Life has a funny way of sneaking up you when you least expect it. Sometimes it’s a friendly tap on the shoulder just to remind you of how good you have it. Other times, it bites you in the ass and says ‘hey pal, you lucky son of a bitch, stop complaining, get out there and BE somebody.’ Oh sure, there are times when you want to roll over and play dead and you feel you’re running out of steam. “That’s life, that’s what people say, you’re riding high in April, shot down in May.” Then I think about some less fortunate friends of mine who always seem to be smiling. Hmmm…curious isn’t it? Perhaps it’s called humility. But then, you know how it goes: You suddenly hear that Mrs. Cleaver voice whispering softly “Remember, there’s always someone who has it worse!” Just once I want scream back, “Oh is that right June? You know what? I have it pretty bad right now lady! You’re living in some white-bred upper middle class suburb while I’m crawling through this world on both knees trying to claw out a meagre living doing my plunk-plunk like some two-bit hustler. Put that in your porcelain pipe and smoke it!” Of course these words are never spoken as you know she’s right. There IS always someone who has it worse then you, however, as Arlo Guthrie so famously said “What about the last guy? Nobody has it worse than that guy? ” My mind went down this precarious tunnel and life began tapping me on the shoulder again. This led to a series of events which resulted in a full on awaking. It happened only three weeks ago. I’m talking full-on watershed moment. The friendly tap turned into a full on bite.
I was finally off of the road and staying with family for a brief hiatus. It was a great time to decompress from the road noise and get back to the simple things. Some reading, writing, attempts at homemade cooking (still awful), catching up with old friends over a few pints (perfected that one) and best of all – sleeping! It has been years since I’ve sat down in front of the idiot box to watch anything other than a passing sports game or a news highlight, but now I was in the land of the equipped home where high-speed internet access and HBO movies rain down like pennies from heaven. I ultimately gave way to my temptation after relentless pressure from my niece to watch the HBO series ‘The Wire’. After weeks of her insistence I realized there must have been another reason why she was so intent on having ME specifically watch this show? Without questioning her intentions, I sat down on a Monday night to watch it – a show I knew absolutely nothing about. It was wide open to my interpretation and I expected to tune out (as usual) after thirty minutes. (The only thing to have held my attention over the past year being Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, and this ‘Wire’ would surely be another urbane pop culture phenomenon which would lose its lustre after one episode.) And so it began.
Much like reading War and Peace it’s a story that you will likely want to give up on in the opening cycle. They say if you can get through the first two hundred pages of War and Peace then you’re good to go. They also say you’ll never again be able to recapture that feeling you had when you FIRST read the book in its entirety. Agreed – been there. I was ready to give up on the Wire after two episodes for a variety of reasons. It reeked of a soap opera; I felt out of my depth in so many ways; I couldn’t understand the African American dialect in urban Baltimore. My exposure to Ebonics has been (sadly) limited to occasional forays into hip-hop culture through radio or other mediums, often introduced to me through other artists on the road. These artists I might add are usually skinny white kids from the burbs – or Humber Jazz Jail escapees –who all refer to themselves as roots artists (Let’s call them little Beaver Cleavers for this argument). They are all polite, white and uptight. They all secretly wish to be black. Why? It’s cooler. It’s the underdog thing. Hey, you try oppression for a couple hundred years then come and talk to me about acting free. You’re going sing like you mean it. You’re going walk with your head held high in spite of the obstacles life has given you. You ARE the last guy – no one has it worse than you. You will express it through your art. You will find your own language to express it. You can laugh at the white kids imitating you. You’ve won. If only a little victory, you’ve won. There is a still a massive cultural war of oppression taking place but it’s these little battles. Suddenly, I find myself through the fifth episode and I’m rattled to the core. I turn it off and walk away. The Wire has awakened strange feelings of shame, guilt, passion, humour and best of all – empathy.
I feel it’s a great time to Wikipedia the history of the show and then I’m even more blown away. I thought what I was watching was contemporary – A cutting edge modern HBO drama of life on the streets in Baltimore circa 2010. I find out that season one was filmed in 2002! Are you kidding me? Where in the hell have I been- 2002? WTF? I read more. Now I’m obsessed. The show is considered by some critics to be the best television show of all time. Really? Dubious? Yes! I read on. Now I know too much and it may ruin the experience so I decide to put the computer away and dig in. I find all five seasons on HBO and know that a commitment to this will likely take months. It didn’t. It took four days. I walked out of my cave after four marathon days only to have had my basic perceptions about ‘life’ – altered. I was firmly bit in the ass. What happened?
Without really getting into it too much (for that is pointless – just watch it) The Wire explores life through the eyes of the Baltimore police department, a drug dealing crime syndicate, church, state and municipal politics, media, race etc…in such an honest way, it’s impossible not to be moved by each character – each scene! It’s Shakespearian. Every character has a sense of nobility while being intrinsically flawed- they are human. They’ve written a character for all of us. I couldn’t help identify with the hard drinking Irish cop – McNulty – who’s anti-establishment ways spill over into his personal life resulting in over indulgences of booze and women to the point of just being a reckless asshole. Been there McNulty (still trying to cage the beast man). When it was all done, I walked away with one distinct feeling: I had much more empathy for the plight of North American black people than I ‘believed’ I had already owned. Let’s take a step back into time for a minute.
Sault Ste. Marie in Northern Ontario in 1972 wasn’t quite known for having visible minorities. I remember with absolute clarity, the day my mother dropped me off to pre-school at the YMCA for daycare and my desk partner was cool kid named Owen. Owen and me were inseparable. We went everywhere together. I came home and told my father – “Dad, Owen is coming over to play…he’s my black friend.” I thought I’d earned a special status in the eyes of the world for being such a progressive little kid. Look at me! I have a black friend. Finally, one day Owen reminded me that he didn’t want me to keep talking about his skin colour in front of everyone. It made him feel strange. He also said he was glad to have me as a friend and that colour didn’t matter. How much could I understand about all of this? I was only four. He assured me that ‘black’ was an acceptable term and I assured him ‘white’ was good enough for me. At the time, Sesame Street was in its infancy and we were all glued to it. It was those multi-cultural real life people on the street that made everything seem so great. The Sesame Street world was a truly inclusive world of positive people of all race, colour and creed. This lead to exploring the channels for more children’s programming until I found my new favourite – The Electric Company. Man this was cutting edge. This was what Owen would be watching. It was the black version of Sesame Street only much cooler. Disco beats, flashy characters, great stories, better music. The Electric Company reigned supreme. I was hooked. Suddenly, I found myself starting in a new school and I would only see Owen on occasion. Slowly but surely, our friendship faded and we lost touch. I ran into him in a hockey rink about fifteen years later and said “Holy smokes – Owen! I can’t believe it’s you! Do you remember me? It’s Jay Aymar from the YMCA Pre-school days?” He looked at me with a straight face and said “Sorry man I don’t remember you!” That was that.
The impressions made on me through that idiot box (the 70’s equivalent of a pacifier) in those formative years are not lost on me today. They run deep and truly make up a large sense of my moral compass. Likely stronger than the countless hours of daydreaming and fake-praying at Good Counsel Parish drooling over some random Catholic girls five pews over. Yes my love of black culture started with a crazy little kids show – The Electric Company. Then things drifted into more adult territory as I discovered WKBD – an amazing Detroit station which was picked up in The Sault. It was here I watched countless hours of sitcoms like – Good Times, The Jefferson’s and my personal and all-time favourite “Sanford and Son”. I drew no distinction between Freddie G. Sanford, Archie Bunker and my old man. None! All just grumpy old men with big old goofy hearts! I quickly ditched my Bill Cosby records to seek out Red Fox records. I found some too! They were too graphic for a teen. Hell they’re too blue for most adults! Still! All roads lead to Richard Pryor which seemingly still no one can touch. Eddie Murphy updated it – but Richard was the original. Like Carlin updated Bruce and so on. The original is always better. In Carlin’s case, he morphed into a brilliant sociological orator later in life and basically elevated his entire artistry to amazing heights. He went out on top. Pryor at his apex was untouchable though.
This all lead to amazing explorations into black culture for me. I soon discovered Mile Davis, Coltrane, Nat King Cole, Stevie Wonder, Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier. Blaxploitation movies – all of them! This led me to funk. Funk brought me to the Sugar Hill Gang who lead me to Run DMC to….you see where this is going? Boy did I have a lot to learn. Here I was feeling righteous about my affinity for black culture because of one early childhood friend and an onslaught of pop-culture. What a fraud. Everything slipped off my radar in the late 80’s and suddenly I was playing my own music – stuff so far removed from some of my passions. Bob Dylan don’t sound much like Parliament but I’ve come to learn – they ain’t that far off either.
In my teens, the Mormon’s (The Church of the Latter Day Saints) began running promotional TV spots on WKBD. They were always discussing ethical dilemmas. There was one which starts with a kid and his grandfather in a fishing boat and the kid says:
“Grandpa, yesterday Jimmy said I was prejudice. What does prejudice mean Grandpa?”
“Who’s Jimmy” said Grandpa
“Jimmy’s my Jewish friend!” says the kid
“Well” said Grandpa “you are prejudice, because you think of Jimmy as your Jewish friend and not just your friend!”
Grandpa was right! That little advertisement always stuck with me and kept me in check after that. I thought I would shelve the self-righteous bullshit about being the only inclusive kid in my hometown and stop walking with this secret as though I was morally superior. As I found out, it was simply a generational thing and most of my good friends were going through the same discoveries. The only real prejudice we would run into were from those kids who had to deal with that learned behaviour at home. Weird scenes inside the goldmines of some of those fathers let me tell you. I didn’t like going into to those houses. Most of those kids broke free from those notions and never looked back. It was real – whether we like to admit it or not.
Flash forward to 2012 and as if some long forgotten dream, I am exploring these original feelings once again. It took pop culture (The Wire) to force me into this realization. It suddenly dawned on me why my niece was so adamant that I watch this. She wanted to extend her millennial hand to my gen-x heart and say ‘Uncle Jay, see what you’ve missed over these past twenty years!’ She was wise in doing so. Her i-pod is filled with amazing hip-hop artists who now cite RUN DMC as innovators and as for the Sugar Hill Gang? Well they must fall into the elder statesman category. I remember reading a Rolling Stone article about ten years ago asking other artists what the biggest musical innovation had been in recent memory. Without fail, almost all of them cited hip hop! I remember both Sting and Bono said this. When they asked Bob Dylan, he curiously stated he didn’t think it would hold up. Why? As I recall his answer was ‘less is more’. Interesting answer as I’ve always thought some of Dylan’s ramblings are extremely wordy some simply don’t hold up for that reason.
Anyway, my love affair with television had me ‘amused to death’ (thank you Roger Waters) and I was in desperate need of human contact. It was time to ‘tune out, turn off and drop in’ (sorry Mr. Leary) and so without further ado I showered up and made my way downtown to partake in an auction for my good friend who was raising money for a new album. I had nervously agreed to be put up for auction to a room full of friends and acquaintances. Upon arrival, I met up with my publicist and one of his clients – Shakura – who had both agreed to be auctioned off for the good cause. We bonded immediately. Her presence and positive energy only highlighted her beauty and yet she carried a self-deprecating charm about her. Right up my alley – I knew we’d get along. We mutually shared out histories with each other and then without missing a beat I decided to get right down to business:
“Have you ever seen The Wire Shakura? I’ve just watched it and it’s changed my life.” I sensed she was familiar with it. I continued “I thought I understood black culture Shakura but I know nothing. I mean, my original friend in life…Owen…well he was a black kid from my hometown. Oh yeah I’m originally from Sault Ste. Marie and bla bla bla…” I rambled on for a bit until I saw her laugh. She said, “I’ve heard that’s a great show Jay. Very realistic. I haven’t seen it yet.” She could not know this, but from that particular moment in time – in my unique headspace – I felt that meeting her that night was by design. I just knew it. Finally, a friend of Shakura’s joined us at the table. “Jay, meet my friend, I had to call him down for back up!” “Why?” I asked. “Well, my black friends didn’t like it too much when I said I was going down to a room full of white folks to be auctioned off!” We laughed….and laughed. Suddenly from the stage I heard the auctioneer… “Jay Aymar” you’re up.
I took the long walk up to the stage. The world slowed down to a crawl. The noisy, crowded bar was caught up in revelry and the auctioneers’ voice was lost to the drone of the party. Seconds dragged on like hours as I stood waiting for anyone to bid on me…”Let’s start the bidding at twenty dollars…tick….tick….tick…Come on ladies….twenty dollars….and as time wound down to a waltzing pace….through the sea of white faces arose the slender arm of Shakura – “Twenty dollars!” I slunk off of the stage and back to my table. “Thank you Shakura…I can’t thank you enough.” “Hey, it’s not too often I get to own a white guy! What do I get with my thirty minutes?” We laughed again. Such a great spirit and a beautiful girl.
I came home that night and finished a song I’d been working on. It’s about all of this. I am proud of it. It’s about this dialogue. I’m proud of that four year old child, who like any child, should be born colour blind. I’m also ready to talk about it all. Dialogue is the supreme healer. Anyway I’m happy to report there is still some artistry to be found on Television. I was starting to worry that ‘editors’ have become the new story tellers with this absurd so-called ‘Reality TV’ phenomenon. Closest thing I’ve seen to reality through pop-culture in my life time is on HBO right now. Its five seasons ended in 2008 with 60 episodes in total. Tune out – Turn off – Get Wired. Thank me later.