At the tail end of the real Motown, there were the Spinners. In 1969, I think it was, the Milwaukee Bucks drafted Lew Alcindor, later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the great player for the LA Lakers, and in 1971 they won their first and only NBA Championship. This was in the days before Larry Bird and Magic Johnson made the NBA a national pastime at the level of the NFL and MLB. Because the league didn’t really qualify as a major sport on par with the ones that included the Braves, fled to Atlanta, and the Packers, the last surviving small-city team from before the merger of the AFL and NFL, the Bucks games were broadcast on one of Milwaukee’s black radio stations, because the city’s blacks were the most avid fans of the team before the arrival of Alcindor. In place, already, was Oscar Robertson, the Big O, an incredible player in his own right, and a cast of supporting actors who really do place among the best ever in the NBA.
More important for me was the exposure I had to Motown and R&B from that station. In 1969, my folks were housing my cousin Jack Hawkins, from California, and trying to get him on track for a productive life after a few years of damaging experimentation with hallucinogens. I remember him following my very patient mom around the house, trying to recite his poetry to her. His sister Therese, who was much less problematic, came to live with us and proceed through high school and college in our area, during this time as well, and the troubles with my dad’s sister Marian coaxed us on a journey across America in a rented RV that I have elsewhere chronicled.
Dad was a pretty tolerant guy, in most respects, but he didn’t countenance what he viewed as nonsense. When my Grandma, Mom’s mom, came to live with us in Wisconsin while her husband, suffering from the dementia that would later afflict Mom, passed his dying years in a nearby care facility that my parents will probably check into next year, she stayed with us. She used to smoke her cigarettes and cackle over tabloids she brought from the local grocery, much to the consternation of Dad, who was a scientist. She would likewise laugh at him when he became angry over some absurd pseudo-scientific article in one of those tabloids, opining that he was too serious altogether. And because she gave us salt water taffy and other simultaneously lovely and horrible delicacies that she stashed in her purse, we believed that maybe she was in the right.
Mom, who inherited Granny Goose’s somewhat flippant attitude to the factual world, as well as her undying love of fun, never bothered to take sides, because neither party was so graceless as to demand it. It was Mom, too, who, when my Beatles-crazy older cousin Martha would come to visit, would defend her from the charges of idolatry that Dad heaped on her. After all, her mother was a huge Elvis fan. In no way could Granny ever be convinced that nice clothes that her grandchildren would seldom if ever wear weren’t just the thing for Christmas, and in that respect it’s very sad that she never lived to meet my daughter Mairead, who is dreadfully sensible and would have liked nothing more. The daughter is rebellious in this respect, and also appallingly organized and reliable.
Mom had grown up in a racially mixed household, by which I mean that her father was Anglican and her mother Roman Catholic. They met in the small town of Effingham in southern Illinois, and eloped when both were engaged to other people, which led to a certain amount of legal ugliness for my grandfather. After a period of some years of cooling off, he was readopted into the fold, and Mom spent many of her summers in Effingham with her aunts, waiting for the trains to go by and conning the racing forms with one of her uncles on the porch. Although she was permitted to entertain herself with reading Bible passages in the evenings with her relations, she was dutifully if reluctantly deposited on the steps of the local Catholic church every Sunday morning.
And truly, as a result of all these dislocations with blood finally being thicker than water, even of the holy variety, my mother’s family was much more accepting of extraordinary behavior, up to and including the depositing of problematic children with relations on whatever pretext, turning into long-term commitments, which worked in my father’s favor when his California relations, in particular, sought sanctuary. And that is where Jack comes in.
Because apart from being an enormously spacy acid head and dreadful religious poet, he was an enormous fan of basketball (he looked essentially like Jethro Clampett, with a good jump shot when he wasn’t wasted) as well as black music. So, he would play his transistor radio late into the night, and I would hear whatever was on.
Elsewhere, also, I’ve talked about how seminal that was for me, musically, and I’ve effused about the brilliance of some of the lyrics, such as,
Just like Pagliacci did
I try to keep my surface hid
Smiling in the crowd I try
But in a lonely room I cry
The tears of a clown
When there’s no one around
In that song, cam-ou-flage is one of the great triplets of popular music in English . . . ever. But by the time I was of age to have my own stereo and be listening to my own music, it was the Spinners who were representing what Motown was at its rapidly dying best.
Forever in my mind, these songs will be attached to the sights, the sounds, the smells and the feelings of wrestling practice.
All I wanted to do was be the guy who said, “Yow!” Was that too much to ask?