A Red Coal Carpet

house-burning

I would hasten to my place of refuge from the stormy wind and tempest. -Psalms 55:8

 

Ooo, a storm is threat’ning
My very life today
If I don’t get some shelter
Oh yeah, I’m gonna fade away

Storms; life is full of them. And the Bible teaches us that we will face troubles in this life.  Some are major hurricanes, others minor squalls. It is some comfort to have the reassurance that Jesus overcame this world and so shall we. But that doesn’t make the troubles any easier to deal with in the present.

Ooh, see the fire is sweepin’
Our very street today
Burns like a red coal carpet
Mad bull lost its way

And so it was in the summer of 1969. On August 17th, the heat of the Gulf Coast night was broken by the howling 175 mph winds of Hurricane Camille. My Uncle Richard was living in Metarie, Louisiana at the time, near the shores of Lake Ponchartrain. Fortunately he, my Aunt and cousins were able to evacuate before it hit.

When it was all over, there were 259 people dead and over 1.4 billion dollars worth of damage. Camille was the second of only three Category 5 hurricanes to strike the U.S. in the 20th century, along with Labor Day Hurricane in 1935 and Hurricane Andrew in Miami in 1992.

War, children, it’s just a shot away
It’s just a shot away
War, children, it’s just a shot away
It’s just a shot away

And, yes the war in Vietnam raged on with still over 500,000 U.S. troops on the ground and more than 11,000 of those killed in battles that year. Even as Ho Chi Minh passed away in September, the war was still very much in question.

The flood is threat’ning
My very life today
Gimme, gimme shelter
Or I’m gonna fade away

So it was, and the mud and the blood and the flood all indeed seemed to be overflowing like a “red coal carpet” and a “mad bull lost it’s way”.

And just a couple of weeks before Camille struck, we were all shocked to the core by the horrific Sharon Tate murders, committed by the truly evil Charles Manson and his desert based “family”.

Dark days indeed.

And they were for the Rolling Stones, as well. In that same fall of 1969, the Stones were struggling with the year long prospect of pulling their latest album, Let It Bleed, together without the help of the band’s founder, Brian Jones. Brian had been dismissed from the band back in June due to increasing personal issues and drug problems, and was found dead a month later in the bottom of his swimming pool.

Let It Bleed was a somber tome, perfectly matching the events swirling at the time and “Gimme Shelter” was no exception. In the book Old Gods Almost Dead: The 40-Year Odyssey of the Rolling Stones , author Stephen Davis wrote: “No rock record, before or since, has ever so completely captured the sense of palpable dread that hung over its era.”

Mick and the boys had surely captured a sign of the times.

I tell you love, sister, it’s just a kiss away
It’s just a kiss away
It’s just a kiss away

In an interview just a year ago on NPR’s All Things Considered, Mick Jagger talked freely about the dark lyrics and the making of the song. “It was a very moody piece about the world closing in on you a bit…When it was recorded, early ’69 or something, it was a time of war and tension, so that’s reflected in this tune. It’s still wheeled out when big storms happen…”.

But some of the most intriguing factors in the recording were created by the incredible background vocals provided by gospel and soul singer, Merry Clayton. Like many great singers, Merry grew up singing in the church. Her father was a Baptist preacher in New Orleans, so I’m sure you can imagine what some of those church services sounded like!

She later pursued singing as a career, performing backing vocals for Bobby Darin, Elvis Presley and The Supremes among many others, but is probably best known for her work as a member of The Raelettes, Ray Charles’ backup singers.

As the story goes, Merry got a call in the late evening (she was already in bed for the night) from a producer she knew – Jack Nitzsche – begging her to come down to the studio to lay down some backing vocals for this project he was working on. At the time, she didn’t even know who the Rolling Stones were.

Merry was reluctant; she was pregnant at the time and her husband even got a little miffed at Nitzsche for calling so late. But once he understood who it was -the Stones – and what was going on, he said  “Honey, you know, you really should go and do this date.”

The rest is history.

She got out of bed and went down to the studio – curlers still in her hair – and met with Keith Richards, who ran through what they wanted her to do. She was bit put off by the dark lyrics at first, but once she understood the gist of the song and it’s meaning, she was ready to go. She did three takes and said “It’s late, I gotta go back to bed.”

Those three takes were some of he most powerful backing vocals ever recorded. She put so much into it that her strained voice began to crack right in the middle of the “Rape, Murder” part.  And, if you listen very closely on a good recording of the song, you can actually hear Mick, Keith and Jack hooting and hollering in the control booth in sheer amazement at the emotional delivery she poured into the track.

It was one of the greatest performances of her career.

Ironically, it also turned into tragedy, as she lost her baby to miscarriage shortly after leaving the studio. It has been widely assumed that the strain of the performance caused it. Years later, Merry still found the song hard to hear, and nearly impossible to sing, due to the dark memories of the night.

“Gimme Shelter” went on to be named the 38th ranked song on Rolling Stone magazine’s “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time” list in 2004 and was also the name of the documentary film detailing the final weeks of the Stone’s 1969 U.S. tour culminating at the disastrous  free concert at the Altamont Speedway in California.

Martin Scorcese must have also been a big fan, as he has used the song in three of his films: Goodfellas, Casino and The Departed. Interestingly enough, he chose not include it in his 2008 documentary film about the Stones, Shine A Light.

So, crank it up loud and let it roll, as only Mick and the boys can do. And though things may seem grim; remember that love truly is, as Merry sang “just a kiss away”. And be sure to listen for Merry’s voice breaking. Wow!

Unbelievable footage w/Merry Clayton track exposed

Awesome Playing For Change cover here:

 

 

 

 

 

 

Every Word Rings True

sun_dancing

And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. – Acts 2:4

The boys were singing shing-a-ling
The summer night we met
You were tan and seventeen
O how could I forget
When every star from near and far
Was watching from above
Watching two teenagers fall in love

What a picture these lyrics paint and definitely one I can remember from my own teenage years. I was seventeen and, yes, she was very tan. I had just moved to Atlanta and was trying to meet and make new friends in the summer of 1974 and she was the step-sister of one of my coworkers. He called her up to get a ride home one night after we closed and when she arrived, he introduced us. There must have been a little magic in the night air because, after a few minutes of conversation, he got his ride home and I got a date with her the next day.

The way we danced was not a dance
But more a long embrace
We held on to each other and
We floated there in space
And I was shy to kiss you while
The whole wide world could see
So shing-a-ling said everything for me

The movie Grease was still a few years away from reminding us of a time when the sounds of doo-wop ruled, but there were still a few songs rolling out of the speakers in my 1970 Chevy that could carry you back to those days. Ringo Starr was singing “You’re Sixteen” by Johnny Burdette, Grand Funk had a hit with Little Eva’s “Loco-Motion” and The Guess Who had us all singing along to “Clap For The Wolfman”.

And oh the poor old, old folks
They thought we’d lost our minds
They could not make heads or tails
Of the young folks’ funny rhymes
But you and I knew all the words
And we always sang along to
Oh sham-a-ling-dong-ding
Sham-a-ling-dang-dong

Every generation has a hard time understanding some of the musical styles and preferences of the next – and vice versa- but I think the translations from some of the great old doo-wop songs and their trademark nonsensical lyrics had to be hard for the generations on either side to fathom.

“Shama-lama” and it’s cousin “Rama-lama”, “Sh-boom”, “Rat da tat tat”, “Shinga ling”, “Bomp bomp ba bomp”, “Dip-de-dip-de-dip”, “Oo-wah, oo-wah” and even “Doo-wop” itself are just a few examples of the lyrical style incorporated in the genre.

It may have sounded like gibberish to some, but young hearts in love instinctively understood every word.

So after years and after tears
And after summers past
The old folks tried to warn us
How our love would never last

And so intense that romantic swell must have been, just as those who are filled with the love of the Holy Spirit also sometimes burst out into languages that no one can understand.

I’ve never seen anyone “speaking in tongues” firsthand, but I know folks who have. If you ever want to experience it for yourself, just check out your local Pentecostal church and ask them when they are going to have their next Revival. It’s not my usual taste in worship style, but I do think it might be invigorating every now and then!

And oh the poor old, old folks
They smile and walk away
But I bet they did some
Sham-a-lama-ding-dong in their day

Jesse Winchester was a southern born and bred singer-songwriter who I believe could have been every bit as influential on the 70’s music scene as James Taylor, if not for his having left the country for Canada to avoid service in the Vietnam war. Branded a “draft dodger” and prohibited from playing in the U.S., he never achieved a high level of popularity as a performer, but his work as a songwriter flourished nonetheless.

Jesse’s songs were recorded by countless artists as diverse as George Strait, Patti Page, Elvis Costello, Jimmy Buffett, Reba McEntire, Emmylou Harris, Wilson Pickett, The Everly Brothers, Nicolette Larson and many, many more.

Elvis Costello included Jesse Winchester’s 1970 debut album in his “500 Albums You Need” list created in Vanity Fair in 2000.

Oh those sweet old love songs
Every word rings true
Sham-a-ling-dong-ding means sweetheart
Sham-a-ling-dang-dong does too
And it means that right here in my arms
That’s where you belong
And it means sham-a-ling-dong-ding
Sham-a-ling-dang-dong

Jesse, along with many others who left for other parts of the world to avoid the war, was granted amnesty by President Jimmy Carter in 1976. His first U.S. concert was sold out in Burlington, Vermont and was covered by Rolling Stone magazine who dubbed him “the greatest voice of the decade”.

“Sham-A-Ling-Dong-Ding” was on Jesse’s final album Love Filling Station in 2009 and quite fittingly was featured that same year on Elvis Costello’s Spectacle TV series. I think it showcases not only his tremendous gift songwriting and vocal style but his great talent as a guitar player, as well.

Jesse lost his battle with cancer and passed away at his home in Virginia earlier this year, but his gift lives on through the many hit songs he penned for others.

So, young or old, and even though we might not understand exactly what some of those old doo-wop lyrics meant, just as Jesse sang, I’m sure we’ve all  experienced a little “Sham-A-Lama” of our own sometime throughout our days.

Listen to Jesse live on Spectacle here:

 

The Rocky Mount Sermon Opera

tommy_pinball

And seeing the multitudes, He went up onto a mountain; and when He was set, His disciples came unto Him. And He opened His mouth and taught them. -Matthew 5:1-2

It was the greatest sermon of all time. To put it in rock-n-roll terms; kind of like the Beatles last concert. On January 30, 1969, the boys from Liverpool decided to perform an impromptu concert on the rooftop of the Apple studios in London. It was to be their last public performance. Some say one of their best. And soon thereafter, the Beatles were no more. They played only 5 songs.

The-Beatles-Rooftop

So, if Jesus were around today, and he was preaching His last sermon as a concert, what might that sound like? I’m not George Martin, but I’ll give it my best shot. Here’s what I’m guessing His 5 songs might be:

Matthew 5:3-12

These verses – known as the Beatitudes – are all about our need to be of a certain type of character in order to be blessed and happy in our lives. Some of these characteristics include meekness, humility, love and compassion. And there is no one better at sharing the love and compassion better than the Reverend Al Green. Something to get the crowd going, grooving and on their feet.

Happiness is when you really feel good about somebody
Nothing wrong with being in love with someone, yeah
Oh, baby, love and happiness (love and happiness)

You be good to me
And I’ll be good to you
And we’ll be together
We’ll see each other
Walk away with victory, hey

 Matthew 5:13-16

These verses dealt with our value as God’s people and disciples of Jesus, and the concepts of being Salt and Light. That we are truly to be “the salt of the earth” and a “light unto the world”. These passages compliment and complete Jesus’ picture of who we should be, even as I’m sure he knew we never really would be. Like any good Father though, he wanted His children to be the best that they could be.

To be, as Van Morrison said, someone exactly like you.

I’ve been searching a long time
For someone exactly like you
I’ve been traveling all around the world
Waiting for you to come through.

I’ve been traveling a hard road
Looking for someone exactly like you
I’ve been carryin’ my heavy load
Waiting for the light to come
Shining through.

Matthew 5:17-48

This – the longest section of the Sermon – is where Jesus compares the Old Covenants and Laws with the new teachings about salvation through belief in Him. Some people think this was  in contradiction to the Old Testament, but really it’s a fulfillment of those teachings through the body of Christ.

Yes He says, you’ve got to make a choice and decide. Stick with the old or embrace the new. And I think what He really was asking was: Are you gonna go my way?

I was born long ago
I am the chosen, I’m the one
I have come to save the day
And I won’t leave until I’m done

So that’s why you’ve got to try
You got to breath and have some fun
Though I’m not paid, I play this game
And I won’t stop until I’m done

But what I really want to know is
Are you gonna go my way ?

And I got to got to know

Matthew 6:1-18

By now the crowd is jumping and Jesus gets a little fired up Himself. In Matthew 6, He’s calling us all out for our deceitfulness, our materialism, our black hearts and good deeds done only for appearances sake. He urges us to look not to  look only for gains in this world, but to focus more on the rewards to come in Heaven. And it’s clear that the Man in Black knew exactly was He was talking about.

The wealthiest person
Is a pauper at times
Compared to the man
With a satisfied mind

When my life has ended
And my time has run out
My friends and my loved ones
I’ll leave there’s no doubt

But one thing’s for certain
When it comes my time
I’ll leave this old world
With a satisfied mind

Matthew 7:1-29

The final chapter of the Sermon is a stern warning on two topics; judging others and believing in false prophets. Again, like any good Father, He wants to give us this final bit of advice before sending us out into the night, on our own, to muddle our way through this life.

The crescendo has peaked and the concert is winding down…c’mon people now, get together.

Good night everyone; Jesus has left the building.

Love is but a song to sing
Fear’s the way we die
You can make the mountains ring
Or make the angels cry
Though the bird is on the wing
And you may not know why

Some may come and some may go
We shall surely pass
When the one that left us here
Returns for us at last
We are but a moment’s sunlight
Fading in the grass

Come on people now
Smile on your brother
Everybody get together
Try to love one another
Right now