Monday, April 30, 2012

How Disco Music and Van McCoy and "The Hustle" Saved My Life



"Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it's time to pause and reflect." - Mark Twain


In the mid-1970s, disco music boomed onto the scene. It was everywhere and everyone liked it. That is, everyone, excepting for me and a few of my dork friends. We hated disco music and everything that had to do with disco music with a passion. I hated the music, lyrics, fashion, dance steps and cliques. Still do.


That being said, though, that disco boom of the mid-seventies and, especially, the massive 1975 group dance hit by Van McCoy, "The Hustle," saved my life... 


If you are over 40 or so, you probably know that disco hit called, "The Hustle." Not only was this a smash hit on radio, it brought back a group dance boom that the United States hadn't seen since the mid 1960s with dances like "the Twist" and "the Madison." I'll bet that there are very many people reading this right now who have never heard of "the Madison" or the smash hit "Madison Time," but they know "the Hustle." Even in the boom days of "the Hustle," I hadn't realized that most people didn't know that the dance was a throw back to the group "line dance" craze of the late 1950s to mid-1960s! I thought that everyone knew. But it seems they didn't! 


Here's a clip of line dancing called "Madison Time" from the movie "Hairspray." This is very much like "the Hustle" style line dancing that would come along just a decade or so later.


(This would be me and my reaction if I were sitting in front of this watching 
and these people were facing me and dancing like this)

But this post isn't about dance steps. It's about how a dance changed my life... Not like how dance changed John Travolta's life in Saturday Night Fever... But how a dance changed my life and I never even danced that dance - not even once in my life! 


I never really understood why I hated disco so much (besides the banal lyrics like Donna Summer's, "There's gonna be some hot stuff baby this evening! Hot stuff baby tonight!" or today's dance number, Van McCoy's "the Hustle" which featured brilliant prose like "Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, .... Do it!" - as well as the drum machine repetitive drone). I've disliked lots of things, but one could ignore them. Disco was a different story. Disco was everywhere. You couldn't avoid it; you couldn't ignore it. Like a crazy stalker girlfriend, disco was everywhere you went. Maybe that's why I hated it so much; it was everywhere all the time.  Disco music and disco dancing even turned normal people into fashion zombie drones.


"Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh.... Do it!" 


Maybe, though, that's not the only reason I hated it so much. Maybe a psychologist would say I hated it so much because of my past history, my insecurities and repressed emotions. That my life's history of failing to conform and win friends (no matter how hard I tried) and repeated failures at becoming popular probably made me hate the conformity that disco music taught and the group-think mentality it promoted... Especially with the group dance boom that it brought along in its wake. 

Hard to believe but, after disco, and again because 
of John Travolta, it did get even worse!

As an aside, one girl I knew, who is still a friend, once asked me why I wouldn't take her dancing at the disco and I told her that I hated that kind of music and didn't want to dress up and comb my hair like that. I just wanted to wear jeans and T-shirts and not try to look like John Travolta. She snarled, "You just don't like to have fun!" 


"That's odd!" I thought... "Until now, I had the notion that I very much enjoyed having fun!" I didn't say anything back to her. Maybe I was the only person in the world who thought "having fun" wasn't "having fun!" 


God! I didn't want to have fun! I never realized it. I had never really thought about it before. 


What could I say? How can anyone argue with brilliant logic like that? 

But I didn't think disco was "fun." Nope. For some reason, it felt like narcissism (not that I wasn't guilty of that) and it was the ultimate in crass consumerism. I felt that if "having fun" meant like dressing like everyone else in expensive designer clothes (I hate spending tons of money on clothes); if it meant dressing like a store mannequin and styling my hair like Dorthy Hammill (like everyone else was doing), then I didn't want to do it.

Dorthy Hamill won some medals at the Olympics and then many girls (and guys!!!) 
started styling their hair in a wedge like she did. Just goes to show how 
much influence the mass media has on an unthinking and gullible public...

I hated disco so much because it represented being a part of the crowd and a cog. Maybe I was one of those people who were "part of the crowd" but it felt good being someone who at least posed like they were against the "group-think."


And that's what is so odd. I had tried so hard to be popular and to be a "part of the crowd" all my life! But I never succeeded. I was always a loner, an outcast with few friends... Maybe that's the real reason why I hated disco and didn't want to participate. Why participate in something when I'm just going to wind up being outcast and disappointed anyway? 

But besides the philosophical slant (how can one be philosophical about disco music?) I cannot say that there is a single disco song that I like. I think that so-called "black music" and "soul music" went to hell in a hand basket because of the disco boom. Early seventies so-called black music like Stevie Wonder's "Innervisions" or Al Green's "I'm Still in Love With You" were, in my opinion, the pinnacle of great black music in the seventies (though the Spinners had some great records too!) And, because of disco, with it's cheap assembly line production, we were to never have another Golden Music boom like what Motown gave us in the sixties...  

But I digress... Let me get back to telling you how a music I hated so much saved my life...

All my life I had been a very insecure kid. My father was in the US marines and we moved constantly when I was a small boy. I always had trouble in school and, like I said, don't really remember having that many friends. I had always wanted to be a part of the group and tried anything to be accepted by my peers. That's why I often got in trouble; I'd try to be funny to gain popularity with the other kids and that would be just when the teacher would catch me in the act and send me to the principal's office.

Because of this moving all the time, I had no self-confidence. The symptoms of this lack of confidence are too numerous to name, but one example that sticks out is that I had always felt like I was the shortest kid in class and had a serious inferiority complex to the other kids. I wrote about I overcame that in The Best Teacher in High School I Ever Had Wasn't a School Teacher - She Was an Extremely Beautiful Girl Who Was My Classmate.

As a small boy, my first dash with getting a serious inferiority complex was at my very first school that I remember in San Diego. I must have been five-years-old and in the madhouse that is California public schooling. 


One day, at school (and the only day I do remember - that shows how much of a mark this experience left on me), I really had to take a, well, as kids would say, "a dump." Even in the elementary school boys toilet, the stalls didn't have doors! Can you imagine how embarrassing that is to a little kid who is going poo outside without mommy for probably the first time in his life? No doors? No privacy? No mommy!? WTF?


Of course, mommy isn't at school... But why were there no doors on the stalls? Were elementary school kids doing drugs in California public school restrooms in the early 1960s so that the school had to remove the doors?! 

I didn't want to sit on a toilet without a door. I wanted to at least have some minimum level of privacy. But no! Nature called very loudly so I had no choice. I pulled my pants down in a stall and sat on the stool hoping that no one would come along and see me. Of course, though, not one minute later, two kids came along and started mocking me. Even at five years old, a kid can know severe embarrassment. I immediately pulled my pants up, without finishing my business, and ran out of the bathroom and back to class.


Even 5-year-olds have a sense of what is embarrassing or not

What kind of education is the school system setting these children up for? A five-year-old kid in a California public school can't even have a public bathroom with a door on it to take a dump in private - he has to be embarrassed and ridiculed as a part of his public education? Why?...

Later, back in class, I did my best to hold it in, but couldn't and then, all of a sudden, it all came out as I sat at my desk. The smell wafted through the classroom and the teacher noticed it and stood up and said something about it. She told us not to be embarrassed if we needed help (Jeez! The school should have thought about not embarrassing us by putting doors on the stalls!) 


As the teacher walked around the class trying to sniff out the culprit, I tried my best to look nonchalant. I think she knew it was me but, bless her heart, she didn't say anything and the bell finally rang and school was out.

I ran home crying and when I got home I told my mom that I never wanted to go to school again. Seems to me that she didn't make me go to that school again. A few weeks later, we moved to Memphis, Tennessee anyway.


But what an embarrassing experience. That happened about 50 years ago... This is the first time I've told anyone about that (I just told my wife for the first time)... Think that sort of experience leaves a lasting impression on a young mind? Fifty years ago and I still remember it like yesterday...

After that, my school days all become a blur. My family moved to Tennessee and a few other states and then moved to Minnesota where I attended four different schools in five years or so because we moved all around Minnesota too! Living in Minnesota, though, added another dimension to the "kid who doesn't fit in nor have any friends" story for me; not only was I a new and extremely self-conscious kid with zero confidence that had no friends, I was a half-Japanese and half-white kid living in places that were full of people with Germanic and Danish backgrounds. You know, tall, blond hair, blue eyes... And sprechen sie Deutsch? 

The only other Japanese people around - hell the only other Asians around - were my mom and my half-Japanese brothers. This made me, and my brothers (it was a definite mind-f*ck), embrace a decidedly "I'm white" attitude at school in order to try to gain some acceptance. 


So the point that I am getting at is that, in a nutshell, when I was a kid, I moved around a lot and was always an "outsider" with few friends... Whether I was on the "white-side" of the fence or the "Japanese-side" of the fence.

All my youth years, I had always longed to be accepted and popular and "one of the group." I probably would have longed for that acceptance all my life... But, one day, I realized that I didn't want it anymore. And, had it not been for disco music and "the Hustle" - things I despise - I would have never realized that I don't want to be accepted. I don't want to be a part of the group. I don't want to be a part of the so-called, "in-crowd."


It was 1977 or so and I was dating a Japanese / American girl named Lucy (not her real name). Lucy was a nice girl and she lived in the town next to where I lived. I met her while working at a department store.


Lucy was friends with all the kids in the Japanese / American community. I liked that. I thought that I had found people that I could relate to. I wanted to be a part of them. I wanted to be a friend with all of them; to be accepted as one of them and "fit in." I had some weird idea that they all shared the same kind of background and upbringing as I did. 


How totally wrong I was! They were as different from me as the good German folks were in Minnesota!


I've already told you about my upbringing, so let me make gross, and sometimes wildly off the mark, generalizations about theirs. They grew up as a minority community in Southern California. Even though the Japanese / American community was small, they still had a community and friends in school whose parents were friends of their parents. They had brothers and sisters and cousins who were friends of their brothers and sisters and cousins. They had each other. I'm not criticizing them at all for that. I envied them for that. I still do.


They had a brotherhood - a sisterhood - that I had always wanted, but never could have... How lucky they are! It is these kinds of relationships that make up the fabric of a strong society and culture...


There is something, though, that I don't envy those people at the time at all for. And, as I got to know them better, I grew to despise it. I could see it in the words and actions of some of the kids in that group; It was a cliquishness and a snobbery... And, because of my past, I didn't like cliques. Probably because I was never able to be in one. 


I really don't know if this snobbery extended to me (I never felt it), but I saw them extending it to each other, amongst themselves. Simply put, the children of the wealthier parents of the Japanese / American community were snobs to the children of the not-so-wealthy in that community.


Being a half-Japanese half-white person (and looking white), as well as coming from a relatively poor family, it struck me as incredibly odd that these kids were snobbish to each other over money. Kids! After all, they did nothing to earn this status and money by themselves. It was their parents who provided them with lots of new clothes and expensive cars... They shouldn't be snobbish. If anything, they should be humble! It was their parents who gave them everything! They didn't earn those things themselves. So why should they act so conceited? What had they accomplished? Like that Stevie Wonder song, "You haven't done nothing! Doo de wop!" 


Those young people - my peers - and those days really remind me of the saying by Will Rogers about how the children of the rich become poor; "It's one generation from a pick-axe to a putter and the next generation from a tuxedo to a tramp."


Now you know about me. Now you know about them. Now, how could these things and disco music mix together to change my thinking so much?


One day, Lucy, invited me to one of the parties being held by some of the wealthier kids in that Japanese / American community and I really didn't want to go. I had already been to a few of their parties before and the more I attended, the more I didn't like going. Once again, even with these people who I had at first felt like they were "kin" I found that I was just as much an outsider to them as I had ever been to anyone anywhere else.


I began to feel uncomfortable going to these parties that were filled with Japanese / American kids and I told Lucy so. These parties didn't seem fun to me. I really feel ashamed to sound like I am criticizing, but this is my blog so I want to write what I really felt - even if I sound childish and hypocritical. Most all of the kids at these parties seemed like they, too, weren't having fun. It seemed like the party's were full of frustrated people - including me! Everyone was going to these parties to try to outdo each other. The parties seemed like exercises in getting a bunch of people together (that you don't really like) and trying to impress each other (for reasons you don't really understand)... That included me too! Why was I going to these parties to impress people that didn't like me and I didn't like them?


Talk about the stupid stuff we do when we are in our late teens and early twenties!  


For me, it was like putting on a mask and going to a party to impress people by acting like someone that I was not.... It wasn't fun at all!


Of course, not all the kids were that way... There were 5 girls at these parties who were the most charming and gracious people you could ever hope to meet... There must have been others... Maybe I was too snobbish, too, to meet them.

Anyway, Lucy wouldn't have it and insisted that we go to the party "just for a little while." I reluctantly agreed (actually, I just wanted to go have a nice quiet dinner and maybe a movie somewhere) but insisted that I wasn't going to dress up in nice clothes and was just going to wear my usual black leather jacket, blue jeans and T-shirt. She said, "Ok!" So to the party we went.


The party was, as I said, at some kid with wealthy parent's house. I walked in to the party and knew immediately that I was in somewhere where I shouldn't be. All the guys were dressed up in designer clothes with polo shirts and had the requisite wedge haircut. I groaned. Lucy told me that there was food on the table so I grumbled "Hi!" to a few people (just the girls) and walked over to the table and started stuffing sandwiches and beer into my pockets.


Boy, did I ever feel like a fox in the henhouse. Here I was looking like a slob in this house full of Japanese / American kids and everyone looked like they just stepped out of a Yves St. Laurent sales catalogue. Me? I looked like the used clothes depot at the Salvation Army!


Lucy saw me cramming sandwiches into my pockets and ran over and started getting mad at me. Boy, was I ever acting like a brat! I think about it now and wonder why in the world she ever put up with me! She told me to sit down on the sofa in this very large room and try not to embarrass her too much. Then she went back to chat with her posh friends.


It was there, in that large room, that disco music and "the Hustle" changed my life all within 3 minutes!


When I first went into that large room to sit, there was no one in there but me. The tables had all been moved out so it was a an especially spacious room that easily 40 people could dance in. As I sat on the sofa eating sandwiches and drinking beer, curiously, one by one, different people entered the room and stood in a line facing towards me and the sofa I was sitting on. I had no idea what these people were doing.


First there were two people. Then four. Then eight... A few minutes later there were ten, then fifteen... Twenty... Twenty five. Thirty.... I began to get nervous. 


"Why are all these people in a line and facing me?" I thought. Nervousness turned into paranoia. There they stood, in military line; a sort of regimentation, all facing me. What was their purpose? Were they all finally sick and tired of my bullsh*t and had decided to get together and tell me off and kick my a*s out of the party? Did the guys know Karate or Judo? Had they joined forces to work up the courage to finally say, "Rogers! Your kind ain't welcomed here, cowboy! Get out now!" 


What were they about to do?


I stared at them, mouth wide open when, the lights were turned down... I didn't know what to expect then.... The music started! 


They began doing "the Hustle" right in front of me. I thought I had slipped into some TV-hell time warp and fallen onto the set of the Soul Train TV show and these kids were doing the Hustle - just for me! 


Click this and imagine that you are me watching this occurring right in front of my face! I watched this and my jaw dropped to my knees. It was like a bad acid trip. I totally freaked out!





Brilliantly devious!!! Of course they did hate me! Why didn't I think of it sooner? They didn't want me at their parties either but if they told me not to come anymore, then that would be rude. What better way to get me to stay away from their parties than by dancing "the Hustle" right in front of my face - giving me a bad "trip" - thereby motivating me to never want to step in their homes again! Genius!

All joking aside. I couldn't believe it. Maybe that sort of dancing thing is fun. Maybe I was (am) screwed up and don't like having fun. But I just couldn't handle it anymore.... I felt like I was freaking out! 


I watched the kids dancing and then quietly stood up and trying to not draw too much attention to myself, I quietly took a few sidesteps towards the door. Within a second, I was outside the room. I had escaped from the mad house. I found Lucy and told her that I was leaving and never going to one of these parties again. I went outside and waited for her in my car.


I told her that I was going to wait for her for thirty minutes at the most and, if she didn't come out, then I was going to leave...

When she came out to my car, Lucy and I had another, of many, big fights. 


But it was OK. For the first time in my life I realized that I wasn't a part of the crowd... She was right and I was totally wrong. I wasn't a part of the crowd, nor, did I even want to be...


I couldn't be!

That shows how dumb and dense I must be. It makes sense to me now, so many years later. It took so long before it finally sunk in; I hate big parties; I hate crowded department stores. I hate tourist places; I like nature and I like quiet places and, perhaps, dinner and drinking with one or two friends... I don't like crowds and crowded places!


From that day and that moment, I didn't want to be a popular person anymore. I didn't want to be fashionable (not that I could be). 


I don't know why I had tried so hard all those years trying to be accepted! Why was I trying to force the square peg into the round hole? I didn't fit! And I finally realized it! It finally took something that I absolutely despised to get me to realize it.


I now thank God for disco music and the Hustle.... And all I can say now is, "Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, .... Do it!"... Or, in my case, "Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, .... Don't do it!"... Yep! It doesn't matter if you do it or not, the only thing that matters is what makes you feel better!


As for me, I "Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, .... Don't it!" That makes me feel better and and I don't really care how it makes you feel!


You can decide for yourself your own life's course. Don't worry about other people... Just do or don't do it!




Thanks to my outsider friends, Grace, Yuri, Emily, Sharon and Irene. Wonderful days, weren't they? If only I could turn back time and give you back those moments to all of you! You will never know how much you meant to a small town boy like me. I love you all!

1 comment:

Andrew Joseph said...

Like a crazy stalker girlfriend, disco was everywhere you went. Maybe that's why I hated it so much; it was everywhere all the time.
I hate disco and also had a crazy stalker girlfriend...
Wait... it get's more interesting, too. I never felt like I fit in - I still feel that way. You can tell from my blog how I seem to hate the other AETs except for a few close ones like Matthew, and I hated Ashley for always trying to get me to be part of a crowd - trapped in a world I never made... i know you know Howard The Duck, Mike!
Those 2 paragraphs you wrote (below) really hit home:

"I hate big parties; I hate crowded department stores. I hate tourist places; I like nature and I like quiet places and, perhaps, dinner and drinking with one or two friends... I don't like crowds and crowded places!

From that day and that moment, I didn't want to be a popular person anymore. I didn't want to be fashionable (not that I could be)."

Man... do I know what you mean. I told you you and I would have been friends.

Even now... everybody loves Andrew, but Andrew doesn't want to be friends with everyone.
Everyone assumes I am so charged and outgoing, when really, I prefer being alone.

I'm unsure if that's sad or not. I like who I am. I wish I was richer and a better writer, and one led to the other... but... I grew up in Etobicoke... white, middle-class Etobicoke where I was pretty much the ONLY minority in the neighourhood... and if you looked around 409 years later (as I am right back in the same house with MY family), I still am the only effin' minority.
I feel white, but every once in a while I get a reminder that I am not.
It's why I made it my lifeswork as a kid to know more about hockey than anyone else. Sports too. Sceince. History... I want to know as much about everything just in case I meet someone who thinks that all brown guys only know brown guy stuff.... I purposely never hung out with any Indian kids for fear of being typecase. I refused to eat Indian food for fear of being ostracized. I never learned the language, and you'll love this, I stopped trying in school after someone in Grade 5 (my new school) noted that of course I got perfect on a test - all those brown guys are smart!
I never wanted to be a brown guy... I just wanted to be Andrew.
Mike... I only crapped my pants once in Japan after some nasty drinking, but - despite not moving around as much as you, I know where you are coming from. I hate Disco because it's not rebellious like Rock and or roll is.
Cheer!