By Daniel Garrett
Rahsaan Patterson, Wines & Spirits
Executive Producers: Rahsaan Patterson
and Denny Stilwell
Artistry Music, 2007
Jericho Brown, Please
Western Michigan University, 2008
On his album Wines & Spirits, Rahsaan Patterson delivers twelve songs of faith, desire, love, and wisdom. It is an album that draws on funk, gospel, rock, and popular music, music that is easy to listen and dance to, though sometimes an odd note, tone, or texture is sounded, and one wonders about the nature of the artist’s ambition. “Let’s get skin tight, all limbs intertwined, feeling the good vibes, lovin’ a long time, all through the night with no questions why,” sings Patterson in “Cloud 9,” the album’s first song. The thick musical funk invitation of “Cloud 9” draws up memory of Sly Stone, Rufus, and Prince. Patterson’s voice is first deep, both profane and wise, in “Delirium,” very appealing, but when it rises—higher, vulnerably—it is almost whining. Is he trying to express something that is just beyond his imagination, control, or talent? However, in “Feels Good,” a song of reminiscence, Rahsaan Patterson achieves a form of perfection, a melody of tenderness that is delightfully sensuous and spiritual. “It’s the kiss that you left after giving your best,” sings Patterson in “Feels Good,” adding, “It’s the thought as I walk.” What separates human accomplishment and failure? In the slinky, seductive “No Danger,” using rhythm as a sign or symbol of desire, Rahsaan Patterson describes love as protection against the cruelty of indifference; but in the song that follows, with a theme of unhappiness, “Pitch Black,” a cross of rock and funk, featuring Patterson’s low voice, a fat slow beat, and guitar feedback, there are “pitch black panic attacks.”
Human experience is varied, to say the least: as are the needs of minds and spirits. I recall years ago working in an environmental organization and striking up—well, I can’t call it a friendship—a conversation with someone there interested in folk culture and often I would tell him about the literature, music, films, and philosophy that interested me and he would sometimes comment on that but more often talk about the office gossip that interested him; and at one point we argued about something—I cannot remember what—and he equated my interest in intellectual culture with his passion for gossip, repudiating intellectual culture. It was an insane argument, really, and I laugh to think about someone who really thought gossip, so full of self-serving malice and fantasy, was the respectable equivalent of thoughtful culture. Yet, I find myself wondering how much of ordinary daily life actually supports the development of significant culture, especially concerning minority populations. Are family, school, office, and church enough? Is there enough of an artistic or intellectual community to provide inspiring standards and understanding reception for African-American artists? Are the established cultural traditions adequate? Are literature, film, painting, philosophy, and scholarship useful? Is a parade of celebrated or distinguished names—Alain Locke, Wallace Thurman, James Baldwin, Bayard Rustin, Little Richard, Samuel Delany, Howard Rollins, Luther Vandross, Melvin Dixon, Glenn Ligon, Reginald Shepherd, Carl Phillips, Lee Daniels, and Kehinde Wiley—enough to inspire? The fact is that if encouragement and support are not found in the daily world, one’s inspiration, when spoken of, even when pursued, can begin to sound abstract, fantastical, false, rhetorical.
On Rahsaan Patterson’s Wines & Spirits, he seems to be trying to create a music that is identifiable as attractive, fun, worthy black popular music while also creating space to say something interesting that might not quite fit that predictable template, but true innovation surprises the artist as well as his audience. In the song “Time,” which opens with a banshee shriek, there is a harmonious chorus and scatting and a rap by Johnny Onyx, and the song’s theme concerns being honest and giving love despite fear, social disapproval, and gossip: because, after all, time will reveal who you are. How does an artist create work that is both popular and questions the power of society? That is task of Patterson, a musician, writer, and music producer, and a gay black man—and it also the task of almost any artist who thinks of himself, or herself, as genuinely serious.
In a poem by Jericho Brown, “Like Father” from his book Please, a father wants to discuss biblical scriptures with a son he has learned is attracted to men. The father is depending on the only wisdom he knows—that of the church, and the interpretation of spiritual knowledge it has given him—but that is not of genuine help to the son he loves. (Jesus did not speak of homosexuality, but he did speak of the virtue of helping the poor, the weak, and the sick.) With coffee and eggs before them, only inches away from each other, there is a world of difference between father and son. The father is afraid he has done something that has turned his son toward a strange and forbidden lust. They will have to find another language, as even gestures are no longer enough: “Daddy squeezes me close, / But I cannot feel his heartbeat/ And he cannot hear mine—/ There is too much flesh between us, / Two men in love” (61).
“I know that you love me—at times it’s hard to see,” sings the narrator in the ballad “Stop Breaking My Heart” on Wines & Spirits, a song Rahsaan Patterson sings in the high, yearning voice of a lover. It is not here an alienating or odd sound. It is not good to be vulnerable, but sometimes it is necessary, the only way to make real contact. The sound is one that goes from Patterson back to and through Prince all the way to Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, and the Temptations. “Water,” featuring a jazz saxophone, is a contemplative piece, touching on night, sorrow, tears; and “Deliver Me,” about the need to escape a confusing, doomed lover, has a bluesy, low-bass rhythm. It might be interesting to have Patterson let rhythm go—and pursue melody and text more directly; and to have him explore genres that are more esoteric, more experimental. Yet musical form is its own language—and he may not want to let go the forms he is comfortable with, and that many African-Americans are comfortable with, without assurance that he can find one that is as appealing as the funk, jazz, or gospel that are part of his rhythm-and-blues.
How much of the tenderness and rage that can exist between men is his audience willing to tolerate? How much of the graphic detail of sexuality; or of the excitement and disappointment of lived or observed promiscuity? What are the other ideas and issues regarding nature and society, history and science, philosophy and spirituality, would he like to consider? The African-American male is frequently the object of skepticism or indifference on a good day, and to add to that the contempt and mockery of a sexual deviant, as well as the incomprehension and disrespect accorded artists, can be a great punishing burden, or, as James Baldwin once said, a queer kind of good luck, hitting the jackpot, in terms of having a unique perspective, complex experience, and a good deal of material to write about.
“The sun don’t shine as bright as the devil can,” admits Patterson in the funky gospel of “Oh Lord (Take Me Back),” with its request for an earlier time of faith and innocence and community, realizing that family alienation and social manipulation can make a man weak. “Higher Love” maintains the boisterous mood in music, and with the declaration “I’m so glad finally love’s calling,” but Rahsaan Patterson’s interpretation of the Janis Ian song “Stars,” the collection’s concluding composition, lands on quiet and private reassessment.
Families are connected by blood and argument, food, forgiveness, games, laughter, memory, money, morality, music, need, sport, stories, welcome, and more, but they can be broken by addiction, grief, ignorance, illness, laziness, malice, lust, poverty, rage, and selfishness; and there are as many stories of hate within families as there are of love. What is not always discussed is the damage that ignorance can do, what happens if you do not have the knowledge or language to discuss important experience. In his book Please, the poet Jericho Brown writes of some of the ordinary intimacies and joy within families and also of some of the conflicts and tensions, intimacies and tensions that prepare or paralyze boys and girls, men and women, for their path through the world. Often, music knows what individual people do not—it is wisdom, inspiration, pleasure, resource, score. Jericho Brown, a professor at the University of San Diego at the time of the publication of his book Please, is a graduate of Dillard University and the University of New Orleans, and his poetry has appeared in various journals; and his poems are haunted and lit by music, driven toward music. In a seventeen-line poem with a title taken from a Billy Strayhorn song about love and its failure and the loneliness that leads to drink and dissipation, the poem “Track 1: Lush Life,” Jericho Brown writes lines of natural observation and short words about the pain that singers and audience, and parents and children, and two lovers, can expect, inflict, and come to enjoy: “…You drive to the center of town/ To be whipped by a woman’s voice. You can’t tell/ The difference between a leather belt and a lover’s/ tongue. A lover’s tongue might call you bitch, / A term of endearment where you come from,…” (7). Familiarity breeds intimacy—and sometimes contempt; and sometimes compassion; and sometimes mere complicity in one’s own wounding. Pain can be humbling, it can be mystifying, but sometimes the pain one feels can become routine, a mark of contact or even, only, of continuing existence: it can remind you of what it felt like, once, to care. Brown’s poem ends, “Call me your bitch, and I’ll sing the whole night long” (7).
“If the red sun rising makes a sound,/ Let my voice be that sound,” Brown writes in “Track 4: Reflections,” with an opening reference to singer Diana Ross (11). The poem, in which couplets follow a single line or phrase throughout, recalls the aspirations and riots and losses of history, and how individual ambition and excellence could open a door that communal protest found closed and locked. What is distraction, and what is transcendence? “…That was power—/ White folks looking at me/ Directly and going blind/ So they wouldn’t have to see/ What in the world was burning black” (11).
Many of Jericho Brown’s poems carry comment about music, but that is not his only subject or symbol. In his five-part poem “Scarecrow,” the straw-filled suit is not only given consciousness or spirit, as in The Wizard of Oz and The Wiz, with direct mention of lead character Dorothy’s journey, the scarecrow has been a witness to the brutality of southern racial history, to the lynching and burning of bodies. The purpose of existence—of self, of land, of bird—is questioned. In “Detailing the Nape,” something of a prose poem, the ignorance and knowledge of family is at its core: a diligent grandmother sees her visiting granddaughter’s neck, and thinking it quite dirty, scrubs and scrubs it, until the girl’s brother sees the blood and draws the woman’s attention to it—what the grandmother thought was dirt (“nastiness”) was actually very dark skin: and to the girl the grandmother says, “I didn’t know you were that black” (18). Nature was mistaken for flaw. How often has that happened, with skin or belief or habit or thought or desire?
In “Herman Finley Is Dead,” an elegy of grief, humor, and outrage, the illness that went for years without a name, without attention or proper research or sympathy, the illness that became the focus of campaigns and glamorous sympathies, that illness claims another victim. The death of a choir director inspires the narrator in the poem to ask for silence not music. Acquired immune deficiency syndrome—a name that is not a name; and an illness that has been thought of as a shame or punishment or threat or irrelevance or an excuse for special pleading has worked its way: “And today decided/ To swallow Herman Finley/ Whole” (23).
“The best music/ Is made of subtraction,/ The singer seeks an exit from the scarred body/ And opens his mouth/ Trying to get out,” the narrator declares in “Pause,” a poem of erotic intimacy, country landscapes, history, mundane movement, and the dreary requirements of desire (27). The description of ordinary things is what makes the poem vivid, convincing, even as the drive for transcendence is recognized. One of Jericho Brown’s short poems is inspired by the drama and self-divided awareness of dreaming: in “Fall,” a man falls from a height, and watches his body after it hits the sidewalk, from a place in the standing, watching crowd. In “Idea for an Album: Vandross, the Duets,” written in couplets of short lines, full of pauses or line breaks suggesting consideration, there is an awareness of the difference between body and consciousness, and between sex and love, and the narrator asserts that the great singer Luther Vandross may have known more about good love from his songs, and his musical collaborations with women, than from his private life. The couple in the bristling “Why I Cannot Leave You” have a relationship that seems primal, with one going out for meat that the other hungrily eats; a relationship without civil conversation or respect or tenderness. Brown, as poet, goes beyond our pretty expectations. A father, who may have been distant, becomes more affectionate toward a son he has learned desires other men in “Like Father,” an affection rooted not in acceptance or love but in disapproval and regret, wanting to undo the damage that he must have done to create such strange hunger in his son.
What do we choose to see and how do we choose to see it? What do we say, and how? Sometimes silence is thought approval when it is indifference; and sometimes criticism is thought of as rejection when it is concern, guidance. People are puzzles.
In “Feels Good” on Rahsaan Patterson’s Wines & Spirits, Patterson sings, “When it’s love, there’s no danger, and nothin’ to be cautious or afraid of,” a hopeful but not truly realistic declaration. There is danger in love and danger in hate; and there is danger in ignorance and danger in knowledge. That is why character is important, and understanding, and trust. “Don’t think I won’t see your strength and weaknesses, your dreams,” sings Patterson, more honestly, in “Time.” What men such as Rahsaan Patterson and Jericho Brown do in their work is to produce lyrics and music, metaphors and stories, that allow the listener or reader to consider experiences like his or her own, as well as experiences that are new, experiences illuminated with clarity and order and sense, rather than confusion or malice: there is affirmation that human life matters and can be made meaningful, respectable. Being an artist can appear childish play, but it requires the most sophisticated attention and comprehension—and art awaits appreciation and assimilation into life and consciousness. It—art—is the only education and the only politics that survives the centuries.
Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today. “There are no substitutes for courage, individuality, intellect, and passion: ethnicity, gender, and sexuality cannot do the work of character or creativity,” says Daniel Garrett, who has written extensively about international film for Offscreen, and comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader. He has written a novel, A Stranger on Earth.