Half-a-Man (Won't Do)

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Sad that my first post here has to be an RIP, but that's the way it goes sometimes. By now, with the speed of news on the internet, everyone knows that Wilson Pickett died yesterday of a heart attack at 64.

I have, shall we say, a conflicted relationship with the music of the '60s at best; the running joke is that my interest in pop music starts on December 31st, 1969. Growing up I don't remember much '60s music around the house except for a little sprinking of Motown and a few Christmas records. (Plus all the stuff you absorb through your skin just by being American--growing up in the 80s it was nigh on impossible to not be soaked a Palmolive solution of 60s nostalgia.) My mother came of age in the '70s and that's when her own nostalgia begins; being a young woman when she got pregnant, up through the late 80s she was still buying records semi-regularly. So I got more War than Four Tops, more "Caught Up in the Rapture" than Supremes.

At some point towards the end of high school, following a long dark nights of rap agnostism and then alt-rock jingoism, I realized I liked a lot more music than I was giving myself credit for and knew a lot less about music than I liked to pretend. (You develop a decidedly odd canon growing up on late 80s/early 90s Spin.) So I became briefly obsessed with rock history books, and, since there seemed to be a spate of them at the time, rock history docs on TV. These were all uniformly terrible; there was one on PBS that I seem to recall intimated that all that happened in the '70s was David Bowie doing a lot of coke, going in and out of various limos, and dressing like a nazi. (I only realized this when I found an old box of VHS tapes cleaning out my parent's attic a few years back; at the time, with a dismissive attitude towards classic rock in general, the idea of a '70s with no Zeppelin seemed totally tenable.)

The one thing they were good for, however, was the archival footage. Trying to tie pop music into a straight line history, when there are always 20 strands threading through at any one time, is a fool's errand which never seems to stop the makers of these docs. (Does '70s soul merely get sidelined as the Thin White Duke's backup singers?) The footage, though...if they had just strung the clips together, with no narration, it would have been the perfect example of music "speaking for itself." Any number stick out: Bambaataa live in the mix in the early 80s; the Ronettes doing "Be My Baby" on TV, a clip that utterly transfixed me, made me totally rethink my assumptions about music in less than three minutes, which up until then had been totally, almost camply, masculine, from Public Enemy to Youth of Today.

And then there was the Wicked Pickett, doing "Land of a Thousand Dances" live on stage, looking like he was about to herniate himself. It was another one of those transformative, connective, utterly obvious in retrospect moments that seem to happen every other day when you're a kid: ohhhh, this is like this. Hey, R&B/soul can be every bit as high energy as all that flailing about on stage rock stuff I had been listening to. (Prince, for whatever reason, was always filed in my mind as a "rock" aritst, probably because my initial exposure to him came around Purple Rain.) Given the unrelentingly smooooooth nature of '90s soul/R&B--my sister's diet of Janet, Mary J., SWV, Mariah etc.--this kind of eyeball popping, vein engorging, sweat spraying spectacle was not part of my every day experience, no matter how many times Mary stomped her boots on stage or Mariah cracked glass or a young Robert Kelly threatened to rupture his spinchter.

From that Pickett moment: JB (strange to think that I actually had to explore Brown's work after accepting him as part of the background noise of pop history, that his work wasn't always an integral part of my life), Sly, Clinton, right onto people like Howlin Wolf. Now, of course, my taste in soulmen runs more towards the smooth than the rough, more Green than "Grunt." I prefer the pleaders, the crybabies, and the slicksters to the shouters and the buck studs. So might I make an unorthodox recommendation in the form of Wilson Pickett in Philadelphia out of a mix of both hometown pride and love for those strings. It's not a perfect album; sometimes the mix is a bit like nursing two glasses, one straight whisky and one a girl drink. But at its best, Pickett adds a layer of sizzling grease to the sometimes prissy Philly International sound.

Pickett's music will live forever, of course. (For good or ill: just this past New Year's Eve I was treated to a godawful rendition of "Mustang Sally" by a band of off-duty cops called The Lawmen. This is why I don't usually go to bars on NYE.) Yes, he's part of the background noise of '60s pop--do you really need to ever hear "Mustang Sally" again?--but you'd be foolish to take him as such.