Armagideon Time

Sunday drives became a big thing in our house during my early teens. Every week my parents, Lil Bro and me would pile into the family car and head out on a meandering path to some scenic location. Plum Island one week, the Mohawk Trial the next — the destination didn’t matter as much as the opportunity to get out and bond as a nuclear family after half a decade of sharing quarters with my father’s disabled mother and youngest sister. At the trip’s conclusion, we’d have dinner at Thackeray’s or the 99 before rolling home to watch whatever movie was airing on TV that night.

I have fond memories of those Sundays. They were too-short flashes of normality against a backdrop of utter dysfunction, and tantalizing glimpses at What Could’ve Been if my parents had been stronger or their demons had been a little weaker. The exercise in family bonding may not have arrested our downward spiral, but it did change my life in one extremely significant way — it introduced me, by way of a heavily edited broadcast airing, to the Blues Brothers movie.

It wasn’t entirely uncharted territory for me, but near enough to it. Belushi and Ackroyd were familiar faces, “Rubber Biscuit” had been a novelty staple on the rock radio stations my teenage aunt listened to, and I’d read John Landis’s account of making the film from a Twilight Zone Magazine interview. Being of an age where cinematic merit was still judged by the presence of monsters, spaceships or superheroes, however, I never bothered to seek the movie out (or, more accurately, sit through a TV broadcast showing of it). That probably would’ve been the case on that evening, save for my desire to extend the all-to-rare and deeply cherished moment of familial togetherness.

Whether or not those warm and fuzzy feelings colored my response to The Blues Brothers, the movie sunk its hooks but deep into me. I’m a sucker for stories about close siblings, especially slightly off kilter ones where the relationship is as much forged by outside pressures as by blood ties. My parents made a dedicated effort to stress the bond Lil Bro and I shared (which was a bit weird considering how strained their sibling relationships were), which was only reinforced by the insular oddness of our domestic life. To this day, the pair of us share a strange symbolic language — an instantly transmitted understanding of certain things which even our spouses can’t really grasp.

Jake and Elwood Blues also had it, adding a deeply personal resonance to their comedic romp through Northern Illinois. It functioned as the throughline for an uneven episodic mess of a movie that lurched from one musical/comedic/stunt setpiece to another before settling into an absurdly overlong car chase sequence. Andrew Age 13 thought it was pure genius from beginning to end.

What really got me, though, was the music — a mix of blues, soul, novelty numbers, and big band scat performed by veteran talents and enthusiastic amateurs. It didn’t matter to be if Belushi and Ackroyd were up to the material or not. If the homage fell short, the point was lost on me. The movie was my first real exposure to those sounds outside commercial jingles and occasional oldies station spins, and I loved what I heard.

It helped that the mid-Eighties had been a dry patch for me. The styles and genres that shepherded my developing tastes through the pre-adolescent days had faded from the scene. Hard rock had given way to sappy power ballads and Top 40 new wave had lost its apocalyptic sheen and gone plastic pop. For a while I drifted into the realm of knuckle-dragging demi-metal, but that impulse was largely peer-driven and faded after my childhood social circle got scattered to the harsh winds of middle school. Mostly I just listened to whatever happened to be in heavy rotation on V-66 (Boston’s answer to MTV) or other local music video package programs at the moment. (So if you were wondering why I know all the words to Jack Wagner’s “All I Need,” there’s your answer.)

Did I like the music because of the movie or did I like the movie because of the music? It could’ve been either or both. What I did know is that I had to find a copy of Blues Brothers soundtrack. None of my usual places for buying music (read: “bargain racks at chain department stores”) had one in stock, so I had to content myself with a tape of Briefcase Full of Blues my aunt dubbed for me off her LP copy. The quality wasn’t that great to begin with, and only got muddier after hours of repeated play on my shitty secondhand boombox.

I eventually found a cassette copy of the soundtrack at a Strawberries on Cambridge Road in Burlington, a memory I can recall with the type of clarity usually reserved for such events as the JFK assassination or Challenger explosion. I can still visualize every crack in the road and feel the resistance from my ten-speed’s pedals, each moment bringing me closer to cranking my coveted prize through the finest Panasonic had to offer half a decade earlier. There are many albums where I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve listened to them, but you could rack up the total spins of The Clash and Entertainment and Germfree Adolescents and Star and the tally would still only amount to a fraction of the plays the Blues Brothers soundtrack racked up from 1985 to 1988.

Wanting more, I sought out The Best of Sam & Dave, which was featured (with a pair of tracks) in the movie during the lead up to the shopping mall scene. This, too, turned out to be difficult to find in the suburban wastelands of mid-Eighties Boston, but the search became a revelatory experience in it’s own right. Digging through the bins turned up other collections featuring Sam & Dave….and Aretha Franklin…and Otis Redding…and Wilson Pickett…and Carla Thomas…and Joe Tex…and Jackie Wilson…

Links upon links and leads upon leads, each one offering something exciting and new to my ears. Without even realizing it, I’d went from being a fan of the Blues Brothers to a fan of Sixties soul in general. It was all good, but I had a specific adoration for the Atlantic/Stax/Volt sound, with its thumping backbeats and emotive rawness that could make the tragic feel celebratory and the celebratory feel tragic. By the time a copy of The Best of Sam & Dave showed up at Lechmere’s music section, I was already a stone cold convert to the hip-shaking cause.

Over time, I expanded out a little into other sixties pop and rock scenes — folk rock, psych, instrumental surf — but soul remained at the core of my fandom. The stronger it grew, the less I found myself listening to the Blues Brothers. They’d paved the way, but had become redundant after I’d immersed myself in the genuine article.

My interest in the music guttered out in the months following my mother’s death in 1988. There was no heel turn or animus involved, just a need to move on and reclaim a sense of self after my world had been turned upside down. Soul and Sixties music was intimately entwined with my previous life, thus had to be shelved along with all the other aspects of that period I felt compelled to discard.

It also didn’t help that soul music loomed so large in my memories of junior high and the lead up to the big tragic event. Even after my tastes loosed up and I shed the more puritanical tendencies of punk, it remained a difficult thing to revisit. My mother’s death and my family’s dysfunctions had little to do with it. The memories of my awkward, sloppy spastic immaturity loomed much larger when it came associative pain. Every teen is a mess and lives a life fraught with embarrassment, but not ever teen has that exhibition scored by Memphis soul standards.

Ducky’s big Otis Redding moment in Pretty in Pink was supposed to portray the dream, but to my eyes it’s the stuff of repressed nightmares. And I never hit such a dubious high mark in those days.

The process of making peace with the idiot I used to be has been both painful and glacially paced. It wasn’t until the turn of the millennium that I was able to extricate soul music from that tangle of ancient angst, and be able to luxuriate to the sounds of that sweet backbeat without wincing in after-the-fact agony. I started diving back into the scene, expanding my music library, and chasing down old favorites and fresh discoveries.

Yet even as I started recreating my old collection on vinyl, it took a long while and a lot of deliberation when it came to scoring a replacement copy of The Blues Brothers soundtrack. The Best of Sam & Dave was an easy purchase (once I found the “correct” pressing among the many offered), but The Blues Brothers was so tightly bound up with my adolescent sense of self I doubt I’ll ever be able to disassociate it fully from those old scars. That applies as much to the movie as it does the soundtrack. Whatever appreciation remains is haunted by ghosts which refuse to be laid to rest. There’s no rational reason for it, but rationality fled this scene decades ago.

I did buy a copy for the sake of completeness, listened to it once, flinched a dozen times, then shelved it in a place of honor where it will likely remain until my death.

One Response to “Back to Wax #33: Confessions of a blue-eyed soul boy”

  1. sjb

    Jackie Wilson…sadly seems forgotten and underrated these days

    FWIW, check some of Little Richard’s more soulful turns (ex: I don’t know what you’ve got)

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