2006 Year End Thoughts
Great Moments in the History of Soul Music
here’s no point in beating around the bush when I can just go ahead and wet my dick—I had a silly year. When it started, I was in Mexico City lying next to a girl. It was our fifth anniversary. We were listening to Eric B. and Rakim’s Follow the Leader. We each had a headphone. I whispered in her other ear as we fell asleep: “I get goosebumps when Rakim talks about space…his brother wrote this one…the organ part used to make Andy feel crazy....” Then she left me and moved to Asia with a friend of mine because I’d all but fallen apart as a human being, at which point I decided that I didn’t want to explore how it felt to be slightly more depressed than I’d already been, so I rode my bicycle for a few months before quitting my job, taking up my stakes, and moving to a state people still confuse with Alabama. It’s okay. If you lived in Illinois, I might think Indiana.
One of the first things I did after the whole mess was write an email to my friend Karl detailing what Ghostface would say to this girl if he had the chance. Why? GHOSTFACE: pillar of experience. GHOSTFACE: he who seeks revenge when necessary. GHOSTFACE: a just and fair man, a man who plays the long game. GHOSTFACE: hard, but not hard-hearted.
On the Stylus staff message board recently, Nick Southall started a thread called “Soul music.” The central question: Why don’t we write about soul music? My favorite answer was the one that suggested soul music’s self-evidence; that the whole point of soul is that we can’t talk about it in our perverse, analytical ways. That emotional resonance is the best response. And because confession is often terrifying, easily botched, and non-transferable without a lot of blubbering, we just avoid it.
Now, the gross part here is that much of that response hinges on a skillful contortion of the mammy myth—that street-smart black folks are, basically, grand metaphors for wisdom and a comforting kind of bittersweetness. So, I, a fragile boy from the suburbs prone to sobbing, would love to have someone say, “Shut the fuck up, son,” right to my face. And I think that Ghostface, who has the same universal appeal as soul music because he’s basically a soul artist, would.
A conversation with Dave, my younger brother:
“I told mom that I think I can only love crazy girls. She said that in relationships it’s important for one person to be a balloon and one to be a rock and that I was born a balloon.”
“Yeah,” he said. My brother Dave is a rock, unequivocally.
“Balloons go to space. Space is cool. We were balloons together.”
“Mike. Listen. Rocks are really important.”
I guess Ghostface was a kind of rock. And my balloon was Joanna Newsom’s Ys. Joanna was a disgust I’d learned to court. Sick love. In the final arithmetic, though, Joanna broke the spines of a shelf full of thesauri and fairytales just to say My heart is powerfully fucked-up right now; and so half of my emotional response to Ys was reflecting on what it meant to have to try so hard to conceal how you really feel; how the performance made it all the more obvious. Ghostface’s Fishscale and More Fish, on the other hand, were ten times as emotionally complex with no ribbons, no antiquarian bullshit, no eight-syllable words.
Neither one is more or less real. Both are soul music. I could prattle on about the inherence of fantasy and performance and oh the vortices of truth in pop and the complicated matrices of listener-artist engagement and oh I’ll go blind if I intellectualize too much. Anyway, I don’t have a good reason to believe that Joanna is really in pain any more than I believe that Ghostface has seen enough in his life to be able to start some sort of youth-counseling group. They’re useful myths. I milk each with equal vigor.
“You’re making this weird...this weird squeaking noise. What’s wrong with you?”
He screws up his face a little bit. I’m listening to Ys. I guess I’m squeaking to subconsciously hold back tears. It sort of feels like vomiting, but more delicate. And all my private raptures and so on. Hell if I’ll bother to explain the contours of them. It’s braille. But I sorta believe them now because I’m happier and they still just happen. I have a lot of boxes and syntax horsepower and words and giggles and they’re all a part of my grand flight from the hot reckoning I’ll have at home with the stereo on, walking nowhere, waking up from a nightmare, drunk and doing karaoke, frying bananas.
But today I’m back with Ghostface’s More Fish. I can feel my feel my feet on the ground, which, really, is just as complicated as levitating. I realize that for all that time spent wanting to hide in the ornaments of Joanna’s “Cosmia”—”And all those lonely nights down by the river, brought me bread and water by the kith and the kin / But though I tried so hard, my little darling, I couldn’t keep the night from coming in”—I’d just needed one Ghostface line: “Let’s stick it out so we never regret it / I can forgive the past but I never forget it.”