I'm a lousy housekeeper, and by the end of the week dishes are stacked on every available surface of my kitchen. The thought of cleaning them is overwhelming. So I've developed this ritual. I slip my feet into thick, cushy Dansko clogs, tie on an apron my grandmother sewed when I was a girl, put the green plastic tub in the sink, fill it with warm water and biodegradable dish soap, and carefully lower in as many crusty bowls and plates as possible. Then I turn on Marvin Gaye's Trouble Man. It begins with a two-beat wail -- whaa-whaa, ohh-whaa -- whatever instrument it is, it sounds like a voice, like it's singing, whaa-whaa, ooh-whaa, like a creature from another world who's made contact with us earthlings. And then the horns echo it, as if we earthlings have caught on and we're signaling that we come in peace.
The music turns lively, upbeat. It's perfect music to listen to standing up. I dance around the kitchen as I carry dishes to the sink, carry dishes from the drainer to the hutch my boom box sits on top of. I break out a bottle of organic brown rice sake I bought at the same place as the biodegradable dish soap. Trouble Man is the soundtrack to a 1972 blaxploitation film that's no longer in print. It's a soundtrack that has outlived its movie. So now the movie is me washing the dishes, and I'm feeling pretty good. The kitchen table is half cleared, the dish soap smells like oranges, and the sake is kicking in.
When I found a washed out video of Trouble Man on eBay, I snapped it up. It's an action flick where actors jump backwards before fists hit their jaws, so their backward plummets look more like spasms of some neurological condition than any effect of a fight. Mr. T., the hero played by the impenetrable Robert Hooks, is a debonair private eye, with more of a sense of politics and community than James Bond. The film opens with a long tracking shot of Mr. T in a luxury sedan on the Los Angeles freeways. The title song blares through the speakers of his car radio. We don't know where he's going, he's just moving, and the camera follows him with the unnerving distance with which it later followed O.J. Simpson's flight into Brentwood. Throughout the film Mr. T doesn't say much, but he seems never to stop thinking. He's always one step ahead of the game. The scarcity of words on the soundtrack is emblematic. When Gaye's voice breaks through it's usually as a moan or a sigh. Trouble Man, the soundtrack, is not about action or representation, but about a state of being, and the film only slightly more so. In Trouble Man's dystopic mindscapes, community is everything, but nothing helps the angst, the existential pain of being alone; thus the retreat to the nonverbal.
In my kitchen the music switches gears. It gets sadder and sweeter as dissonant elements intrude. Now it reminds me of the chiming of a clock, its urgent forward momentum warning me that time is running out. And then the music opens to a lagoon of stillness. Track 10 is called "Life Is A Gamble." Its rhythms stop and start, weird synthesized twangs intrude -- the alien creatures are upping the ante. Water's running, dishes clank, the sake's tasting better with each sip, I'm swaying at the sink, my mind wandering, and then track 10 comes on and pulls me back in. I stop everything -- the coffee mug in my hand frozen midair -- and listen. The simple melody of ooh hoohs is plaintive, beautiful. Without words, Gaye's voice is a body crying out, loving and losing, with nowhere to hide. I say to my husband, "If I die I want this played at my memorial service."
I've been to few conventional funerals over the 27 years I've lived in San Francisco, but I've attended many AIDS memorials. There's never a body, just photos and favorite music. The dead person has usually chosen the music ahead of time, like a DJ from beyond the grave. Common selections are Patti Smith and Joni Mitchell. The music makes people laugh. The music makes people cry. "When you hear 'Horses,' remember me." "Life Is a Gamble" is what I'd like to be remembered by, melody so beautiful you could die to it.