"You gotta peak'em, let'em relax, and then peak them again. I gotta drive those kids hard. They wanna be driven."
-David Morales, house DJ.
"The mood in the Warehouse was ecstatic in a similar way to the Paradise Garage in New York, and the dancers' desire for self-abandon was similarly passionate. Knuckles played eight to ten hours a night - until the sun came up and the dancers crept home exhausted. The audience had been worked over. 'Work It' shrieked one of the most frequently heard vocal samples of house music, standing up for the dancing public, and challenging Jack and the DJ really to work the dancers...In a place without social repression, being dominated and seduced becomes an act of safety and security."
-Ulf Poschardt, "DJ Culture" (Rogner & Bernhard GmbH & Co. Verlags KG, Hamburg, 1995), p. 246.
XXVII. CHICAGO HOUSE, PART II
A. THE MONKEY, THE WATUSI AND A KID FROM THE 'BURBS
I grew up in a very dysfunctional family. My father's soul had been irreparably damaged in the war and his life was a constant struggle with the dark side: depression, whiskey, anger and a terrible lack of self-esteem. My mother's promising musical career had come to an early end, she was bitter about her role in life as a housewife, and was in continual conflict with my father. Daily life was one exhausting conflict after another. We kids were pawns in this war between two unhappy people.
My solution to this sad situation was to stay away from home as much as possible. When I went to class for the first day in first grade, for example, I didn't return home until ten in the evening. And that was because the police, who had been called, found my boyfriend and I hiding in the woods. The beginning of a pattern.
We lived in a closed-minded, conservative community south of Pittsburgh, PA, where the neighbors were always in one's business and the window drapes would part whenever you went in or out of your home. I didn't fit in here at all, and as I grew older I was treated by many as representing immorality in the town.
I was, I guess, a precocious lad. Very smart. Somehow or other I skipped a level in grade school so that I ended up entering high school at twelve. By that age I had reached puberty, in every respect, and was pretty much the same size and height I am now. I can still fit into my Boy Scout uniform.
It was decided that my rebellious and anarchic personality could be best disciplined by sending me to Catholic prep school, the Bishop's Latin School. My mother's thinking here was that this would also be a good preparation for the priesthood.
This arrangement didn't work quite like my parents wished. First, the school was in the city, so I got to escape the 'burbs each day and muck about in an interesting urban environment near the university. The Jesuit priests and other educators, it turned out, were not evil disciplinarians but, rather, relatively free thinkers (given the context) who were involved in political and social action, including the civil rights movement. So I received a classical education, with lots of Latin and Greek, as well as hands-on training as a political activist.
I explained my home situation to the priests, as well as my interest in civil rights, and they arranged for me to work as a weekend volunteer in a store-front community social and political services organization with which some of them were affiliated. The office was right in the middle of the African American community in Pittsburgh's Hill District.
And that's were I really began to learn about African American music.
Most of the other volunteers were African American. Since I spent most of my free time with them, working, distributing political stuff, demonstrating and the like, it came to pass that most of my close friends in high school were black. They pretty much opened their hearts to me, gave me a place to crash when I needed it, and became my surrogate family. These friends were also into music big time, like I was, so in a very short time I was introduced to Pittsburgh's African American music subculture: clubs, bars, and house parties.
I guess it was the Friday after my thirteenth birthday that I went to my first club to hear blues music. And I continued to go with my friends to parties throughout high school. Most of the time I was never asked for ID. I didn't have any, and when the issue came up my friends smoothed things for me.
All this was very unusual in the racially segregated environment that was, and I suspect, still is Pittsburgh. I was usually the only white person at these venues and I was a young kid. A sort of mascot. Amusing to many, but when the people saw how much I loved the music I became part of the mix. Actually, the only trouble I had was with the police and I came to fear and distrust them as did as my friends, for lots of good reasons.
There was an endless amount of weed and often free drinks for me. Wild Turkey was my favorite for reasons I can't recall. Although some may react with horror at the thought of a thirteen-year old partying into the night I never really got into serious trouble aside from creating a situation where I had to leave home at 16. I managed to do very well in school and kept my Dionysian activities for free time. Although I have ambivalent feelings about kids that age dancing all night long these days, I find it hard to be judgmental about this. Some people can't deal with this environment at any age and should avoid it; others with a balanced personality and adventurous spirit might benefit from the experience. I did, though I admit my childhood was certainly not typical.
I passionately loved all this music and night culture. Jazz, Blues, Soul. Music I would never have experienced otherwise. In the summer we would often hop into someone's car and travel either to New York or Chicago to do the clubs. Mostly Chicago, because I believe there was more affinity in the Pittsburgh black musical community for music coming out of Chicago, Detroit and Memphis than New York. And New York has never really been much interested in blues. There was certainly no blues tradition in New York that comes even remotely close to that in Chicago. And some of my older African American friends were blues musicians, so we would go to the Chicago to hear them perform.
Although the blues scene was in the beginning of decline in the sixties, there were still wonderful venues on the South and West Side where you could have a really rockin' evening. Some of my best adolescent memories involved getting wild in these places with my music lovin' friends.
Then there was the dancing. Although I rarely hear it mentioned in the history of dance culture, Chicago had a thriving black dance scene in the sixties. The Monkey, the Watusi, the Barracuda, the Bird (although there was a song "The Bird," "Shake a Tail Feather" was the ass-mover here), the Boogaloo and more all originated in Chicago's black dance community. If you couldn't dance to this stuff you were, in my opinion, dead from the waist down.
Although I didn't make the connections back then -- I was just a kid enjoying the music and the life -- hindsight leads me to believe that there were significant Midwestern musical influences that lead to the creation of the Chicago flavor of house music. The Midwest had its own tradition of African American music. Blues music certainly was part of the mix, as well as jazz. Although old school blues and jazz had been rejected by many younger Midwestern blacks as old folks music by the disco era, one still feels the vibe in the foundations of the house that Jack built. And the soul music produced in Chicago, Detroit and Memphis certainly had direct impact on Chicago house.
In the next issue we will briefly review the rich musical history of Chicago in the twentieth century, beginning with jazz, then blues, and finally Chicago soul.
NEXT: CHICAGO HOUSE, PART 3: CHICAGO'S UNIQUE MUSICAL HERITAGE.