by BRITTANY JULIOUS
We were in the car, most always coming from rather than going to, and no one spoke, which was strange for a family as passionate as mine, and for a child as inquisitive as I was. It was dark except for the street lights which increased in number the closer we go to our home. My sister usually fell asleep as soon as we pulled out of our parking spot, but I felt antsy, and was eager to find sleep in my room, which never seemed as perfect as in those minutes we spent coming from, out on the road. The evening had settled and the only destination after parties and dinners and clubs was the comfort of home. Quiet storm would soundtrack that transition, the in-between of two, successive major events.
There were others, I'd imagine, but I most remember Ramsey Lewis' voice on the radio — all honey-drenched and welcoming — and how it resonates with me now after all of these years. I wish I could remember what he spoke of, but back then what I focused on was not particular. His voice was a complement to the expressways of Chicago, coming North and West, and the main boulevards that divide Oak Park from the parts of Chicago that my grandparents live in, and that I called my own whenever I sought authenticity among my peers.
At 23, I am re-discovering this music that I grew up with, but I could never call my own. I listened to it as it lulled me to peace in the car, or at night during the end of a barbecue as we prepared our plates of my grandmother's macaroni and cheese or my father's ribs. It was music to bookend our festivities, to find respite after salutations.
A part of me still believes that my parents own quiet storm. Back then, when I was a little girl, they certainly did. The believed that we were asleep drink those trips back home. I sat quietly in the back seat watching my mother sing along, occasionally off-time. I liked the way my father snapped his fingers to a song with a most perfect groove.
I didn't ask my parents about their music until I got to the age where I wanted it to define me. And then, I scoured their collections for proto-House and mutant disco — sounds that were already aligned with my burgeoning tastes. Attempting to describe the songs now seems misplaced an effort. I hate to admit that to me, each one has a homogeneous aesthetic that blends from one song to the next. But my memories of that time are shaped less by specific incidences and more by the ideas and themes that shape how I remember the past. To attempt to talk about the past is to frame the events of my childhood and adolescence as stories with a narrative arc that is resolved. Every piece is continuous. The things that happened then continue now. My stories of the past are sculpted glimpses of what once was. And quiet storm was full of adjectives of aesthetics: warm and then icy, sparse and heavy.
Sade was my favorite. In my mind, Sade did not exist, for even now it is impossible to imagine a voice like that — endlessly haunting, deep, provocative — could have been born into this world. I performed in choir, where my voice was trained for the sort of staid clarity and elegance that couples well with classic arias and Broadway showtunes. Her voice whispered in my ear as if she and I were alone. It is still difficult for me to discern the reality of her music. It was made — is made — for a variety of different audiences who want to cherish her as his or her own. Sometimes she sings and the words seem more personal than incidental. Back then, I would look out the window and "Smooth Operator" would play and I would resist turning my head away from the passing scenery of the urban and suburban environments I called home. To turn away from the window would mean recognizing that Sade was not — despite my hopes — wedged between my sleeping sister and I, providing a live, personal soundtrack for our ride to our house.
My mother cherished Luther Vandross similar to how she cherished Marvin Gaye. I can't remember my childhood without remembering his music. My mother used to grip the steering wheel and stare straight ahead while singing Vandross' songs. She sang as if in a trance, connected to Luther with an invisible bond. I stayed quiet while observing her listening to him. His music seemed “above” everything else we listened to during quiet storm. I didn't mind.
The day Luther Vandross died, my mother picked me up at night from my sales associate job at the Marshall Field's in Oakbrook, Illinois. Unlike my peers, I did not obtain a driver's license until I was seventeen years old, on the day before my senior prom, and even then, only because I was forced to do so. My parents never added me to their insurance that summer before freshman year of college and I did not question their reasoning. Despite my initial hopes, the prospect of starting over again, without the comfort of the suburb that I loved but openly claimed to loathe, became a daunting reality I would inevitably not be able to handle. So those summers we rode together.
That evening she gripped the wheel real tight, and then she shook her hands as if flicking off excess water. I hadn't realized what happened until three of Luther's songs played on the radio in a row - a sure sign that a musician was ill or had passed.
"He's gone?" I asked.
"Yep," she said, with more anger than sadness. It was not just that he would no longer make any more music. Something changed fundamentally in the way she could and would listen to this music. Something sad and heavy would cloud his work, at least temporarily. For her, and eventually for me, the must was not just about the transition from activities outside of the home. There was a musicality beyond the visceral, lyricism built on more than the incidental.
After graduation, I moved back to Oak Park where I spend more time in cars than I do walking. And before coming home, I couldn't discern that my interest in quiet storm music was not just nostalgia for nostalgia sake. As I get older, I more and more idolize the memories of my childhood. The experiences are so rare now — the freedom to do nothing all day and feel no guilt and shame, the constant feeling of love and warmth, the near-insatiable hunger for sugar cereal and sweet taffy — that my memories of back then are greater in emotion than in detail. Before moving home, my memories of quiet storm focused on the sense of relief I felt leaving my father's side of the family who, even then, began to recognize that I would grow up to be a little more inquisitive, a little self-righteous, a little different. It was the conclusion of the evening, the moment of winding down, of unloading the experiences of the hours before the car ride. During college, my CTA or cab rides home at 3 in the morning were similar, but there was an element of weariness stemming from the presence of strangers that made listening to any sort of music at that time more like a defense mechanism. In Oak Park, my mother and I can bond over the cadence in Luther Vandross' voice or the weight in Anita Baker's intonation.
I follow music blogs that occasionally traffic in resurfacing these quiet jams because so many contemporary musicians unsuccessfully attempt to emulate an aesthetic born out of necessity and availability. More likely, I suspect the authors are my age and as they continue to look forward while consuming music, they also look back and discover that the fleeting pleasures of today are no match for the heady joy and memories of the quiet of late nights back then.
This Quiet Storm-themed playlist includes jams by Roy Ayers, Luther Vandross, Sade, Lenny Williams, The Gap Band, Marvin Gaye, and Smokey Robinson's “Quiet Storm,” the song that started it all.
the Quiet Storm playlist (mp3)