Empowerment through Language...

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Head and the Dulcet Tone of Howard Cosell

--> It was a cold evening, ABC’s Monday Night Football on the screen in my lover’s living room. I don’t like football so I was curled up with a book, my head nestled between the padded cocoons of the headphones plugged into the receiver, big as those huge ear protectors the guys on the tarmac at the airport wear. Syracuse University’s WAER FM 88, December 8, 1980. All of a sudden, my jaw dropped:

Head till U're burnin' up
Head till U get enough
Head till U're love is red
Head - love U till U're dead

I hadn’t really heard anything so blatant on the radio since I blushed listening to Zeppelin wail The Lemon Song for the first time, in mixed company to boot.

U know U're good, girl
I think U like 2 go down
U wouldn't have stopped but ah...
I came on your wedding gown

I pulled the headphones off. I shifted from college radio to Howard Cosell and the tinny roar of a stadium full of fans far away. I tried to explain the song I had just heard but my man was consumed by the Miami/Patriots contest. So I retreated to my music cave again. It was enough to share the room with him for me to be happy.

I heard the death knoll when one of the kids in the studio broke in with a shaky voice. The wire service had just reported that John Lennon was shot outside the Dakota. At the same time, my love turned to me quickly to get my attention. I dropped the headphones again as Cosell interrupted his own color coverage to announce the same unbelievable report. This was another of the iconic losses of my life, certainly one of the most significant.

And still I had Head swirling through my brain. This was a lot to process. The next morning my dad called me to express his condolences. He said, “I know how much he meant to you.” I was empty.

Prince released his third album, Dirty Minds, just 2 months previous on October 8th, one day before Lennon’s 40th birthday. Somehow that feels intentional hindsight this evening, April 22, 2016, one day after the news that Prince is dead at 57. This is a great deal to process once again.

It was only a decade after the triumvirate of tragic losses: Hendrix, Joplin, and Morrison. That was a tough run year, losing those three and all in their mid 20s. It did not instill a lot of hope for a long life in my generation. We had not recovered from Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, John Kennedy, his brother Bobby, Medgar Evers, or Fred Hampton. The imprint of both Kent and the lesser remembered Jackson State is another red stamp on my generation. We don’t even need to go into the riots that branded the nation in the past few years to be aware that the youth of Amerika were shell shocked. Or the nightly body counts or waiting out the first draft lottery. And now we have a subtle PTSD that is also rooted in duck & cover air raid drills and wishing for bomb shelters, or dreading them if our dads were that proactively paranoid. The pressing fear of nuclear war was a subtle echo in our soundtrack. This is what raises the hair on the back of my hand when candidates so cavalierly pose the threat of nuclear weapons. Like it is a water balloon fight. It is terrifying. It always has been.

Yet Lennon’s death was different, even deeper and so violent. He was a part of my DNA. I absorbed him through the brown transistor radio under my pillow every night. I melded my heart to his as I sat with my grandmother watching the Ed Sullivan Show the first time the Beatles appeared. We fell in love with these guys, my squat wonderful grandmother and 10-year old me while the camera panned rows and rows of girls screaming and tearing at their hair. And we had survived in spite of the losses, John and I, two Libra spirits. There was still room for hope.

It’s been just 4 ½ months since Bowie died. His newest CD dropped 2 days before, on his 69th birthday. There is a beauty in this. There is a beauty in the fact that the last shows that Prince delivered last week were solo…just him and a piano and all that love, all that music, and history in a small, mighty man. Bowie and Prince were both so pretty. They were both so compelling as well as artists who understood the power of music and theater. Both geniuses and really smart about their business. They each learned through experience, much of which took its toll. But they lived in charge of their own lives and died knowing they changed things. They were two beautiful hearts of revolution.

This past Tuesday, I needed postage. Scanning my choices, there were still limited edition Joplin and Hendrix stamps available, but which one to make a statement of my nature to send my taxes due to NY state and the IRS? Well, I had to choose Janis. I will go back for Jimi next go round. Maya Angelou is just going to have to wait.

It all comes back now on this first anniversary of the death of Baltimore’s own son, Freddie Gray. A rhetoric of hate assaults our ears daily in this ridiculous presidential primary campaign. And Prince has died. Rumor mongers all want to impose speculation and besmirch his essence. I am not ready to employ the word memory. Twitter is a flurry of comments and retweets to eulogies in print, photos, videos.

There are estimations of a vast music catalogue captured in the vault. I think of Zappa, whose loss still brings me to tears. Some ask if we will ever hear it. Of course we will. We are still getting Hendrix releases every so often and he didn’t have nearly the time in his incarnation that Prince has had to channel all that music. Frankly, I cannot imagine that there is no plan for all that music. Prince is the epitome of control. Look at the risks he took to own his own art. Notice how he changed the face of the music business, both when he emblazoned his face with SLAVE as well as when he re-empowered his own name.

Today is the 44th Earth Day. The leaves are coming out in little puffs on branches. The hyacinth breathes purple and the evening rain takes the hint. Good night, sweet Prince. If you were my girlfriend, of course I would have let you dress me...