Sunday, March 18, 2012

Stylistics -- "People Make the World Go Round" (1972)

Wall Street losing dough on every share
They're blaming it on longer hair
Big men smoking in their easy chairs
On a fat cigar without a care

Like the previous 2 or 3 lines, this one features a song that is mentioned at a key moment in What It Was, the new novel by George Pelecanos.  

George Pelecanos was born in Washington, DC, in 1957.  He worked as a dishwasher, a cook, and a bartender and sold women's shoes before publishing his first novel -- A Firing Offense -- in 1992.  What It Was is his 18th and newest novel.  (Yes, I've read all 18.)  

Pelecanos's books are set in and around Washington, DC, where I have lived since 1977.  As one critic has said, Pelecanos owns Washington like the author Raymond Chandler owned Los Angeles.

But his novels aren't set in Georgetown or Capitol Hill, and they don't feature politicians, lobbyists, generals, FBI agents, or Russian spies.  

Instead, they take place in working-class neighborhoods in DC (which are predominantly African-American) or the close-in Maryland suburbs (which are predominantly white).  

George Pelecanos
The heroes of his books include private investigators and DC cops, but also record-store clerks. short-order cooks and waitresses, animal-control officers, and TV/stereo salesmen.  The bad guys are often very bad indeed, and are almost always involved either directly or indirectly in the trafficking of illegal drugs.

One reviewer has said that Pelecanos writes "urban westerns," and that is as good a description of his books as any I have read.  

Pelecanos is a fan of western movies -- his favorites include The Magnificent Seven, Once Upon a Time in the West, The Wild Bunch, and The Outlaw Josey Wales -- and his books often build to the same kind of good-vs.-bad confrontations that are characteristic of classic westerns. 

Ben Johnson, Warren Oates, William Holden, and
Ernest Borgnine in "The Wild Bunch" (1969)
But his books have elements of classical Greek tragedy as well.  His heroes are flawed characters who have to learn painful lessons -- they undergo what Aristotle called anagnorisis, or "a change from ignorance to knowledge."  

As I previously noted, Pelecanos's books are full of music -- he always tells you what the characters are listening to on the radio when they are driving in their cars, or what is playing on the jukebox at the neighborhood bar.  

Sometimes I suspect that Pelecanos picks a song just because he likes it so much and wants his readers to like it, too.  (Like 2 or 3 lines, he doesn't write about a song unless he has something good to say about it.)

But more often than not, Pelecanos has a reason for choosing a particular song for a particular scene.  The song featured in the previous 2 or 3 lines, "Love the One You're With," is playing on the radio of Derek Strange's black '70 Chevrolet Monte Carlo when the protagonist of What It Was is tempted to cheat on the woman he loves with a sexy client.  

"People Make the World Go Round" is playing on the radio in Strange's car while he is talking with a possible witness to a murder, an unemployed Vietnam veteran who spends his days sitting outside his invalid mother's apartment, watching the world go by.  

Strange invites the vet to sit in his car -- it's starting to rain -- and they talk about Vietnam and the DC riots that broke out after the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The new Stylistics song, "People Make the World Go Round," was on the radio and playing low, Russell Thompkins Jr.'s angelic vocals an apt, melodic narration to the life they were seeing, tableau-form, through the windshield.  On 13th, a tired woman shuffled down the sidewalk, carrying a bag of groceries.  A group of young girls double-Dutched on the corner, and on a nearby stoop a man was pleading with a woman, gesturing elaborately with his hands to make his case.
"City ain't all that different since I been back," said [the veteran].  "Little burned around the edges, maybe.  But still the same rough old ghetto."

"People Make the World Go Round" is an apt song for this scene.  Musically, the song is a dead ringer for a Burt Bacharach-Hal David song -- right down to the tricky rhythm and the sound of the horn section.  It's easy to imagine Dionne Warwick singing this song. 

 But the song's lyrics have little in common with those of most Bacharach-David songs.  The first two lines set the tone for "People Make the World Go Round":
Trash men didn't get my trash today
Why? Because they want more pay

The second verse is quoted above -- it's sort of a circa-1972 version of the complaint voiced recently by the "we are the 99 percent" movement.  

In the chorus, the singer sounds more resigned than angry:

But that's what makes the world go round 
The up and down, the carousel
Changing people, they'll go around 
Go underground, young man
People make the world go round

If life is a carousel, you may go round and round, up and down -- but you always come back to the where you began.  

Horace Greeley said "Go west, young man," but the singer of this song's advice is "Go underground, young man."  Is he saying the best strategy for dealing with life in the ghetto is to give up and drop out?  Become a drug user or even a drug dealer to escape the frustrations of ghetto life?

Derek Strange rejects that advice.  His hard-working, God-fearing parents raised him right.  Unlike some of the kids he went to high school with, he never succumbed to the attractions of drink, drugs, and crime.  As What It Was demonstrates, he is far from perfect, but he at least tries to do the right thing.

Here's what Strange says to a client who asks him why he spends money to rent an office for his fledgling private-investigator business instead of simply working out of his car:

Kids in this neighborhood watch me open that front door every morning.  I think it's important for them to see a young black man going to work each day, building his own thing.  Don't you?

Here's "People Make the World Go Round":

Here's a link you can use to buy the song from Amazon:

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