Sunday, December 18, 2016

Stevie Wonder's "Superstition"

Hi, all! While part of my goal with this blog was to bring attention to underrated gems or make people think of music in a different way than they did before, entry #1 is going to be a fairly obvious good song. But I just got to writing about this one, and I figured I might as well share it.




Aaron School was (is? I have no idea what’s happened to it) a small special education school for kids from kindergarten to fifth grade, after which you could either continue on to the short-lived Aaron Academy or figure out another place to sort out whatever it was you had. It was located only a block away from the United Nations, which would make anything in its immediate vicinity feel smaller, let alone the school. Aaron did the job for me in those formative years. I attempted to socialize with the assorted tantrum-throwers, compulsive liars, and other complicated-but-sympathetic folks that populated the school, while simultaneously trying to figure out my own psychoses. Now, as someone in elementary school, the fundamentals of behavior control and proper social etiquette were still attempting to sink into my head. This would be amplified when I went to another special ed school for the first two years of middle school before bracing myself for the torrent of second-guessing and humiliation of high school.1 I was still trying to wrap my brain around what skills would be necessary to function in the world, and how much these skills would force me to abandon my happy personal bubble of Muppets, SpongeBob, and drawing.

Aaron was not a large school, but there was always something going on. This was where the paradoxical behaviors that shaped me a great deal came into play. I was terrified of social interaction or putting myself out there in a way that felt alien or uncommon (singing without the aid of a puppet, saying I “loved” anyone that was not related to me, etc.). Our annual themed school concerts were a chore for their first two years of existence1 until I sat myself behind a drum kit and bashed out “Movin’ Out” and “Saturday Night” for the ‘70s show. I hated bowing - even after I got to drum, being dragged onstage after the second number with the class felt weird. And yet, I still found myself irresistibly attracted to performing. I loved presenting and acting, seizing on opportunities like hosting the school talent show or playing Beneatha in a ten-minute, all-white, gender-flipped version of A Raisin in the Sun. 11I didn’t mind bowing for these. This was where my heart was at. I could get used to that. I was OK with putting myself out there in that way - it could be incorporated into my bubble.

There was an overarching problem with these bubble-incoporations: I never really understood the benefit of stepping out of my comfort zone, the liberating feeling of doing something new. I just thought, “Well, it’s fun, and I can kind of make it about me.” It’s so much more interesting to hear other people’s stories or do something strange and wonderful, not make everything personal, but for the time being, I was more interested in absorbing the world around me than actually making an impact.

During this time, nothing was better than listening to music. Even then, I still loved how music could engage me in so many different ways. I loved listening to FM radio with my dad on the way to school and ranting about how much we hated “Waiting on the World to Change” by John Mayer (every day, without fail, in 2007). I loved the new, exciting pop music of the day, whether it stood the test of time or not. I loved how music contributed so much to atmosphere, how I always associated different car rides with different songs: “Free Fallin’” on the way to New Jersey to visit my grandparents, or Chris Brown’s “Wall to Wall” as the school bus took me home from Corbin’s Crusaders while the sun set over Randall’s Island. Rihanna’s “Take a Bow” or “Please Don’t Stop the Music” blaring out from cars and supermarkets on the upper-upper east side, or “Stand by Me” soundtracking my sojourns to the nearby Barnes and Noble as I searched for rare Sesame Street CDs. The ritual ‘80s one-two punch of “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” and “Tainted Love” on average school bus trips. Music was my map, my way of knowing where I was and, ergo, how I should feel and behave in that moment.
Aaron School was my home-away-from-home a lot more than just for the school year. Summers from 2004 to 2008 were spent at Camp Green Tree, the day camp for parents who were too terrified to send their kids to an actual summer camp. My Camp Green Tree days are mostly recalled in snippets and flashes of aimlessness, just meandering from one time-biding activity to another. But for boring time-abiding activities, I still remember them with an inexplicable fondness. My apartment building didn’t have a front stoop to sit on (not that it’d help much, given that scaffolding might as well be permanently affixed to it), so this was the closest I got to capturing the glorious chillness of a summer day. Catching Space Chimps with the class, visiting a PetCo and holding a chinchilla - I have nothing but fondness for these little things.

Again, music is the tape that holds these memory fragments together. Oftentimes, the easiest thing for the teachers to do was just put on music and let us dance around like spazoids. There were three CDs on heavy rotation: a KC and the Sunshine Band compilation, an ‘80s compilation with selections from Hall & Oates, the Thompson Twins, and the like that I still can’t find anywhere among the myriad ‘80s compilation CDs available, and - this is the important one - a mix CD that was made for a Black History Month assembly.

Yes, finally, here’s how we bring this overlong segue to a close. I remember the Black History Month assembly quite clearly: it must’ve been ’07 or ’08, given how I spent at least two or three summers jamming to the CD afterwards. Part of the assembly had kids coming up and briefly describing famous black musicians while a very famous song of theirs played. Given that these were elementary school kids in the mid-Aughts, the representatives for important black musicians skewed less toward, say, James Brown or Chuck Berry and more toward Rihanna and Alicia Keys. They only played 10-second snippets of each song, so this wasn’t the occasion where “Superstition” became permanently etched into my psyche. It was just one of twenty other ten-second samples, there and gone with a moment’s notice.

Camp Green Tree, on the other hand, blasted these tracks in full, and it still remains my favorite of the three CDs we listened to (save for maybe the song with the Spanish names for the months of the year, which came in handy later on). I was very focused on sounds, so little features of each song stood out to me. The horns in “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” the organ in “Three Little Birds,” the piano in “No One.” These were transmissions from a world in which all music was cool and lovable. It was funky, soulful, and world-expanding.

But I didn’t just hear the individual sounds of “Superstition.” “Superstition” is just one, big, beautiful sound. The neat thing about it is that each bit starts out separately - the drums, the keyboard, the bass line - before building upon each other until Stevie’s voice emerges as the thread that pulls each individual element together. It’s a song that simultaneously eases you in and gives you a good shove. The snare hits at the beginning? The way I felt listening to those snare hits reminds me now of how Bruce Springsteen described hearing the opening snare from “Like a Rolling Stone” for the first time: “[It] sounded like someone kicked open the door to your mind.” Even though I enjoyed the KC songs, this was some next-level funk. I was a funk white belt, and now I was a purple belt, and as I grew older and listened to more funk, I grew to be a funky black belt (so to speak - I think Carl Douglas, chief proprietor of kung-fu funk, would approve). But really, if you’re first introduced to funk through “Superstition”, you’re already ready for the black belt. That is your master course in funk, and while there are many other good funk songs, none were able to reach the stratospheric heights of “Superstition.” It didn’t write or re-write the rule book, but it followed it with a devotion that Joan of Arc couldn’t muster.

In short, it was each revelatory re-listen to “Superstition”- I was still getting the hang of YouTube, so as far as I was concerned, each spin at Camp Green Tree was a special occasion - that permanently embedded it in my mind. I don’t know how to compare that sort of feeling, how this one song could be so important that listening to it felt like going to synagogue, like something you only do a few times a month because it’s so holy. The Internet existed now, so it wasn’t like the old days where if you didn’t own a song on vinyl, you had to pray it’d play again on the radio so you could tape it. Hell, my parents actually had a CD of Talking Book that I didn’t stumble upon until years later, so I could’ve listened to it whenever I wanted. This was so different, though. They never played songs like “Superstition” on the radio. I didn’t know it was online or buried in the endless cavern of CDs we had. I just thought it was a special song, a song so incredibly important that overexposure was deadly. Once a day, maybe two days a week, depending on what the collective taste of the students were that day, and no more. It occupied rarified air for me.

Even now, with three different copies of the song on my computer, on YouTube, in several Spotify playlists, and on my Shuffle, it still stops everything dead. However, it only really works if I don’t invoke it. It still packs a punch, but I see it coming. Having it pop up unexpectedly, like my grandparents coming to visit me, felt special and inviting. My friend’s stopping by! That’s good, he’s my best friend.

Of course, the song isn’t really happy. I didn’t know, at age nine, that this song was a condemnation of stupid superstitions that ran rampant in the ‘70s. It still made me happy, and it makes me happy now, even when I know what it’s about. Why? Because even if it isn’t happy, it’s exciting. This is a song with a pulse, one that keeps building and never drops down, only subdued by a fade-out at the end. Those horns sound like royalty, as if signaling that the Queen is returning to Buckingham Palace. That riff is eternal, and if it weren’t for “Born to Run” being released two years later, I’d say no musician in any genre could ever hope to snap you to attention again like this one did. Professor Stevie’s class is in session, so you’d better listen.

And the eye in the funky hurricane is Stevie himself, the most assured element in this perfectly-organized song. Some musicians might buckle under the weight of the musical whirlwind they surrounded themselves in: Here’s the horns, and the keyboards, and the drums, and the bass, and oh damn, I’m supposed to hold my own with all of that. Stevie doesn’t buckle. He’s like when you’re sitting in a hot tub and situate yourself perfectly in the middle of all the jets. You feel at peace, but also in command. Stevie is the George S. Patton of funk bandleaders, craving this jazzy symphony because he knows that it’s the only place where he’s not only in his zone and controlling the elements, but also the main feature. In a song unified in perfect funkiness, he still manages to out-funky everything else.

Years later, as music slowly began to take over my life, I found out that there was a perfectly good reason why Stevie was so in control here: with the exception of the guitars (which were performed by the astounding Jeff Beck), he literally played every instrument on the track. That ever-evolving, always-in-time drum riff? Beck came up with it, but Stevie played it. The horns are Stevie’s; the keyboard is, natch, also Stevie. Stevie is a funky Sorcerer’s Apprentice, except he knows how to keep his handiwork in control. Boy, does he ever.

I guess this all comes together to say why “Superstition”, even as I find it harder and harder to pin down what my “type” of music is, remains my all-time favorite song, bar none. I’ve never felt such a visceral connection to a song before - or, for that matter, such respect. This was no ordinary song; “Superstition” was The Special Song, to be deployed in situations that showed unpromising initial levels of funkiness. It’s just impeccable as a record. Even in this divided age when nobody can agree about anything, I still strain to find anyone who doesn’t like “Superstition.” It’s the kind of obvious pick that people will still forgive because duh, it’s “Superstition.” I wish this song was a real person, because I know that person would be my favorite person in the world. In a way, it almost is. As I change, my world changes, and the people around me stick around or fade away, “Superstition” remains the constant. It’s my safety belt, my lucky charm. It accompanies me everywhere, because once a song’s that etched into your mind, you don’t even have to play it to know it’ll always be there.

Thanks, Stevie.




1

I got better. A bit. Crushing lapses in self-confidence never stop, really. Love York, though. #PantherPride

1 The first was Beatles-themed, and all I can remember was running off sobbing during “Can’t Buy Me Love” - now, ironically enough, one of my favorite Beatles songs. Second year was Broadway-themed, and while I avoided a solo, my friend Douglas leaned into the mic too much when we were singing “Consider Yourself”, my Sensory Processing Disorder kicked in, and the waterworks were cued up again.

1 In retrospect, it was a bit of a stretch.

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