Tuesday, March 06, 2007

this might explain it

by Jan Reid

i can’t remember when the song layla sank into my consciousness.

i was a proper church-going little girl, i was in the deep, deep south and hee-haw was on tv every week. i was surrounded by cousins and sweet dirt and sky, and the sun was always shining, even when it rained. everything was drenched in twang and rock and gospel. i remember a little battery operated transistor radio in my bedroom that had a strap on one side of it. i remember lying on my stomach, playing with my paper dolls with that radio right next to my head, listening to the allman brothers.

no one told me that what i was listening to was for white people, that i was supposed to be at the r&b end of the table because i was black and that’s what black people listened to. i instinctively knew that table was mine and i could sit whereever i wanted. later, much later, in college and even in my early time in nyc—when i was supposed to be surrounded by smart cool talented individuals—i can distinctly remember them (black and white) balking when i said which butthole surfers record i preferred or how much i liked bands like husker du and captain beefheart and the pixies or how i loved mudhoney way more than nirvana for that supermuff but cobain wrote catchier songs or how i was going to go see john doe somewhere downtown the next night. the question hung in the air like pastel colored streamers at a mexican prom: how did i know so much about rock? rarely ever would anyone ever actually ask. (too bad.)

“you’re an anomaly,” some white someone told me once.

“oh really,” i said flatly. i couldn’t believe that he meant that as a compliment. but he did. “maybe i’m the norm,” i casually suggested. “either way,” i continued, “how would you know?” (and no, that's not all i said. not by a long shot.) i'm probably always going to remember how his face changed as that one sank in.

that whole blipster thing is just one more stupid chapter in a continuing bizarre racist saga of “how to sell music to america” that some yahoo set up when they figured out how to make money off of records back in the day. now that they’ve come up with a name for The Only Black Person At The Show, they can patronize with some degree of accuracy and still be completely off the mark.

but i digress.

i think duke ellington was dead-on correct when he said there’s only two kinds of music—good and bad. unknowingly, the song layla set it off for me. or was it freeform fm radio? i don’t know.

i never thought much of eric clapton as a vocalist or as a guitarist (yes, he’s great—no, he’s not a deity) but i did love derek and the dominos. the more i listened to the music, the more i wanted to know more about where all of that passion and feeling and desperation came from. i heard snippets of stories here and there. and what happened to the drummer sounded like a wierd urban legend. but then i found this layla book and had it all explained to me, in such lurid detail that i could almost feel their collective exhaustion after some drug addled binge in the english countryside.

all of that 70’s excess—the heroin, the alcohol, the ferraris that were paid for in cash, the hookers that duane allman had imported from macon for their sessions in miami—that’s in there. but the love story at the core of it all is compelling stuff. and ultimately, the way clapton takes his feeling and pain and makes art is effing brilliant.

but it's the never-ending twang of that slide guitar that embraces something inside of me -- that something that knew sacred steel in a traditional church setting before elmore james made his presence felt and then duane allman turned it into something else. my southern ways are still there. they're completely intact and ever-present. thank Jesus.

oh. and duane and greg look like some hayseeds i went to school with, for real—which made me love them even more and miss the south of my childhood.

i don’t want to meet eric clapton. i want to meet bobby whitlock.

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