Today, December 28th 2020, marks the end of the Formidable decade of my Forty’s. It’s been hard to let go. And yet out of the woodwork those people who I admire so much have been commiserating, celebrating, sharing their experiences “of the other side”. Thank You. I feel as though I’m in excellent company as I move forward.
I’ve considered how best to capture this… feeling. I could go through all the things, but it just wouldn’t do it justice. I left New York, I set up shop in Detroit. My shop failed. But I learned about how to write a really complicated business plan and how to be especially stubborn. I ended up at Ford helping to start a new group which is flourishing. I quit drinking alcohol, not without a mighty tear up there at the end. And I sit here and wonder what did it all mean?
On May 25th, 2020, a brutal murder happened to a black man under the hands and knees of those who are supposed to protect us. It was not the first, it will be far from the last, but it galvanized a national, maybe even global movement that I’d spent the last ten years learning about. That journey is far from over. I am proud that I learned to see my privilege, that I learned about my role, my complicity even, with the systems of oppression, that often leave us wondering what to do. It is a confusing time. And it is no time to let go or give up. It is time to lean in and reach deep to pull out the hurt. Ruby Johnson, “I’ll run your hurt away.”
Most of you know my love of music, and how I like to commemorate milestones with song. In preparing the final mix of my 40’s I had six hours of music. Far too much for even the most dedicated of listener. And when thinking how to shrink it down, how to get in my favorites and still maintain a theme, it proved nearly impossible. And then there is George Floyd, Breonna Taylor. Trayvon Martin. So many others.
Far from perfect, this is my own journey into black music in a way that was deeper, more thoughtful, and more intentional than perhaps in past commemorations.
It opens with Gnarls Barclay because, well, it’s a Crazy time, I was in fact going crazy, and anyone who has lived with any sort of mental illness should relate.
“I remember when
I remember, I remember when I lost my mind
There was something so pleasant about that place
Even your emotions have an echo in so much space
And when you’re out there without care
Yeah, I was out of touch
But it wasn’t because I didn’t know enough
I just knew too much”
“Who Knows” by Marion Black is the B side from an unknown master who seemed to disappear right after making this 45. Jim Dier (Small Change) played it once on Nickle and Dime radio (word to WFMU) and its depth captured my soul.
“Who knows what tomorrow will bring
Maybe sunshine, and maybe rain
But as for me I’ll wait and see
And maybe it’ll bring my love to me
The Ken Boothe version of “Is it because I’m Black” is my favorite version of that song. It’s heavy like the melting steel in a Ford plant. And I feel the pain. The suffer. And how unnecessary it all is. It breaks my heart this song.
“The dark brown shades of my skin, only add colour to my tears
That splash against my hollow bones, that rocks my soul
Looking back over my false dreams, that I once knew
Wondering why my dreams never came true
Is it because I’m black?
Somebody tell me, what can I do
Something is holding me back
Is it because I’m black?”
Mississippi God Damn is not my favorite Nina Simone song, but it is the song that made me take her seriously. Hard to believe anyone needed help taking Nina Simone seriously. I was in one of my epic baths and the radio preluded this song with some words about how this was her unexpected departure into the music of politics. She was so angered by the deaths of Emmitt Till and Medger Evans she composed it in an hour and then played it live at Carnegie Hall. It was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Recording Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”. This forever changed Nina in my eyes from soothing bath music to critically important socially connected verse and song.
“Can’t you see it
Can’t you feel it
It’s all in the airI can’t stand the pressure much longer
Somebody say a prayer
Alabama’s gotten me so upset
Tennessee made me lose my rest
And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam….
Just try to do your very best
Stand up be counted with all the rest
For everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam
I made you thought I was kiddin’
School boy cots
They try to say it’s a communist plot
All I want is equality
For my sister my brother my people and me
Yes you lied to me all these years
You told me to wash and clean my ears
And talk real fine just like a lady
And you’d stop calling me Sister Sadie
Oh but this whole country is full of lies
You’re all gonna die and die like flies
I don’t trust you any more”
“This land is Your Land” stands out also as my favorite version of this song, specifically the part
“As I was walkin’, now they tried to stop me
They put up a sign that said, oh it said ‘Private Property’
Well, on the back side, you know it said nothin’
So it must be, that side was made for you and me, yeah”
I’d listened to Sharon Jones before, but never really listened to her. I was sitting in the shipping container in Eastern Market when I really heard it, sitting at the beautiful north African table that Sarah bought, and Sarah still has. “This is a damn fine song.” And I listened to it on repeat for days and made everyone listen to it.
Money I$ king is another from the $mall Change archives. I never quite got how psychedelic Lee Fields was and considering everything I was going through to try and make a break for myself and my “hotel” this song seemed to capture it well. Money goes where money is. You don’t have it, you don’t get it.
“They say money is king of our world
Without a nickel, without a dime
My brother, you’re not worth anybody’s time
Green power—that’s what it takes
Money, you’ve got to make
It’ll make you do things you never would
Forget the things that make you feel so good
Money’ll make a man forsake his country
And lie to his wife
Turn friends to foes
For the price of a man’s soul”
Freddie Hubbard. “Open Sesame”
I was at a bar in Nashville on the 4th of July with my mom and a killer soul jazz band was playing. I asked what they were playing, and they said Freddie Hubbard. I immediately downloaded everything I could find. For some reason this track got played more than usual. Love me some soul jazz, even though I totally slept on the scene in 2002 when soul jazz records was re-releasing it all.
Big Sean is from Detroit. He made it. He really made it. He made it because he was smart, well connected, and has a beautiful voice and lyrical style. He went to the Waldorf Academy a few miles from my house. This particular track just tugs on the heart strings. Spoiler alert: A call from Grandma at the end. Seriously, one of the great moments in hip hop schmaltz. “One Man Can Change the World.”
“But when you’re getting fast money, slow down, don’t crash
With all the drive in the world, swear you still need gas
Look, think about it, close your eyes, dream about it
Tell your team about it, go make million dollar schemes about it
Success is on the way, I feel it in the distance
Used to look up at the stars and be like ain’t too much that’s different
I be shinin’, they be shinin’, get your one shot don’t you miss it
What you know bout’ wakin’ up everyday like you on a mission?”
Bill Withers. What is there to say about Bill Withers? A man who made his career later in life. He was nearly 40 when Lovely Day came out. I’m not sure this is my favorite Bill Withers song either, but it comes with a story that makes it worth recording.
During the early fall of the 2020 pandemic I heard someone blasting some hip hop from a car a few blocks away. It was the first day I actually felt my neighborhood come alive after months of dreadful quiet. I had determined that I would drive around in my truck and play music really loud as a community service, likely Bill Withers, as most of the people in my neighborhood are black and of a certain age to appreciate Bill Withers. I posted it on Nextdoor.com and someone suggested I play “Lovely Day.” HCH got me all psyched up to commit to doing it.
And one Saturday morning at 11am I cranked up the stereo and rolled real slow through the streets of my neighborhood, playing Lovely Day. I cannot tell you how satisfying this was. I was grinning the whole time. It was a little cool out that morning and ahead of leaf raking time, so who knows who heard it. But someone did and that’s what counts. That I did it counts more.
“When the day that lies ahead of me
Seems impossible to face
When someone else instead of me
Always seems to know the wayThen I look at you
And the world’s alright with me
Just one look at you
And I know it’s gonna be
A lovely day (lovely day, lovely day, lovely day, lovely day)
(Lovely day, lovely day, lovely day, lovely day)”
“Move Together” by Ndidi Onukwulu is a song Noeleen brought to my attention. In general she always wants people to coordinate their efforts for maximum amplificaton and I just really really like the song. It is a reflection of my time at work. Ford has taken five years of my forties. That’s a whole half! It deserves a song.
“There’s no time to think about ourselves
We gotta let it go, you see
There’s no time to think about ourselves
Otherwise we’ll live in misery.
We can get there faster If we all move together
We can get there faster If we all move together”
“Smooth Sailing” by Leon Bridges is known by anyone who has a sunroof. It’s the kind of song you play really loud while cruising Jefferson Avenue. It’s sexy. It’s got sweet soul. It’s got smooth, so smooth horns. When I had the Lincoln Continental, gold of course with 20 inch tires, I loved feeling hot with this song blasting through every crack of the vehicle. Especially the roof. I also danced to it at MJs round house in Oakland and made her and Arvind dance with me.
“It’s all smooth sailing
From here on out
I’m gon’ do the damage
That needs getting done”
“Lady in the Rain” by Lowell Fulsom. This one hit me hard, like a ton of bricks hard. It came on a mix from a friend who had no idea of its fierce velocity for me. Or maybe he did. It came a few months before my eventual collapse into total helplessness, spring/summer of 2018. And I listened to it over and over and over again and just cried every time.
“I’m just walking in the rain’
thinking about my life and things’
I didn’t know the rain was falling
You See my heart was full on pain
I never felt like this before
So don’t mind me if I start crying
Cuz I got a lot of things on my mind
Don’t pity me, I only have myself to blame
I’m just walking in the rain.”
“Proud Mary.” Also in the ethos of that strange 2018 spring… I was asked to do a keynote address at a conference. The room was big, maybe 500 people and they just wanted 5 minutes of my time. I decided the theme was participation and participation fully in my life. It was a genuine cry for help. The talk was supposed to be about risk. I got up on stage and asked people if they wanted me to talk about risk or show them what risk looked like. They voted to see risk, live.
“Cue up the music.”
Proud Mary started playing. Tina Turner had ties to this part of Tennessee and the words …
“Left a good job in the city
Working for the man ev’ry night and day
Then I never lost a minute of sleep
When worrying ’bout the way that things might have been”
And I started dancing. On stage. Alone. Many of you know I have deep physical shyness. And I spoke about this while I was dancing. People started dancing with me in the audience and on the stage. And before long half the room was moving. Dozens of women came up to me afterwards and said they’d never been so inspired. This song will forever be a day I challenged my fears. Or at least chipped a little off the iceberg.
“Sexual Healing?” Brass Band?! New Orleans! The Hot 8 Brass Band. And Professor Long Hair on the keys for “Big Chief”. I’ve got a lot of friends down that way and they’ve gotten deep into the subculture of black music. These songs are for them and their second lines.
Horns and Piano.
“Mona.” For some reason in 2012 I started calling my friend Dorothy, Mona. Either she liked that name or someone else called her that. But She and I were/are dear friends, and I cannot listen to that song, or any Bo Didley, and not think of the years we both were feeling around in the dark, trying to find our way in Detroit together. Hey Mona!
“Tell ya Mona, what I wanna do
Get-a my house a-next door to you
Can I see you sometime?
A-we could go kissin’ through the blindCan you come out in the front do’?
Listen to my heart go bumpbity-bump
I’ll lead you baby, that’s no lie
Without your love I will surely dieHey-ay, Mona
Hey! Whoa-oh, whoa-ooh, Mona
“I’m a little mixed up”! Hell yeah I’m mixed up, Betty James! Men have eluded me and I always get tangled with the wrong sort of music making trouble and I never quite know what to do with them. There was no lack of them in my 40’s. Thank you for the great sex. Thank you less for your misuse of my trust. And to the thief who stole and lied, may you rest well beside her. And get cooties.
“Ah, we used to walk and talk, darlin’, jump in the scene
But I know now you don’t mean me a thing
I’m just a little mixed up, mixed up about you
Oh, I’m just a little mixed up
And I don’t know what to do”
“Dig Dis” by Hank Mobley was just a surprise that Apple threw my way. A little easy jazz to wind things down and a a tribute to ‘going with the flow.’ Not everything has to have a reason. I believe that.
And for the end…. Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” and frankly it’s already on its way. We have so so much work to do with the reckoning of our sins. As a non-religious person, I don’t use that word often. Our treatment of anyone nonwhite in the united states and beyond is disgraceful. And the change is going to come. I’m doing my best to play my small part in it. I hope you will join me.
“Oh, there been times that I thought
I couldn’t last for long
But now I think I’m able, to carry onIt’s been a long
A long time coming
But I know a change gonna come
Oh, yes it will”
The inspiration for Liner Notes comes from Peter DuCharme. His left a lasting impression on me.
Thank you all for sharing my Forties and sending me off into my Fifties.
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