So, you’re picking up one of your favorite literary figures (poetry or prose, living or dead) from the airport before taking them to dinner and conducting an interview. You’re a huge fan and you’re super excited about the assignment, but also a bit nervous. Relax. The main thing you need to be concerned with is having a kickass playlist going on the tape deck when you roll up to the terminal and I’m here to help. I offer no guarantees, but with some deductive reasoning, digital crate digging, and intuition I think we can manage something that leaves everyone comfortable, happy, and bobbing their heads.
Below is a 12 track set that I think should get you from the airport and back again with some stops in between. You can play it in sequence, but it will work on mix-mode as well (this might even be better). The important thing is to have it already playing when you pick them up and to not discuss it at all unless they bring it up first. Basically, play it cool and act like you’ve been there before. I can in no way guarantee that they’ll actually dig this, but I have my hopes. Worst case scenario, just have NPR locked in as station preset 1 in case things get desperate. Best of luck!
Your passenger this week is novelist, essayist, playwright, & civil rights icon James Baldwin. Supremely talented and uncompromising throughout his long career, he relentlessly excavated the experience of being a black American and a gay American, alienated in his home country, but totally of it. He was and is essential.
1. Soul II Soul – Back To Life (However Do You Want Me) [A cappella / Ft Caron Wheeler]
The lush a cappella harmony going on in the first part of this song would hypnotize by itself. But it’s even better knowing that that thick & basic beat is going to drop at about two and a half minutes in and take this track to the next level. It doesn’t matter if you’re only making a quick run down to the gas station to grab milk, wherever you’re driving to while blasting this will feel mysterious and important. Particularly well used in the opening minutes of 1998’s Belly.
2. Wish & Fonda Rae – Touch Me
A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge is so laden with homoerotic subtext that a 1st time viewer could reasonably mistake it for a movie about a confused teen grappling with his unacknowledged urges that justhappens to feature a burn-scarred, dream-stalking, demon with a razor glove hanging out in the background. One of the more festive scenes shows the main character Jesse cleaning his room to this minor freestyle/R&B gem and damn if the tune doesn’t get stuck in your head. It’s great for unpacking boxes, vacuuming, forgetting rush hour traffic woes.
3. Yacht – Le Goudron
At 24, suffocated by the prejudices attendant to being a gay black man in America James Baldwin left for France. He’d live there on and off for the rest of his life (referring to himself as a “Trans-Atlantic Commuter”) and it was there that it was able to pause, breathe, and explore himself beyond the “negro” label forced upon him in his country of birth. All that’s to say that at least one francophone track is essential for this playlist and I can’t think of a better one than the unbounded energy and joy of this Yacht rework of an avante-garde Brigitte Fontaine track. I don’t care how bad your day’s been, it’s impossible to not crack a smile and move to this one.
4. James Brown – There Was A Time
I very rarely hear the final ten seconds of this song because I’m almost always using that time to cue it back to the beginning for yet another consecutive listen, it’s just that good. Recorded live at the Apollo, this one has it all. A driving/infectious rhythm, a supercharged passion & playfulness in Brown’s vocals (the call and response with the audience is a particular delight), the crowd screams coming in throughout… It’ll be real hard to avoid getting pulled over for speeding while listening to this, but I’m fairly confident you’ll feel better about that ticket if you just play it again.
5. Sylvester – I Need Somebody To Love Tonight
Slinky. I don’t know if I’ve ever used that word as an adjective in either print or conversation but damn if it isn’t the thing to describe this tune. A perfect collaboration between two of the best & brightest in late 70s/early 80s dance music (Sylvester & Patrick Cowley) this is a relatively quiet slow burner about nothing more complex than needing someone to be close to, if only for an evening. Sylvester’s vocals come off like a fallen angel with a smirk on his face but dead-serious eyes, and the low-end synth stabs Cowley inserts toward the end of the track add a dark edge to the airy melody. A late night cruising jam if there ever was one.
6. Muddy Waters – Mannish Boy
Baldwin wrote that the effect of the sensual in his beloved blues music was “to respect and rejoice in the force of life, of life itself, and to be present in all that one does, from the effort of loving to the breaking of bread.” Lord help you if you can’t feel that force surging through this song. As an all-time blues standard it’s an easy pick, but it also appears on the soundtrack to Ghosts of Mississippi, the 1996 movie that dramatized the efforts to bring justice for the murder of Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers, the man to whose memory Baldwin dedicated his playBlues For Mister Charlie.
7. David Axelrod – Loved Boy [Lou Rawls, Vocals]
Sometimes vocals just cut you and sometimes, like here, they slowly drag you over a bed of nails. It was David Axelrod’s loss of his own son that led him to write this song. I don’t know where Lou Rawls had to go in order to sing it like he does here, but I’d believe it if you told me he’d lost his own flesh and blood. The trumpet wails that pierce the tune throughout only twists the knife.
8. Willie Wright – Right On For the Darkness
Making up the blues / Holding back schools / Lot of greed, lot of temptation / Proof of one thing, we’re a hell of a nation. Among the many qualities that made Baldwin such an indispensable writer was his dedication to looking at the America promised in our laws, our patriotic songs, and our history books through the cracked and filthy lens that millions of Americans had to view it through each day. Never with hyperbole, but always with honesty, rage, and deep deep pain Baldwin dug into himself to bring to the surface the crushing experience of being a second class citizen in country you’re drilled to believe is a land of freedom and opportunity. Not much comes close to his writing on the subject, but this track (a Curtis Mayfield cover) might carry you to some of the same places.
9. Nicolas Jaar – With Just One Glance (Scout Larue, Vocals)
Sometimes you just have to roll the dice on a song and maybe your passenger will be suspicious of your musical taste forever after and maybe they’ll thank you for enriching their lives. I’m placing my faith in the vocals of Bruce Willis’ daughter and I’m weirdly OK with that. Beautiful track.
10. P.M. Dawn – Paper Doll
I know. You don’t want to admit it. None of us ever does. But it’s a basic law of the universe that we will each experience at least one night spent sitting in a dark room, burning incense, and sifting through photos of our exes on Facebook while listening to P.M. Dawn. It’s best to just try and embrace it. Given that you’d punch a hipster in the face if they ever tried to pull off lyrics even resembling P.M. Dawn’s at an acoustic open mic, it’s totally remarkable that the group had such enormous (if brief) success in the early 90s. That said, their stuff still holds up and continues to be a staple on sad bastard chill-out playlists to this day. Peerless.
11. Miles Davis – Diner au Motel
Without having prepared anything beforehand Davis and his band recorded the score to the 1958 French noir film Elevator to the Gallows over the course of 2 days as scenes from it were projected on the studio walls. As far as crime movie soundtracks recorded by popular artists go, this probably wasn’t surpassed until Curtis Mayfield did Super Fly in 1972. This is the liveliest cut on the album and perfect little driving pick-me-up, it doesn’t hurt that Baldwin and Davis were close friends.
12. Nas – Life’s a Bitch
More ink has gone to Nas’ debut album than maybe any other release in rap history (with even more press recently due to its 20th anniversary). It’s all deserved of course, but it’s also pretty comprehensive, so I’ll just say that on a personal level this song makes it easier to accept the inevitability of death. Perfect production. Classic lyricism. And those coronet wails at the end from Nas’ father…heartbreakers.