History is not the past…

A friend of mine made this a short video from a talk I gave in San Francisco last fall. The talk was about my book on the history of Latinos in the city–Latinos at the Golden Gate–but, as you can see, it was also about some of the present struggle Latino communities are facing.

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Friday Five: 1972

This is the end of the first week of the spring semester at the Claremont Colleges. And each spring I get to teach my class on comparative race movements of the post-WWII era, “All Power to the People!” One of my favorite things about the class is the music. We start each class with a song, something that usually aligns with the topic or theme of that day’s class.

Even though I’m the teacher, it’s a great learning experience for me. The goal of finding music that’s appropriate for the class fuels a lot of my listening habits on a weekly basis. As a result, I continue to discover songs from the past that I’ve never heard before, songs that are great and that fit perfectly into the class. I also get to play songs I know intimately and love passionately with a group of young people who, often, have never heard them before.

That’s always been the point behind this “Friday Five” thing, too. So, I started thinking it might be fun to cover the span of my life through these weekly posts. I can still share music, but by covering one year each week I get a more organized way of writing about the music I love and remember, as well as discover stuff I missed along the way or rediscover the stuff I forgot about.

So, here we go! I was born in 1972, and so the music I love from that year is a mix of songs I remember hearing a lot as a small child as well as songs I’ve come to love in my teen and adult years. These five are a mix of both, all worth a listen.

5. “Garden Party” (Rick Nelson)
At some point in the 1980s, one of the “basic cable” stations started playing repeats of “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.” I knew about Ricky Nelson and his family before that, mostly through pop cultural references and appearances on talk shows. While his teen hits were in regular radio play in my youth, this is the song I most associate with the times. It’s a mix of country and rock, something that somehow sounds so 70s and, yet, kind of reminiscent of earlier sounds.

4. “A Horse With No Name” (America)
At some point in the 1980s, I started to understand the negative reaction to 70s pop that was widespread within segments of the hardcore rock ‘n roll purists. I suspect folks like that hated the band America. The lead singer sounded like Steven Stills, and their music sounded like the kind of “AM Gold” that dominated the airwaves in the 70s. But I can’t deny this song its rightful place in my youthful memories. I can remember hearing it as a small kid, riding in our Ford Pinto, holding on to my doll of The Six Million Dollar Man. Even now, the sound of it is both comforting and kind of haunting.

3. “Burning Love” (Elvis)
It’s the King’s last song to enter the Top Ten, and his last #1 single. And it’s so gorgeously white-leather-jump-suit-in-Vegas that I can’t help myself!

2. “Use Me” (Bill Withers)
I just couldn’t be happier that Bill Withers is getting inducted in the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame this spring. The man was viciously good, as a song writer and performer. This is, hands down, my favorite song of his. I can still remember the first time I ever really listened to the lyrics. I was a teenager and even though I had known the song for my entire life, I had never really thought about what it was about. It’s a hefty piece of music, sexy, soulful, and funny. (The single version, below, is tight. But I’ve long had a soft spot for this acoustic version, too.)

1. “Let’s Stay Together” (Al Green)
It might be cheating to add Al Green’s most famous hit to a list of 1972 songs since it was first released as a single the year before. But the song was the highlight of his album of the same name, released in 1972. The song reached #1 on the Billboard “Hot 100″ in that year, coming in at #11 for the year overall. Al Green is in my “holy trinity” of musical performers, along with Elvis and Tom Waits. Few people can turn it on like he could. Willie Mitchell, his producer, deserves a lot of the credit. But that voice!

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Friday Five: Michael Jackson

How big can a person get? How famous? How well-known?

One of the things that future generations will struggle to understand is the scope of the popularity of Michael Jackson in the early 1980s. For a few years, when his album Thriller ruled the charts and he and his brothers toured the world, he was just about as big as a single human being could get.

In some ways, that level of stardom has to do with so much more than talent. Michael Jackson was a product of his commercial moment. He thrived in a time when pop cultural outlets were still few enough that you could dominate the mainstream like an atom bomb. He rose to extreme fame in an era of video, when what could be seen was as important as what could be heard. And he became the cultural sensation he was at a time when the major, global corporations ascended in their control of the commercial business of pop.

Elvis was as big as someone could get in a national and international marketplace using the mechanisms of his time. Michael Jackson was the same for his. I can’t imagine the present commercial structure will ever produce another cultural figure of the same magnitude. I don’t see how it ever could.

I’ve said very little about the musical talent of Michael Jackson, but none of what I’ve said can be separated from that talent. Michael was a gifted singer and dancer from a very young age. As the voice of the Jackson 5 he amazed everyone with his level of professional skill. He managed to surpass the amazing talent of his childhood as he grew into an adult career that showed he was as good as everyone had hoped.

Michael Jackson was more than a voice. He wrote many of his lyrics and music. He was a master of beat. He also helped produce, arrange, and mix his music, most famously with Quincy Jones.

A list of only five songs by Michael Jackson is reductive and selective, as it is with any artists whose career spans decades. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll choose from his solo career, with a nod to viewing him in his full arc rather than just at the height of the phenomenon.

5. “Rock With You” (1979)
From his 20 million-selling album Off the Wall, this song is generally considered one of the last hits of the disco era. Like the best bits of the album, however, it’s really a bridge between that genre and what was to come.

4. “Smooth Criminal” (1987)
This was the seventh (!!) single released from Jackson’s 1987 album Bad. Written by Michael, the song evolved over a period of a few years before becoming what we hear below. The video was a controversy in itself when it premiered on TV in 1988.

3. “Man in the Mirror” (1987)
Michael grew increasingly politically-aligned in the 80s, first with his efforts as part of USA for Africa and later as an environmentalist and advocate for children’s causes. His fall into scandal in the 1990s lessened the impact he could have had but, at the height of his stardom, his soapbox was as strong as anyone person’s could be. This song is preachy and a little cheesy, but the performance (here mixed in with some of the human results) is something I’ve always found so compelling.

2. “Billie Jean” (1982)
This is the biggest selling single from the biggest selling album of all time. Beneath all the hype, the moonwalk, the video sensation, is a beat. An amazing beat coupled with a falsetto weep. Here’s the performance that aired as part of Motown’s 25th anniversary special, the moonwalk seen round the world…

1. “Human Nature” (1982)
Released as the fifth single to his best-selling album, “Human Nature” isn’t written by or produced by Michael but his performance makes it what it is. While lots of songs could compete for his “best,” this one is certainly my favorite. His live performances of it capture a lot of his adult talent.

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They Made it to 2015

Welcome to the new year! And welcome to my annual “They Made it to ____” post on LatinoLikeMe!

This is my annual post to recognize the careers of three entertainers who are still with us but, because of advanced age, no longer in the public spotlight. Think of it as a chance to think “I didn’t know s/he was still alive” before you read their obituary.

Carol Channing (1921-)
Carol Channing is a legend of the stage, best known as the titular star of Hello Dolly! Throughout my childhood she was also a star of the small screen, known for being a celebrity fixture on talk shows and game shows alike. She earned that celebrity through her amazing talent and equally stellar personality. She’s also an icon within gay culture although, as in the mainstream, she’s largely unknown by the younger generation. She’ll be 94 years old on January 31.

Little Richard (1932-)
Richard Wayne Penniman is the self-proclaimed “architect of rock ‘n roll” and it’s a deserved title. Popular music has evolved so far and in so many ways that we might forget there is a credible history that can locate the origins of specific elements of it to individual people. Little Richard’s individual contributions are as numerous as anybody’s. They are joined by a host of other contributions of which he was one of a region, a style, and tradition. Add them up and he is a living legend of music. Arguably, the last of the first. He just turned 82 last December 5.

Jerry Maren (1920-)
Jerry Maren has never been a household name, and he never had much of a career in entertainment. But the diminutive actor has worked for most of the century, in both films and television. At under four-feet tall, Maren’s career has often involved playing particular roles, like Mayor McCheese in McDonald’s commercials or as a well-dressed midget throwing confetti at the end of The Gong Show. (Incidentally, The Gong Show host Chuck Berris is still alive. He’s 85.) Maren’s main claim to fame is his role in the legendary film The Wizard of Oz. Maren played a “Munchkin,” one of the Lollipop Guild, the one that hands Dorothy a lollipop as the welcome her to Munchkin Land. Mr. Maren is the last surviving Munchkin, and the last surviving cast member of this most cherished of movies. He turns 95 this January 24.

I’m glad to celebrate these three entertainers for their contributions to the millions of moments of laughter, wonder, and other emotions that have marked my life as a consumer of the culture of which they are all a part. I’m equally glad to think about those contributions while each is still living.

Happy 2015!

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Perspective, via Elvis

Not that this means anything whatsoever, but I am 42 years, 7 months, and 8 days old today. That’s 15,561 days. That means that I am now as old as Elvis was when he died.

This says nothing about me, of course. But as somebody who has the hope for a long life to come, it helps put into perspective just how short the life of Elvis Aaron Presley was. That said, considering the close relationship so many fans still have with the man, it will be a long time before he’s actually gone.

So how about some Elvis to brighten your day? Enjoy–the 1968 comeback special in its entirety!

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“Is Hollywood Mexican enough?”

Chris Rock is making the news these past few days because of his comments on race in Hollywood. Those comments were a lot broader than just about his experience as a Black man in the industry.

But forget whether Hollywood is black enough. A better question is: Is Hollywood Mexican enough? You’re in L.A, you’ve got to try not to hire Mexicans. It’s the most liberal town in the world, and there’s a part of it that’s kind of racist — not racist like “F— you, nigger” racist, but just an acceptance that there’s a slave state in L.A. There’s this acceptance that Mexicans are going to take care of white people in L.A. that doesn’t exist anywhere else. I remember I was renting a house in Beverly Park while doing some movie, and you just see all of the Mexican people at 8 o’clock in the morning in a line driving into Beverly Park like it’s General Motors. It’s this weird town.

You’re telling me no Mexicans are qualified to do anything at a studio? Really? Nothing but mop up? What are the odds that that’s true?

You can check out his full essay at The Hollywood Reporter.

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