(Originally appeared on Blackadelic Pop, June 2007)
Ten years before my former home-girl Sheila Turner became a popular rock star, smoking more crack than any other chick on 151st Street, she had been one of the finest soul sisters who had ever trooped through the booming boulevard of Harlem. Whenever her mama baby-sitted me (those nights when my own ma worked late at The Oasis Bar), I peeked quietly through her cracked door as darling Sheila danced to the music of Marvin Gaye.
Dressed in sheer black underwear, Sheila was lost in soulful symphonies that were "the sound of young America" as I crept outside the doorway. Her bedroom was a shire to this motor-city loverman, with four-color images of Marvin staring from every surface. The way she swirled in her private world, one would have thought that baby girl was rehearsing to be on Soul Train. "What kinda trouble you getting' into Michael?" Mrs. Turner called from the kitchen, sensing I was getting into trouble.
"Nothing, Mrs. Turner," I lied, scrambling away from the door. Although Sheila was only five years older than me, our ages might as well have been a lifetime apart. Still, somewhere in the dusty corners of my mind I was convinced this fine as cherry wine beauty with her cinnamon smooth skin, blow-out Afro and dangerous curves would someday be my woman.
"Well, come out here and begin your homework before your mother gets home from work," said Mrs. Turner. As I sat down at that old-fashioned kitchen table, which looked like something straight out of Happy Days instead of the latest Sears catalog, the history and science homework in front of me kept becoming a blur as Sheila laid in her bedroom playing brother Marv's What's Going On album for the millionth time. But, as long as it made Sheila happy I didn't mind the music.
Perhaps I was on the verge of Black awareness beyond merely knowing (vaguely at best) about the lives of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. While I had heard my own mama speak about the riots that broke out in America's chocolate cities, blazes raging from Newark to Harlem to some spot called Watts, by the time I was mindful of the world around me, these events were already historic symbols of a movement past, sorrowful faces staring from text book pages. Because of my youth, the painful confusion of America's chocolate cities meant nothing to me.
Lounging at that table listening to my future wife (at least in my mind) wail the mournful words of her fantasy lover man, it was like something in my head clicked. For the first time the abstract images of families marching for freedom among monuments to dead presidents, rocket ships blasting into space and the agony of raging police dogs finally made sense; for the first time What's Going On spoke to a place in my heart and mind I never even knew existed: beautiful songs with raven wings and blue flames dripping from their beaks became the perfect soundtrack for a generation that had gone from southern colored folks to up-north Negroes to Afro-American Blacks playing ghetto games with newly changed Swahili names.
As though the Lord had personally tapped me on the shoulder on Sunday morning, What's Going On was a prophecy as well as a reflection of our troubled times. Sitting at Mrs. Turner's table with black hi-top Pro-Keds on my feet and sagging husky sized Levi's sagging from my behind, I almost lost my eight-year old mind.
Blaring from the battered homemade speakers that hung loosely from rusty nails on Sheila's wall, "Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)" was perhaps the most detailed pop depiction of mortality in the hood -- "Make me wanna holler/the way they do my life", moaned Marvin -- in those pre-hip-hop days.
In my head I envisioned the neighborhood drunks who stumbled down the block, Needle Park junkies who gathered in the spot and the strength of those who refused to be dragged down into life's gritty abyss, no matter how heavy their burden might be. "This ain't livin', this ain't livin'/No, no baby this ain't livin'." The next morning I begged mama for a few bucks from her tip money so I could buy my own copy at Mr. Freddy's Record Shack.
Mr. Freddy always reminded me of a Baptist church deacon. He often wore dull suits, stylish hats detailed with a small colorful peacock feather and strange ties of curious design. He was a small man with a big smile, and because he was a regular customer at The O' he was friends with my mom's. His shop was tiny, with four-color posters on the wall: Iaac Hayes' bald dome, the sparkling Supremes dressed like ghetto queens and Jet magazine Beauties of the Week beaming with afro-sheen smiles.
"What can I do for you, Little Man?" he asked, breath smelling like peppermint.
Shyly I pointed to a copy of What's Going On that was tucked in a rack behind the counter. With his smooth, spotted hands Mr. Freddy handed me the shrink-wrapped masterpiece.
I stared silently at Marvin's serious brown face gazing thoughtfully into the future shock of our tomorrows, blinded by rain, but still feeling the pain. With his black leather raincoat collar looking like wings in motion, Marvin had the appearance of a pained noir angel about to take flight: soaring above the misery of the masses and the joyful noise of children playing in the battlegrounds of America's chocolate cities. "This ain't livin'..."
* * *
Two years later, and a change was slowing coming. For the first time I began to notice more than Sheila's flawless skin and afro angelic hair, but I also began to observe how radiant her brown nipples appeared in white tube-tops and how sexy her open-toed high heeled sandals looked as she walked on the cracked pavement. At night I dreamt of her emerging from the shadows, gently touching my hand while leading me away to red-light bulb wonderland. Not that I knew anything about the bush fire that burned within, besides what my sex-crazed homeboys Smokey and C.C. whispered in the backyard of our apartment building.
It was the summer of '73 when Marvin Gaye released the aural-porn of Let's Get It On was also the season of Sheila's rite of passage, a Sweet 16 party. It seemed as though she and Mrs. Turner planned the party for months: from the lavish purple sequined dress with matching shoes to the colorful decorations that transformed the massive living-room into the Savoy Manor to the music that Sheila's goofy boyfriend Muskrat played on the hi-fi.
Everybody from the block was invited on that humid July 7th night to share Sheila's joy. Even my own homeboys were there, leaning against the wall wishing they could be outside playing stickball instead of wearing their church clothes on a Thursday night.
Like hazy sepia colored photos, I still have fixed images of that night in my head: the loud chatter of the grown folks in the kitchen playing spades, the smell of fried chicken and collard greens drifting through the apartment like soul food incense, Sheila's drunken Uncle Butter purposely bumping into the bubble-butts of Sheila's best girlfriends, Kool-Aid sipping bro's slipping Gordon's Gin into the punch as somebody loudly screamed, "No fools, no fun!" The crimson colored room erupted with ebony laughter.
For me, the highlight of the night was when someone dimmed the lights and Sheila emerged from the shadows, grabbed my hand and whispered, "Can I have this dance, little lover-man." It didn't matter that her words reeked of spiked punch, to me it was like angel's breath.
A jealous Muskrat dropped the worn diamond needle into the deep black groove of "Let's Get It On", as the room moaned in simultaneous orgasm; plastic-cupped drinks spilled on the hardwood floor as folks jumped to their feet to slow grind. The sweetness of Sheila's sensual movement against my chubby young body had me hypnotized as the sexual abandon of Marvin's lyrics merged with my own desire.
Awkwardly, I held Sheila close. Her sweet sweat, which smelled like Charlie perfume clouded my mind. From the speakers, there was an electric chill that swept through Marvin's voice, swooning textures that sounded like red dice on crushed velvet. It was almost hard to believe that the same voice that had soothed like a storefront preacher on What's Going On was now leading me down the road to lustful damnation.
* * *
Through the years, me and Sheila drifted our own ways. I saw her around the neighborhood, but those five years between us might as well have been a million. Hell, what would it have looked like for a grown woman to be messing with me anyway. But, over the years I peeped Sheila's scary mutation from the girl of my dreams to a bugged out crack zombie roaming the block in soiled clothes and chipped teeth, looking like the Night of the Living Baseheads.
It was 1982, the same year that Marvin would make his comeback with "Sexual Healing", and darling Sheila was the first crack-head I would know personally, but definitely not the last. "I miss my baby everyday," Mrs. Turner told my mother. I too missed her baby, finding this crack creature who crept through the night repulsive. "She's a child of the streets now."
Ironically, the pics I saw of Marvin Gaye in the pages of Jet magazine during this period had the same horror-movie appeal that one could see in Sheila's grill -- drugged-out glassy eyes, his brown face looking pained and afraid. Perhaps that was the same demented expression he had two years later when his bugged minister pops plugged two bullets into his chest. Supposedly the king of Black cool was flying high in the friendly skies of Los Angeles while slapping his bitter father around.
Back in the skyscraper jungles of Manhattan, I leaned against my friend Smokey's paint-peeling hoopdy parked on Riverside Drive. Gulping a brew and puffing on a joint, we watched cute women jogging in spandex while enjoying the glaring sunshine. The radio blasted. A news-report flashed over the airwaves: something about Marvin Gaye being shot. In the distance, young girls playing double-dutch squealed.
"Brother must have been sexually healing some dude's wife," I goofed, taking another budda blast. Smokey laughed. A few hours later, we heard more details and it was announced that Marvin Gaye was dead.
That night, after slowly walking into the building, I caught a glimpse of Sheila darting towards the back staircase with a druggie named Kev-Luv for a chip of crack. I could only imagine the kind of tricks Kev would force her to do. Pausing for a moment, Sheila turned around and our eyes briefly met. I was tempted to tell her of Marvin Gaye's death, but, a tiny voice in my head declared, "The girl already has enough pain to deal with."
After midnight, as I laid sweating in my hot ass bedroom listening to the boombox tribute of Marvin Gaye on WBLS, I once again gazed through those sepia-flicks that were buried deep in a dusty box in my mind. When the overnight DJ put the needle to the record and mixed in the lush "Let's Get It On," tears stained my pillow. In my dreams, me and Shelia slow danced until dawn.
You can read more of Michael's work right at blackadelicpop.blogspot.com