A lesson in listening

Let me begin by saying that there are some very serious issues going on in the world today that need to be discussed, dissected and debated. Hunger. Poverty. Racism. Sexism. Whenever I can, I try to address at least some of these issues and tackle them the best way I know how. I give you my word to continue doing that — beginning with my next column.

But not this one. For now, those issues will have to wait.

Man, I got a chance to interview Ernie Isley.

For those of you that don’t quite get my excitement, you’ve got to understand that I’m one of those thousands of guitar players who picked up the guitar due to Jimi Hendrix. Ernie Isley, the youngest member of the legendary Isley Brothers and one of the baddest R&B/rock guitar players to ever hit the stage, sitteth at the right hand of Jimi. This guy’s been a hero of mine for going on three decades.

The whole reason I got the chance to talk to the man was related to an upcoming performance, but when I got him on the phone there was one thing I really wanted to ask him about, namely his opinion of today’s music scene, particularly the state of black music. Since Ernie’s not that much older than I am — he’s got me by about six years — I guess I figured he might share some of my distaste for a lot of the stuff that’s out there these days.

As hard as I try to be up with the times and not let my creeping age make me hard of hearing, I have to confess that I have all but given up trying to force myself to enjoy a lot of the modern R&B, rap and hip hop. No need to single out any performers for special abuse, and there are some songs and singers that I truly enjoy, but basically I’m still in love with the older stuff. Give me some Parliament/Funkadelic, some EWF (if you have to ask what those letters stand for, shame on you), some Isleys, some Sly and some Hendrix and I’m a happy man. Oh yeah, throw some Prince in there too.

But getting back to Ernie Isley, I was somewhat expecting him to have some thoughtful, even educationally chastising words for the younger generation, particularly for those who have used any number of Isley Brothers tunes as the background for their “original” rap tunes. My expectations were derailed.

“They (the young hip hoppers and rappers) embraced our music and we embraced them back,” he said.

Furthermore, Ernie said that whenever someone asks him what the Isleys are up to these days, perhaps implying that they’ve faded from view, Ernie simply tells them to tune into what a lot of the younger artists are doing.

“We’re in the fine print, that’s where we are,” he said. “We’re all over the place. Before you get to NSync, you’ve got to get past us.”

At this point, considering who it was that was telling me all this, I figured it was time for me to sit back and listen — and maybe reassess some of my rather entrenched positions on music. After all, just because I consider my viewpoints to be incredibly open-minded doesn’t exactly make them the truth.

After a little more than 30 minutes conversing with someone who is truly a veteran of the popular music scene, one thing I learned that I had to accept was that “people have a right to like whatever they want to like.” As someone who considers Britney Spears, NSync, The Backstreet Boys, 98 Degrees, Ricky Martin and all the other industry-manufactured clones to be something akin to a swarming legion of pop music Antichrists, that’s a hard one for me to swallow. But I’m trying.

The other thing I learned is this: Just because you haven’t seen someone around for a while doesn’t mean they’re dead. It might simply mean that they’re doing some different things these days and are moving in some different circles that no longer involve you.

To put that into a musical context, it simply means that all the good music that some of us thought had died and gone to oldies heaven hasn’t died at all but has simply been transformed. Now, whether or not we choose to like what it has transformed into is something altogether different, but what Ernie seemed to be saying was that imitation really is the sincerest form of flattery — at least in some instances. In other words, it’s not such a bad thing to pour old wine into new skins. That way, the wine doesn’t get thrown out and the flavor is absorbed into a new context.

None of this means that Ernie agrees with those who would sample an Isley tune without first paying the Isleys, and then renaming the tune as an original. Stealing someone else’s property and then calling it your own is usually referred to as theft. Kind of like how America was “discovered” with the inhabitants already in it. You may have had your car “discovered” right in front of your house.

But moving right along without going too far down that road, it struck me once my conversation with Ernie Isley was over that musical tolerance is an important quality to possess — and not just for musicians. I also happen to think that providing a little music education to go hand in hand with that tolerance would go even further toward providing cultural balance. Matter of fact, it’s pretty hard to tolerate something you don’t understand, and oftentimes you might not understand something because you haven’t been educated about it.

Miles Davis, another of my favorite musicians, distinguished himself as someone who was more than willing to try to understand the new rather than to automatically dismiss it because it wasn’t enough like the old. Similarly, Ernie Isley has made a conscious decision not to preserve the glory of the past in mothballs but to let it breathe by exposing it to fresh air.

Somewhere in there lies the difference between growing up and just growing old.

Keith A. Owens is a Detroit writer, editor and musician. E-mail [email protected]