Musical ‘Mates and Matters

December 24, 2011

The "A" Note, February 5, 2008. (Pearson Scott Foresman, via Wikipedia). In public domain.

If someone asked me what was the one thing that me and my classmates had in common during my middle school and high school years in Mount Vernon, New York, it would be a love of and for music. I wouldn’t have been able to draw this rather obvious conclusion five years ago. But, in the course of interviewing folks and writing and rewriting my Boy @ The Window manuscript since ’06, music seems to be the one common denominator that connected us all.

Take the fact that so many of my Class of ’87 classmates found their way into the underground or mainstream music scene over the past twenty-four years. At least one was a producer, a bunch rapped, played, sang, and danced their way into the industry, even if they’re not household names. Others did studio work, and at least two are doing music/sound work for the small and big screen.

These folks are Black, White, Afro-Caribbean and Latino, so, no, race doesn’t seem to be a factor. Was it something that was in the water or in Mount Vernon’s lead water pipes? Not likely. It really couldn’t have been instilled in us by Humanities, or going to Davis, Nichols or Mount Vernon High School, right? The official doctrine of the powers that were would’ve made our favorite music somewhere between Sinatra and Tchaikovsky.

It could be as simple and as complicated as the times we grew up in, the fellow travelers to which we were

Culture Club "Club Sandwich Tour" poster, September 27, 2011. (Wikipedia). Qualifies as fair use under US Copyright laws because of low resolution and subject of blog post.

exposed, the constant noise that was Mount Vernon public schools in the 1970s and 1980s. Living in a city in the early stages of decline, within shouting distance of Manhattan and a short walk to the Bronx. Having the level of Black and Brown diversity that we had, with a decent sized White minority in the school system, may be all that was needed to create the conditions for music to be our one common language.

It wasn’t just in my class, as the classes of ’85 and ’86 turned out the late Heavy D and Al B. Sure. Nor was it just in Mount Vernon’s public schools. There was something about Mount Vernon itself, a painful place for some, a cool and pleasureful one for others, that made music both a code for coolness and an escape from reality.

For my specific groups of Humanities nerds, renaissance folks and generally sharp classmates, though, the tastes ranged and even mingled. For the guidos and guidettes whom I labeled “The Italian Club,” the music was decidedly “White.” From “A” serenading 7S with The Police’s “Roxanne” ala Eddie Murphy, to the frequent blaring of Billy Idol, Bruce Springsteen and Foreigner from turbo-charged Camaros and Mustangs.

The Time promotional poster, circa 1990, July 6, 2006. (Mista Tee, via Wikipedia). Qualifies as fair use under US Copyright laws because of low resolution and subject matter for blog post.

Then the was the obviously cool Black and Afro-Caribbean, with a clique for every occasion, whose music was also obviously “Black.” Teena Marie, pre-“Material Girl” Madonna, Phyllis Hyman, Prince, Luther Vandross, Doug E. Fresh, Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam, Run-DMC, if it was Black and cool, they listened to it, and knew the exact date the new album would hit the stores. They drove around in their Nissan Maximas, Audis and old Cadillacs with this mesh of R&B, early rap and hip-hop, and crossover pop pumping out of their tinted windows.

Of course, that left the rest of us, the few who seemed to like a bit of everything. Crush #1 and Depeche Mode. Brandie Weston and her clique’s love of Boy George and Culture Club. V’s commitment to Billy Joel, at least a decade and a half too young to understand the full meaning of what we’d now call adult contemporary. Not to mention The Police, Sting, The Who, Rolling Stones, Thompson Twins, Duran Duran, ABC, Tears for Fears, a-ha, and so many others. But it didn’t stop there. For we, too, liked Luther, and Billy Idol, and John Coltrane, and Lisa Lisa, and Run.

I don’t know if my musical tastes were the most eclectic of all, or if mine remain so. But I can say this. I ran 4.75 miles yesterday, listening to Genesis’ “Tonight, Tonight, Tonight” (album version), Sounds of Blackness’ “Optimistic,” U2’s “Beautiful Day,” Grover Washington Jr’s “Summer Chill,” Stevie Wonder’s “As,” Sting’s “A Thousand Years,” and Enigma’s “Silence Must Be Heard” along the way. It seems that I’ve always had a song in my head and theme music in my heart for every situation and every period of my life. For better and for worse, I have to give Mount Vernon credit for that, if for nothing else.

Humanities: First Contact, Full Circle

September 9, 2011

Creme Anglaise in a pitcher next to a ladle, the closest thing I could find to represent my foodie image of "creme de la creme," the mantra of Humanities administrators during my six years of travails, September 9, 2011. (Source/

It’s been thirty years exactly since I made the most horrible set of first impressions in my forty-one years of life. My first day of seventh grade at A.B. Davis Middle School in Mount Vernon, New York was also my first day in the Humanities Program, a magnet program for the gifted track (and also the way the powers that were decided to desegregate the school district in ’76).

But it was so much more than that, for better and certainly for worse, at least for me. It was the flip side of a coin that represented the worst six years of my life (the coin’s other side being my life at 616 with what can only be loosely called my family). But it was also the six years of my life that made the past three decades of success, struggle, more success, and more struggles possible.

After putting together Boy @ The Window — in which a large measure of text was devoted to what occurred with and around me during my time in Humanities, one question still remains. Did my time in Humanities, with my classmates, teachers, counselors and principals have to be as difficult as they were — and not just for me? There’s no real way to answer that question, because “of course” is a cold and callous answer, while “of course not” belies the important psychological changes that made me a better thinker, student, writer and person as a result. But if I could, I’d build a time machine, jump into my eleven-year-old version of myself, and make sure to have my dumb ass take my kufi off for my first day of school in 7S. At least then, I would’ve been normal-weird, instead of standoff-ish weird.

My main problem, though, was that I arrogantly believed I was the smartest person in the world. I paid dearly for having that kind of naiveté, to the point where certain classmates still see me as that idiotic preteen, and refuse to see me any other kind of way. Too bad for them, for I know I’ve long since changed.

That day, at least for the past decade, has also reminded me of another beautifully warm, powder-blue sky day that turned tragic. With two days before we reach ten years since 9/11, I think about the way I used to be, and see so many similarities to how we see ourselves as a nation. “We’re #1,” we love to say, even though we’ve long since stopped being #1 in so many respects. We have the largest economy and military, the largest debt, make the largest contribution to climate change and pollution, and complain the most about how the rest of the world isn’t like us.

Like me three decades ago, America is naive and arrogant. And unfortunately, it faces competitors — some as unfeeling as my more entitled or more unscrupulous classmates — who are clobbering us in education, economic growth, health care, social welfare, even in protecting their citizens and their citizen’s freedoms. It’s sad, because there are millions of people now experiencing the severe fall into poverty — and all of the pressures that places on marriages, parenting and children — that I faced, very unsuccessfully at first, thirty years ago.

I’ve come full circle. Between the struggle to find a home for Boy @ The Window and my struggle to continue to do meaningful work as a writer and educator, I find that even on my worst days, my best days thirty years ago were a thousand times worse.  My first contact with academic competition, Whiteness and diversity, racial strife, religious differences and straight-up elitism is what has given me a greater appreciation for who I’ve become since that sunny day so many years ago. As well as how much I’ve gained.


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