If Roots were an underfunded theme park, this would be it. I wanted to get away from consumerism and gluttony. So there I was, at the National Great Blacks In Wax Museum in Baltimore, having my own Black Friday.
The ticket agent was straight out of a John Waters movie. A light skinned black guy with a pencil thin mustache and a bulky bluetooth headset that looked 15 years old. His area was a mess of errant papers, receipts and pamphlets. I got my ticket.
At the beginning of the exhibit was the slave ship, composed of several rooms that were made to replicate an actual ship. It seemed like a place I could get some alone time. I walked straight in. The ship was as brutal--black children chained together, force fed slaves, revolting slaves. It was a palace of white guilt.
A large black family entered the slave ship with me. Most of them were watching their comments around me I could tell. One woman, when seeing a wax figure made to jump off the ship into awaiting sharks yelled, “oh yeah, feed me to the sharks!” If the subject matter wasn’t so macabre I would have laughed. A man in their group seemed angry he was dragged to the museum. He said “I don’t know why you all take me here. This (expletive) makes me so mad. I’m going to kill the next white person I see.” I was definitely the next white person he saw. He didn’t kill me.
I exited the slave ship and entered the area of great black accomplishment, wax figures of inventors, political figures, civil rights heroes, sports stars, artists and musicians. Many of the figures were done quite well. I loved the Mahalia Jackson figure in particular. So confident and elegant. It was exciting to see black families witness the history of black accomplishment, leading up to President Obama, whose figure had an entire room.
Leaving the museum the ticket agent with the thin mustache asked me if I had a good time. I said yes, but only because I think that was the answer he wanted. Then I sat in the lobby for a while, talked with an older black lady for 20 minutes, then whisked off to a bar a friend recommended that served a variety of local craft brews.
What if Timothy McVeigh became a Deadhead instead of a militia nut? What if instead of his grandfather putting a gun in his hand he gave him a cassette of Cornell ‘77? What if Timothy McVeigh sold bumper stickers that read “Keep on Truckin” or “What a Long Strange Trip it’s Been” instead “Fear the Government that Fears Your Gun”, one of the bumper stickers he sold to the ogling masses forming outside the David Koresh’s compound in Waco. What if?
These are some ideas that floated through my head watching the documentary “Oklahoma City”. By the 1990s the Grateful Dead were at the height of their popularity. Back then, the kids at my high school who wore Grateful Dead shirts were typical of fans that plagued the band during that period. They weren’t the idealistic hippies predisposed to Herbert Marcuse and vegetarian cuisine. These kids had a dark edge. They came from rough, working class backgrounds. Their career opportunities were limited. They chewed tobacco and did whatever drugs they could get their hands on. They tattered shoes and ripped flannel shirts with the insulated cotton coming out. They were marginal, desperate types looking for something to belong to, some type of family in an America that left them behind.
Teenagers in America need something to identify with, something to believe in and the Grateful Dead fell right into their laps. The music may have been secondary to the sense of belonging, enhanced by the copious amounts of drugs available at concerts. They gravitated to the Dead in droves even though the music in the 1990s was inessential. The band lost their soulful keyboard player Brent Mydland to overdose in 1990, replacing him the cheesy keyboard stylings of Vince Welnick. Many songs are downright unlistenable. Garcia’s face was haggard, succumbing to years of drugs and bad health.
Often when I listen to the bands 1990s material, I wonder why Garcia didn’t just hang it up. Then I think about those Grateful Dead fans at my high school. The types I’d maybe see at a bonfire party, drunkenly singing off key to “Friend of the Devil” as someone strummed guitar. I think Garcia kept going because without the Grateful Dead, a lot of those fans were lost in that wilderness, left to a dead end job, DUI charges and unpaid bills, with nary a song to sing. I think Jerry Garcia understood the role the Dead played in filling this void for young people.
Maybe it’s naive to think Timothy McVeigh could have become a fan of the Grateful Dead if his circumstances were different. That if he had just hung out with the young fans on the fringes on a 1990s Deadhead culture scraping on fumes, a whole new world would have opened for him and he would have sworn off his enthusiasm for guns and chaos. The question isn’t what if Timothy McVeigh became a Deadhead. The question is how many Timothy McVeighs did Jerry Garcia save?
I curated six songs and was playing them on bar jukeboxes around New York. Socially conscious songs. Songs against war. Songs against power and greed. Songs to wake people up for this endless slumber.
The first song was “Get Up, Stand Up” by The Wailers. Second song “Fortunate Son” by Creedence. The third song was “For the Love of Money” by the O’Jays. I tested it out a week prior at BillyMark’s West, a bar I would call friendly territory to this kind of music. But today I was in a real Irish Bar in South Brooklyn. There were three tourists from the UK there and a handful of dusty regulars. Nothing about them said revolution. Tom Jones would’ve gone over swimmingly. I didn’t care. I just went up to the juke and played my songs.
The first three songs might as well have been wallpaper to the bar patrons. I lifted my head a few times to see if anyone caught the theme or felt the groove. Nothing. The fourth song was “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” by the immortal Gil Scott-Heron. If the theme was obtuse before, this would bludgeon them over the head.
The bass groove came in. Then the first two lines, “You will not be able to stay home, brother. You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out.” A little jarring. The tourists were too timid to say anything. The bartender wasn’t. She was a middle aged, red-haired woman from England. She did not like her music funky and was definitely not in favor of any type of revolution.
“This music is garbage!”
“Who played this music?”
This went on for what seemed like an eternity. I sat at the bar, staring at a Daily News, trying not to laugh. Then the next song came on. This is the one song in my playlist that drives the point home the hardest. The zenith. The call to arms. The song America needs in 2018. The song composed of three perfect words.
FIGHT THE POWER
“Fight the Power” by Public Enemy. It’s as funky as it is angry. As cogent as it is creative. A song that could wake up the numbest American from their decade long social media scrolling binge. And it’s a gloriously long seven minutes.
I knew this was going to be a challenge for the bartender. The beat was abrasive. The lyrics--black and angry, two things not customary in this bar. The chorus repeated over and over, “what we got to say, FIGHT THE POWER.” She was about to have a nervous breakdown.
Then the line about Elvis.
“Elvis was a hero to most but he never meant shit to me. You see straight up racist that sucker was simple and plain. Motherfuck him and John Wayne.”
At that point she screamed, “Can’t we just play some nice Christmas songs?” I kept my nose in the Daily News.
The song kept repeating over and over “what we got to say, FIGHT THE POWER.” There were a few false endings, then the chorus cranks up again. “FIGHT THE POWER.” The air was so thick in the bar. Every time Chuck D said “Fight the Power” it was like she was being waterboarded by Public Enemy. I just looked down at that Daily News and let it all wash over me. When Fight the Power ended, the bartender yelled at the top of her voice “Thank God!”
The next song and final song was “Volunteers” by Jefferson Airplane, a song whose message can get buried under the noisy guitar riff. To the bar patrons, it probably sounded like Pat Boone compared to what came before. The playlist ended, and so did the bartender’s shift.
No one attempted to follow my playlist. The bar was dead quiet, like the aftermath of a Civil War battle, casualties everywhere, I was the only survivor. The bartender sat next to me and ordered herself a drink, struck up a conversation to break through the thick silence. We got to talking about soap operas. She told me she watches the English soaps so she has something to talk to her mother about back home. I made a few hackneyed soap opera jokes about how the characters die and come back to life. I laid on extra charm. She laughed a few times. When she left she told me “that was actually fun.”
We both got what we wanted.