The Freelance Mentalists.
Friday, November 05, 2004
My underrated musical hero: Curtis Mayfield.

I know, you've already heard of him. I know, he's not exactly obscure. But bear with me. I still think Mayfield is underrated; I know he's my hero.

I've been adrift the last couple of days, we all have. For me, the solar plexus punch of this election just built on some other sad things happening in my life lately, family things and personal things and private things. My heart's been a mess, and I've responded in that age-old Cibula way: cover it over, build a wall, over-intellectualize. Don't let yrself feel it burn. I never used to be like this but now I am.

The problem is, it hasn't been working. I realized (even before the election) that I needed help with all this. What I've usually done is dive even further into my music. We all have totemic albums that we play just to make sure they're still there, that we still fit into our world -- I've been running through all of mine lately, and they've all just bounced off. It never used to be like this but now it is.

I blasted silly new Mexican dance music and old gentle noble soul music, and they did nothing for me. I tried bossa nova and it didn't calm me down, I tried techno and it didn't pump me up, I tried grungy-ass garage rock and elegant disco and everything I could think of, every favorite record and song, and none of it struck a chord. I really started to give up on myself a little. Because if Happy End of the World and America Eats Its Young and Fabulosos Calavera and Let's Stay Together and Strictly Business and Nos and Electric Ladyland don't work, what's the damn point of anything anymore? If London Calling cannot protect me from eight years of a Bush presidency, what can?

And then, today, at work, inside the case of my Little Axe album, I finally found the disc for Curtis Mayfield's album Roots. I put it into my CD player for the ride home and cranked it the hell up. And Curtis was there for me.

Curtis was always there, for everyone. He wasn't the greatest singer -- some of his control was spot-on, but some of it is just yeesh -- nor were his melodies the prettiest, although there are some chord changes on "The Makings of You" and "Freddie's Dead" that just slay everything else ever. Nor, in fact was he the best poet in rock history; plenty of clunkers mixed in with the good stuff.

But his songs manage the impossible: they make uphill struggle sound like the most fun ever. Tired and politically depressed and feel like crawling under a blanket for many months? "We who are young / Should now take a stand / Don't run from the burdens / Of women and men." Dude covered the Carpenters' "We've Only Just Begun" and made it about the black people's struggle and made it WORK on his Live! album. So one vote for "optimism" in the column.

There's more to Curtis Mayfield than just blind optimism, to be sure. His realistic streak, as shown in songs like "Underground" and "If There's a Hell Below We're All Going to Go," was deep and wide. Honesty is the bigger reason to love Mayfield, the honesty born from piercing the veil of everything's-gonna-be-all-right-ism. And when you get both, like in "Underground" and "We the People Who Are Darker Than Blue"...well, it hit me that if this man growing up in the 1950s and 1960s in segregated-ass Chicago could still do songs that beautiful, that full of hope, then fuck it: I can handle four more years of Bush. Especially when he gets impeached.

And, yeah, underrated. Everyone wants to pull What's Going On and Innervisions out of their butt, like Marvin and Stevie INVENTED the soul protest album...but Mayfield formed his own Curtom label to release his solo albums IN 1970, predating either of them. And Curtis is a better album than at least What's Going On: harder, more acidic, funnier, scarier. It sounds like Chicago, it sounds like pain and joy...and all without the assistance of the Funk Brothers or Berry Gordy's money (or daughter).

And criminally underserved in the CD era. Rhino's done some good reissues, but there are many Curtis Mayfield albums that have never seen digital encoding, much less are available readily.

This scares me a little, to know that Dave Marsh and I have the same musical hero. But dammit we're both right. I might also have picked Gilberto Gil or Yasuharu Konishi or Carol Kaye or Grandmaster Flash (people STILL don't know what that dude did) or Ann Peebles...but I didn't. When I need to reach for something, it won't be a gun or a drink or an easy answer that I think "solves" everything. No, I'm reaching for my Curtis Mayfield CDs.

I'm seeing the light at the top of the canyon. It's gonna have one hell of a soundtrack, this future we're in.
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