Dancing, Context, Music, Masculinity

As with most things, I stumbled onto the music of Kevin Morby long after everyone else had. It was by way of seeing the video (below) for I Have Been To The Mountain.


After awhile I bought the record, Singing Saw, and have enjoyed it, but while driving with the windows and moonroof open for the first time I was stunned by how the music didn’t capture the way I felt while watching the video. I realized, on the winding two-lane 55 bordered by hopelessly saturated farm fields, that the absent ingredient was the theatrical dance performance by Nathan Mitchell. Context informs everything, and my context for this song had been the playful, expressive, tattooed and dying character in the song’s video.

Probably a year ago, I received a wedding invitation that requested an RSVP with three songs that would, “Get you on the dance floor.” I agonized over that until I had to send back the RSVP. The problem wasn’t which songs, it was the idea that I would move my body in a way that might somewhat mirror my emotions. I don’t move with emotions. I’m a poet, a writer, sure I’m artsy with my feelings in a way, but where I grew up boys and men were never taught a vocabulary for moving expressively. We were taught to fight back when necessary, or maybe to throw something in anger (like dad), but never to be open with our bodies in any way. If anything, we avoided dancing (and feelings, surprise) until pulled onto the dance floor by a woman whose attraction we couldn’t deny.

Sketch of Fats Waller drawn from the Phaidon Century photography collection.
Quick sketch of Fats Waller drawn last semester.

My last semester in college I had all electives left over and took a drawing class. At first drawing made me anxious and frustrated because I could immediately see that I wasn’t good. I knew logically that drawing is a skill – like anything else – but I always expect a lot from myself. Once I calmed down, increased my dexterity, and found a groove, I was stunned by how emotional I felt while drawing. I’d be sitting in a class rendering the instructor’s arrangement of arbitrary bowls and cups and boxes and I’d nearly begin to cry. Moving to create or to feel seemed so alien to me that it almost drew me to tears for confusion of feeling. I am 38 years old.

The irony is that my 11-year-old is a dancer. Ballet, specifically. My kid doesn’t even walk anymore so much as pirouetting, or executing Grand Jete (more or less leaping forward with arms in the air – remember I’m not a dancer) from place to place. I never expected for a ballet dancer the way I’m sure my parents never expected for a poet.

When I was a kid the option was baseball, so I played baseball. And it was fine – old farm fields converted to dusty diamonds surrounded by developing cul de sacs. Not a place where men learn to express the language of thoughts and feelings. If anything, expressing yourself in those surroundings can put one in tangible danger of other men who lash out with a feral anger they can’t rationalize regarding expression. I think often of BH Fairchild’s epic poem Beauty deliberating on men expressing and encountering beauty; how radical to hear a man utter that anything is, “Lovely.”

As a child, never at any point did I have any clue what my dad was thinking or feeling, unless he was shouting in anger. He was like the brackish void up there in the driver’s seat, at the helm of the recliner with a newspaper, on the other side of the baseball I flung above the suburban lawn.

Sometimes I feel like an emotionally blind man trying to guide a child somewhere toward a vocabulary of feeling and assertion and communication. So I just talk a lot. By the time my kid was three I’d probably said more than my father told me his whole life. I don’t know what else to do, and that makes the most sense to me. I guess we’re both developing a vocabulary, if anything I’m probably at the handicap compared with the honesty immediacy of a child. Children will help you if you let them.

I looked into this Nathan Mitchell, the fella dancing in the Kevin Morby video, as I tend to do when stumbling on artists whose work makes me want to know more. Turns out (I gather from his Instagram presence) he rides motorcycles, goes fishing, doesn’t seem to take himself too seriously. Overall, not too different from me. The big difference being his mother opened a dance studio when he was two years old. We learn the environment we’re simmered within. The context. I wonder if he sits down to type and is stymied by linguistics, the way movement appears to flummox me.

Charles Bradley, the Screaming Eagle of Soul, Becomes Timeless

I was in a quiet public place when I read of Charles Bradley’s death. Out loud, I said, “Oh no. Oh, no.” I looked up, around the room, and sighed. I couldn’t believe I was near to crying in public about a man I knew so little, but felt such a connection to. I didn’t even know he had cancer.

The first time I heard and saw Charles Bradley sing I was struck by the impassioned expression on his face. I might not have taken the expressions matching the voice so literally had he not been an older man. In the music video, he walked around city sidewalks, rode public buses and trains, danced through parks, projects, and back alley junk yards while wearing a mechanic’s suit I later found out he had proudly customized himself.

As Charles Bradley sang it looked like a few of his front teeth were missing. He had wrinkles. None of the people in the video were models or dancers. A backing band was blowing into and strumming physical instruments. He seemed to embody nearly everyone who does not exist in pop culture. I think I watched The World (Is Going Up In Flames) four times before realizing I was going to be late for work.

I saw Charles Bradley perform at Turner Hall in Milwaukee, and until then he almost seemed like he wasn’t real. It was as if he was an imaginary soul singer from the past who I had somehow just stumbled upon. But he wasn’t. At Turner Hall the backing band introduced him as the “Screaming Eagle of Soul,” which he indeed proved himself to be. He sang and grooved with a joy and intensity that few people possess at any age.

Being a fan of Charles Bradley is easy. He’s got a great story. And when I say great I don’t mean necessarily nice or easy, as his upbringing and adult life were neither. Learning of his past, he’s the kind of guy you want to root for.

I interviewed Charles for Milwaukee Public Radio in advance of one of his tours. He was living in a large Brooklyn apartment building with his mother. Charles had spent many of his years working as a cook, or other itinerant jobs. As a young man, he played music in a band but the other members went off to Vietnam and, if they did come back, they had no more music left.

Eventually, after living and working all over the country, he moved back to Brooklyn to take care of his ailing, and previously estranged, mother. On the side, he regularly performed a James Brown tribute show, and one night some of the Daptone record label guys (who recorded the also recently departed Sharon Jones) saw him perform. They invited him to write and record songs with them. And from there, at around the age of 60, Charles Bradley first became a recording artist.

Charles eventually recorded R & B covers of songs by Black Sabbath and Neil Young. Who ever expected that? Who ever expected a man caring for his elderly mother to begin a recording and touring career in his 60’s. Not me.

I admire Charles not only because of the music he made, but because of the life he lived through that led to when he started. Charles embodied that if you’re still alive, you can still do and be, that you can become who you imagine from yourself. It might take awhile, and it might be terrible in between, but it is possible. Maybe that’s why Charles Bradley’s passing hit me so hard – that this is the conclusion of his rebirth.

Even before you sang it, I had a sense of your heart of gold. Rest in peace, Brother Charles, you were indeed The Screaming Eagle of Soul. Thank you.