“Rocket 88” (Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats)

Astrofuturism, as described by De Witt Douglas Kilgore, is a 1950s configuration that manifests American destiny in the intellectual space between a dying colonialism and the utopian promise of a raceless future. It is fundamentally a White discourse. Afrofuturism also takes root in the 50s (the key founding figure is almost always Sun Ra) and explores the (outer) space between a certain afrocentrism and its total ironization (Underground Resistance, for instance). It is fundamentally an African American discourse. Recorded in 1951, “Rocket 88” is both astrofuturist and afrofuturist in orientation. It emphasizes the derangement of the senses, motion, speed, and an open space for “cruisin’” as preconditions for achieving escape velocity (“joy”). It further figures the “futuramic” Olds car/rocket as a techno-prosthesis, and the backing track sounds the soul of the machine (think of Brenston’s horn as the car horn, and the blown-out guitar distortion as the V8 engine). Old jalopies make funny “noise,” the singer insists, but this. . . . this is a flat out racket.

 

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“Isotope” (Joe Henderson)

The variation in (atomic) number has a certain gravity and weight—of neutral or non-charges merely taking up (mental) space—which weighs heavily on the (social) scientific; it’s not totally a matter of numbers or whether majority/minority status should be instrumental but, rather, an opportunity to recalibrate and voice anew how the standard element is merely more common in particular localities. Tenor attempts a few strategies to test out spacing and position of minority embodiment: interjecting sixteenth-notes in eighth-note runs, overblowing during faster runs, and swinging without melody; and even though Tyner’s piano swings strongly, it also hesitates near its solo’s end with a three-note spike, injecting discomfort. Ending with doubled piano/tenor restatement of head—in more melodic terms—chemistry, in the form of the ceaseless experimentation without expectation, survives by de-anticipating gradualist structural development.

 

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“Batterram” (Toddy Tee)

The coverage of the Michael Brown and George Floyd protests were almost breathless. What’s new with this iteration of popular uproar? Is it the “bottoming out” that finally leads to racial progress? The further militarization of the police? Rather than seek out an event in today’s headlines, the contiguities are more sobering. Toddy Tee’s grudging 1985 homage to Daryl Gates’ police tank—“it’s coming”—could be taken as both a warning to crack dealers and a protest over police violence and the suspension of the fourth amendment in black and brown neighborhoods. And it would be just fine as that. But there’s also the mayor’s decision to “legalize something that works like that.” Operating during the early height of the War on Drugs, the Batterram was used to strike in indiscriminate discriminatory ways. The police are like “F Troop,” knocking on random doors trying to entrap residents. But these circumstances are a dime a dozen with law-and-order governors and police departments inheriting equipment used during recent wars. According to one protestor from Ferguson, Missouri, the city “could be any town in the world.” Absolutely true, but more often not. As the places add up—Dearborn Heights, Sanford, Los Angeles, etc.—the patience wears thin. Both the media’s hopeful exhaustion and a healthy dose of neighborhood utopianism.

 

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“Rita Juanita” (Wayne Newman and the Torques)

It’s not clear how he got into this predicament, but it’s 1960 and this Louisiana singer is courting identical sisters of color, Rita and Juanita. “My head it spins because they are twins.” He loves them both, and they each love him. In order to avoid misidentifying them (and especially on the telephone), he calls them corporately, “Rita-Juanita.” Well, that solves one problem. But the singer eventually figures that a decision must be made. The girls, however, won’t accept such a choice: “You can’t love one and still be true.” Endlessly and ultimately aporetic, the trax exits by reiterating the impossible choice: “Which one shall I lose? Which one shall I choose?” This trax is in mono, but that doesn’t prevent us from recognizing its potential implication in “stereoscopic viewing,” a key invention of the nineteenth century. It’s as if the singer has taken two slightly separate images of the same person (the two related echoes in the trax), and is desperately trying to fuse them. But he cannot find his stereo Viewfinder and is thus doubled over in the agony of indecision. Relatedly, Samuel Delaney once informed a member of the Traxionary staff that both the stereoscope’s name and dream connect it to another crucial nineteenth-century invention, the “stereotype,” which was often made of papier-mâché, and allowed for the three-dimensional metal molding of printing plates. “Stereotyping” was thus originally deemed as substantially improving and correcting one’s representation or copy of reality. So back to the trax: it is possible to see that the singer is psychologically blocked precisely at the moment when he has to choose a woman of color as his main squeeze? Has he stereoscoped—and thus stereotyped—his girl, all in the name of a certain and definitive rendering? As for his motivation, surely he’s considering whether he can bring either of these girls home to meet Mom and Dad. (And remember the alternative, which is to skirt bigamy: one “Juanita” is diversity, two constitutes a girl gang.)

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“Message From a Black Man” (The Temptations)

Plea for white self-reflection on color question vacillates between advocacy of colorblindness and Black pride (there-is-no-difference versus get-out-of-my-way). Given this uncertainty, overly optimistic assessment of the struggle’s endpoint: “The laws of society were made for both you and me.” Correction: the laws are designed to designate you and me, citizen and subject. Always, in liberalism, a foundational distinction, remaining.

 

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“Not in Our Name” (Liberation Music Orchestra)

In memory of Charlie Haden, written on 14 July 2014.

The Not in Our Name Project (NION) diagnosed the American imperial order in 2002 as a spatiotemporal problem: Afghanistan-Iraq-the West Bank in a continuum of U.S.-inflected terror/policy decisions and Japanese American internment alongside the detainment and interrogation of Arab Americans post-9/11. And a similar strategy shaped the project’s self-definition and the enumeration of role models: abolitionists, the Underground Railroad, Vietnam War draft resisters, and the refusal of Israeli reservists to serve in the Occupied Territories. The Saul Williams-penned “Pledge of Resistance” commits “to make common cause with the people of the world” and stops short of calling for a general strike by refusing, as a group, to “supply weapons and funding” for foreign wars. Yet this all came to an end in 2008 with the disbanding of the project’s “national office and related infrastructure.” In some ways, everything here was on the verge of getting it on. (George Clinton, by the way, would have your “funky mind” freed “out into another reality.” And as Clinton knew, other realities have been and are already here as one continually imagines (and practices) being the “people.”) Charlie Haden’s and Carla Bley’s Liberation Music Orchestra deals with the NOIN’s central bifurcation problem—(dis)owning one’s nation-state—through difference. A Latin-inflected tune involving passages with synchronized horns, the key sonic decision is to allow each instrument a solo. The duration of each solo sometimes runs against type, and the instruments involved straddle the (non-) traditional, with the tuba solo as the most extreme example. Much like the album’s cover photograph, we can be both under the banner and at the helm of an organization’s varying structure through time. Haden, then, knew this as well: the Liberation Music Orchestra’s personnel may change, but it’s an inclination requiring stamina, adjustment, multiple voicings, and perpetual practice/praxis.

 

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“London” (Nicky Thomas)

Probably most famous for being third in line (but the most successful) to record “Love of the Common People,” Thomas shifts from smarmy community-building to an immigrant’s plaint here. It’s a move from a coercive optimism for the poor to an embodiment of living death in which those of means “don’t care if I freeze to death and die.” The “promised land” is a set of shifting goalposts, each subsequent one narrowing the chances of survival. Salvation, too, is a false panacea, with your preacher soliciting money to go to the “holy land.” We’re implored to “give no money to that lying, cheating man.” But this shouldn’t be mistaken for either a sunny worry about equality (i.e. “we all go or no one does”) or a desire for deeds that match the (national) creeds. “Saturday night” proves formative for the trax’s critical dystopia; parties that are “outside” enjoy the practice of aggressive, excessive exchange. Come Sunday, we institute an economic austerity from the bottom up.

 

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“He Hit Me (and It Felt Like a Kiss)” (The Crystals)

Sanger’s got nothing on this. Sandwiched between the releases of “Uptown” and “He’s a Rebel“— the transition from lionizing the common, alienated working stiff to affirming the sensitive  rebel—Spector’s most unsuccessful single takes dead aim at the foundational violence of the betrothal’s gift: the landed man. Spiraling strings, especially at the song’s center, explain this problematic logic by centering on the “care” which induces the “glad” somnambulance of the “tender” self.

 

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“I Wonder” (Rodriguez)

Without this song—the one often sung by South African White friends as an un-national anthem during apartheid—without this song, no ancient cults of Sixto Rodriguez. It’s his one underground hit record (though never a single), and it is a tower of weird. Opening peregrinating bassline says we’re on the streets, checking out the entrance to her apartment while vaguely musing about soldiers, class, and race. If the revolution is a kind of romantic love (Warren Beatty’s Reds, for example), then its first wonderments are like a bad breakup’s hangover: obsessing over her sleeping habits, running through her list of awful friends. In relation to the State of Apartheid, were even its children of privilege like spurned lovers?

 

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