LTJ XPERIENCE feat. JOE BATAAN / “Ordinary Guy”
Yesterday, Jahi (my seven-year-old) and I went for a hike in the finger-canyon that sits right behind my condo complex. Walking down the steep embankment, surrounded by wide-leafed cacti, dirt-colored boulders and desert flowers of every description, it was easy to forget that we were still in the heart of a teeming, urban metropolis. Until, that is, we reached the floor of the canyon; there, the San Diego powers-that-be have put in a cement drainway. The drainway is purely functional, there’s nothing aesthetically pleasing about it: a wide, winding swath of manmade stone designed to keep rainwater, infrequent as it is, away from the precarious foundations of the canyon-side houses and condos. Local kids have decorated the drainway with graffiti—none of it well-done. The overall effect—bad graffiti on gray cement—was the same as you’d see in any major city of the world. The very definition of ordinary. I don’t know why exactly, maybe it’s because my mind was somewhere else at the time, somewhere far away, but the scene struck me as beautiful. “Yeah,” I thought, “There’s beauty in the ordinary sometimes.” Which is what my man Joe Bataan must’ve been counting on when he wrote “Ordinary Guy,” a slow-motion doo-wop that sounds like the ‘what happened next’ to another should’ve-been classic of his, “Subway Joe.” In that one, he’s cooling out on the subway one fine afternoon, going to pick up some Chinese takeout, when he’s accosted by a real livewire of a girl who demands his spot (‘My back is aching and my feet are beat / I’m afraid I’m gonna need your seat’). Imagine that Subway Joe somehow got the girl. And, imagine that it’s a few months later and, predictably, she’s grown bored of him and his subway riding. She’s leaving. How could he possibly get her to stay? Here’s what he tries:
I don’t drive a beautiful car I don’t own an elegant home I don’t have thousands to spend Or a seaside cottage for the weekend I’m just an ordinary guy you left behindNote here that “Ordinary Guy” actually predates “Subway Joe,” it’s no sequel. Still, the thought is funny. In any event, Joe penned “Ordinary Guy” in the past-tense, but I’m not buying it. He’s obviously holding on to hope still. The rough tenderness of his vocals gives the game away, as does the silky smoothness of the background harmonies. (Past-tense, present-tense, future-tense, whatever. Doo-wop songs are about getting the girl, period.) “Walk on, little girl,” he sings. “Pay me no mind. You’re ashamed of me.” But you can almost hear him holding his breath, praying that she’ll say something, anything to give him reason to keep on hoping. That was in 1967. Almost ten years later, Joe fleshed the tune out, eschewing the doo-wop feel for a poignant guitar line and a mellow Salsoul vibe (that’s salsa & soul, y’all—like the label…which Bataan inadvertantly named). He also added to the lyrics. This time, Joe isn’t a plain ol’ ordinary guy, he’s an “Afro-Filipino average sort of guy,” the kind of gently deprecating self-description that (he hopes) will melt even the coldest of hearts. (The description isn’t just funny, it’s accurate too. Joe’s real-life Mom is Black; his Dad is Filipino.) As a backup plan, he quotes lines from that most quintessential of ordinary guy love songs, “Wonderful World”: “Don’t know much about psychology,” the teen-felon turned youth counselor sings, “My degrees are in streetology.” The almost-frenetic conga break is a good move too: you wouldn’t want her thinking you’re so depressed about her leaving that you’ve forgotten how to dance. It’s 2003 now. An Italian producer and DJ named Luca Trevisi AKA the LTJ Xperience picked up on the tune (the second version), added strings, a slinky electro-salsa groove and snippets of recorded dialogue to tell the story of Joe the Ordinary Guy once more. For a forty-year-old tune, it holds up remarkably well; in the later hours of the night, it wouldn’t sound out of place at a hipster nightclub, even now. Speaking of clubs, there’s also a ‘Latin Club Edit’ of “Ordinary Guy,” which is like an extended version of the break from the ‘Afrofilipino’ version; it’s mostly instrumental save for Joe exhorting people to dance (“Baila, mi jente!”). Of the four versions, I won’t pick a favorite—all of them are good and in different ways. Even more surprising, I’ve heard Joe sing at least one other version of the song (a wildly uptempo live version) and a look through his discography at www.joebataan.net leads me to believe that he’s recorded a couple of other versions I’ve yet to hear. So we’re talking five, six (maybe more) versions of the same song performed by the same singer…and at least four of them are winners. Not bad for an ordinary guy. —Mtume ya Salaam Ordinary Joe Mtume, you know there are a ton of songs about ordinary fellows. Jerry Butler and Curtis Mayfield alone probably account for a good quarter-ton of them. Must have been something in the water in Chicago back in the Sixties, because Terry Callier, another Windy City alum and friend of both Butler and Mayfield, also mined that vein. Terry’s song is called “Ordinary Joe” and he’s twerking that same sentiment. In fact, Jerry Butler recorded a version of Terry’s song, but right now, let’s just check out the composer from a live recording in England. This take is far more jazzy than the original, which was much more in an R&B bag—indeed, it is interesting that both Joe and Terry start off R&B and then grow more expansive as they explore jazz elements. I think such explorations happen because jazz more easily accommodates intellectual exploration while not negating the emotional bonds, by which I mean, if you really want to think deeply about something, jazz is a form that is conducive to cognitive meditation. Nevertheless, I think what remains important is that being ordinary has not only a deep meaning common to many of us, ‘ordinariness’ is also a deep feeling common to most of us. Indeed, is it not the case that the word ‘ordinary,’ at its most basic, refers to what is common among the overwhelming majority? One of the most endearing aspects of Sixties/early Seventies R&B is how much of that music reflected on the condition of ‘ordinary people,’ the folk without pretensions about being something other than what they were. No doubt this is a mode that appeals to Joe Bataan. Why else would he do so many versions? And speaking of the ordinary, although I don’t immediately remember the name of the song or the name of the group*, I can never forget the interlude in one of those soul love songs of the Seventies when one of the brothers breaks into a rap (back then a rap simply meant a spoken word interlude and it usually didn’t rhyme). My man is trying to talk to a woman and begins describing himself. He starts off with his name and then says, “I drive a little red Volkswagen.” Can you imagine someone today admitting that he drives a little Toyota Corolla as part of his introduction to a young lady he hopes to win? In other words, this was music about us as we actually were on a day-to-day basis rather than music to feed our fantasies about the players we want/hope to become, which is not to say we did not have fantasy music, because for sure we had a bunch of that, but which is to say that we also had music that celebrated the ordinary, and as such, it was music with which we deeply identified. Enough soap-boxing, just check out the songs, the lyrics. Enjoy. —Kalamu ya Salaam * I googled it. The song was “I Wanna Know Your Name” by The Intruders (Eugene “Bird” Daughtry, Phil Terry, Robert “Big Sonny” Edwards, Samuel “Little Sonny” Brown, and, later, Bobby Starr). The Intruders were a Philly Soul-based group of the late Sixties/Seventies whose major hit was “Cowboys To Girls.”
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