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Earth, Wind, Fire and Fathers

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Maurice White’s death on Thursday brought back memories of his brilliant music and put ‘September’ on repeat on millions of stereos. It also conjured, for me, some odd family history. In 1975, when I was eight, a film called That’s the Way of the World was released in America. Harvey Keitel starred in the story of a hotshot record producer’s struggles with art and mammon. The screenplay was written by my father, the sports journalist and fiction writer Robert Lipsyte, and the soundtrack was by Earth, Wind and Fire, who also appear in the movie as the Group, a band with a groundbreaking sound but not enough commercial appeal. Keitel is ordered by his music biz bosses, who answer to mob heavies, to concentrate his formidable knob-turning prowess on some Carpenters rip-offs.

The movie, for various reasons, including the direction, was what Americans in those days called a turkey. We went to see it at the local movie theatre, and when the few other people in attendance started talking, my father told them to shut up or he’d do something bad to them. (I was deeply proud of him then, and now that I’ve experienced similar humiliations, even prouder.) The movie bombed but the soundtrack, with some of Earth, Wind and Fire’s best songs, including ‘Shining Star’ and the title track, went triple platinum. One day we got a gold and a platinum record in the mail, framed and suitable for hanging. The spray paint job was impressive and perhaps partly as joke (‘The record went platinum and the movie went lead,’ my father announced) they found a home on a basement wall near the gas meter. My mother protested, worried that if people saw these signs of success they’d think we had money and try to rob us. But my father’s light-hearted bitterness won out, and there the records hung for many years. (It was not my mother’s first defeat with regard to the film, as she’d lobbied the producer to cast Raul Julia in the lead instead of Keitel. My father later conceded that because of the tight T-shirts Keitel wore during certain scenes, it wasn’t Harvey carrying the movie so much as his nipples.)

The records collected dust on the walls, but they also attracted a certain amount of attention. More than few times over the years, men from the gas company would come to read the meter and leave with a little nod or wink. We’d find demo tapes they’d left behind. My father took little joy in discovering there were struggling musicians in New Jersey who thought he was some serious record exec with ties to one of the biggest albums in recent years, but he didn’t really let them know otherwise. Most of them never came back, off on other routes or different jobs. I guess my father could have called them, but maybe that would have been worse.

As a kid I wondered if there were guys out there swearing an oath of revenge on that bastard music honcho in the average suburban split-level with millions socked away in a wall safe, vowing to destroy that self-regarding slimeball who didn’t have the decency to pop in a demo tape and at least get back with an opinion. Now I wonder if any of the guys made it, not to the level of Maurice White, perhaps, but to a life in music. Some of them must have been good enough to dream. Maurice White was a whole lot better than that. He was also, according to my father, a lovely man. White called my father a few years ago and asked him to write the liner notes for a reissue of That’s the Way of the World. They had some long conversations my father cherished. He got to feel a little more connected to those shimmering discs that once hung on the basement wall, though now my father says he has no idea where they went.

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