I am drawn to complex mystery of this and so many other afternoons spent listening: how the confusion, the horror, the beauty, the grandeur of being alive are not dissipated or escaped from in the body of the recorded song, but are somehow accounted for, recognized, held together in a structure and an embrace. How for the space of a minute or three a song can manage to stop time, or simply make it move differently—sideways, backwards, vertically…
Arthur Lee of Love, on “Always See Your Face” in 1969, only twenty-four and yet several years past his prime, asking,
Won’t somebody please
Help me with my misery?
Can’t somebody see
What this world has done to me?
Such a simple and direct lament for the human condition, but his voice is sliding away from the framework while still wanting to be part of it, a branch that won’t let go of the tree even after the whole tree has been uprooted, is blowing loose in the wind.
I am most in thrall to the voice when it struggles to contain itself within the framework of a song’s architecture, the intended mood or message of the song’s lyrics, or the self-imposed straitjacket of the singer’s assumed persona, and breaks free of those frameworks, exploding in an unpredictable nova.
I find my pleasure and trace my fascination in the tension between constraint and a passion that chafes against the teeth of that constraint, that finds it necessary even. The voice that finds the valley of the wound that sings, that places a pressure against the source of the sorrow and works the poison out into the open.
Lorraine Ellison’s 1966 recording of the song “Stay with Me” is one of the most emotionally apocalyptic things I have ever heard. Ellison recorded the track on only two days’ notice, at a Warner Brothers session engineered by the song’s co-writer Jerry Ragovoy and occasioned by Frank Sinatra’s last-minute cancellation freeing up the studio. She sang the song live with a forty-six-piece orchestra. Everything about the slightly overwrought production of the song conspires to push it to a series of grand crescendos in the choruses, yet Ellison’s vocal still manages to overwhelm all confines and boundaries, overshooting into a sort of resplendent, luxurious abandonment—a terrifying desperation whose cliffs and valleys I want to both vanish in and avoid forever. Music writer Dave Marsh claims copies of the (scarce) 45 used to go for fifty bucks in Harlem in the late ’60s.
Marcell Strong’s 1970 “Mumble in My Ear” is a masterpiece that inexplicably never even hit the charts. From the instant Strong begins singing, thirteen seconds into the song’s dramatic string introduction, his voice is an uncontrollable darting insect in its flight, a force so impassioned that at times it seems to have little or no relationship to the melody or structure the song attempts to impose. Occasionally it sounds like he has a hive of bees in his throat. And yet after three minutes and thirty seconds (a near-perfect commercial length for a song of the era), the bands on the record come to an end, and the ecstasy fades out.
During the live performances of his peak years, in 1973 and ’74, Van Morrison placed unpredictable emphases on certain syllables, words, and phrases. He would lay into them and bellow like he was expelling the hot gargle of his soul, and then just dip back down in the semi-normal stream of whatever song it was he was supposed to be singing.
In the Chairmen of the Board’s 1969 classic “Give Me Just a Little More Time,” it’s General Norman Johnson’s spontaneous, un-anticipatable “BRRRRRRRRRRUHP!” that I live for, thrill to, physically crave with an idiotic grin all over my face. What should I call it? A flourish? A trill? A childlike burst of joyous improvisation at two minutes and sixteen seconds in, a puncture of ecstasy in the face of the child’s balloon that is the surface of the world?
The catch, the hitch in your voice when you are trying not to cry that gives you away more surely than if you had just burst into tears.
Before he joined the Chairmen of the Board in the late ’60s, General Norman Johnson was in a group out of New Orleans by way of Norfolk, Virginia, called the Showmen. They had two minor hits during their existence, “It Will Stand” in 1961 and “39-21-46” in 1963. Neither song is particularly remarkable on its own as a song, per se—they are strings of sincere clichés and innocent, vaguely sexist braggadocio, solid lightweight manifestations of the era—but sung by Johnson’s hoarse, halting, dramatically splintering instrument, they take on weight. He sounds unaccountably overcome, on the brink of tears for the length of both songs, for the length of his early career. A sore throat that hits me between heart and lungs, reaches down into the mess of diaphragm and stomach.
I know it’s just his voice, a physical effect of his larynx and throat, but other worlds open up, a significance and mystery enters into the syllables, into the texture of the grooves in the vibrations in the air.
In a 2007 interview with PortFolio Weekly, Johnson recounted the origin story of his stained, miraculous voice:
You know what’s so funny? Up until the age of fourteen, I sung the range of female alto. I went out at lunch one day at school, and I started coughing. I thought I had laryngitis. My voice changed, and this is what I ended up with. And I thought, what am I gonna do?
You find it on live recordings more often than studio. Why I’ve been a connoisseur of the bootleg, the unreleased session, the live-in-Peoria 1977 tape passed down through generations of tape trees and sacred grail urban folklore. The erotic aura of the forbidden and apocryphal that clung to the hard-to-lay-your-hands-on material not sanctioned for “official release,” a glamour now almost totally obliterated by the digital wrecking ball of the Internet.
Doo-wop songs with filthy, “blue” lyrics. The night the singer lost it and started throwing glasses at the audience from the stage. Buddy Holly’s hiccoughs recorded through the wall of his bedroom—or is that his bathroom? Marvin Gaye supine on a couch in Belgium.
The forbidden history, gnostic scriptures, the rest of the story. In the words of Howard Hampton, quoted by Greil Marcus in The Old, Weird America as he sought to describe one of Bob Dylan’s once famously unreleased Basement Tapes: a “bootleg gospel of Christ… sung in a voice of rapture and enigma he has sought ever since.”
If the singer begins the song in one key or register and shifts unexpectedly to another, the effect is powerful. If it sounds as if the shift is a surprise for the singer too, is an action that cannot be controlled by the singer, the effect is even more powerful.
(I am speaking of the moment when the undefinable thing enters the room and the temperature grows warmer.)
For much of 1975, David Bowie lived in Los Angeles. He was dangerously gaunt-looking and in the throes of a severe cocaine addiction, supposedly existing on a diet of only milk and red peppers. He was obsessed with the occult and the Kabbalah, and he reportedly saw a UFO while filming the Nicolas Roeg movie The Man Who Fell to Earth in New Mexico. At some point, he asked his wife to arrange an exorcism for him. In his book The People’s Music, Ian MacDonald describes how Rolling Stone journalist Cameron Crowe found Bowie “burning black tapers in the seeming aftermath of some ritual magic that had gone wrong” when he went to interview Bowie during this era. Photographs of Bowie from this era are disturbing: his cheekbones are beautiful, but his flesh seems to be retreating back into his skeleton. His stage persona at the time was called the Thin White Duke, and his performance in The Man Who Fell to Earth is convincingly alien. He seemed to exist at some extreme, cold, removed point of ’70s decadence, in a realm populated only by himself—haunting, haunted, sinister, and seductive.
To extricate himself from this impossible remove (and to break his addiction and save his life), Bowie decamped from LA, first to Switzerland and later to Berlin, where he recorded a trilogy of epochal albums with Brian Eno and Tony Visconti between 1977 and 1979. Bowie dried out and detoxed with Iggy Pop, with whom he shared an apartment at Haupstrasse 155 in Berlin’s Schonberg district. The sound of the new music he was recording was spare and compressed and, for the first time in his career, Bowie struggled to come up with lyrics for the songs he composed. Perhaps for that reason, half of the tracks on the first two Berlin albums, 1977’s Low and Heroes, are instrumentals.
Bowie recorded the second of these two records in the summer of 1977 within shouting distance of the Berlin Wall, in the huge Tonstudio 2 at Berlin’s Hansa Studios, a cavernous former ballroom that had supposedly been the site of Nazi Party galas in the ’30s and ’40s. The studio was large enough to house an entire orchestra, but Bowie worked primarily with only six or seven musicians, allowing producer Visconti the freedom to experiment with all sorts of unique microphone placements that exploited the vast space.
As with most of the tracks from this era, the song “Heroes” began life as a wordless instrumental, albeit a particularly grandiose and majestic one buoyed by layer upon layer upon of Robert Fripp’s electronically processed lead guitar. At some point during the sessions, inspired by an Italian novel of doomed romance or the sight of Visconti clandestinely kissing his mistress outside the studio, Bowie fashioned a lyric about two star-crossed lovers playing their passion out against the shadow of the Wall. To record the vocal for the song, Visconti set up three microphones, one six inches in front of the singer, and the other two fifteen and twenty feet away from him, respectively. On these two more distant microphones, Visconti put noise gates that would only start recording if Bowie’s voice hit them at a certain volume. The ingenious microphone placement accounts for the technical effect of the song: the way Bowie’s voice gradually rises from casual nonchalance to a choked, impassioned howl on the final verses. And yet I am suspicious of the facts, the idea that it only sounds like it does because Bowie was trying to sing loud enough to trigger the noise gate on the final microphone at the end of the cavern.
I hear a man singing for his life, desperate in a way he would never be again and had never been before. I hear a hollowness opening to reveal a depth again, shocked it has made it this far, pressed up against the wall in this vessel that has reconstituted its integrity after being shattered, reduced, almost extinguished, and then transmogrified into the magic, elongated present of the moment. It inhabits the space where all musicians long to escape to and inhabit for a few moments in the course of their existence, if they’re lucky. A split in the life, a crack in the spine of the career, a thawing of the ice in the ribcage, an exorcism of the blood that had accumulated in the bottom of the lungs.
He never sounded so cornered, and opened, and freed, again.
Van Morrison can bear down on a section of a song so hard as to flip it inside out, threaten to demolish its architecture, stop it dead in its tracks.
On a 1998 duet of the folk song “Lost John” with Lonnie Donegan, Morrison and the skiffle pioneer trade off lines and verses of the song, playfully at first, but gradually escalating in tension and energy until on the climactic fifth verse Morrison shifts registers and shoots a hole in the song’s skeleton, singing,
Well, they caught Lost John!
Put ‘im in the pen!
Summer break and gone
And now (slurring) he’s gone again!
Donegan comes off as affable, grandfatherly, and cheesy, a British Pete Seeger who’s a little more sly, just happy to be there. He approaches the song in an entirely straightforward way, a stolid entertainer through and through. Morrison sings it from another neighborhood all together—hanging just outside the frame, expressionless, menacing. His final verse slashes quick as a knife to the face, before he cuts his way out to the alley behind and makes his exit—
If anybody asks you
Who sang this song,
—handing the bloody piece of evidence off to the beaming Donegan, who finishes the verse with his trademark sign-off: “Tell ‘em Lonnie Donegan/Been here and gone.”
On a solo version of the steel-driving folk song “John Henry” that dates from the heart of Morrison’s self-proclaimed “period of transition” in the middle ’70s, he starts singing at a level of completely uncalled for emotional intensity and doesn’t let up for six minutes. For the last two minutes of the recording, he repeats the phrase, “It ain’t nothin’ but my hammer sucking wind,” over and over again until it is destroyed, battering it, yowling it, dismantling it until both phrase and song are pieces of metal lying broken on the plains. Everything in the world has narrowed and become the hammer, and the words that signify that hammer and the wind that moves in its wake are shorn of one level of meaning and invested with another—are transformed into screams of sheer joy and fury, molten lumps of language ready to be imagined again. As in “Listen to the Lion,” Morrison’s chest and throat act as witnesses to the end of one world, the beginning of another.
On one end of the spectrum, Elvis Presley’s voice inclines toward the carnal, the truly filthy. On the other end, it smears into nothing, the true soup of the neutered and anodyne. These days he is primarily a punch line, an empty icon shorn of any hint of real significance, and yet his voice and presence remain great mysteries to me. Coming where he came from—that tarpaper shack in Tupelo forever on the wrong side of the tracks, where his twin brother Jesse was stillborn before he entered the world on a cold January morning in 1935—who can blame him for not accepting his fame politely? Early on, in the Sun days, the high register of his voice was where he went to chase the impossible lights, the blue of the moon over the Lauderdale courts, out the window of the truck he drove. Later, as he aged and his face and body congealed and expanded, the voice was driven back deeper into the chamber of his chest and stomach, seeking a bedrock of anguish and lust from which to break its never-ending fall and begin to rise again. The deep loam of agony and reality that he reaches for in later numbers like “Tomorrow Is a Long Time,” “Hurt,” “Stranger in My Own Hometown,” the most desperate moments of his 1968 NBC comeback special, or the unbearable late “Unchained Melody” from the concerts just before he died. Yet he also gamely suffered through movies like Kissin’ Cousins and Clambake, sang the material that was beneath him, happily got paid for it. The edges carefully manicured and occulted, sculpted into round non-angles. Approached from straight down the middle.
Throughout his life, Elvis was obsessed with the music and voice of the classically trained, virtuosic singer Roy Hamilton. Hamilton was born in Leesburg, Georgia, in 1929, and began singing in the church at the age of six; he had success as both an amateur heavyweight boxer and a member of the gospel quartet The Searchlight Singers before crossing over with the number one R&B hit “You’ll Never Walk Alone” in 1954. Although Hamilton never achieved quite the amount of success his astonishingly rich baritone deserved, mainly due to bad luck and health problems, Elvis looked up to him as he did few other musicians. Towards the end of his life, as his voice deepened and changed, Elvis looked more and more to Hamilton as a model to emulate. One of his last singles was the aforementioned cover of Hamilton’s “Hurt” that biographer Peter Guralnick called, “not so much an interpretation as an expression of the title sentiment, a kind of primal scream that can make for painful listening as you wonder if the singer will be able to sustain not just the notes but the mastery of his emotions.” The shockingly unadorned and desperate performance of “Unchained Melody” that became a nightly ritual of painful revelation on Elvis’s final tours in 1977 was also based closely on Hamilton’s soaring, otherworldly 1955 version.
Sometimes Hamilton’s sheer virtuosity gets in the way of his music’s emotional immediacy. Too often the operatic highs and lows combine with the lush orchestration to produce objects to be marveled at, rather than rivers and spheres to be submerged in and felt. But on his last true pop hit, 1961’s “You Can Have Her,” Hamilton drops the mask and exposes for a few seconds the Sargasso Sea of repressed emotion that Elvis intuited in his idol’s voice.
It’s a cheating song, a spurned lover’s lament, and for the first two verses Hamilton keeps his cool, seethes within expected confines, until he gets to the lines about feeling like dying: “Just dig a hole and jump right in it / And pull the ground right over you.” Ripping his throat out of the stiff neck of his collar, Hamilton attacks the first verse as it unexpectedly becomes the song’s chorus in a different register,
Well, you can have her/I don’t want her/She didn’t love me/Anyway
She only wanted/Someone to play with/But all I wanted/Was love to stay
Higher, more impassioned, letting glimpse the first sedimentary layer of pain, and then slipping back into the more conversational tone of the first few verses to let you know that, you know, his girl ran off with his best friend, no big deal, she comes home for just an hour a night, to get clothes presumably, and “When daylight comes/she’s gone again.”
He returns to the chorus again, not hysterical, but surging with feeling, chafing against the restrictions of the backup singers whose responses sound increasingly tinny and desperate. We come to the heart of the matter:
Life without love is mighty empty,
But confession’s good for the soul.
I’d rather have love that I can cling to
Than have the world and all of its gold.
He sounds out of breath, a drunk at the bar exhaling his sorrow all over your shoulder, and then he either misses his cue or dramatically holds back. His entrance into the penultimate chorus is even more anguished and exaggerated, punctuated by growls dug up from the back aisle of the church, capped off by an operatic yowl that has more of raw pain and the blues about it than anything else I’ve ever heard the man sing. The song continues for twenty more seconds, fading out.
Hamilton’s last recording sessions were at Chips Moman’s American Recording Studios in early 1969; coincidentally, Elvis was recording tracks for that year’s comeback album From Elvis to Memphis in the studio at the same time. Hamilton, who was looking for his own comeback hit, recorded during the day, while Presley worked on his typical marathon sessions late at night. The two met and Elvis was apparently sheepish and abashed, in biographer Peter Guralnick’s words, “stammer[ing] out his admiration to Hamilton during a break.” Elvis even offered Hamilton a song of his, “Angelica,” to record. There is a photo of the two men together in the studio, both looking overjoyed.
Hamilton died of complications from a stroke just six months later—at the age of forty, on July 20, 1969, the day the first men landed on the moon.
Ursula K. Le Guin writes in a 2004 essay about listening that appeared in The Wave in the Mind:
Light may come from vast distances, but sound, which is only vibrations in the air, doesn’t travel far. Starlight carries a thousand light-years; a human voice can carry a mile or so at most. What we hear is almost always quite local, quite nearby. Hearing is an immediate, intimate sense, not quite as close as touch, smell, taste, proprioception, but much more intimate than sight.
She also points out that “sound signifies event”—a sound means that something, somewhere, has physically taken place—and quotes Walter Ong, who reminds us that “sound exists only when it is going out of existence.”
For Le Guin, “the voice creates a sphere around it, which includes all its hearers: an intimate sphere, or area, limited in both space and time.”
Like many members of my generation, my most memorable encounters with voices came through engaging with simulacra—voices on tape, voices on film, voices on vinyl, voices in MP3s, voices removed from me in time and space.
And yet, looking back on what I’ve written, so many of the songs that break through are ones that I heard in the flesh, so to speak, in real time—that took place in my version of Le Guin’s intimate sphere.