Al Young’s Musical Memoirs

June 4th, 2008

Excerpt

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'Drowning in the Sea of Love'from “Body and Soul”:
When the record came out, saxophonists all over the world, hearing it and sensing that things would never be the same, started woodshedding Hawkins’s impassioned licks in their closets and on the stand. Why’d he have to go and do that? Of course, everybody fell in love with it. My father would play it, take it off, play something else, then put it back on. This went on for years. What was he listening for? What were we listening to? What did it mean? What were all those funny, throaty squawks and sighs and cries all about? I knew what a body was, but what was a soul? You kept hearing people say, “Well, bless his soul!” You thought you knew what they meant, but really, you could only imagine as you must now. You knew what they meant when they said, “Bless her heart!” because you could put your hand to your heart and feel the beat, and your Aunt Ethel sometimes fried up chicken hearts along with gizzards, livers and feet. But a soul was unseeable. did animals have souls, too? Did birds, dogs, cows, mules, pigs, snakes, bees? And what about other stuff, like corn, okra, creeks, rivers, moonlight, sunshine, trees, the ground, the rain, the sky? Did white folks have souls?

… Thirty-nine, forty, fifty, a hundred, thousands–who’s to say how many rosy-chilled Octobers have befallen us, each one engraved in micro-moments of this innocent utterance, electrically notated but, like light in a photograph, never quite captured in detail, only in essence. Essence in this instance is private song, is you hearing your secret sorrow and joy blown back through Coleman Hawkins, invisibly connected to you and played back through countless bodies, each one an embodiment of the same soul force.

All poetry is about silent music, invisible art and the clothing of time for the ages.


Editor’s Comments

Not long after moving to the Bay Area in 1981, I picked up a copy of Al Young’s first book of “musical memoirs”, Bodies and Soul, and devoured it. Full of short, lyrical essays no longer than it took to spin a good 45, it was the perfect book for the moment. With money to spend, nights and weekends free, and no homework for the first time in 18 years, I was reveling in the wonders of live and recorded musical to be found within an hour’s drive from Sunnyvale. Max Roach at the Keystone Korner; Elvis Costello at the Paramount; Anita O’Day at the Great American Musical Hall; King Sunny Ade in Santa Cruz; UB40 in Palo Alto; the SF Symphony at Stern Grove; Rasputin’s and Amoeba Music in Berkeley; and the world treasure of Village Music in Mill Valley. And a Tower Records store just fifteen minutes from my house.

Where, about a year later, I saw a tall black man with a distinctive streak of white hair browsing in the racks. I immediately recognized him as Al Young, and went over to offer my praise for his book. He was helping a friend decide how to spend a gift certificate, and the three of us talked for a few minutes about some albums they’d picked out. Then we all went back to fingering through the trays of LPs. It was the only time I met Young–the only time I’ve ever met the writer of a book I liked, in fact–but it seemed proof that I was living in a magical place.

Al Young in performance with bassist Dan RobbinsYoung published three more collections of musical essays after that: Kinds of Blue in 1984; Things Ain’t What They Used to Be in 1987; and Drowning in the Sea of Love, which included pieces from the three earlier books, in 1995. All four books are unforgiveably but understandably out of print now. Understandably, because Young had the misfortune to sign up with two different publishers–Creative Arts in Berkeley and the Ecco Press–that since went out of business. Unforgiveably because nobody beats Al Young when it comes to capturing the mood and rhythm of good pop, jazz, and blues music in prose.

You can get a taste of Young’s writing from reading his essay on Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” on Salon, taken from Drowning in the Sea of Love. And thanks to their utter neglect, you can pick up used and remaindered copies of all four books for not much more than a buck total plus shipping. Until someone rights this wrong and puts at least a sampler back in print, this is what you’ll have to do if you want to experience a master at his instrument. As James Brown would have told us: “Give the writer some!”

Al Young’s Musical Memoirs:

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