I am, and will always remain, a goofy oddball. I’ve known that for at least twenty-five years, probably closer to thirty. For it was this week in ’85 that we finally got cable at 616. More than four years after MTV, and a few months into VH1, we finally no longer needed antennas to watch TV. My fat, greasy slob of a stepfather hogged the gigantic wood-framed hand-me-down of a nineteen-inch Zenith, along with the living room, most of the time. But I came home from the beginning of the school year — my junior year of Meltzer and AP US History at MVHS — at the end of the first week, with no one home.
I turned on the TV, found MTV, and boom, I was in the heart of the ’80s. As soon as I hit the channel, a new video began, heavily synthesized and very much over the top. It turned out to be Heart’s “What About Love,” the first release off of their new album. I liked the song immediately. But more importantly, I liked
the fact that I could now also put faces and styles to voices and lyrics. I was late, four years too late in understanding the jokes, the fashion motifs and consumerism concerns of my more socioeconomically- blessed classmates. As the saying goes, though, better late than never.
That afternoon, I ended up seeing videos from Sade, Tears for Fears, Dire
Straits, Sting, and Mr. Mister’s “Broken Wings.” The last one was a weird video, but very heartfelt, and one that has stayed with as long as any song I’ve heard or video I’ve seen since (more on that in December). I eventually checked out some boring Alexander O’Neal videos on BET before my mother and younger siblings came home from school and grocery shopping.
It wasn’t as if I hadn’t listened to music before September ’85. I was already well aware of the fact that my music tastes weren’t stereotypically Black, weren’t all that White, and certainly weren’t all that old and mature. Having played the trombone in fifth grade, the fife for Hebrew-Israelite stuff all through ’82, and sang in school choirs sixth, seventh and eighth grade (until my voice started cracking), it wasn’t as if I didn’t know when someone was off key or timing their drum sequences.
Still, I found music that didn’t have the voice of Luther (Vandross) or Patti (Austin or LaBelle) or the beats of Doug E. Fresh, Grandmaster Flash or Run-D.M.C. appealing. It reached me because I had moments I needed to be reached, to be serious, to focus on the pain that was my life in the mid-80s, a pain that few artists sang or wrote about in any direct way. I could relate to the lyrics of rejection, redemption and
resolution more than I could relate to someone stepping on my brand new sneakers and getting attitude. Songs that could reach me because I had moments I needed to feel and be goofy, to laugh at myself for feeling as pathetic as I did back then. Nothing, and I mean nothing, in the R&B and early hip-hop repertoire of ’85 did that for me.
So I branched out, almost immediately after that MTV afternoon in early-fall early-September. I became even more interested in what some of my classmates called “that White music,” even deliberately listening to WPLJ and Z-100, adding that to WBLS. I also took the occasional turn to WCBS-101 (oldies station of Sinatra, Nat King Cole and Dean Martin), had a brief foray into Phillip Glass and ’80s new age, a rare stumble into jazz, and yes, for those who believe I embody the rejection of all things “Black,” found my need for R&B and some rap in my eyes and ears.That first week in September ’85 pretty much sealed my fate as an eclectic music listener. Many who know me and my Mount Vernon past would say that Humanities and being around all those White kids had something to do with this. Some, including my mother, would say that my education has led to some sense of racial self-loathing, that I deliberately gave up my heritage to chase some false sense of Whiteness — or,
that I’m “acting White.”
I’d say that I was a goofy and serious late-bloomer, who listened to music and lyrics for meaning, for a kernel of wisdom and hope. Some or all of those things can be found in any genre of music, anywhere, anytime, under any circumstance. Music, like people, can’t be separated into races unless people choose to be separate, a truth I understand now and guessed at intuitively then.