Tuesday, February 2, 2010

SONG #76: Boogie On Reggae Woman


So this song changed my life.  Seriously.

It's 1993.  I'm in my third year teaching, and I have officially fallen in love with the job and the Bay Area.  I'm 24, and the world is my oyster.  Except-- I'd been working so hard that I'd forgotten to have fun for almost a year.  I had stopped playing music.  I was working fourteen hour days and collapsing every weekend.  I was coaching and tutoring on the side and just barely squeaking by financially, so while I was loving life Monday to Friday, I was spending waaaaay too many weekends in Lonelyville, population me.  

Therefore, as the fall of 1993 approached, I decided to get "out there," wherever "there" was.  I said yes to every invitation to anything, and tried all kinds of "let's meet some friends" things: mountain biking, salsa dancing, poetry readings.  I joined a softball team.  And I'll be honest-- I was a little rusty.  I felt the forced nature of it all.  I felt like a guy trying to meet people, which, as we all know, is hugely appealing.  I don't think I reached Flounder "You guys playing cards?" levels, but it wasn't very pretty.

And then came the cold, crappy November night when one of my new colleagues was going out dancing with some college friends and invited me along.  I, of course, said yes, but feared the worst.  I wasn't a dance club guy, and I saw another long, awkward evening ahead of me with a "what's wrong with me?" drive home.

Instead, it was the turnaround moment of my 20s.  The drive in was hilarious, as my buddy's friend was drunk when I picked them up, and treated us to a stream-of-consciousness rant about whatever went past the window.  To park, we had to move what can only be described as a demonically-soiled mattress out of a parking space.  The club was Nickie's BBQ, a dive in the Haight in a neighborhood that is now totally gentrified (Nickie's got a facelift, too), but back then was just downright sketchy.  Like all clubs in the mid-90s, it was packed.  Remember when people went out to have fun?  I used to go see a local band on a Wednesday night in the early 90s, and there'd be 300 people there.  

We found the rest of their friends (including some central casting statuesque Nordic women) shoehorned our way in, somehow got drinks, and before I knew it, we were stuck in the middle of the dance floor.  My buddy's friend, now so drunk that he was beyond being able to answer questions like "What's your name?" and "What do we breathe to live?" immediately crashed into a huge dude, a piece of the mountain, who turned around, sized up the situation, and informed me, "You all go down if he keeps it up."  It was so crowded that I was making contact with at least seven people at once.  It was a touch-and-go moment.  Was I going to bail?  Get my ass kicked?  Have a claustrophobic freak out?  Spend the night feeling like Wyatt in Weird Science?

Or, was the DJ, at that EXACT moment, going to put on "Boogie On Reggae Woman" by Stevie Wonder?  To my shame, it was not a song I knew initially.  I recognized Stevie's voice right away when it came in after a minute, but I hadn't dug into his catalog very deeply.  But those drums kicked in, that bass synth started swooping, that skank scratch guitar locked into the groove, and everything in the world slowed down.  The giant dude smiled, patted me on the shoulder, and turned back around.  The whole room settled into the groove in seconds, and suddenly we weren't crashing into one another-- we were a slow motion music video.  At that precise moment, I danced for the first time in my life without any shred of self-consciousness or premeditated planning.  In my memory, the DJ turned it into an extended remix by folding the song on top of itself; it felt like it lasted for ten minutes.  To this day, there's not a groove out there that moves me like this one. For me, it's the Alpha and Omega of dance songs.  When Stevie yells "Can I play?"  during his harmonica solo, it's as close as I get to testifying.  When it was finally over, I felt like I had shed fifty pounds of all kinds of weights off of me.  I don't remember more details about the rest of night, but I don't need to.  I didn't leave with anything or anybody that night except a completely recovered sense of self.  Remember when Austin Powers realizes that he had his mojo all along?  It was like that, except without Heather Graham.

The next morning, I woke up feeling better than I had in a year.  I drove to Maximum Music in San Rafael, went to the used records bin, bought Fulfillingness' First Finale, and blasted Stevie Wonder all weekend.  Several important things happened that night-- I began a love affair with soul and funk music that hasn't abated for a day sense, I recalibrated my life in some very healthy ways, and I stopped looking for "out there," and naturally and immediately discovered it everywhere I looked.

You know that song "Last Night A DJ Saved My Life?"  Sometimes, baby.  Sometimes.


LINK:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ylQMhYqSntk


  1. I love this song- and that story by the way, thanks for that! I've had some revelatory moments listening to Stevie, in particular Sugar, I Believe (When I Fall in Love), and Evil.

    I had an interesting conversation with Andy Zulla recently about Stevie. For those reading who don't know Andy, he's a friend and producer that Jeff and I have both worked with a number of times. He's an amazingly talented guy who has found success primarily as a mixer (mixing Grammy-winning records like Rod Stewart's American Songbook series).

    We were talking about great songs, and the paradox that not all great songs become hits and not all big hits are great songs. He made the point that a hit has more to do with who sings it and how it's sold than if it's a great song. I agree, and proof is everywhere on Top 40 radio. But then he talked about how some great artists aren't great songwriters, and he used Stevie as his prime example. Now, I would put Stevie up there with one of my all-time favorite songwriters, so I protested. His explanation went like this: how many successful covers have there been of Stevie's songs? Paul Simon has seen 'Bridge Over Troubled Water' covered a gagillion times. Paul McCartney's 'Yesterday' has been covered by everyone. Stevie has been covered by the Red Hot Chilli Peppers and sampled by Coolio. Those songs aren't great, he continued, the performances are. The performances are so good, in fact, that he's somehow transformed average songwriting into classics.

    I can't agree- Signed, Sealed, Delivered, Sunshine of Your Love, Superstition...all great songs. But, it raises an interesting point. Should Stevie be considered a great artist/performer first and foremost, and songwriter perhaps second or third? Does being a great songwriter necesitate the ability to write songs that can be easily covered?


  2. A search on iTunes of some of Stevie's great songs show very few cover versions, and, uh, reminds me that Cream sang 'Sunshine of your love,' while Stevie sang 'You are the sunshine of my life.'

  3. I would argue that Stevie is such a brilliant singer that people can't really cover his songs, so they don't try. What could another singer bring to the song that Stevie left out? That said, the Chili Peppers' "Higher Ground" is a perfect cover that kick-started their entire career and proves, I think, the universality of Stevie's music.

  4. Great song, great story. Loving the personal touch. I pretty much disagree on the "covers" thing. IMHO the best covers come when the a) the original lacked something in terms of singing or production or b) it's a wholesale rethinking of the material. Stevie's catalogue just doesn't really lend itself to either of those. BTW, how many great Rolling Stones covers are there? Who or Led Zeppelin covers? Not even one that rises to the level of Higher Ground.

  5. This is so great. And you have my reading speed timed well: I got to the line "What is wrong with you?" in the song right when I hit the end of Paragraph 4: "... a "what's wrong with me?" drive home." Eerie.

    Incidentally, that Flounder line is perhaps my favorite line to quote from Animal House that NO ONE ever gets, even those who claim to know the movie forwards and back.

    But, as for content, I was very amused and taken back to those days of awkwardness. Well, that was essentially last week.

    Is Maximum Music still open? I think about Village Music all the time, lamenting their closing...

  6. I only wish that I'd known this story when I was in American Lit that Fall. It might have changed my perspective somewhat...