The Music Man Sees Trouble in River City. by Daniel Bruno
February 2012 Florianopolis, Brazil
A long, long time ago
I can still remember how
That music used to make me smile
And I knew if I had my chance
That I could make those people dance
And maybe they’d be happy for a while
But February made me shiver
With every paper I’d deliver
Bad news on the doorstep
I couldn’t take one more step
I can’t remember if I cried
When I read about his widowed bride
But something touched me deep inside
The day the music… died
Bye, bye Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry
Them good ole boys were drinking whiskey in Rye
Singin’ this’ll be the day that I die
This’ll be the day that I die…
When I was just old enough to use language, my pre-school friends and I would chant this chorus, a radio sensation in the United States, over and over again. We were mystified by the lyrics but had a vague notion that somehow, drinking whiskey and dieing were bad.
In 1972 Don McLean wrote and performed these pensive lines lamenting the untimely deaths of Richie Valens ( La Bamba), the Big Bopper ( Chantilly Lace) and Buddy Holly ( Peggy Sue) a decade and a half earlier in a completely unnecessary small plane wreck in an Iowa corn field just six minutes after take-off. The pilot of the single engine Bonanza was only 21 and unfit to fly under the conditions on that frigid and hazy February night in 1958. Even today there is a monument at the crash site. Perhaps the tragedy was the price of immortality for the three teen idols, who otherwise may have passed away in obscurity and neglect. More broadly, the song. philosophic and poetic by today’s standards, resonated with millions as McLean wistfully longed for an America that was now long gone. Even Montessori pre-, myself included, could chant the chorus.
Eisenhower’s Happy Days decade of the 50s reached its peak in 1959 with nineteen foot long Cadillac El Dorados, ( eponym of the doo-wop group) Chrysler Imperials ( a la Little Anthony and the Imperials) and Pontiac Chieftains smugly decked out in chrome and tail fins that promised a stellar future. Herein lies McLean’s reference to a Chevy. In the 50s, Donna Shore had starred in a Chevrolet commercial, driving to a levy.
Doo-wop, inherently optimistic and predictable, fell out of step with the times as the army was called in to Little Rock and protesters descended on Washington and a showdown over Cuba threatened to set the world ablaze. The gruesome assassination of a popular young president was the final blow. But the end of Doo-Wop circa 1962 was but a milestone in a rich, unfinished musical quilt that had yet to show the world what Motown could do, let alone Jimmy Hendrix, who before his own untimely demise at twenty-seven, single-handedly transformed the sound of Rock-n-Roll and paved the way for Led Zepelin, Kiss and countless others.
Motown, i.e. Motor Town. The symbol of American industrial might and technical know-how. Made in America…the envy of the world. The escalator to proletarian upward mobility, no high school diploma, government issued I.D. or Green Card required… or contemplated..for unskilled European immigrants and, most importantly for music, migrants of America’s agricultural Black Belt to the south: Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi and Georgia. American capital needed American labor to produce…and consume..and thus show the world, as Nixon did in the Kitchen debates with Khrushchev, that the American Way afforded a higher standard of living and comfort to the working class than the Soviet system. I believe historians under appreciate this factor today. I think that Stalin’s sweep of eastern and central Europe after Hitler’s defeat and the hysterical fear that Marxist-Leninist theories about Communism were being realized before their very eyes was a key consideration that forced management concessions to labor unions and government concessions to Civil Rights activists in the 1950s and 60s.
McLean’s song may be the only American chart topper to utter the words Marx and Lenin. Today’s equivalent would be lyrics about Al-Qaeda and bin-Laden.
Imagine the red flag emblazoned with saxophone and sickle! What a shame the Soviets, under Stalin’s madness, outlawed the genre of music known as Jazz and the musical instrument most associated with improvisation and spontaneity: the Saxophone. Foe Stalin’s dour enforcers of code and decorum, Jazz was decadent and bourgeois; pollution from the speakeasies of the West. I suppose it seemed libertine to Five-Year Planners in grey tunics. To his credit, Khrushchev invited Benny Goodman to Moscow during his de-Stalinization drive. Soviet Jazz was born and Russians heard syncopated American rhythms. Alas, as we shall see at the end of this piece, a former Soviet woman would play an unlikely role in the demise of one of Black America’s most influential musical icons.
That which is good endures, inspires envy, then imitation, then competition. Rivals compete. Jazz, Rock-n-Roll, blue jeans and Coke were good…maybe too good. By 1961, the year an exasperated Khrushchev ordered the Berlin Wall built, Benny Goodman, part of cultural exchange and understanding programs with hopes of heading off Armageddon, had the Puritanical Moscow intelligentsia tapping their feet to hypnotic beats in in their stiff seats at the Bolshoi and a few years later the Beatles were crooning hosannas about the pulchritude of the devastated Slavic women they left behind in the wake of their tours…back in the U.S.S.R. Their observations were confirmed by this writer forty years later in Moscow, Kiev and Odessa, where at least one club still brands itself on the unique heritage of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Frank Sinatra seven nights a week, while serving up fine cuisine to discerning clients.
How many mid-size American cities can make the same claim today? How many Americans under 50 can hum a Gershwin tune or recall who Duke Ellington was?
Last few times I was at Birdland in New York ( 2004-2009), it seemed that the entire audience consisted of tourists from Europe and Japan. Ditto the other Jazz clubs in Manhattan. They would all be out of business if it weren’t for cheap air travel. Incidentally, there were almost no black faces.
Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola at Time Warner Center attracted a little bit more local interest. I recall attending a performance of Charles Mingus’s Epitaph there.
It seems that when the cultural titans of a lost people pass away in physical form, their legacy fades to dust because their people, like the lost tribes of Joshua in the desert, are the perpetual orphans of the nation.. They don’t take care of their own and they don’t teach their young…they leave it to the state and of course, the schools fail at this task. Business, adept at spotting intellectual property opportunities and recognizing that a thing of value is under-appreciated, rescues the cultural icon from total oblivion, i.e. buys the rights to it, because there is money, reputation and a prestigious brand to be had for a small investment. Dizzy Gillespie is an example. Hard Rock Cafe may be another.
I’m not knocking corporations. Its not their fault that a people discard their own heritage. The alternative seems to be oblivion. Case in point:
I’m at the breathtaking opera house in Odessa, Ukraine…where Franz Lizst’s magic was on display in 1847 and the genius Rachmaninoff conducted before the advent of radio; when all music was live and had to be remembered or written down by hand… I am enveloped in the glorious Slavic legacy of Tchaikovsky…Borodin…Rimsky-Korsakov…Prokofiev and Shostakovitch……but on a pleasant October evening in 2010 Odessa, the world famous and gold-plated (literally) Opera house is full…of…ageing German tourists. Their mighty euros are obsessed over in the former Socialist paradise. I don’t see or hear Russians or Ukrainians in the audience. No young people either. What a pity, and the parallel to jazz and its progenitors in the United States is undeniable.
In the 21st century, computers, like Caterpillar earth moving machines that replaced work gangs, have replaced the creative work hitherto done by sensitive souls like Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions, with dire consequences for popular music.
This is why today’s “artists” are constantly “sampling” hits from yesterday…Since about 1980 music has had less and less to do with talent and more to do with marketable looks and the almighty dollar. Does anyone with any musical literacy, from self-taught guitar players to Julliard grads, really regard today’s music as music? Lady Gaga, Usher, Sean Carter, Sean Combs, etc. are not singers. They are lucky business people who sell some kind of hyper Narcissistic, materialistic, intangible, fluffy ( Combs even called himself Puffy ), distracting lifestyle pipe-dream to the coarse, musically unwashed masses. Whatever it is, its not music and its certainly not art. All of them would be nobodies without the huge backing of Madison Avenue. As the Boondocks’s re-incarnation of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King in the year 2000 put it, “B.E.T television is the worst thing I have ever seen in my life!”
Has the mass availability of genius on radio and the Internet, e.g. Mozart and Charlie Parker, raised the cultural level of the masses? Probably much less than expected. No more than free libraries and free compulsory education did. In fact, there is a certain tendency to denigrate that which is freely available…and literacy may have been more highly regarded when it was scarcer and out of reach of many.
Sadly, most “free” peoples take the path of least resistance, i.e. they become physically and mentally flabby and learn only what they believe, i.e. what they are subliminally told by the media…and..that which they are obligated by the school system to learn and do now to achieve greater consumption in the future.
Actually, the public’s values,opinions and tastes “public opinion” are largely, even entirely shaped by powerful, unseen ( to them ) forces in service to corporations only interested in one thing. This is a global scourge and has devastated popular music just as it has made real, local cuisine a delicacy. Fat bodies and fat heads abound in a globalized, homogenized world.
The tragic upshot for the musical arts is poverty-stricken “techno,” “hip-hop” and “reggaeton..” America has seen a long, steep decline from Marvin Gaye to Jay-Z and the shock waves can be felt around the world from New York to Tokyo. As abrasive and vulgar as Rock music may have seemed in the 1970s, it was still real music; it followed basic rules of melody and harmony and comprised actual singing and guitar playing that required real talent and skill. Find Kiss or Led Zepelin on Youtube and compare them to today’s “electronic music.”
“In general, techno is very DJ-friendly, being mainly instrumental (commercial varieties being an exception) and is produced with the intention of its being heard in the context of a continuous DJ set, wherein the DJ progresses from one record to the next via a synchronized segue or “mix.” Much of the instrumentation in techno emphasizes the role of rhythm over other musical parameters, but the design of synthetic timbres, and the creative use of music production technology in general, are important aspects of the overall aesthetic practice.”
Translation: Techno is designed to allow any tone-deaf ignoramus to set the musical menu, does not consist of singing and is intended to continuously fill the air with non-stop, mechanically uniform thuds regardless of quality. Much of the instrumentation in techno is not performed by actual musical instruments or even musicians; rather, it is a robotic and synthetic imitation of feeling set to a 4/4 beat repeated ad nausea, without a beginning or an end and utterly devoid of aesthetics or soul. It is the wholly artificial empty calorie junk food of music. May it go the way of the Twinkie.
In Brazil I played music on the beach in 2012. In Jurere, Florianopolis, I brought jazz and soul to a sleepy beach side club with Lamborghinis parked out front. The results were mixed, from bewilderment to amazement. Young people were astounded when I played Little Richard or Damaso Perez Prado. Other people were annoyed.
Around the time that the Bob Dylanesque bard McLean reverberated across radio waves, I first heard the soaring falsetto announcing the arrival of the SOOOOOOOOOOOUUUUUL TRAIN!! followed by the Philadelphia Soul of Mother Father Sister Brother.
This was the Golden Age of Disco, of the legendary Studio 54 and The Midnight Special with Wolfman Jack on Saturday nights. Teddy Pendergrass belted out soulful hitls like “The Love I Lost” that echoed the Sunday sermons where he learned his craft. Marvin Gaye asked a troubled nation: “Brother, what’s goin’ on?” Earth, Wind and Fire produced some of the most memorable and uplifting music ever recorded. Music with a message. Music with heart. Music with soul. These artists were the children of MoTown, of Otis Redding, of the Temptations and before that, of Mahalia Jackson, Big Joe Turner, Bessie Smith and the ebullient Duke Ellington. The richness of this cultural legacy is now on Youtube for all to see…and compare.
Can Youtube play the father that kids dont have? I think it can, under guidance. But it can also promote all the wrong influences.
Take a trip on this amazing time machine and observe the authenticity and the elegance. All suits, neck ties, bow ties and normal waist size. Classy, not cheesy. Very masculine, but not thuggish. Even with the x-rated comic Richard Pryor as guest MC, there’s not a hint of lewdness. Spectacular musicianship abounds. There is more culture packed into this one hour then in an entire year of programming on BET. The Blue Notes, all of whom save one are now deceased, understood, without needing to be told, that fair or not, they represented a race of people. Teddy Pendergrass, RIP.
NB: Enjoy the corny commercials. Incredibly, there is an advertisement for a weight gain tonic at 32:00. Almost all the other commercials are for Black female hair conditioners and hair straighteners. There’s also an ad for a horror movie about overgrown cockroaches entitled “Bug.” Looks like an SNL skit. The plug at the end of the show for a television movie starring Lana Turner reminds today’s viewer just how very long ago this was. Its a bygone era.
Donde estas que no te veo
Tu perfume me hace falta
Dime dime donde estas” ( repeat)
These hypnotic lines, written by Cuban big bandleader Mariano Merceron in the 1950s, were intended as romantic lyrics. Yet they are applicable to the state of music today:
Music, that sweet, flowering soul music, where have you gone? I miss your presence dearly. Tell me, please tell me where you may be found…
I will have much more to say about Cuban music in the future.
Obituary: Don Cornelius 1936-2012. Founder of Soul Train.
When I began fact checking for this article I suspected, perhaps romantically, that Don Cornelius’s apparant suicide was related, somehow, to the decline of American music in general and a consequent lack of reverence for his achievements in particular. In fact, that was my inspiration to write this piece; to pay homage to a great Black American icon who, like so many before him, didn’t get his due in the history books. When I heard the news, I felt a punch to my stomach. But maybe I was wrong. It seems poor Don, his mental faculties diminished in his sunset years, fell under the spell of a wily Ukrainian temptress, a busty, ruthless, former Miss Ukraine. Viktoria Chapman Cornelius is a gold digger who made her way to Hollywood and by the sound of her multiple surnames had exploited more than one man. This Cruella drove poor Don to suicide and struck pay dirt when she collected his life insurance policy. O brother Don, had I known you personally, I would have warned you against such a marriage. Predictably, you would not have paid me, a man half your age, any attention. But I know Ukraine and you had little understanding of the culture in former Soviet states. You were in way over your head.
I am reminded of Percy Sledge’s smash hit, “When a Man Loves a Woman.”
On October 17, 2008, Cornelius was arrested at his Los Angeles home on Mulholland Drive on a felony domestic violence charge. He was released on bail. Cornelius appeared in court on November 14, 2008, and was charged with spousal abuse and dissuading a witness from filing a police report. Cornelius appeared in court again on December 4, 2008, and pleaded not guilty to spousal abuse and was banned from going anywhere near his estranged wife, Russian model Victoria Avila-Cornelius (Viktoria Chapman), who had filed two restraining orders against him. On March 19, 2009, he changed his plea to no contest and was placed on 36 months probation.
In the early-morning hours of February 1, 2012, officers responded to a report of a shooting at 12685 Mulholland Drive and found Cornelius with an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. He was taken to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead by the Los Angeles County Assistant Chief Coroner. According to former Soul Train host, Shemar Moore, Cornelius may have been suffering from early onset of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease and his health had been in decline.
An autopsy found that Cornelius had been suffering from seizures during the last 15 years of his life, a complication of a 21-hour brain operation he underwent in 1982 to correct a congenital deformity in his cerebral arteries. He admitted that he was never quite the same after that surgery and it was a factor in his decision to retire from hosting Soul Train in 1993. According to his son, he was in “extreme pain” by the end and said shortly before his death “I don’t know how much longer I can take this.”
Author Daniel Bruno (right) with Thelonious Sphere Monk, Jr, son of the legendary Thelonious Monk. The Iridium, New York. 2008
May music, that sweet soul music that Arthur Conley sang about… endure and stand the test of time.
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