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The Limits of Funk
Now Hear This V5
About ten years ago I purchased a bass guitar. Like the millions of my generation, I was in rapture to the funk. Something about the music got into my pants and I had to get up and get down on the dance floor. The bass lines of my youth are in my limbic brain like a gator in the swamps, a primitive, ancient, irresistible, a beast of prey. In a matter of months I was able to replicate its fundamental simplicity and the staid confines of my suburban bedroom. I never got to master the instrument or any of its greatest triumphs, like the bass line of Glide, but it was remarkable how easy and satisfying some Cameo and Slave were.
It has been quite a while since I've changed the nine volt battery, or even tuned my blue bass. I started with the cello as a youth and my left hand will probably always be too clumsy for six strings even though I think about my future around campfires plucking the acoustic. Still the bass lines call out to me, and I hum internally all the right chords. Some days I think I will never learn anything new, but when I feel confident, I think about making music in my retirement. It's possible I tell myself - the music was always in me. So I think back to the bass lines of youth. 1979.
When I was younger I had always looked up in my life. I had never been satisfied with what is around me. I hated the very idea of feeling limited, claustrophobic amid the mediocrity of everyday life. It ground me down to short declarative sentences. Somehow I never managed any facility with establishing elaborate friendships. I couldn't perceive my own fellow travelers. I lived for the future, for in the present I was dead, rolling my own boulders uphill, struggling against the brown leather fetters on my feet but still looking forward. I believed in my promise and I never doubted that I deserved better. But I was always conservative. I didn't run and charge and push people aside. I listened to their reasons. I considered the options. I learned the alternatives. I could quote angels and demons alike. I was even-handed and broad minded. I thought that all the winners in the world were so deliberate. I was wrong.
So while I looked forward to the ultrawave, the fusion of new wave and funk, while I listed for the next beat and melody to inspire me, I had to DJ as well. A DJ must spin the music people want to dance to. As I write this today, it never occurred to me to just listen to the radio and write down all of the hits that were playing and buy those records first. I had to look forward. With my passion for the best funk, I couldn't compromise. One Way didn't cut it. I got sick of Skyy.
There was a party in the Mid Wilshire district. Up in the neighborhood of Shatto, north and east of my highschool was an area fraught with libidinous danger in my imagination. The latin girls behind the Shatto Bowl danced in my fantasies. Inside that bowling alley, many bus transfers from my own neighborhood, there were the eight pound balls I could swing. I bowled a rare 145. I popped on the pinballs in my senior year. And so two years after that in somebody's apartment on Commonwealth Ave, I found myself dancing while somebody else spun the records. The right kind of girls were there, articulate with permed hair in clingy dresses and heels, like the women on the album covers of Chic. I asked and she danced. We spoke and she asked where I was at school. I worked a union job, and I didn't lie about it. She turned her back and left. I was stunned back into my brittle, peasant reality.
If you asked me in the days when I used to care, I would have told you that the next great funk band was going to be Breakwater. They had all of the elements of funk, of space, of dance. Best yet, their album cover was perfect. They made me want to wear yellow boots. They were thematically perfect and their first track was 'Splashdown Time'. Nothing could prepare me for the third track of their debut album. 'Release the Beast'. It was energetic, raw, complex and from my perspective, perfect. I spun it at every party where I was a DJ. I played in the Radio Department at Fedco when demonstrating the most expensive JVC ghetto blasters we sold. It was on all of my mixtapes. But nobody liked it better than 'Ready or Not' from Herbie Hancock. Nobody liked it better than Sister Sledge or Ray Parker. I had to admit that 'For Those Who Like to Groove' was all that, but even Parker's All-American band Raydio got shot down when I played another favorite, "Rock On'. It was as great a frustration as I could possibly imagine.
I studied the grooves. I bought the electronics. I lugged the record crates. I used Discwasher. I cranked my Advents as loud as they could handle and I delivered the all funk I had to offer. I moved the slider and the crowd moved only minimally. They got up but they didn't blow their disco whistles. I was a disabled enabler, a servant to the collective, wanting to dance, willing them to dance, like all the producers in Hollywood, guessing and second guessing the public mind. I was a 19 year old, trapped beneath my fro learning the limits of funk. It was painful. It was the end of the 70s. I was on the last legs of the first journey into the dark matter between the star souls of the billions, in my corner of the galaxy, trying to communicate through somebody else's music.
I listen to the old fogey named Rick Beato less and less these days. I think he’s right but he’s talking in circles. One more time into the breach against click track snap and autotune. Still he’s valuable for my old project of Rock Recovery, in which I go back to find out what all the rockers were on about when they mentioned Deep Purple or Peter Frampton. I didn’t have time for that kind of rock when I lived deep in the funk, now I do. So I did just learn about ‘Lines On My Face’ and it was love at first listen. It’s a kind of music I always loved, I just didn’t realize it at the time. If Hall & Oates or Steely Dan had recorded it, it would have been my jam. It’s one of those few songs where the lyrics are obscure enough not to be troublesome.
But the funk still lives on, despite its limits in the popular imagination now or then. When I was a more popular blogger I put together what I consider to be the definitive funk survey. So if you’re doing Funk Recovery, I offer this in the spirit of my old funk fogey self. You can’t erase the dream. So these are the Greatest 100 Funk Songs of All Time. It gives you more data than anyplace you’re ever going to find on the web, sez me. I expect that some point in the future when I get a bit more famous, I might give it a go again.
Here’s another gift. Speaking of picking on the porch.