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Otis Redding essay excerpt

Saturday 5/29/21

Christmas in May. Whatever. I write 'em when I write 'em. From another piece I've ground out this week.


I wonder if a person can understand how hard this is to do. How hard it would be in ideal circumstances like with hope, a quality of life, a break, security, a lack of total terror, a clean, organized place to live, and not spending most of one's life writing truly terrible people, and then composing all of this on "the side."


To create this much, to create so much every day.


(Here's some fun: The American Interest refuses to pay me the $250 they owe me going back to August. I tried everything I could to get my money. Finally, I wrote the publisher himself. Told him my situation. After years of service, and, let's face it, being ripped off, getting a pittance for dozens and dozens and dozens of top-level works. This man lives in a nice house in Concord, MA. That's a very pricey place to live. And what do you think happened? Ignored. And that's one of my daily "happier" stories from this diseased world of publishing.)


I saw this other post on Facebook, and it was from this woman who said she had not written anything in months. So to make herself focus, she rented a hotel room. That must be nice. For three days.


And over the course of those three days, she wrote 1250 words. Do you know how long it takes to write 1250 words here? That's like a half hour. Over and over and over again. Thousands and thousands of words every day. I don't mean draft words. I mean, boom, done, nailed it.


Have a guess what happened? Hundreds of people jumped into the comments to congratulate her on this "amazing achievement."


"Your my shero!!!!!!!!!" said one of these titans of intellect.


And it is to such a person to whom I come along offering my story for the ages, doing my cover letter thing, and they see what I am--though they often already know--and they know what they are, and how do we think that's all going to go in that moment when they have what they determine is power over me?


Dead on fucking arrival.


Fucking hell, man. Three days. After months of doing jack shit. And you're a hero to people who do even less than that. Obviously not an actual hero. This is just the dance of insincerity that they do, which is also all they're comfortable with. And as we recently discussed, you need to have a kissable ass. The kissable ass comes with the parallel move, because, again, we're talking a kind of self-ass kiss.


This is called being a literary citizen. That's what is actually meant by that term. But what it really means is, "Be a loser with us and let's all just lie to ourselves. And don't anyone dare say the truth and shatter the illusion!"


***


Black Christmas albums felt progressive in the 1960s, largely because for decades, Christmas albums were white affairs. No, when Bing Crosby sang “White Christmas” he wasn’t dreaming of Caucasians, but there was little Blackness in the holiday as presented and rendered in the popular culture. Holiday music, steeped in the classical music tradition, was as white as could be. Soul music helped that, as did Ella Fitzgerald and jazz records from the likes of Hammond organ master Jimmy Smith, but our soul compilation in question helped clear out years of familiar white bread patterns with one clout-y demonstration of musical brio.


You have to admire a Christmas album that starts with a great show of cheek—pun sort of intended—as this one does with Clarence Carter’s “Back Door Santa.” We have fuzz guitar, declarations of “making all the little girls happy,” and the line “I ain’t like the old Saint Nick/He don’t come but once a year”—you spell that verb as you see fit.


Redding’s backing band, Booker T. and the MGs, really pump away on “Jingle Bells,” King Curtis makes the air a crystalline shimmer with “The Christmas Song,” but it is Redding’s contributions that I think of as post-seasonal as well as full-on Yule. That is, they swaddle you in the musical fineries of this time of year, but to call them mere Christmas recordings is to saddle them with the same mis-analysis that I believe still dogs “The Dock of the Bay.”


The first is Redding’s take on “White Christmas.” Almost everyone sings this song straight through, with crisp diction. So much so that you think of it as integral to performing the piece. But Redding adds delays, creates space in the vocal line by sounding some syllables twice, repeating words, not out of hesitancy, but rather as though he were controlling time, freeze-framing its flow to better capture a moment.


This is the soul version of what we believe, as children, that Santa does, when he fits in every last house on a journey taking place across a single evening. As the song progresses, Redding repeats more words, improvising lines—“little bitty, little bitty, little bitty children,” he sings, as if he were the rhythm and blues analogue of Dickens’ narrator of A Christmas Carol, holed up in the space between you and your elbow as the stockings are laid.


Here’s a very Redding-esque form of Winterreise, a journey not out into the cold dark night of Schubert’s haunted singer, but towards warming fires that feel extra-musical, as though they actually impact our core temperature. Within the word “snow” he manages to add three extra beats, making the word mirror the stuff that falls from the sky, each syllable a descending flake.


We should talk more about Redding’s genius as a singer. He didn’t have the vocal chops of a Sam Cooke, but he could phrase with the creativity of a Dylan or Lennon or Holiday. Phrasing is utterly unteachable; it originates from a special portion of the soul, if you are fortunate enough to possess that portion. As Redding progresses in the song, the horns of Booker T. and his boys start to surge behind him. The man needs no sleigh—we are already flying. Redding’s voice provides the vehicle, and an energy within that voice that feels as big as weather itself.


If Redding’s “White Christmas” is a soul prayer of joy, gusto, and paradoxically heat-stoking gusts of snow, then “Merry Christmas Baby” is his banquet of blues befit for the prodigious appetites of the beefy Ghost of Christmas Present.


The norm with this song is to handle it like a torch-y blues, a pining for the lover who is not there. Depending upon the version, the couple may appear to be on the outs. For instance, Elvis’ take on the number, from 1971, presents the singer as in his cups; not sloshed, but getting there, praying for and needing what we intuit as reconciliation. Redding’s girl isn’t away with her family—a necessary holiday parting that sucks, but hey, such is life and such are parents and their expectations—as is the gentler narrative implication often with this song. No—she’s done and gone. Left our dude. Further, she’s from another time in his life. That is, she’s the one who got away. He may be with someone now for all we know. One doesn’t fess up that truth to the present lady of the house, but the one that got away—as we all know—is forevermore the one that got away. They’re always a part of your consciousness, especially so, it can seem, at Christmas if you had Christmases together.