Leaving Ground Zero: DC: The Farewell Tour
Rawlins Park, May 2009
Simultaneity of Wind, Water, Ducks, Sirens, Homeless, Pedestrians, Traffic
This is where my father ate lunch in the early 60s, and where, until Brown, little black kids swam in segregated D.C..
A couple of days ago I wrote about what I hated here. Now comes some of the things I really love. It's very strange and it doesn't exist in Washington, D.C. except for the entire [majority] black population.
I have written here about my Go-Go at the Smithsonian epiphany, when I went down to the brown bag lunch time lecture on D.C.'s indigenous music, expecting a crowd of perhaps 50 -- the usual size for these esoteric yet superficial talks.
There were at least 3,000 people there, all of them in crisp creased blue collar uniforms. The subway drivers, the UPS guys, the janitors, the mailpeople, the bus drivers, the dental hygienists and LPNs in their pink scrubs, the people you always wondered about how they kept their shit together to send, as they all do, their children to Catholic school and on to college. The godfather of GoGo, Chuck Brown, was there. Everyone had mind-bogglingly sophisticated questions about studio technology, music business contracts, music theory and so on, and Chuck Brown -- also amazingly groovy after 180 years of playing rough, nut-cuttin' crowds at the Ibex -- oh, the Ibex -- had nothing but the sweetest love and brilliant advice to give back.
Everybody had both a right livelihood and a right vocation, as Buddha in his Noble Eight-Fold Path recommends. We are stardust. We are golden. We are million year old carbon. And we got to get ourselves back to the garden.
Here it is the same. It's not that everybody is a rock star, although there is some of that. It is that everybody is an artist. The busman at the greasy spoon, El Fonz, has a closet full of vintage '50s clothes. The prune-like little old lady in the tennis hat is a Joyce scholar who leads Albuquerque's Bloomsday celebrations, and is heading up the Finnegan's Wake reading group. It reverse engineers, too: Dennis Hopper, to whom the Macondo Manana [TILDE!!!] devoted its own full page non-wire service obituary, purpose-written in gratitude and fraternity,* filmed part of Easy Rider here, and spent a lost decade getting high in Taos with all the rest of the hippies. Indeed Hopper's life is almost like my neighbors', Mr. and Mrs. Roper. The childhood on the Kansas farm and the always moving West. People like that never come to Washington, D. C. -- even if what's really wrong with all those Congressmen and Senators, which you only get after staring at them for a decade -- or looking down on the truly horrifyin' sea of hair plugs visible from the Senate Press Gallery -- is that they're the same people, with one difference. They're the high school debate champion, heliocentric, if you will: blossoming in the limelight. I am old enough to remember the Old Skool Pre-TV Senators. George Aiken and Mike Mansfield loved each other and had breakfast together every morning in the Senate dining room. I had breakfast with them once. They called each other Damon and Pythias, and had no hesitation, assuming I was literate and would know what they meant. Aiken was in his 80 and Mansfield in his 70s. They were totally studly and funny and twinkly and principled or unapologetic when they were not. Aiken is most famous for his end-the-war strategy: we should declare victory and pull out. Which is what sort of happened.
Now they all have that orange, bouffant, televangelist look and are like zombies who only come alive when the little red light comes on. There is no colloquy between the parties -- and I think performing politics rather than executing policy is the reason. Ron Zeigler, skipper of the Disneyland Adventureland jungle boat ride, I remember you too. Your tan. Your fisheyes. Your soft babyass double chin.
Elsewhere in D.C., and here in Macondo, one enhances one's livelihood -- and one's immortal radiance -- by having a vocation. One is a real person in the old school, manifest your destiny, godfather of gogo, Aiken and Mansfield way. This force of inner light creates true immortals, not pastiche collage personalities like M.I.A.'s.
If you are a subscriber to the Washington Post, do us all a favor and gank the magazine piece, Chuck Brown's Long Dance, post it, and link in the comments here.
Never mind. Here 'tis:
When Brown is ready to make his speech, it's a rambling mixture of reflections and rhymes. He speaks of his gratitude to the city that has been devoted to him and his music, amazed at how a poor boy that shined shoes down the street could grow up to have a street that bears his name.
"I love ya'll so much," he says. "I remember when the only people that wanted to take a picture of me -- 50 years ago -- was the police," he laughs. "You understand what I'm sayin'? Thank you to the city and to all of you for giving me all this love, all these years."
When the Chuck Brown Way sign is revealed, the crowd cheers, Brown's face, behind his large black sunglasses, crumples with emotion. He reaches for his wife and pulls her in for a tight embrace.
The fans at the foot of the stage strain forward, reaching out their hands toward Brown. He bends over, shaking hands and offering thank yous.
"I'm not going nowhere," he says, looking out over the crowd. "Like I said before, 'Every time I hit this stage, I become enraged.
"'Ya'll party so hard, I forget about my age.'"
*( Macondo Manana Hopper Obit )