Monday, August 20, 2018

Aretha Franklin

I have always needed music.  It's the way I'm wired.  I can put up with a lot of grief and trouble, but if I don't have good music I can go to, things will get bad.

It's the usual bullshit...depression, ADHD, PTSD, a whole bunch of other things that come and go like special features.

I genuinely do want to live more than I want to die.  Sometimes, though, no reason, despair just sinks its claws into my head.  But if I can get to my music and play something, it'll give me a few moments of being out of myself and away from the shit.  I don't know why.  I can honestly say that I owe my life to certain songs.

 But this isn't about that.  This is about love.  This is about what another person would call grace, or spirit.  This is about Aretha Franklin

When I was seven years old I was shopping with my mother in a temporary Mexican imports store on 2nd Avenue, downtown Portland Oregon, the first time I ever heard 'Respect' sung by Aretha Franklin.

At that age I was a true blue Beatles fan, with Jethro Tull just over the horizon.  Just a little kid.  I never went though an Osmonds phase, or a David Cassidy stage, although I enjoyed a few years' happy relationship with the works of Messrs. Taupin and Dwight around puberty, for which I can be reasonably forgiven.

I remember standing there in the middle of the store, among the sheet plywood tables covered with pottery and lamps and dolls and ollas.  Large and open, the room was high ceilinged  to draw up the heat, so near the Willamette river that there was bar of granite across the threshold that you stepped up and then over and down into the store, being too close to the river not to use a precaution like that to block the floodwater in a town that posted the high water marks in bronze on the buildings.

The old transom-style row windows were open, lined overhead atop the storefront glass, and they let out the stale heat while the open doorway let in the deeply river rank, river-scented air, and the two front doors were held open with  cinder blocks.

My mother went methodically up and down the rows at a slow measured stroll, shopping and weighing and occasionally examining without breaking the saunter.  Somewhere in Heaven yet she is not paying retail, but taking a mental balance of the items on offer and placing them in strict order linked by a whole web of subsets, blissful and acquisitive.

Me, I was listening to the music. Uninterested in the objects, wandering.

It was the station that only reached as far as the rough  boundaries of the city of Roses, at an obscure place on the radio dial.  I don't remember the call numbers.  I do remember that the station always put out music that grabbed my ear.  You never heard it anywhere else, the really good music like this.  The station played all the music that was out there and new.  It was the only one that did, and that was a damned shame.   Us out in the woods only heard Casey Kasems' Top 40 Hits once a week.  Our only contemporary station was KISN.  "97.1 Good Guy Territory On Your Dial!"   Beatles and Beach Boys?  Sure.

 Blue Cheer? Humble Pie?

Listen.  Far away.  You can hear the crickets chirp.

But wait.  I am standing here and I am seven, listening to this music for the first time. Stock still.

I already liked the swoops and leaps of the gospel convention, all the improvised runs of inserted notes between the spaces of the melody, with the instruments, and the time signatures that were divided into precise fractions, but free like wings, that voice singing.

The radio station was playing. I drifted away.

This woman singing had a different voice than the other gospel singers I'd heard late or early on Sunday  t.v.  Their voices were rich and heartfelt, full of style and ornament and velvet, but they were singing about.

Not because.

What I was hearing in this moment was a declaration, not a story.

This was an adult woman, singing as an adult woman about being an adult woman.

The little Catholic girl stopped short.  I'm laughing thinking about that moment.

I recognized her voice; she'd already been on television.  I'd probably even heard the song before.  But minus distractions, I was hearing Aretha Franklin.  Full on.   And telling you.

 I knew it was like gospel, but with a wake-up slank beat walking toward you like a gunfighter.

 This stuff I was hearing now talked with the woman in me.

The song Ms. Franklin was singing was "Respect".

I starving needed this song like food in me.

That summer day all the stores near the waterfront had their doors open, the old glass storefronts, survivors of the earliest days, shining tall fronts made of sheet rolled glass and still intact, filling all the muntins, facing east and turning the interiors into ovens as the sun passed just above the buildings of the further side.  Rents were low on a east-facing storefront in Oregon.

I meandered up near the wide open doors.  It was one of those old fashioned inset doorways, so you could get a front and a side view of the items  being displayed before you entered, which I thought was kind of touching, like asking 'Are you sure? Take another look, now...' and then you might or might not put your hand on the door handle, cast in bronze or brass acanthus or kilned porcelain stamped with advertising.

I stepped juuuuust a bit outside.

All the stores were playing the same station and all the doors and windows were open.

Her voice was there.  All up and down 2nd Street nearly bare of other people because of the sun and the light, the same song was inside and outside on the still August air, in the humidity, one solid sound from College Hill, down along past the river and on through the wrecking yards and factories off Nickerson Avenue, going north.

Aretha was singing "Respect".  I glanced back at my mother - she was oblivious - and then looked right back away.  Ignore the kid, mom, keep shopping.

But I was blushing! I was blushing!  I had boy cousins!  And there were boys in the neighborhood, and I went to school in the blue collar/logger/stock car suburbs and I knew what this lady was singing about, and I'd never heard any one, any woman, say or think or -  hell no! - sing words like this!

I could not believe this was even on the radio! How on earth did this go out over those airways back then?

And it was catchy, and happy, and it had a laughing kind of confrontation in the tone like a protest song.  But not a grim shrill one.  It was a statement. Who I am, what I want, and what I expect.

And this woman wanted to be done right by.

At seven I already had a feel for the language and the ways it was used. I'd been reading fluently for three years.  I was fascinated by the many different meanings of one word, and I was already good friends with the Websters' Dictionary,  and how words could disguise meanings, and how lies could mean truth, and humor disguise rage, and aphorisms made of acceptable words display their rebel meaning right out in the open, flying like a huge flag, but in a way that the timid could hide behind.

Back in 1967, not very many people in Portland, Oregon, were going to admit to being anything but agreeable. But that was the same year back in Portland that all that bullshit  began to change for good, in flames.

I got all the 'code' and the euphemisms.  I mean please, let's be obvious.  Nothing in her tone said anything but what I heard.  She was using tried and true allusions I'd already heard in rock music and blues and even country music.  And oh, her amazing, laughing attitude was stripping away all doubt.

It was so excellent.  It was so cool!  I had to hide my reaction to it, though, and the fact that I was listening.

I mentioned earlier here that I'd seen her on the television.  I knew she was a pretty lady with big wigs and false eyelashes and sheath dresses with sequins who sang as a one-act on the variety shows my parents liked.  She was always dressed like a formal lady, with high heels and her hair and makeup done up to go to a party, like that, and she looked like all the moms I knew in their clothes style from the last decade there.

But that voice.
And those words.
And what she said.

There was no way I was going to glance at the owner and his buddy, way over at the cash register. I didn't want them to see me know what this song was about.

I know.  Here I'm telling you about my feelings and all the things I saw and felt and the sounds,  that all happened in the space of a 2:29 time frame back in 1967.

I stepped out just past the entry alcove and onto the sidewalk.  I  heard her voice all around me, that beautiful soaring swallows' dive and glide of notes around the melody, all that huge beautifulness filling the street on a hot afternoon in August, down near the river.  I could smell the hot pavement and the dank exhalations from the iron grids that vented the secret underground part of 2nd Avenue, the humidity like a full elevator, and Aretha Franklin was telling you that she would have respect.

She was telling a man what was going to happen.   When, how,  and what she meant when she said "respect".  Try me and you'll find out in no uncertain terms what 'Respect' means to me. Oh, it meant respect. But it was a word with lots of meanings;  not the kind of talk that nice people admitted they understood, and ever since,  people tried to keep that smashed in a box labelled 'Feminist Anthem' and 'Civil Rights'.

Oh yes indeed, it meant those things too, but it meant more. It stood on top of that stuff and stated the facts of the matter.

She tore open the skies, so unimaginably regal that nobody could see her or understand that she wasn't asking for a damn thing.

She was stating her due.

I didn't have any idea what I was hearing was called Soul.

Aretha Franklin told me what a grown woman was about.

I am not normal.  People don't like that. They sure in hell didn't like the way I did it or the fact that I was so little and little children are not mentally ill, they're being bad. It was like that in 1967.

You can be killed by an attitude.  You can be killed by an opinion.

When you were young and mentally ill and sickly with asthma like I was, well, your death is expected, or it was in those days, and I wasn't supposed to know that all the adult people around me were waiting for me to choke out while they denied to my face that anything was wrong with me but being spoiled and pretending to be sick.  I knew words and I could hear lies.  I learned real young who was afraid I was going to die, and who wanted me to get it over with so they could have their lives back.

But me.  I had this one strong, strong retort planted in me in 1967, on an afternoon with my mother, killing time until our bus came, wasting these two guys' time in this case-lot temporary store.

Aretha Franklin, I thought.  I wondered why is only this one lady singing like this?

It made me look for the answer.  I wanted to know the answer to this question, because it was so stark, you see?  That song was so in opposition to something that I didn't realize needed to be opposed until that nascent epiphany, out listening to her sing in the empty street and out up past the buildings in the sky.  I, said this song,  have a human life, and I am going to live a whole human life in full voice and ignore your approval  because I don't need it.

That couple of minutes and a few seconds changed me. The very first time that ever happened.  I didn't know how to contain it and I was quiet for hours afterward. 

 But I was pointed in the right direction. I looked for more music like that, and I had to stay up until 2:am to hear it, when the other stations went off the air.

Time went by and I started in and did what I wanted, what I was not supposed to do or be, and I drowned out your neglect and and dislike and antipathy and approval with my interests and the things I chose to read and hear and say that made me feel valuable and important and smart.  I was a hitch in your plan, I was a barrier to your will, I was a thorn in your side;  and you won't make me die  even though you will refuse to take me to the doctors and you will call me a stark liar despite the obvious, and I'll not only live, I'll make you feed me and house me and educate me and clothe me for the next eleven motherfucking years and you'll take it and like it or not, but you goddamn well will do it.

So many things are out there that can get inside you, overwhelming things that can turn you, words and sights that make you into different shapes when you are a little kid.  The whole world is vivid almost to the point of terror.  Often to the point of terror if I'm going to tell you the truth about my life, because of the way I am and the way I was.

 I had no way of not being influenced by something that strong.  It was the first time I'd ever heard a woman singing being an adult, and this was Aretha, and Aretha was an empress.  I had never, ever heard anything like this song, this woman, that way of thinking about yourself and being a woman.

There are not enough wonderful things I can offer you or try to say about you in a way that will look and read as magnificently and as miraculously and as deeply as the impression that your song and your voice had on me in that short time.  I am not anywhere near up to that task. I said this, though, and it's true.

I love you, Aretha.


  1. Wow. Incredible and real and raw. (Remember, I WAS an editor). I'm astounded by your descriptive,the detail, the huge emotion, yes, the R-E-S-P-E-C-T. The painting of your memories of those days in Portland. Have you had training in writing? Sensational. I rarely, if ever, monitor my Gmail account. Please just FB message me, if you want, with your thoughts or with others' thoughts.

  2. Nothing more needs to be said. xxx