Friday, January 10, 2014

Guns N' Roses, "Knockin' on Heaven's Door"

At some point in nearly every high school and middle school class that I ever taught, I would tell a story that I had originally heard from fiery New Jersey writer Amiri Baraka. No matter what else happened in my classes, that always seemed to be one the lesson that resonated with all of the students.

As Baraka told it:

There was a story I always like to tell that I heard from somebody who I can’t give credit to:
He told me he said,
Billy the Kid and his nephew were walking down the street one day. They go past this field of reeds.
And the nephew says, “Uncle Billy make me a whistle.”
And he said “bkrrrrrr,” and he quickly shoots a hole in it.
“How did you do that without aiming?”
He said, “I’m always aiming.”
That’s the story about the writer.
You’re always aiming. Whatever you see or feel or look at is gonna come out. You might write it down; you might not write it down.
Writing it down is a good idea. The best poets I know, you know when they go into their pocket man they’re bringing out their notebook.
It’s a question of study. You can’t write without studying. These people who think that you just write off the top of your head are boring usually. You have to do a lot of studying. Try to find out what’s happening in the world.
You know Richard Wright used to say that you have to be at the top of your time.

Like everyone who met Baraka, or anyone who followed his life and career with any perspective, I have some qualms with him. But there's no denying that he was a fascinating writer, and that works like Blues People: Negro Music in White America should be read by anyone with an interest in music criticism. With Baraka's passing last night, I'm sure many will be playing Blues People mainstays like Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong in the late author's honor.

But for a headbanger, I'm picking "Knockin' on Heaven's Door," a cover of a song by one of Baraka's early 1960s Greenwich Village coinhabitants, written for a film about Billy the Kid, sung by another artist who's known for being almost synonymous with controversy.

Maybe Amiri Baraka would be appalled to hear heavy metal as a requiem, and he'd probably insist that Slash doesn't get enough credit because he's black. But as someone who didn't care much for what other people thought, maybe he'd appreciate me doing that here. Rest in peace, Mr. Baraka. Always aiming.

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