The Saturday A Song Saved My So-Called Life or The Nappy Virgin
IN WHICH TEEN ENVY FROM THE MID 80’S SET MY SUMMER AFLAME SENDING ME ON A PATH OF SELF DESTRUCTION… HOW HAIR CAN KILL… HOW SOMETIMES THE ONLY THING THAT CAN SAVE YOU IS A MUSIC VIDEO… HOW HAIRSTYLES CAN SEPARATE FAMILIES… HOW NEW NOMINEES FOR THE ROCK AND ROLL HALL OF FAME CAN BE TRIGGERING…IS ‘BLACK PEOPLE’ LISTENING TO ‘WHITE MUSIC’ A ‘THING?’
The summer I was due back in school as a sophomore, I decided to change the game and get a Jheri curl.
That particular summer, nothing was natural. All my cousins, all the bus drivers… everybody from the ministerial staff at church to the gangbangers smoking on the corner just outside, had these dripping wet afros infused with greasy vinyl bands of hair corkscrewing down to the scalp. The Jheri curl was everywhere. Named after its hairdresser-inventor, Jheri Redding, the hairstyle was a perm, a two part chemical relaxer that after softening hair would curl it. To top it off, my mom was a hairdresser who kept a steady stream of customers running through our kitchen to get permed up. (Aside: This cost her the skin on her fingers for a while. They would flake and swell resembling fat caterpillars until the fad, and her desire to engage the hours long process, faded)
Everyone I knew it seemed had swampy black hair that left slug-like trails from wherever the wearer sat. Everybody! The basketball players at the park, the young men and women in my kitchen … from the globally worshipped Michael Jackson to the scowling Ice Cube whose St. Ides and Kill at Will posters I kept on my wall that year. Everybody was dripping grease and cool as an R&B album cover.
And all I had was dry black naps full of dandruff. I couldn’t get laid if I was fresh mixed concrete. I had to get a Jheri curl. Right Now.
My mom was fine with this. She just didn’t want to do the work since she had real paying customers every weekend. So she asked cousin Susie whom she anointed and approved of, to come in one Saturday and work on me. All I was asked to do was not wash my hair or scratch it.
Which was the first and immediate problem. Did I mention I had dandruff? Is that still a thing? I remember combing my hair while bent over a newspaper watching the gray snowfall pile up. I had acne, sure, but it wasn’t as bad as my wickedly dry scalp, for which pomades and Head and Shoulders barely helped. The afternoon I was to get my hair done, I went down to Pay N’ Save and bought a box of relaxer. My head felt as dry as if it could crumble and blow away in a steady wind, like the leftover from a campfire. Not to mention how it itched. But nonetheless!! I was undaunted! I was finally going to be cool and get straight A’s in pussy all that next year!
So for the first time, I entered my own kitchen sanctuary (which I usually avoided) as a customer! While my mom worked on one old lady, then another, and maybe one after that… Susie began pouring chemicals through my hair, soaking my head in something…
Something akin to fire. Something like agent orange. My entire head burned. The slow, smoldering sensation made my skin feel as if were made of burning embers moving in waves. I closed my eyes to keep tears from dropping. However dry my scalp was, the chemicals were doing the exact opposite of helping. I squeezed my hands, digging my fingers into my thigh. The ladies came in and left and everybody was admiring and curious and smiled while I suffered and gritted my teeth and did everything except scream stop. It took the bulk of the afternoon for Susie to finish.
And when I was free, my hair was placed in rollers and the entire thing covered in plastic. I had just had surgery. My mom gave me her prescription Tylenol’s, thanked and paid Susie, and I went back to my room to recover.
I burned, I hurt. My entire head smoldered and ached. I don’t remember the rest of that night. Did I eat anything beyond soup and codeine? Could I have chewed? All I remember was sitting up in bed with my head bandaged in plastic while searching for some comfort and solace in television.
I turned to Channel 26 which on weekends showed an hour of music videos hosted by a local radio DJ. I sat staring coolly at the television. Pain gradually eased.
And then– the DJ announced the next music video.
A song called Wuthering Heights, he said. By Kate Bush, he said.
Fade up on a woman in double image, rising from an arc of rainbow light. A piano begins like misting rain, as if its being gently tickled as opposed to played. The woman on screen wears a white dress, not as a ghost or angel even but more like a muse, a low end goddess who shyly demurs too much fuss or attention. Her hair is long and dark, hanging over her shoulders. She mimes, she gestures before a black background. Unlike the other videos I’d seen, this is without groupies, dancers, a band, or a set. The director doesn’t even mix crazy colors into the unused background. Its just her dancing alone, video effects echoing her movements so that her body smears across the screen and she appears to dance duet with herself. This video cost less than $20 to make and I was riveted.
It was her voice, mostly. Her voice froze me in place, stopped time. Her voice is tip-toe high and tinny, an unreachable bird drifting and sliding between thermals. Her vocal dips and moves, dancing as she dances, gesturing as she gestures drawing out words and phrases, sending her voice up cheerily then back down to a kind of longing wistfulness. The song is dramatic and sweet and busy. The song sounds so ornate and complicated– like the show stopper for some Broadway musical. The bridge, its me, Kathy, I’ve come home and I’m so cold– let me in your window, Heathcliff— is desperate and mournful and full of longing. Every lonesome twitch I’d ever felt is articulated in her voice, with that line.
It was hypnotic and the most beautiful thing I’d ever heard. This wasn’t the same cheese from the 70’s songs I’d give an ear to. This wasn’t Melissa Manchester or Debbie Boone. This was someone who took a wholly different approach to songwriting than I’d experienced. It sounded mature and classical. I’d be asked to read Bronte’s Wuthering Heights for school maybe two years later, but I’d never finish it. I made it far as the hounds and gave up, dropping my first high school English class out of bitterness towards a teacher I loathed. But I didn’t need that book. I preferred Kate Bush summarizing the novel leaving me the image of a woman waiting for her lover and dancing until he responds.
The song, her voice, saved me. Healed me. It was a balm to my ear and heart and I fell immediately in love and passed out for sleep.
That next morning, I woke up, removed my plastic headwrap, unhooked the curlers, looked at my new hair, and cried. It was horrible. More specific, it wasn’t Me. I no longer recognized myself when I looked in the mirror– not that I was all that excited beforehand, but now, with this, it was All Bad.
My mother, calmly: If you want to keep your hair from falling out, go massage some mayonnaise in your hair and wait a few minutes before shampooing it out.
By the time Susie arrived to see her work from the previous afternoon, I was already combing my freshly shampooed hair out. That curl didn’t make a full 12 hours. She stopped talking to me. I mean, she was paid… but for a long while after she would still look at me and sneer.
So: I went to school that next day, Monday, with a very soft and kinda curly Afro. My scalp, of what I could see of it, looked burned in patches, but it was alright. I would still have dandruff for a while, but it eventually eased up.
I remained a virgin. A nappy virgin at that.
(Well, not nappy– the chemicals completely changed the quality of my hair for years, softening it, leaving it wavy)
And I became a very committed Kate Bush fan. A couple of years later she’d release The Whole Story, her greatest hits compilation with a new vocal on Wuthering Heights, her voice having matured and come down an octave or two, but the song still offered a huge, cinematic sweep of sound. More years later and I found her box set of all her albums in a local record shop as an import from Japan and paid $200 without complaining.
I did not go to England for her month-long residency in 2014 at the Hammersmith Apollo. The wait for any video footage (none) or her eventual live album was agonizing.
She’s not an artist I can easily pass on to my friends. She’s not soulful. She’s not funky. She’s a dancer, certainly, but doesn’t care what a dance remix is. I wish she’d play more with unique sounds and different producers, and come up on more experimental dance tracks like this. But she’s a reserved, proper Englishwoman who’d sooner work with Chopin than Pharrell. Sooner drink tea than go Unplugged. She recorded with Prince, at least, so there’s that. And that live album is a stunner.
And all that is to say: when I heard Kate was nominated for this years class in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, over every other alum and nominee over the years, Prince, Tupac, Radiohead or Name Somebody, I realized I will go to Ohio to visit the museum there. After what she’s done for my spirit, I feel as if I owe her.