Everybody who loves music has that one song they can’t ever seem to escape. For me, that song is “I Got a Feeling”.
Now, I’m a poptimist. I understand the need for straight-laced white dudes like myself to dismantle our smug gatekeeper-ish tendencies. It’s probably time for me to lay down my Pitchfork and appreciate Black Eyed Peas for bridging the gap between neo-soul, jazz-rap and chart-topping hip-hop. Besides, lots of people like “I Got a Feeling”. It’s tied for the fourth-longest streak at #1 in Billboard history, right alongside Whitney Houston and “Macarena”. It’s also the most downloaded song of all time.
But no. If a careful reconsideration of Liz Phair is what you’re after, then I’m your man. But in the case of Black Eyed Peas? It ain’t me you’re looking for, babe. I have been hammered by David Guetta’s incessant opening piano siren during countless pregames. That Crazy Frog pastiche of a bassline has chased me from seedy Czech nightclubs to depressing office parties. Thanks to “I Got a Feeling”, I can never enjoy a live sporting event without getting harassed by will.i.am’s youth pastor raps.
Deep down though, “I Got a Feeling” doesn’t really bother me. Sure, Fergie’s robotic ad-libbed warbling makes me want to go out and smash every copy of this trash single. But I get over it. When I’m at a wedding and the DJ inevitably drops this lame ass excuse for a party rocking anthem, I roll my eyes and shout mazel tov just like everyone else.
It’s not so easy for Nabil Ayers. “Everybody Loves the Sunshine” is a hard song to dislike. It works as loungy Greenwich Village jazz and 70s SoCal funk. The lazy summertime synth melody squiggles like frying an egg on hot pavement. The cool splashes of vibraphone are as refreshing as a dip in the pool.
“Everybody Loves the Sunshine” never dominated the Hot 100 the way “I Got a Feeling” did. But you could argue that “Everybody Loves the Sunshine” has seeped even deeper into public consciousness. The song has been sampled more than 160 times. Even the Black Eyed Peas couldn’t completely mangle the song’s positive vibes.
Heck, even Nabil can’t deny that everybody loves “Everybody Loves the Sunshine”. After all, this is the song that inspired him to write a memoir. So why does My Life in the Sunshine start with him having a panic attack when it pops up during NWA’s biopic? You’ll have to read the book to find out. Because the answer is complicated.
“Everybody Loves the Sunshine” was written and recorded in 1976 by Roy Ayers. Roy wasn’t a hitmaker, but he became ubiquitous anyway after a remarkably consistent 20-album run for Polydor. His pioneering jazz fusion has left behind a long and mercurial trail of influence. Erykah Badu refers to him as the King of Neo-Soul. Tyler, The Creator credits him for finding his wings. Pharrell even named a son after him.
But My Life in the Sunshine starts when Roy Ayers was just a bebop vibesman for Herbie Mann, on a fateful evening in the early spring of 1972, when Louise Braufman, a frizzy Long Island bohemian, knocked on the door to his Lower East Side apartment. Louise had met Roy two years prior, while waiting in line for his autograph after a show at the Village Gate. But she wasn’t a groupie. She knew Roy was married to his career, something he made sure to spell out for her in big, bold, underlined letters as they laid together on a mattress in her living room, caught in the throes of a neighborhood blackout. Louise wasn’t trying to tie Roy down though. If he didn’t want to stick around and be a father, well, she would manage. All she wanted was to have his baby. Really, she only needed his help for one night.
Louise never regretted her decision, even though Roy stayed true to his word. But it’s Nabil who’s had to live with the consequences. He’s not a flowery writer either. My Life in the Sunshine reports rather matter-of-factly about how he and Louise relied on welfare and food stamps while bouncing in and out of subsidized housing. He calls his mother’s decision to have him “unquestionably selfish”. He’s more unsparing toward his father, especially during the book’s final chapter.
But My Life in the Sunshine isn’t a book full of sour grapes. “My childhood wasn’t about what I couldn’t have,” Nabil offers, washing away the bitter memory of Louise’s health-conscious birthday cake, “it was about what I did have”. He looks back on his upbringing in an idyllic light. Rollerblading through a pre-gentrified Greenwich Village alongside similarly mixed-race children. Single mothers doting on him during Baháʼí potlucks and African dance classes. Buying used records at Mountain Farms Mall.
In many ways, My Life in the Sunshine is the coming-of-age narrative of a music geek. Nabil never needed to hear another album after Destroyer; he fell so head-over-heels for KISS that he dressed as Catman Peter Chriss one Halloween. But my fellow history buffs will jealously drool over all the era-defining concerts that Louise and her brother Alan took him to see.
The less flashy scenes pack just as much power. Nabil’s awestruck silence upon hearing Surfa Rosa speaks to the mind-blowing epiphany that comes from discovering your new favorite band. It reminded me of my own stunned amazement when my college roommate Brian introduced me to “Little Black Submarine”.
There were times too, when Nabil saw Roy. Outside nightclubs in the Village, chatting up expectant fans. Backstage at the UMass 1979 spring concert, where Roy was joined by Patti Smith and The Grateful Dead. By the time teenage Nabil started cutting his own demos, Roy was a household name. He’d performed on Soul Train. He’d toured Nigeria with Fela Kuti. He’d even broken the Top 10 on the Disco chart. Everyone knew who Roy Ayers was — except, of course, for his son. Besides one incredibly awkward visit to Electric Ladyland, the closest Nabil got to his father was listening to “Everybody Loves the Sunshine”.
But My Life in the Sunshine isn’t the story of a son trying to outrun his father’s shadow either. Nabil earned his first album credit at three years old. “Little Nabil’s March”, a festive romp of snare rolls and jolly cymbal crashing, appeared on Valley of the Search, his uncle Alan’s debut album. That might have been Nabil’s last foray into avant-garde jazz, but it was nowhere near the last time that his name would appear on a record. After graduating from the University of Puget Sound, Nabil drummed for a who’s who of alt. rock also-rans. The book reflects back on each band’s 15 minutes of fame but wisely shifts the focus away from the actual music, opting instead for a larger snapshot of how the culture shifted from Seattle grunge and the commercial butt rock explosion to championing scruffy indie underdogs.
My Life in the Sunshine does provide a backstage pass to life in a rock ‘n’ roll band. Nabil tells plenty of stories from the road. Some are sobering. Run-ins at shiesty diners and rural gas stations reveal the casual racism Nabil experienced while navigating an overwhelmingly white scene. Others are more amusing. Kim Deal and Tommy Stinson make appearances and there’s a very lighthearted scene with Mark McGrath. The juiciest insider info comes after Nabil’s touring days are over. Something about Airplanes might never have taken off had he not started Sonic Boom Records. Nowadays, Nabil is the president of Beggars Group and his book makes good in passing on some of those corporate perks, including front row seats to Future Islands memetastic Late Night performance.
Those familiar music memoir notes are fun and easy to read. But they’re not what My Life in the Sunshine is all about. The book is really about family. There’s this great scene between Roy and Nabil at an LA sushi restaurant that’s touching simply because of how ordinary it feels. It seems like the perfect ending: an estranged father and son reuniting over their shared musical bond. Only the book still has a hundred pages to go. As Roy once again disappears toward the margins, his absence grows into an all-consuming black hole. Nabil stumbles around in the dark for a while. But how he ends up plugging that hole is filled with enlightenment. His life story is a warm reminder that you can always see the sun shine. The trick is knowing where to look.
You can grab a copy of My Life in the Sunshine from wonderful Harriett’s Bookshop over on Girard Avenue. Listen to a playlist of songs from the book as you read along and don’t miss the chance to meet Nabil out on tour.
University of Idaho, 27 January 2023
Newport Beach Public Library, 1 February 2023
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