In 1994 I was a freshman in high school. I had only been hanging out with the wrong crowd for about a year, just started being what some people would call a “bad kid” and was really attached to the grunge movement. (Not the mid 2000’s skinny jeans, $100 Chuck Taylors and punk bands filled with emo kids, the real grunge movement – flannels, jeans, combat boots and weed.) About a half a year into my freshman year, I started hitching rides to the pool hall on the weekends. This is where it started.
By “it”, I mean everything, but for the sake of this post I’m going to concentrate on the jukebox.
I hung out, met people, and made friends. I also noticed that there was a lot of money around all these pretty unassuming people. I was immediately interested in learning how to get in on this action. So, I started taking some lessons from Danny, who worked behind the counter. He told stories and talked fish into giving me action, but it wasn’t all sugar and roses. He also destroyed me, giving me “lessons” for money and made me do 100 in a row drills. (These are brutal. Set up what looks like an easy shot, make it 100 times in a row with the same cue ball action. Miss a ball, go back to zero). But, I was on my way to being a player.
Before you know it, I was hanging out at the pool hall all night after school, and all day every day that summer. I started to get pretty good, practicing 4-8 hours a day will do that to you. Since this was before iPods where everywhere and Walkmans were still pretty expensive (and freaking cumbersome to play pool with), the guys were constantly feeding money into the jukebox. During the daytime, it was always country music or Vegas-y crooner stuff, depending on which crowd was in that day. After dinner, the kids came out (I know, I was a kid, too. I have always and will always refer to them as kids. They were, as far as I was concerned. I was in action until breakfast time, they were knocking balls around on a bar box and getting high in the parking lot. Sue me, I’m a pool hall snob.)… where was I… oh yeah, the kids came out and the music changed.
It switched mostly to hip hop and rap, and that’s when I started really listening to Tupac. (Took me a long time to get to the title character, I know, but if the post started here, it wouldn’t look nearly as impressive.) I would get a table and just be zoned out doing drills or running balls, just staying in the game, for hours. I started to pay attention to the rhythm of the music and I noticed that Tupac was the only artist that kept rhythm with his voice. The way his words, not just the lyrics, but how he said them, carried the songs. While Tupac was playing, I would concentrate on the words and almost always find a natural rhythm making balls. Naturally, I started listening to more hip-hop, and Tupac in particular. And then I really started listening to Tupac.
Sure, there’s plenty of battle rap and gangsta songs, and I make no apologies for him or for liking them, but there was also Changes, and Brenda’s Got A Baby, and Dear Momma. Here:
I see no changes all I see is racist faces
misplaced hate makes disgrace to races
We under I wonder what it takes to make this
one better place, let’s erase the wasted
Take the evil out the people they’ll be acting right
’cause both black and white is smokin’ crack tonight
and only time we chill is when we kill each other
it takes skill to be real, time to heal each other
That’s my favorite part of Changes, and I can honestly say that listening to that song made me realize that racism was damaging beyond just being afraid that a black guy was going to rob a white guy. That maybe there was more to a bad, judgemental world than I could see from my window. I didn’t turn into a great guy, or immediately change all of my attitudes, but I still get chills sometimes when I hear this, or Brenda, or lots of others.
There’s also a line from changes that goes “and although it seems heaven sent, we ain’t ready to see a black president”. Politics aside, the difference in attitude from when I heard that song the first time to now couldn’t be any more stark. We have a black president. Some of the things that we wrote and sang about 15 years ago are happening, some things are better, not everything, but some of it is a good start.
We’ll get to the rest, sometimes it sucks, but hey, Keep Ya Head Up.