When I was at Gardena High School in the late '70s, the standout musical talents among many musical talents at the time were the O'Neal brothers, Brian and Kevin. Brian was a bit older than me, Kevin and I were in the same grade. Together they played keyboards and bass and sang music they often wrote themselves. Their dedication and ambition at a young age was admirable, though a bit foreign to students like me who had yet to find the rhythm of our own lives beyond trying to rack up A's every semester. I respected the O'Neals and what they did, though at a distance; they were the music department expert/geeks who didn't really cross paths with the rest of us mortals. It was clear they were going somewhere few of us could follow.
I was right. Not long after I graduated in '79, the O'Neal-led band the BusBoys hit the big time when their music was featured in the Eddie Murphy film, "48 Hours." Murphy was a hot young comic and the BusBoys were a hot, if somewhat controversial, new entity in their own own right: a nervy young black band that played old-school rock 'n' roll a la Chuck Berry. Or a la Jerry Lee Lewis. It all depended on how you felt about rock 'n' roll being a white appropriation of black music, down to the moniker that originally was black slang for sex. Were the BusBoys consciously imitating an imitation, or were they claiming what is originally black and re-infusing it with an authenticity that a generation raised on Elvis had conveniently forgotten about?
I come down on the side of authenticity. You would, too, if you've ever heard the BusBoys perform live, which I did last Saturday night at the Brixton in Redondo Beach. Dressed in their signature stage uniforms of red vests and ties, O'Neal and company ripped through a couple of hours of numbers that ranged from pared-down funk to hip-hop to boogie-woogie and old-school soul (Saturday being Cinco de Mayo, they also tossed in affecting renditions of "Besame Mucho" and "Low Rider.") They also played selections from their breakout album of the early '80s, "Minimum Wage Rock 'n' Roll," a tongue-in-cheek title that acknowledged the tension in the very idea of black musicians playing what had come to be considered white -- i.e. American pop -- fare.
But the sheer musicianship of the players kind of blows away all the racial arguments as academic. One of the highlights of the night was "The Boys Are In Back In Town," the title song from "48 Hours" that has endured over the decades as a kind of anthem and never fails to rock (excuse the term) the house. The house was beyond enthusiastic, generally on its feet the whole night. It was also significantly white, and I wondered if some of the Boys' sly but socially pointed lyrics went over the heads of most of the crowd, or if they chose to ignore them (the refrain of one lively number included the phrase "civil rights," while the refrain of another, "There Goes the Neighborhood," laments, "The whites are moving in/They'll bring their next of kin!" Still another number that was more than appropriate to this twentieth anniversary year of the L.A. unrest hypnotically intoned: "This time the city's gonna burn.") Or maybe they did hear and heartily endorsed the sentiments. In the end all fan-ism, like politics, tends to be local: When Brian reminded the audience that he was a product of the South Bay, the room roared its approval. The fact that Gardena is a little ways east of Redondo Beach didn't matter at all.
Journalist and op-ed columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan's first-person accounts of politics and identity in Los Angeles, with an eye towards the city's African American community, appear every Thursday on KCET's SoCal Focus blog. Read all her posts here.
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