Out of the Jar: The Teacher Learns the Gospel of Luther
Just to dispel any lingering misconceptions readers may have of the music writing profession, its important to note that for most of us, its not a profession at all. The word profession would imply a job, a task undertaken to earn a living. Most writers arent writing to live, but living to write. Most of our hours are spent eking out an existence at drab, cubicular day jobs that merely provide a paycheck to finance a roof over our heads under which we can abandon our vocation for a few hours at our avocation in front of a computer screen or a typewriter. Most writers are accountants, engineers, computer programmers, or landscapers, and few of them are satisfied with the way theyre forced to spend much of their lives.
So despite the burning frustrations I feel from Monday to Friday, I count my blessings that my day job at least feels like an important social contribution. Teachers are well known for their tendency to wail like striking banshees about the injustices and lack of appreciation they face, but if asked if their job is important, 97 out of 100 of them would flip a switch and at least admit that yes, despite the everyday frustrations with apathetic students and endless, ineffective hierarchies, they do make some small difference. Some might even go so far as to say theyre satisfied, and while I wouldnt know what that feels like, at least I can take comfort in the fact that if the career I dream of never pans out, my safety net will provide some meaning and accomplishment beyond crunching numbers, building skyscrapers or staring at computer code, and every once in a while, maybe Ill even a get a glimpse of enlightenment.
Despite their usual academic lethargy and lack of any sense, common or otherwise, I do find that I get more enlightenment from the 140 young ruffians that drag their bored, sleepy brains in and out of my classroom every day than I ever would from any number of better-educated, longer-lived adults. Whether these kids are paying attention or not, at least their eyes are openfiguratively, anywayand thats a lot more than I can say for most of my peers.
Thats not to say that these kids always like what their open eyes see. I teach senior English and creative writing at a predominantly black, urban public high school, and just like any high school kids anywhere, my students live within the bubble of their own community, regardless of how much they think theyve learned from television and the internet. To combat their arrogant ignorance, I make it a point to welcome every class with a musical selection from my personal racks. They hate it.
And I cant really blame them. Im a small town, southern white boy who was weaned on The Big Chill soundtrack until I finally discovered the Beastie Boys, Prince and Bon Jovi when I was about ten. By the time I got to high school, my tastes had evolved to the higher brow sounds of Led Zeppelin and Garth Brooks, and I cant imagine that I would have liked it much if some ghetto-raised hot shot came into my school shoving Onyx and N.W.A. down my throat.
So Im rarely surprised by the sickened groans and covered ears that scurry for their headphones when I let loose The Arcade Fire, Willie Nelson, Lake Trout, or any number of Phish or Dead bootlegs I so deviously pack into my bag every morning before sunrise. As a matter of fact, I rather enjoy watching them squirm. No one ever arrived at any real musical epiphany without being just the slightest bit appalled by their virgin ears first impressions. What saddens me, though, is the reaction Ive gotten from playing such African-American musical luminaries as Taj Mahal, Herbie Hancock, andget thisAretha Franklin and Marvin Gaye.
Without a doubt the greatest soul album ever made, Aretha Franklins I Never Loved a Man the Way That I Love You apparently almost put these ignorami to sleep, even though they all sang along with every line of Respect (except for the one where she spellsIve never quite been able to make that one out, either). Come on, kids! This is the album that made Aretha the Queen of Soul! This is the album that made me cry the first time I heard the title track! This is the album that made me agree with Rolling Stone for the first time in about five years!
So how about _Whats Goin On?_the record that woke Motown up to the political and social realities of the 60s and almost made Barry Gordy shit his drawers at the thought of his own obsolescence? I think the conversation went something like this:
Mr. Gearing, man, this junk is whack!
Do you know who this is, Stephen?
I dont care, yo. It sucks.
This is Marvin Gaye, Stephen. Show a little respect.
Aw, this is Marvin? Oh, all right then.
I swear some of these kids would laugh at Dr. Kings words if they didnt know they were his. Not that I knew a damn thing about Bill Monroe or Ralph Stanley when I was eighteen, but it saddens me to realize just how out of touch people are with their own roots, and now that Im in a position to educate someone, I find that they want an education about as badly as they want a copy of the The Soft Bulletin 5.1. Not exactly the kind of enlightenment I was looking for.
But the knowledge these little ingrates drop on me isnt always so disappointing. Sometimes its just downright weird. Finally fed up with my own mistaken assumptions and my students blind ignorance, I decided it was time for us to reach some understanding. Being that I do teach English, I decided to have them write an essay crowning the greatest musical artist of the 20th Century. Fully aware of my snobbery but like, totally psyched to be writing, they grudgingly obliged.
Most of my white students eat up metal and emo like the Doritos from the hall vending machinesabout what one would expect from a bunch of lower income, sexually frustrated and confused white kidsI understand it, but I dont condone it. So I wasnt particularly surprised with their answersLed Zeppelin, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrixthough for a bunch of kids that skate all day and wear dog collars around their necks, they dont know dick about punk rock. But what can I expect from a group of kids that buy their music at FYE and their clothes at Hot Topic?
No, the real surprise came from the racial majority. Since they and everyone else have all seen Ray as many times since its release as Ive seen The Big Lebowski, the Ray Charles essays were less than shocking. A few others chose Marvin Gaye or Michael Jackson, and a couple even went out on a limb with Lauryn Hill or Jay-Z. But get this: the most popular answer wasare you ready for this? Fuckin Luther Vandross. Seriously. He is the greatest of all time. The fat guy with the silky voice who sings about love and, umlove. I could deal with the copout Ray Charles answers, but even with Vandrosss death in July, I never would have imagined seeing him at the top of so many lists. I accuse them of ignorance, but my little exercise in cultural understanding just goes to show exactly how far I have to go before I really understand my clientele.
Once Id given all the essays a good drenching in red ink, I never gave them much thought until, while reading Lester Bangs Johnny Rays Better Whirlpool (_Creem_, January 1975) from Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, I learned that ol Luther once shared the stage with David Bowie, who, despite his androgynous persona and special kind of soul, is at least twice as white as I am. Hes as pasty as Pete Doherty and Kate Moss after a three-day coke binge, and I mean, hes English for Chrissake! But there he was, sharing a stage with the Ohio Players, one of whom was a young back up singer named Luther Vandross, who would one day be hailed by a class of urban African-American adolescents in Hampton, VA as The Greatest Musical Artist of All Time.
So will we all one day be looking down our noses at all the Vandross neophytes who are just now downloading their first copy of Power of Love while we scour through bonus tracks from the lesser known but obviously more accomplished Forever, For Always, For Love and The Night I Fell in Love? I hope not. Despite my awakening, I still think Vandross is the blandest candy heart FM radio pap Ive ever heard. Besides, if theres one thing Ive learned, its that teenagers, regardless of race, color, creed, neighborhood or generation, have shit for musical taste. Hell, I thought Bad Company and Journey was some badass shit when I was sixteen.
That, of course, doesnt change the fact that despite all the concerts and CDs and BMG and Columbia House cancellations and re-enrollments and Best Buy reward points and strolls through the local indie racks, as clichs it sounds, the more I learn, the more I learn I dont know shit. All I have is opinions, but thank God for those, because without em, Id be dealing with unappreciative know-it-all teenagers for the rest of my life. You think your job sucks? Take the age of everyone in your office and divide it in half then close your eyes and imagine your work environment. Aside from a lunch period just long enough to eat without giving myself serious indigestion and a couple hours scattered throughout the rest of the day making copies and calling parents who think their kids are angelic academic prodigies, these little devils are my coworkers.
But I digress, and to give credit where its due, as much as I hate it, these little devils know a lot more than I might be willing to admit. Just for shits and giggles, before sitting down to write this little diatribe, I downloaded Luther Vandrosss two biggest hits, Power of Love/Love Power and Dance with My Father, the latter of which was a tribute to his recently deceased father recorded just two years before Vandross himself died of complications from a stroke suffered in 2002. And wouldnt you know it, just like Arethas I Never Loved a Man and Marvins Mercy Mercy Me, the damn thing brought a tear to my bitter eye. If the measure of great pop music is its ability to enkindle empathy in its listener, then maybe my students are right. Maybe or not, they teach me something new everyday (just yesterday I learned what bugie (pronounced boo-jee) means), and thats a lot more than I can say for my lawyer friends boss.
I guess it really wouldnt be so bad after all. I might not necessarily want to learn the things my students have to teach me, but its a safe bet theyd say the same thing about me, and to borrow yet another clichwhat we want and what we need are rarely the same. Regardless, what I want would be a hell of a lot more fun, so if you made it this far, thanks. Maybe Ill make it out of this tie one day after all.