Thursday, April 26, 2007

Family Music

When I was a child, I told my family I was going to marry Smokey Robinson one day. I could recognize Smokey's beautiful tenor, the child-like innocence and sadness in his lyrical phrasing, the second I heard it. Hearing Smokey sing, “One day, I’ll hold you near, whisper I still love you, but ‘til that day is here, oh, I’m crying…” sent me into girlish ecstasy. And he was so darn cute. I could do a wonderful Diana Ross impression, tilting my head, brushing my hair away from my face, and lifting up my hands to sing "Ain't no Mountain High Enough," but only if it would have seduced Smokey. The first cds I ever owned (given to me by my parents) were Smokey Robinson cds. I'm fairly confident they weren't really trying to make me so obsessed with Smokey that I WOULD pursue nothing in life other than being Mrs. Robinson, but I do think they took joy in the fact that I was so seduced by that music, that voice.

I've written previously that my father grew up as a sharecropper, from a paternal line of sharecroppers. He graduated from high school (neither of his parents had), went to college, majored in physics, and got a job working as an engineer with an oil company. He worked there for nearly 30 years, retired, and now works there as a consultant. Upward mobility.

But other than neighborhoods, houses, and cars, my father has never embraced any of the other aspects of upper middle class American society, or what it means in such society to be "cultured." He doesn't care about plastic art or opera, Mozart or Magritte. He has no idea why I own so many books about ballet or history. The first time classical music crossed the threshold in our home was when my sister and I became fanatical about it, exposed to it through piano lessons.

But my father does love music. And how he loves it - with a stereo system that certainly rattles the windows of the house next door, blasting Ray Charles, offering up a, "Sing it, boy!" to an impassioned plea of a male soul singer to his lost lover. I could probably label each year of my childhood by the songs that my father was playing over and over again.

When I was very young, I particularly remember B.B. King and Bobby "Blue" Bland. My father would be driving the car on the way to Opelousas, eyes on the road, but tilting his head back and forth and slapping his knee, singing a half step behind B.B. King to "The Thrill is Gone." When "Caledonia" came on, he'd look at my mom, and sing,"what makes your big head so hard?!" I also knew, even then, that this music meant something special to him. As a kid, his family hadn't owned a record player, except for the brief time his family had one on "loan," lent to them by his older sister's suitor. When the romantic relationship ended, the young man took his record player with him, and my father and his siblings were once again left in musical silence. I think my father's been making up for the lack ever since he could afford to.

Once we arrived in Opelousas, what can only be described as the great zydeco tape exchange would occur. My paternal grandmother (MaMa) would usually have the radio on and tuned to a Saturday morning zydeco program, on a radio station that probably played other types of music during the rest of the week. MaMa or my father's brother would start the exchange: "This is a really good tape..." and so it would go - making copies of tapes, putting them on to listen to a particular song and laugh out loud, my father occasionally looking at me and repeating what had just been said in French by Clifton Chenier (pictured above) or Queen Ida or Buckwheat Zydeco to me. I don't understand Cajun or Creole French, or even formal French, but this didn't stop my father's delight in repeating the French lyrics of zydeco songs to us. It also made him reflective, and he'd tell us about his pig named Susie, who'd given birth to six pigs on his sixth birthday, or how picking okra was so much worse than picking up cotton (okra cuts open your hands, neck, and back), or give us instruction in how to make a stubborn mule move.

There are songs I remember from my first five years of life, songs that I sang and danced to, that have no place in a particular memory: James Brown's "Night Train," and "I Got the Feelin,'" Rufus and Chaka Khan in "Tell Me Somethin' Good." And later, when I was about 11 and my father got a brand new stereo system with speakers that could rattle the glasses in the kitchen cabinet: Otis Redding's "I've Been Loving You Too Long," Wilson Pickett, Marvin Gaye, and Sam Cooke. I don't think my father has ever bought music by a white artist for his own consumption. Whether it's because he doesn't like it or doesn't relate to it, I'm not sure. But there is something about that zydeco, the blues, the R&B and soul singers, that he does relate to. And as even I can recognize, there's something about the music of black artists that's utterly absent in the music of white artists, and if you've grown up with the former, you long for that special something.

I referenced bell hooks' essay on Madonna in a comment, and this valuable quote: "White folks who do not see black pain never really understand the complexity of black pleasure." I include that here, because listening to these songs often put my father in a reflective mood, not only about the poverty of his childhood, but about being black in south Louisiana. He'd recall, sadly, being in (segregated) schools and getting 'new' textbooks, only to look inside the cover and see that they'd already been used, with the names of the white kids who had used the books in the years before written there, just as an extra reminder (as if it were needed) of black inferiority, since one had to sit out on the curb to eat, not being allowed to sit in most restaurants, and using the back door. Or of having no place to stay in New Orleans in the late 60s, being refused to have a car sold to him in the late 70s, or of being told in the late 80s that black people weren't allowed to live in certain neighborhoods of the community where we moved.

The pain in his voice, the resignation, was so similar to that of a former roommate. She was from Zimbabwe; her parents came to America because, in her father's words, "It's better to be treated like a dog in someone else's back yard than in your own." Elegant would be the one word I would use to describe her, and she had been a molecular biology graduate student, looking for a place to live in College Station, TX in 1999. Over the phone, she'd talk to potential roommates and landlords and they would be enthusiastic about meeting her. But when they'd see her, the expression would change, the voice would become curt, and they'd say, "sorry, someone else wants the room/apartment." This happened six times, until she learned to say, "Hi, my name is Sharon, and I am African-American..." in her phone introductions, which at least reduced her travel time to visit places to live.

In our own home, my father would sometimes get down on his knees, to show us the way James Brown performed his song "Please, Please, Please" -“Please, please, please, please…please, please…Baby, take my hand. I wanna be your lover man. Oh yeah, good God Almighty, honey please…” I learned what it meant for a man to love a woman from those soul songs. In the vocal range of male R&B singers there has to be the falsetto, the duplication of female vulnerability, the adoration of the beloved. In some fundamental way, in the stylings of black vocalists and the simple lyrics of their songs, all that mattered was having a woman - she could mitigate the rest of the pain caused by the reality of life for a black man. Maybe that's why the pleas of Redding, Brown, Cooke, Charles, and other R&B and soul singers are so much more moving than in any other style of music I've heard. They're back down to basics - nothing in life to look forward to or hold on to but love. The most simple joys of life are all you've got.

My mother's musical interests centered around easy listening, like Johnny Mathis, Nat King Cole, and Julio Iglesias. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard “99 Miles from L.A.” in my life, or how many alternate lyrics my sister and I came up with for Dionne Warwick's "Do You Know the Way to San Jose." My mother got excited over receiving an Anne Murray album. I thought these were appropriate musical selections for a woman who had nearly been a nun, who attends daily Mass, who spends several hours using the Montessori method to teach underprivileged 3 and 4 year olds their letters, numbers, shapes, and colors, and who would then prepare meals or pick up dinner for the homebound, spending extra time at their homes to talk to them, wash their dishes and clothes, and clean their house if necessary.

But these musical preferences weren’t always the case with my mother: get her to talk about herself (a nearly impossible task), and she’ll admit to loving the Commodores, the Beatles - the Temptations’ “Just My Imagination” is her favorite song. So every now and then, when my mother wasn't cleaning up, cooking, or sitting at the kitchen table learning the names that went along with the faces of the kids she taught (and oh, what names), my father could induce her to dance with him for part of a song. He'd call her name, ask her to dance, she'd say she was too busy, but okay, and they'd dance to a song like Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell's "Your Precious Love." My mother would giggle, my father would tease my sister and me with a "don't look!" and we'd listen: "heaven must have sent you from above/oh, heaven must have sent your precious love." (And my parents have been married for nearly 34 years now, so it must work.)

But for female ecstasy when listening to soul singing, oh, that came from my cousin and her devout love/lust for Al Green. My cousin would occasionally babysit us, and she'd put my parents' copy of Al Green's "I'm Still in Love with You" LP on the record player, and moan and sing. She'd fling her head back and sing, "Lay your head...on my pillow...make believe you looove last tiiiime...for the good times." And then salivate over the pictures of Al Green on the album cover. I learned from her that the mere sound of a man's lyrical voice could make a woman leave reason behind.

As I wrote at the beginning of this way too long trip down memory lane, my own favorite was Smokey Robinson. However, my favorite song came from another soul great, the one who objectively, I have to say had the most beautiful, lyrical voice. There's no one like Sam Cooke ("A Change is Gonna Come" has probably sent chills down the spine of anyone who's ever heard it), and no song I love more than "Bring it on Home to Me." With Lou Rawls singing backup vocals, this song is as perfect as can be in conveying the desire for a lost lover, the desire to be the steady force in her life, and her haven. And it's so utterly, heartbreakingly simple, starting off with just a piano and bass.

If you ever change your mind
About leavin', leavin' me behind,
Oh, bring it to me, bring your sweet lovin'
Bring it on home to me.

I know I laughed when you left
But now I know, I only hurt myself
Bring it to me, bring your sweet lovin'
Bring it on home to me.

I'll give you jewelry and money too
That ain't all, that ain't all I'd do for you, (Oh, I'm gonna give you)
Bring it to me, bring your sweet lovin',
Bring it on home to me, yeah, yeah, yeah.

You know I'll always, be your slave
Til I'm buried, buried in my grave,
Oh honey, bring it to me, bring your sweet lovin'
Bring it on home to me, yeah.

Of course, alot of the great R&B and soul singers of days past started off singing in gospel choirs, several were sons/daughters of pastors, and at least two notable ones, Little Richard and Al Green, actually became pastors after huge secular success. And in their music, I think, you can hear the lack of difference between loving in this life and worshipping the Lord. When it works, this is music that demands that every fiber of your being be turned over to love, to the moment, to the music, to the Almighty. It testifies, it praises, it pleads. And I'm thankful for every moment my father unintentionally blasted it in my eardrums, and for seeing him with his eyes closed, sway back and forth to it, with the most peaceful of smiles on his face feeling that music and the joy.

P.S. Here is a review of Al Green's album mentioned above, from 1972:

This is what they are: "I'm Still in Love with You" opens the album with one of Green's more extraordinary vocals. The line, "I'm ... wrapped up in your love," delivered twice, is sung high, almost disappearing at the end of his range, and yet enveloping—the perfect vocal equivalent of being hugged tightly in someone's arms. He stretches the word "heaven" and it shimmers or he dips his voice down low at the end of a line as if to insinuate it into every possible corner of the song. As with most Al Green songs (this one written in collaboration with drummer Al Jackson and producer Willie Mitchell), the lyrics are simple, almost unremarkable and in this case touchingly inarticulate: "Spending my days/thinkin' 'bout you girl./Being here with you/being near with you/Can't explain myself." Throughout, Willie Mitchell's production work is as consistently strong as Green's vocals. It's never trite, never obtrusive—none of those wedges of unrelieved production (something quite different from music) you find driven into so many other albums—and always several steps ahead of being just right. Mitchell provides a texture in his production that is the perfect complement to Green's singing while establishing its own richness but avoids calling attention to itself with those hey-hey-aren't-I-hot touches so many big-time producers love to indulge themselves with.

"Love and Happiness" is about my favorite new cut here (the other previously released cut, aside from the title song, is "Look What You Done for Me," released early last spring)—after a powerful, take-your-time introduction, a very upbeat, horn-punctuated five minutes. The lyrics aren't much, but they have a loose, elliptic quality that allows the song to drift off into all kinds of improvisatory-style things at the end. The following two cuts are lovely, almost too pretty but with a saving edge of emotion. Again, the lyrics are not exceptional but, oh god, who cares with these glowing arrangements and Al Green caressing, stroking, loving the words until they're about to burst. On "What a Wonderful Thing Love Is," he says "I been cryin'" with a feeling that equals Smokey Robinson's "I'm cryin'" in "Ooo Baby Baby." Is there anything finer? "Simply Beautiful" is more vocal exposition, very loose, slightly indulgent but so tenderly sexy it gives you shivers.

Rolling Stone review, Vince Aletti, 1972.

1 comment:

Pseudo-Iamblichus said...

That was really beautiful, AG.

Especially this:

"And in their music, I think, you can hear the lack of difference between loving in this life and worshipping the Lord. When it works, this is music that demands that every fiber of your being be turned over to love, to the moment, to the music, to the Almighty."

I remember my own mother making fresh tortillas on Saturday morning, the radio blaring as she alternated oldies, Motown, and Mexican music. She used to tell us with relish how many of our uncles across the border were musicians, and music formed a great part of our lives growing up.

Perhaps it is both prayer and music that forms us as children, and it is the lack of good music that is perhaps the greatest crisis in modern education. (I think the ancient Greeks used both music and physical exercise as the most fundamental components of basic education.)Having had the privilege of living next door to black churches on a Sunday morning, I also know how much soul the human voice is capable of.

But why say more. What you wrote here was profoundly moving on so many levels.

P.S. I have a rather high, if unsteady, falsetto voice.