Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Teenagers Dream

I'm never sure what I think about David Lynch. I've seen all of his work, obsessively. I taught an entire course in which we watched, for eight weeks straight, nearly everything he's ever done (except Dune. I know what I think about Dune. It sucks). Last January, I went all the way to LA for the express purpose of watching Inland Empire (well, and to hang out with friends).

I agree with one critic who called his gender politics 'reptilian.' But what keeps me hooked is that, better than any filmmaker I've ever seen, he evokes a transcendent state--that place where the seam opens up between worlds, where everything changes: the abyss, the Black Lodge, or what TS Eliot described as "looking into the heart of the light/The Silence."

In Lynch's movies, the catalyst for this trance, this wild and bright place, is always a woman in trouble: Isabella Rosellini, Sherylynn Fenn, Sheryl Lee, Laura Harring. And generally, when the male protagonist thinks of this woman, he falls into the trance, sees this light/shadow place. And that's when you know that she is about to get brutalized. For Lynch, the gate to that transcendent white space is a woman's battered body.

There's music too, a trigger--typically some nostalgic old 1950s pop song. David Lynch loves '50s nostalgia. It was, he says, the soundtrack of his perfect childhood. That nostalgic fantasy of perfect innocence is supposed to be the opposite of the violence--or else the exact same thing, depending on how forgiving of Lynch you're feeling.

My childhood was acid electric. I've never had much time for 1950s music. Stupid songs--nonsense syllables and weird tight harmonies, lyrics about teenagers falling in love, blue moons, blue shoes--that sort of thing that got Elvis all famous.

But like most banal popular music, that stuff has highly interesting origins: tough working class white kids and their streetcorner harmonies, poor black teenagers and their church and school choirs. The history is tragic, and typical. Record producers, looking for the next big thing, sold these kids--the black kids especially--a lot of promises, made them work their hearts out. The producers of 'race records' cashed in, most of the kids never saw a dime. Occasionally, there was a hit. But it was Elvis--the white man who could sing like a black man--who made it big.

So a couple of weeks ago, we were driving home along a lonely, dark stretch of highway just south of the Catskills. We rummaged around on the radio for NPR or something, and caught this incredible, old-fashioned radio show, the kind with an old-fashioned dj playing scratchy old vinyl--all vintage doo wop and R&B--stuff I've never heard on the radio, or anywhere before. The range of vocal experiment was fascinating--sounds you just simply don't hear, kids inventing all kinds of stuff, singing their hearts out, certain--American children that they were, that if they just tried hard enough, were good enough, they'd get rich and famous. This was their chance.

Then a tune came on that, for lack of a better description, put me in a trance. A young woman's voice, backed by several men. They were singing the usual stuff about teenagers and whatever. But their voices! They sounded like runaway angels, sneaking out behind the gates of heaven to steal a smoke and try to get famous. It was the girl's voice especially, that struck me.

She was singing about teenager's dreams. And in her voice, they were her dreams.

I wanted to know what became of that girl. I was pretty sure, given what I know of the pre-civil rights era, that it was probably nothing good. It was likely that her dreams got broken; they usually did. I got all ragey on her behalf, raging at every stupid pop song that every white kid obliviously danced to in every stupid sock hop half a century ago. And I got all aesthetically ragey at all the music I'd never heard, that nobody ever heard, because all that we get to hear is the slick popular stuff that sells. But this old stuff--this was a moment in musical history when anything was possible, and performers were playing with sounds for the sheer pleasure of the experiment.

This was revolution--the matrix of rock and roll. In 1953, the year that unpopular white kids in east coast suburban high schools began to risk being called "negro lovers" (along with all the other things they were called) for listening to these semi-forbidden 'race records,' the #1 Billboard hit was "How Much is that Doggie in the Window." By 1956, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers had broken into the Top 10 with "Why Do Fools Fall in Love." But I'd never heard anything like what this dj was playing--exuberant, eccentric tunes that never quite made it past the local airwaves--the stort of stuff now prized by aficianados and mostly out of print.

The DJ eventually came on, said the name of the band. I didn't hear it. I emailed the station to ask, describing the song. Got no response for a week. He called me today, finally--an old man with a gravely Jersey accent, happy that I'd enjoyed his show. He played me the entire cut on the telephone.

There, on the other end of the line, I closed my eyes and floated away, into a dreamspace--all the way, deep into the music. This hardly ever happens. And this song, that girl's voice, did it again. It was an odd moment of trust, surrendering to a stranger like that. But it was the telephone; he never saw my face, or my vulnerable bliss. Hardly anybody ever gets to see that face. This is a culture in which girls get brutalized when they get that face--it happens all the time in movies; I've seen it.

The singer is Pearl McKinnon, the band was the Kodaks, the song was Teenager's Dream. You can hear a clip of it here: www.allmusic.com/cg/amg.dll

She was a young black girl from New Jersey--14 when she recorded the song. She's still around, the old DJ told me. In her '60s, and still sings sometimes. Never really made it big. Got into the drugs. But god love her, she's still around.

All of the sites I found that talked about the Kodaks mostly described them as that band that could have been the Teenagers (as in Why Do Fools Fall in Love), but never made it. The only thing anybody said about Pearl McKinnon was that she was somebody's sister's friend, and she sounded like Frankie Lymon. Turned out that when the Teenagers got back together in the early '60s, McKinnon fronted for them instead of Lymon (a lot of people thought she _was_ him). And that's all they wrote.

In David Lynch movies, when a man hears a song about dreams, a woman dies, brutally. That's the way it usually goes.

But Pearl McKinnon, a 14 year old black girl from Newark, was singing her own dreams, making that dream space real, singing everything she had into it. It's not a sound that you hear much--not on the radio. She fronted two bands, and for awhile started her own, in an era and a genre dominated by young men. And she might not have made it big, but she survived.

I've heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I think that they just might sing to me.

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