Sounding Out O.J.

O.J. hovered over the end of my bed. His white turf shoes were inches above the Astroturf and he’d never return to earth, even if, paradoxically, he was sure to run for a touchdown, football cradled in his right arm.

His eyes were hidden in the shadows of his helmet, its red buffalo turned slightly up field. O.J. was looking out for would-be tacklers that he was sure to evade or shake-off—more likely the former, given his grace, intuition, and speed. The orange lettering at the top of the poster made it clear how far he’d go: “O.J. All the Way!”

In his red-white-and-blue Buffalo Bills uniform, the O.J. was bigger than life, lighter than air, untouchable, and invincible.

It must have been in fourth grade, 1974, that I’d ordered the poster from the Scholastic Book Club through my school.

Remnants of the past easily take on the shape of omens in retrospect. A wide vertical band on the right side of the poster was given to a “Chart of Official Signals”—drawings of a referee making the motions for various football penalties. Next to the Juice running free were small pin-striped figures meting out justice, calling the guilty to account. Off the field, twenty years later, Simpson would be charged with committing two murders, then exonerated. Sometimes judges and juries, like referees, cast a strict eye on the action, sometimes they let the players play.

Other portents seem to pile up as I’ve been surveying the past in the week since Simpson died at the age of 76 in Las Vegas, site of the most recent Super Bowl, a game he never played in.

In October of 1972, as O. J. was running towards his first 1,000-yard year in the National Football League, an R&B group called the O’Jays from Canton, Ohio (home of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, where a bust of Simpson still resides) was on a roll.

The O’Jays’ biggest hit, which rose to number 1 on the Soul charts and number 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1972, was “Back Stabbers.” On the night of June 12th, 1994 Simpson’s ex-wife, Nicole and Ron Goldman, who’d come by her condo in the Brentwood district of Los Angeles to drop off a pair of sunglasses forgotten by Nicole’s mother, were edeath.

In their 1972 appearance on Soul Train, a television broadcast that had begun airing in syndication the year before, the O’Jays performed their big hit dressed in tight-fitting red and gold outfits with matching high-heeled shoes. Their ode to masculine paranoia launches with a long, instrumental introduction (canned on Soul Train), burning as it broods. A jangling minor keyboard chord evokes the blood simmering towards a boil. The thwack of congas involves the same motion as backstabbing and pictures the gesture in sound with a violent, resonant thud. During this soulful, sinister prelude the still-silent singers’ choreography features just one synchronized stabbing move. There will be more slashing motions when they sing. The intro culminates in surging strings that presage wounded, predatory manhood whipping itself into action:

Somebody’s out to get your lady
A few of your buddies, they sure look shady
The blades are long, clenched tight in their fists
Aimin’ straight at your back
And I don’t think they’ll miss.

Though I liked Soul Train, this was not the music that I heard when I looked up at O.J. on my bedroom wall. He moved in my mind to the strains of the NFL Films soundtracks composed by Sam Spence. This consummate symphonist of gridiron drama lorded over an unstoppable playbook that ranged from the foreboding, to the resolute, to the furtive, to the comic: the martial snap of the drum and the gladiatorial blare of trumpets; the high-stepping brass band march; the snarl of electric guitar as the going got tough; the soulful lounge shuffle that offered debonair calm before the last fateful charge; then the glowing string postlude when the battered warriors trudged off the field and into the sonic sunset that shimmered on the horizon even when the rain fell in great curtains that blocked out the sky.

These musical elements were expertly edited together into an epic Game of the Week or other highlight reel, narrated by the gravelly, men-at-war voice-overs of John Facenda and Harry Kalas.

Though I guess I didn’t have my O.J. poster yet, I was glued to the television on December 16, 1973 to watch him break Jim Brown’s ten-year-old single-season rushing record, and then bust through the 2,000-yard mark for the first time in NFL history, these milestones achieved on the snowy wastes of Shea Stadium against Joe Namath’s New York Jets. The narrator here belongs is neither Kalas nor Facenda, but Ray Scott, whose voice may be less stentorian, but no less manly, especially when heard along with the Spence’s multi-movement masterpiece of hypermasculinity that resounds down the decades.

There was much more music for O.J. over the ensuing years: the light-hearted gambol, unencumbered by football gear, heard to African flutes mingling with European horns in Roots; the cut-backs and stutter-steps of disaster in Towering Inferno enacted to John William’s blasts of terror; the goofy hijinks of the Naked Gun series with spoofy motifs of slapstick doom served up by composer Randy Newman as violence was gleefully inflicted on a Black man in accordance with Hollywood tradition; and always, O. J. hurdling through airports on the way to get his rental car to the sexy strains of the James Bond rip-off, “Nobody does it better … than Hertz the Superstar.” These caperings look and sound very different in light of the crimes of O.J.

I was living in Los Angeles during the 1994-95 Simpson murder trial, and I followed the proceedings obsessively. The CNN coverage began with dread musical tropes taken from English composer Paul Floss’s “World Conflict.” As the throttling music made violently clear, there was no bigger news than O. J. This was not NFL Films’ musical take on the elegant, elusive running back, but video-game fare of a murderer confined in the courtroom and soon to be condemned.

Just before the trial ended, I’d moved to Upstate New York. I had no television and no access to the internet, so I went around the corner to the town’s dive bar that Tuesday in early October just before 1pm Eastern Time, since the verdict was due at 10am in Los Angeles. A big Buffalo Bills banner was spread across the back wall, and many of the broken-down patrons seated at the bar wore Bills jerseys or coats. I’m sure they had all followed Simpson’s NFL heroics when he’d been playing a couple hours away in Buffalo back in the 1970s. We watched on CNN, the Floss’s soundtrack doing its best to animate the Chanticleer clientele, though with little sign of success. The doors were open and a policeman strolled in to catch the result. After the verdict was read, he said, “I guess the dog did it,” and walked out into the afternoon’s bright sunshine.

Among the wreckage of Simpson’s last thirty years, one can, if so inclined, sift out bizarre bits of junk like his rap song from 2006—a medley of boasts about past football deeds (he still has the record for most 200+ games) and ladies-man innuendos.

No mention of football or murder is made in what I consider the towering musical monument to Simpson erected in 2017: Jay-Z’s “Story of O.J.” I cannot find its refrain—“I’m not Black, I’m O.J.”—anywhere before this song engraved his epitaph in sound seven years before his death. O.J. tried to run free of it all, first on the field, then for those hours in the white Ford Bronco of his boyhood friend and Bills teammate, Al Cowling. Jay-Z keeps O. J. defiant, even now after his death, and even in the face of the song’s skeptical “Okay” that answers the lyric’s stiff-arm of race.

Jay-Z doesn’t hand O.J. the football, but I can see the Juice running down the field in slow motion to this groove and its litanies of aspiration, greed, slavery and skin.

I kept the O.J. poster up on my bedroom wall until my last year of high school. Why I took it down I can’t remember. Probably I felt I’d at last outgrown the vestiges of elementary school. I was getting ready to leave home. Far from there now, I still see O. J. floating above, ready to take off.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com