GARY STEEL has spent the last six months having hot dates with Brenda. That is, Brenda’s 56 compilation CDs.
I’ve been spending a lot of time with Brenda over the past few months. It feels like we’re on intimate terms. It’s been an emotional ride and I’ve navigated her ups and downs, and gotten well-acquainted with her aspirations and desires.
The affair started about six months ago. I’d been to Ngawha Springs for a soak with my sister and brother-in-law, who were over from Melbourne. Afterwards, we found a cute café in Kaikohe for lunch and watched a procession of drag racers add a little sizzle to the small provincial town with an overload of noise and fumes.
Support Witchdoctor’s ongoing mission to bring a wealth of new and historic music interviews, features and reviews to you this month (and all year round) as well as coverage of quality brand new, contemporary NZ and international music. Witchdoctor, entertainment for grownups. Your one-off (or monthly) $5 or $10 donation will support Witchdoctor.co.nz. and help us keep producing quality content. It’s really easy to donate, just click the ‘Become a supporter’ button below.
Our last stop was the local op shop, where I came across a green CD wallet containing 56 personalised CD-R compilations, formerly owned by Brenda Rata. Many of them were labelled as mixes but simply turned out to be selections of favourites, with some songs (presumably her favourite-favourites) repeated multiple times. Others bore generic numbered titles. There were also theme CDs with titles like ‘Whateva’, ‘Fresh Off Da Boat’ and ‘Mum Old School’. I had to have it. For $6, it was a steal. But was it actually stolen?
I’d come across the occasional CD-R in op shops before but nothing so candid as someone’s collection, in a convenient wallet. I did wonder how it came to be for sale in an obscure op shop. Had it been stolen somewhere along the line? Had Brenda simply got to the point where she was tired of all her favourite songs? Or had something altogether more tragic happened?
My rationale was simple. My sister and her husband were about to embark on a long drive down to Tauranga and across to the Coromandel in my old Subaru. Its radio frequencies were Japanese, so musical accompaniment had to be compact discs. I figured that 56 compilations would give them some on-the-road entertainment, and if they didn’t like a song, they could easily flick to the next.
They hardly touched the CDs. Appalling weather inflicted itself on them during their road trip and the road noise made listening difficult. Oh, and there was the small fact that my sister and her husband love blues, country and rock. R&B and rap just isn’t their thing.
Not that Brenda’s selection is stylistically exclusive. There are a few rock performers to be found, like David Bowie, Huey Lewis, The Beatles, Paul Simon, Elton John, Living Colour, the Doobie Brothers and even Bob Dylan. But these are few and far between. Brenda was clearly an R&B/hip-hop kind of gal who had come of age in the early ‘00s when the likes of Nelly, Wyclef Jean, J-Lo, Alicia Keys, Shaggy, Shakaya, Blackeyed Peas, 50 Cent, 2 Pac, Che Fu, Outkast and others were making their mark.
In fact, the entire 56-CD set is practically a tribute to an era, and over the next six months, I got to know songs and artists that I’d hardly noticed at the time, as I’d stuck fairly religiously to my own determinedly anti-commercial path. It was an education, and I kind of enjoyed it.
The wallet stayed in the car and every time the family went on a trip or I needed to go anywhere, another one of Brenda’s CDs would provide the entertainment. (I have to admit that on the 3-hour trip to Auckland and back I needed to give Brenda the cold shoulder briefly to get a stiff dose of King Crimson).
The more I listened to these perfect-condition CDs the more it felt like I knew Brenda and understood her musical/emotional requirements. She wasn’t strictly speaking stuck in an era. Although then-contemporary hip-hop and R&B provided the bulk of selections, there was a smattering throughout of nostalgic pop hits from the likes of Stevie Wonder, Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff, Toots & the Maytals, and even a song by local legend Prince Tui Teka. Brenda clearly identified with strong women (why wouldn’t you?) with singers like Missy Elliot, Tina Turner, Nelly Furtado, Sister Sledge, the Pointer Sisters and Mary J. Blige. Her selections were relentlessly radio-friendly, with really no representation at all from the many artists who are critically acclaimed but not very popular. Sometimes, her favourites were just too sugary, with the likes of Olivia Newton-John, the Nolans and Kylie Minogue making skipping tracks a necessity. This led to the thought that Brenda’s so-called ‘mix’ CDs may not have been all personal faves but that she may have been a DJ.
There were songs of yearning and lost love and vaguely dirty songs like ‘Pull Up To The Bumper’ (Grace Jones)… all of which you’d expect from a young woman embarking on a life. But there were also songs of hope and happiness and sheer fun, and a smattering of Kiwi material from the likes of Ardijah, Katchafire, Max Merritt, and Lighter Shade Of Brown.
The 8-year-old wasn’t fond of Brenda’s CDs. It seems there’s a huge gulf between what was happening 15 or 20 years ago, and the current crop of pop singers. She’s all Taylor Swift and Katy Perry and anything at all that’s related to her obsession with Minecraft.
Driving with Brenda came to a dead stop a few weeks back when I put on one of the last CDs in the wallet and some unidentified rapper began intoning lyrics about the cracks in big butts and how he was going to shove something up there. Being naïve, I don’t really know what he was talking about but it didn’t sound nice, and I didn’t want the 4-year-old unknowingly repeating lyrics about cracks and big butts at kindergarten.
My affair with Brenda’s CDs and my insight into her musical/emotional life had drawn to a close. I really enjoyed the experience, as much as the music wasn’t – and never will be – my cup of tea.
I don’t know if Brenda just biffed her CD wallet out when she found that she could hear everything she wanted on Spotify, or perhaps stuck them all on a flash drive, but I hope that she’s still around and enjoying music and feeling optimistic about life and not dragged down by its mundanities and tragedies, small or great. If you’re out there Brenda, thanks for the good times. And if you ever get a hankering for these CDs, let me know. I’ve had my fill now.