CHAPTER II: DISCOVERING THE OLD EDITION
I was born in our great nation’s bi-centennial year 1976, which means I missed most of the amazing music of the 70’s. By the time my little mind registered the music it was ingesting, Marvin, J5, EWF, Stevie’s Key of Life, even Bitches Brew were all too old to be deemed du jour and too new to be retro or classic. Furthermore, for me, the best rock music of that era might as well have been made behind a Cold War’s iron curtain. And let’s not even mention the grande dames of singer/songwriting o’ the day: Phoebe Snow, Joni Mitchell, Roberta Flack, Carol King and Joan Armawho?
I was an ignorant disgrace to the future me. I mean, I think it’s safe to say that in comparison, the music you heard on the radio in the 80’s was problematic at best. But that was what I grew up on: Casey Kasem, BET and the few records I had which included singles by Whitney Houston, The Jets, some Jackson 5 compilations, Janet Jackson’s Control, Anita Baker’s Rapture, and anything I could get my hands on by New Edition (that Ronnie was so cute).
Like all the other kids in the neighborhood, I would use the tape deck on my lavender mini boom box to pirate Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick songs off the radio, rewinding and playing that memorex to its slow demise, just to learn all the lyrics (Ladidadi…we like to party…we don’t cause trouble, we don’t bother nobody…) I did the same with Run DMC, LL Cool J’s “I Need Love,” and the story songs by DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince, aka Will Smith. I liked the way the words rolled off the tongue, the rhythmic syncopations that felt as memorable as melody, and the way they could make out of virtually nothing, something we all just knew in our bones we needed, (more on that in a future post).
Admittedly, my love for New Edition surpassethed all understanding. All I can say is, with hit singles like “Popcorn Love” and “Candy Girl,” I found that brand of literal bubblegum pop completely irresistible, and when my sister got tickets to their ALL FOR LOVE concert at the Atlanta FOX Theatre, I begged my mom to let me go.
“No way. You’re too young.”
There it was again. Too young.
“But mom, by the time I’m old enough they’ll be ‘Old Edition’!”
She didn’t budge. No room at all to wiggle. “I’ll take you to a concert at the University instead.”
Gimme a break.
Needless to say I was thoroughly put out. I don’t know why my mother thought for one second I’d be even remotely interested in a “concert at the University,” and I think if she’d had to do it over again she would have thought twice about it. Much to my mother’s later expressed and reiterated chagrin, that concert literally exploded my world and actuallly turned out to be the pivotal moment that turned childhood piano lessons and after school chorus from hobby-like extra-curriculars into lifelong career preparations.
It was a free performance offered by a visiting orchestra from Atlanta, maybe even a little chamber ensemble from members of the ASO. In truth, I don’t remember much about the program except except these few little artifacts:
- There was something on the program by big daddy Bach. His name was in the program, along with the customary birth and death dates, and it caught my attention because I was teaching myself a Bach Minuet from one of those Bastien books at the time. I was intrigued beyond reason to learn how old this music was. I mean, we could trace my family history back pretty far on my mom’s side, and if this guy died in 1750, that would make him older than my great, great, great grandaddy, and up until that point, that had been as far back as my nine year-old imagination could reach. I simply couldn’t wrap my head around how music this old could sound so alive. Blew my mind, I’m tellin’ you. Totally blew my mind.
- I remember there being being a harp in the orchestra that had done very little (if anything) during the Bach hullabaloo but started doing all kinds of stuff in the third selection on the program. I’d caught a glimpse of the instrument before the concert began but had no ideas about what sound it might make. Then I started hearing that magical wisp of tone that always told me in my early childhood read along books when I would “know it was time to turn the page.” Again, my little head had come even closer to exploding quite inappropriately, all over the blue-haired lady blocking my view of the stage. Could this be coming from a real instrument? Why wouldn’t the lady move?!!!?? I kept shifting in my seat to see how that sound was happening, and my mother kept pinching me in that way I imagine only Black American mothers have mastered. It was the sort of pinch that feels it’s bringing you within an inch of your life, certainly within millimeters of your pain threshold, and since every cell in your body knows not to “cross the line” by making a single peep or indication of your present agony, you do the only thing you can, which is to cease to breathe until the infinitely dignified barringer of doom sitting to your left, whose womb once once your only home and comfort, becomes sufficiently satisfied that you know better than to continue your previous course of action. And yet in that moment I honestly could not discern which was worse, the pain of this pinch, or the pain of not knowing where that sound was coming from. Finally, the blue-hair leaned to the right, revealing the harpist to the far left of the stage for the full duration of remaining minutes of the movement. I had never imagined I would ever see these miraculous sounds being made right before my eyes. I was stupefied.
- The second half of the program involved a lengthy work by a Ludwig van Beethoven whose name I was familiar with but whose composition I could not afford to ingest on that particular occasion. My little self was already spent. I had become nauseated with excitement and was thoroughly terrified of the ceaseless stream of tears I felt would come if I’d had to take in one more note. I don’t remember whether or not we left at intermission, or whether I just blanked out, but I have no recollection of the second half of the concert. Beethoven would have to come to me later.
Yes folks, I was officially turned out. I left that concert hall a different sort of girl altogether. Nothing could have been more magical. It had quenched a previously unknown thirst and sliced open a space inside of me that I would spend all my days, even up until this one, trying to fill. I almost lost all interest in music being made by living people, and gradually gave myself over to the mysteries of dead men.
For fifteen years I was lost to that love affair, so when I now refer to myself as “old school,” I really do mean “olde school.”