Tuesday, March 13, 2007

That Song "Africa" by Toto: A Meditation and a Memoir

Several years ago, I was driving from my hometown in Kentucky to nearby Lexington. Along for the ride was my old friend Justin, an effeminate little sprite, who, our sophomore year of high school got the cuffs for a failed attempt to steal chapstick from a Wal-Mart Discount Store. He perched in the passenger’s seat and chattered in incessant circles about old boyfriends and people who don’t wear belts (“They should be shot. Belt police. We need belt police on campus”), the book he was reading by Chuck Palahniuk, Brad Pitt’s “Tyler Durden,” Diesel or Seven for all Mankind, a mix tape he made me high school with only part of a Barenaked Ladies song on it (“Only about half that song’s good”) and some woman at the gas station who referred to another woman as “Oriental” (“Rugs are ‘Oriental,’ honey,” he told her. “Not people.”), until, finally, when all of this had been sorted out, we contemplated with sincerity that song “Africa,” by Toto.

This is when I made my faux pas: “Oh,” I said. You mean the one that goes ‘I guess it rains down in Africa,’ right?”

“What?” Justin turned his whole body. “Those are not the words to that song. It’s ‘I bless the rains down in Africa’ not ‘I guess it rains down in Africa,’ dummy.” It was, Justin continued, clearly a guy singing about his lover. Such songs of heartbreak and loss have no time for asides concerning the general state of the weather down in Africa.

“It’s the chorus, for Christ’s sake,” he sighed. Clearly, I was hopeless.

“Maybe he didn’t know what to say, so he decided to ‘talk about the weather,’ right?” My comment did not justify a response. What Justin didn’t understand was that, in my version of the song, which was clearly the more interesting one, it wasn’t about the remark about the weather itself, but rather what it was concealing with its casual facade.

Besides all this, I’m not sure how long I intend to entertain thoughts about a song whose lyrics also include the line “Her moonlit wings reflect the stars that guide me toward salvation.” That, I heard, and heard as the sound of two abrasive somethings being scraped together near my ear.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time I’ve misheard lyrics. In my world, there is a “Secret Asian Man” and a family of feet about which one declares “Six Feet Home Tonight” rather than “Take Me Home Tonight.”

And then there are the lyrics that you wish you’d misheard but didn’t, i.e. a pained Patrick Swayze really does whisper the troubling simile, “she’s like the wind through my trees.” This is a simile that no one can ever quite work out –what are his “trees?”–but which still manages to sound vaguely unsavory. Unless, of course, we know it’s being sung by a lovelorn apple picker.

I was still hanging around my playpen in ‘83 when “Africa” topped the charts, but, lucky for me, the radio exists so that we might continue to celebrate the accomplishment of such great musical feats as the release of Taco’s “Puttin’ on the Ritz” and “Mr. Roboto” by Styx. “Africa” is, in fact, number 24 on the list of the top 100 songs of ‘83, sandwiched between Thomas Dolby’s “She Blinded Me With Science” and Prince’s “Little Red Corvette.”

I like to imagine that all of the songs on the list refer to the same two people, one male and one female, who are entangled in a passionate and sometimes sordid love affair. That is, I like to think the “she” of “She Blinded Me With Science” is the same “she” who “works hard for the money,” and who is “Sexy + Seventeen.” She goes by the name of “Billie Jean,” but not exclusively. Her many aliases include “Gloria,” “Eileen” (most often uttered in conjunction with the phrase “Come on!”), and, behind her back, folks have been known to whisper “Maneater,” offering the foreboding phrase “Watch out, boy! She’ll chew you up!” to her would-be suitors.

But, as one half of the couple commemorated in such breathtaking duets as Eddie Rabbitt and Crystal Gayle’s “You and I,” and “We’ve Got Tonight” by Kenny Rogers and Sheena Easton, she will prevail, and the two of them will stroll on down “Electric Avenue,” kissing and strutting in their Members Only jackets.

Yet what to do with Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney floating out in the ether somewhere, serenading one another with “The Girl is Mine” or Don Henley lamenting the loss of his washing machine whilst breathing only through his mouth in that catchy little number “Dirty Laundry.”

Stranger still is something called “Pass the Dutchie” by Musical Youth, which seems to suggest a group of musically inclined schoolchildren passing around a tiny Dutch man. Interestingly, it goes something like this:

Music happen to be the food of love
Sounds to really make you rub and scrub

I say: Pass the Dutchie on the left hand side
Pass the Dutchie on the left hand side
It a gonna burn, give me music make me jump and prance
It a go done, give me the music make me rock in the dance

Ah, 1983, a time with a particular affection for love, loss, feathered hair and the hightop sneaker.

It was also the year that Boy George opined, “Do You Really Want To Hurt Me?”, a query which can be resolved most succinctly by posing a second question: “Do You Really Have To Ask?”

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

In My Language: Inside the Autistic Mind

The video begins with the sound of otherworldly singing, singing sans words, and the image of a woman poised in front of her apartment window, back to the camera, rocking back and forth, flailing her arms and fluttering her fingers. Next we witness the scraping together of two abrasive objects, plastic or metal things possibly. We watch as the woman’s hand repeatedly strokes some unidentified surface. She shakes a dangling necklace with one hand, hits it with the other, all the while chanting like some possessed shaman. The camera cuts to record the long spiral of an orange slinky from the inside, an aesthetically pleasing shot which recalls the neon tunnel of some amusement park ride. Stroking ridges with her fingernails, fondling the knob of a dresser–these are motions any of us might make in an idle moment, while on the phone or lost in thought. Yet Amanda Baggs is not like the rest of us; she is autistic, and she stopped making eye contact and using verbal communication a long time ago. She interacts with the world in a way most of us would regard as meaningless or non-sensical. For most of us, these moments are anomalies, not a way of life. We watch as she opens a book, not to read but to rub her face against its pages. Palms flat on the cover, she moves her head up and down and presses her nose into the binding, taking obvious pleasure in the texture and smell of the pages.

The second half the video, which was made entirely by Amanda herself, is titled “Translation.” Through the use of a special computer which vocalizes what she types, Amanda shares the following insight with respect to her behavior: “Far from being meaningless, the way that I move is an ongoing response to what is around me." Ironically, others describe this constant dialogue with the external world as being in a world of her own.. She explains that if she limits herself to responding to fewer stimuli, presumably other human beings and spoken language as is customary or “normal,” only then do people feel she is opening herself up to "true interaction with the world." Her thinking is only taken seriously if she learns the language of others. Only then is she said to be communicating, is she thought to be aware, intelligent, a person.

The video occurs to the viewer as something like performance art, a conceptual piece done by some member of the avant-garde. Yet what it offers is a rare glimpse into the austistic mind, and for many, it is simply life. Watch and be moved.