Monday, July 15, 2002

Elvis is in the House

Seems like nothing ever happens anymore without somebody videotaping it. Besides the ubiquitous news vans, security cameras, traffic cams, police cams and such, apparently everyone in America owns a handy-cam and is videotaping each other and/or themselves 24 hours a day. Especially when they're having illicit sex. I guess plain old illicit sex just doesn't cut it anymore, not when you can memorialize your indiscretions and at the same time provide incontrovertible evidence against yourself once you're indicted. And with all of the unbelievably weird and unsavory video tapes out there, it kind of makes you wonder how many there are that we don't know about.

You probably heard about the guy who videotaped the cops in Inglewood beating up that poor kid at the gas station. And when the video taper himself got arrested, there were at least three cameras rolling to capture that incident for posterity as well. It's all stirred up a lot of the unspoken racial tension that hangs ominously over our heads like thick, choking smog. We all know it's there, but we try to ignore it. Well, I was in Inglewood that night and I witnessed a totally different phenomenon. And while it did involve several video cameras and a certain amount of racial tension, the result was as refreshing as a cool ocean breeze that, for a little while, clears out all the smog and cleanses our souls a bit too.

My friend Jimmy is a singer-songwriter and we've been playing music together for about six months. Jimmy has written about a dozen or so songs that are pretty damn good and he sings them with a voice that some have described as a cross between Roy Orbison and Etta James. We've had a lot of fun playing small gigs around town, but Jimmy wants to take it to the next level. He's recorded a CD with six of his songs and it sounds amazing. I've been pushing him to send it around to record companies, but he says we need to build up our gigs and get some folks to notice us before the record companies will bother to listen.

Meanwhile I have this other friend named Erika who is interested in acting, but because of her 'sophisticated professional' look she seems to get picked a lot for host/spokesperson type gigs. Which is cool with her because she likes that kind of thing. She's also interested in music and has a law degree and is considering doing talent management. A few weeks back she auditioned for this fledgling cable TV variety show and got the gig as the host of the show. Right now they're just putting together some acts for a pilot to shop around and build up some interest. Erika asked me if Jimmy was interested. He was. So, the other night Jimmy and I drove down to Inglewood so Jimmy could tape his spot for the show.

Now, it so happens that Erika is black and the show that she is doing is mainly focusing on hip-hop, rap and R&B. They're open to all kinds of music, but being that the show is taped in Inglewood, a predominately African American community, and the people in charge are mostly black and hispanic, those are the kinds of acts they have attracted so far. Which is one reason Erika encouraged us to go down there: to try and widen the appeal of the show by including more "diversity." See, Jimmy is a white person (as am I) and his music tends more toward the Mary Chapin Carpenter side of the spectrum than the Mary J. Blige side.

So we walk into the studio, quite conspicuously the only white boys in the room. Possibly the only white boys in the entire zip code. We listened to a few acts, mostly rappers, one or two young girls singing semi-inappropriately suggestive R&B songs. Jimmy turns to me and says "What the hell am I going to sing?" We settled on a song of his called Riverdeath which he wrote about a Native American woman he met in a nursing home who dreamed alternately of her long last past and her hoped for salvation, both represented by a rushing river. It's a kind of heavy song lyrically but from listening to what the other folks were doing, there was a definite spiritual thread woven through most of the raps. Besides, Jimmy doesn't sing any suggestive R&B songs.

We felt a little out of place, despite the fact that everyone was really nice to us. You could tell people were curious about what we were doing there. At one point when Jimmy was talking to the director, the girl in front of us turned around and asked me what kind of music Jimmy did. I said, "I guess it's kind of country, kind of folkie..." She nodded politely, "uh-huh..." Jimmy was getting nervous, "what if nobody claps when I'm done?" "They have to," I said, "the director makes them." That didn't encourage him much.

The act that went on before Jimmy was outstanding. A woman named Eebony who looked and moved like a young Tina Turner, but could rap like Ice Cube, except her rhymes weren't about gangsters, rather about unity and self respect. She really knocked us out. What a tough act to follow; she electrified the place.

Then it was Jimmy's turn. As the opening Nashville-twanged guitar licks filled the studio, I thought, "boy are we in the wrong room." But then something amazing happened. I noticed people were listening to the lyrics and totally responding. And Jimmy's voice never sounded better; he sang like he meant every word. Which, in fact, he did. By the second verse people were literally cheering him on. The song ends with rousing coda and even before the playback faded, the audience broke into spontaneous heartfelt applause. Suddenly, I was the second most popular guy in the room. Everyone turned to congratulate me and tell me how great he was. Hell, all I did was drive the car. Several other performers got up to come over and compliment Jimmy. And, coolest of all, Eebony said she wanted to sing with him sometime and gave him her number.

We drove home that night filled with wonder and excitement. To go from the apprehension we'd felt when we first got there to the near-adulation we experienced at the end of the evening was an amazing transformation. I was inspired by the power of music to reach beneath the superficialities that seemed to separate us and reveal a truth and a communion that has always and will always exist. It reminded me of the beginning of Elvis's career when he was able to cross racial boundaries and reach black audiences and white audiences equally and with a similar enthusiasm and joy. What a great night.

I didn't hear about the other incident in Inglewood that night until after that weekend. Now everybody knows about it and we have all been reminded of the divisiveness and mistrust that plagues our society. But I wish everyone who saw that other tape could have seen what I saw that same Friday night in Inglewood, because then they'd know -- that isn't the whole story. Not by a long shot.


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