Monday, 21 September 2009

Otis REDDING: The Dock Of The Bay


(#56: 22 June 1968, 1 week)

Track listing: (Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay/I Love You More Than Words Can Say/Let Me Come On Home/Open The Door/Don’t Mess With Cupid/The Glory Of Love/I’m Coming Home To See About You/Tramp/The Huckle-Buck/Nobody Knows You (When You’re Down And Out)/Ole Man Trouble

Note how we have gradually crept out of dark rooms and into open spaces. Still, “this loneliness won’t leave me alone.” Andy Williams led us towards the sea and the sky and we are still here; the waves, the gulls, no evidence of human beings. Gently, an acoustic guitar and wave-like bass enter, paying regretfully ironic homage to Scott McKenzie’s “San Francisco.” Then rippling piano and carefully wandering electric guitar provide a meagre cushion for the voice of the worried man who realises that there are no further frontiers to broach, that he has reached his limit, or belatedly recognised his limits. His voice is resigned just beyond the point of terminal desperation; he has reached the other side of nothingness and realises that not only has he brought himself to this limbo but that he might even be secretly and perfectly content with it. He did have a home – “I left my home in Georgia” – but has wound up in San Francisco by his own hand (“Listen! Two thousand miles I roamed, just to make this dock my home. Now I’m just gonna sit…,” arms folded, brow defiant). This is what he wanted, this pioneer without a particular aim; his indrawn tautologies (“Looks like nothin’s gonna change/Everything still remains the same”) are worthy of Beckett and the song’s key line – “I can’t do what ten people tell me to do” – is as elusively personal as the business with the light out in “With A Little Help From My Friends.” Finally, and contentedly, he turns his lament into a whistle, merging with the coastal tugboats, vanishing into the pacific Pacific. He could be anybody or nobody, and his lone nothingness is as anonymous and satisfied as that of a ghostly Larkin, haunting the quays of Hull. But whereas Larkin “feel(s) like a child/And can understand(s) nothing,” this dock dweller feels old and understands everything. It is a fitting elegy for this tale’s first posthumous entry.

For the rest of the record the singer attempts to understand how and why he has reached this terminus, or even if he doesn’t, we can piece together some important clues from the evidence he has left behind. The Dock Of The Bay is not the album Otis Redding would have made had he lived, and we will never know what or how that would have sounded like. Instead the record, necessarily cobbled together at the eleventh hour, represents an alternative history of Redding’s work, gathering up some non-album A and B sides, a few previously unreleased or obscure tracks and a couple of concluding pointers back to the early days. Of its eleven tracks it is likely that only “Open The Door,” recorded in the spring of 1967, would have made it through to the desired album, and this track too indicates how anxious Redding was to change, not just the way soul music was perceived in the non-black, non-American world, but also the way it sounded; “Dock Of The Bay” was composed after Redding had heard Sgt Pepper, sitting in a hired houseboat, waiting to play the Fillmore West. He viewed his mission as carrying on what Sam Cooke started, but where Cooke left the open, cunning embrace of “A Change Is Gonna Come,” Redding’s reflective nature was still apt to turn into rage and pity, usually at the same time. “Open The Door” begins gently with his characteristic Macon talkover – “I’ve been wrong so many times!” – but gradually picks up speed as Redding, standing frustrated at her door, alternately pleads and demands to be let in. “Let me in!” he cries four times, underlined by Al Jackson’s rueful rat-a-tat rimshots before exploding into a pained “Let me EEEEEEEEN!!” He growls (“…or I’ll BUST it in!”) but it’s all bravado, and the woman on the other side of the door knows it. “This runnin’ around is sho’ nuff KILLIN’ me!” he roars, as Jackson’s floor tom/cymbal combination crash behind him like suitcases being flung out of the first floor bedroom window. “PLEASE! PLEASE!” he screams. “Mama! MAMA!!” (four years before Lennon’s “Mother”) “I can’t stand this cold…” Less than a decade later, McCartney would politely ask “Open the door and let ‘em in,” but this is an urgency which transcends its wronged man imprint.

It would be a mistake, however, to think of Redding’s pounding, howling and bluffing as irretrievably macho, as unfortunately too many of his disciples have done; Otis’ thing was niceness, no matter how mad or hungry he got in his songs. At Monterey he welcomed and encouraged the “Love crowd” and his generosity and vulnerability are rarely hidden in his music. “I Love You More Than Words Can Say,” also from the spring of 1967, is one of his great ballad performances and does more than Barthes in terms of emotions exceeding articulacy. The pace is slow; there are distant strings, closer horns, a comforting paramour of a guitar from Steve Cropper. There is also the faint feeling of a relaxed Hendrix, and Redding’s voice is as dynamic and persuasive an instrument as Jimi’s guitar ever was. “Be-siyiyiyiyiyide you,” he sings a year ahead of Van Morrison’s “Beside You.” “Call it a dayyy-ay-ay-ay” he muses. The musing leads to sobs – “Why can’t you understand? You got me in your hands” – and the voice climaxes with an astonishing foray: “MORE! WORDS! SAY! YEAH!” echoed by a sadly descending three-note horn line. Cropper bookends the performance with curlicues of kissing guitar, provoking an unfinished moan from Redding at track’s end.

“Let Me Come On Home” – yet another song concerned with “home” – rides on a reveille tambourine. But Redding’s “Girl!” sounds exhausted, his “never leave!” and “apart!” mumbles rough, sorrowful. Cropper’s guitar work here is remarkable, his solo echoing, of all people, George Harrison (although stylistically we should remember that Cropper cut his teeth working in Albert King’s band). Indeed, bearing in mind Redding’s previous reading of “Day Tripper,” the track sounds extremely close to a Beatles song; it may well be that by 1967 the Stax/Beatles influence (as it already was with Motown) was two-way.

The important difference between the Stax and Motown ways of working is of course that between building spontaneously upon improvisation and meticulous planning; the Four Tops and Supremes’ woes and triumphs are real but thoroughly choreographed (which, it has to be repeatedly underlined in pop terms, is in and of itself no bad thing). But listening to Otis one is constantly reminded of the organic nature of his songs; typically building from extended jams in the studio – the Stax studio, let us remember, barely larger and possibly smaller than the room in which I am currently writing this piece – a riff or a chant would be chanced upon and the song would be constructed there and then. Redding’s reading of the doo wop stalwart “The Glory Of Love,” for instance, demonstrates how well Otis and the Stax house band worked together to construct a track; it begins with a headshaking congress of horns before the temperature and camera are lowered to encompass just voice, piano and guitar. Redding’s “y’all know what I’m talking about” is prematurely exasperated. Jackson never rises above the tick-tock clock of his rimshots. The horns then re-enter to function as a kind of expanded rhythm section, joined by Duck Dunn’s bass. The track gradually builds up before our ears; the horns become harmonically adventurous towards the end, and Redding rides along on a pointed fork of self-doubt (“God help my soul!” almost sounds like “God help my socks!”).

1966’s “Don’t Mess With Cupid” – another nod in Sam Cooke’s direction – shares with “Open The Door” the singer’s overpowering need for his audience to understand the meaning of these songs, rather than simply listening to them; he is compelled to hammer home (since this record is all about going or fleeing home) the message he is trying to communicate, and it can’t necessarily be communicated through means of words alone. “Cupid” starts off with a stinging Cropper guitar intro, followed by a hard stomp of a midtempo groove, over which Redding strains his upper register. “Cupid is NOT stupid!” “No, no, no!” He gets so passionate that he goes off-mike, letting the Memphis Horns carry the song’s main weight. He HAS to make us see.

“I’m Coming Home” is a phenomenal performance even by Redding’s own standards; starting off with, of all things, a “Louie Louie” intro, we shudder straight into the song’s central pain. “Got to see my baby, she’s my one desire,” Redding roars as drums, horns and bass emphasise his internal tachycardia. With “Otis is coming home” he becomes the first subject of this tale to mention himself by name (Diana Ross namechecked Mary and Flo, as you may recall, but not herself). The ascending grin of a horn line on the chorus’ “see about you” is almost a step back to the pop Sam Cooke of 1962 or thereabouts but again the song spontaneously combusts, like some combination of Krook and Pharaoh Sanders; Redding breaks his own banks, overflows bar lines with his “I got to, got to get home” atomising into indecipherable but entirely comprehensible emotional wreckage over a curiously unresolved D major seventh; behind him the MGs appear to be playing “Hush little baby, don’t you cry” to themselves as the horns get higher and higher (especially Wayne Jackson’s octave-vaulting lead trumpet) and the singer finally exceeds himself, takes off into flight.

“Tramp,” the famous duet with Carla Thomas (and eventually the base for the invention of Salt-n-Pepa), represents the only moment on the record where we actually hear from the woman whom Redding is desperately trying to reach, or regain, and she is dismissive. It’s all done as high comedy, Carla as outraged as the maid in Tom And Jerry at his Georgian ways (“You look COUNTRY!”), dissing his overalls, his non-haircut, his lack of prospects, to which an outraged Otis responds in alternate bafflement (his multiphonic, Cosby-anticipating “WHAAAAAT?”) and arousal (the subsequent “OOOOOOOHH…”), protesting that she’s got it wrong; both he and she know, as do we, that he doesn’t have any of those cars, but the bullshitting is somehow righteous. The horns blow raspberries at poor Otis throughout, and all Carla can do at the end is laugh at him (or, secretly, with him). She says he can’t buy her minks; he protests she should come with him to the swamp and catch her own (along with rats and squirrels). Sexy as hell, but here too is the seed of the worried man’s own doom; he will finally be rejected, and end up drifting like driftwood towards the terminal beach of ‘Frisco.

Before we reach catharsis, however, there’s a lusty version of the old R&B warhorse “The Huckle-Buck” to sprint through, drawn from an obscure Stax compilation album entitled Stay In School. Indeed Redding’s is not so much a version of the song as an improvisation on it. Booker T’s piano provides the intro, then saxes and trumpet engage in some enjoyable call-and-response bits of business. But Otis is already way out there, dreaming of “California!” and “Detroit CITY!” and even “20 GRAND!!” Eventually he remembers what song he is supposed to be covering and utters “Hucklebuck y’all!” only to be clipped on the ear by Jackson’s admonitory snare. He charges through Chicago – “the Windy City, they call it!” – and we realise that this is Otis doing James Brown (specifically “Night Train”) or at least drawing some important lines between the Roy Brown who originally did the Hucklebuck and JB himself. He barks six straight bullets of “Buck!” followed by a stammering “Bu-bu-BUCK!” before his yells become abstract, ungrounded.

We then reach back to 1966 again, and to “Nobody Knows You,” the most explicit Cooke tribute here (although of course Redding covered several Cooke tunes, including a ferocious “A Change Is Gonna Come,” on Otis Blue). Cropper’s shivery guitar anticipates Hendrix quite dramatically against the slow horns in the out-of-tempo intro – and “Dock Of The Bay” could even be Redding’s own “1983: A Merman I Should Turn To Be” since Electric Ladyland was likewise all about trying to get back home (“Crosstown Traffic”) or evolving into something or someone else (“Voodoo Chile”) – as Otis enters, crying about “people spendin’ my money,” again needing us to palpate the fabric of his pain (though Booker T’s deadpan piano is as pitiless as the singer’s fair-weather friends), hissing out the Es in “EEEEEEEvil grin” like a wounded snake. Redding grumbles, then ruefully chuckles. “What I’m tryin’ to tell everybody” he emphasises, reaching his Ciceronian rhetorical climax of “NOBODY wants, NOBODY NEEDS you!” over hammering drums, finally bursting into an incendiary rage as frightening as anything that come out of Archie Shepp’s tenor over this period. Covered four years later by a terminally depressed, chronically alcoholic Clapton for Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs, the guitarist wisely opted for shoulder-shrugging Bowery Flanagan and Allen amiable weariness and hopelessness.

Finally, a return to the source of his pain, and to 1965: “Ole Man Trouble,” the opening track of Otis Blue, Cropper again exceptional, his reggae-like knock-knock guitar intro again blossoming into something which Hendrix would eventually expand. The trouble, we learn anew, has been with the singer from the beginning; his moans of “trouble, stay away from me” are more in keeping with country music (and especially the contemporaneous work of George Jones) than what would eventually be recognised as “Southern soul” – but then, as the split second of pedal steel which intrudes into the centre of James Carr’s “Tell Me” reminds us, the two were never far apart. It was apt that the sleevenote for The Dock Of The Bay was penned by the young Jon Landau, since like Springsteen, Redding always painted himself in his songs as the wounded outsider, the rootless wanderer. And yet his art could not have been more open or wider-reaching; he sought to make soul music acceptable all around the world, and given what contemporaries such as Curtis Mayfield and Bobby Womack went on to do in the seventies and beyond – not to mention the pianist on “Dock Of The Bay” itself, one Isaac Hayes - there is no reason to believe that he would not have changed the music’s fabric as radically (not to mention the belated happy ending De La Soul would give this lonely whistler by means of Donald Fagen - "I know I love you better!"). Fate, however, compels him to remain the same, forever the not quite distinguishable figure far out on the jetty, but making no mistake that he is something more than nothing.

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