“Standing In The Shadows of a Dream”, Funk Brothers

The notes kept showing up in my cue. From people I respected, music lovers and makers whose souls were deep and whose hearts I knew beat with the rhythm of the records that shaped their lives. "You must go see it," they enjoined. "It is something you must witness, understand," they continued. It was a consensus… and so I knew it was something that must be done. Except real life has a way of getting in the way. Whatever it is, something no doubt forgotten by next month. The have-to outweighing the must-be. And so "Standing In The Shadows of Motown" has been in Nashville a few weeks, was most likely fixing to get its ticket out -- and I'd still not dragged myself to a theatre to see Allan Slutsky's witness to the band that put the music in Motor City: the Funk Brothers. Motown was the Sound of (countless generations of) Young America. So much a part of the aural fabric of who we are, it's a given, not even a considered or a recognized… and that's where it becomes doubly invisible. But the men who forged that sound, who were the beat, the notes, the swing… Who were they? And why did nobody care? After all, without the musicians, there is nothing. And not just musicians, either, but great musicians who're all heart and soul and sweat and passion for what they do. People who know a groove, a pocket, a riff, a hook -- those who are that kind of musician. I always joke that when relationships fall apart from neglect, the parties become like furniture to each other. They're there. You know they're there. You live with them and never think about or consider that they're there. It just is. And so it was for the Funk Brothers, the backbone, lifeblood, spark and verve and raison d'etre of the Motown Sound. While there's surprisingly no bitterness in the film -- and you'd think there'd've been ample opportunity for that to creep into this documentary/celebration of these unsung heroes -- the clear-eyed reality of what did (and didn't) happen may make the injustice even more harrowing. In the beginning interview, keyboardist Joe Hunter, who's credited with being the original "glue," talks about the realization that for all the excitement generated by the artists, the records, the song and the sounds of Motown, the musicians were going to be left out of the dream It wasn't a master plan. An evil plot. A nefarious credit shift. Just nobody bothered to make the point of their contribution -- or hold them up for the world to see. And so the Funk Brothers became wallpaper. Just an element, but not a catalyst. Blocks, perhaps, but not the alchemy or combustion. Later in the film, when the assembled band members re-enter Hitsville's Studio A, the cameras capture their memories of what went down, how it was, what it felt like. But there's also a segment where they talk about all the things that got the "credit" for the Motown Sound -- from the artists to the producers, the walls, the wood, even the food. Without missing a beat, one of the Funks laughs and says, "Well, I don't know… I'd like to see you throw some ribs or a hamburger down those four stairs, count out 1, 2, 3, 4 - and see what happens!" Indeed. Or as a recent e-mail suggested -- promising, it seemed, some trick of revelation -- send this to 10 people, hit shift and get the answer to the notion what is it the poor have, the rich don't want, can beat God and is the glory of the devil. Hit shift right now and see what happens. It'll be the same thing. But this isn't about decrying what didn't happen. It's recognizing what did. "Standing In The Shadows of Motown," which has been doing the tour of film festivals around the globe, breaks that reality for sure (it would be remiss if it didn't) on its way to celebrating the vitality of musical spirit, the camaraderie that shone between the notes, the men who brought their best to it every day -- and offered up the licks that kept the world enthralled. "My Girl," "Heard It Through The Grapevine," "Dancing In The Street," "Just My Imagination," "Ball of Confusion," "Heatwave," "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," "War," "Mercy Mercy Me," "Shotgun," "Ain't Nothing Like The Real Thing," "Tears Of A Clown," "Going To A Go-Go," "Shotgun," "Signed, Sealed, Delivered," "What Becomes Of The Broken Hearted," Come & Get These Memories," "Tracks of My Tears" and beyond... Those songs. Those sounds. Those moments. No doubt -- even baby-somethings -- have a few of those etched on the soundtrack of their lives, the sonic touchstone to moments that will never be forgotten, those songs that wafting out of a speaker no matter how crackly or distorted melt the now and drop them right where they were. That is the power of music. The power of great songs. But especially the flex that is a performance that hooks you. Latter day Motowners the Dazz Band -- a rarity: a self-contained group that played as well as sang -- won the 1983 Grammy for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group for an S&M dance groove called "Let It Whip." Hip programming aside (and it was), there was a moment of unbridled exuberance at the tail end a line of that offered the assurance "no torture trip" that was a rafter-scraping 'woo-OOOOH-ooh." That vocal lick was the product of humanity on the half-shell. An improvised second that gave it flavor. It made it real. It put that groovadelicness into a whole other zone of delectation -- and THAT was what set all those Motown records apart. The human touch. The so-real. The non-negotiability of inspiration in a moment. You don't get that just anywhere. You get it from people who get it. Like the Funk Brothers -- whether you know their names or not. And while it's been lost for generations, "Standing In The Shadows" gives them not just names, but faces, voices, moments. It is the beginning of the due -- and it's a toll we should all toss in, because we'll be far richer than whatever the ticket costs. While none of the biggies appeared -- no Stevie, no Smokey, no Miss Ross -- Martha Reeves threw down hard for her boys. And the downlow contemporaries rolled in to play and frolic with one of those bands that should be put on our shoulders and carried aloft for what they've given with no recognition. Though the bold-faced names were merely the cherry on top or the parsley next to the sizzling chunk o' meat. What mattered was watching the Funk Brothers in their element: that elegance, exultance, shimmer, majesty and raw beauty of grown men doing what they put here to do. Not that the Grammy-winning, platinum-selling-and-beyond marquis-named guests were slouches. But even these face valuers were there to sublimate in the face of something far grander and more important. You had flame-voiced Chaka Khan and ghetto soul man Gerald LeVert, funkateer of the cosmic order Bootsy Collins and musical black melt Meshell Ndegecello, blues-undertoned pop/rock chanteuse Joan Osborn, hip rootser Ben Harper and neosoulsensualizer Montell Jordan all paying homage to the men that made Motown a musical place to be. Yes, Berry Gordy had a vision, many of the artists brought their thing and Holland Dosier Holland and Company had songs…. but without musicians, none of it has wings. If you don't have wings, my friends, you can't fly. That's one of Motown's gifts, it took young dreams, innocent wishes and put them to the sky. You believed you could, because you had a rhythm, a melody, a riff that you could sail heavenward on. When it got hard, this music could soothe the bruise. When you were ready to exhilerate, it could put the spring in your step. You never had to think about it. You just had to reach for your 45s, your radio, your compliations - or even go see your favorite bands. Because everybody covered Motown. Figure the Funk Brothers gave you more #1s than Elvis, the Beatles, the Beach Boys and the Rolling Stones combined… and rarely did people cop their songs without trying to replicate the stuff that made them stick. So for one night in Motown, the show was about holding these guys aloft. But these men didn't need a star-studded spectacle to find the joy in their playing. No, no -- they'd (even at the height of the Hitsville explosion) were sneaking out to jazz clubs and local joints to work out, to flex what they did, to soar on higher and higher currents of musical collaboration, to see where they could push each other where the stakes were only cocktails and a smokey evening. Often they'd bring the prior night's spoils back to "the snake pit" as they affectionately refered to Studio A. They'd seen something new, something beyond the horizon they'd just discovered and they'd find a way to lay it down between the hooks, elevate the artist of the day -- or inspire one of the greats to something more. There is a story told about Marvin Gaye seeking out bassist James Jameson (the only Funk Brother I'd ever heard of by name -- and my knowledge while not encyclopedic is pretty broad spectrum) from some divey club where the personal-demoned musician had sought refuge, exiled from the Motown machine for his excesses, emotional and otherwise. Playing on his back because he was too everything to sit on a stoor and using his one finger technique that he called "the claw," he laid down the bass part for "What's Goin' On," a state of the troubled nation embroiled in implosion and a plea for understanding amongst people who weren't nearly as different as they'd been conditioned to believe. "What's Goin' On" is one of those songs where are the societal conflicts of the '60s crystallize. And Gaye serves as some soulman St Francis of Assisi trying to sow love and understanding where it was most needed. But the message might've, probably would've been lost without that undulating bassline that penetrated the subconscious long before the message could terrify the polarized masses engaged in a racial, sexual, class war that was never declared officially -- only played out in the streets. It was a place where people saw beyond those things that were dividing the masses. And you could see how profoundly music can serve as a unifier when Ndegecello, a scary bassist who has no fear of any label or oeuvre, gently queries white bassist Bobb Babbitt about how the race thing played out for him in "the pit." Confessing that Martin Luther King's assassination was as painful for him as the rest of the guys, that what Black America was striving for was as real to him, you can see the emotion breaking through on his face. We are one. We can be a nation -- as George Clinton proclaimed -- under a groove. It takes respect. And awareness. And trust. It's a tall order. And it means overcoming much of what we're programmed to believe. Not take people forgranted -- and recognize that much of what makes us react is what we don't even consider. If I seem particularly wound-up, it's perhaps it's because this hits a little close to my bedroom. Just as people don't recognize that a good publicist is never seen or felt -- we hold up those we represent so people can see their grace and their resonance in the world in which they exist -- the studio players who create all of country music exist even more transparently. The studio sausages as they often refer to themselves are hailed as being responsible for more uninspired music than any other bunch of musician. But they're the ones who create what they're asked for, polish what they're given. And if you doubt their hearts and their souls, one needs only slide into a gig by the Players -- as close to what was once hailed as "the A Team" as Music City has right now. Guitar breakthroughist Brett Mason. Rhythm machine/melodist Michael Rhodes on bass. Riveting percision striker Eddie Bayers on drums. Steel recontextualizer Paul Franklin. Touch of silk, funk of ages John Hobbs on keyboards. The people these men have toured with, played with, taught would stagger. And like the Funk Brothers, they make the music that so many claim for their own with no recognition or acclaim -- just that double scale check and the sheer joy of being together (because having rubbed the softball from Hobbs' shoulder blades more nights than I care to think, I know it's not always classic American songs or hits being embroidered). If it seems like empty hype, allow me to tear a page from my own experience. On a plane to a photo shoot, a new client proudly offers to play the record they've just finished. Proffering their Discman, earphones plopped on my head, they hit play -- and all is well, until a few shimmering notes steeped in yearning pour forth. It is the bittersweet sound of being haunted by what was. Reflexively, I tore the headphones off, turned to the client wild-eyed and demanded, "Is that John Hobbs?" to a blank look. "The piano player... Is it Hobbs? On that 'Remember' song..." Kenny Chesney was clearly flummoxed by this obvious upset, caused by the intro to a song on an album that would eventually debut at #1 on the pop charts. He couldn't have known that the pool of regret pourding into his track was the only time I'd understood how utterly alone two people can be in love and in their relationship. Though the intro had been played before the engagement ended, we were both just sort of there, marking time, pinned by inerta. It was an abyss of hollow that neither could own, merely survive. And that is the kind of intersection between real life and commercial music that rarely happens and is shocking when it does. The Players, though, don't strive for that. They're there to do the job, elevate where they can. When they play for themselves, it's in tiny clubs. They may never make another record -- other than a badly funded quicky that merely scratches the surface of what makes them rock. But having been engaged to a man whose touch on the keys made me feel like gossamer wings could sprout from my shoulder blades and let me glide through the heavens, I know the emotions that flow from those fingers. Without that feeling, that ability to translate the pulses and revelations, recognitions and realities that defy words, songs and artists wouldn't matter. It's the artists that make it sizzle, that capture the imagination with their glamour, their sense of connection to our world… They're the ones that do the work and live the dream, becoming the face of whatever recordings they release. Somewhere beyond the dream, though, these faceless -- often nameless -- musicians toil to create the illusion that teaches the world to sing. They don't get to dream. They don't get to sparkle. All they have is the playing. And in darkened theaters around the country right now, the Funk Brothers -- long past their session lives, as Motown shuttered operations literally one day in 72 to head to the City of Angels and recorded no more in Detroit -- get their props. That James Jameson had to scalp a ticket to sit in the balcony at the Motown 25 Special, the one that was a tribute to what Berry Gordy and his stable of artists had built, says it all. Whose dream is it? Or maybe it depends on the dream… For the Brothers Funk, one gets the sense they may still work it out in the obscure little jazz clubs and neighborhood joints that field hot bands. For the Players, who still swing from ecstasy to agony turning out whatever Music Row deems this year's hillbilly hits, it's a mixed bad -- play what the people want to hear, but then every now and then, play what makes them smile. It's a dream without tour busses, huge crowds, major buzz. But the thrill is direct -- from their veins to the fingers and out to a small audience of people digging the nuances. Maybe it's enough. But what they give remains way more than what they take. --Holly Gleason 28 December 2002
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