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.


Kate Lynch, Annie Lennox & A CMU Education

January 15, 2011

 

Annie Lennox, Stock Photo, January 15, 2011. Source: http://www.mediabistro.com

Probably the professor that most approximated a teacher in my courses at Carnegie Mellon University (called “CMU” by folks there, in the ‘Burgh) was Katherine Lynch (she usually went by Kate). I took her for two classes in my transfer year to Carnegie Mellon in ’93-’94.

 

I had Lynch for Historical Methods my first semester because, you know, a student with a master’s degree and a year of doctoral work at the University of Pittsburgh in history would have no idea about historical methodology by his third year of coursework. But the department insisted that I needed to take courses like that in order to earn their stamp of approval — that I was properly prepared for my comprehensive exams and the dissertation stage once this year of hoop-jumping ended (but that’s a blog post for another time). I also took a course with Lynch in Comparative Urban History (read “Western Europe and the US” here).

What I remember most about Professor Lynch was how much of a contradiction she was, and not necessarily in a bad way. She kept her hair short and platinum blond, wore clothes that were professional but fit that near-rocker style. Compared to the tweed jacket, sweater vest and Shaft-suit-wearing crowd of super-stuffy professors in the history department, Kate Lynch reminded me of, well, Annie Lennox in

Annie Lennox, Gaza Protest, January 3, 2009. Source: http://www.topnews.in

Eurythmics and solo (or Sharon Stone, at least in haircut). Even though I was twenty-four years old by my second time in one of her seminars, my mind in class wandered like I was in high school again. I thought of songs like “Would I Lie To You,” “Walking On Broken Glass,” “No More I Love You’s,” and my favorite when it came to Lynch, “Here Comes The Rain Again.”

 

The contradiction was in Lynch’s teaching style. Cold, dispassionate, and befuddling, a complete opposite of how she presented herself based on her outward appearances. I’m sure the decidedly male history department played a significant role in how she expressed herself in the classroom. I found her off-putting, to say the least. She was moody, happy and energized one class, irritated and impatient another. She’d lecture on a concept in a graduate seminar for an hour, then somehow expect us to have a vigorous discussion for the next two.

All because Lynch’s style was all about us deciphering her cryptic questions, rather than about us debating fine historical points or big historical themes. In many classes, it came down to one of us — and I was fairly good at this — finding a paragraph on page 88 of a 400-page book that addressed one of her cipher questions. My late eleventh-grade AP US History teacher and mentor Harold Meltzer and his weird and meandering stories were easier to figure out. I’ve always said that Humanities prepared me more for grad school than it did for college. In Lynch’s case, I was absolutely right.

Even with all of that, Lynch was undoubtedly the closest thing to a teacher I had in my nine courses at Carnegie Mellon. Joe Trotter was a better professor, but Lynch acted the most like a teacher, reminding me very much of many of my teachers during my Humanities years from seventh grade through high school. On that scale, at least, she was pretty good.

Yet I sensed that Lynch was holding back, not engaging us in ways that would’ve made us better students, better historians, better intellectuals. And I confirmed that sense when I finished my coursework in May ’94. She was a much warmer person and intellectual outside of the classroom, much more interested in discussing ideas — hers and mine — than she showed at any point in the two classes I had with her. In the classroom, most of my classmates felt like they were “walking on broken glass” around her. But for me outside of the classroom, Lynch was easily the most engaging and caring of the professors I took while in the “madhouse asylum” that was Carnegie Mellon’s history department.

If there was anything I learned from Lynch, it was the need to engage students, to be vulnerable (not weak, mind you) to them in order to reach even the ones that might well be unreachable. Because the opposite approach doesn’t work very well, that is, if one wants to teach and not just facilitate a “shape of the river” discussion.


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