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Midnight In The Drum Machine Of Good And Evil

Timmy Thomas performs on the television show <em>The Midnight Special</em> in 1973.
Frank Carroll
NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images
Timmy Thomas performs on the television show The Midnight Special in 1973.

This just in from the 236,655 hour news cycle: On October 31, 1972, Richard Nixon allows the North Vietnam peace settlement deadline to expire. In Miami, two men in clown masks rob a Farmer's convenience store, in the drive-thru. A Hialeah man claims he was followed home by a UFO. Timmy Thomas' "Why Can't We Live Together" debuts on WEDR, sometime between rush hour and when skeletons begin buzzing doors for candy. Gridlocked drivers recall a guy in a Zorro costume sitting in a blue 22 Elektra, head out the window, Bolero at an afro tilt, yelling about how that was his song. Nobody believed him—just another caped avenger losing his mind in bad traffic. Motorists shushed Timmy Thomas while listening to him singing on the radio, lamenting the Vietnam War, the racism back home, the way it is. The masked man looked over at his wife (a masked woman) and smiled. "That's me!"

Thomas, now 71, hears himself in that moment again, ecstatic that Drake has put him back into heavy rotation, using "Why Can't We Live Together" as the sample bed for "Hotline Bling," a song that many are claiming as their own, a proprietary affection for what has become hopelessly stuck in their heads. Share and share alike. Count Erykah Badu among them. Badu's "HOTLINE BLING BUT U CAINT USE MY PHONE MIX" is the grown folks answer version, giving the track seven and a half minutes of space to get away from Drake's stay-home-girlfriend neuroses. Control freaks come out at night. Badu's tone of "such n' such" feels like she may be over it. My favorite part: her holdupholdup pause in the drop call void—taking away the bass for an entire three seconds, long enough to feel its absence. Just so we'll fall for it again. (I'd happily be put on hold to this.) Pounding Timmy's electronic organ beat with an 808 demonstrates commitment to drum machine nerd history. Andre 3000's "forever-ever" surfaces as a brief apparition, as the past is wont to do, sampled from an Outkast apology. Then Badu and her teenaged son with Mr. 3000, Seven (who co-wrote the track), go their own way and replay the Thomas original. This is after a tour through Badu's voicemail menu, of course. She's available to DJ your little cousin's Slip'N Slide party. Her voice is available to tell you to stop begging for shit.

Timmy Thomas was merely asking for people to stop killing each other. Recently signed to Overtown Records, a new label "dedicated the revitalization of Miami Soul & Funk music," he's happy that nobody has cussed over his beat — yet. "Why Can't We Live Together" had already visited far more profane places than Drake moping about lost booty calls. Soul freak Clarence "Blowfly" Reid, possibly the filthiest songwriter alive, used to call Timmy on a non-cellular landline with suggestions and amendments. Why Can't We ___ Each Other. Why can't we do just about anything you can imagine to each other. Some confused Timmy's cry for peaceful coexistence as a "shack-up song." Yet the track that put the sound engineer to sleep during its recording would become theme music to Nelson Mandela's election in 1994.

The night that "Why Can't We Live Together" lit up the phones at WEDR, Thomas was on his way to a Halloween masquerade party on Miami Beach. In attendance were Clarence Reid (presumably in antennae, his usual bug costume) and Miami record boss Henry Stone (costume unconfirmed though he was occasionally mistook for Colonel Sanders.) Stone purchased the rights to Timmy's record from Noel "King Sporty" Williams, co-author of Bob Marley's "Buffalo Soldier" and creator of bespoke subwoofers and sinkhole bass. Stone would end up releasing "Why Can't We Live Together" in 1973 on Glade, a subsidiary of his TK Records empire. Thomas' artificial drum rig — a knock and a hiss internalized inside a Lowrey organ — barely fit in the trunk of his Deuce Deuce Elektra. He'd drive it over to Mr. Hank's audio repair shop for modifications, lid bumping. Born in Germany, Henry "Mr. Hank" Kones worked in pacemakers and nuclear missile telemetry during the Cold War before settling into speakers and keyboards. He knew how to amplify Timmy's one man band. This synthetic sound had kinship with Sly Stone's revolutionary Maestro Rhythm King beatbox, used on There's A Riot Going On and would be reincarnated for George McCrae's disco hit "Rock Your Baby." (Jamie xx has been reviving an old disco version of "Why Can't We Live Together" during his DJ sets, with a horn section blasting its urgency into the present.)

Inspired by Walter Cronkite doing the evening body count, "Why Can't We Live Together" originally became an in-demand record because Thomas performed it every night at Timmy's Lounge, one of the first black-owned clubs on the recently desegregated Miami Beach, where Nixon received his presidential nomination at the Republican National Convention in 1972, to the dismay of thousands of antiwar protesters painted in reaper face. Nixon was back in the White House a few weeks after Timmy's grief jam debuted on EDR. DJs loved it. Bobby "The Black Giant" Barnett, a former military advisor who trained South Vietnamese soldiers in the jungle, would play "Why Can't We Live Together" up to ten times during his four hour shift on Miami's WMBM.

Timmy's instrumental preface may have gotten more airplay than the entire song itself. This subdued ninety seconds gave DJs time for PSAs, local headlines, funerals, traffic. Delilah, the 200-pound Bengal tiger owned by ex-Tarzan actor Steve Sipek, gets loose at the Blessing of the Animals parade in Carol City. The war continues in Vietnam but how about that Miami weather! All while the drumbox ticks, allowing Thomas' plea for getting along to blend seamlessly into "Urban Contemporary" programming. Miami has been shadowed by the song since its release, back in rotation with the Liberty City Riots in 1980, when WEDR station manager Jerry Rushin, a Vietnam vet himself, helped mobilize protests.

Timmy Thomas, now 71, is back on the radio.
/ Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist
Timmy Thomas, now 71, is back on the radio.

The future worried Thomas. Alternate realities on the screen showed little evidence of change ahead. In 1968, he and his wife Lillie went to a movie in North Miami and witnessed a model for sustained decay. Humans had devolved over a period of two millenniums while their former primate antecedents—chimps, gorillas and orangutans—governed, carried firearms, spoke English and put Charlton Heston on mute. Civilization as we'd know it, where one could watch a Planet of the Apes marathon, was buried beneath a radioactive desert. Ever since I left Ape City, you...

Planet of the Apes was co-written by Rod Serling, who already made Thomas "well-up" with Twilight Zone episode 97, in which an alien crashes his ship in a Mexican village and is gunned down for being different despite appearing no less human than his captors. (It's not the best Serling script, with villagers portrayed as fearful stereotypes.) "The Gift" aired in 1962, when Thomas was immersed in civil rights work in Jackson, Tennessee with his then fiancée. He remembers how they exchanged winks and smiles in passing while marching for integration, until she was spat upon by a kid leaning out of a passing car. Thomas dropped his sign but kept marching, heartbroken, refusing to make eye contact with his future wife, gaze fixed on his own anger.

This incident didn't make the news, but Timmy's beat, essentially a loop preset for the future, is all that remains at the end of "Hotline Bling," continuing to keep us informed. This just in: Drake dancing is news. People making fun of Drake dancing is news. That this even qualifies as news is news. Everything is everything. A black church drummer named Corey Jones is gunned down by a police officer on I-95, outside Palm Beach County. Earth's in heavy rotation as a Halloween asteroid nears.

Timmy's question bears repeating. Tell me why there's a riot going on. The song reappears in someone's feed, a YouTube link in response to a phone clip of a chokehold, a shooting, an acquittal. It all clicks. Preset becomes pattern. Recorded and performed by one man, "Why Can't We Live Together" is bereft; its intimacy can sound lonely, unrequited, as if Thomas were just preaching to his own refrain, a question for both the self and its projection, its online fantasy. A reputation for yourselves. The screens have shrunk, claiming to bring people closer, so they can get at/to one another, broken down into non-perishable memories and nightmares guarded in monolithic data storage. The comments section will tell you why. What goes around doesn't go away. Timmy's song resonates now more than ever-ever, an automated self-replicating rhythm, voiceless. As if history repeating itself, until it chokes, is news to us. So it goes, without saying.

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Dave Tompkins