#290: Al Green, "Call Me" (1973)

So I’m reading John Landau’s 1973 Rolling Stone review of Call Me, and he starts going on about how Al Green’s voice is like some untamed, wily thing threatening to break loose:

Because the singer disdains most forms of discipline, preferring to let his voice wander into every nook and cranny of the modest melodies he writes, turning phrases inside out, and wreaking havoc with the vocal structure in general, he requires the leveling force of a steady band playing tight, clean arrangements.

With all due respect to Landau as a critic and to all of his work with The Boss, I can’t figure out what the hell this cat is talking about. Al’s voice is a lot of thingswarm, comforting, profoundly soulfulbut undisciplined? And what does he mean by “wreaking havoc”? What sacred structure did Al’s ever-so-sweet falsetto render unto ruin? When did the gentle timbre of his precise annunciation ever descend into chaos and desolation? Mr. Landau, you ain’t never heard nothing like havoc on an Al Green record. Nah man. You must’ve gotten him mixed up with somebody else.

Near as I can tell, Al, Willie, and the rest of the boys just figured out that good soul music doesn’t always need to swelter. Sometimes you can just let the groove simmer low and slow, like the way the organ slides in on that first verse of “Call Me”like a lover sliding into bed and grabbing you tight around the belly. And when Al hits that note about two and half minutes in, then lets it just fade away like a sunset….That ain’t nobody’s havoc; that’s some Grandmaster-level soul shit right there.

I think this Landau cat doesn’t really understand how folks listen to Al Green. See, when I need that cry-my-heart-out-longing-for-my-woman-sound, I put that Otis on. When I got that funny feeling, you know, something almost like a hopeful kind of heartache, I reach for that Sam Cooke. When I need to get these tears out, Donny Hathaway makes the song cry. And Marvin, well you know Marvin. That man could sing the secrets right out of your soul. But I always felt like Al had this other thing going on, kind of quiet, kind of like grace. Yeah, grace. Grace like the drink at last call before you go back out into the lonely cold of a winter’s night, or grace like mama and daddy dancing close in the middle of the kitchen on Saturday morning while the eggs and toast burn. That’s what I hear when I put on Call Me: someone singing like he knows how badly we need grace just to get through the day.

Landau wasn’t all wrong, though. Al does crawl all up inside those melodies, bending the pitch to his will and finding ways to make even the simplest sentiments feel newly rich. “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” should be the corniest song ever, but he takes that whole sad Hank Williams affair and turns it into an eloquent lament we can feel in our bones. But that was always one of his greatest gifts: he could take a line that would collapse in on itself if sung by anybody else and make it sound like the truest words someone ever spoke. I guess what I’m trying to say is that when Al sings, I always believe him. I believe he means every note. I believe he wants to make us believe too. And I could be wrong, but it seems like we still all desperately need to believeas much as we did in 1973that we can be healed.

It’s been harder to write this than I expected. Not because Call Me has lost any of its compassionate gracefulness with age, but because it’s been hard to reconcile the record’s care and restraint with all the rage steadily surrounding us. I’ve had trouble trying to hear its subtlety over so much shouting, so much weeping, and so many bullets. I want to say something hopeful like “Love always speaks louder than fear or hate,” but there are too many bodies in the street for me to really believe that. As good a record as Call Me is, it cannot breathe life into the dead. What it can do is remind us of how good real and true togetherness feels. It can give us just enough healing to go face the horror again tomorrow. For at least a little while, it can remind us that things can be different if we want them to be.

I can’t speak for anyone else, but for all the supposed connectedness we have at our fingertips, it often feels as if I’ve never been more alone. A text is not a hug. A “like” is not love. Tweets, Facebook status updates, Instagram posts, and Snapchats are not intimacy no matter how magical their mimicry of it. So as much as I appreciate your reading this, here’s what we ought to do instead: Call on me and I will call on you. Let us drink and dance together in the middle of the kitchen like mama and daddy did. Even if they didn’t, even if that image is as much a fantasy as our online, make-believe selves, let us move our hips and shake our asses until we make it so. Let us drink from each other like it’s last call and there’s a storm outsidebecause there is. Let all of that wrath be swallowed in the embrace of warm, wet lips. Let us sit, breathe each other in real deep, and whisper Al’s incantation: “Here I Am (Come and Take Me).”

—Mikal Gaines