STEVIE WONDER, FULFILLINGNESS' FIRST FINALE, 1974
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.
CAN I PLAY!