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Guest Column: On Celestial Music
By Rick Moody


1. Otis Redding as Purveyor of Celestial Music
                            
Music has soul. We operate as though it does. In fact, music is one of the few areas of human endeavor where the word soul, even among secular types, is liable to go unchallenged. All kinds of music are occasionally imputed to have soul. Even music that doesn’t have anything but volume or a tiresome double-kick drum sound. Ray Coniff, to a listener somewhere, has soul. Who am I to say otherwise? Soul in these cases perhaps indicates earnestness, rhetorical force, and/or vocal polyps. Nevertheless, there are persuasive indications that the word soul does indeed manifest itself in music, and so maybe it’s useful here at the outset to point to a recording that demonstrates why music belongs in any discussion about heaven. So, along these lines, I’m going to describe briefly the mechanics of one example of soul music, namely, a live recording by Otis Redding entitled “Try a Little Tenderness.”

Lyrically speaking, “Try a Little Tenderness” starts as an exhortation to do better at peeling away the layers of defensiveness in a lover, a woman (in this case) who is not only weary, in the general sense, but maybe particularly weary of the traditional role of woman. Her only job at the song’s opening is selflessness. Her condition is more than apparent, for example, in the limpid lyrical perception, “I know she’s waiting, just anticipating, the thing that she’ll never possess.” What to make of this? What exactly is “the thing she’ll never possess”? Is it love? Is it justice, in the prejudicial landscape of the USA in the middle and late sixties? Or, as with the weariness in the first line, is some more general dissatisfaction implied? One thing it’s obvious Otis Redding intends, in his role as purveyor of celestial music: to make us conscious of our human frailty, our lack, our incompleteness. And he does so here not only with the lyrics but with perfect phrasing and with the kind of vulnerability that’s all but absent from music in these troubled times.

Still, this is to avoid mention of the dynamically satisfying freak out at the end of the song. The big ending! If celestial music is the music of the spheres, then the big ending of “Try a Little Tenderness” proves that music here on earth can also be tuned to the interstellar realms, especially when the rhythm section kicks in, and the horns start, and Otis begins his passionate exhortation as to how, exactly, tenderness is meant to be practiced (holding, squeezing, never leaving), and the horns work their way up the scale, likewise the rhythm guitar, chromatically, while Redding commences his soul shouting, and the crowd goes wild, hoping that he’ll play through the chorus just one more time! Yes, try a little tenderness! How could we resist! We have not tried sufficiently! So many areas of our lives remain unexplored! So many virtues seem to lie dormant in us! So much is failure and half-heartedness! Tenderness as opposed to oppressing the poor and disenfranchised, tenderness as opposed to military intervention in foreign countries! Tenderness as opposed to the amassing of money, power, and real estate!

What I mean to say is that this live performance of Otis Redding enacts the attempt at tenderness he promotes, and in this way his song proves itself, proves the validity of soul in music, by exercising the soul, and if you are not convinced by my recitation of these facts, get the Monterey Pop DVD and watch it, because I swear just as you can be absolved of your malfeasances by watching the pope on television, you can be made a better person by watching Otis Redding deliver this song; you will go into the next room, and you will look at your husband, or your wife, or your child, you will look at the people whom you have treated less well than you might have, and you will kneel in front of these people and you will beg for the chance to try a little harder and to make their burdens a little less burdensome. If those five minutes of grace are not an example of what lies out there, beyond what we daily understand, if those five minutes are not like unto a candle that glimmers in the unending darkness of life on earth, then I have no idea what paradise is.



Full article available in Salmagundi No. 153-154.
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