Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark at 30

On the sleepless shift with the Midnight Man and his Robert Cray Band

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, Mercury Records 1988

If you’re anything like me (work with me, I prithee), the insomnia skulks.  You just don’t know you can’t sleep until damn it, your mind won’t park itself and you’re stuck with, oh, maybe the anesthetic horrors of infomericals, sweet like that banana stuff the dentist pads on your gums, but stifling, and summoning forth burgeoning saliva of the mind; you need a shower even if you’re too past zombified to get naked, let alone wet.

The radio, mayhap? BBC World News, not too shabby.  Until that comes on (too close to sunup), though, you’re stuck with that guy who interviews himself and only himself, night by night, a different voice filter for each voice. What does this guy’s mind look like?Multicolored mushrooms from common manure?

No, stick with YouTube’s “Criminally Listed.”  I have no idea who this guy is—total monotone, as he rolls through banal and fascinating both, occasional “oo” vowel sounds hinting at secret Canadianship—an amazing text-to-speech impersonation, depersonalizing  victims, the criminals, suspects, the merely suspicious. You have to fill in the horror yourself. If you’re awake enough.

And Robert Cray, briefly a big deal, much longer a journeyman, belongs on this watch.  The woozy side of midnight. The guided tours through jealousy, infidelity, theft, prostitution, but everything bluesy-smooth.  His voice on the speaker keeps a certain distance, like the difference in “Criminally Listed,” and you color in the blanks.

Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark, thirty years old this August 8th, didn’t sell so well as Strong Persuader from the previous year, which put Cray in Rolling Stone, found Robert Christgau huzzah-a-ning, and sold over two million.  I remember the MTV videos well, and the “Smoking Gun” clip was shot at the Seattle’s Rainbow Tavern, just a few blocks from where I’m typing this (and ducking one laughing ranter with camouflage jacket and surgical mask, who seems to have slipped the midnight shift to rant in the sun re:  organized religion and his dead relatives who haven’t been born yet). Gary Minkler, singer with local cult sensations Red Dress, worked at the Rainbow and turned up in the video, putting the new star’s name in big white letters up on that marquee.

And maybe it didn’t move those units as did Persauder, because Cray, to use one of my friend’s favorite putdowns, “didn’t evolve.”  In which case, I say, Cray didn’t need evolution. He observes, and from his eye for the nitty gritty he summons scenarios. I’ll show you a good time, woman, I’ll show you a borderline-dangerous time, but “I’ll be there to hold you,” comfort from any carnage I might have on my mind.  The woman should put on some music—“Marvin Gaye’s real nice”—notice he doesn’t suggest his own tunes. Not merely from modesty. Listening to himself would distract from his lovemaking, and his arch sense of reportage.

Cray’s still around, although he had to postpone a show in Redding, California, because of the forest fire. He’s still crisp, still polishing his remove with his guitar when his lips lay out.  The man with the mask is still lost in time, lost in continuity. 

I know immediacy and rawness and all that, count for more.  Because we let them. Maybe, though, we should be grateful for small favors.  

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