Brand New Day: The Revival of Miami’s First Lady of Soul

“After all that time, you wonder; do I still have it? Am I still gifted? Can I really do it?”

The 73-year old Miami native is on the phone with me and talking about recording in a music studio for the first time in more than 40 years.

“By me singing in a church and by me singing around the house and that kind of thing, and everybody saying, yeah you still have it, it’s good. Come on, let’s do it”.

“It was a good experience,” she says.

Smith’s return to the studio is the subject of a new documentary, Sweet Soul, which had its premiere at the Miami Film Festival in March and is scheduled to play at festivals in Las Vegas and Sydney this year before heading for public television syndication.

After all that time, you wonder; do I still have it? Am I still gifted? Can I really do it?

Helene Smith

Smith was born in 1947. Her parents settled here from Alabama and had ten children. “I’m number four,” she says. The Smith family was a musical family. Some of her brothers played in bands and orchestras. Some of her sisters sang at the local Baptist church. As a youngster, Helene Smith demonstrated unique talent. At Brownsville Junior High, she was discovered by a teacher named Johnny Pearsall. “He would hear me sing and he asked me if I wanted to sing along with some other girls. But I guess the other girls had too much to do or whatever and I really wanted that, so I sort of hung in.” When Pearsall opened a record shop in Miami’s Liberty City neighborhood, Smith took a job there as a salesperson.

“In the afternoons, we met Clarence Reid. A few other people, they came. Clarence would write songs. Willie [Clarke] would write songs. My husband would write songs (Smith and Pearsall married in 1971). I would sing and rehearse. A lot of people came there, singing and rehearsing.”

Pearsall and Clarke, his former roommate from Florida A&M University, together with input from Reid, formed Deep City Records from the store. It was Florida’s first black-owned record company.

“Johnny had a big tape player and a piano,” says Smith. “We had a room back there. It was sectioned off. And we would practice till we get it – how do you say – down pat, as best we could.”

Deep City Records, along with related labels, Blue Star and Lloyd, became an incubator for Miami’s R&B talent. It was also Miami’s answer to Motown. Besides Smith, Deep City’s discography included artists such as Betty Wright, Frank Williams & the Rocketeers, Snoopy Dean, and The Moovers.

Smith’s 1964 recording, The Pot Can’t Talk about the Kettle, was the group’s first release, earning her the distinct honor of being Miami’s First Lady of Soul.

She followed up with other Miami soul classics including, Thrills and Chills, True Love Don’t Grow on Trees and Wrong or Right He’s My Baby. In the late 1960s, Deep City’s founders differed on the direction of the company and split. Pearsall took Smith to Philadelphia to record for the Phil-L.A. of Soul label under Jamie-Guyden Records which released her biggest commercial hit, A Woman Will Do Wrong, reaching #20 on Billboard’s R&B Charts in August 1967. (The track was written by Deep City’s Willie Clarke.)

Smith toured throughout the East Coast while her music played on Miami and Philadelphia radio stations. She then returned to Miami and recorded for Dash Records in 1971, a sub-label of TK Productions. TK Productions was owned and operated by the late Henry Stone, who produced smash hits for KC & the Sunshine Band, George McCrae, and Timmy Thomas.

In total, between 1964 and 1972, Smith recorded more than 25 songs.

But in the mid 1970s, after the birth of her only daughter, Smith was reluctant to continue along the same path.

She also became disenchanted with the music business.

“It didn’t work. It was just too hard,” says Smith. “Too many obstacles. I am going to leave like that. Too many obstacles. So I just left it alone.”

The wake left behind by promising black female artists from the 1960s is long and murky. One consequence is a hardened mistrust of others that cuts deep and can leave scars. Smith admits this is one of the reasons she exited the music business when she did.

Instead, she pursued a degree in education and became a public school teacher, which was a natural alternative for Smith. “I really wanted a lot of children. But that didn’t happen. So I wanted to be around children. I love children.”

She continued singing on Sundays at St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church in Miami.

The wake left behind by promising black female artists from the 1960s is long and murky.

In 2014, a trio of Miami filmmakers, Marlon Johnson, Chad Tingle, and Dennis Scholl, made a documentary film about Deep City Records and Miami’s early soul scene. Smith agreed to be interviewed for the film. During its premiere at Miami’s Olympia Theatre, Smith was nudged by one of the filmmakers to sing a few notes a cappella for the sold-out crowd. She obliged. Her vocals sounded as fresh and crisp as they did on the tracks she recorded in the sixties.

“Once seeing [the] Deep City [film], it really ignited her passion to go back to the studio,” says Johnson, who collaborated again with Tingle and Scholl on the new documentary. Johnson refers to the now legendary moment when Smith sang on stage and the audience’s enthusiastic response as “the beginning of the rebirth of her career.”

During the recording session, the filmmakers were impressed with Smith’s confidence after so many years away.

“I think that when she was working with Clarence [Reid], Johnny [Pearsall] and Willie [Clarke], back in the Deep City days, they would just tell her what to sing,” says Tingle. “Clarence would say: this is how I want you to sing it. They would rehearse, rehearse, rehearse it and it almost became robotic.”

This time, Smith took ownership of the song, he says, which was a welcomed sight. “It’s painful for a lot of them,” he adds. ”Having stardom and all of a sudden having nothing.”

From left to right: Chad Tingle, Dennis Scholl, Helene Smith, Marlon Johnson

At first, Smith says she was a little nervous but she embraced the journey. “Everybody was so nice and they just told me, listen, we are all going to do this together.”

The opportunity to revive one’s career and get another chance is a blessing. “I say to myself, in my lifetime – and I don’t plan to go anywhere, though it’s not up to me anyway.” She pauses and then begins again. “I have done this. I have done some of that, and I did some of this and I did that, and I think I made a circle here, which I’m happy about.”

Smith hopes that the film and her new song resonates with old and new audiences, particularly given our current times.

“The world has been through a lot and we’re still going through a lot. Once we get ourselves together, with the help of our master, which is God, whom I love, we can really enjoy each other and enjoy life. We got a new day. He’s granted us another day.”

“Let a new day begin,” she says, which happens to be the title of her new record.


About the Song

Let A New Day Begin was released in 2019 on Deep City Records and distributed by InnerCat Music Group, LLC. The song was written by Jason Joshua, produced by Andrew Yeomanson and WIllie J. Clarke, and recorded at Yeomanson’s City of Progress Studio in North Miami, Florida. The song is available for streaming here on Spotify.

Copyright © 2021 Long Play Miami

Conversations with My Wife about Van Halen

Van Halen, 1982

It all started one month ago today. I received a text message from a friend. It read: Eddie Van Halen passes. Throat cancer. He was a genius.  Instantly, all of these fresh memories came rushing back into my conscious mind and then, as if shoved into a moving vehicle, I found myself hurling down a one-lane path I can only describe as a Van Halen Super Highway, burning through Spotify streams and YouTube clips like an obsessive band groupie. The voyage has been a much needed cure to nurse my melancholy, which was far deeper than I expected. Maybe because Eddie’s death happened eight days before my 50th birthday. Maybe because the end of his life was a reminder of a part of mine that I don’t think about much anymore (my youth). Nevertheless, I embraced the experience as a blessing; a blessing to me, that is, but not necessarily to my wife.

Recent dinner

Wife: Can you please change the music? I don’t want to listen to Van Halen during dinner.

Me: Yes, dear.

Recent family road trip

Wife: Can you please change the music? I don’t want to listen to Van Halen the entire drive.

Me: Of course, dear.

Recent subsequent exchange

Wife: What’s with all this Van Halen stuff?

Me: What do you mean?

Wife: In all our years together, I never heard you once listen to their music.  

Me: Let me explain.

Wife: Please do.

Me: I first learned of Van Halen around 1981. I was in the sixth grade. A classmate handed me a cassette tape of Van Halen’s debut album, which borrowed the band’s name as its title but anyone who’s anyone knows it as Van Halen I. The album was released in 1978 so I was a few years behind. At first, I was a little apprehensive. The bulk of my music knowledge until that point began and ended with whatever spun on local Top 40 FM radio. Hard rock music was the Devil’s music. In fact, the first track on Van Halen’s album was Runnin’ With The Devil and I was afraid I’d end up like that kid, Damian from The Omen.  But Van Halen was vouched for by the generous friend mentioned above, so I played the cassette anyway. And sure as the Devil would have it, I was possessed. Michael Anthony’s power bass lines. Alex Van Halen’s loose drumming style. David Lee Roth’s raspy, high-pitched vocals. And then there was Eddie Van Halen’s maestro-like mysticism with the electric guitar. That would be the culprit to lure me to the dark side of rock music. The next morning, I sketched Van Halen’s famous logo on the brown paper bag covers of my school textbooks. (The logo, I would later learn, was a knock off from Jimi Hendrix, according to one of Van Halen’s former managers.) A year later, I bought Diver Down (1982), the band’s 5th album and while I didn’t dig it as much as the early Van Halen material, it still featured some amazing tracks. By the time 1984 was released, I was a veteran fan at the age of 13. I couldn’t wait to see the band’s performances on MTV and the campy videos for Jump and Hot for Teacher, but I relished in the album’s deeper cuts such as Drop Dead Legs and Top Jimmy. 

Wife: Wow

Me: Yes. But then Dave left the band or he was kicked out, I don’t recall which one. It happened so fast. They brought in Sammy Hagar as a replacement and I was like, okay, lets see what this is going to be. I admit the Hagar years produced a more commercially viable sound for the band and it paid off for them. I enjoyed some elements of their first two albums, 5150 and OU812. Hagar gave the band a maturity that they couldn’t quite attain with David Lee Roth. But between you and me, I always thought the band had lost their edge. In the summer of 1988, I paid a large sum of money to see Hagar with Van Halen live at the Orange Bowl. But by 1991, after I turned 21, I stopped paying attention to Van Halen. Maybe I’d outgrown them now that I could legally drink at a bar and was a year further away from my teen years. My musical tastes evolved and I felt Van Halen was not part of that evolution.  But ever since Eddie passed away, I have been listening to everything from the early material to the even most recent tracks with a rebooted version of the original band when they brought back David Lee Roth. I’ve also watched clips of interviews, short documentaries, and bootleg concert videos. And then, of course, there was that whole poster thing.

Wife: Yeah, what was that about? You almost spent $200 on it. 

Me: Actually, it was $227.50. 

Wife: My God. 

Me: I know. I used to have posters in my bedroom as a kid, mostly of bands. There were only two individuals that ever graced the wall above my headboard: Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Eddie Van Halen. So after he passed away, I searched eBay for that Van Halen poster and guess what? Some guy in Pittsburgh was selling his original from 1983 for $50. I bid on it and felt good at $60 and then upped it to $65. But then I was outbid. I went back and forth with this one bidder for most of the day until we surpassed $200. At all times, I thought it was totally reasonable. After all, it was my birthday. 

Wife: Uh-Huh

Me: I know it sounds cliché but when Eddie died, a part of my past was resurrected. An innocent time; no election anxiety, no global pandemic, no worrying about the future. It all came back to me and comforted me every minute I spent with Van Halen these last few weeks. And this poster was like my golden ticket to Wonka’s chocolate factory. 

Wife: But you didn’t get the poster in the end. 

Me: I decided to walk away. I made a strong effort but there was still someone out there who wanted it more than me with far more disposable income apparently. I wondered about that person’s story and thought, okay, fella, have at it. But then I found an original copy of Van Halen’s debut album, the one with the Devil track I mentioned earlier.

Wife: You mean, Van Halen I

Me: Exactly, and the bidding was closing within an hour. I waited until the last minute and outbid everyone, and a small part of my own past arrived in the mail a week later.  

Wife: Have you listened to it? 

Me: Not yet but when I do, I will play it very, very loud.

Wife: Ok, just let me know well in advance. 

Me: Yes, dear. 

#vanhalenforever

The Legacy of Planet Rock

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One Friday evening in mid-January, after Arthur Baker finished his warm-up DJ set before New Order took the main stage, he found an old couch backstage at the Fillmore Miami Beach, opened a bottle of Malbec, and griped about the crowd for not dancing.

“I should have played Planet Rock,” said Baker, as he poured wine into a cup.

Baker had every reason to gripe. A quick peek from my vantage point during his set showed an apathetic audience barely moving except to pose for selfies or sip their cocktails.

Baker knows that if there is anything that could have zapped that Miami crowd and raise the historic roof off the place formerly known as the Jackie Gleason Theatre for the Performing Arts, it is Planet Rock, the defining hip hop track that he produced for Tommy Boy Records with Afrika Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force almost 40 years ago.

I should have played Planet Rock.

Arthur Baker
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In 1981, Baker was a 26-year old DJ in Brooklyn, New York with a desire to break into music producing. He explored new technologies in sound including the Roland TR-808 drum machine, aka the 808, the first ever Japanese-manufactured electronic music machine to have a documentary film devoted entirely to it.

Baker met Tom Silverman while moonlighting as a writer for a music publication. Silverman was also a DJ and was starting his own dance music label. Baker came on board and produced the first track on Silverman’s Tommy Boy label: Jazzy Sensation with Bambaataa, the former Bronx street gang leader who became a hip-hop pioneer.

The record’s momentum and success (reportedly, 50,000 records were sold) prompted the team to return to the studio. This time, Bambaataa brought in DJ Jazzy Jay and a trio of rappers, Mr. Bigg, Pow Wow, and MC Globe, who called themselves the Soul Sonic Force. Baker managed the vocal hooks.

“We used a recording studio in the Upper East Side called Intergalactic Music Studio,” says Baker, during a recent phone interview. He says it was the same one used by the Beastie Boys (who would go on to record a track inspired by the studio’s name.)

Planet Rock contains futuristic sound elements, including lasers and robotic static, other-worldly analog synth tracks, laid over a hypnotic back beat. But the most iconic sound is the crushing boom of the bass, enhanced by the 808’s technology that Baker mastered.

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Afrika Bambaataa backstage at the Vic Theater, Chicago, Illinois, August 17, 1982. (Photo by Paul Natkin/Getty Images)

When Planet Rock launched into 1982 America, it propelled hip hop into the stratosphere and caused a sonic boom that caught attention. The song peaked at #4 on Billboard’s R&B Charts in July 1982 and crossed over to the more mainstream Hot 100 pop charts, becoming the biggest rap song since Sugarhill Gang’s Rappers Delight three years earlier.

Baker recalls, “We were making a rap record, but we mixed it like a dance record. A lot of it became standard to this day that back then we did experimenting,” says Baker, who has worked with New Order, Bruce Springsteen, Hall & Oates, Diana Ross, and Mick Jagger.

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Arthur Baker (Photo by Patrik Andersson)

“We basically did a mash-up,” he says, referring to the inspirations he tapped into to mix Planet Rock. At the time, Baker was a fan of the early-techno sound of the German electronic group Kraftwerk. “When I heard Numbers, I thought it would be great to use that beat with the melody of Trans Europe Express.”

Baker says the German band came after the label and eventually got paid for writing and publishing rights.

“Kraftwerk couldn’t come after us for having sampled their record because we didn’t sample their record. None of this stuff was sampled, it was just replayed. We redid everything,” says Baker. “We got away with it because I guess it was an early one. It wasn’t like we hid it,” he admits. “We made that record, which blew up.”

Planet Rock was one of the first [12-inch records] that I bought,” recalls longtime Miami house DJ Oscar G. He says one Christmas his wish list to Santa included “a bunch of Arthur Baker records.”

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Oscar G (Photo by Michael Campina)

“That was the beginning of my DJ record collection. Arthur’s stuff was the first stuff in my record box.”

And Planet Rock?

“That’s the one,” he says. “I would sit in my house and listen to this shit over and over and over. I was so blown away by it, not only the original mix, but I loved the dub, the bonus beats, the whole shit. It was so fucking cool. There were definitely records that came out [before] that had that rap element, but Planet Rock was the perfect representation of what I think was happening at that time in the Bronx and New York.”

It has been well-documented that Planet Rock energized an emerging street dancing scene that was breaking out of from the South Bronx in the early 80s.

“It’s the ultimate representation of that B-Boy culture that was happening in that moment,” says Oscar G.

“Arthur was able to bottle that movement, he says, “and Planet Rock is that bottle.”

Planet Rock was one of the first [12-inch records] that I bought

DJ Oscar G

“I remember the first rap music we heard on the radio was Rappers Delight,” says Andrew Yeomanson aka DJ Le Spam. “But that was more like disco rap. [Planet Rock] was the death of disco rap. It meant that from then on, hip hop could be made electronically, much more cheaply and much more available to different artists, because you didn’t need to have $5,000 to go into a studio and hire a band,” says Yeomanson, who founded the Spam All Stars.

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Andrew Yeomanson (Photo courtesy of Andrew Yeomanson)

“If you didn’t have that range or scale, you can still make music,” he says. “People could create music on a budget, so it made it available to people who were on a street level and maybe only had a few hundred dollars and some verses in their head.”

Yeomanson says in Planet Rock, Baker demonstrates a skill and vision with the different electronic drum machines, including the 808, that would re-define the genre forever.

“Arthur was leading the charge with the gear. He got work and notoriety because he was the guy with these sounds.”

So is Planet Rock that one record that blew up hip hop?

“Yeah, of course, it was,” responds Yeomanson.

“That’s it. That changed everything.”

End Note: Efforts to reach Luther Campbell of Miami’s 2 Live Crew for his comments were unsuccessful.

Copyright © 2020 Long Play Miami

 

Easy Does It

If there was something you could count on between 1976 and 1986 as sure as the sky was blue was that at any time of the day on the radio, you could probably hear the voice of Michael McDonald.

Whether he was harmonizing in the background for Steely Dan, or singing lead for the Doobie Brothers, or performing any one of his top 40 solo hits, McDonald’s distinctly, husky voice was a staple on FM radio, a reminder that whatever angst existed during that decade, the soothing voice of Michael McDonald could be found by just turning the radio dial.

So when McDonald walked on stage on Friday night at the North Beach Bandshell during the 4th Annual GroundUP Music Festival, took a seat behind a Yamaha grand piano, greeted the audience briefly, and then vocally belted his first note, it was a comforting reminder that there are things from our past that are still intact.

Backed by members of the Grammy-award winning jazz collective Snarky Puppy including bassist Michael League and keyboardist Shaun Martin, as well as virtuoso guest-saxophonist Chris Potter, the Michael McDonald Quintet, as they billed themselves on Friday night in Miami, performed a remarkable 50-minute set that included Doobie classics like Takin’ it to the Streets and What a Fool Believes, his 1982 hit, I Keep Forgettin’, and his own version of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, that at first made me cringe until I was swept up by the easy-listening vocal register of Michael McDonald.

Before the show I ran into a friend who admitted he was “kind of a Michael McDonald fan,” to which his wife quipped, “[My husband] used to be cool.”

And I get it: liking Michael McDonald isn’t really ‘cool’ and admitting that you are a Michael McDonald fan in public is really uncool. In fact, I would argue that the genre that McDonald’s music falls into, somewhere between “Easy Listening” and “Yacht Rock”, is the polar opposite of cool.

But I get the sense that Michael McDonald doesn’t seem to care about any of that.

Since 2013, the 68-year old has been gradually increasing his work load. He appeared at Coachella in 2017. Last year, he performed fifty shows including the Curaçao North Sea Jazz Festival.

This coming May, he will join the remaining members of the Doobie Brothers in Cleveland as they are inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Then the band will embark on a 50th anniversary tour that kicks off in South Florida at the Coral Sky Amphitheatre in June.  That’s more than cool.  In fact, given present day America’s fast-pace culture and hyper-ventilating news cycle, Michael McDonald might just be the easy listening we need right now.

Copyright © 2020 Long Play Miami

p.s., Stay tuned for upcoming pieces including one about the ground-breaking hip hop record that remains a force nearly 40 years later (“It changed everything.”).

Going Back to Where the Seeds to Woodstock were Sown

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It was reported recently that actors Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter are reuniting to film “Bill & Ted Face the Music,” the third installment in the “Bill & Ted” series. The 1989 original film saw Reeves and Winter portray a couple of California high school slackers who dream of becoming rock stars. When the likelihood of flunking a final history exam most heinously threatens their lifestyle, they are visited by a futuristic character at a Circle K who stresses the importance of passing this particular test. Apparently the future of mankind depends on it (because Bill & Ted are, like, the Chosen Ones, dude.)

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The pair travel through time in a telephone booth to prepare for the exam by meeting up with the likes of Genghis Khan, Napoleon, Freud, Mozart, and Lincoln and bringing these historical characters to present day San Dimas, California.

Cue the space-time continuum high jinks.

News of this upcoming film prompted me to think, not what I feel about Keanu Reeves using the term “bodacious” in 2018, but about time-travel and what-ifs, as in,

What if I could travel in a time machine?

Where would I go?

The answer is simple really.

At this very moment, I would go back to this very day, 50 years ago, May 18th, 1968.

Gulfstream Park, …

Hallandale, Florida, …

the site of The Miami Pop Festival.

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The Miami Pop Festival was the first of its kind on the East Coast. Co-founder Michael Lang, a New Yorker who had settled in Coconut Grove and ran a head shop, and Ric O’Barry, a dolphin trainer at the Miami Seaquarium, decided to partner up and bring a music festival to Miami because – I don’t know – it was the 60s and it would be a groovy thing to do (?).

For Lang, the festival served as something of a test run; he would go on to co-produce Woodstock, in August 1969.

Now let me indulge some more in my time-travel fantasy ∼∼∼∼∼∼∼

Once I arrive at Gulfstream Park, I would take a seat near one of the two flatbed trucks that were rented to serve as a performance stage. Just after noon, I’d listen to the trippy musical rants of Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, get my R&B fix with John Lee Hooker and Chuck Berry, then I’d persuade someone to save my spot, go for a snow cone, and come back for the headliner, The Jimi Hendrix Experience.

In the book, Woodstock Festival Remembered, Michael Lang remarked about the Miami Pops Festival:

It was going to be a two-day event; two shows a day, afternoon and evening. We rented out booths to sell head-shop gear and assorted psychedelia. We managed to get everything arranged and the crowds came. After the music began we realized somebody had forgotten to pick up [Jimi] Hendrix at the airport. I sent cars out to get him, but Jimi had gotten impatient and decided to rent a helicopter. This turned out to be beautiful. Just as Jimi was due to go on stage and we were going berserk, this helicopter came hovering over the stage…

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Hendrix was fresh off his US festival debut performance at the Monterrey Pop Festival the year before and his debut LP, the masterful and incomparable Are You Experienced (1967).  It’s fair to say he was the biggest rock star of the moment.

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This electrifying performance would be one of Hendrix’s most memorable shows. The set list would include Hey Joe, Purple Haze, Foxey Lady, and Hear my Train a Comin’.

By the fifth song, I would pump my fist when Hendrix announces to the crowd that one of the amplifiers had blown out:

It’s really very bad trying to play on ashes. That’s all that’s left. Nothing but ashes.

The second day of the festival was canceled early by the organizers due to rain. Yet Hendrix wasn’t discouraged. He reportedly was inspired to write “Rainy Day Dream Away” which was featured on his third album Electric Ladyland (1968).

Look, I get it, Woodstock was and remains the mother of all music festivals, but it was the Miami Pop Festival that established the roots.

Or as Michael Lang once claimed:

This is where the seeds to Woodstock were sown.

Fortunately, you have a chance to time-travel too. Sort of. The HistoryMiami museum will launch a new exhibition this weekend titled “Miami Rocks” to honor the 50-year anniversary of the Miami Pop Festival. The exhibition will run until September 30, 2018.

(Photo credit for the above pictures belongs, with all due respect, to Ken Davidoff.)


Here is the virtuoso performing Foxey Lady 50 years ago today.

Nuclear Valdez: Resurrected

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The new music sounds like the old music. And that’s a good thing.

These were the first thoughts that entered my mind upon listening to the opening track off Present From The Past, the latest record release by Miami’s own Nuclear Valdez.

A few weeks ago I learned that the band was releasing this album on vinyl on April 22nd (otherwise known as Record Store Day, the annual celebration of independent record stores that facilitated the revival of vinyl records). Early that morning, I ventured out to my favorite record shop, Sweat Records.

I walked around passing the various genre categories handwritten on white placards on the shelves: indie, hip hop, rock, punk, world, re-issues. But it was at the new-releases section where I held my breath. There it was, Nuclear Valdez’s first album in 26 years(*), enjoying top-shelf status, a little product-placement bonus love by shop owner Lolo Reskin and the rest of the Sweat gang.

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Present From The Past is a compilation of never-released music that Nuclear Valdez wrote and recorded in the late 80s/early 90s.

Listening to the album teleported me back to 1989 when these four local boys, sons of Cuban and Dominican immigrants, landed a record deal with Epic, the label that counted among its artists the likes of Michael Jackson, Cheap Trick, and Sly & The Family Stone.  That same year they released their debut album, I Am I.  Their first cut “Summer” included a music video filmed in Miami that reached MTV daily-play honors for several months. It was that first cut, a political song about repression in Cuba, that established their identity.

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“If you were from Miami and born to Cuban parents, you were a Nuclear Valdez fan,” said a friend the other day when we chatted about the band. The Nukes embodied the angst, emotion, and political expression of the Cuban-American experience.

Growing up Cuban-American, life inside the hyphen that separates the two nationalities wasn’t so level. Musical tastes varied. A lot of the music that I heard as a child was either Cuban or heavily tilted towards the island 90 miles off the coast of Florida. Celia Cruz, Willy Chirino, maybe a few tracks by Miami Sound Machine. It was the music of our grandparents and our parents. But I and others came of age in America, the birth place of rock & roll. The music in our hearts and minds was different, a product of our youth, our environment, our identity, our American identity. Nuclear Valdez was the first to fill the space inside the Cuban-American musical divide with their politically charged, soulful sound, channeling contemporaries like U2, The Fixx, and Midnight Oil.

After their debut album, the band released a second record in 1991 called Dream Another Dream. But the pure, folk-influenced sound changed. They brought in electronic machines and synthesizers. The music seemed excessive, over-sized. I lost a little interest in them and could only hope that a third album would resurrect them. But reportedly they were dropped by Epic after Dream. “It didn’t make sense for them to stay with us or for us to stay with them,” said an Epic representative in a February 1994 article that appeared in the Miami New Times titled “The Local Rock Scene is Dead.” (*)

So what happened? A press release on the band’s website states they got left in the cold by the record company as a result of the emerging grunge scene in Seattle (Epic would go on to sign Pearl Jam and release their iconic album Ten in 1991.).

The press release continues, “Disillusioned, we decided to pack it in, much to the disappointment of our many fans.”

This latest record aptly named Present From The Past chips away at the disillusion, like a gift from an old friend who once abandoned you, and it’s a reminder that this local band once displayed some real chops but more importantly still own their rightful place in Miami’s music history.

Welcome back Nukes.

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Here is the video for “Summer” from 1989.

(*) End Note: A reader rightfully pointed out that in 2001 the Nukes released a third record after Epic but with only three members of the original band.

Copyright © 2017 Long Play Miami

After Dark: Revisiting the Radiohead concert

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Black is the color of night, of cool, of darkness, of the opaque, of the unknown. Black is the color of the galaxy, the pigmentation of the space between the planets and the stars and the comets and the objects that we have yet to identify. Black is the polar opposite of white, and it was the predominant color at the Radiohead concert last Thursday in Miami, where the band opened its 2017 tour.

Fans wore black. T-shirts, blouses, pants, jackets, caps. I wore black. My wife wore black. We were geared for a dark evening.

If Radiohead were a time of day, they would lie somewhere between dusk and dawn. This is where Radiohead resides. They make melodies and sounds and noise that reverberates, coagulates, and then secretes into your soul before the sun’s first rays poke out.

It was Radiohead that helped me cope with my father’s battle with lung cancer in the early 2000s (the other band was Rage Against the Machine.)

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In the early 1990s, Radiohead released PABLO HONEY, unarguably their most “conventional” album (it features “Creep,” a wonderful song that they refuse to play live anymore). Then they began to detour a little with the aptly named THE BENDS (1995) and OK COMPUTER (1997), which launched them into rock stardom alongside their contemporaries. But in this author’s humble opinion, it was the back-to-back releases of KID A (2000) and AMNESIAC (2001) that fired them through the ozone layer and into the dark where they remain, occasionally orbiting the Earth and sometimes drifting close enough for us to catch a glimpse.

Last week when the lights in the arena began to dim, an ominous hum sounded over the speakers, like the dial tone of an old telephone.  “They’re here,” I said to my wife, sounding oddly similar to that young girl in the movie “Poltergeist.”

But these were not spirits. This was Thom Yorke, Jonny Greenwood, Colin Greenwood, Ed O’Brien, and Phil Selway.

We stood, all of us, in black attire, and welcomed the English quintet with howls befitting a rout of wolves on a full moon.

They opened the show with a gradual lift-off into Daydreaming from their latest album, A MOON SHAPED POOL (2016), a soft tiptoe of a song between a state of consciousness and sub-consciousness, between the darkness of sleep and the brightness of a dream, cracking an idyllic tone for the rest of the evening, which was beautiful, eerie, melancholic and sublime.

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Through a 24-song well balanced set across their entire songbook including Idioteque, Lotus Flower, Weird Fishes, No Surprises, Fake Plastic Trees, and You and Whose Army, Radiohead pulled the crowd a step closer, inviting us to a place brighter than the blackness that was all around us.

(I bought a new shirt. It is gray.)

 

Full Set List (Miami, 3/30/2017)

Song / ALBUM / Year 

  • Daydreaming / MOON SHAPED POOL / 2016
  • Desert Island Disk / MOON SHAPED POOL / 2016
  • Ful Stop / MOON SHAPED POOL / 2016
  • Airbag / OK COMPUTER / 1997
  • Morning Bell / KID A / 2000
  • Climbing Up the Walls / OK COMPUTER / 1997
  • All I Need / IN RAINBOWS / 2007
  • Videotape / IN RAINBOWS / 2007
  • Let Down / OK COMPUTER / 1997
  • I Might Be Wrong / AMNESIAC / 2001
  • Lotus Flower / KING OF LIMBS / 2011
  • Identikit / MOON SHAPED POOL / 2016
  • Idioteque / KID A / 2000
  • Nude / IN RAINBOWS / 2007
  • Weird Fishes/Arpeggi / IN RAINBOWS / 2007
  • The Numbers / MOON SHAPED POOL / 2016
  • How to Disappear Completely / KID A / 2000

Encore 1:

  • No Surprises / OK COMPUTER / 1997
  • Burn the Witch / MOON SHAPED POOL / 2016
  • Reckoner / IN RAINBOWS / 2007
  • Fake Plastic Trees / THE BENDS / 1995
  • The Tourist / OK COMPUTER / 1997

Encore 2:

  • You and Whose Army? / AMNESIAC / 2001
  • BodySnatchers / IN RAINBOWS / 2007

 

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