Got To Be Real

70sBlackBoho, 55
San Francisco

Your song/s, and why?

“Got To Be Real,” Cheryl Lynn
“What’s So Funny About Peace, Love, and Understanding?,” Elvis Costello
“Love and Affection,” Joan Armatrading
(I could go on and on.)

Unsurprisingly, these are songs of my angst-ridden, ridiculously self-serious teenage years, i.e., late 1970s into early 1980s. These anthems spoke to my desires and demands. As singers, these musicians struck me as authentic and sensitive interpreters of life.

“Got To Be Real” seemed to be about my hometown in the 1970s–absurdly gritty, manic, take-no-prisoners New York City. Costello’s song reflected the craziness of those years: US support of Somoza, Marcos, and various dictators; Three Mile Island accident; hostage crisis in US; attack on MOVE in Philadelphia; Patty Hearst kidnapping and SLA actions, etc.

All of Armatrading’s songs were like special gifts to me: I came to her music by accident. She was on a double bill with Livingston Taylor at an outdoor concert in Central Park in the 1970s. When she came on stage, dressed in this blindingly white pantsuit, and yelled “Hello out there!” with Brummie friendliness, I thought I’d die. I knew that I’d met a friend: a black lesbian of Anglo-Caribbean descent, albeit a decade older than me. Years later, when I was working as a journalist, I met Armatrading. It was a post-concert interview in Saratoga Springs, New York and she was a bit abrupt with press questions. I also think she was working through substance abuse issues. But it wasn’t about the person: it was about the music.

I can listen to Costello’s music and remember his use of racist epithets to describe black American musicians. I can wonder about raised-in-the-black American-Protestant-church Lynn’s attitudes toward sexism, homophobia, and respectability. And I can still l listen to Armatrading, who’s as bristly as ever. I listen to all of them and they make me happy as I recall how they brought light into my life when I needed it.

How would you want these shared?

Massive dance party with food and drink.

Your no-go songs?

I’d prefer no Christian rock. Yet, I find a lot of religious music as it’s sung in churches, temples, and elsewhere to be very moving: it’s genuine Folk Music in the most powerful sense. It works for people. And I’ve been going to family funerals over the last five years and been very affected by Episcopal hymns that I learned when I was a kid in church in New York. I didn’t like church, so I’m amazed that I can remember the words and how they’re meaningful to me when sung at graveside. Standing there, I’m always reminded that funerals are for the living anyway.