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.

Dairy Queens, Dick Oestreicher and Race

February 1, 2011

Dairy Queen Sign, Near Frankstown Road, Penn Hills (outside of Pittsburgh, PA), June 14, 2005. Shawn Wall. Qualifies as fair use under US Copyright law because there is no attempt to distribute or alter, and this photo is only being used for illustrative purposes.

Black History Month is upon us once again. But instead of the same tired discussion of Carter G. Woodson, MLK or the meaning (or lack thereof) of this month, I’m telling a story that will (hopefully) dredge up issues for many of you.

It was the last Tuesday in October ’92. I was a student in Dick Oestreicher’s US General Field 2 graduate seminar in the history department at the University of Pittsburgh. The topic for our discussion this day

Otis Redding Album Cover, January 31, 2011. Unknown. This photo qualified as fair use under US copyright laws because of its low quality.

was, “Why has black economic mobility, political assimilation, and cultural identity differed from other ethnic groups.” On the surface, it sounded like a good academic discussion to have. But after having to write a fifteen-page analysis on the topic, where I was restricted to William Julius Wilson’s Declining Significance of Race (1978), Thomas Sowell’s Ethnic America (1971), and Kenneth Kusmer’s analysis of race in the context of Black migration to Cleveland (1976), I wasn’t so sure. I made the mistake of being provocative, naming my paper “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay” — after the Otis Redding version, and not the Michael Bolton one.

It was a long two-and-a-half hour class. Especially since I was the lone African American in the room talking about race and standing up to the classroom consensus that class was more important than race in the case of the thirty-million-plus people who looked like or had been classified the same as me. I was on the hot seat, arguing that both Sowell and Wilson’s bias was politically conservative in nature, which influenced their analysis of the question of Black progress and lack of such. I also decided that — like so many issues in history — the question of race versus class was an and-both and not an either-or one. That race and class were so intertwined in American culture and history that to separate them would do severe damage to our ability as historians to understand the nature of racism and poverty in American society.

One of my classmates, an over-50 White male, decided at this point to cut off my final point. “You should be grateful, to be able to go to an esteemed institution like the University of Pittsburgh, to be able to sit in that chair and get to earn a Ph.D. If it were thirty years ago, we couldn’t stand in the same Dairy Queen line, right here in Pittsburgh,” the older man said as slowly and as deliberately as someone giving an Oscar acceptance speech. I was amazed, angry, ready to put the man in his place academically. I wanted to verbally take a Dairy Queen triple-scooper and smash it in his stubby nose.

Then my mentally absent professor Dick Oestreicher immediately interrupted, literally positioning himself in the middle of the room to keep me from giving my response. Oestreicher ended class right then and there, dismissing us without even summarizing our discussion or criticizing our allegedly weak academic

Dick Oestreicher, circa 2009

analysis, which he had done in all of the previous weeks.

I was incensed, actually more pissed with Oestreicher than with the bigoted older man. I made sure to stop by Oestreicher’s office the next afternoon after my other grad seminar to find out why he interfered. “You’re going to have to deal with this anyway,” he said while shrugging his shoulders. The following week, I received an A- on my paper, with “Sowell’s well read” as the only comment on my critique of the authors and the undeniably conservative, pro-class and anti-race analysis that the authors provided.

Of my five and a half years in graduate school — and in my two years of grad school at Pitt — it was one of my most unbelievable moments. I wanted to pick Oestreicher up by his mangy hair and show him how some people deal with moments of racism and the people who allow it to continue on their watch. I wanted to tell him that he should stay out of the classroom if he’s too scared to actually teach students.

In the end, I was more patient at twenty-two than I’d probably be about something like this now. I remained academically defiant the rest of the semester, opposed every argument he made whenever he made it. Meanwhile, the bigoted old man had withdrawn from the course in the last month of the semester.

I learned, more than anything else, that many so-called liberal professors were only academic liberals, not actual liberals. Oestreicher in my mind was worse than my hard-ass principal Richard Capozzola at Mount Vernon High School. At least with Capozzola, you knew that he didn’t like anyone who looked like me — meaning young, Black, male, unpopular and poor. With Oestreicher and so many in academia, their liberalism and expressions in support of racial equality were mere scholarly arguments. In reality, people like him would never expect someone like me to have a chance in hell or heaven to become one of their academic peers.

But you know what was the funniest thing of all? I’d never been to a Dairy Queen before.


A Musical Mirror in Time

November 13, 2010

My iPod, November 13, 2010. Donald Earl Collins

A side benefit to working on Boy @ The Window has been walking down memory lane in describing the music of those times. The music I listened to for inspiration, out of love, rage or goofiness. Or music that provided my means of escape from the drudgery of poverty at 616, the organized chaos that was Humanities and Mount Vernon public schools. Music that I stumbled upon, or deliberately discovered or discounted.

I’ve wondered off and on what the tunes in my ear and head would’ve been like if all the music that I’ve been exposed to since the end of the ’80s had all been at my fingertips in ’81 and ’82. I know one thing for sure. Had I the ability to send my eleven or twelve-year-old self my iPod from ’10, weird or not, Hebrew-Israelite or not, I’d been one of the coolest kids in school. Assuming that I wouldn’t have had to defend my improbable toy against bullies and muggers, that is.

So, now that I have access to music from any time and any year up to 2010, what would I’ve listened to

My iPod, Sting's "Desert Rose", November 13, 2010. Donald Earl Collins

during the Boy @ The Window years? Thinking about Crush #1, the music I had available in mind and in ear was Stevie Wonder’s “As” and “That Girl,” and The Police’s “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” between March and June ’82.

Fully acknowledging that I was in some sort of love then, gee, what would’ve fit my mood? What would’ve been appropriate to the chaos in the rest of my life? U2’s “Beautiful Day” — where “you’ve been all over, and it’s been all over you?” Or Coldplay’s “Clocks,” Sting’s “Desert Rose,” Tevin Campbell’s “Can We Talk,” and Celine Dion’s “That’s The Way It Is,” all songs of shyness and unrequited love? Talk about framing a mood!

Well, what about Crush #2, my obsession with her, and the pain she helped cause? What could complement music like Richard Marx’s “Should’ve Known Better,” Paul Carrack’s “Don’t Shed A Tear,” or Geto Boys’ “My Mind Playin’ Tricks On Me”? Going back to January ’88, Live’s “White, Discussion” would’ve been a place to start. White male angst about race and possibly love — “Look what all this talking got us, baby” screamed at maximum lung-ness by lead singer Ed Kowalczyk — could’ve just as easily been my sarcastic and rage-laced refrain regarding Crush #2.

Other, more goofy and less epic tunes to lay out my anger and disappointment — or to get over it — hmm. Probably something like Michael Bolton’s “Time, Love & Tenderness,” Mariah Carey’s “Can’t Let Go,” or Annie Lennox’s “Walking On Broken Glass.” Music from the ’90s. So much better for coping with crushes and trifling people.

On a more serious tip, what from my present would’ve soothed my constantly worried mind back in the days when mp3 would’ve been thought of as a kind of motor oil? My faves of the ’80s were Mr. Mister’s “Kyrie” and “Broken Wings,” because the songs met me where I was, a teenager struggling to find his true self, to succeed in school, to survive life at 616. Other than some social justice-lite songs like Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On,” Sting’s “They Dance Alone,” or Peter Gabriel’s “Don’t Give Up,” there wasn’t much of a message in most of the music from the mid- to late-80s — at least related to my life.

My iPod, Nickelback's "If Today Was Your Last Day," November 13, 2010. Donald Earl Collins.

But bringing music back from the future would’ve helped. Like Anthony Hamilton’s “Comin’ From Where I’m From,” Creed’s “Higher,” Sounds of Blackness’ “Optimistic,” even Nickelback’s “If Today Was Your Last Day.” The line of lines — “Against the grain should be a way of life” — has been when I’ve gotten the most out of myself, my God and my life.

I can only imagine what life would’ve been like with a piece of second-decade, twenty-first century

My iPod w/ U2, November 13, 2010. Donald Earl Collins

technology in the early ’80s. It made have made most of my embarrassing, disheartening and sorrowful moments easier to bear. But without those moments, I certainly wouldn’t have as full an appreciation of the music I listen to now and the blessings that have occurred in my life in the three decades since. As Anthony Hamilton would say, “Sometimes you gotta walk alone,” although with music, not completely alone.


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