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The Gospel According to Al Green

On Green's seventieth birthday, John Saward takes a look back at the man who could turn an audience to rubble with the sound of his voice.

by John Saward
Apr 13 2016, 7:06pm

Al Green is 70-years-old today. Here's a moment:

Soul Train. March, 1973. Audience packed around the stage. Al Green and Don Cornelius are on the steps in front of everyone. Al is swaying like he's waiting for a bus, squinting at the ground, hands behind his back, scruffy cheeks, green bowtie the size of a lily pad. Al is going to answer some questions and then he's going to sing some songs and then everyone is going to levitate, probably.

Don holds the microphone up to a girl in a blue sweater. She freaks out and hides her face. Next question. Something about Don's green suit. Don says he's wearing it for Al and calls him the messiah. Next question. "Is your out-of-sight originality something you had to work at or did it just come natural?" Al rubs his nose. He's wearing a bracelet that looks like twigs dipped in gold. "Welllll I suppose it comes natural."

A girl in the front row with pearl earrings the size of snowballs is petting her own neck. She has blue eyeshadow and an impeccably sculpted afro. "Hi my name is Ronda and I'd like to know your sign." Ronda bites her lip. Ronda bites her tongue. Al Green whispers into the microphone, "I'm an Aries," and the crowd gasps like he just opened a trench coat and wasn't wearing anything underneath.

Al's first song is "For the Good Times," a half-sung daydream that floats in and out of rim clicks and soft horns and cooing backing vocals. It's hard to convey the next part. Listening to Al Green is wonderful and fine and you have likely done this often, washing your hair or doing laundry or getting drunk or getting laid or driving home, humming along, all the earth-breaking classics, inexhaustibly fun and sad and honest in just the amount you want them to be.

But watching Al Green sing is an experience totally separate from that, something pure and unpredictable, something like a spiritual USB plugged into the side of your neck. Sweat dripping down his temples and his sideburns, him deciding to sit on the stage for a verse, rubbing his kneecaps, then wading into the crowd like a river baptism, squeezing his eyes shut and singing to the ceiling without the microphone, pausing to thank the audience before the song's over.

Image by Lia Kantrowitz

He makes every face. He makes a face like he has nausea, like he's watching cat Vines, like he just saw someone eat a slice of pizza that fell cheese-side down on a subway platform, like the halo emoji, like when you turn around and see your person is getting into the shower with you, like when you realize the milk has gone bad. Al Green onstage is a flip-book of human emotion.

The camera cuts to blue sweater as the song winds down; she's shaking her head in slow-motion, she's not blinking. Who is this man?

Soul Train comes back from commercial and Don Cornelius introduces Al's second song. "And still one more expression of the extreme level of his talent from the man who we expect to begin walking on water any day now, Mr. Al Green."

The song is "Love and Happiness." Something that can make you do wrong, make you do right, yeah. He holds "yeah" for 11 seconds, literally. You can count them. A big haymaker of a smile comes across his face. He's still holding the note. He looks to his left. He winks at the crowd and they " ooo" like he just did the saw a woman in half and put her back together again trick, which, I guess, yeah.

Here comes the keyboard and the bass guitar, and there goes Al.

He speaks with his eyebrows, with the wrinkles in his forehead, spread-wide nostrils, too-big, too-white teeth that look sometimes like a mouth full of seashells. He speaks by bunching and relaxing his shoulders, neck bobbling from side to side like a slinky tumbling down some stairs. He is a man who could turn a lick of his lips into a biography; who could make the slightest shift in posture a eulogy for an entire relationship. He could strangle and pinch and stomp a syllable or a word until he redefined it. His delivery, the way he sometimes seemed possessed, these were lyrics, too.

***

The Beatles are holding your hand; Al is tracing the lines on your palm and ordering room service while you both call in sick to work.

On his cover songs he has an ability to turn something chaste and theoretical and old timey into something hot and vivid, something personal and his. Listen to The Beatles' "I Want to Hold Your Hand" and then listen to his version. The Beatles sound tame, playful, juvenile, like they're leading this girl through a crosswalk. They get her to the front door and say goodnight and walk home with their hands in their pockets. But Al's is a parade. He's begging you to call him your man; he says he wants to hold your hand in the evening, and then in the morning, baby. You can think about what he wants to do in between. Actually, no, he doesn't say he wants to, he says he's "got to." The Beatles are holding your hand; Al is tracing the lines on your palm and ordering room service while you both call in sick to work.

Listen to the Temptations' "Can't Get Next to You" and then to his cover. Theirs is pandemonium, talking about changing the seasons with a wave of their hand, multiple leads rotating in and out like tenacious gods. Then listen to Al's. He slows it down to something slow-pulsing in the corner of a dark bar. "Ohhhhh my-my-my," he begins. "I can turn a gray sky blue," he says and blue lasts long enough that it feels like its own verse. Then, at the end, he drops the falsetto; his voice has a low-fi rattle now, like he's almost too close to the microphone. He says he's been trying to call her, he's been trying all day long, but he doesn't have her phone number. There is the heartache in some soul songs that feels whimsical and almost painless (Jackson 5's "I Want You Back" feels like the last day of school before summer vacation; The Chi-Lites' "Oh Girl" is like floating around the lazy river at Disneyworld), and then there is the cold reality of need and want and not being able to do a damn thing about it. Al Green's usually could be both.

His songs could for all but 25 seconds feel sticky-sweet and broad enough to soundtrack a Super Bowl commercial, and then in a pivot—a howling, indecipherable outro, a word panted over and over again, a sentence he yanks the emergency brake on halfway through and lets the horns take over—become something irrepressible, distinct, rabid human compulsions. Lots of Al Green's songs seem like a sketch artist rendering of a feeling, but there is always a moment where they become that feeling's mugshot.

***

The magic of Al Green is the contradictions, the elasticity of his persona. He made songs that came through a closed door asking for forgiveness, songs whispered in her ear, songs for a vibrating coin-operated motel bed. Songs that could be a frown, or a smirk, or a wink, or a roll of the eyes. Songs that feel filthy and romantic, gentle and mischievous, coy and then as explicit as a shirt unbuttoned to the chest hair, fluctuating between all of these, within an album, within a song, within a line. That dichotomy is mysterious, and mystery is irresistible, and here we are, trying to figure out how much is real, forgetting what question we wanted to ask when Don Cornelius passes us the microphone.

The Al Green that brought the Soul Train audience to rubble is the same man on "How Can You Mend A Broken Heart" singing "How can you mend this broken man?/ How can a loser ever win?" The same man on "Tired of Being Alone" singing "Sometimes I wonder/ If you love me like you say you do." These paradoxes, the way his voice trampolines from growling baritone up to falsetto and hangs in the air, there is a story within that, devastation and hope and maybe a moment in the kitchen thinking about her in front of the sink, not saying anything, lighting a cigarette on the stove, waking up with ash left sprinkled on the burner.

He could seem weak and wounded and then as relentless as a feral Doberman. There is an intimacy that feels sanitized and softcore, but then dirty and irrepressible and horny. Somewhere between wedding reception euphoria, first dance fantasy, and in a phone booth getting her answering machine after it all went wrong. Something to chew her bra straps off to, something for when you realize she is barreling down the interstate with your heart in the glove compartment.

Lots of Al Green's songs seem like a sketch artist rendering of a feeling, but there is always a moment where they become that feeling's mugshot.

Al Green was married, once, for six years. He's never been the best at ever-afters. On "Let's Stay Together" he sang "Baby, since we've been together/ Loving you forever is what I need." In 1973, he wrote a song titled "Let's Get Married." But the fairytale is always tidier than the reality.

It's late one night in Memphis in 1974. Al brings home two friends in his Rolls Royce. One is his girlfriend, Mary Woodson. Mary's in the kitchen heating water on the stove. Al's tired. Mary says to him, "Al, honey, have you ever thought about getting married?" Al says, "Married? Maybe we should talk about this in the morning, baby."

Al goes upstairs. He's in the bathroom in his underwear brushing his teeth. He's looking in the mirror. Mary comes up behind him and dumps a pot of boiling grits on his back. She runs into the other room. He hears gunshots. Al wrote in his autobiography that he remembers collapsing and feeling the cold porcelain of the bathtub against his skin before someone came to help him.

An hour later, Al finds Mary dead in another room. She left a suicide note that said, in part, "All I wanted was to be with you until I die. I love you, Al. I'm not mad, just unhappy because I can't be with you."

***

In 1973, Al Green released Livin' for You, his seventh album. The last song is "Beware," eight minutes and 20 seconds long, just a few guitar chords and sparse drums. The song's lyrics are almost desperate, "Ain't nothing I can do/ to make you love me." But it's a con. Listen to his voice slink through the guitar picks and the cymbals like a jaguar, dragging S-sounds around like a phone sex operator.

Then, as the song fades out, just drums, more urgent now, the bass guitar heavier, diabolical, almost. No words, just him cackling into the microphone. He is saying, without actually saying, Al Green doesn't need to try to make you love him. He had you all along.

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