There are as many reasons my musical tastes are eclectic as there are songs that I like and love. I can’t explain it. There’s no way I can explain why I think one song sounds as unimaginative and boring as Drake’s “Started From The Bottom,” while Nickleback’s “If Today Was Your Last Day” has been one of my favorite songs over the past three and a half years.
My imagination could take the corniest song and make it epic, a mantra, my theme music. Even a song like Toto’s “Africa” (’82-’83), a song that could be interpreted as reflecting White racialism as it related to Tarzan movies of a not-so-bygone era. Yet I’ve seen their video, and probably heard the song at least 3,000 times. It ain’t that deep, but it’s still a song I like.
So, a bit of context. My grades in the early Reagan years — especially in ’82-’83, when I was in eighth grade — didn’t at all reflect our family’s slide into welfare poverty, my ongoing issues with my idiot stepfather, my suicidal struggles or my search for a real relationship with God. What I had to lean on, more than my amazing memory or World Book Encyclopedia, my parents or even God, was my imagination.
With puberty and what would turn into a ten-inch growth spurt in a span of twenty months, I became enamored with sports. And the sport I became most interested in early on was football. The strike-shortened ’82 NFL season combined with the formation of the USFL and the coming-out party for soon-to-be draft pick Herschel Walker to get my attention. The vicious hits, the acrobatic catches, the powerful throws were things that I’d seen before. I saw them through the lens of an underdog now, a downtrodden member of an abandoned family who wanted to see folks who’d overcome impossible circumstances achieve great things.
The first person who represented that for me in sports was Joe Montana, quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers. The only ending to a football game I’d ever watched was the end of the NFC Championship Game the year before, with the play known as “The Catch.” I didn’t even know who Joe Montana was, even after watching Dwight Clark go up and catch a ball that was only meant for him.
He was the kind of person I wanted and needed to be in order to overcome what I thought was an impossible deficit. As far as I was concerned, I had to score about a hundred touchdowns to go from welfare to college, let alone anything after college. Yet it didn’t stop me from dreaming about rolling out right to the sidelines on fourth down, sucking in Dallas’ defense, and throwing a ball toward the right-side of end zone, toward the back line, just high enough for Clark to catch and Emerson Walls not to.
It was a dream that required some theme music, and luckily for me it was ’83. Michael Jackson’s Thriller had come out at the start of eighth grade, The Police were big, Toto and Rick Springfield were at their peak, and New Edition had put out there first hit, a Jackson 5 remake. All of it gave me something more modern to move forward with, to get silly about, to “march down field” to when I needed to gear up to get an important A. I’d accidentally found a way to escape my life without ever leaving Mount Vernon.
Demontravel’s and Carraccio’s classes were the first two places in which I applied this approach to my life and studies. In Carraccio’s case, it was the reading and essay assignment for Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906) a muckraking tale of first-generation, Eastern European, Chicago meatpackers who worked and lived in grueling conditions and where some of them gave their lives — and livers — to Swift and other companies. I’d caught a cold, had a fever, was going to the store for Mom, and had just heard Toto’s “Africa” playing at C-Town in nearby Pelham.
The song served as my background music, giving me the energy and drive I needed to finish the book. I read The Jungle in one night, three hundred pages of it in four hours. I think Carraccio gave me a 95 on my essay. She pulled me aside to say, “You know, if you wanted, you could be a really good writer.” It might’ve been the only thing she said that I thought was right on the mark all year.
Yeah, you could say that I was seriously music deprived, didn’t understand the cultural symbolism or archetypes in the song or video, or simply had and have bad tastes. Y’all may be right, too. But for me, Toto’s “Africa” struck the right note, lifted my imagination, and found the goofball within.