Greville St Bookstore

Music August
August 5, 2009, 1:12 am
Filed under: Music

TAKE ME TO THE RIVER: an autobiography
by Al Green with Davin Seay

pb $33.00 

It has often been said that Al Green was the last of the soul singers, the end of a line that began with Sam Cook. When Green turned to God in the mid-seventies, after a string of brilliant albums for the Hi label, soul music would never be the same again. Disco and the increasing secularization of black American culture would put pay to the foundations from which this music had sprung – gospel music and the Church.

Green’s autobiography, newly re-issued, first appeared in 2000. In it, the conflict between the sacred and the secular is writ large, as the older Reverend Green looks back to his younger self, to the years spent chasing fame, fortune and women. He begins by pointing out there are several Al Greens – the soul man, the Reverend and the family man – and this slightly schizophrenic approach to his life story makes for strange reading. The hand of God is everywhere at work, guiding him through the hard times to his life’s eventual mission.

Music was the only thing that mattered to Green in his early years. He sang at Church, he sang in a quartet with his brothers, and later with school friends, firstly as the Creations and then Al Greene & the Soul Mates. Despite having a hit with ‘Back up Train’ in 1967, Green’s career stalled, and he spent the following year on the ‘chitlin’ circuit’, literally singing for his supper.

Green’s book has a tendency to read as though edited direct from conversation, no doubt the hand of Davin Seay, and it’s arguable that he devotes too many pages to his early years. But for me, Green’s book really comes alive when he meets Willie Mitchell, at a Texas roadhouse, in late 1968. It’s Mitchell who sees the potential, who provides Green with a home in Memphis, convincing him to “soften it up”, to feel the music. As he tells Green: “It’s silky on top, rough on the bottom”. Instead of growling like Otis, Green learns to express a “soft, tender, vulnerable side of myself”, “just my voice, simple and unadorned”. If nothing else, Green’s book pays homage to the genius of producer Willie Mitchell, and session musicians like Howard Grimes and the late Al Jackson, who were responsible for those infectious mellow rhythms that allowed Green’s voice to shine. For the next few years, this team could do no wrong, literally producing gold from every session.

 I couldn’t help but wonder, as I neared the end of the book, whether Green was going to refer to that incident. But he eventually does, recounting the terrible night when Mary Woodson attacked him with a pot of boiling grits, causing third degree burns across his back, before shooting herself. Finding God after such an event seems almost inevitable, but Green makes it clear that he was headed this way already. One day, he drives through Memphis till he comes to the Full Gospel Tabernacle, and he says to the first person he meets: “My name is Al Green and I’m going to preach in this Church”. Green has had a long career since then, but that’s pretty much where he leaves his story, preaching and singing to the glory of God, returning soul music full circle to its gospel roots. It’s almost enough to give you religion.

by Stephen Cummings
pb $29.95 

There was a time when I used to run into Steve Cummings all the time. I used to run into him in Melbourne music shops and newsagents, or walking in the back lanes of St Kilda. For a period there, we walked the same streets, and though I didn’t really know him, and we certainly never made eye contact, it gave me theillusion of knowing him. That is, until I read this book, and then I realised I didn’t know him at all. In the face of the evidence before me, I am forced to acknowledge that Steve is far weirder and more interesting than I’d ever given him credit for.

Like a Morrissey or Elvis Costello, Cummings has always been a bit of a wordsmith, whether in song or the two previous novels he’s published. So it comes as no real surprise to discover that this autobiography – subtitled ‘Misadventures in music’ – is a rollicking good read. Without wanting to elevate Cummings beyond his station, there’s a touch of Bob Dylan’s Chronicles about the way he approaches his life and career. Like Bob, Cummings sidesteps the more usual chronological fare, choosing instead to focus intensely upon certain moments to the exclusion of others. At first glance, this approach can look arbitrary; but make no mistake, there’s serious art going on here behind the artifice.

 From an early age, music was everything to Cummings. He was right there as Melbourne’s burgeoning music scene took off in 1970s, playing firstly with the Pelaco Brothers, and then with the mighty Sports. Cummings rightly believes the Sports should have conquered the world, but his self-confessed control-freak personality, combined with his head-on clashes with Mushroom chief Michael Gudinski, ended that dream once and for all. But along the way there were recordings in London for Stiff Records, tours with Graham Parker and the Rumour, and the almost obligatory disastrous tour of the US. Years later, there would be Countdown reunion tour, bringing to mind Karl Marx’s famous quote about history repeating itself.

What is most likely to take the reader aback is Cummings’ outspoken and judgmental attitude to fellow musicians. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his bizarre chapter on Nick Cave, a curious mix of sarcasm and spite. But Cummings eventually turns it back on himself, using his rancour to expose his own feeble jealousies: “Do you know what I can’t get my head around? The idea that he sells millions of albums and I don’t.” If Cummings is hard on those around him, he reserves his harshest judgments for himself.

I wondered whether this book shouldn’t come with a warning sticker, something along the lines of “spending too much time inside Stephen Cummings’ head may not be good for your health”. So sensitive is he to nuance, to the fraught vagaries of everyday social interaction, that I found myself having mild anxiety attacks on his behalf while reading the bookBut in the end, Cummings finds his own consolation, feeling “lucky that I get to make my music, spend time at home and read”. I could think of worse ways to spend my time. Cummings has written a book that is honest, amusing and at times a little sad. And next time I run into him in some deserted Melbourne back street, just the two of us, I’ll damn well tell him that.

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