Dear Michael and Caroline,
Only years later, as it turned out, would I come to understand certain underlying details about our performance as the Temptations on that night so long ago. For starters, back then we remained quite clueless about the meaning of the lyrics we mouthed to “Cloud Nine.” We had the idea that the song was basically about feeling good. Example: “I’m doing fine/Up here on cloud nine/Listen one more time/I’m doing fine/Up here on cloud nine.”
Eventually, though, someone pointed out to me in passing, and I immediately recognized its truth, that “Cloud Nine” was actually a strong dose of social commentary, a warning about drug addiction, presumably heroin in particular. After all, the song is about a man who left home looking for a job he never found and wound up “depressed and downhearted” and then “took” to cloud nine. That’s where he found himself, all but miraculously, without any responsibility to bear and “riding high” and “free as a bird” and “a million miles from reality,” in a “world of love and harmony.” The song we once naively considered so joyous and celebratory was actually profoundly sad, a cry of ecstatic anguish. And it was this anti-drug message we unwittingly delivered that night to a white suburban audience most likely as ignorant as we. Sometimes, I suppose, you just hear what you want to hear.
Only years later, too, would I see that talent show in any sort of real context. In 1970, race relations in America still qualified as incendiary. We performed our act only two years after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., only four years after the founding of the Black Panthers, and only five years after the signing of the Voting Rights Act into law, the riots in Watts and Newark likewise still fresh in memory. Angela Davis was arrested in 1970. Only that year would the Miss America pageant have its first black contestant. Our country was still right in the thick of the civil rights movement.
Our suburban town of Fair Lawn, New Jersey, 11 miles from the George Washington Bridge that connected us with New York City, was an altogether Caucasian enclave, increasingly made up of mostly of the children of European immigrants — Jews, Italians, Germans, Poles, Czechs – many of whom had migrated from the Bronx and Brooklyn. Virtually no blacks lived there, much less attended our high school. The only black person I knew as a child was a sweet woman named Marie Esposito, our maid, who came to our house once a week by bus from the predominantly black neighboring town of Paterson, just across the Passaic River, to scrub our floors, dust our furniture and babysit me and my sister.
Against this backdrop, then, Larry and Eric and I had performed in our high school talent show pretending to be black entertainers. Why is easy to explain. We three white upper-middle-class Jewish boys suffered then from what could readily be diagnosed as a mild to moderate form of black envy. To us, certain blacks had a certain kind of cool – talked cool, walked cool, acted cool, sang cool, danced cool. And we, too, wanted with all our hearts to be cool. And so dancing to the rhythm and blues of Motown was our humble attempt at cool. More, it was a symbolic act of support and solidarity – it was how we sought, at least within the safe suburban cocoon that we occupied, to get down with the brothers.
An iffy endeavor, to put it charitably, for we had little familiarity with tough times. We had never lived in a cardboard shack without running water in some backwater boondocks. Oh, granted, I occasionally got detention for flicking spitballs in class, and our front lawn might have experienced some crabgrass, and my SAT scores came in below average, and our basement often flooded in a heavy rain. But in terms of struggle, that was about it. We had clean streets and pretty much no crime and good schools and both our parents around for the long haul and fireworks at the municipal pool on the Fourth of July. My idea of The Man, against whom the oppressed back then invariably found themselves pitted, was the junior high school principal who once suspended me from class for a day for talking too much in homeroom.
And yet in retrospect, I realize that our enactment of this mimicry could easily be interpreted, at least on the face of it, as mockery. In that still-volatile racial atmosphere of May, 1970, it’s entirely conceivable that what we had intended as innocent tribute could perhaps be misunderstood as satire, and that certain extreme activists could have seen the stunt we pulled masquerading as The Temptations as downright insulting.
No, you could never have exactly characterized us as crusaders. But we had a general idea of what we were doing that night. We had a kind of case to make. We three white kids fancied ourselves, more or less, as honorary blacks – forerunners, if you will, of the generation of white boy wannabes who would come along about 30 years later, likewise afflicted with a strain of black envy, going all ghetto to propel the musical phenomena that are rap and hiphop.
And maybe that’s why the audience laughed so hard at my little solo turn. Maybe it was because the sight of a skinny white bespectacled upper-middle-class suburban Jewish teenager, complete with frizzy “Jewfro,” my face and dance moves so earnest, looking to channel the spirit of a broken-hearted young black man from the housing projects of the Detroit ghetto, trying so very hard to palm myself off as the most soulful dude the planet had ever known, all while lip-syncing a voice so flamboyantly falsetto, so flamingly, stratospherically castrato – well, maybe it somehow came off as inherently absurd. And yes, utterly laughable. At least that’s one theory anyway.
P.S. – Please see part 5 tomorrow.