No. 206 /July 2004:
Ray and Ronnie
I BELIEVE TO MY SOUL… The music of Ray Charles was steeped in what I can only call a discoverable mystery. Quite often, he did things that you'd never heard (or dreamed) but you knew came from somewhere specific; it was music in orbit and deeply grounded at the same time. You'd be the world's biggest fool if you thought you could match him, but that didn't stop Stevie Wonder--or for that matter, Stevie Winwood--from getting fantastic results while making the effort.
One reason I took Bob Dylan seriously was that he actually improved a little on Ray's "I Believe To My Soul" when he remade it as "Ballad of a Thin Man." One reason I trusted the MC5 completely was because they sang a credible "I Believe to My Soul." And when I met Lester Bangs, I turned him onto the Stooges and he turned me on to Mingus, but we bonded as friends because we both loved Ray Charles so much.
Ray led us to this discoverable mystery. Besides, he could do everything. It's been said that he wasn't much of a songwriter, to which I reply: "I've Got a Woman," "A Fool for You," "Hallelujah I Love Her So," "Leave My Woman Alone," "Rockhouse," "What'd I Say," "I Believe to My Soul." He led great bands. On piano, he could play anything worth bothering with--rock'n'roll, soul, gospel licks, and intelligible jazz. His records with Betty Carter and Fathead Newman define '60s jazz at its most accessible. He was a fabulous talent scout, accompanist, and record producer. He sang like words existed for him to fracture, elongate, caress and explode them.
Ray was born in Albany, Georgia and grew up less than a hundred miles away in north Florida. It was in those hundred miles where, W.E.B. DuBois wrote: "the cornerstone of King Cotton was laid." Albany was one of the largest slave-trading centers in America and, in the century after emancipation, conditions did not improve very much. In 1961, a year after Ray's "Georgia" became a huge hit, the most musical part of the entire Southern freedom movement erupted in Albany.
Bernice Johnson Reagon, another native of the Albany region, described the singing at the mass meetings there: "There was a woman at Shiloh Baptist Church who would sing one song for an hour. It is not a song anymore. People are clapping, feet are going, you can hear her three blocks away.
Your ears are not enough, your eyes are not enough, your body is not enough. The only way to survive the singing is to open up and let go and be moved by it to another place."
We can imagine what such meetings were like because of the musical foundations Ray Charles established for everyone. But that's the music of "What'd I Say" and "Hallelujah" and "Rock House." It's not the music of "Georgia on My Mind."
Hoagy Carmichael wrote that song to be bucolic, wistful, to evoke impassioned sentimentality. Ray's "Georgia" is passionate but also sinister, because its syrupy strings and backing vocals play in the back of a black man's mind. So when he tells us "Other arms reach out for me / Other eyes smile tenderly," anyone who knows the terrain has to wonder: If this is a beckoned lover, could she be, perhaps, a blonde? Could those arms, those eyes belong to a midnight mob come to punish that love? "Still in peaceful dreams I see / the road leads back to you." Is this a restful sleep or just plain nightmare? And yet there is also that impassioned sentimentality. Ray Charles will deny you nothing--but he won't fake it. And he won't let you fake it either; like the place in "I Believe" when he snarls, "Last night I was dreaming and I heard you say / 'Oh Johnny!' / When you know my name is Ray!"
The one time I met Ray Charles, he was smart, kind, witty, amazingly nimble and lean. We talked about the difficulties of learning to read music in Braille, and about what increased illiteracy in Braille meant for blind kids. His fingers found Lowell Fulson's name on a list, and he lit up at the sight of an old friend. He took delight in a woman's story of how "Hit the Road Jack" had gotten her through a miserable college breakup. And he asked me why I was so taken aback when I first encountered him.
"It's just, well, you're Ray Charles and we're about the same size."
"But I've been listening to you sing all my life, and I know you're at least six foot nine!"
He laughed and slapped my arm, but we both knew it was no joke. Later on, Ray pulled me aside and inquired, "Are you that guy I read in Playboy every month?" At that moment, I really was as tall as Magic Johnson. But only because Ray Charles had, once again, brought me up to his level.-Dave Marsh
THE SOUND AND THE FURY… Ronald Reagan and Ray Charles are forever linked by Ray's appearance at the 1984 Republican convention to sing Ronnie's favorite tune, "America the Beautiful." But that's all they have in common. The difference between them can be summed up in the fact that Ray backed the civil rights movement while Reagan opened his 1980 campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi-where three civil rights workers were murdered in 1964-and gave a speech about states rights, readily understood as code for "no more integration."
Yet Reagan inspired a lot of praise upon his death. The Democratic Leadership Council, the political sewer that spawned the Clinton/Gore administration, called Reagan "a great political leader." Generally speaking, musicians have expressed a different point of view.
"Old Mother Reagan," The Violent Femmes. "Reimagines him as a senile and dangerous grandmother," writes David Segal in the Washington Post, "who won't get past the Pearly Gates." A prophecy now come true, no doubt.
"Ollie's Doowop," Ruben Blades. "We'll make sure there's no war with Nicaragua, only humanitarian deaths," sings Blades in the persona of Reagan hatchet man Oliver North.
"If I Had A Rocket Launcher," Bruce Cockburn. "I don't believe in generals and their stinking torture states…If I had a rocket launcher, some son of a bitch would die." Later covered by U2.
"Right Wing Pigeon," The Dead Milkmen. "The man who sits in the White House just don't care / Starves little kids and dyes his hair."
"Is This the Future?" Fatback Band. Anti-Reaganism you can dance to.
"Fear of a Black Planet," Public Enemy. It was Reagan who popularized the myth of the "welfare queen" riding around in a Cadillac collecting food stamps. Public Enemy's response: "Excuse us for the news / I question those accused / Why is this fear of Black from White / Influence who you choose?"
"Money's Too Tight to Mention," Simply Red. Reagan presided over a savings and loan scandal that cost taxpayers nearly a trillion dollars. Singer Mick Hucknall also wondered aloud about the President's sex life ("Did the earth move for ya, Nancy?").
"Bonzo Goes to Bitburg," The Ramones. Reagan honored Nazi SS war dead at Bitburg cemetery in Germany, leading the Ramones to respond: "You're a politician / Don't become one of Hitler's children."
"Bag Lady (I Wonder)," Ebn-Ozn. As governor of California, Reagan decimated the mental health system in the state, forcing patients out of newly-closed facilities and out into the streets. The video for "Bag Lady" is dedicated to "all the homeless people in the world."
"Johnny 99," Bruce Springsteen. On September 19, 1984, Reagan, in New Jersey campaigning for re-election, "endorsed" Springsteen and claimed that making the dreams expressed in Bruce's songs was what "this job of mine is all about." In response, at his next show, Springsteen said: "I don't' think the President's been listening to this one," and played this song about a suicidally desperate laid off autoworker.
"Five Minutes," Bonzo Goes to Washington. From RRC 19: "Bootsy Collins and Jerry Harrison of Talking Heads do an amazing scratch cut-up of the tape of Ronald Reagan's 'joke' about 'outlawing Russia forever,' the bombing to begin in 'five minutes.' Straight broadcast of the tape was absolutely chilling, not so much for the words as for the drooling erotic glee in Reagan's voice as he gets to the last phrase."
"Gods of War," Def Leppard. Samples Reagan's voice to drive home its point.
"Pass It On Down," Alabama. Notable for trashing the stereotype that hillbilly / hardhat types don't care about the environment with its pro-rain forest warning to "leave some blue up above us, leave some green on the ground." But the "Pass It On Down" video takes things further. Set in an abandoned steel mill, it mocks the idea that we have to choose between jobs and the environment. As for Reagan, he not only set loose the likes of Interior Secretary James Watt to ravage the environment, he once said that trees cause pollution.
"War," Bob Marley. When Reagan ordered the invasion of Grenada, one of the first targets of the bombs was Radio Free Grenada, which was playing Marley's song when it was destroyed. The number one song on the station at the time was a reggae tune called "Capitalism Gone Mad." Eugenia Charles, prime minister of the Caribbean island nation of Dominica, explained: "We weren't worried about military intervention coming out of Grenada, we were worried about the spread of its ideas." Charles flew to Washington right after the invasion to mug for the cameras with Ronald Reagan.
"Sun City," Artists United Against Apartheid. Dozens of rap, rock, and soul artists came together to make this historic record. Key line: "Constructive engagement is Ronald Reagan's plan." "Construc-tive engagement" in South Africa meant what "states rights" meant in Mississippi.
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