Monday, April 10, 2006

Demographic Nostalgia

I'm sitting in the airport at Birmingham; everybody around me in the cafe is either on their cell phones or at their laptops. I'm reading (with my laptop open and my cell phone on the table) DJ Spooky's description in RHYTHM SCIENCE of sitting in the airport suspended between Frankfurt and New York.

But it's not the metaness of the moment that strikes me. Putting my airline ticket stub in the book as a place holder (what else are they good for?), I page back to the passage in which I discovered that I knew Spooky's parents. His father was a Dean at Howard University's Law School. Used to see him around DC -- But it was his mother I saw all the time. If you walked down Connecticut Avenue any day during my years in the city, you could see a large sign on a townhouse turned into a store that read "Toast and Strawberries." It was an eye-catching sign, a sort of neo-hippie script that seemed a holdover from an earlier age of warmth and innocence. I had been in the store many times with a succession of friends, and remember well the friendly greetings from the woman who owned the shop.

Spooky (AKA Paul D. Miller) describes himself as a product of DC -- and he is -- his work is exactly the sort of eclectic, cross-cultural bricolage that the city produces as second-nature. This is a kid who came of age during the "Go Go" explosion of bands like EU , the Junk Yard Band (not the one that got famous on radio -- but its predecessor, a group of talented kids playing on plastic tubs), Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers . . . a time that coincided exactly with the rise to prominence of Sweet Honey in the Rock. Just after the time when Donald Byrd and a band he formed out of his Howard students had a hit with a song about Rock Creek Park. Byrd had been a student once of Spooky's father (which doesn't prevent Spooky from spelling Byrd's name incorrectly in his book). The time of Spooky's coming of age was the time of DC's punk scene as well, with bands like Fugazzi and Bad Brains thrashing their way across the landscape. Bad Brains were about the first black punk band anybody saw, and anybody outside DC was still surprised by their mere existence, let alone their frantic speed soul. Spooky and I were in many of the same audiences at places like the 930 Club back when it was still in the 930 building. Just up the street a ways from Connecticut and Q, where Spooky mostly grew up amid the raga kids, punk kids and skateboard kids he remembers at Dupont Circle (these are, as anybody from the city would recognize, daytime memories of the Circle), C.J. Hall was living then just off Florida Avenue in a building that also housed members of Bad Brains. One of the Brains also worked with the Reggae group Black Uhuru -- It was that kind of time -- Going to see C.J., you'd run into rastas and punks in the hallway -- all of this just a few blocks from Toast & Strawberries -- In my last days in DC, Spooky probably walked past Anna and me as we rounded the corner on our first date.

Is this what Spooky means by "demographic nostalgia"?

But then I'm interrupted by the voice of Lester Bowie in my earphones. "All aboard for Duffvipels -- All aboard!"

Time to book --

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