Where I’m Coming From, Part 1 

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My mother says her singing voice isn’t so good and some would agree. I don’t. As Bob Dylan once said, “Sam Cooke said this when told he had a beautiful voice: He said, ‘Well that's very kind of you, but voices ought not to be measured by how pretty they are. Instead they matter only if they convince you that they are telling the truth.’" Also, it’s my mom. You know? No matter how off the notes were, I remember her singing to me when I was tiny and you could hear the love. And the songs themselves were well written, it seems to me today. “It’s Not Easy Being Green.” “I Just Called To Say I Love You”. I can remember singing that one with her in the car on a rainy day. “Tomorrow” from Annie. Pretty sure she taught me and my nephew the words to that one and I guess I know why now. Mom didn’t have the smoothest childhood by any stretch, but she’s still kept her naturally positive outlook on life. What a cool thing to pass on to your kids. 

Her mom, Edith, like a lot of older blacks, was very proud of Michael Jackson and saw him as a great role model for black kids even if I don’t think I was alive at any point when he looked black. It seemed like he was the culmination of the community’s hopes and dreams for its black entertainers. This guy danced better than Fred Astaire, sang better than Elvis, and forced it to be known that, even if Elvis really was the King of Rock & Roll, Michael was the King of Pop music in general. He knew what he represented. For someone like my grandmother, who was born when many black performers had to wear blackface to work their craft, no wonder she had a big smile whenever he was on TV. 

Check out Sammy Davis Jr.’s face in this video and you’ll see a man staring at an answer to his prayers:

Why Mike had to grab his crotch at the end, I don’t know. Did anyone find that necessary? Anyway, he was really more than just a culmination. Yes, he was a highly trained dancer, but something in his movements was too fierce to come from training. Yes, his classic solo work had the elegant production of Quincy Jones, but something in his voice resisted the slickness that often surrounded it. There was a restless energy in him that drove his well-polished technic well beyond the realm of well-polished technic. I believe, cheesy ballads included, Michael was a Rock & Roller at heart. Perhaps the last of a dying breed, the original Chitlin-Circuit rockers. I doubt I’d be playing music at all if it wasn’t for Michael’s influence. More than any one artist, he set me on the path. 

Oh, yeah. Back to Grandma. She would tell me stories about going to The Royal Theatre, which was just like The Apollo but in Baltimore and demolished long ago. She had stories about seeing Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, The Nicholas Brothers. She told a lot of stories period, mostly about family. Like my mom, she was a natural storyteller and could make you understand the personalities of all these people as if they hadn’t died long ago. Especially her dad, who I’m named after. Apparently, he played a little mandolin and never met a subject he wasn't interested in. I loved going over to Grandma's and listening to whatever she felt I should know. 

I also loved going over because my grandparents had cable. Glorious cable. 75 channels and you never had to get up and move the antenna. Heaven. Mostly we watched VH1 because at the time half of VH1’s programming was old MJ videos. When the MJ video was done she would go back to her chores, but I’d keep watching and listening. Stuff that was about ten years old at the time. “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.”  “Walk This Way.”  “Hungry Like The Wolf.” “Material Girl” “Come On Eileen.” “Once In A Lifetime.” That one was strange. “When Doves Cry.” That dude in the bathtub made me uncomfortable, but what a song! My little mind was blown. I was too young to seek this stuff out, but I remembered. One time, Grandma came in from folding laundry and “I Will Survive” was on. She had this huge grin on her face. I wonder if Buster, my grandad, could hear it upstairs. 

Him? If you don’t have anything nice to say, right? But there is one crucial thing. When I was about fourteen, Bus’ gave me his old record player. Back in those days, nobody gave a crap about vinyl, so the most pristine, nary a scratch used record was at most two dollars. I used records for stuff I was kinda curious about, but not $16 bucks-new-Wu-Tang-cd curious. I’d started to play guitar pretty much because of Queen, who I somehow thought was the only Rock band worth a damn (other than, I admit it, Kid Rock and Limp Bizkit. Bizzzzzzkit). When I found out that the song they play at all the baseball games and at the end of The Mighty Ducks sequel was by the same band that did “Another One Bites The Dust,” a funky song I heard on R&B stations sometimes, I was hooked. And so I owe some of my development to a band that both sold out and stretched out. Anyway, I think I must have read up on Queen’s influences and walked out of the record store with Hunky Dory by David Bowie and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by I’m sure you-know-who. Good God Almighty. It was like I was dropped into some wonderful alien world.

Doesn’t seem quite that way now. I just watched a video where Dick Clark asks 11-yr old MJ who’s his biggest influence. “Um, The Beatles?” squeaks young Mike.

When talking about his influences, people mention James Brown, Jackie Wilson, Diana Ross. Nobody mentions The Beatles. But take The Beatles out of the equation and maybe you don’t get Thriller. Hell, Paul was on there, if painfully so. 

There's an artistic DNA in us artists that may or may not be immediately apparent, but is absolutely central to who we have become. If you’re wondering why I’m writing all this, that’s why. I’m mapping the beginnings of my artistic genetic code. Is it presumptuous to think that anyone cares this deeply? Yes, I know. But maybe some kid, even one kid 4 or 400 years from now will be influenced by my music and want to know something. Like, oh I don't know, some future descendant of mine who under no pressure whatsoever wants to carry on/finally establish the musical family business. Or whoever.

Well kid, know this. A true artist has no choice but to follow his or her bliss. Keep your ears open, keep your heart open. Perhaps your journey will keep you within whatever boundaries have been set up around you, but it doesn’t usually work that way. Judge, but not too solidly. If you live long enough and stay open, your judgements will change many times over. If they don’t, you may be in trouble. But don’t be in a hurry to force change. Let it flow. Don't rush to make or re-make yourself. If you stay open, you’ll never have to worry. 

Rules? Those are things you should gather for yourself, but honestly with all the changing you should be doing, what’s the point? Were all your rules right 10 years ago or are they right now? Or will they be right 10 years from now? Does all of your favorite art conform to all of your rules? If not, why not? If so, you have slayed the grand, romantic mysteries of art. Art is now a system like all the other systems from which there is now no escape. Congratulations, kid. Rules? Be my guest, but I wouldn’t bother with them. Morally, yes. But artistically? Meh. Just keep living and learning, talking to people, listening and reading what people say; see what kind of wisdom they got. Most people died before you got here, so reading what they wrote and/or what somebody wrote about them is gonna come in handy. Fortunately, there's a lot to read. Ever thought about being a Humanities major? Don't make that face.

"You don't know what you don't know," my Dad says. Most of the things I’ve figured out I have subsequently un-figured out.  But if you listen to what I’m telling you now, what will come out of you will generally be just fine. You're gonna do good stuff, kid. Some kid might check you out someday. The very important thing is to listen. Everywhere. All the time. Oh, the other thing. Stay rooted. Stay conscious of the roots you are carrying forward and of your own personal journey that got you carrying in the first place. Learn all you can from these roots and allow them to enhance you; never believe that they are meant to hold you back. 

I didn’t forget you, Buster. You're no giant, but I thank you for giving me a cheap way to try out new music, Grandad. It's made all the difference. So there you go. But that’s all you get.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of Where I'm Coming From, where I'll touch on my exposure to Earth, Wind & Fire,
Puff Daddy & The Family, Motown & The Baptist Church. Hasta luego!

Please consider making a donation for Mannish Boys, the debut album by Brooks Long & The Mad Dog No Good. 
At the $50 level, you can receive as a thank you gift: a Mannish Boys Eco Friendly T-Shirt, a Signed CD Copy, a Digital Download and an official Thank You Postcard. 
Head to www.GoFundMe.com/BrooksLong to see other gift levels. Thank you!