A Post-Poster World

It's the power of the music, not cartoonish surface appearances, that makes for a music hero, say the local young folk we polled

Dec 9, 1998 at 4:00 am
We could be heroes," David Bowie promised, "just for one day." At least one prominent local musician and music fan took him at his word quite literally by adopting Bowie's space-glam duds and identity and sticking to them longer than just for one day -- longer, indeed, than did Bowie himself.

That is the simplest way we can make a musician a hero, flattering them through imitation. This level of hero-identification smacks of adolescence and tends to come with a poster on the wall, a mirror for picture-perfect hero replication and an imagination to transform aerosol cans and tennis rackets into microphones and guitars. One thinks hopelessly of Kiss; surely no band tried harder to inspire (anti?) hero worship in their fans, and they succeeded devilishly. Kiss provided a sort of paint-by-numbers version of the musical hero: Do you want to be the lover, the demon, the cat or the spaceman? Gene Simmons even sang a straight-faced, sweet-tongued song on the theme, simply titled "Heroes." The VH1 documentary of the band -- narrated by Skid Row lead singer Sebastian Bach, a self-confessed hard-core Kiss-worshiper -- shows the demon moodily lip-synching the tune, telling the kids if you don't have heroes, you don't have anybody to look up to. It looks as if he means it; he isn't even doing that nasty thing with his tongue.

When the Kiss dudes were kids, their heroes were the Beatles, and, of course, we all must have a "favorite Beatle," a hero among them. Musical hero-worship in our culture stretches further back than the Fab Four, way back past Elvis and the great jazz leaders and crooners -- Bird, Trane, Frankie, Billie -- into the folk tradition, where the heroes were not the singers so much as the characters in the songs, like Jessie James or John Henry. Bob Dylan, to pick a convenient target, put an end to that; he was the folkie who made the singer bigger than the song. Now, in this age of media oversaturation and music television, pop stars have never been more available to our gaze; you can't walk out of your house without running into someone in an Alanis T-shirt; we have in Marilyn Manson a consummately gross example of the triumph of image over ideas.

It would be easy to presume in our youth culture a form of music appreciation that makes Kiss-worship look dignified. But a profile of local young folks in their late teens and early 20s turned up consistently profound relationships between music fan and hero -- so profound that the word "hero," with its connotation of the comic book and action movie, fails to describe the ways in which these people relate to and interact with music and musicians. If the general assumption by older adults -- the Woodstock generation reared on the idea that music changes lives -- is that young adults have a less intimate relationship with their musical icons and heroes, the following conversations yield a different finding altogether.

If a hero is a character regarded as larger-than-life, we must at least start with the life; for there to be Superman, there must be a Clark Kent. But once these fans started talking about the power of music there was no getting them to descend to the facts of a human life. Ahmad, Rahsaan and Jamal Hinds of Florissant are overjoyed to talk about the sunlit explosions inside a Stevie Wonder song -- the way an unexpected chord can change what you thought you were going to do today, how a lyric can hold you together. When asked whether Stevie Wonder is a musical hero to them, Jamal suggests, "It is amazing what all he accomplished, being blind," but prefers talking about musical accomplishments, not personal heroism. When they cite Michael Jackson as an "influence," I ask whether Jackson's personal example keeps him from being a hero. "You mean his nose and all that?" Ahmad asks. "All his plastic surgery? I don't see why he didn't keep with what God gave him. But I ain't got time for all that." When talking about music, why worry about cosmetic surgery? Indeed, over the years they lost faith in Jackson over the gradual change in his sound, not his face.

The musical heroes of these eight young people, one of whom came to this city from Sarajevo, chased away by war -- are not faces on a poster; they are not stars with guitars. They are songs -- words and grooves. "I learned more from a three-minute record, baby," Bruce Springsteen sang, "than I ever learned in school," and these folks would probably agree. Surrounded by music swirling in a fecal tide of hype and consumerism, they flush the shit and savor the music. And they savor the music because it helps them move and make sense of things. A hero is simply someone with a song that can take you where you need to be, someone who, in the words of one of these young people, Jessica Butler, "is where you're at when you don't know where you are."

Ahmad Hinds, 21, is cousin to the brothers Rahsaan, 23, and Jamal Hinds (who at 27 strains our age bracket, but he says, "We all grew up with the same musical heroes," and they insist on being interviewed as a trio). They grew up in a musical family, watching their fathers and uncles take the stage at blues festivals, slug away at local R&B gigs and lay down tracks at Oliver Sain's studio. So they never had to look far for a musical hero, which Ahmad defines as "someone you look up to, who plays an influential role." The men in the family -- Ken, Danny, Jimmy and Leonard Hinds -- were "definitely" heroes, as was Oliver Sain, who always insisted (against his own self-interest as the producer they were hiring) that the boys buy their own gear and make their own demos.

Why look up to musicians? How do they influence you? These guys get deep fast: "Expression," Jamal says; "The mind," says Rahsaan; and Ahmad says, "Deep feelings." Then they piece it all together in a sentence: "They provide good communication tools" (Jamal) "that help get you through the day" (Rahsaan) "and release tension" (Ahmad). Pursued for examples of music that makes them think or feel, that helps get them through the day, they cite Motown categorically, then narrow down to Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye -- two artists who stir the mind and feelings, to be sure, but they also aim a bit lower down the torso. "They do have songs for you to sit back with your lady," Ahmad agrees, discreetly, "but they also make you think about the world in general." Rahsaan mentions Marvin's classic "What's Going On" -- but Ahmad makes a more obscure reference. "You know his song 'Flying High in the Friendly Sky'? Well, it has a B-side not too many people know about called 'Sad Tomorrow.' If I feel down, I put it on, it relax my mind. One time there was this certain female, the first girl where I really, really feel it, and it ain't working out. The stylistics of that song helped me cope." That might be the dual gift that defines the soul singer: He (she) gives you the song "for you to sit back with your lady" (or man) and the song to help you put your head back together after your lover is gone. Music has the power to connect elements more far-flung than lover and beloved. These guys develop their collective thinking to describe the truly collective experience of music: "It sends a feeling" (Rahsaan) "down in your soul" (Jamal) "and everybody connects on it" (Ahmad). Growing up in a musical family, they have always relied on music to connect with each other and the generation above them -- "Even when we can't get together on nothing else," Ahmad says, "music is always there" -- and that is a heroic power in these fragmented-family days.

Bob Dylan is a family connection for Tim Rakel, a 19-year-old from South County double-majoring in African studies and "something else" at Washington University. He first discovered the adenoidal bard in his father's record collection and found in the young Dylan a shared passion: advocacy of social justice for oppressed minorities. Rakel is a member of Amnesty International, a busy commuter to their conferences and an active supporter of the Shell Oil boycott called by the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People. "Hurricane" is one Dylan song that speaks to this aspect of his consciousness; strolling a Shell picket, Rakel recites lines from the song: "It makes me feel ashamed to live in a land where justice is just a game." He has an unusually personal source for a song written before he was born. "It was written about Ruben Carter, a boxer who was framed and put in prison in Patterson, N.J.," he explains. "'Hurricane' was his nickname. It was a racially motivated frame job." Carter is scheduled to appear in Chicago at the first Wrongful Conviction and the Death Penalty Conference, which Rakel has included on his crowded agenda.

So Dylan is a hero because he has given eloquent voice to Rakel's own political commitments; Tracy Chapman, Peter Gabriel and Sting are three other musical artists who have given him that gift. But he insists that his heroes are "musicians first" and heroic for their music, not their activism; "whatever else they can do with politics is admirable, too." In fact, the individuality of the musician matters to him only insofar as it suits the songs; Rakel looks for "the authenticity of who is actually singing the lyrics" that speak to him. On this score Tom Waits is definitive. Rakel says, "Tom Waits is a character who popped up out of one of his songs."

When Rakel was a high-school sophomore, a friend handed him Waits' Bone Machine album, which motivated him to buy the classic Rain Dogs, "and you know what happens after that," he says, with a wry smile. Behind that smile are hours of puzzling over and consuming Waits' emotionally charged, occasionally convoluted music and lyrics. "His music is always changing," Rakel says of Waits, "from folk to blues to jazz to whatever it is at present." (It's not that Rakel doesn't know; he considers it indescribable). "And the lyrics are like nothing else." Searching for an example, Rakel finds another personal source, in this case not shared activism but the kindred experience of biting your way through a cold day. "I was out walking the other day, and it was cold, and I don't have a winter coat yet, and I thought of his line 'Colder than a gut-shot bitch wolf dog with nine sucking pups dragging a No. 4 trap up a hill in the dead of a winter in a snowstorm with a mouthful of porcupine quills." We're a long way from the adolescent gaze at the Kiss poster.

We can get even further away, as far as Sarajevo, inside a blacked-out apartment, hiding from Serbs who would be happy to kill us for not being Serbs. Blackout: no electricity, no music except the whistles of bombs and bullets out in the street.

Bruno Mruckovski had been a teen celebrity in Bosnia. He grew up in love with music, mostly Euro synth-pop -- Depeche Mode, the Pet Shop Boys -- through which he learned the English vocabulary he uses on the streets of St Louis today. After working for a year at Yugoslavia's first privately owned television station, he was thrown in front of the cameras to host a music show geared to people his age (late teens). George Michael, Genesis, Madonna -- his playlist was not designed to prepare anyone to survive a war.

Except, perhaps, one band, U2 -- their ballad "With or Without You" struck him as it did many adolescent lovers, but "Sunday Bloody Sunday" was the chronicle of the Bosnian tragedy foretold. All too soon the former teen television celebrity would be trying to close his eyes and make a war go away, wondering, "How long?" Maybe he sang that song to himself during the nine months he hid in his family's blacked-out apartment, never once stepping outside until he finally escaped? "I had songs in my head, as usual," he remembers, quietly, "but I had much more important things to think about." Safely here now, a 25-year-old permanent resident driving around town, a hardworking loan officer moving from client to client with a cell phone, he says he is "just getting used to the music here, just getting adapted." He is accustomed to synthesizers ruling the airwaves, not guitars, though one high-energy guitar song about a conflict in Ireland puts his past into perspective. "It's a war song, 'Sunday Bloody Sunday,'" he says. "I just went through a different war. It makes me proud to have survived all that."

Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Bob Dylan, Tom Waits: These guys are no spring chickens. "The real music," according to Rahsaan Hinds, "was all done by the old guys." But how about some artists who released their first records when today's youth were legal to drive a car (or in the case of Dylan, even alive)? And what about the women? Jessica Butler can help us here.

She has a musical father -- the ubiquitous Ralph Butler of our local club circuit -- but her mother, Diane, was her first musical influence; she was the one who put the stereo speakers on her pregnant belly, rocking unborn Jessica with '70s radio. Once out here on dry land, this "mulatto kid from West County" fell in step with a series of strong women musicians: Joan Armatrading (who motivated her to demand music lessons), Nina Simone ("in my confused state she was a whirlwind of power"), Joni Mitchell ("an unapologetic chain-smoker with a golden voice"), Bessie Smith ("compared to her I have had it so easy"), Sade ("she's soul"), Alanis Morissette ("she is so steadfast, she won't back down"), Kim Gordon ("she makes her own fucking scales"), Ani DiFranco ("her lyrics are so strong, her playing is so forceful"). With a diverse hero roster like that, perhaps we should bust it back to basics; a definition? "A hero," she says, "is somebody who makes me cry, who brings me down to earth, who says something that I never knew until I heard what she had to say. Someone who is where you're at when you don't know where you are." She draws her example from the lyrics of DiFranco: "'You think if I have him I would only have him by the balls. You think I just dish it out that I don't take it all. You think I stand so tall. You think I'm standing, I'm usually face-down in a stampede.'" Then Butler adds, "I like to hear other women who are really bold and brash, who don't have to squash their selves; those are the people who make me comfortable with my own self." As a female front-woman of an all-male band -- the Skalars -- who has logged many road miles on all-male tours, she is speaking close to the bone. Maybe the musical hero is all the way inside the bone, inside the self, inside the soul.

Candice and Dana Bradley are sisters in their mid-teens (17 and 16, respectively) working their way through Hazelwood East High School. Dana strikes once again the keynote of this story: "I just listen to the music; I don't pay that much attention to the musicians." They are both habitual singers -- they sing "everything, anytime, everywhere," says Candice. Taking music in, then sending it back out, has a certain power. "It can help you endure a situation," Dana says. "It can take you away from a bad situation." Bad situations, she says, like "school, peers, grades, parents, working and studying every day" and (closer to the bone) "divorce, living with your stepmother, having to move around." That could bring a girl down. "When I feel sad," Dana says, "I listen to slow music." "You got to get quiet," Candice says, "be alone, think about the music; then you will have more focus on your situation."

One song that has focused them, that they (and their mother, Sandra Easter-Bradley) know by heart, is a Mariah Carey song titled -- of all things -- "Hero." "It's about her heroes," Candice says, "how they give her strength to carry on. It's a song that gives you strength to carry on; it gives you inspiration. She is saying, if you need help, don't worry, somebody will come along." In her summary of the song, Candice talks about somebody else coming along when you are in a time of need, but the lines from the song first tell a different story: "And you finally see the truth: That the hero lies in you." Is that the ultimate musical hero? That voice inside us that sings along with the song we need? "Your self?" Candice says, as if surprised. "Your hero? I guess. If you want to call that a hero. I guess if you dig deep enough, you will find the help you need.