Wednesday, July 21, 2021

The Boys Are Back in Town

So anyway, here's the shortest possible intro I can come up with for this, and please bear with me.

In any case, I have a brilliant young friend named Tommy Perkins. He's one of the ridiculously talented people I've met at my watering hole in Forest Hills over the years -- he was actually a bartender at said place, the Keuka Kafe -- and he was and is a total joy to hang out with. I used to go there for lunch, and it was pretty much just him and me, and we woud shoot the shit and he would turn me on to all sorts of great music I was heretofore unaware of. And generally have a great time.

Here's an example.

I mean -- wow.

I should also add that sometime in the summer of 2019 I mentioned to to him that my band The Floor Models was about to embark on a tribute album to The Byrds, but that we lacked a title for it; he raised an eyebrow and said "Uh, In-Flyte Entertainment."

Have I mentioned wow?

In any case, Tommy's doing some undergraduate work, at a college I won't mention, for an English degree, and he recently wrote this paper about The Bus Boys, a band that seems more relevant than ever, and he passed it along to me. My response was -- dude, this is brilliant, and frankly, given the fact that I spent most of my adult life as a professional (heh) rock critic all I can say is I wish I had written it.


The Bus Boys’ Minimum Wage Rock 'n' Roll as Great Black Music

In the article It Didn’t Jes Grew: The Social and Aesthetic Significance of African American Music, Kalamu ya Salaam argues that music is the mother tongue of African Americans and goes on to outline criteria for what he terms Great Black Music. According to Salaam, GBM is characterized by its oppositional stance to cultural norms and celebration of African American identity in a white-dominated world. The 1980 album "Minimum Wage Rock and Roll", by The Bus Boys, is a satiric and upbeat example of this rebellious and humanizing attitude. Lyrically, the album covers topics of wage-slavery, gentrification, cultural appropriation, and racism with wit and subversive humor. Musically, these ideas are presented over a contemporary style of rock music that pays homage to its black founders while pushing limits at the time by incorporating elements of the burgeoning New Wave movement. Given that rock and roll had become the mainstay of white musicians by the time of Minimum Wage Rock & Roll being released, The Bus Boys are iconoclastic for their efforts to emphasize the medium as one of black origins and as a vehicle for expressing the challenges faced by African Americans in the United States.

In their song “Did You See Me?” The Bus Boys directly postulate about their listeners’ lack of familiarity with rock music’s black origins: “I bet you never heard music like this by spades”. In a single line, the band decries the complete cultural appropriation of rock music by white artists and audiences over the two and a half decades since Chuck Berry, often cited as the “Father of Rock and Roll”, released Maybellene in 1955. Though such an assumption may seem harsh, Salaam explains that this kind of frank honesty is an imperative quality of GBM. “For us, there remains a raw element in our cultural expression precisely to remind us who we are, and to affirm that we do not ever want to forget or give up the fight against our condition of forced submission to alien conquerors” (Salaam 355). Through their honesty, The Bus Boys both entertain and inform their audience while remaining true to their own cultural identity and refusing to be assimilated.

“Coming out of Reconstruction, we African Americans literally found ourselves emancipated but unliberated…only this time as wage slaves” (Salaam 367). As Salaam, describes, the economic realities faced by African Americans from emancipation onward create a stark portrait of disadvantage and inequality. With a lack of upward mobility and bills to pay, an element of indentured servitude pervades the lives of many “free” African Americans through the present day. The Bus Boy’s title track, “Minimum Wage” sums this up perfectly with what Salaam describes as “acceptance of the contradictory nature of life” (Salaam 357).

I make the minimum wage I said that I work, I work For the minimum wage I wash the dishes, I mop the floors I'm glad I'm alive, who could ask for more …

I'm not unhappy, why be sad Think of all the good times that we've had We work so hard Yes, we work all day We work so hard But we need to stay

The Bus Boys subversive and satiric approach to rock music is perhaps best exemplified in their songs which deal most directly with race relations in America. “There Goes The Neighborhood” is a reference to the common utterance of white communities who feared the possibility of black neighbors. However, removed from the context of the early days of white flight and blockbusting, The Bus Boys instead refer to whites moving back into urban areas that are now predominately populated by African Americans and the resulting gentrification and displacement of these black residents.

There goes the neighborhood The Whites are moving in They'll bring their next of kin, oh boy There goes the neighborhood, boy, boy, boy I ain't moving out for no Carol and Bob The inner city is too close to my job And oh, oh, oh, it doesn't look too good to me

Just as they did in “Minimum Wage”, the lyrics to “Neighborhood” make the best of the speaker’s reality by finding a silver lining in the inner city being close to one’s workplace, despite the poor conditions of both when compared to the opportunities of affluent, middle-class suburbs. This somewhat jocular indignation about white society attempting to reclaim African American neighborhoods is a refusal on the part of The Bus Boys to be recolonized after finally gaining a pittance of independence. Salaam recognizes this type of rallying cry as a key component of GBM. “The social and aesthetic significance of GBM is very precisely its warrior stance in the face of the status quo and its healing force for the victims of colonialization. Ultimately, the best of our music helps us resist colonization and reconstruct ourselves whole and healthy” (Salaam 375). The idea of being “whole” in terms of one’s identity as an American and human being with full civil rights is the subject of “KKK”. In the lyrics, The Bus Boys describe the inequity by which African Americans have been allowed to serve their country in warfare for centuries and yet are still denied other fundamental opportunities. If true equality is possible, the song speculates humorously, perhaps African Americans will break down all exclusive barriers in their way, including those surrounding membership in the Ku Klux Klan.

If I can fight in Vietnam If I am good to Uncle Sam If I am good to join the war Fellas, please don’t close the door I am bigger than a nigger Wanna be an all-American man Wanna join the Klu Klux Klan And play in a rock & roll band

This plea to be regarded equally is as much one on behalf of African American society to an unjust United States as it is one on the part of an African American band in a white-dominated industry built on the innovation of black musicians. The Bus Boys arrival on the popular music scene marked them as a significant minority voice in a rather homogenous genre. The Bus Boys’ outspoken humor and combining of traditional musical elements with current trends was indeed timely. The Allmusic review of their album explains their significance as early purveyors of a more modern sound in rock music:

“One of the first African-American groups to emerge to national prominence in the new wave scene, the BusBoys were willing to embrace the contradictions and confront the stereotypes that faced black musicians playing what had come to be known as "white" music…the music was certainly prescient, blending straight-ahead rock & roll and old- school R&B with George Clinton-esque absurdity and harmonies and new wave synthesizer squeals”. (Deming)

Much like their forebears from the early days of rock and roll, The Bus Boys contributions are somewhat overlooked today. Much like their forebears as well, the controversial ideas presented within The Bus Boys’ music may have garnered attention but ultimately made only a temporary impact to be overlooked for more whitewashed alternatives.

Salaam postulates that the inherent nature of change is a key component of Great Black Music. Although The Bus Boys’ Minimum Wage Rock & Roll has faded into obscurity over the past forty years, it remains a strong example of GBM for its pushing the limitations of rock and roll and serving as an honest, humorous and humanizing African American voice of rebellion.

BTW -- I had no idea that the Bus Boys were not only still active but had made a totally awesome and obviously relevant album just last year

Here's the single that proves it.

Thanks, Tommy.


Anonymous said...

This was one of the best weeks for the blog in a long time! Great mix of topics and music.

Thanks for opening my eyes and ears to the Bus Boys!

Captain Al

Stu said...

Eddie Murphy was a fan.