23 January 2007

Dear Hamish,

Thanks for your note! When your mom told me how much you love funk music, I was just bowled over, and I couldn't get to the iTunes to make that mix disc fast enough. It's not every fourth-grader who appreciates that genre...and I should know, because when I was a fourth-grader, I did.

When I listen to the Spinners now, or James Brown, the Isleys, or Eddie Kendricks, it takes my mind back to graffiti-drenched New York City when I was your age. A place where considerable despair dwelled alongside joyful mellowship. The funk vibe was everywhere, bringing social commentary and free escape in equal doses. Just like the graffiti: a desperate expression...but the colors! Whenever a RR train rocketed past on the el tracks, a few blocks from my apartment building, I would stop and look up at the spectacle. Blocky letters, airbrushy splashes, in vivid-to-lurid tones, flying by. Really, it was like a comic-book blast up there, a save-the-day! message.

The day needed saving...a lot of crime and poverty, back then. It seemed like even the sanitation department had given up on trying to tidy the place, so when I played in the outdoor courtyard of the apartment building with my friends, there was this perpetual grime, a grey dust all over the stoop, the sidewalk, wherever we sat. It never fazed me, not once. (Only the mom in me is taken aback, thinking of it now.) Because when you looked up, up, past the roofline of our building, past the surprisingly tall trees in front...the sky was incredible blue.

Playtime outside in that era demanded a transistor radio. Everyone had one--they were boxy little rectangles with a blippy dial. In our neighborhood, you toggled between WABC, WNBC, and--if you were lucky enough to have FM--WPLJ and WNEW. These stations cooked up a stew that included funk along with rock and pop.

Soon, we would all start acquiring boom boxes. That term sounds silly and dated now, but in 1977 it meant a holy grail of sound. That's because a boom box was BIG--like, eight times the size of a transistor--and it was (you'd catch your breath on this word) stereo. Most of us had never heard stereo before--most certainly, never in the streets. Boom boxes liberated sound quality from its tether in the living room. In NYC, when you weren't at school or eating a meal, you wanted to be in the streets; and out there, musical accompaniment was crucial. Stereo wove the sound around your group of friends, made you want to stay out and hang together longer.

The first song I ever heard in stereo was, alas, not funk. It was "Dreams" by Fleetwood Mac. My older brother handed me his new headphones--the puffy bubble kind, from Radio Shack--and switched on his new boom box. "Listen to this," he said. The song was mixed to drift and pulse, left channel to right channel. I actually got shivers, hearing the wide-open terrain of that sound--Lindsay Buckingham's haunted guitar notes chiming, setting the stage for Stevie Nicks' plaintive vocal.

Hamish, your mom told me you like disco, too, and I'm proud of you for that. Like boom box, disco is a term that is unfairly maligned. It symbolizes faddish things, but the music must not be confused with the attire and dance moves it spawned. The best disco grows from a funk root, and when you hear it, if you're open-minded--as you obviously are!--you're compelled to move and groove.

So thank you, Hamish, for the memories you are making right now, which will equate funk and joy and expression with downeast Maine. You've underscored what I already knew: that genre of music is universal, and it stays with you like a companion for as long as you're true to yourself.

No comments: