Sunday, October 26, 1986 was part of a great three days for me, perhaps the three best days during my Boy @ The Window years. My Mets had pulled off a miracle. They survived being within a strike of losing the ’86 World Series because Mookie Wilson put a ball between Boston Red Sox 1st baseman Bill Buckner’s rickety legs the night before. Anita Baker’s “Sweet Love” was #1 or #2 on the R&B charts and was near the top of Billboard’s Top 40 on this day twenty-eight years ago. Within the next thirty-eight hours, my Mets would complete the comeback, and win their second (and last, to this point anyway) World Series after falling behind 3-0 through the first six innings. Meanwhile, my Giants would run through the Deadskins at home in East Rutherford, NJ, as Joe Morris rushed for 185 yards in a 27-21 victory, on their own march to a championship title.
My coping mechanisms were at their peaks, though, and had nothing else to do but crash down into the Earth. It was also my senior year in high school, a time of too many AP courses, too many college-going pressures, too many haters and doubters among my classmates, and too much of the grinding poverty and chaos that was living at 616. Within two weeks of my Mets, my Giants and Anita Baker’s first big hits, I’d discover my idiot stepfather’s pornography collection, nearly got set up with a prostitute because of my father, and face humiliation at the hands of my AP Physics teacher David Wolf and his boss Estelle Abel for the first time.
It took me almost two years to recover from the happenings of the mid-fall of ’86. In the process, I faced betrayal, ostracism, humiliation, broken-heartedness, and homelessness, but somehow managed to not make every song and every Mets and Giants (and Knicks and Rangers) victory a vicarious signpost for my own life. It helped that I started to think of Pitt — if not Pittsburgh — as my home, with concerns beyond living and dying with my New York teams and with relatively unknown but talented music artists.
I learned other things along the way, too. That myMets and Giants weren’t the perfect teams I thought they were. Between the alcohol and drug issues of Darryl Strawberry, Dwight Gooden, LenDykstra, Lawrence Taylor, Kevin Mitchell, not to mention their and other teammates’ domestic violence issues, it was obvious to me that talent and winning were more important than living by a consistent code. Listening to the new 24/7 sports radio station WFAN when it began its run in the summer of ’87 showed me the hearts and minds of most fans. They obviously weren’t using sports as a coping strategy for dealing with the emotional grind of poverty and threats of abuse and domestic violence at home. Mostly White and male, their constant barrage of vitriol and disparaging racial commentary about my favorite athletes at that time — Mike Tyson in particular — actually made me wary of White sports fans for years afterward.
I also learned that with artists like Anita Baker and Luther was really the last gasp of R&B as I’d known it to be in the US. R&B was already too much like ’80s pop and a bit too mixed up with rock at times, but with Cameo’s “Word Up” and Club Nouveau’s cover of Bill Withers’ “Lean On Me,” R&B was already beginning its merge with hip-hop, and not in a good way, either. Yeah, there were some exceptions, like Levert, or Regina Belle, but the process of R&B devolving into some Yoplait GoGurt version of itself — with Autotunes, bad rap lyrics and worse rhyme spitters, and assembly-line hip-hop beats — had already begun.
Some of you may say, R&B’s still alive in the US, specifically in our churches, but that’s not true, thanks in large measure to Kirk Franklin. His work in the ’90s made it so that it’s taken longer for jazz to catch on in bands and choirs than rap and hip-hop. No, if you want to find R&B with actual singers these days, try the United Kingdom of Great Britain, try France, try Senegal, try Nigeria. But don’t try the US. Nicki Minaj is no Aretha, no matter how imaginative her videos and her clothes. For that matter, Iggy Azalea’s no Teena Marie, as the former doesn’t understand the difference between cultural appropriation and authenticity. Hip-hop sprang in part from the roots and branches of R&B, but like a parasitic vine, it has cannibalized those roots.
Still, it’s good to remember days like the ones I lived through twenty-eight years ago, with Anita Baker in my ear, my Mets in victory formation, my Giants lined up right beside them. Those days are gone, like the coping strategies I used to get through every one of those days. Not to mention the R&B that was more a part of my life than the hip-hop that my contemporaries were supposedly raised on.