Winter Nights ( part One)
Last month, I sat in a Zumba exercise class at the local Y. Twenty years ago, I would have scoffed at this “invention”, as watered down roots music, of butchered merengue, fractured mambo, music with a hidden clave. But what I saw, was a room full of happy, dancing people. People of all sizes, black, latino, white, jewish, even a few men. They were all moving, having a good time. What the heck! I could hardly keep up. And then I remembered.,,
Back in December of ’78, winter had hung in Minneapolis. The snow that fell in Thanksgiving stuck around, and accumulated. The temperature plummeted. And the young man went out in search of heat, body heat, and maybe love.
On the West Bank, there was a rough, unfinished space about a pharmacy called “ Dania Hall”. One of Minnesota’s first “tropical” bands, Shangoya was playing. Even though they called themselves a “ reggae” band, they played many calypso tunes.
Led by Trinadad- born Peter Nelson, Shangoya was becoming popular especially on the dying hippie scene,( which the young man was trying to break into). They were a main draw at the yearly May Day parade/festival at Powderhorn Park, and had proved to be too popular for the Riverside Café- filling it to capacity and then some, going over the fire code. Now and then the Café dccided to piss off the power company, and pay their bills in pennies, which may have just proved to be an irritant to the bank clerks, rather than creating the huge social change they desired.
This was the old west bank: just before the influx of East African refugees. It was presided by the unofficial mayor, Ed Berger, the senior goateed alto sax bebopper, who dined daily at the Riverside Café. The deputy was Willie Murphy, leader of “ Willie and Bees” the most popular R&B dance band, with even a horn section! This was right when the hippies were starting to lose their ground to the new wave, the short-haired wearers of Doc Martens, who listened to The Ramones, the Sex Pistols, and took on a hyper, angry stance on things. The young man could not feel that way; he was too lonely, and reggae seemed to be the way to happiness.
And one day in early December, the young man walked up the stairs , hearing the throbbing bass line, and riveting drums. Most of the people still had on their coats, but were gently swaying to the music. Within 10 minutes, layers came off. Patchouli –scented scarves, grimy woolen sweaters, the college students international students, junior punkers, and the slightly grizzlied hippies of say, mid thirties, all joined together by “ this- a –reggae- music”.
The young man’s heart ached- he scanned the room. There were so many women of beauty and youth… Everyone had such strength. Did any of them like poetry? Or Jazz music? Would any of them find him interesting at all? He was skinny, and lonely. He did not have sisters, and thought women to be, well goddesses. While photographs showed otherwise, he thought his hair too short.
It was an age of extreme insecurity.
The young man noticed that Reggae sounded so much better live than on records. He recalled one hippie friend who said in hushed tones “ Those reggae musicians play in POLY RYTHYMS!!!! More than one rhythm at a time!!” Only later, did the young man realized how naïve his friend was, compared to the hip jazz drummers who walked in hemiolas, breathed in 7/4, and saw 9 as a common dance meter. “ I don’t keep time, I MAKE time” one young drummer said proudly.
The dancing scene was not like the social dancing parties of your parents, or even the amoral,evil disco scene of the time. A young man did not really ask someone to dance. You just moved over to a group of where people were dancing, and hone in, hoping someone would notice you. Usually, they didn’t. The young women would smile faintly, and ease over to another space in the dance floor, as the young man confusedly danced twice as fast as everyone else.
But tonight, he had the feeling. One of these nights, (as the Eagles song said). Someday, his lonely heart might become free. One of these nights, he would lose the burden of being the outsider, and really connect. One of these cold, west bank, reggae dancing nights, he would be free.