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It’s funny how one can remember the very first time we heard a particular song. Usually, it’s because that song dramatically shifts the idea of what music can be. Other times, it’s because that song speaks so accurately to the listener about something happening in the listener’s internal or external world. Sometimes, it’s both at the same time.
The very first time I heard Stevie Wonder’s “Living For the City” I was living in New York. It was a Saturday night in the freshmen men’s dormitory at Fordham University in the Bronx. There was one room where us weekenders would gather to drink cheap beer, smoke good Colombian herb, listen to music and bullshit. We were the guys who didn’t go back to a home in suburban New York or New Jersey either because we lived further away, had to work or lived in the South Bronx, el Barrio or Bed-Stuy and just didn’t feel like dealing with the street that weekend.
The albums we played while we modified our moods and rearranged our brain matter usually included (in no particular order) something by the Allman Brothers, Earth, Wind and Fire, Eddie Palmieri, the Grateful Dead, the Stones or Beatles, Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, Sly and the Family Stone and another soul or salsa group or two. It’s not that there weren’t other records in the various record collections of us weekenders. It’s just that these bands represented a compromise of what we were all willing to listen too.
Anyhow, I had finished with my day’s work at an Italian restaurant near the southern end of Central Park and taken the D Train back up to the Concourse. After eating a couple quick slices of pizza and picking up a couple six packs of Rheingold, I was ready for the evening.
The first album to drop on the turntable was a new one by Stevie Wonder called Innervisions. I laughed in a way that only a bong hit can make one laugh as the needle hit the first song: “Too High.” Even though Stevie might not have been singing about being too high on weed, it didn’t matter.
The second tune was a pretty soulful one about inner sight of some kind. Then came Stevie on a sneakily seductive Fender Rhodes playing a series of single notes that turned quickly into chords. “A boy is born / In hard-town Mississippi….” A story of an African-American family that is the story of thousands of African-American families that is the history of African-Americans after the US civil war. Out of the cotton fields of exploitation and degradation into the northern cities where racism disguises itself in terms of class and economics. Where brothers prey on brothers and the law is still a tool of a system that oppresses and not a tool for liberation or even fairness. And all set to a relentless rhythm track put down by Stevie himself.
When the song was finished everyone in the room was still. No matches being lit. No beer cans being opened or tipped. The last song on the album side played through (“Golden Lady”, in case you forgot). Whoever was closest to the stereo didn’t even have to ask. He played “Living For the City” again and again and again. I don’t remember if we ever got to the second side of the album that night. Just enough for the city. Goddam straight.
I moved to Maryland in March 1974. A series of circumstances ended my New York City stay and my Fordham University student status. By August 1974 I was enrolled at the University of Maryland in College Park. Watergate had been on the television most of the summer until Dick Nixon took the (more profitable) coward’s way out and resigned the presidency on August 9th of that year. It wasn’t more than a month later that his successor pardoned the crook.
Anyhow, a month or so before Nixon took a helicopter out of DC, I heard a song by Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson at a friend’s house in suburban Maryland. That song, titled “H20 Gate Blues” starts off with Scott-Heron and his band laughing in the background. From there, it moves on to musing like only Scott-Heron can in that voice that demands your attention and resonates with authority, yet sounds like a brother sitting next to you at a booth in a neighborhood bar. He begins by talking about the blues. From standard blues like “I don’t got no woman blues” to “the United States government talkin’ bout the Energy Crisis Blues”.
From there, the song heads into some serious signifying about what imperial war is all about (“Pepsi-Cola and Phillips 66, Boeing Dow & Lockheed/ Ask them what we’re fighting for and they never mention the economics of war”) and the hypocrisy of US policy; the apathy of the US populace; the CIA in Chile; and the corruption and racism of US politicians. All of this backed by a bass and keyboard. In fact, I believe it is a Fender Rhodes once again. This song mixes up politics, cultural commentary, and plain old irony. It represented the state of the nation. Presently and presciently.
Add a few more decades of names of politicians and nations invaded and it still does. The name of the album that song appeared on is called Winter In America. This was also the title ofa song Scott-Heron released a year or so later on the album The First Minute of a New Day. That song is a lament for a United States of America that could have been.
Speaking of winter, it’s still awfully freakin’ cold out there. And I’m not talking about the weather.
RON JACOBS is the author of The Way the Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is published by Mainstay Press. His most recent book, titled Tripping Through the American Night is published as an ebook. Fomite (Burlington, VT.) is publishing his new novel, titled The Co-Conspirator’s Tale in Spring 2011 He can be reached at: email@example.com