Summer of Sound

August 5, 2012

Mary J. Blige’s What’s the 411? (1992) CD cover, August 5, 2012. (Donald Earl Collins).

One of the few great things for me about being back in Mount Vernon and New York City the summer of ’92 was that I was ahead of the slow pop cultural curve that was Pittsburgh two decades ago (although it’s still slow — just not as slow as it used to be). For one last summer, despite the turmoil of kids and my mother treating me like I was one (see my post “The Last 616 Summer” from June ’12) and the constant chaos at my job (see my “Working With Wackos, Part I” post from July ’12), I had access to all the immediate in music, movies and other forms of culture, pop or otherwise.

This was truly the summer that my tastes turned from randomly weird to eclectic. To think that just five years earlier, early Whitney Houston, Thompson Twins, Glass Tiger and ABC were all part of my regular cassette rotation for my Walkman! My tastes had grown up to the point where music had to have a mood or rhythm to it. It no longer needed to be quirky or silly in order to put me in a quirky or silly mood.

But those weren’t the only emotions available to me by the summer of ’92. I could actually feel sexy, romantic, generous, loving, caring, and not just angry, depressed and goofy in my normal life. A half-decade away from the crushing life of strife at 616 and in Mount Vernon, high school, Humanities and in general, had something to do with that. Dating off and on had brought others into my life, which meant that Crush #1 and Crush #2 had become somewhat repressed memories. The bottom line was, I no longer needed music or pop culture to block out the daily emotional pain that had been my life in the ’80s.

And that opened me up to new and more eclectic (if still occasionally goofy experiences) music experiences that year and summer. I became a big Jon Secada fan that summer (see my “Otro Dia Mas Sin Verte” post from August ’09), both in English and en Espanol. I was so glad he branched off from Gloria Estefan, as I’d had it with the Miami Sound Machine’s sound years ago.

I also became enthralled a bit with jazz and what we now call smooth jazz that summer, between Grover Washington, Jr., Ronny Jordan’s “After Hours”, John Coltrane, even some Miles Davis (who I did appreciate, but never quite understood). I had friend at Pitt who had exposed me to jazz over the previous five years, but it took graduate school for me to finally fully appreciate it. It also took working in an office with a woman who played all kinds of music all the time for me to actually go out and buy their stuff on CDs.

Boyz II Men’s “End Of The Road” (1992) singles cover, May 19, 2009. (Undermedveten via Wikipedia). Qualifies as fair use under US Copyright laws (low resolution picture).

The expansion of hip-hop and rap twenty summers ago to include new and fresh sounds ended up having an impact on my own music collection as well. Mary J. Blige’s What’s The 411? hit the stores and her songs the NYC-area airwaves that July and August, so raw and so new that even I the late-bloomer noticed. And who could forget Boyz II Men’s “End Of The Road.” I heard that song at least eight times a day nearly every day between the end of June and the middle of August, especially at my Mount Vernon Clinic job. I guess if I’d been divorced or in a bad relationship, I would’ve appreciated it more. As it was, any thought of buying Boyz II Men’s second album disappeared by the beginning of August. The same was true for me regarding Jodeci, the hip-hop screechers and beggars from the Upper South. They were like nails on chalkboard to me then.

Still, I incorporated music more typical of my earlier tastes into my collection that summer as well. Mariah Carey’s “I Don’t Wanna Cry” became the song I went to every time my sister Sarai started whining about me telling her to do chores at 616. Sounds of Blackness’ “Optimistic,” I discovered that summer (one summer after its release). U2’s Achtung Baby, Garth Brooks’ “The Thunder Rolls” and Michael Jackson’s “Remember The Time” rounded out my catching up to the current that summer, while Annie Lennox’s “Walking On Broken Glass” was, new, silly and serious at the same time.

There have been other times, other summer in which my tastes have taken leaps forward. I must admit, this has usually occurred after great pain or after having recovered from a major trial in my life. The summer of ’92, though, was a transition summer for me, from having to act like an adult due to stressful circumstances to just being an adult because I actually was.

Time, Love & Goofy-ness

July 21, 2011

Time, Love & Tenderness Album Cover, July 18, 2009. (Source/Donald Earl Collins)

Sometimes I have no choice but to confirm how weird I am. Especially when it comes to what moves me, including in my choices of music. It wasn’t hard for me to become a Michael Bolton fan when his first solo album dropped in ’87. “That’s What Love Is All About,” a minor hit, was something I enjoyed then, but appreciate much more now as a married man than I possibly could’ve as a freshman at Pitt. “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay,” well, that’s another story. It’s a fine cover version (something that Bolton grew all too fond of doing in the late-’90s), but nothing will ever replace the Otis Redding original.

The summer of  ’91 was the clincher for me regarding Bolton and other artists from that period. I was in the midst of getting over myself getting over E (see “The Power of Another E” posting from April 2009) when I first heard Bolton’s “Time, Love and Tenderness.” 02 Time, Love and Tenderness.wma I was on my way home from work at Western Psych that hot and sweaty July evening, walking at Warp 3 like I always did back then when the local pop station began playing the song. I also knew the moment I heard it how schmaltzy it was. But it was exactly what I needed to hear and at the time I needed to hear it. I fell in love with the song immediately, and would eventually by the album. “Time, Love and Tenderness” remained one of my pre-iTunes playlist songs for the next three years.
Thus began a year-long odyssey of inviting new music into my life, music that would represent the more adult, contemporary, cool, eclectic and schmaltzy graduate school me. Bolton’s Time, Love and Tenderness album was just the first step. The months of July and August ’91 included music from Seal

My iPod, July 21, 2011 (Source/Donald Earl Collins). Every song named here is on it, but rarely do I play them consecutively.

(“Crazy” — I’ll talk about more in another post), Lenny Kravitz (“It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over”), Vanessa Williams (“Comfort Zone”), and Mariah Carey (“Make It Happen”). Not to mention PE (“Can’t Truss It”), Naughty By Nature (O.P.P.), and Boyz II Men. It was the beginning of a new period of music experimentation for me, all caused by me tiring of being the odd wheel in a sea of dating friends.

It was the early ’90s, and I could already see how much music was changing. Fewer synthesizers, a faster more rhythmic pace, a much greater fusion of genres and styles. Heavy metal was morphing into grunge and White booty-call songs were turning into passion tales of White male (and female) angst. Whitney Houston’s music was becoming hip, and Michael Jackson was steadily making himself less popular. With me weeks away from beginning grad school, I felt like I’d found theme music that would fit nicely with my times.
Within a year and a master’s degree of “Time, Love and Tenderness,” I would add Grover Washington, Jr. and Jon Secada to my growing and eclectic music collection. Jon Secada? For many fans of the Miami Sound Machine (Gloria Estefan, et al.) not to mention various subgenres of Latino music and Latino fusion, Secada might as well have been Neil Diamond or Michael Bolton. But for me, it gave me a window into other forms of music that I didn’t have or understand before. The dogged and soaring passion with which Secada sang his “Just Another Day” I’d only heard in gospel or with divas like Patti LaBelle, Chaka Khan, Whitney Houston and — in the first two years of the ’90s — Mariah Carey. Men didn’t sing like that, certainly not in pop music!
I became enthralled with Secada and Bolton, Grover and Mariah, so much so that I continued to branch out. Coltrane, Celine Dion, The Cranberries, Sarah McLachlan, Pearl Jam, Tupac, grunge, world music, New Age — Deep Forest, Enya, Enigma — along with neo-soul — Maxwell and Erykah Badu — were all in my collection by the time I finished grad school.
Still, I needed my schmaltz, and I still do. Michael Bolton, for all of his vanity and overestimation of his voice (he’s done duets with Patti LaBelle and Celine Dion, for goodness sake’s), has been a part of my musical memory for twenty-two years. “Time, Love and Tenderness,” for all of its ’80s-esque quirks, is by far my favorite song by Bolton. It made the second half of the summer of ’91 not only bearable, but fun. It reminded me of how innocent I still was, of how it was a must that I keep my heart open to the possibility of love, even though I would undoubtedly get hurt from time to time.
Life is like that sometimes, and in my case, most of the time. I find myself learning more from loss, more determined because of betrayal and more committed when others tell me I can’t do something, like earning an advanced degree or doing a job successfully. For those times, schmaltzy music is often where I revert to for strength and encouragement, for the ability to move forward.

An Alternate Universe Donald

November 23, 2010

Muppet as Michael Steele on The Daily Show Screen Shot, November 23, 2010. Source:

In light of revelations — skin-deep, that is — from FOX News’ not-so-dumb-butt Megyn Kelly in an upcoming GQ article titled “She Reports, We Decided She’s Hot,” it seems to me that I missed out. Not in taking photos that reveal arms, chest, butt, abs or flanks. But in the massive gold rush that anyone with brains and without a conscience could have been a part of over the last thirty years. That gold rush? The “I’m a conservative and will saying anything, true or not” gold rush.

If I had turned conservative while at Pitt or Carnegie Mellon, it would’ve opened up doors. More doors than have been opened to or for me over the past twenty years. Imagine, a tall Black guy with a doctorate and still in his twenties and willing to serve as a mouthpiece for low taxes on the rich, a minimal social welfare safety net, and corporatization of public schools and Capitol Hill? I’d be a senior staff person of the American Enterprise Institute or the Heritage Foundation by now, with a 3-handicap on the golf course to boot!

But back in the days when I attended Pitt, conservatives were not nearly that organized. There were plenty of them, but not working to identify future leaders the way conservatives have at places like Dartmouth or Stanford or even Carnegie Mellon, my second grad school. No, at Pitt, most conservatives hunkered down in bathroom stalls calling people like me the N-word or offered me bananas through their scrawlings on the metal partitions and doors.

College Republicans and other conservatives were much more organized on Carnegie Mellon’s campus, and with nearly four years there, I could’ve joined at any time. I’d probably adapted my music list. I’m not sure Mariah Carey or Jon Secada would’ve gone over well with this group, much less Tupac or Wu-Tang. I definitely would’ve needed to shave the goat-tee, my signature look for most of the past seventeen years. And I would’ve started using a knife and fork to eat fried chicken for sure.

Still, these would’ve been small prices to pay for steady and well-paying employment. I would’ve hit a six-figure income before I turned thirty. And I would’ve easily been able to turn my history of multicultural thoughts and actions of African Americans in the twentieth century — Fear of a “Black”

John McWhorter at the ISMIL conference in Leiden, June 2008, downloaded November 23, 2010. Jasy jatere (in public domain)

America — into a book about the fears of Blacks and Whites of a new and dangerous multicultural world. I might’ve even been able to keep my title, without the word Black in quotes, though. It would’ve been a bestseller, and I would’ve offed Dinesh D’Souza and John McWhorter as the intellectual giants of conservative thought on race. Yay, alternative me!

I’m not sure if me and my wife of more than ten years would’ve made it past the boyfriend-girlfriend stage. Her views are less leftist and more amoral in some areas than mine. But I couldn’t see her supporting me being a mouthpiece against gay rights and marriage, abortion, education reform without community engagement and austerity cuts in public services. It probably wouldn’t have mattered how much money I made. All of my memories of marriage, of good times and bad, of arguments and making up, of Noah from pregnancy to seven — all gone. Only a person equally conservative and amoral — more than likely White, although Tara Wall or Amy Holmes are among notable exceptions. — would’ve likely married me or would’ve wanted to have a kid with me.

For some folks, this is a pointless exercise. I’m a liberal, a social-Christian, democratic-leftist, one with a handful of cultural conservative views around etiquette and public conduct that I wouldn’t impose on anyone except myself, a progressive, in a word. I didn’t have tons of opportunities to become a lucrative mouthpiece and writer for the Right. And I wouldn’t have taken them if I’d been taken to a strip club and given a suitcase full of $100-bills to be turned. Still, it’s good to dream. To realize that my life, such as it has been, has had so much more color and flavor to it than it would’ve in this Faust-Kafka vision of one of my alternate universes.


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