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.

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.

On Broken Wings

December 2, 2010

Sunset Over Clouds (feeling of soaring), December 2, 2010. Source:

It was twenty-five years ago yesterday that Mr. Mister’s “Broken Wings” 08 Broken Wings was #1 on Billboard’s Top 40 pop charts. Twenty-five years, another time, another person, I was in and was. Somehow in a world dominated by hip-hop and rap, it seems like it’s been way more than a quarter-century since a bunch of studio musicians in their mid-thirties got together to create the album Welcome To The Real World.


What I remember most about my fifteen-year-old self in ’85 what how music served as an escape from the violence — or the potential of it — at 616 and from my loneliness at school. I could find myself in another world through song, where no one could touch or hurt me in any way, where life seemed more worthwhile. The sounds, images and smells that lyrics and notes could conjure gave me a place to find myself, a confidence that I otherwise didn’t have.

I liked a lot of crap in those days of my renewed interest in music. I liked Mr. Mister, Tears for Fears, some Heart, Sting, Simple Minds, some Madonna or a-ha, and U2 even before I knew who U2 was. I also liked Kool In The Gang, Billy Ocean, Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam (with Full Force), Run DMC, early Whitney Houston, some Freddy Jackson, Sade, and Luther. The problem was, I had trouble combining these divergent interests in music. Sade would make me feel sad. “Another woman out of my reach,” I often thought. While I liked Run-DMC (especially “My Adidas”), the lyrics were sometimes silly, and I couldn’t be silly all the time. Kool In The Gang had gone from cool to wack in the last year or so. For me, most of the R&B from the mid-’80s was boring, romantic yet stiff. I wasn’t feelin’ it.

Certainly the pop of ’85 wasn’t exactly full of passion, pride, or pain. It often had the feel of folks working off a high in a recording studio, which has turned out to be true in many cases. But it was easier to listen to. Keep in mind that the music world had just started to recover from seven or eight years of music that was without social conscience and virtually pain-free — and that’s even accounting for Phyllis Hyman, Miki Howard and U2.

Mr. Mister’s “Broken Wings” met me at a place where I needed to be met in ’85. My own “wings” needed some mending. I wanted to be free of my family’s so-called love, and I wanted to know what love as an emotion really felt like. I needed inspiration on a weekly basis because of what I saw at home and at Mount Vernon High School. R&B rarely provided that kind of fuel for my mind and spirit.

I found it in the lyrics, the liner notes, the pace of the music, the ability of a voice or synthesizer (as the case often was) to make a song soar. Given my situation, it was a no-brainer for me to choose lyrics like “take these broken wings and learn to fly again, learn to live so free . . .” over “rock . . . steady . . . steady rockin’ all night long . . .” in the mid-’80s.

While I certainly don’t walk the streets of Mount Vernon with $20 Walkman knockoff singing in high falsetto to Mr. Mister like I did twenty-five years ago, I do still find songs like “Broken Wings” appealing. At almost forty-one, I understand much better the need to mend broken relationships, to heal bruised and broken hearts, to want to make yourself and those you love whole again. From my wife to my mother to my late sister Sarai and older brother Darren, I really do understand. I sometimes can’t believe I got this much out of one song from so long ago. Especially when I was so young and so injured myself.

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.

This Thing Called Rap

October 30, 2010

Snap - I've Got The Power Screenshot, October 30, 2010. Donald Earl Collins

At nearly forty-one, I ultimately don’t care what anyone thinks about my musical tastes. I haven’t cared for years. Heck, I make fun of some of the stuff I still listen to. Some of it’s deserved, but much of it’s a function of the music segregation that’s part of the cultural segregation that still exists in this country we call America.

Like most growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, I was introduced to rap in late-’79 by the Sugar Hill Gang “Rapper’s Delight,” rap lyrics with Chic’s “Good Times” — a disco hit the year before — as the background music. I got to see a rap venue once growing up, the following summer at Van Courtland Park in the Bronx. Back then, me and my Holmes Elementary School friends weren’t sure if rap was much more than a curiosity or fad, or would be here to last.

Who knows if the Hebrew-Israelite years or Humanities or just having parents who’d barely made it out of the ’60s music-wise had anything to do with it, but the years between ’81 and ’84 were lost ones as far as rap was concerned. I heard more classical than probably any other genre in middle school, thanks mostly to our wacko music teacher Mrs. Mallory. We didn’t have cable, and me listening to the radio at 616 wasn’t permitted unless it was religious programming. I caught pieces of music from videos on ABC on Saturdays sometimes, from my nearly daily runs to C-Town, and from my classmates and their conversations.

That was until I rebelled in the summer of ’84.  Grandmaster Flash. Kurtis Blow. The whole Roxanne thing. That’s what I got to hear when I began to turn the radio dial to WBLS-FM and a couple of other stations in ’84 and ’85. Of course, Run-D.M.C. Doug E. Fresh, Kool Moe Dee, and early LL Cool J would all hit the scene in the two years that followed.

But unlike my other Black male classmates, I didn’t take a liking to most rap. And that made me wack. I was preoccupied with escaping 616, trying to find my true self, with succeeding and surviving Humanities and high school. Chasing skirts, trying to one-up and put down those around me, going to Mount Vernon Knight basketball games and hanging out on weekends? That wasn’t me, and the rap of those times didn’t have much of me in them. To think that a quarter-century ago, rap lyrics that referred to neighborhoods in the Bronx, Harlem or Brooklyn hardly ever commented on bling or blight — especially the blight — shows how far the genre had to grow in ’85.

PE, October 30, 2010. Source:

It took college and Public Enemy for me to fully appreciate rap and its power and popularity. It took PE and KRS-One and Arrested Development for rap to do something that all of the other music I listened to had done. They made me think. They touched my mind and my heart. The anger and rage of their rap other ’90s rap finally matched the early music of U2 and the romance of love balled R&B. I finally felt like the game had gotten serious, enough for me to pay attention.

Then the whole fake East Coast-West Coast crap of Tupac and B.I.G. came along to ruin rap for me again. What were they doing and thinking? Really, would Pearl Jam and Creed threaten to kill each other in order to promote their music? It was “a shame and a pitiful,” as my father would say. It took me a few years after Tupac’s death to come back to him, his contradictions and his poetry as rap.

Hate to say it, but only Eminem has picked up where Tupac left off since ’97 — and he’s just as contradictory. I’ve never really liked Jay-Z. Not because I don’t see the talent or can’t bump to the music.

Kanye West Album Art, October 30, 2010. Donald Earl Collins

But because until recently, his words never made me think, never gave me anything to feel at all. His music reminded me of why I didn’t like rap in the mid-’80s. It was cotton candy rap, the kind my superficially cool Black male classmates liked. Nas may be the most talented one of them all, but seems almost tormented between being a slut (this is a gender-neutral term for me) and being a soothsayer.

I find the music that is hip-hop and rap today wanting, with the same tired themes, with about as much originality as a ’60s radical patting themselves on their backs for striking a blow against “the man.” After three decades, the genre’s come full circle. I want to listen and learn. But I don’t think that the folks who step to the mike now are worth listening to or learning from.


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