“Soul Serenade” by Rashod Ollison
c.2016, Beacon Press
$25.95 / $30.00 Canada
Vinyl is making a comeback.
Those are five words that put a smile on a music aficionado’s face. A CD isn’t the same, they say. An MP3 is nowhere near as good. You don’t get the right sound unless you’re spinning a record, so vinyl is coming back — but, for people like Rashod Ollison in “Soul Serenade,” it never really left.
There was once a time when “Dusty” Ollison’s parents were happy.
He knows it’s true; he has evidence of it, in the form of a picture taken at the beginning of their marriage, which lasted 13 years. When they split, he was old enough to witness but too young to understand, having become inured to the fights, the cheating, and the drinking at his home near Hot Springs, Arkansas.
After Ollison’s father fled his family — leaving Ollison’s mother with a ‘tween and two small children — he rarely returned. But he left a gift behind: stacks of vinyl.
Ollison says he remembers poking around music stores with his father, ogling covers, eager for approval of his taste in performers. Chaka Khan, Bobby Womack, Stevie Wonder, Ollison recalls fascination with their record labels spinning on the turntable. Michael Jackson gave him comfort, Aretha was a mood barometer, they all taught him about grown-up love through lyrics. With his mother working two full-time jobs to keep food on the table, Ollison counted on music to anchor him. It was his means of escape as his oldest sister took her rage out on him, as his family moved repeatedly, as he was bullied in school for “actin’ like a woman.”
He denied feminine gestures and a tender heart, but by age 13, he could no longer ignore that he was gay.
School, by then, had joined music as a thing of refuge; Ollison excelled at his lessons, achieved good grades, made friends, and expanded his playlist. As he grew, he also wondered about his father sometimes but was largely indifferent, even as the man lay dying.
And then an aunt told Ollison something that made him change his tune.
“Soul Serenade” starts where many good memoirs do: with a faded picture of a time that barely seems possible. From there, we’re surprised by a death that promises to taint much of what’s to come, all wrapped in family lore.
But don’t get complacent. Author Rashod Ollison doesn’t allow any lingering. Soon enough, his story becomes angry yelling, a smack upside the head, profanity, TV-as-babysitter, fists and sore feet. We’re taken from neighborhood to neighborhood as the lights are shut off, the rent isn’t paid, and he’s taunted with words that his sister has to explain. It’s chaos — but it’s also a darn good tale that it doesn’t dissolve into whining or poor-me-ing, testament to Ollison’s storytelling skills.
“Soul Serenade” is one of those books that sticks in your brain — not only for the suggested music, but because the memoir itself leaves its mark. And if that sounds like solid gold to you, then give this book a spin.