The Return of Superfly

One of the best albums of the Seventies is more timely than ever.

To say that Mayfield gave Shore and Fenty more than their money's worth is a colossal understatement; it's painful to imagine the movie without his songs. Gordon Parks Jr. went on to become a sturdy director, but his work on Superfly is choppy and erratic. And while Ron O'Neal does an effective job of portraying Priest, the coke peddler whose outrageous fashion sense provides the flick with its moniker, the other performances are uniformly stiff. The action scenes have some kick to them, but only because they are cut to Mayfield's beats. He provides the texture that the visuals only approximate, sketching Priest far more eloquently than does Fenty's stereotypical screenplay. That's why the soundtrack has lasted while the film has become little more than a footnote even among connoisseurs of the blaxploitation genre.

"Little Child Runnin' Wild," Superfly's first number, serves as something of an overture for the album, touching on motifs that Mayfield revisits. Against the backdrop of Latin percussion, an insinuating organ and a stabbing brass and string arrangement, Mayfield observes a young junkie from afar before crawling inside his head for the accusatory lines, "Didn't have to be here/You didn't have to love for me/While I was just a nothin' child/Why couldn't they just let me be." He follows this refrain with an attempt to put the kid's misery in a broader context: "Where is the mayor/Who'll make all things fair?/He lives outside/Our polluted air." Finally, he takes a preliminary shot at Priest, declaring, "Can't reason with the pusherman/Finance is all he understands."

But Mayfield knows better than to dismiss this figure so cavalierly. In "Pusherman," he comes up with a melody that's as seductive as the dealer's pitch: "I'm your mama/I'm your daddy/I'm that nigga in the alley.../You know me/I'm your friend/Your main boy/Thick and thin/I'm your pusherman." When he croons "Got to get mellow now" like an addict finally feeling the warmth in his veins, he seems to be saying that anyone is susceptible to these demons--even him. In "Freddie's Dead," he takes his empathy a step further; it's one of pop music's most affecting elegies. Mayfield dares to examine the demise of Freddie, an underling played by Charles McGregor, as a symptom of a global disease. He sings, "Why can't we brothers/Protect one another?/No one's serious/ And it makes me furious." But he contrasts his indignation with a devastating quatrain about how easily this event can be brushed off: "Another junkie plan/Pushin' dope for the man/A terrible blow/But that's how it goes."

"No Thing on Me (Cocaine Song)" isn't nearly as subtle as "Freddie's Dead"; it's a straightforward anti-dope anthem that's musically a bit too sunny. But "Eddie You Should Know Better," an internal monologue for Priest's partner (Carl Lee), is a multi-dimensional look at a person who understands that he's heading for disaster but is too exhausted to save himself. And the title song is a fascinating blend of Shaft-like hero worship and lyrical denigration. Priest spends the film trying to make enough cash from one last coke transaction to retire, and the momentum of the narrative coaxes the audience to root for him to succeed. But Mayfield isn't willing to champion this goal. He recognizes the appeal of the gangsta creed in his chorus: "You're gonna make your fortune by and by/But if you lose, don't ask no questions why/The only game you know is Do or Die/Ah-ha-ha." But in the verses, he makes it plain that Priest is not nearly as noble as he seems. His final judgment is compassionate but unblinking: "Had a mind, wasn't dumb/But a weakness was shown/'Cause his hustle was wrong."

It's no insult to note that Mayfield never topped Superfly; Orson Welles didn't make a better movie than Citizen Kane, either. As the Seventies wore on, Mayfield's music became denser and less accessible. If you listened to it long enough, much of it was revealed to be remarkable, but during the disco days, fewer and fewer people were willing to spend the time. He was sustained by a loyal cult audience until August 1990, when he was paralyzed from the neck down in an accident at a performance in Brooklyn. This tragedy reminded members of the music industry of Mayfield's accomplishments, and they responded: Since his injury, he has received numerous awards, been the subject of a tribute disc, seen his work compiled on a fine boxed set (1996's People Get Ready!: The Curtis Mayfield Story) and recorded last year's New World Order, a moving and surprisingly effective new full-length.

The reappearance of Superfly can be seen as part of this avalanche of acknowledgment, too, but it needn't be; it stands quite well on its own. Moreover, the songs serve as a challenge to a new generation of musicians to write about their world in a more rigorous and insightful manner than they have in the past. That's Curtis Mayfield's legacy. Now it's up to his hip-hop children to do the old man proud.

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