Monday, December 01, 2008

My Sad-Eyed Lady of the Shoe Store

As a writer of magazine profiles, one thing you're constantly asking is: What is the motivation of the protagonist? We know what he or she did, but why did he or she do it? But the same question also applies when you're writing about yourself. As in:

But why am I writing about Boz Scaggs?

Story: During summers in my college years I worked in a shoe store in Maine and one time I ended up holding the foot of Dan Quayle's wife Marilyn in my hand while two secret service agents hovered nearby. This was while her husband was still VP under Bush Sr. and I was putting different sized pumps on her. "How's that feel?" I'd ask, squeezing her toe. I also put a shoe on Julius Irving once. Size 14 boat shoes or something. Anyway, the assistant manager of this shoe store was a middle-aged blond who smoked those skinny Silk cigarettes for women and appeared, with her tired eyes, bad skin and heavy makeup, to have spent her twenties partying too much with the boys and now found herself 40-something and single. I was this college dork who after reading Dostoevsky thought he'd just invented existentialism, so we were world's apart. But she had a certain sad soulfulness to her and she loved music, so we always smoked cigarettes by the dumpster out back and talked about what we heard on WBLM, 102.9. It was vaguely flirty. So one day, as I was gassing on about the Grateful Dead or some "acid rock" shit I was listening to (as a result of my then-fascination with "drugs"), she said her favorite music was Bonnie Raitt and Boz Scaggs. And I'll never forget my response: "Ack! Kerplewy! Ugh! Boz SCAGGS? Ew. No way. Blech." (Raitt's "Something to Talk About" was a huge hit that summer, so that was just a non-starter.)

But here's the truth: I couldn't have picked a Boz Scaggs song out of a lineup. Not even the hit, "Lowdown." I was just being a blowhard and she was speaking her heart. In retrospect I feel really awful about it and wish I could take it back, tell her I'm sorry and I really hope she found love and happiness in her life. Because I really LIKE Bonnie Raitt and Boz Scaggs now.

I tell this story to set up the premise for why I like Boz Scaggs: low expectations. Ever since I asserted my ill-informed opinion that summer (based on my absolute certainty that I could not like the same music as this sad-eyed lady of the shoe store), I basically wrote off Boz Scaggs and just knew that if and when I finally heard him I'd absolutely hate his guts. But around the same time that I was discovering Philly soul from the 70s, I tripped upon Silk Degrees in a junk shop near my house and decided to give it a spin. See, by the time you're my age, 37, you've been wrong about so many things you just figure, 'What the hell, maybe I was wrong about this, too.' And it turned out I was wrong. At least relative to this falsely established opinion, which I'd used as a wedge issue in some early music nerd throw-down with a shoe store assistant manager.

So now for the ex post facto justification of Boz Scaggs: For the same reason I love late '7os Bee Gees, the way they blew up their pop hooks with Harold Melvin/Teddy Pendergrast/Billy Paul-style R&B grooves, I kind of loved Boz Scaggs' smoove groove, the sleek and slinky polish. And his lyrics really are better than average, sort of worldly wise -- like he'd partied a lot in his twenties, messed around with the wrong women and was looking for the love that would finally end the lonely years. See, it was adult and romantic and sexy and truly existential in a way that only people who had lived a little could truly get. It's a feel you don't necessarily understand when you're 22 and frying your cerebellum on acid rock. With Scaggs, the romance is right there in the title of his 1976 album, Slow Dancer, which came out right before he broke big with Silk Degrees and the hit "Lowdown." There's some poetry on the back of the LP and when I read it, I just can't help thinking of the secret dreams of a middle-aged blond smoking Silks out by the dumpster behind the shoe store:

i committed today.
bought some shoes
what a luxury also to
comment on my work 3
years ago slow dancer
is an image i grew up
with johnny helped me
learn to sing this is an
attitude like walking
doing the old left right
a few secrets hear some
romance a nod to some
old idols some idle lovers
some idle lovers

november 1976

And then the other day I was reading that before the producers of Saturday Night Fever hired the Bee Gees to pen the soundtrack, they were using Boz Scaggs numbers as the fill-in music. Makes sense. Listen, I'm not saying these are the greatest songs ever made. They're not. But if you're feeling lonely tonight, if you've seen a few things, a little too much, they might just surprise you.

You Make It So Hard (To Say No)
- Boz Scaggs (from Slow Dancer)

There is Someone Else - Boz Scaggs (from Slow Dancer)

Georgia - Boz Scaggs (from Silk Degrees)

And why not, it's fucking great:

"Lowdown" - Boz Scaggs


Frankie Lee said...

Thoroughly enjoyable. I never knew you held the foot of Quayle (Mrs.)

Levi Stahl said...

There are certain moods--rare, admittedly, but real--when nothing but "Lowdown" will do. Well, maybe Bill Withers's "Ain't No Sunshine" would suffice, but that's about it.

That's a great post.

hector23 said...

that was a great little post and for the record my wife converted me to Boz Scaggs just a couple of years ago. He has a very soulful voice.

Actually she has made me aware of a lot of the 70s music I rejected out of hand, which is really pretty cool.

I now await your pronouncements on Seals & Croft