My son looked up at me from across the table at the Amherst College Library, stood up, and asked, “Can we go?” As we packed up, he commented, ‘It’s later than I meant to leave,” and I knew he was hoping to get back for the start of the Grammys. So, to tell the truth, was I.
We pulled in to the driveway at 8:05 and turned on the TV to find the big opening production number was still going on. I took out a saucepan to start heating wine for cheese fondue (his choice for his last dinner of his Long Weekend), and began shuttling back and forth between the kitchen and the living room, to keep dinner going and to keep in touch with what was going on with the show. As the Rock Band teacher and someone who works with teenagers, not to mention someone who is a parent to a teenager, I spend a lot of time listening to the radio, so I was familiar with a lot of the music. My son and I discussed what we thought of many of the different arrangements for the live performances and who we thought should win in different categories. Though we didn’t root for Lady Antebellum in all the categories where they won, we did appreciate their apparently genuine surprise and delight on the occasion, how overwhelmed they were and what a magical night it must have been for them.
When Cee Lo Green came on stage with some of the Muppets to peform, umm, “‘Forget’ You,” I decided this was perhaps the most fun I had ever had watching the Grammys, and tweeted “Best. Grammy Show. Ever.” Of course, it deepened the effect to be watching it with my son while eating cheese fondue, knowing that my brother and my 13-year-old niece were actually there in person, her no doubt starry eyed.
Then came the part where they flashed brief clips of artists to whom they were paying tribute. When Solomon Burke came on screen, I commented to my son, “Now there’s someone I wish I had been able to see perform live.” “Oh, did you know him?” my son asked. “No,” I confessed. “But that’s part of it, that I never even heard of his music, but from the clip, I’m sure I would have loved it.” After doing a little research, I learned that Solomon Burke was an early soul singer (he claimed to have coined the word as he was uncomfortable with the sexual overtones of the blues) from Philadelphia who was once mentioned in the same breath as Ray Charles but for some reason never achieved the same level of success.
It was somewhere around then that my friend José Vilson, an incredible, gifted, thoughtful and creative poet-teacher-blogger, posted an article on the show. José’s title, “Same As It Ever Was,” recalled to me memories of watching the Talking Heads on “Saturday Night Live” back when I was a teenager, absolutely riveted by their quirkiness, energy, and pure creativity. “Creativity” is the key word here, as José argues: “When does the artist get a chance to create with disregard for “best practices” and when should they try and follow a formula? Every artist struggles with this. Some of us stick to a particular formula and it works. After a while, once we’ve learned the basics of the genre, shouldn’t artists push for the intriguing, the provocative, the illuminating?” Courtney Love, in her song “Awful,” ponders the interplay between the need of recording companies to turn a profit and musicians to be true to themselves:
(…) It was punk. Yeah, it was perfect; now it’s awful.
They know how to break all the girls like you
and they rob the souls of the girls like you
and they break the hearts of the girls (…)
And they royalty rate all the girls like you
and they sell it out to the girls like you
to incorporate little girls (…)
Oh just shut up you’re only 16.
If the world is so wrong,
yeah, you can break them all with one song.
If the world is so wrong,
yeah, you can take it all with one song.
Swing low, sweet cherry make it awful.
They bought it all. Just build a new one; make it beautiful.
– Courtney Love
Redemption, Ms. Love seems to be saying, can be found through the music itself. It is perhaps fitting, then, that the School’s original rock band introduced me to her music. Time and time again, someone will come up to me a few days after a performance and tell me they bought a CD or MP3, but were disappointed because it didn’t seem to measure up to the experience of hearing the school’s rock bands perform the piece live. I love working with these kids more than you can imagine, but I’m also realistic. They are most assuredly talented, but few of them are at the level of the original artists whose work we are covering. So what is it that is present in their performance that is too often missing from the higher quality professional versions? I think it’s that same spirit of fun, of pure energy, of connecting deep down with the music, that riveted me to the Talking Heads back in 1979. David Byrne’s style of singing, it has been said, is so over the top simply because he is having so much fun he can’t control himself. “Rock and roll,” I once commented at a school dinner celebrating the performing arts, “will always belong to teenagers.” Like the Grammys, these kids show us ourselves at our best. They show us what is possible; they make us believe in the future (a future, I might add, where Solomon Burke would not toil in relative obscurity). Does that obviate the need for work to achieve that future? Of course not. But it does help keep the work fun.
And as José Vilson concluded in his blog, “Education analogies here? Absolutely. Same as it ever was.”
– Bill Ivey, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School Dean