17 August 2005

Raw-skinned and born again.

By Jeff Sharlet

Excerpted from Oxford American’s annual Southern music issue

Let’s look at the facts about Al Green. Or rather, the fact, the biographical detail he does not discuss, the moment around which the whole story turns: around 4 a.m., October 17, 1974, when the last, great, sweet falsetto soul singer of the South eased into a bath after a long night of recording and got a pan of boiling-hot grits poured on him by a spurned lover. The woman who chose grits as her revenge was 29-year-old Mary Woodson, just another notch in a long line of ladies, and not even the one who occupied the greater portion of Al Green’s erotic imagination (that would have been Juanita, a whore he’d proudly pimped to white businessmen), nor the one who troubled him most at the time (that would have been Linda Wells, a former “secretary,” who had charged him that summer of assaulting her with a bottle). In 1974 Al Green had behind him 20 million records sold and five consecutive hits. He had crooned and moaned the soundtrack the previous two years of American romance, with a voice later described as the “lovingest” ever to turn to the tradition of Southern soul.

So? Mary Woodson snuck into his Memphis split-level and found some grits boiling or boiled them herself while he washed and she came up on him just as he was getting out of the tub and dumped the whole pan on his skinny bones, that slinky S of biceps and pects and stomach later pictured on the “Greatest Hits” album beneath his strange, ugly-beautiful mug, the hangdog eyes and the missing chin and the teenage boy’s beard and the earnest, love-me smile so at odds with the seduction of his bare-chested glory. She scalded it all. Shoulders, back, belly. Burning grits probably dripped down into the crack of his ass. He must have bellowed, raw and deep, no falsetto when your skin is sizzling off of you. Mary Woodson had done what she’d come to Memphis do and so she went into the bedroom and retrieved Al Green’s .38, and tried to shoot herself. She missed twice and got lucky the third time. The police found in her purse a note declaring her intentions and her reasons. “The more I trust you,” she’d written, “the more you let me down.”

Pretty much anyone who’s ever heard “Love and Happiness” in a bar or in some cheesy movie or in an elevator knows some basic outline of this story. They know, too, about how Al Green understood the grits and the burns all over his body and the suicide of one of his conquests not so much as a sign that he had sinned, grievously, against a whole lot of females, but rather that God wanted him to raise up a church, which he did, the Full Gospel Tabernacle, in Memphis, which church he then filled with sacred music instead of sex music.

Not such a stretch as it might have seemed; Al Green grew up on gospel, started singing it at age nine in the tiny town of Jacknash, Arkansas, toured with his brothers until as a teenager he discovered Jackie Wilson, and his father discovered that he’d discovered Jackie Wilson, and kicked him out of the combo for listening to music that did not honor the Lord. A man inclined to read worldly events as divine portents might look at that expulsion from Godly music, into what became a spectacularly successful career of singing about fucking and loving and staying together and making it simmer a long time, as fated.

Al Green did not. Even as success thickened around him he lived a life of the blues and sang soul and somewhere deep in his heart, or in the back of his mind, or maybe down there in his crotch, saved up some piece of himself for his return to the gospel.

In greater or lesser detail, every Al Green fan knows this legend. They probably know, too, that Al Green is what is called, on therapeutic television, a “survivor.” Consider his peers: Sam Cooke, shot to death by a motel clerk in 1964 after he’d barged into her office, half naked, searching for the girl he may or may not have raped minutes before; Marvin Gaye, shot to death at age 41 by his own father on April Fool’s day, 1984; Otis Redding and his band gone down in a plane; the long, awful dwindling of Curtis Mayfield. Michael Jackson, who bears mentioning in the company of Al Green for the sake of his falsetto, has his own damn problems.

But Al Green — the Reverend Al Green — he survived. Everything, in fact, has worked out just splendidly. He lives modestly, in both the spiritual and sexual sense, in a house behind his church, which stands at 787 Reverend Al Green Road, just off Elvis Presley Boulevard. He still dances. “He wears out Bibles like he does shoes,” one of his flock told a Memphis stringer for the A.P., on the occasion of his silver anniversary in the pulpit. After eight years in the gospel desert, his back turned on his hits, God has even given him leave to sing his early, sexy songs again. Al Green has lived to see himself ossified in Cleveland’s Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame, to cameo on Ally McBeal, to duet with Lyle Lovett. Starbucks canonization cannot be long in coming.

This is all as it should be, the artist as a comfortable older man. Maybe the best thing that ever happened to Al Green’s career was that panful of boiling grits that burned him. The story has become a folktale. The grits are Al Green’s crossroads, only instead of selling his soul to the devil, he gave his to God. Al Green did not gain knowledge of the world and its weaknesses, he abandoned it, left it behind when he checked out of the hospital, raw-skinned and born-again.

There’s a style of country singing known as “high lonesome,” innocent and broken and sad, like that of a wounded child. It’s contrived, of course. The high lonesome singer, in fact, must be a mature artist in full control. He must fully possess his song before he exposes the pain that afflicts him.

Al Green has recorded a few country tunes, but he was never a high-lonesome man. And yet his voice worked the same vulnerability, that stance of innocence, of a singer powerless before the intense emotion of his song. We might name it “high tenderness.”

High tenderness is just as sweetly desolate as high lonesome. A falsetto, after all, is artificial, not from the heart but from the throat. It belongs naturally to neither man nor woman; it’s a homeless sound, and yet it promises to take us back home, to some place that is real, to a feeling so intense it can’t be expressed with an ordinary tenor or a soprano. Falsettos are true and false at the same time.

For instance: The man who in 1974 sang “Let’s Stay Together” could not. The man who was “Tired of Being Alone” never had been. He sang not from experience but from ambition. The “artifice” of falsetto, writes scholar Anne-Lise Francois, “is inseparable from a presumption to heights, a reaching beyond one’s natural limits — call it transcendence.”

Here’s a high tender story. Some years ago, I shared a house with a man I’ll call Bruce, a tightly wound North Carolinian with the body of a jockey and the face of a leprechaun, cloudy blue eyes above high cheekbones and lips like someone had tied a bow of red ribbon. He was a beautiful man, indifferent to the effect he had on women. We lived together in a houseful of men; Bruce said he simply preferred their company. “Guys,” he’s say, “are just more… competent.” There was this little joke Bruce liked to play. When a guy who was showering closed his eyes Bruce would strip down in a flash and pad quietly up to him and stand as close as he could without touching. Then, when the victim opened his eyes and jumped, Bruce would stand perfectly still, his voice soft and reasonable. “Sorry, brother,” he’d say. “Just wanted to freak you out.”

Bruce wasn’t gay. He wasn’t, technically, anything. He was 25, but he was a virgin; it was a religious thing. He had kissed a girl once and the experience had not moved his heart like Jesus did, every day. He asked me once what sex with a woman was like, “emotionally,” but before I could even think of how to answer, he silenced me. Sex for him was like a falsetto, beautiful and pure and non-existent in the natural order of things. It was like the story of Robert Johnson at the crossroads, Al Green burned and born again. A myth, elusive and sweet. Bruce didn’t need to sully it with details for it to be true.

One day we got to discussing Al Green, and I mentioned that I’d seen Al Green perform, up in Massachusetts. This bothered Bruce. He was a Southerner, and I was not, and he did not like this news of Yankee privilege. Also, he was certain I considered him racist, because that’s what he believed all New Yorkers thought about all North Carolinians.

As it happened, I did think that about Bruce, ever since he’d gently made the case for the Stars and Bars as a symbol of his heritage. Still, Bruce wanted me to know that as a Southern white man, he was blacker than me. There was, he said, an “Alabama blacksnake” in his pants. He was not just black, he was a black man, and I was nothing but a white boy. “Agreed,” I said, hoping to calm him. I told him Casper the Friendly Ghost was blacker than me. Bruce could not be deterred. He left the room and returned with a box and put in a CD and cranked up “Here I Am (Come and Take Me),” and he started not so much to dance as to groove. His hands balled into fists, his sapphire eyes crinkled. He began singing, a honey falsetto just like the reverend’s, “Here I a-a-m…” He heard me laughing, applauding, but he didn’t stop. I don’t think he could’ve. He grabbed his crotch and shook his head like a rag, going deeper and deeper into Green. Then he froze, dropped back to his ordinary voice as if he was narrating. “I used to work in this pizza parlor,” he said. “We had a poster of Al Green. He was, he was, man! Shirtless, leather pants. Low leather pants.” Bruce tugged his waistband down. “Hips cocked,” Bruce said, and shook his head and howled, slid across the floor and grabbed my waist and held me so tight I could feel his pulse beating. Then he moonwalked away and snapped his knees together with his feet spread wide, hands in the air, testifying, baring his torso.

It wasn’t real, and it was thick with the blues of a misplaced exoticism, and a lust so lost and confused that it had got stuck on a soul song three decades old, worn as some kind of identity, black and white, maybe man and woman, used and spurned and virgin, the high tender gospel of one Southern white boy, true and false, innocent, broken and sad.

Jeff Sharlet is editor of The Revealer and co-author of Killing the Buddha.