382. Play That Funky Music, Whiteboy

It all began innocently and by accident, I believe. New Year’s Eve 2014 at a dinner dance in
Gettysburg. Formal attire, my black suit, nice food and plenty of drink. And we danced when we heard a song that was close to a ballroom dance beat. There were none from the live band, so when the d.j. took over on the live band’s break, the dance floor filled up. Nice. My wife was gorgeous, slinking in a black dress with sequins and shimmer. No worries about driving anywhere since we bought the package with a room and breakfast as well. Everything was tight and right as James Brown’s suspenders.

The evening flowed with conversation and drinks and laughs. Our dance group sat with us and filled up another table. Chumminess hung around us like sweet cigar smoke. I used up our allotted drink coupons, which means that a slight buzz was humming behind my smiling face. I felt lighter, freer. I got up to dance to another song, thinking that my lovely wife had followed me out to the center of the dance floor. Wrong, she and a couple of other jokers smirked at me, all alone as “Play That Funky Music, Whiteboy” started. Wow. I was at a dramatic fork in the road: should I admit defeat and slink back to the table of mockers? Or should I gather my inner showmen and dance like I had never, or just rarely, danced before?  I had a lot of room to decide… the latter.

“And I decided quickly, yes I did,

To disco down and check out the show

Yeah, they was dancin’ and singin’ and groovin’

And just when it hit me somebody turned around

and shouted Play that funky music whiteboy

Play that funky music right

Play that funky music whiteboy

Lay down that boogie and play that funky music

till you die”

I will grant you that the lyrics and overall tone of this caricature of a pop song are cretinous, but the big, funky beat is very danceable. And so I let the sonic energy pulse through my marrow until I was under the spell of Wild Cherry’s only hit song.

I felt like Iago when he says, “Some men are born great; others achieve greatness; and still others have greatness thrust upon them.” I got it in a flash. I am a “still others” kind of guy. Everything converged for this one pure moment of dance orgy synergy. I began to heel kick and shimmy. I hit an invisible bass drum with flagrant hip action. I strutted with deep shoulder dips while balancing a transparent hat on my turreting head. It was on, Mamma. The wife and fellow mockers began to laugh and clap and encourage my Dionysian moment. I complied willingly.

The thing with being alone on a dance floor with no rehearsed dance is this: it intimidates lesser men, but invigorates dance genies. I dug down with my felt bottomed dance shoes and wiggled on one foot, then the other. My arms were flailing in a rhythmic seizure that was driven by this ridiculous song that I would never listen to on the radio… but the moment had chosen me; I had not chosen the moment.

A little Michael Jackson stepping out flowed into James Brown shebang, then Jackie Wilson frenzy, some Mick Jagger swagger, alongside  Elvis windmills. I mimed a big rope and pulled myself across the dance floor somehow with sliding feet and yanking arms. At 58 years of age I did not dare to drop into James Brown splits nor attempt any flips or extreme gymnastics moves. I did spin, flagellate, whirl and dervish as that song kept going on and on. Three minutes and twelve seconds does not seem like a big deal, but if you are in Uncle Bill and Aunt Mal seizure mode, trust me, it’s a long time. My heart was racing; breath was ragged; shirt soaked in sweat. The mockers were shocked into belief and wonderment. As I threw myself down onto my chair, high fives, back pats, and verbal praises showered on me. I drank two glasses of water and tried to get my heart to slow down. Whew! that was just one song. The master singer dancers did that for two hours while singing!!

Fortunately or not, no one had filmed the arrhythmic writhing. Still, it became legend in our circle of dance friends. And you know how that goes… “When are you gonna do the funky whiteboy dance again?” Fortunately or not, New Year’s Eve 2015 came around. Same deal, different hotel and band. One of our dance gang managed to get to the new danceable music band and arranged a “Funky Music Whiteboy” rendition. Although  I was sick with a sinus infection, I dug down into the funky whiteboy dance reserves where I had carefully stored dance steps like savings bonds since the age of 10. For three plus minutes I gave the gathered throng all the funky whiteboy I could muster, plus a flying twist, double axle, chasse nudge along. These are technical terms that I will not define here. I sat down and drank a pitcher of ice water, waiting for the coroner to pronounce me dead.  Again, effusive backslapping congratulations were spread on me like mustard on a summer grilled hot dog, which I pretended not to relish. “Just doing my choreographic best, representing for the hood.” Like the year before, strangers gave me that look later on, as if I had been the streaker at a ball game earlier, and they knew it even if I had my clothes on now. Smirks come with the territory of mating behavior displays.Creepy voyeurs!

And then there was last night at the breast cancer auction/dinner/dance. Unlike my two previous performances, I knew this one was coming, expected even. Michelle, the host of the event, had been one of my witnesses just two and half months ago. She told my wife that she was gonna call me out for the funky whiteboy dance.  The pressure was enormous. Keep in mind that I am not a trained dancer but a rogue entertainer. I drank several Yuenglings to fully hydrate and lubricate myself predance. Yet, when they announced that I was gonna do it, I was in the bar around the corner ordering white wine. I came back to the ballroom to empty tables and chairs. Everyone was up dancing the wobble, led by the sweatmaster Kirk. Well, no sooner had I set my glass down than Michelle cued up Play That Funky Music, Whiteboy and the crowd parted for me to gesticulate and watubiate like I do.

I was maybe a minute into the scene when a tall woman in a silky blouse and tight black pants and black high heels made my one man show a duo. I was confused and a bit scared of her unguarded willingness. She shimmied and mirrored the parts of my routine that are not copyrighted. She was way more into this kinetic chemistry experiment than I was, so I made runs like a bull or bull fighter to avoid appearing like a couple. Undeterred she approached suggestively close. I told her, “I went to Catholic School for five years”, hoping she’d laugh and lose my scent.

Finally it was all over. Frank, our dance instructor, told me later on that dancing makes you a chic magnet. Frankly, that scares me.


224. My personal belated Anti-disco movement

Photo of Bee Gees 1977  Barry Gibb, Robin Gibb, Maurice Gibb and Andy Gibb ay Billboard Music Awards<br>

In the 1970’s disco music took over the airwaves and clubs, even though most folks knew it had no substance or meaning, no long term significance. Ephemeral fly poop, nothing more.  Disco had a danceable beat and that was what the majority culture craved– touch dancing at clubs. It was a vehicle for flea brained extroverts to flirt and seduce one another in their new overblown bell bottoms or high heels. It was exactly what I dreaded. I did not want to dance to begin with, but to do the Hustle or similarly choreographed dances seemed like devolution to me, a betrayal of the 1960’s ethos and a return to conformity. For me music had always been something to listen to in private or in a concert hall or club scene. Dancing? No. It was too commercial or shallow. Then again, I may have been depressed as I listened to my Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Jackson Browne, Clapton, Leonard Cohen, Tom Rush, Hendrix, the Dead, singer songwriter types with deep lyrics and moods that were not celebratory. But, on the other hand, they were not fluffy and sacharrin cotton candy odes to self indulgence. Just a disco beat like mindlessly chewing gum. Something about disco added up to corporate profits somewhere. It was synthetic, poly-ethical and thus poly-esterical, relying on studio overdubs and overproduction. Live disco did not make sense, so I believed. No more live shows, just dancing in shiny clothes and platform shoes to a d.j.’s canned musical taste. Gag.

I grew resentful and contemptuous of the ubiquitous disco sound. Saturday Night Fever’s soundtrack went viral before the term was conceptualized in the non-medical world. “Stayin’ Alive, ah, ah, ah, ah, stayin’ aliiiiiiiiiiiive.” I could not conceive of purchasing any of that crap, that crinkly wrapping paper music. It just seemed like music made for selling things, jingly and hollow, audio junk food scientifically altered to appeal to your ears and impulses. Mall music for a recessionary economy.

I researched a bit on Wikipedia for disco’s origins.

Origins of disco as a term and type of nightclub

By the early 1940s, the terms DJ and Disc Jockey were in use to describe radio presenters.[11] Because of restrictions, jazz dance halls in Occupied France played records instead of using live music. Eventually more than one of these venues had the proper name discothèque.[11] By 1959, the term was used in Paris to describe any of these type of nightclubs.[11] That year a young reporter Klaus Quirini spontaneously started to select and introduce records at the Scotch-Club in Aachen, West Germany.[11] By the following year the term was being used in the United States to describe that type of club, and a type of dancing in those clubs.[11] By 1964, discotheque and the shorthand disco were used to describe a type of sleeveless dress used when going out to nightclubs.[11] In September 1964, Playboy Magazine used the word disco as a shorthand for a discothèque-styled nightclub.[11]

So disco was born from a deficit of genuine live music during the Nazi occupation. Ahh, that seems so correct to me. It’s the d.j. when you can’t afford a full band at a wedding. So be it. The problem was that in the 1970’s this substitute became the preferred medium. Imagine if restaurants stopped serving real sugar and only provided sweetener substitutes. I suppose many folks would celebrate the artificial sweetener’s dominance. Not me, there is that chemical after taste which your brain detects as foreign and carcinogenic. Oh, but I may be getting carried away with hyperbole. Let’s cut right to the chase— ladies and gentlemen, Miss Donna Summer.

 Hot Stuff, Love to Love You Baby, Last Dance, and She Works Hard for the Money, are some of her hit songs. Danceable and forgettable, even though their hook lines would get in your brain and cycle like upbeat Abba injections of euphoria. And she was pretty. There you go– disco in a nutshell. Once you get started, Lord it’s hard to stop.
But all that was all so 40 years ago. Why bother with it now? Let sleeping Jack Russell Terriers lie, right? No. Like all fashion statements, this one will be back again, if it is not already woven into the media culture the same way that biologically altered food is in our food supply. Divas continue to pop up on the airwaves, crashing into whatever cultural barriers are left. And in this sense the term divas goes for men, women, and the undecided entertainers among us. Whether it’s sex or drugs or a combination of pleasure seeking hedonistic behaviors and attitudes, it’s here to stay. Disco dis and disco dat. Disco here and disco dere.
A movement must be for something and not just against something, however. In this light I suggest a pursuit of organic music, real stuff made by real people on real instruments for real audiences. Really. I don’t think warning labels for disco are necessary, though I am not totally against a helpful statement: “Warning: prolonged exposure to this synthetic cacophony has caused hysteria, lasciviousness and madness in lab rats and Bee Gees. Listen at your own risk.” Where is the FDA when you really need them?  At a convention in Vegas listening to disco under a strobed ball on the government’s dime.
Okay, I am sounding like Mr. Grumpypants, I know. I’m almost finished with this rant, so please humor me a bit longer. When your life is nearly over and you look back on what you did and didn’t do, will disco be one of those heartbeat moments that shine across the decades and generations? If your answer is yes, then I want you to listen to Love to Love You Baby alone on an elevator for 12 straight hours with only bathroom and water breaks until you say no.