It was 1975. I was 20 years old. I had just left home. I worked and went to college in Manhattan, and lived with my girlfriend in the Bronx.
Meanwhile, Kool and the Gang‘s hit tune “Jungle Boogie” jumped to one of the most requested songs on the radio. Transcriptions of the lyrics to this enduring hit don’t really do it justice, but here goes:
“Get down, Get down, get down, get down, get down, get down . . . .
Get It On
Get It On”
I did not experience the lines as such. Here’s my version of the chorus:
Anyway, you get the idea. I saw Jungle Boogie as the archetypal Disco song with the archetypal Disco message. Forget the Sixties. Forget all that Woodstock crap. Just dance, wiggle, screw, then dance some more. Be yourself. Be your identity, no matter what it really is. Don’t be afraid. Just be.
Most political types I knew in college strongly disapproved of Disco. They thought it wasn’t radical enough or something. Gay people, black/Latino people, and women loved it—especially if they fit into all of those categories. As for me, I did not have the New Left sophistication to resist Disco’s charm, although I more often listened to classical music at the time.
Back in those days, to get to a train into Manhattan, I took a bus that ran from the northern Little Italy area where I lived through the South Bronx. This was quite an experience. The latter region was falling apart. Landlords and tenants took turns torching their residences. Drug use skyrocketed. The place was a mess.
So riding the bus meant touring some pretty mean streets. Kids threw objects at these vehicles with great gusto. The projectiles included rocks, cans, and soda bottles. Once during my ride somebody tossed a glass milk container filled with vodka through the window. The vessel landed on my lap. In addition, since the city rarely repaired South Bronx roads, the buses rocked up and down like rough water motor boats, tossing the passengers about in every direction.
On top of that, I was often the only white person on the car. This meant that some disgruntled type would periodically try to start a fight with me. These confrontations usually began with my antagonist angrily yelling something that I didn’t understand, since he was generally drunk or stoned. I responded to these gestures by quietly sitting in my seat and looking very confused. Once the fellow realized that I wasn’t going to stand up and defend my racial honor, he stood down. But it wasn’t a very relaxing way to commute to school and my job.
One very hot summer evening that year, a quartet of high school kids boarded the bus taking me home. Although these vehicles had air conditioning, it rarely worked, so they ran around the carriage snapping open the car’s small upper window panels.
After that, two of them tuned their radio cassette machines to a station playing “Jungle Boogie.”
“Get Down Say Ugh
Get Down Say Ugh
Till You Feel It You’ll
Get Down You’ll
Get Funky Ya’ll
With The Get Down!”
As the music blared, the youngsters danced—ecstatically, I should add. I will never forget how happy they looked. They sang along with the broadcast, mostly intoning the “get down get down get down” part, and putting extra vigor into the chorus. When the tune ended, one expressed great dismay. But not to worry, his comrade declared, and popped a Kool and the Gang cassette into his box. Thus, “Jungle Boogie” boogied on.
Needless to say, most of my fellow commuters did not appreciate this degree of frolic, especially the older ones, who quietly glowered at the spectacle. To be fair, it wasn’t as if the dancing was obtrusive. The revelers took pains not to bump into anybody, and mostly just sort of narrowly shimmied against passenger poles with their hips and knees. But the music was loud. The bus driver did nothing to object to the celebration. And nobody else on board was going to tell the celebrants to put a sock in it, least of all my wimpy white self.
So the party went on. Through the hot evening we trekked—us working stiffs and the Jungle Boogie Dancers. The bus rocked back and forth and up and down, as usual. A couple of objects hit its caboose. Politically incorrect thoughts crossed my mind. “Is this The Jungle?” I wondered. Or: “Am I in The Jungle?” Then: “Is this the beginning of the End of Civilization?” and “Will it be fun?”
In retrospect, I’d like to say that the whole thing felt like a Spike Lee movie. But Mr. Lee was about four years younger than me at the time, and wouldn’t release his first film of influence, She’s Gotta Have It, for another decade, so I don’t have that cinematic cliche to fall back on.
Eventually the kids’ stop came. They secured their gear, nimbly leaped from the bus, and ran off into the evening. We survivors of this experience exhaled with relief, grimacing and gesticulating towards each other. I glanced at the bus driver, who grimly shook his head, but not too obviously, perhaps for fear that if he showed disapproval, someone would ask why he hadn’t done something about the scene.
An elderly woman looked at me—as usual the only pale face around. She offered a sympathetic laugh. Thirty-six years later I still remember her smile.
What brought this memory on? I’m sitting here on a San Francisco to Berkeley BART train and the young lady in front of me is having a little solo sit-down dance party with her iPhone. She’s got the volume pumped up so loud that I can hear the tune through her little ear buds. Yup, it’s Jungle Boogie. She’s gracefully shifting back and forth on her seat with her eyes closed, moving and grooving to the pulsating sound of the Disco beat.
Now I’m wondering which techno-musical world I like better. Is it the nice, neat hermetically sealed one that I live in today, with serene moving trains carrying scores of jacked in travelers, each sequestered in her own audition room? Or is it the scary, ecstatic landscape that I remember from 1975, with its roving bands of audio box marauders, spreading anxiety and joy across commuting trails?
I can’t decide. I don’t even understand how we collectively decide to move from one ubiquitous device to the next: first transistor radios, then cassette machines, then boom boxes, next CDs, iPods, and iPhones. Do we choose them, or do they choose us?