616, 616 East Lincoln Avenue, Authentic Blackness, Authenticity, Bad Ideas, Bad Music, Black Masculinity, Columbia House, Coping Strategies, Crush #2, Dahlia, David Wolf, Escapism, Estelle Abel, Glass Tiger, Honors Convocation 1987, MVHS, Phyllis, Richard Capozzola, Self-Discovery, Silent Treatment, Sylvia Fasulo, Terre Haute, Thompson Twins, Tower Records
June ’15’s calendar is exactly the same as the one I lived through in June ’81, June ’87, June ’98, and June ’09 (you can look it up). But June ’87’s the month I graduated from Mount Vernon High School. At seventeen, my Blackness, my authenticity as a young man and as a Black man, my place in the world, all were question marks. Between Black administrators like Estelle Abel and Brenda Smith (not to mention White ones like Richard Capozzola and Carapella), teachers like David Wolf and my guidance counselor Sylvia Fasulo, plus the fifty or so “cool” kids with their ’80s pre-Nu Jack Swing/post-Purple Rain Prince look, I might as well have been an alien from another planet. That’s not even counting my strange and out-of-character incident with Dahlia, the humiliation of the Sam and Laurell Awards Show, the dissonance of dealing with Mom, my idiot stepfather Maurice and my siblings at 616, my father Jimme’s drinking, and the run-ins with not-so-normal Crush #2 in Phyllis.
The day I realized most how differently the world outside of Mount Vernon viewed me from how I viewed myself came the day after graduation at Tower Records on West 66th and Broadway. I’ve told this story before, here and in Boy @ The Window, about how some NYPD officers working security there accosted me and accused me of stealing tapes that I had bought the previous week. What I have left out, though, was my state of mind in the two-week period prior to this incident. As I said in the memoir
I had my latest Walkman, my first Sony Walkman, actually, and my book bag with my recent tape investments, including a few I’d bought at Tower Records the previous Friday. Investments like Fleetwood Mac’s Tango In The Night, Genesis’ Invisible Touch, Whitney Houston’s Whitney and Glass Tiger. Glass Tiger, by the way, was a good indication of my state of mind. Boy was I pathetic!
Here I was, attempting to discover myself through what was then my normal coping strategy of escapism via eclectic music. Given my long periods of deprivation from pop culture between religion, abuse and poverty, I’d really only been at this discovering music thing for a little more than three years. I was basically a preteen in terms of pop culture and musical development outside of choir in elementary and middle school and playing the trombone and fife.
Seriously, I look at this Canadian group Glass Tiger’s ’86 album cover The Thin Red Line now and think, “this stuff isn’t even Michael Bolton worthy!” Songs like “Don’t Forget Me (When I’m Gone)” and “Someday” were actual Billboard chart-toppers in ’87, though, and because I had no friends in whom I placed trust, I trusted my coping strategies and Casey Kasem.
That, and Columbia Record Club, which I signed up for off and on between ’86 and ’89, with my high point for using their Terra Haute, Indiana mailing operation being the spring and summer of ’87. I could use them to find music I wouldn’t dare buy even at Tower Records or Crazy Eddie’s. I bought new age music by Phillip Glass, took a hand at jazz with Dizzy Gillespie, bought Van Halen’s 1984 and 5150 (California-crazy me), and went for it with Big Daddy Kane, MC Lyte and Salt ‘n Pepa.
But for every Simple Minds‘ Once Upon A Time (1985), there was Toto’s The Seventh One (1988), or Thompson Twins’ anything, really. For every song that stuck with me, like Sting’s “Be Still My Beating Heart” (1987) or Anita Baker’s “No One In The World” (1986), there was Whitney Houston’s “Love Is A Contact Sport” (1987) — one of the worst songs I’ve ever heard a voice as awesome as Whitney’s sing — and Howard Jones’ “Things Can Only Get Better” (1985). “Things Can Only Get Better,” by the way, is in my iPod’s random rotation, as I have come around to it again in the past decade.
I was trying to figure out what I liked and didn’t like musically on the fly, having lost a significant amount of time growing up for the triviality of enjoying music. This was hard to do, though, in a world in which my peers and many adults assumed that I knew myself well at the ripe old age of seventeen. No matter what my IQ score was in ’87 (about a 130, for the eugenicists out there), my emotional and psychological development probably put me about five years behind my now former classmates.
So my music tastes varied from genius to God-awful. They still do. The difference is, I recognize I may be the only one who listens to DMX for comic relief, because there’s no way to take him or his rap seriously. Or that I find Tupac and Eminem equally compelling and equally problematic. I still
don’t understand the genius of Miles Davis, no matter how many times jazz enthusiasts like my friend Marc try to convince me to keep listening. Still, half of my music comes from the period between May ’87 and October ’97, and the rest crosses boundaries in time, genre, race and language (Deep Forest, anyone?).
I also recognize complete schlock, too. Unfortunately, commercial music these days is about as emotionally and mentally nutritious as a McDonald’s Big Mac and a Taco Bell Gordita combined. I try every few weeks to find out about the latest artists, just in case my son ever becomes interested in music again. Thank goodness, though, there’s no Lil’ Wayne, Rick Ross, or Iggy Izalea in our house! I’ll take my Glass Tiger (not really) any day over that!