Saturday, February 14, 2009

Tired of Being Alone, Al Green (1971)

"He's a structurally unconventional composer whose lyrics veer savvily between stone-simple romantic vows and tormented reveries on the heaven-and-earth split that infuses and haunts all soul music." - Robert Christgau, liner notes to Al Green Anthology

Whatever your circumstances on Valentine's Day, we can all probably agree that there's no better ambassador for the power of love to ruin you or rock your world than Al Green.

Whichever one he's focused on, he's completely committed to it. This is a guy whose voice is the pulpit from which he testifies. His whole career, he's seesawed between secular and gospel music, and very publicly wrestled with which one of the two he was meant to be doing, but it's all of a piece to me.

That "heaven-and-earth split" that Christgau refers to above - it's just part of the same continuum (listen to Here I Am (Come and Take Me) and tell me where it falls); we get into trouble when we try to compartmentalize. Green has used his remarkable voice and distinctive songwriting talents in many different ways and they've all been legitimate. As he himself said in the Anthology liner notes, "I'm good and bad. I'm right, I'm wrong. I'm light and I'm darkness, I am spiritual and I love to hold my old lady's hand and walk on the beach." Too bad his own father, devoutly religious, kicked him out of the house when he was very young for listening to Jackie Wilson, of all people. It's no wonder he's spent a lifetime being conflicted.

Green's first gold record, Tired of Being Alone, is the product of him finding both his voice and having his desire to write his own songs acknowledged by the man who guided his early career, Memphis bandleader and Hi Records producer Willie Mitchell. Mitchell discovered Green performing in Texas, practically destitute, and convinced him - although not without some coaxing - to come to Memphis where Mitchell was sure he could make him a star.

Green sings in Tired of the alone that you can feel when you're "with" somebody, which can certainly be as dispiriting as having no one at all. But over the years it's proven to be a song that has certain anthemic qualities for people who are lonely in general. When the Hi Rhythm Section starts to kick it in the intro, I have the same cathartic reaction every time. One of these days I intend to get to Full Gospel Tabernacle Church in Memphis to see Reverend Al preach. I know it would be a transforming experience, like so much of his music.

It's not easy to open your heart; I tried it last year for the first time in far too long and felt glad to be doing it. In the end, I got my heart stomped on and I'm none too happy about it. But there's no balm like music. It cures what ails you, and it shall ever be thus.

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