Feet Don't Fail Me Now

When I was in Navy boot camp, we spent most of our time marching. Marching to chow, marching to the rifle range, marching out to the big concrete grinder to continue marching as we practiced for our graduation parade. One of the recruits in our company, a kid from LA named Johnny Baiseri, was chosen to march us when the drill instructor wasn’t around. Johnny was half Mexican, half Arab, and he taught us how to march to commands given in Spanish and Arabic. We got really good at it and we loved to do it when we’d pass by some high-ranking brass. We were doing what we were told yet we felt totally defiant. The brass could sense it but what could they say?

 

We also had a couple of guys in the company who had been on competitive drill teams in high school. They taught us to think of marching as a dance. Make your foot hit the ground with a bounce. Put joy in your step. Move that rifle from side to side like a woman on the dance floor.

 

So there we were, eighty guys out on the grinder. Johnny carried a ceremonial sword that  he would raise before we began to move. Then he would bring it down like a conductor cuing the orchestra. Off we went as one, making music however we could. We would turn on a dime—right angles, oblique angles, 180s--singing in English (“Your mother was born on your left….go right!”), Spanish, and Arabic, stopping with a satisfying final double-time one-two with the feet. We were completely regimented yet felt totally free.

 

We were hardly Sly and the Family Stone, but they heard the same drummer we did. On the previously unissued instrumental “Wide World of Color” from the new boxed set Higher, the tune is driven by stately bass lines and parade ground drums, the horns darting in and out to keep everything in line, just as Johnny Baiseri did with us. Rehearsed til the band was as tight as a hairpin turn, Sly and the Family Stone were completely regimented yet felt totally free.

 

The fact that the pinnacle of what my boot camp company could create was the equivalent of a mere dab of paint on the Family Stone canvas shouldn’t obscure what we had in common—the need to make sound into feeling no matter what.

 

 

Rock & Rap Confidential / 2014