Thursday, June 08, 2006

The Ultimate Reckoning Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” may be the greatest reckoning song of all. Hell, it may be the greatest rock record period.

Producers Jerry Wexler and Arif Mardin, engineer Tom Dowd, the Franklin sisters and that terrific team of Muscle Shoals musicians, particularly bass player Tommy Cogbill, manage to pack those 2:26 seconds with so much energy that it’s hard to imagine it could possibly go on a second longer. On the other hand, I played the record about 20 times today, and I could have gone for 20 more listens without beginning to tire of it. In fact, somewhere around the 7th listen, the record seized me by the throat, and I was overcome with emotion.

I’m not sure what moment it was, but I suspect it was one of those two moments when Franklin’s voice breaks a little. (I would say she almost whimpers, but when a voice sounds as strong as this one—words like sigh or whimper or swoon don’t really come into play.) It’s probably the first time, right after she sings, “I’m about to give you all of my money,” and the wordless cry that follows suggests every bit of risk she is taking in the process. Past ghosts, a sense of helplessness, the possibility of madness and the uncertainty of the future all haunt that line. What she wants, what she needs—just like the lover she’s confronting—demands that she risks losing herself completely in order to find the one thing she needs, respect.

The other place where her voice breaks is after recalling those kisses “sweeter than honey,” making it clear that sexual passion calls for that risk as well. After all, calling for respect, Franklin’s demanding a quality of love, and that comes with all the good stuff, which is why those cries to “whip it to me” and “sock it to me” sound so deliciously erotic.

But, ultimately, the reason I think all of these elements make “Respect” perhaps the most important record of the rock era has everything to do with what’s political in the personal. Respect means, ultimately, to take another look, to more closely consider the wants and needs of another and her point of view. That’s what I think rock and soul, at their greatest, always aim for, a reckoning with other points of view. And when we truly lose ourselves in a song, which “Respect” all but demands that we do, we find ourselves strengthened by the process. Maybe that’s why Aretha Franklin’s voice sounds as strong as any other voice I’ve ever heard here, in the face of all those fears. She’s hit on the kind of love that’s really all we need—the kind that hears the voice that typically goes unheard and joins in.

(photo by Dave Ransom, from the June edition of People's Tribune--see links)