"Just pop with what's poppin', man..."
This is another flashback. Back some years in time; same place, Long View Farm. Same people, sort of. Rock stars, and lots of friends wanting to get close to them.
I wonder why I am doing this with my life.
"Steve," I said, in a whisper, "that's the end of Side One. They're all looking at you now. The room's all flashing with strobes and people taking pictures. Must be 45 people directly in front of you. Staring at us. What should we do now... you want to play Side Two right away, or what...?"
We were talking about Side Two of Songs in the Key of Life, to date (and to this date) the best-selling and most applauded recording project in Stevie Wonder's career. Stevie Wonder hadn't recorded that record album at Long View Farm, but he "had" staged a mammoth press party there, to introduce it to the world, represented by 200 reporters who we had flown in from Los Angeles and New York to Worcester using a chartered DC-8 jet.
Let me not digress overly in describing the circumstances which lead to this most gala event, save to say that I had been obliged to deal with an difficult white attorney working for Wonder who ate only grapefruit, a Lieutenant of the rock star whose father was a Gospel singer but whose love was painfully explicit LP pornography—recording dirty songs, I mean—and a desperate brother named Calvin who called me "Whitie" whenever he could, and who suspected my every move as sabotage against the black brotherhood of the world.
"Keep your eyes on the road, Whitie. You're supposed to drive, not talk," was a typical contribution from this man.
The setting was Control Room-A at Long View Farm. We had just played roughly one-half of the album, which had not yet been pressed into plastic. So we were using a quarter-inch tape which had been express mailed from L.A. the night before, heavily insured. The farmhouse was chock-jammed with salivating, musically-minded, 60's-primed political liberals, and half of these were crammed into this smallish Control Room, all staring and now shouting at Stevie Wonder, who sat with me in front of the console, nodding his head furiously, as though to shake to the floor his de rigeur Ray Charles sunglasses, smiling, and seeing nothing.
Stevie Wonder is blind.
"Far out, Stevie, baby!"
"Right-on, man; right-on!"
"Hey, man; what's next?"
"All the power to the people, Stevie!"
"Far, fucking out, Stevie bab-eee!"
"Steve, it's Gil. What do we do next? Side Two, or what?" I was playing audio engineer for this particular day-in-the-life, not at all minding the photographic exposure for my recording studio, and for myself personally, if the truth be known, and I needed to know what to do next. The din set up by the choir of young liberals, all with pens and notepads at the ready, was deafening.
"Steve, it's Gil. What do we do next?" I repeated, now with a tone of urgency in my voice. The flashbulbs were blinding me, and I was losing my cool.
"Side Two, Stevie?" I asked again.
"Just pop with what's poppin', man," Stevie responded, laconically...
More 35-millimeter cameras exploded in our faces as the black man's lips moved. More shouts. More faces from New York City pressed forward—all lips, noses, and teeth. Mouths open, with sounds coming out.
"Hey, Stevie Bay-bee, let's hear a song about peace."
"How about women?" the woman from Ms. Magazine shouted.
"When do we hear the song about your daughter?" came from a thin, young black thing, screeching loudly.
The tumult now threatened the well-being of the gathering. I could see the frantic faces, and the flashes of light. Stevie couldn't, since he's blind, but the frequency of the Nikon forward-winds and the now palpable, hot breath of the nation's Village Voice he could not ignore.
"Side Two, right?" I shouted once again.
"Let's pop with what's poppin'," Stevie Wonder said assertively, now loud enough for the press to hear.
I figured it out. Through the clicks and flashes of a hundred Nikon cameras, and over the loving, angry din set up by a mob of eager, peace-loving reporters, it became clear to me that all Stevie Wonder wanted me to do was to continue with Side Two of this most-important, long-playing record album.
My role was now clear. I could pop, and I would pop, so help me God.
Never lacking the bon mot, or the grandiloquent gesture, I made a sweeping motion of my right arm towards the Scully tape machine, where Side Two of Stevie Wonder's album Songs in the Key of Life lay coiled, just beyond six inches of white paper leader tape, extended the index finger of my right hand, and hit the PLAY button.
Voilà! I thought.
Voilà! I said, "Let there be music!"
But there was no music. The paper leader tape snapped instead. The white paper tape separating Side One from Side Two of Stevie Wonder's most important contribution to the 20th. century, applied by some nameless, probably drug-blasting assistant engineer in Los Angeles the night before, broke in two.
The right-hand tape reel began spinning wildly, whining at an ever higher and higher pitch.
The priceless master tape on the left-hand reel was also whirring, backwards, slapping its broken strand of paper tape faster and faster against the metal tape guard.
Fickety, fickety, fickety, fick! it went. Faster and faster. A tape op's nightmare.
Gasps went up from the liberals. All of a sudden there were no more photographs. People knew something was awfully wrong. A hush fell over the assembled crowd. Wide black eyes drilled in upon the back of my head. I felt my life was in danger. An awful silence reigned.
"You poppin' with what's poppin'?" Stevie Wonder asked, now with an edge in his voice.
"You bet, Stevie," I said, bending about the task of halting the spinning tape reels, and re-threading the tape machine.
"We'll be back up in a minute, Stevie. Just a minute."
"Yeah," Stevie Wonder replied, without enthusiasm.
He then snapped his fingers twice in front of his dark glasses — snap, snap — smiling up towards the farmhouse ceiling where the black paint was cracking and only spiders lived. In applause, the assembled media guests dissolved into renewed 'oohs' and 'aahs', and the cameras started taking pictures again. Flash-click; flash-click...
Miraculously, the music started again.
"Right-on, Stevie Bay-bee!" shouted the thin, angry young man fromEbony magazine.
"Say Brother!" screamed his sister from Jet, as she performed her fluid, jive movements under a loudspeaker, looking at the floor.
There would be no race riot — not in this Central Massachusetts countryside recording studio. Long View would prevail. Lunch would be served on time. I was poppin' with what was poppin'. This was what PhDs were for, clearly.
I found myself praying to this same God that brother Calvin couldn't read minds, or there would be hell to pay.
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All original material copyright © Gilbert Scott Markle. All rights reserved.