Saturday, October 28, 2017

Liner Notes to My Life

Better to begin with books and music and move on to blood and guts.

Local musician Plunky Branch was doing a reading of his new book at the Black History Museum three blocks from my apartment and, sunshine aside, I couldn't think of a single reason why I wouldn't want to be there.

The self-deprecating Plunky led off by telling the nearly full room, "Thirty minutes ago, I was wishing for two people to show up." And then some.

Apparently when a musician keeps journals for years, by the time he's a septuagenarian (a damn handsome one still in great shape at that), he's got the makings of a pretty good book, which he referred to as "the longest and most elaborate liner notes to my work" and "the book to accompany my music."

That makes perfect sense to a music nerd like me.

As much a performance as a reading, with Plunky playing songs on one of his three saxophones while his son provided additional sounds and old photographs and music videos played on a screen behind him, the afternoon also included him talking and reading excerpts from "Juju Jazz Funk and Oneness."

To this fan of cultural history, the old photos and videos were fascinating because I could almost guess the era by how Plunky and his band were dressed: in dashikis, shirtless, in suits with shirts unbuttoned halfway down his chest, with an Afro, with braids, whatever.

Decades unfolded before our eyes.

In order to clarify the book's title, he explained that it referenced his music: juju refers to everything African, jazz to the art music of the first half of the 20th century, funk to the second half ("funky is sex and sweat") and oneness is the music of the 21st century.

After 50 years of performing, 27 albums and 400 songs, he admitted to being pretty proud of himself as an independent musician, though he did acknowledge how much more receptive European audiences are to black Americans. He blamed it on our shallowness need for the newest thing while Europeans revered long histories and elders who have proven themselves.

Sometimes he alternated playing sax with singing, as he did on "The Meaning of Life is Love," never missing a beat when he segued back to talking about favorite saxes (he gets the best reactions from playing soprano sax, but prefers the tenor sax for small, up-close shows) or favorite venues (the smaller, the better, though he's more nervous playing for 10 people than 10,000).

One of his fondest memories was opening for a free show by Ray Charles downtown. "Everybody was there because it was Ray Charles and free, so why wouldn't they?" Indeed.

Saying his French agent had teased him for always talking when he's in France about how great Richmond is, he also recalled going to segregated Richmond public schools and how he'd been taught not to look at white people.

Sad (and telling) as that statement is, I wasn't the least bit surprised since when I'd moved to Richmond in 1986, I'd been shocked to find that black men wouldn't meet my eyes walking down the street.

He closed out with "Drop: African Rhythm Remix," which he said had been his most popular song, before people lined up to buy his book, which he said he'd be happy to sign. The man oozed such grace and gratitude about his life so far - along with a certainty that the best is yet to come - that he was practically a poster child for following your passion.

So how do I follow such an upbeat afternoon? With comedy and simulated murder, naturally.

Walking over to Comedy Coalition for "Slasher: The Improvised Horror Movie," the last thing I expected after paying my admission was to be handed a plastic poncho to protect me from impending blood splatters, but there it was.

It was going to be that kind of evening, sort of like a GWAR show without the semen, just the blood.

And by poncho, they really meant the equivalent of a yellow trash bag with a hood, making for an audience sheathed in plastic. One of the Coalition troupe stopped to talk to the trio next to me and informed us that we were definitely in the splatter zone.

"Oh, boy, that's why we came!" one shrieked. Silly me, I came to laugh.

"Slasher" turned out to be a hilarious send-up of so many dated movies and '80s songs, I lost track. It opened with "Careless Whisper" at a high school prom with blood being poured on the unpopular girl who then gets murderous, so there was "Carrie."

But five years later, when young Kelly - with a top knot ponytail and sparkly red Scrunchie - goes to live with her Dad (cue "Father Figure") in a double-wide, he explains that there's no dancing in their town because of the prom murders, so then we were in "Footloose" territory.

Once at her new high school, she tries to fit in among a "Breakfast Club" cast of misfits (complete with a guy in pushed up sleeves and pink sunglasses, Walkman in hand), including a closet lesbian who immediately falls for her.

Meanwhile, Kelly and her new BFF worship at the altar of Patrick Swayze and there are dancing lessons involved (to "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun"), so we may have veered dangerously near "Dirty Dancing," too.

But no matter what cheesy movie was being mocked, the constant thread was our original prom murderer, still in her blood-stained pink lace prom dress, showing up to kill kids for no more reason than making out in the woods or talking to a locker room mirror or taking boxes off a stock room shelf.

"It's just coincidence," Kelly keeps insisting to her sheriff Dad and her new friends. "It's not because we're dancing!" Which, by the way, was also hilarious to watch, a la Elaine on "Seinfeld."

Every time our prom girl got murderous, a masked figure in white stood behind her and squirted copious amounts of fake blood at the intended victim, so before long the walls and floor, not to mention the actors, were slipping and sliding in red, their clothes spotted and stained.

And yet, despite so much to look at, a guy near me sat there looking at his phone through his poncho for long stretches of time. I only wish a squirt of blood had been aimed right at him keep him present in the moment, say, when Huey Lewis and the News' "Power of Love" was being played.

Talk about your wake-up call.

Because the comedy troupe is made up of millennials, despite an '80s focus there were 21st century details, like a guy working on learning the difference between Brandi Carlisle and Belinda Carlisle (though we did get a great rendition of "Heaven on Earth" out of it) and a male student coming out to his sister. Not so much onscreen in the '80s.

And, of course, in the final scene with Dad stabbed ("It's just a flesh wound") and Kelly, still in her very '80s prom dress complete with massive shoulder pads, are driving back to their trailer, who should rise up from the back seat but prom girl, despite Dad having emptied his gun into her face back at the high school.

Lesson learned? Guilty feet have got no rhythm and please leave your ponchos at the door.

Sweet dreams are made of this...


  1. 1986 huh? So you were here back when it was still, "old Richmond"?


  2. Sure was. It was a very different place than now.

  3. yes it was.. that was a long time ago. most likely we've all undergone a metamorphosis since then. clear & windy within 24 hrs. enjoy.


  4. Undoubtedly! I'm headed down to the river now to enjoy...

  5. It wasn't raining when I walked and the river levels were just a tad lower than yesterday. I only passed a couple of guys, one on his way to fish, so it was a quiet morning on the pipeline.