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Jan 20, 2022
For this WexCast, we’re excited to present a micro-essay you won’t find anywhere else, read by its author, MacArthur Genius grant recipient and Columbus native Hanif Abdurraqib. Invited by Wex Film/Video curators to introduce a screening of Michael Schultz’s classic comedy Car Wash, Abdurraqib wove stories from his neighborhood, the making of the film and its score, the performance politics of Soul Train, and the pleasure of adding a soundtrack to a cleaning task into an electrifying seven-minute monologue.
We're sharing it for #TBT and as a reminder that a lesser-known yet fascinating comedy by Schultz, 1991's Livin' Large, will screen as part of the closing double feature for this month's film series Soundtrack by Herbie Hancock. You can see it along with the Carl Weathers cult hit Action Jackson on Saturday, January 29.
Car Wash, image courtesy of Universal Pictures
Okay, well, y'all are lucky because I was going to come up here initially and do this talk about what this movie meant to me as a kid and the songs and all that. But then today, because I had to wash my car, I wrote something new a couple hours ago. And so I'm going to read a new essay I wrote, kind of a small essay, a mini essay, micro-essay, I believe they call it.
As the youngest of four siblings, I can tell you, there are some things you have the good fortune of learning just through the act of witnessing. I was the last person in my household to get a car on their own. And so one of those lessons I learned was that if you take care of the vessel, the vessel will take care of you. This is something my older siblings undoubtedly learned from my father who learned it from somewhere else. When you don't have a lot of money, when you got to save your scratch working some part-time gig to get anything with an engine in it, cleanliness truly is the gateway to some higher place where one might get to be untouchable behind the wheel of a generations-old car, where even the rust shines.
My kinfolk all got down to the business of washing their cars by hand on their own. I say kinfolk, it means anyone on my block who had a backyard with some space to spare and some hot water to go around. In my backyard, you could pull up in the grass, fit two or three 1970-something sedans or 1980-something coupes, subwoofers in the trunk to drown out the mufflers. Before I had a car, I would pull my bike out the garage and try to be as meticulous as I saw the older folks being. Gentle, even with the tires whose sole responsibility was to gather the mud my sneakers wanted no part of. The ritual of cleaning anything, a home, a vehicle, a body, is always enhanced by music. At least that's how I see it.
And if you believe that I believe a soundtrack is simply anything that provides accompaniment or motivation or a series of sounds that might be propulsive when nothing else would do it, and so while the suds and sponges would fly alongside the drab grays and blue interiors of cars in my backyard, someone would have to put something on and this was the nineties. And so that something was sometimes Public Enemy or sometimes Outkast. Or if the Spring was coming and the breeze was right, it would sometimes be Mary J. Blige and Lord knows it might not make the cleaning itself go faster, but it sure does ease the time, the way a movie bends around a song or a scene bends around a sound. And suddenly you are in it. You are sunken into the magic, carried away to some new elsewhere. Trust the vessel and the vessel will trust you.
There's a scene in Car Wash that you maybe know or have seen before or in your case, will see soon. The theme song scene, the percussive hand claps and the radio announcer's smooth cadence, more dip in your hip, more glide in your stride. What I like about Car Wash as a film is the same thing I love in books and poems and stories woven together within the oral tradition. It packs a lot into stillness. The geography of the film is largely restrained to a place, a time, a series of people connected by circumstance. The theme song montage snaps all of this together. As the film's theme song unfurls, the characters become looser. The car wash itself seems like a place you must be. You are almost required to be.
And yet the miracle of the Car Wash soundtrack is the same as the miracle within any great soundtrack. It lives just as well beyond the scope of the film. This, a unique miracle, since the songs are so tightly catered to be woven into the visual experience. And of course, of course, the soundtrack was sung entirely by a band with the name that summoned visions of a vehicle. In 1976, Norman Whitfield had left Motown and was looking for a group to align with his new vision. He found Rose Royce and Michael Schultz found Whitfield with a task to score a new film. What I always find especially miraculous in the series of miracles that sprung forth from both Car Wash and its music is that the soundtrack album was the first album by Rose Royce, their debut album, a series of songs tied to an iconic film, but a series of songs that had to be so good that they could stand out on their own, lest the group paint themselves into a corner of being secondary, a backing act.
And this I imagine is how one ends up with a collection of tunes, both danceable and also tender, playful but also tight, teaming with affection all the way through. While working on A Little Devil in America, I watched literally hundreds of hours of Soul Train, staying up at all hours to get through the episodes to the point where night would peel the curtain back on morning, and I'd be up still in the haze of whatever the screen had to offer. One such morning, I came to the Rose Royce performance, and the thing with Soul Train performances is that they could be easy to mail in if you really wanted to. Many performers would lip sync, and therefore not really bring themselves to perform the theatrics of singing, of dancing, of moving along the stage. The people in the crowd were going to dance anyway. And so what did it matter really?
But Gwen Dickey, though lip syncing, was dancing during the song "Car Wash." She and the band were as engaged as ever, the horn section swaying with their horns, dancing and swinging their golden instruments to the sky, clapping in unison. Dickey hovering over the audience with a wide grin. It is the performance of a band having the time of their lives, a band who maybe can't believe they got to do this miraculous thing. And speaking again of miracles, the soundtrack for Car Wash and the film Car Wash were created simultaneously in harmony, which I like think of as the act of two creative forces stumbling towards each other and hoping for the best. The music opening up a new way of seeing and the film opening up a new way of hearing. And somewhere in the middle, we get what we get, scenes that work at that beautiful intersection of tactile sound and touch, a beautiful world.
This evening, I come to you on a day where I have washed my reliable vessel. I have washed it today, even though the forecast was threatening rain, because when is a forecast here not keeping a little storm tucked in its back pocket, meteorologist and their best guesses be damned? I come to you on a day where I did a slow crawl around my block and some neighboring blocks in search of a car wash, a modern car wash. One that would not require me to exit my vehicle and soil my own hands. And I know that someone somewhere beyond this mortal coil would frown upon that impulse, but then they might smile and shake a head when they looked down from above—or below—and saw me defeated, finding no car wash in sight, lost again in the haze of gentrification.
One old car wash is now a drive through, 24 hours for the drinking folks, and I suppose they deserve that. Another one is a fast food joint, chicken of some sort. And I will surely return there someday, though not today when my white car almost sighs at itself through the dirt. And so, yes, once again, I pulled up in my own backyard. Yes, I found the only bucket in my home and filled it to overflowing, suds pouring out of the side as I clumsily made my way down the steps. And now I did not finish the task, but at least one half of my car is pristine enough to grant me at least a few hours in the kingdom.
And yes, there was a soundtrack, though I hardly remember it now, even though it was mere hours ago. I remember only the feeling as I ran a sponge over my car and washed away a small layer of history, the whispers of where I've been. I remember only singing along, though I can't remember to what. And that, too, is the miracle of the soundtrack. It works its way into your living without interruption. Like in Car Wash, the songs are part of the machine. The soundtrack is the guest that you never want to leave. And then sometimes when it does, all you have is a memory of the feeling and this way, the soundtrack is also a vessel. And it's like that old lesson I learned once, if you take care of the vessel, the vessel will sure enough take care of you.
That was author Hanif Abdurraqib with a micro-essay inspired by Michael Schultz’s Car Wash, which was presented at the Wex in October 2021 as part of a Schultz retrospective. You can find Abdurraqib’s books in the Wexner Center Store and online at store.wexarts.org, and wexarts.org has more about film and other events at the center. For the Wexner Center for the Arts, I’m Melissa Starker. Thanks for listening.
Top of page: Hanif Abdurraqib, photo: Megan Leigh Barnard