August 13, 2011

Seal, CD Cover (1991), August 13, 2011. (Source/Donald Earl Collins).

There’s no doubt in my mind that I’m a late bloomer. I came to find myself a teenager in a twenty-one year old’s body twenty years ago, just as I’m a thirty-five year-old in a forty-one-and-a-half year-old’s body now. As the summer of ’91 began to wind down, though, I realized that I needed to go into my first year of grad school at Pitt with some inspiration, with a chip on my shoulder, really.

It didn’t take more than a simple thought to find that inspiration and chip, either. Between working for a bunch of folks at my Western Psych job who still thought that hunting down half-and-half was the extent of my work there on the one hand. And professors like Reid Andrews telling me after I’d received my grad school stipend award letter that I wasn’t “graduate school material” on the other hand. Livid is the minimal word I’d use to describe my mood in the three weeks before the start of my five-and-half-year odyssey. One of doing cartwheels at least three times better than my colleagues to prove that I was as good as anyone.

But I’m jumping ahead of the story here. I found some inspiration from music, as usual, in this case, on one of my daily walks home from work in Oakland to my studio apartment in East Liberty. Still searching for more new music for my ’90s collection, I found a radio station playing Seal’s first big hit, “Crazy.” I’d heard parts of the song before, all during that summer, but never from start to finish. As I reached the end of Ellsworth Avenue, where I’d walk up the steps to a bridge on Highland Avenue, one that went over the train tracks and busway into East Liberty, I heard the lyrics, really for the first time.

“In a sky full of people only some want to fly/Isn’t that crazy
In a world full of people only some want to fly/Isn’t that crazy/Crazy
In a heaven of people there’s only some want to fly/Ain’t that crazy”

Seal, "Crazy" 45 Single Cover (UK), January 8, 2009. (Source/ Qualifies as fair use under US copyright laws, as version is of low resolution for reproduction, and is part of larger commentary.

And yes, I wanted to fly. Besides, as far as most people were concerned, I was crazy anyway. For wearing that godforsaken kufi to school for three years. For becoming a newborn and sanctimonious Christian after that. For trying out for football, and later, baseball instead of basketball. For listening to Mr. Mister and Tears for Fears and Sting instead of bopping to Run-D.M.C. For walking way too fast, and talking a little too slow. For going off to college out-of-state, to a no-name school no less. For taking a grad course my junior year at Pitt. For deciding to go to grad school in history instead of law school or Black studies.

The list is as long as an introspective Eminem rap sequence, airing every negative ever tossed my way. I was crazy, and still am. But, as far as my first year of grad school was concerned, I made two deals with myself about the process. One was to not compare myself, my abilities, my limitations, to anyone else in the program. The other was to put aside all of my preconceptions about my professors, or the difficult courses ahead, or whether I would complete the master’s degree and move on to the doctoral portion of the program.

I didn’t want to limit myself to what others may have expected of me, or to what I could’ve possibly expected of myself at the time. I didn’t even like my friends saying that “the sky’s the limit,” because I didn’t want to limit myself to the sky. I simply wanted to be crazy enough, humble yet arrogant enough to know my limits, but push the envelope as hard as I could in order to make graduate school work for me.

Howard Hughes standing in front of his new Boeing Army Pursuit Plane, Inglewood, California in the 1940s, May 31, 2005. (Source/Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-63333 - In public domain). One of the craziest, yet great, innovators of the 20th century. Guess it works better when you're a rich White male.

That kind of thinking affords a very single-minded intensity — to the point of a near-psychotic passion — that leads to excellence, miracles and the exceeding of what may have been your craziest expectations. I know it was that way for me. It had to be. If I’d bought into all that my most hateful Humanities classmates, my mother and ex-stepfather, my father Jimme, my fellow Mount Vernonites and some of my teachers and professors thought of me, who’s knows? I’d likely become a sexually confused and frustrated Black male, a college dropout, wandering from one minimum wage job to another, living alone in a boarding room, as miserable as a character in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment.

I’d become a psychopath, not just crazy enough to believe in myself and the miracles of God in my life. I need to do be a little crazy now, even at this stage of my life. We all need to be a little crazy, not in a Tea Party sense, but much more in an Arab Spring kind of way. After all, “we’re never gonna survive unless we get a little crazy.”

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.

Kiss From A Rose (or [sigh] “Hi” )

May 20, 2010

Fifteen years ago on this date, I re-met the woman who’s now my wife of ten years, Angelia on a PAT-Transit bus in Pittsburgh, the old 71B-Highland Park into Oakland. It was an eighty-five degree Saturday afternoon in the ‘Burgh. I decided to treat myself to a movie, Batman Forever, mostly because I knew Val Kilmer was in it. After seeing him act as well as he did in Tombstone, I figured I needed to give it a try. I needed a break, between the euphoria of the Spencer Fellowship and the depression from the fire at 616 that had rendered my family homeless.

So here it was, 3:15 in the afternoon, with me dressed in a blue t-shirt with blue basketball shorts and sneaks. I was standing at the corner of Highland Avenue and Penn Circle South, across from my apartment building, waiting for a bus. The 71B showed up first. I jumped on, sat down on the right-hand side in a front-facing seat. As soon as I sat down, I saw her, sitting right in front of me. It was “Angela with an ‘i’,” Angelia, like that Richard Marx song from ’90.

The thing was, I had a dream that she showed up in the Saturday before this one. I hadn’t seen Angelia in more than two years, hadn’t given her any thought. But it seemed weird that she would just show up a week later in the flesh.

So I said, “Hi Angelia!,” excitedly, wondering what she was doing on the bus. She paused, said “Hi” with the heaviest, stop-bothering-me sigh I’d heard since my high school days. That didn’t deter me. I coaxed out of her the fact that she was pissed off with Carnegie Library because a book she was looking for at the East Liberty branch wasn’t there, even though the catalog said it was. It was a conversation that was one-sided, with Angelia doing most of the complaining.

I listened, and thought, “Yep, same Angelia, same weird Angelia.” But since I was weird also, I kept listening. Finally, she asked me what I was up to. I told her about school, my Spencer Fellowship, my family’s homelessness situation. I kept it brief. I mean, I hadn’t seen her in two years.

By the time we reached Oakland — me to catch one of the 61s to Squirrel Hill to catch the movie, Angelia to walk over to the main branch of Carnegie Library — we exchanged numbers, with Angelia saying, “It was really good talking to you.” I wasn’t so sure about that myself, but at least, she didn’t seem as weird as the woman she was five years earlier.

I went to see the movie, and it sucked, just like Angelia said it would. I walked home, got together some grub, and through all preconceptions out the window. I gave her a call to tell her that she was right about the film. We ended up talking for more than three hours! It was the first time in a long time I had talked to a woman who wanted to hear what I thought about, well, anything, at least anything outside of sex. It was the start of a beautiful friendship.


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