Charles D’Ambrosio’s Loitering: New & Collected Essays is out this week. To celebrate, we’re running a few of his nonfiction pieces that didn’t quite fit the book but that we adore nonetheless. This essay first appeared in The Oxford American in 2005.
I grew up indiscriminately loving all the songs that came on the radio, but it was the fact of the radio itself, the little box on the floor by my bed, that brought the music to life and made it a kind of magic for me. The radio was a Zenith back when that brand-name wasn’t ironic and it had a single big knob for steering through all the AM stations. I’d covered the beige case with decals of the sort that used to be included in packs of baseball cards during the era of Curt Flood and Boog Powell. I dialed in my favorite stations as attentively as a safecracker but the radio always sounded rough and out of tune, between frequencies, blaring reedy pop from a hole in the plastic. At night, when the reception was better, I’d drag the radio into bed with me, holding its single speaker to my ear, searching for the sweet spot where the bass was deeper and more resonant, the voices clearer, and the treble of the cymbals sounded less like static. Our family wasn’t particularly musical and my father was an angry man who demanded silence in the house but I had a hunger for just about anything on the radio. We owned a few records—operas, mostly, and some Gregorian Chants, plus the Monkees and the soundtrack to The Sound of Music—and out in the living room we had the sort of hi-fi people who don’t care about music buy, a Magnavox console, the most compelling feature of which, at least for me, was the lamé cloth covering the speakers—whenever my father was away, I would listen for hours, lost in the music, running an idle finger back and forth, tracing out the gold threads as if they’d been sewn into the grille by Ariadne herself. But it was really in my bedroom, alone, with the cheapest, tinniest radio ever made, that I came to understand music, or at least my particular relation to music.
What I learned in all those idle hours is that I’m not an aficionado and that my tastes are plain—I like radio stuff. In high school when the kids in my class first began to elaborate a taste for the arcane I felt out of it, unable to forge a similarly deep, urgent narrative from the hodgepodge of songs and styles I liked. In my lonely radio democracy Tommy James and the Beau Brummels had always been the peers of Dylan and The Rolling Stones and so when it came time to draw sharper distinctions—when matters of taste were becoming fatal social moves—it was like I couldn’t quite get with the whole enterprise of hierarchy. Anything that got piped in over the airwaves was okay by me. That’s where the Beatles had come from, and Elvis, and Otis Redding, and I’d leaned my ear to those greats just as eagerly as I had the Lemon Pipers, Del Shannon and Clarence Carter. It was all radio music to me, and that was the only music I cared about. I didn’t know other discussions were going on. I didn’t know you could dig down into other, deeper layers of culture and come back with whole new sounds. Even today the only music I really listen to arrives stamped and approved by some form of consensus, either through popularity or the imprimatur of a trusted friend’s good taste. And while I admire enormously people for whom these things are vital, people who follow out a thread of sensibility until it leads them to some really select or recherché stuff, I can only admire them from a distance, with a tinge of regret, knowing that I’ve missed out on a very important conversation. I never really saw songs as a way to connect, and so, for all the music I listened to, I grew up in silence.
This is a roundabout way of coming to Joe Tex, who of course was somebody I heard on the radio, no doubt mistaking him for Sam Cooke or Hank Ballard. He had a string of pop successes in the sixties and seventies and a final smash hit that lightly mocked disco in 1977. He was born Joseph Arrington Jr. and would change his name twice, first to Joe Tex, the stage name he was known by, and then to Yusef Hazziez, following a decision in the mid-Seventies to bag the music business altogether and join the Nation of Islam. Somewhere along the way he must have said that he entered show biz to make enough money to buy homes for the two women he admired most (his mother and grandmother) because it’s one of the biographical bits that gets sentimentally repeated in everything you read about him. It sounds like hokum, but I hope it’s true. His rise to fame, his journey from Joseph Arrington to Joe Tex, followed a pattern that was probably standard for a black man of his time and place. Song and dance routines to supplement his work shining shoes and delivering papers, singing in school and church choirs, winning a local talent contest (over Johnny Nash and Hubert Laws, no less), where the prize, a week-long trip to New York, gave him a chance to perform at the Apollo in Harlem. After high school, he returned to New York and got his first contract, with King Records, but it wasn’t until he hooked up with Buddy Killen that his music made just the right sound—and by that, I mean the kind of sound that would get airplay, and reach me, a kid in the Northwest who dragged his radio to bed like a pet dog and lay under the covers with an ear pressed against the plastic, listening.
I culled the factual information above from various official sources because, of course, I’m not an aficionado—of southern soul, of balladeers, of Joe Tex. I don’t know this kind of stuff, not off the top of my head, anyway. I don’t really know King records or its role in the world of pop except that Little Willie John also did some fine work with them, and I only know about him because he stabbed a man in Seattle, was sentenced to life in prison, and eventually died in the state pen on McNeil Island. But being knowledgeable hardly matters; I’m not negotiating with anyone. I remember the Joe Tex I loved on the radio, particularly “The Love You Save,” an achingly beautiful lament whose lyrics still kill me, and “Skinny Legs and All,” a funny song that’s half-spoken and comes with its own laughtrack and for all I know may have been recorded live. I loathed his biggest hit, “I Gotcha,” and even today it seems pointless and unpleasant, an ugly novelty, all the more sickening, I have to say, for its continuing popularity. The song struck me as a personal betrayal and it’s success only widened the sense of loss. “You Said A Bad Word” isn’t much better, unfortunately. By the time it was recorded, his voice had grown thin, the sweetness had become grating, and the song’s early-Seventies funk is more of an imitation or shallow put-on than a genuine sound that grabs the soul. The song anticipates Joe Tex’s exit from the business, the whole thing going the way of mockery. But there’s no dignity or sense in remembering a man by his lesser performances. I’d rather hang on these words, as I once did, somewhat desperately, climbing into bed and cradling my radio.
I’ve been taken outside
And I’ve been brutalized
And I had to always be the one
To smile and apologize.
But I aint never in my life before
Seen so many love affairs go wrong
As I do today—So stop, find out what’s wrong.
Get it right, or please leave love alone.
Because the love you save today
May very well be your own.
Charles D’Ambrosio is the author of two collections of short stories, The Point and The Dead Fish Museum, which was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award, and the essay collection Orphans. He’s been the recipient of a Whiting Writer’s Award and a Lannan Fellowship, among other honors. His work has appeared frequently in The New Yorker, as well as in Tin House, The Paris Review,Zoetrope All-Story, and A Public Space. He teaches fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His most recent book, Loitering: New & Collected Essays, is out today and available wherever fine books are sold.