I left Catholicism behind when I was 18. The schism first occurred, though, just as I was starting that sacrament known as penance, which I recall happening around 3rd grade, or 9 years old. So, let me get this straight, I thought, I go into this mysterious dark booth, kneel down and confess my sins – pretty much consisting of disobeying my parents, being mean to my siblings, and, slightly later, onanism, oh the ongoing onanism! And this priest, who was usually identifiable as one of the rasping and raging red-faced alcoholics who taught C.C.D., the religious education classes. And this guy, this sad old man was supposed to communicate with God and absolve me of my sins. Yeah, this is about the time when logic entered the equation and I started to question the whole deal.
But a lot of the reason I drifted was that it just bored me to death, sitting in that nice big neo-Gothic church of my childhood. The best part of the mass was my daydreaming, glancing around at the architecture, observing the congregation, particularly the younger and hotter female portion, and the pipe organ music. The music could, on very rare occasions, offer a little inspiration. But let’s face it; the Catholic Church was already a faded version of its historic self. In the past centuries it inspired the Masters in painting, architecture, and music. Had it retained some of that enigmatic glory, perhaps if the mass was still mysteriously said in Latin, I might have at least suspended my disbelief for a while longer. But they started their weak attempts at bring the mass down to the people, with lame folk-music masses and it only pushed me out the door faster, all that mustachioed earnest strummy monotony against the macramé’d felt-Advent-banner-background. This was a long way from Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring”, (or for that matter, my favorite Bach piece “So Sheep May Safely Graze”) or the Sistine Chapel.
If anything, I looked for reasons to keep me away from the dispiriting Church and did not have to look far for scientific and logical support for my rationale. People can become straight-up rational and atheistic and still find their artistic mojo. In fact, there is an interesting article in a recent New Yorker about the author Ian McEwan’s arc from a young man who accommodated new-age-y philosophy into an older accomplished author who finds inspiration in more earthly sources and less tolerant of mystical strains. Not many would consider McEwan’s work cold or uninspiring.
I like to leave all doors open, however and would consider myself, therefore, agnostic. As an artist, there is something otherworldly in moments of ecstatic music and art – whether it be intentionally devotional (raga, chanting, gospel, Sufi dervishes, etc.) or not. Just because soul music is the secular sibling of gospel music does not mean that it has taken the spirit out; the spirit is in the music and performance itself, not in the lyrics.
My wife and I went to see Reverend Al Green conduct his Sunday service in Memphis during the mid-1990s. He sang almost the whole time, pausing only briefly to warmly welcome the handful of us that were outsiders before letting himself be transported again by the amazing and powerful music. The church itself is a modest sort of mid-century building on the outskirts of town. He had this stellar band that included a Hammond organ player with two loud Leslie speakers flanking the stage. We were there for over two hours, during which he shook our hands, introduced us to the congregation, sang and sweat his heart out, while his congregants sang, danced, prayed, and even did the whole “speaking in tongues” ecstasy thing while ushers attended to them. I felt simultaneously drained and lifted up when we left. In fact, the service was still ongoing when we had to leave. I said to my wife, “if this was church when I was growing up, I would never have questioned a thing and would be there right now.” I think I might have touched the face of God that day. I’m sure there is a biological explanation for all of this, but I don’t need to know what it is; it is not relevant.
I was thinking of this all today while I was walking into work and “Precious Memories” came on my ipod. This is the version that Aretha Franklin and James Cleveland sing on the 1972 live album, Amazing Grace. The recording always almost brings me to my knees, specifically around 3:25 minutes in. This is the first of two climaxes on the recording when I feel privileged that was someone -- Jerry Wexler is the producer, of course -- was there to record the holy moment. Because that is exactly what it is. Aretha seems to be channeling the Holy Spirit here. Without exaggeration, every time I listen to this, every time, whether it be the first time in months that I am listening to it or the fourth time in a row, I am physically affected. It goes beyond shivers down the spine; it is an overwhelming experience, emotional and physical, that I can barely contain. It is literally almost orgasmic. I could only imagine what sort of freakin’ weirdo I look like walking down a bike path with my face all contorted with anguished emotion.
“Precious Memories” is a traditional that gets to the heart of it, as Van Morrison sings in his own rhapsodic moments. Over a sublimely gentle ¾ pace, Aretha hums low in a call-and-answer with the Southern California Community Choir starts the lyric:
Precious memories, how they linger
How they ever flood my soul
And the soul of the listener starts to flood as Aretha adds a wordless riff.
In the stillness of the midnight
Sacred secrets will unfold.
And this is the whole thing: the sacred secrets are unfolding just as the arrangement does. The gathered live congregation of the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles are all aware that this calm is fleeting; the ecstasy is building. Aretha, off microphone, cues Cleveland with the first line of the next verse, “In sad hours,” and the rich husky baritone of Cleveland picks it up:
In sad hours (Aretha: Lord, Lord, Lord, Lord)
When I get a little lonely (yeah, yeah, yeah)
The truth, the real truth, the real truth of Jesus’ (thank you, Lord) (Aretha: say it, James) Love is told, oh yeah oh yes it is
The congregation and the choir are now clapping on the 2 and 3 of the waltz beat. It is building. And then it hits.
Mmmm, Jesus (they repeat His name 6 times between them) whispers
(The choir hits with a loud “yeahhhh,” which Aretha picks up’
“Yeaaaaaahhhhh I’ll be with you.” (Cleveland exclaims off mic, “SAY IT!” which sounds like he slammed his finger in a car door -- the agony and the ecstasy.)
And the arrangement stars to wind down from this first climax, only to have Aretha sing, “You know he will. We oughta sing that one more time, James.”
And they bring it back to a seemingly impossible second crescendo. “Every, every, every, every now and then you’re gonna get a little lonely.” And now Aretha just tosses words out the door and it is pure singing, one “Jesus” is all she says riffs to “Child, I’ll be. With. A’you,” pausing rhythmically between those words.
And the arrangement simmers down, the choir and congregation, who have witnessed similar moments, nevertheless sound as stunned to semi-silence as we feel as listeners. Where they were shouting, beseeching, encouraging, clapping, singing along during the song, by the end, they sound drained, offering relatively modest applause that comes nowhere near appropriate for what might be one of the greatest soul-unloading, cathartic performances captured on record.
You can hear why every rock & roll and pop star poser like Michael Bolton and Celine Dion haul out a gospel choir for some TV appearance or another; the power of a great gospel choir is undeniable. What such performers miss, however, is the force and depth of Aretha and James Cleveland, a force and depth to match that of a choir, to stand to-to-toe with and compliment a choir. Aretha’s recording here builds an arrangement that is like the architecture of the great Gothic cathedrals of Europe. At the start, the choir’s voice lift like arches up to the heavens, Aretha weaves her voice in and the choir dips. The, rhythm encourages the stop-start gait associated with a slow-moving ceremonial procession toward the front of the church, the altar. This holy music, like the great architecture, aspires to capture the spirit, the very essence – not the specifics – of the faith of the participants. They could be singing about Krishna, Jesus, or Allah, it doesn’t matter. What they are communicating is the passion in their souls. It’s enough to make you want to go to church.