Sorting out the present

When you’re 13, you’re still trying to figure out what to make of the world around you.

Though I didn’t know his name at the time, songwriter and producer Norman Whitfield tremendously influenced the way I saw the world, the way I thought about the world. That’s what I came to realize in the wake of Whitfield’s passing earlier this week.

It is June 1970. I see the Vietnam War on TV every night at 5:30 p.m. It is not a popular war, even in our house. Dad is 45. He was in the Army, then spent a decade in the Wisconsin National Guard, and even he isn’t buying the war. He’s not outspoken about it, but you just know.

Is that what I’m supposed to think about it? One of my cousins is over in Vietnam. Another is in the Air Force, but stateside. Dad was in the service. So were my uncles. Should that be my path?

That summer, the DJs on WOKY, the big AM Top 40 station out of Milwaukee, are becoming my constant companions. One day, one of them lays down a track that rips through my consciousness:

“War! Hoo! Yeah! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing!”

Edwin Starr forever changes the way I think about the world. So do the Temptations, who are out with “Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World Is Today),” still lingering in the charts that June. God, I wonder, what should I think about everything referenced in that song?

When you’re 13, the music talks to you in ways it does not when you’re older, especially when it’s the first music you’re really listening to day after day, hour after hour.

Later that summer, I hear Creedence Clearwater Revival’s cover of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” and Rare Earth’s cover of “(I Know) I’m Losing You.” It helps with the disappointment of unrequited crushes.

I’m not done learning from Norman Whitfield, either. The next summer, I get a feel for the dark side of friendship with “Smiling Faces Sometimes,” the Tempts tune covered by the Undisputed Truth.

It all started here, though. Enjoy the version less heard.

“War,” the Temptations, from “Psychedelic Shack,” 1970. (The album link is to an import CD with this album and “All Directions” from 1972.)

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Filed under September 2008, Sounds

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