Race and Music in America, Part II
Justin E. H. Smith
MC Hammer once boasted: “You’re ’87 and I’m ’89.” With time, the force of this taunt has weakened considerably, and it should serve as a lesson to anyone who associates too strongly with the Zeitgeist. Yet, whenever Hammer’s lyric replays in my mind, I find myself protesting: No, no, I too am ’89. Then, or around then, is when everything more or less came together, when potentials became actual, when my fate became sealed. It was also then that those surrounding me, and the intensity of everything they took seriously, appeared at the peak of their immortality.
Shostakovich for his part declared that all of his symphonies are, in the end, epitaphs. He did not mean, in the spirit of a hip-hop toast, that through his music he would ‘bury’ his enemies and dance on their graves. He meant that his friends were buried quite against his wishes, and that through his music he hoped to commemorate them. Now I am not a composer of symphonies, but only, however much I resist the title, a composer of ‘posts’. Nonetheless, I have recently developed the sense that no matter what topic I’m treating, everything I write comes out as a sort of obituary, even if the subject happens not to be dead (yet).
Recently, death and my topic coincided all too perfectly. Though the precise date cannot be determined, around the time I began working on my October essay on ‘race and music in America’, my childhood friend, Kyle ‘Tracker’ Brown, overweight, hard-living, music-mad, and black, died of a heart attack alone in his Sacramento apartment. It was a rock-and-roll life, and death, except that Tracker was not a rock-and-roll star. He was at best a local legend, and every locality has a few of those. I’m sure there is more than one 20-year-old in Sacramento right now who is just as full of life and just as bound for local-legend status as Tracker ever was.
Nothing that has been written on any of Tracker’s memorial sites rises above the banalities you might expect to find in a high-school yearbook. There is much talk of “all those crazy times we had,” and endless folkloric and disingenuous anticipation of some eventual reunion. Will I, I wonder, be able to do him any better?
There was a sort of totemism in the provincial teen counterculture of Sacramento of the 1980s, wherein each of the prominent kids was perceived to instantiate or stand in for some great music star unfathomably far away– in London, mostly, but also Scotland, New York, Berlin, places anyway none of us could really conceive as existing in the empirical realm. The roles were determined by physiognomical and hairstyle-based resemblances, as well as by the elective affinities of the individual stand-ins. Thus a certain Roger was held to be Peter Murphy, and a certain Jason was that one Ian guy from Echo and the Bunnymen. There was a Jeff who was taken as Martin Gore, and a Stephanie who, it was understood, was Siouxsie Sioux herself.
When I say that the teens were the stars, rather than that they bore a cultivated resemblance to them, I mean what I say. The identity was so complete that, if some newcomer were to attempt to elbow in and claim to be instantiating some British goth idol who had already been claimed, the response would have been: no, that is not possible. And if one could go back in time to inform them that within a few years ‘Robert Smith’ would find his only true calling as a data-entry specialist, and ‘Ian whats-his-name from the Cult’ as a drywall contractor, and ‘Nena Hagen’ as a dental hygienist, the response would no doubt also have been: no, that is not possible either. It’s identity or death.
Now folk cultures around the world offer us numerous examples of just this sort of identity relation. Marshall Sahlins relates for example how the 18th-century Hawai’ians subsumed Captain Cook upon his arrival into their understanding of the sky god Lono: he was an empirical instance of a transcendent deity. The music scene of London looked no less transcendent from the vantage of 1980s Sacramento than Captain Cook’s London had to the Polynesians, and in the same degree as Captain Cook that scene’s local avatars seemed to pull off the miracle at the heart of so much religious experience: incarnation, pulling the stars down to earth, without extinguishing their glow.
Who, then, was Tracker? Tracker was called ‘Tracker’ because he was said to track people down who were in need of a beating, and beat the shit out of them. He grew to legend status by manifesting a powerful paradox: he was a massive black thug, and he was a tender sweetheart and a fan of music that was held to be rigidly, impregnably white. Yet unlike his white cohort who, with the help of a little Aqua Net and black eyeliner took on an air of divinity, he remained more a sympathetic, if ambiguous, mythical creature than a god, something like a minotaur, or a beast that might help you to cross a river of fire, or might, depending on its whim, swallow you whole. With respect to the instantiation of musicians, he was Ol’ Dirty Bastard before that meant anything, blabber-mouthed and genial like Louis Armstrong or Flava Flav, borderline insane like Sun Ra or Kool Keith, massive like Mingus (‘He looked like three men wearing a suit,’ Don De Lillo wrote); he spoke in that stream-of-consciousness, free-associative style that was once held to be a core component of Black Power, the verbal correlate of Pharaoh Sanders’ squonked answer to the tight organization of be-bop and cool jazz. When Tracker happened to utter the adverb ‘absolutely’, he would follow it up with: “And absolute power corrupts absolutely.” He learned that somewhere, filtered down from Bobby Seale or Huey Newton through Public Enemy or KRS-One to his ears, to his enthusiastic soul.
Try as I might, though Tracker introduced me to Joy Division, though he straightened his hair and coiffed it into a new-wave, eye-covering point, and though he actually made it to London, and even Scotland, by the mid-1990s, I still cannot think of him as standing in for anyone who is not American, and who is not black. That is to say, Tracker was always more of a representative of a real and familiar type than a manifestation of something otherworldly and divine, better known by social science than by theology, secular, physical. Come to think of it, his wasn’t so much a rock-and-roll death either, as when Kurt Cobain or Jim Morrison takes that final, almost imperceptible step from this world to the next, where in some important sense they always already belonged. It was a public-health-crisis death. As when a black man in America dies from lack of access to adequate health care.
Somewhere Henry Louis Gates writes of the surprise that awaited him the first time he went to London and heard black men and women speaking in British accents. He had certainly heard of the African diaspora, yet for him, somehow, to be black was essentially to be American. Even for a Harvard professor the bridge to Britain seemed uncrossable. Tracker crossed it, but nothing much changed.
I do not recall how Tracker and I first became friends. At one point, early on, he was a big fat local legend, and then at some later point we found ourselves riding around together, listening to and commenting on cassette after cassette, and searching under the seats for enough coins to buy us another ten miles’ or so worth of gas. This is what most of my memories of him involve.
Once Tracker and I were in the mobile home of the local DJ David X, and I played a mix tape I had made for them, superimposing Sinatra’s ‘Night and Day’ over the beat track from the 12″ of NWA’s ‘Express Yourself’. Tracker did a funny dance and exclaimed how excellent it was. David X said the two tracks were not synchronized well, and in any case it was on a crappy, lo-fi cassette, so it was definitely not going to be getting any club play on his watch. We left and drove around listening to that cassette and others: those wonderful, disposable, immortal cassettes! He had just shoplifted Joy Division’s Substance, and was extolling its virtues to me as ‘Warsaw’ maxed out my little Datsun’s speakers. I told him that Ian guy couldn’t sing, and he said I was missing the whole point, because he was pouring his heart out before he killed himself, and his natural talents mattered not at all.
Once Tracker and I went to the home of my mother’s boyfriend, most likely because she was there and I was entirely out of gas money. I was worried they’d be troubled by his presence, yet within a few seconds of our arrival, there was Tracker talking sports with my soon-to-be stepfather, all that I’m-a-Yankees-man-myself bullshit that I could never even begin to fake. There was Tracker, speaking his natural language.
Once there was a big party in the works. A battalion of the Sacto Skins was said to be coming to beat up Chaz, who had defaulted on a loan, or looked at a skinhead the wrong way, or something. Chaz had suffered a brain aneurysm, one side of his face drooped, and it was said that if he were punched but once, he would die. So the plan was to invite a whole horde of Mexican gangsters, as well as Tracker, in order to fend off the attack (no one even considered simply cancelling the party, and as cowardly as I was I never even considered not going). As the evening wore on, and the skinheads failed to show, the Mexicans began to grow unruly. I stepped on a gangster’s foot by accident, and his friend said to me: “Hey, you stepped on my homey’s foot,” for at that time ‘homey’ was an authentic street term, and not the property of with-it youth ministers. “What do you have to say to him?” I said: Sorry. He said: “Sorry? Is that all?” And I said: I’m really, really sorry I stepped on your, uh, homey’s foot. They let me off, but it was clear there was trouble brewing.
If only the skinheads had arrived! The Mexicans had been counting on them, and were boiling over with lust for a racially charged battle with white-power goons. In the absence of these, Tracker probably seemed to them a suitable ersatz: racially charged in a different way, and in his dimensions something approaching a mob. The next thing we knew the leader of the Mexicans was brandishing a bat, and he slammed it on the kitchen counter. The white goths and new wavers and punk rockers formed a circle, cowering and clinging. “Come on, nigger!” the Mexican shouted. Tracker knew that word, and it worked to his rival’s clear disadvantage. In a maneuver of brute force that I witnessed but have never comprehended, Tracker had his rival pinned to the ground, and the bat pinned to his throat, before any of us could register the sequence of events that led to this radical shift in the balance of power. He was sitting on the boy, pressing into him with at least a few hundred of his pounds, and bellowing at him all manner of oaths and triumphal proclamations about not fucking with Tracker, about how nobody fucks with Tracker, etc. Yes! we cheered. This is why he is a local legend with a nickname, whereas I am just myself.
Once we were driving back to Sacramento from San Francisco –the City– and we had to slow down for a traffic accident somewhere near the Elvas Underpass. As we we rode past at a crawl we saw a headless body in the middle of the road, wearing a flight jacket and a pair of oxblood Doc Martins. The laces were black and not white, which signaled to us that the victim was not a Nazi skinhead, but rather a “SHARP”: a skinhead against racial prejudice. (As I have already said, however, the boundaries were always very fluid.) It had to be someone from our extended family of lowlifes, but, lacking a head, we could not tell who. Tracker immediately began freaking out with a litany of holy-shits and no-fucking-ways, barely able to contain his glee at having arrived at the Elvas Underpass at just the right time.
We got the official story, if not the believable one, the next day. Three boys, all of whom came from my high school, had been racing down Business 80 in a VW Bug. Two of them, in the back seat, began fighting playfully. At some point, this caused the back window to shatter, and one of the boys was “sucked out” by the “wind pressure” known to afflict Bugs travelling at high speeds. They were in an original VW Beetle, probably built in the 1960s, but the scenario described was borrowed from the cinematic representation of a jumbo jet in crisis. Tracker, anyway, liked the official account, and for as long as I knew him never missed an occasion to tell his eyewitness tale, and to discourse on the dangers of Bug-suction.
Death was all around us, as it no doubt is always and everywhere. Yet for that brief chapter of life death was more a source of great chatter, of local myth-making, than any real threat. If it seemed that death could never really take any of us, this is because local thinking about death was based on the primitive belief that, when one exits the empirical realm, one goes on being a member of the same local subculture that meant so much during life, just as the Marines will tell you at a funeral for one of their own that the Gates of Heaven are guarded by barkers of Semper Fi. In order to truly remain “always faithful,” one must convince oneself that the gang so deserving of fidelity is, well, always relevant, even after one has cast off this mortal coil. Of course it is not relevant, no more so than what one has for breakfast on the day of extreme unction, and death is at its most tragic when its victim has not yet been able to figure this out.
During the 1905 Russo-Japanese war, the Japanese, already enamored of Gerrman Romantic poetry and convinced of the Mongol origins of the Russians from the time of the Golden Horde, came up with caricatures showing themselves, the Japanese, as noble, broadly Aryan-looking warriors, and showing the Russians as slanty-eyed, buck-toothed cretins (think of Mickey Rourke in Breakfast at Tiffany’s). In prejudice, imagination will always win out over the bare evidence of the senses.
Here we see both the distorted perception of the other, as well as the distorted perception of oneself in the shadow of still another, admired other. In Olympia, Leni Riefenstahl’s majestic 1936 documentary of the Berlin olympic games, many of the Japanese athletes, coaches, and spectators may be seen wearing perfectly round spectacles, concealing the epicanthic folds that might have set them apart from their hosts. Was Tracker’s Thompson Twins coiffure something like these glasses? Perhaps, but in neither case did the disguise really work. The Aryan ‘race scientists’ spun themselves into the most implausible epicycles in order to account for the racial equality (or near-equality) of the Japanese to the Indo-Europeans, while reserving a decidedly lower rung on the hierarchy for their Chinese neighbors, just as, years later, Chinese merchants in Apartheid South Africa would be registered as ‘coloured’, while Japanese businessmen enjoyed their status as ‘honorary whites’. At the same time, however much kamikaze pilots enjoyed citing Hölderlin in their suicide notes, the Japanese certainly never really bought into the racial order outlined by the Germans, on the German’s terms: to be an ‘honorary’ white is something very different from being white, and in many respects it only serves to highlight one’s non-whiteness still more. As a black Depeche Mode fan, Tracker distinguished himself from the culture he was expected to inherit, but still more from the culture he adopted. Recently, in the New York Times, a journalist proposed the horrid label ‘bapsters’, or perhaps it was ‘blipsters’, to describe black fans of Arcade Fire, Death Cab for Cutie, etc. Being a mere hipster is not an option, just as in spite of an ancient history of cross-pollination in American music, for some reason mixed black-white bands always appear as a novelty.
Tracker understood all this, and in consequence, I think, race was a large part of his self-presentation in interaction with his white peers. Tracker’s Myspace page towards the end of his life introduced him as “Tracker: never blacker.” Years earlier, he used to like to do a rap, from the passenger seat of my Datsun, in which he declared that “Tracker is the blacker/soul-sonic attacker,” whatever that may have meant. He probably rhymed these two words more times than ‘cool’ and ‘school’ have been placed together in the entire history of advertising. I thought of this when I first heard the sample included a few years ago in a piece by Miguel Trost Depedro, the Venezuelan experimental electronic musician better known as Kid 606, of a man announcing in an increasingly rapid, increasingly snipped, and increasingly noise-distorted voice:
I’m black y’all, and
I’m black y’all, and
I’m black and I’m black and I’m black y’all.
As the sample becomes more condensed and harsh (I’m black-black-black-black-black and I’m black), one feels that its meaning is simultaneously being reinforced and overcome, inflated and dismissed: is this what Hegel had in mind when he spoke of ‘sublation’? In any case it seems like an odd thing to announce. One would think Kid 606 was inventing, yet as I’ve said that brief sample was pretty much Tracker’s curriculum vitae.
It is clear to me that Tracker enjoyed the roles race permitted him to play. It may be regrettable that history offered him these roles, but that does not mean they were not enjoyable. I’ve already said that race is just so much phlogiston: a scientifically bankrupt way of seeing the world that nonetheless permits its adherents to make sense of a wide range of phenomena. (The one domain of life in which the concept of race still has some scientific legitimacy –health care– is one from which Tracker was evidently cut off.) This phlogiston is often just as useful to those who break down the barriers of racism as it is for the racists themselves.
Dare I call my dead friend ‘simple’? Tracker was simple. Up until his death in his mid-30’s, he remained a loyal attendee at the Burning Man Festival in the Nevada desert. I have never been to Burning Man, but if I were to show up I imagine I would not be a big hit. I would start talking about Caesar’s account of the original Wicker Man sacrifices among the ancient Celts, or about René Girard on le bouc émissaire or some goddamned thing, to the first exed-out techno-hippies I came across, and they would no doubt slink away from me as fast as they could, seeking the company of a genial, welcoming soul such as Tracker, who would not lecture them but would listen to them comprehendingly, uttering “it’s cool,” from time to time, and “absolutely,” and “absolute power corrupts absolutely,” and other affirmative non sequiturs.
In 2004 I came across Tracker on some primitive social-networking site, which after a few easy steps confirmed for us that we were “friends.” I wrote him a short but long-thought-out note about what I had been up to and how much I’d like to hear his news. He sent me back one or two incomplete sentences, filled with misspelled and feverish words, and included his phone number. If this friendship was to be rekindled, he let me know, it was not going to be of the epistolary sort. I was daunted by the vast difference that had grown up between our respective forms of self-expression, and I never contacted him again.
When I was 20 years old, I retreated into an intense period of isolation and reinvention. I stopped frequenting places where folks like Tracker might show up, and I began to study ancient Greek, to interest myself in things like poetic scansion, Shklovsky’s formalism, and the Slavophiles-vs.-Westernizers debate. At the time I had thought that a greater mastery of language, and languages, would bring me closer to the world and its inhabitants. 15 years on, I understand all this self-imposed Bildung has had just the opposite effect. With one another my academic colleagues speak mostly of the relative virtues and drawbacks of their respective dental plans, and of whether or not their respective universities have on-site daycares. With their students they speak awkwardly and expeditiously. They would cross the street to avoid having to speak to Tracker at all.
My friendship with Tracker was based almost entirely on music: listening to it and talking about it. That was a long time ago, before I really learned how to talk. I thank God for that prelinguistic bliss, when friends were accessible directly, and death was mind-blowing in its impossibility.
Berlin, December 8, 2007
For an extensive archive of Justin Smith’s writing, please visit www.jehsmith.com.