“The Chronic” turns 20

On December 15, 1992, Dr. Dre released his solo debut album “The Chronic.” Dre was already a well-known figure in rap and hip-hop from his days as part of the LA group N.W.A. The success of his 1992 solo endeavor (which featured multiple other rappers, including Dre protégé Snoop Dog) made him a legend.

I don’t have much to say about the significance of the album or the creative impact it had on the future of hip hop. That’s been done for the last twenty years by critics far more skilled than me. For me, as a Gen X Chicano living in southern California at the time, the album held some personal significance.

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I’ve never been a huge rap fan. (At least I’ve never put the music first on my list of musical loves.) But it’s always been a part of my musical life. As a young person of color coming of age in the 80s, a person who felt like he came from a world that was not recognized (or even known) by the mainstream, early hip hop represented that “subjectivity” authentically. Songs by N.W.A. (and everybody from Grandmaster Flash to L.L. Cool J to Doug E. Fresh to Run DMC) and others connected my Chicano-dominated, multiracial cultural world to the Black American cultural world. As it did, it also kind of legitimated it.  The music became the soundtrack of  large part of my social life.

But for me, “The Chronic” wasn’t just another album that provided background to life, it also exists in my mind as something more. The album felt like it ended the specific comfort that genre of music gave me. I remember it as an album that moved the entire world of hip hop firmly into the mainstream. I’m sure this is an overstatement that has a lot to do where I was in my life at the time (in a “white” college struggling to find my place in the world). But I remember feeling that “The Chronic” made rap part of “American music.”

Maybe it was me that was changing more than hip hop. “The Chronic” was the soundtrack to a particular time in my life, a time of transition, a time of crossing into a mainstream and hybrid world.

Twenty years ago I was 20 years old. I send and received my first emails. I had long hair, and wore a leather jacket. I spent countless precious evenings with dear friends, all of us growing up in a cloud of Camel cigarettes and a mix of Bud Light and Henry Weinhard’s. And I remember this like it was yesterday:

Michael Jackson, One Year Later…

What else is there to say?

Marvin Gaye is Still Dead

But, oh, how I wish he weren’t.

Today marks the 25th anniversary of the passing of one of the greatest talents in all of rhythm & blues and soul.  Marvin Gaye died on April 1, 1984, shot dead by his father.  He was one day shy of his 45th birthday.  Had he lived, then, April 2 would have been Marvin’s 70th birthday.

I don’t have much to say about the spectacular life he lived–the radically conservative church of his youth; the music (ah! the music!); the cross-dressing (oh, yes!); and all the rest.  I hope today we will all be inundated with thoughtful and diverse recollections about the man in both the mainstream and alternative presses.  Motown–the recording studio he helped make famous–is celebrating their 50th anniversary this year, and even they have something special planned to mark what would have been his birthday.  I encourage you to learn more about the man if you are so inclined.

I do remember the day he died.  I don’t remember where we were that day, but it was somewhere in L.A. or in East L.A.  We had just gotten home to La Puente (about 12 miles east of E.L.A.) and turned on the late afternoon news.  I was shocked.  I was early into my musical maturing process, only 12 years old at the time, and I was shocked.  Marvin had already become one of my favorites.  Wasn’t he one of everybody’s?

I want to say two things about the man and his music, one from the perspective of a huge fan and the other from that of a young person of color growing up in Chicano southern California.

He was about as good as you get, and you could feel it.  Smokey Robinson said it well when he suggested “the driving force behind Marvin Gaye’s immense talent was his pain.”  Marvin felt it all, and he made you feel it to.  From the pop-based, post-doo-wop stuff of his early career; to the stellar duets and soul inspired solos in the mid and late sixties; to his socially-conscious turn in the late sixties and seventies; and to his dirty, make you feel all kinds of hot in his later years, Marvin had the gift that is the heart of soul music.  It was pain.  It was joy.  It was relief.  It was hope.  And it was always moving.  He even made the national anthem sexy!

Finally, he was always the “real deal.”  In the places I knew as a kid, and in the places I grew to know as an adult, Marvin Gaye was loved and respected.  Black folk, and even Mexican Americans, felt his authenticity.  I heard his oldies, but also those songs you don’t hear to much on the radio, always in groups where people visibly felt the thing it was he wanted us to feel.  I remember being in an Oakland bar once, around 1997, when a live version of one of his albums started playing during the intermission of a jumping band.  The vibe went from the dance hall to the bedroom in about 10 seconds flat.  That’s what Marvin could do.

Here are some of my favorite performances of him online.  (If you are ever looking for the definitive collection of his recorded materials, I would recommend Marvin Gaye’s The Master 1961-1984, a collection which brings together the songs you know and the songs you should.)

[NOTE: Marvin’s only Grammy Award was for this song, awarded to him at this ceremony.  He was dead one year later.]

Use Me

Four years ago today, I started my first blog. I deleted it about a month later, and then for the next two years or so periodically would start something, then let it flounder, start, flounder, start flounder…you get the point. What can I say? I’m a product genX through and through.

ANYWAY, the first thing I posted on that defunct blog was a link to a clip of Bill Withers performing “Use Me.” I pretty sure it wasn’t this exact clip, since I don’t think it was on YouTube, but regardless, I post it now to commemorate the day.

And just ’cause nobody should every have to stop with just one little taste of Mr. Withers…

And, now, the Godfather of Soul, for no reason other than to get you off your ass.

John Candy & Charles Bukowski are still dead

It’s a double shot “Still Dead” this week as we commemorate the 15th anniversary of the passing of John Candy (March 4) and Charles Bukowski (March 9).

While both men worked in “the arts,” you might not think there was too much in common between them.  But both made careers out of their individual skills honed at the expense of themselves.  Creatures of excess, they each excelled not in spite of their demons, but because of them.

Candy gained fame as part of the legendary Canadian sketch comedy show SCTV (also known as “SCTV Network” among other titles, having been renamed several times for broadcast in the US).  The cast–largely from the Second City improv stage–included Candy as well as Eugene Levy, Joe Flaherty, Rick Moranis, Andrea Martin, Catherine O’Hara, and Dave Thomas.  They were a satire of television, lampooning everything from “television greats” to the gross commercialization of the medium they saw emerging in their day.

The portly Candy stood out in many of his recurring sketches but made a bigger name for himself in movies, where he appeared in or contributed his voice to more than 50 feature films.  His movie career was marked by his stand out performances in bad to mediocre films, with only a handful of them real gems.  One critic wrote Candy “has been in more turkeys than stuffing mix, yet everyone seems to love him.”

Indeed, we did.  He had that ability to make you feel like you were watching somebody real, even in the stupidest of situations.  His work in Ron Howard’s Splash (1984) represented his big break.  For that film, Candy did what he did so well–made you laugh at him and love him at the same time.  After being the comic relief for most of his scenes, he turned it up in a serious scene toward the end.  He showed depth, as well as skill in putting himself front and center in creating his character.

The quality of films he got always bothered Candy, who took his art seriously.  But he was a star.  He was respected by comics, loved by his fans, and known professionally for being the kind of “good guy” he played so well.  In many ways he was the friendly version of Jackie Gleason, always down for a party, always social, always larger than life, and always in love with excess.  When he died of a massive heart attack at age 43, nobody could be surprised, or unmoved.

Bukowski was no Candy.  Where the Canadian used his weight struggles to inspire laughter, Bukowski used his life struggles to inspire a wide array of darker emotions and reactions.  On the surface, he was a self-loathing, womanizing, alcoholic, but Bukowski was a prolific and disciplined writer of “real L.A.”, depicting the lives of people often dismissed in the literary arts.

A German immigrant, Bukowski worked as a postal worker for much of his adult life, writing during most of that period (except during a decade of drinking spanning from his 20s to 30s).  He suffered abuse at the hands of a domineering father, who wold cut his face with a razor strap for misbehaving.  This pain and turmoil crafted the battered face of the adult Bukowski, a face Paul Ciotti described as “a sandblasted face, warts on his eyelids and a dominating nose that looks as if it was assembled in a junkyard from Studebaker hoods and Buick fenders.”  It also certainly crafted the batered voice with which he spoke.

In this clip from Barbet Shcroeder’s legendary (to Bukowski fans) series of short interviews called “The Bukowski Tapes,” the man shows some of his myth and brilliance.

He turned pain into brilliance, into filth, into humor, and even into occasional warmth.  Leading something of a life infused with addiction and the emotional remnants of survival, Bukowski achieved huge success.  Whether he was “acting the part” or not was always a question in the minds of critics.  I always thought he was, but not in the way they might have meant, not as a device to get attention and sales.  I saw him as a frail, lonely, wounded soul trying to act like a “man” in the most simplistically crafted version of what that is, an act performed as a means of survival.

For fans of the 1987 film Barfly, a loose adaptation (as was much of his work) of his life, this piece by Roger Ebert may be of interest.  It stands as something of a more human version of the drunk so many followed.

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I was a college senior when both men died.  Candy was, in many ways, the symbol of my youth.  He was one of my favorite entertainers, from his early TV days to his long career in film.  Bukowski had become my entertainment of the late teens and early twenties.  His realism and “fuck-it-all” attitude were appealing to a kid just starting to read Marxist history and trying to make sense of the L.A. riots of 1992.  (I must have seen the film Barfly with my friends about once a week between 1992 and 1994.)

In my adulthood, I continue to enjoy both, though in different ways.  A John Candy movie–even a bad one–is still something I find watchable.  He has a charisma on the screen, something that shines even brighter in one of his good films (Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, Only the Lonely, Uncle Buck).  Candy had a way of turning formula into something special.  As for Bukowski, he is like a glass of scotch, best in small quantities on special occasions.  But even in those doses he has a knack for staying with me for a week or two.  Always a challenge, he is both simple and complicated, a lot like life.

Ethel Merman is still dead

This is going to be a new feature on LatinoLikeMe.  It’s a short remembrance written for the anniversary of the passing of somebody noteworthy.

While it will have nothing necessarily to do with Latinos or Chicanos, it is all about me.  History isn’t just my job, it’s my obsession.  I was a young, gen-X Chicano coming of age in southern California in the 80s, and I lived much of my cultural life reveling in the significance of my present moment.  I thought historically, and tried to organize the meaning of the daily events of my life in historical ways.

The deaths of famous people (or not so famous people whose significance I could discern) were standout moments, times whose powerful meanings were seemingly obvious.  Plus, I had a fascination with famous people dying.

So, today–February 15–we mark the 25th anniversary of the passing of Broadway legend Ethel Merman.  The loud and somewhat visually-eccentric woman captivated me when she visited the Tonight Show, or when I saw her on any show, really.  By the time I entered consciousness she was certainly passed her heyday (having retired from the stage that brought her more than thirty years of fame in 1961), but Ethel Merman still captivated an audience with all the power of her place in entertainment history.

I wasn’t a big fan of musicals, and until my late teen years I had never seen a proper “show,” but Ethel Merman kind of demanded you watch her when she took the stage.  You see, she could sing.  And she did so, loudly.  Famed composer Irving Berlin once said of Merman (who had no formal musical training):

You give her a bad song and she’ll make it sound good.  Give her a good song and she’ll make it sound great.  And you’d better write her a good lyric.  The guy in the last row of the balcony is going to hear every syllable.

Here’s Merman performing her signature tune, “There’s No Business Like Show Business.”

When Merman passed away in 1984, I remember thinking how something big had ended.  That might have been the melodramatic inclination of this 12 yeard-old Hollywood fanatic, but it wasn’t far from the mark.