About a million years ago, I was the point guard for the Cochise College Apaches in Douglas.
Yeah, that was me, with the too-long sideburns and the Italian afro, running the floor at three-quarters speed and dishin' out those sweet assists. (Actually, back then, in the 1970s, it was illegal to dunk in high school and college, so many of those aforementioned sweet assists were actually lob passes that the big guys would have to go up and get before they came down, head-faked a couple of times, scrubbed off the assist, and then went up for a layup, which they missed half of the time. They fit more neatly into the category of Assists That Should Have Been.)
Douglas wasn't nearly as cosmopolitan back then as it is now. It's amazing what happens when one out of every three people in a town works for the Border Patrol, Customs, Homeland Security or some other government agency. Back then, Douglas was populated by large families headed by men who had gone off to fight World War II and/or in Korea, and then had returned home to take well-paying but back-breaking jobs in the mine in Bisbee or at the smelter in Douglas. It was a blue-collar town, and quite nice.
The year before I went to Douglas, I played a season of freshman football at UCLA, where, despite not being very big or fast or strong, I turned out to be surprisingly average. But I felt the need to get out of Los Angeles, and when I was offered a basketball scholarship at Cochise, I was gone like a frat boy facing a paternity test. To my dismay, I learned, upon arrival, that Cochise didn't have a football team, but I managed to keep busy. Besides basketball, I also played tennis and baseball. (Back then, I was surprisingly average at a lot of stuff.)
The only two things I really missed about L.A. (besides my friends) were fast-food places and the music (concerts, record stores and radio stations). At the time, Douglas had no fast-food places and exactly two radio stations—one country, and the other Mexican. I kept waiting for a forerunner to Russell Pearce to step in and get rid of the really lousy music, leaving only the Mexican stuff.
At night, if you parked in the right spot, or if you put one hand on your in-dorm stereo tuner and pointed the other arm to 12 degrees north of east, you could sometimes sorta get KOMA, a station out of Oklahoma City. But mostly, you just got static.
At Christmas time, my basketball team played in a tournament at College of the Desert near Palm Springs. After one of the games, the coach let me take some of my Midwestern teammates into L.A. to show them around. We ended up at Tower Records in Hollywood, well past midnight. One of my teammates, who will remain nameless (mostly because he died a few years back), somehow managed to shoplift 27 albums from the store, one or two at a time. Albums, not cassettes or eight-tracks. I never did find out how he did it. The guy was built like a starving Ethiopian, so if he had put them under his shirt, it would have looked like he was wearing a door.
I, being far too chicken to steal anything more than a glance, bought two 8-track tapes that would turn out to be my salvation. One was Average White Band, the white album that's much better than the one by that other group. Made by white devils from Scotland (of all places), it features the legendary (and still omnipresent) instrumental "Pick Up the Pieces," plus some killer funk and silky soul provided by the combination of the Glasgow Guitars, the Dundee Horns, Alan Gorrie's gritty growl and Hamish Stuart's soaring falsettos. It's probably my all-time-favorite album.
If AWB is my No. 1, coming in at 1A is the other one I got that night—Earth, Wind and Fire's That's the Way of the World. I had been a fan of EWF to the point of actually knowing that the African instrument they played on "Evil" was a kalimba. I loved their early songs "(Keep Your) Head to the Sky" and "Devotion," but nothing prepared me for That's the Way of the World.
It started off with "Shining Star," then followed with the title track, featuring Maurice White saying, "Yowww," which is the coolest thing ever recorded. It also has "Reasons."
I had grown up thinking that Smokey Robinson was the epitome of falsetto, but then I heard Philip Bailey, whose voice is like falsetto on steroids. While Smokey's voice would sidle up to one's ear and then tiptoe inside, Bailey's dove in and beat on the eardrum until it got bored.
Philip Bailey is so cool that one can even forgive that "Easy Lover" dalliance he had with Phil Collins in the mid-'80s.
I'll be going out to AVA at Casino del Sol on Friday, May 27, to see Earth, Wind and Fire. It's probably around the 20th time that I will have seen them in concert. I promise I won't dance, although watching old white people dance to EWF is not nearly as painful as watching young white people dance to the Grateful Dead.