A Summer of Listening, Part 1
The most popular song on Unit B3 was “I’m Blessed,” by Charlie Wilson. By popular, I mean that two different patients asked for it. On Sundays, Diana took requests and connected her phone to a Bluetooth speaker that looked like a blue tube of cookie dough. If a song was on YouTube, Diana could play it for us. She didn’t have a long history with “I’m Blessed.” A week before I got to the psych ward, Josie told her about the song. There was a white canvas bag hanging from the front bar of her walker, on which she had written “Josie’s Cadillac Escalade” with a Sharpie she wasn’t allowed to have. Josie called herself Jojo Dancer but nobody else did. Several times a day, she would talk about her next outing. She was planning drinks at Molino’s and a night at the Radisson, maybe after a trip to Target. Josie would say, “Are you ready to experience White Plains and New Rochelle?”
She wanted everybody in the ward to hear her. She was convinced that she was being ignored, which was true. But Josie was more up to date on Charlie Wilson than I was, which gave me one of many opportunities to not underestimate the people around me.
“I’m Blessed” could be the theme song for a cartoon cheetah who lives in a field of sunflowers. It’s from the school of pure positivity that claims Pharrell’s “Happy.” It’s just 1 = 1 = 1. I don’t generally like music that does what it advertises. If it’s a party song, it has to be demented, like Black Uhuru’s “Party Next Door.” Michael Rose sings with dread, so much of it that next door sounds like the last place you want to be.
I wanted to hear “I’m Blessed” because I realized I was blessed. I didn’t want to hear “I’m Blessed” because I didn’t want to admit I needed something so simple, and that I liked a song for the most obvious reason. I was agreeing with it. “Waking up, thanking God, every day is feeling just like Sunday.” I wasn’t thanking God but I was thankful. I had Medicaid, I was alive, I actually liked powdered eggs.
I also might have liked the song because it was the only one Diana played that I hadn’t heard before. I could not find a new relationship to “Lean On Me.” Diana was singing the words, loud and tunelessly. Michael, the one who wanted to die and was refusing to eat, was sitting up straight and not exactly smiling but almost smiling.
Charlie Wilson used to be the lead singer of the Gap Band, a band I loved in high school and love now, perhaps more than I did before. The Gap Band did nothing exactly like anyone else. The 1982 single “Outstanding” is a slow song that is too syncopated and alive to feel really slow. It is both casual and hot-wired, in part because of Charlie Wilson’s feverish dedication to changing his delivery depending on the line. If you listen to the piano do a little kick step, and then ooch up the patio steps, you’ll hear the exact moment when it’s time to spin on your heel. It’s a popular song that is maybe only R&B because three black brothers from Oklahoma performed it. You could turn it upside down, shake out the screws, play it on acoustic guitar, and it would belong in one of three other genres.
Until I was at B3, I didn’t give credit for the Gap Band’s elasticity to Charlie Wilson. I hadn’t paid attention to how much he was doing. There aren’t many careers like Charlie’s—the closest parallel is Björk, except the Gap Band are much better than the Sugarcubes. The model still works,—you can see two discrete, tangible careers chained together. Charlie Wilson has spent the 21st century being a gospel and R&B performer while filling in the spots that used to be occupied by Nate Dogg and Warren G. He is the guy that sings real good on Snoop and Kanye and Tyler tracks.
“I’m Blessed” is only gospel in subject matter. Wilson sings light and keeps the song organized. It won me over because it doesn’t plead its case particularly hard, which tricked me into being clear with myself that I wanted what the song had. Wilson is blessed, and isn’t asking you to be blessed, or even pushing God all that hard. “Ask me how I’m doing, I’m blessed, yes.” “Riding clean, living dreams, just left the barber, feeling just like Midas.” I’m blessed, yes—the double rhyme and excess affirmation give it a loopy feeling, like Wilson is singing to himself and we’re walking past him on the way to his minivan. (The song never mentions a minivan but I was convinced he was always hopping out of or into a minivan.)
Josie thought the song featured Snoop Dogg, who is on another album track, but not this one. Occasionally, Diana would dial up the T.I. version and people ended up not singing along and looking uncomfortable. We only got access to music once or twice a week, and if Diana wasn’t in the mood to take requests, we’d probably hear Kirk Franklin, which was pretty good.
The night before I left B3, Josie was shouting at a staffer and demanding to go outside. She actually had been out that day, along with five other people, on a short walk around the hospital. Diana had single-handedly bumped us up to level three, just so we could take this tiny trip. (I didn’t know I was on any particular level until this moment.) Josie had to ride in a wheelchair for insurance reasons. We made nature-based art, gluing twigs and leaves into two round plastic frames. The art therapist’s bluetooth speaker was broadcasting a seventies playlist, which gave us Hall and Oates’ “Rich Girl,” one of the first seven-inch singles I bought. I remember trying to figure out, in 1976, why Darryl Hall had an opinion about this rich girl and how they were connected. It seemed like a weird thing to write a song about.