Benny Jay: Summer In The City

August 1st, 2021

Finally got around to seeing Summer of Soul—Questlove’s documentary about the Harlem Cultural Festival that took place in the summer of ’69.

Great flick. Loved it in so many ways—the music, the clothes, the crowd, the stage announcer. But the part that resonated most with me was this quirky tangential riff about men on the moon.

Smack dab in the middle of the festival—on July 20, to be exact—man walked on the moon. Neil Armstrong at first. Followed by Buzz Aldrin.

(For ten trivia points, what was the name of the third astronaut who stayed on the spaceship? Don’t look it up.)

Back in ’69, everyone was going ga-ga about that moonwalk—most of them can tell you exactly where they were when Neil Armstrong walked down that ladder.

And yet, I must confess, little old 13-year-old me just didn’t give a damn. Then, as now, I was a bleeding-heart sort. As I saw it, the whole moon-shot thing was a waste of money. Not when we had poverty to end.

And one wonderful thing about Summer of Soul is they interview a whole bunch of people who agree with me. I’m not alone!

(Here’s a hint about that third astronaut: He’s got the same name as an Irish revolutionary, who was played by Liam Neeson in the movie. Don’t look that up either. Man, you guys are always cheating with those cell phones.)

Where was I? Oh, yes, out of touch with my generation . . .

I didn’t even like Woodstock, which also took place in the summer of ’69. Not that I was there. I was definitely not what you would consider rock festival-going material. I was a middle-class kid from Evanston. I’m not thinking about sleeping in a muddy field with a bunch of strangers.

In the summer of ’69, I was much more into baseball. Passionately following the Cubs, who of course, blew a 13-game lead in August and lost to the New York Mets.

As a Cubs fan I’m supposed to hate the ’69 Mets. But as disappointed as I was by the Cubs’ collapse, I didn’t hold it against the Mets. Not their fault Cubs manager Leo Durocher didn’t know how to handle a pitching staff.

Plus, I liked a lot of the Mets players. Like Tommie Agee, who used to play for the White Sox. Don’t get me talking about that trade.

(OK, one more clue about the third astronaut: He has the same last name as the guy who sings “In the Air Tonight.” No phones!)

Back to Woodstock. I think you’ll agree that the artists who performed at the Harlem Cultural Festival (Nina Simone, the Staple Singers, Stevie Wonder, Herbie Mann—to name a few) were way better than the ones who played at Woodstock.

Except Santana. And Hendrix. And Sha Na Na. Always had a soft spot for Sha Na Na. And Sly, who also played at the Harlem festival. You know, maybe Woodstock wasn’t so bad after all.

But a man on the moon? Put it this way—the song’s great, but the actual thing was a waste of money. Just like I’d have told you back in the summer of ’69, if you were around to ask.

Oh, yes—Michael Collins. Aren’t you glad you didn’t look it up?

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