinah Washington and Chuck Berry and Carl Perkins and Howlin’ Wolf and Peter and the Wolf and Mahalia Jackson and Tennessee Ernie and Ike and Tina and…., well, a whole lot of albums were in our lives.  But the Elvis album cover I will never forget.

Years later it would be said that Elvis was a thief, a robber, a usurper of the music of others. But I think not. The men I knew, Black blues-loving Detroit men who lived in the North and hungered for their South, looked at him with the bemusement of affectionate elders, as if one of their own had played a trick on old Jim Crow. “Listen to that boy” they’d say, and shake their heads, “just look at him”.  He was as familiar to them as sugar cane and red dirt. They knew just where he came from, just what kind of church he must have sat in as a child, by the way he played a chord, or sang a note.

They knew he’d seen that Holy Ghost grab someone and make them whoop and holler, in the churches of mothers’ boards and deacons, the churches of the gospel shout and stomp. Wasn’t his fault that there were those who made money off of the music of others, that society let him bust through musical doors that barred his darker brothers. He let rhythm music come through him, past the restraints of upbringing and environs. He didn’t turn our music white, but worked it through the channel of his own Delta life. Though how tortured was his wrestle with the secular and divine; oh, how tragic was his price.

I miss Elvis, even the jump-suited Las Vegas Elvis, the latter-day bloated and drug addled Elvis – yes, the eternally impersonated Elvis.  But most of all, I miss the Elvis on that old album cover – the striped-shirted, tawny-haired, golden boy Elvis; with a profile as chiseled as Michelangelo’s David, his face as angelic as Gabriel, eyes raised towards Heaven.  He’s the Elvis in my living room, with the sun shining on him, and shining on me.

Marsha Music
[Photo above is from the 1956 album “Elvis”]
[Every few years, I get deep into what I call my Elvis Studies; an odd preoccupation, one might say, for a dread-locked sistah like meWhen I wrote this piece, I had just finished the twovolume masterwork by Peter Guralnick, “Last Train to Memphis – The Rise of Elvis Presley”, and “Careless Love – The Unmaking of Elvis Presley”. Together, they constitute a monumental biography, an awesomely – even absurdly – detailed account of the life of Elvis.
As an essential compliment to these works, I re-read, “Elvis” by music critic Dave Marsh, a deeply respectful, wholly intelligent treatise on Elvis and modern music and culture – masquerading as a gorgeous picture book.  Marsh’s essay provides the critical, undeniable social context of the Elvis story: the significance of region and race that is obscured in all of the necessary minutiae of
Guralnick’s work.
Then I topped it all off with Priscilla’s “Elvis and Me”, a boiling confection I’d been avoiding for years. So after I finished this course in Elvisology, a few years ago, on the anniversary of his death, I wrote this piece. Btw, this was one of my submissions for the Kresge Fellowship in the Literary Arts, which I was awarded in June, 2012.  
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Yours Truly – Marsha Music – after an interview in Elvis Presley’s Rolls Royce,  for a film by documentarian Eugene Jarecki. [in front of the Downtown Synagogue, Detroit, June 2016]