Contemplation Rose: Taylor Hicks Live
(written by Basenji)
I am on a 777 flying back to Japan. After watching and listening to and writing about Taylor Hicks for more than a year, finally I have seen him live in Los Angeles and Las Vegas.
I am reading Peter Guralnick’s Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke, and I am pondering the nature of live musical performance, the emotional reaction audiences have to certain performers, and how Taylor Hicks astounded me. I thought I had been prepared. I was the keeper of the tagging list, I had seen videos, I had listened to mp3s, I had the Dewey Tapes. I thought I knew what Taylor Hicks was all about. I was so wrong.
Guralnick’s book shows me Sam Cooke, moving on past his original band, constantly looking for ways to innovate, working on his business savvy, publishing his own music, trying to change himself with his preppy clothes and fancy cars and his cool demeanor, masking his private world of sexual exploits and rage simmering under the surface, hidden behind the mask of the public sophisticated crooner. But in the end, none of that mattered. He became one with the audience members, showing them his enjoyment and drawing the audience towards a mysterious emotional state using his charisma and his voice. Guralnick describes Sam Cooke’s performances at the Apollo Theater, in November 1962:
[quote]Night after night it builds into a mass sing-along in which there is no need to mention church, everyone knows they are having it, and the only way to top this communal feeling is to extend it. […] “Keep on having that party,” he calls out over and over as the curtain comes down, “no matter where you’re at, remember, I told you, keep on having that party.” Through his music, he declares, he will continue to be with them—it’s as close to eternity, in their unvoiced understanding, as any of them are ever likely to come.[/quote]
I sit up in my seat. And on my iPod Van Morrison sings:
And I’m contemplating that rose in a church in Spanish Harlem.
I’ve seen Taylor Hicks live. I am agitated and happy, confused and serene. I’m in that church.
Before the Los Angeles show, I am standing outside in the sunshine waiting for the meet and greet. The House of Blues is painted to simulate the layers of music and smoke that would elsewhere be added with time and use. In the gift shop, the t-shirts are hung neatly; the shop accepts all major credit cards. The bathrooms are clean and the attendant will give you mints. We in the meet and greet line are ourselves tidy and inconspicuous and patient. Everything has been made easy and welcoming for me, from free tickets to the shows from a friend to the mysteriously arranged meet and greet. So, why do I feel grimy? A door opens. Taylor Hicks sits down at a table on the porch. I have the shock of recognition, yet I can barely see him at all:
Ciggie smoke and here’s a fucking song, good boy, bad boy, say Yes and say you are grateful, squinchy face and booty shake, 10 years and Do I Make You Proud?
Gin and Juice and Gray Charles, ratty couches and Jay Leno, get your story straight, jacket-boot symbols, Compared to What?
brrrrruta boop bup boo duh buttata bup buttata bup buttata buttata bup buttata bup buttata bup buttata bup BOH BOH YEAH…Woo!
Merry Christmas, Baby! Here’s some Japanese sake and the tagging list.
Have you ever felt the shame I feel standing here before you?
My hand is shaking and I wonder who I am. Neither of us wants to talk to the other, but we must do this. I have to offer something at the altar. I want to burn everything and let the smoke rise. I want you to disappear so the shame disappears. In Shinto shrines in Japan, sake is offered for purification. I want to purify you of the swirling vortex of need. Can I get a witness?
I keep trying to make order of his music, to make him comprehensible. That damn tagging list is my last chance to pin him down.
Q: “What do you call tagging?”
A: “That’s as good as name as any.”
Well played, sir.
Here’s Pema Chödrön on a moment like this:
“We spend a lot of time trying to nail everything down, concretizing, just trying to make everything solid and secure. When we awaken our hearts…this moving away from comfort and security, this stepping out into what is unknown, uncharted, and shaky—that’s called enlightenment, liberation.”
Are you going to pull all my rugs out from under me?
It seems a moment later I am standing before the stage in the painted house. The “industry people” are up in the balcony looking down at us all. My friends are asking me if I’m ready. The band starts the intro music and I cover my face with my hands.
What if I am disappointed? What if he is better than I expect?
I look up.
You know what I’m going to say now, right? I didn’t know where to look; he’s astonishingly beautiful and alive. I’m not sure who I met at the meet and greet, but it wasn’t this guy.
I am surprised by the intensity of his singing. I watch his neck muscles bulge and his solar plexus contract. He hadn’t been flesh and blood to me before, but now spittle is flying from his mouth and sweat is already starting to bead at his brow.
At first, I am studying him as he moves, the happy steps, the straddle-shuffle side-to-side, the changing faces: exhilaration, intensity, his mouth making shapes in preparation before the next note. I am distracted by details: Brian’s head bobbing behind the giant organ, the glint of Josh’s wedding ring, the smile on Melanie’s face as she dances, how Loren smirks and then raises his eyebrows to anticipate something Taylor is about to do, Al with his eyes closed and his hands clutching at the bass, the feel of the beat through the speakers.
Taylor makes an exaggerated and slow sweep of his arm to bring Brian forward. Brian is a striking mirage of muscle and sinew and reed and mouth and veins and saxophone. The whole band is radiant.
Taylor has just finished with us on one song and he turns his back, walks back to the harmonicas and the set list. There’s a shift of his shoulder still feeling the beat. He leans down to see the set list, puts a finger on it, and he’s suddenly a shipping agent checking his inventory.
“Heart and Soul” is glorious. Josh opens wide. We get the extended “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man” baseball skit. I am laughing and enjoying it but it takes me outside my head. I’m watching everyone else in the audience. I’m watching him be the entertainer in a conscious, winking way. I’m still outside my head by the end of “Wherever I Lay My Hat,” after which Felix, Josh, Al, and Loren all towel their heads. This makes me laugh. I’m laughing at myself, at this whole scene, at the fact that I’ve come all this way and that I’ll remember those fluffy, white towels better than I will be able to explain why the music has affected me. It’s a rueful thought.
I’ve listened to “Soul Thing” hundreds of times, but this night the band connects the music and the lyrics perfectly:
Where the city street meets the county road,
where the sun is nice and warm,
no matter how long I may roam,
this song still takes us home…
I hear the rushing of wheels, and the music and his voice make this song become hyper-reality for me. I finally get it: Everyone around me must see me jumping up and down and yelling and laughing, but in my mind I am sitting in a zendo in California, years before. I am trying to just breathe and be, and as I count the breaths, there is a window, a short, brief moment when a window to eternity opens. I see reality. I see there is nothing more to do, but to keep trying to keep that window open. And yet to experience the authentic is the most difficult thing to do.
And as I am crying with recognition, tears streaming down my face, he starts the scatty “East Bound and Down” tag, shaking his hand back and forth like he’s shaking a martini. He is crouched into his “rap” stance, lowering down, using the position to make himself feel the tension of the line, as he has to push through the rhythm and the words. It’s a ridiculous juxtaposition of what he is singing and acting out. I’m laughing. He’s crazy.
The most effective songs of the night, the ones where I can understand yet cannot say why I love this performer, are the ones where he builds himself. He uses repetition of words and of motions, to build the band, to build his own energy. He paces back and forth, moves forward to pull us in, he’s dragging us in with eyes and thighs and voice.
Yet, in the live show and in his music in general, he refuses to answer my questions, to become a category, a list, a set of criteria. He keeps eluding me: silly, funky, serious, earnest, poetic, sexual, innocent. I think I can understand him one way and then he does a little pandering hippy-shake dance and makes me laugh. He pulls yet another rug out from under me.
He introduces Bobby, a high-school trumpet player for “The Runaround.” It’s all very sweet. Towards the end of the song, Taylor turns back to Bobby to check on him. Sweetness and light. Kittens and puppies. All my irony bells are ringing and hate myself for it. So, when everyone screeches when the stool come out for “The Fall,” I am distracted. It’s like I’m in the parking lot already and it’s not his fault. I look at the people around me, the people who helped me get to this moment. But now I suddenly and acutely miss my husband, my “real” life. Where am I? What does any of this mean?
Taylor drags me back in when the chords start to pump on “Naked in the Jungle.” I feel a surge of adrenalin, extraordinary pleasure passing through me. I lap up the lions and tigers. I relish the “speak outs.” He’s frothed with sweat now and leaping in the air. The band is immense and looms forward. He’s whipping everyone into a frenzy as he screams “higher” over and over again. He’s doing everything right, and then I catch myself filling in the missing rap:
We be ridin’, down 65
Hit 85 just left the west side
Out my window, be my left elbow
Hand on my wheel, sittin’ down low
I’m headin’ through Atlanta on my way to Chicago…
What window to eternity? Now all I’m hearing is my relationship with this performer, all those words I’ve read and written, all those hours spent in front of a computer instead of out in the world. Am I actually hearing him? What will I take from this?
Well, there’s this:
Taylor has signaled to Josh for a solo. Josh closes his eyes and begins the grinding intense notes. Taylor dances, gingerly steps from foot to foot, and inches closer and closer to Josh. Now he’s right next to Josh, not a polite distance, intimate. He’s urging Josh on, but he’s not directing him, he’s enjoying it. Josh has worked his way up the frets, and has arched his back, and has thrown the guitar up on his hip almost horizontally. Josh’s lips are pressed tight and his fingers are dancing, throwing off notes like sparks. Taylor is in ecstasy with his hand shaking in this exaggerated fast wave, he is tossing his body up and down, his head thrown back. He is twisted and contorted. And at the end, Taylor bends forward as if exhausted, raises his suddenly very pale face, and he gives us a toothy, silly, beatific, glorious smile.
The Vegas “Hold on to Your Love” begins and at first I take it for granted, thinking I know what’s coming. I’m dancing along with the calypso beat, the tags start, and he does the regular “Jump in the Line” and follows it with “Banana Boat Song.” He shouts for us to enjoy Cinco de Mayo, it all becomes another cheesy skit. He tops it off with a Speedy Gonzales trill, which he holds for so long I guffaw. This is too much, Vegas starts to close in on me. He lifts his hands and curls them for the snake charmer dance. Then he slams us with a sudden change from loveable dork to bluesman: the band segues into “Lonely Avenue,” at first a bit sing-song, the vocal touching lightly and bopping, rather than bluesy. The band works harder and Taylor urges the them to darken and shake, his movements and voice become harsher, grittier. Instead of fluent movements, he begins to cut the air with hands, legs, guitar, like he’s wielding swords. At the climax of this, when we can feel the arc upwards beginning to slow and he holds us for the tipping point, he seizes his body, gripping the guitar, rises up on his toes, thrusts his midsection forward against the guitar, the lights blaze at him, his face contorted on the last almost screeching chorus. I hear myself calling out, but I have no idea what I’m saying. I feel the reflected blaze of lights on him like a blast from a furnace, and it takes over me in the most pleasurable, unambiguous, sensual, full body rush of blood.
Sir, you are a vehicle for joy.
I see me as I could be, pure and ready to be transparent, to give what I have with out affectation and pretense. The words could come straight from me like blood, like opening a vein. And that is what I saw up on that stage, Taylor opening a vein, letting it flow from him, his joy, his being, his music.
I’m sitting on my front stoop in Japan. Good old Van Morrison and I are in the morning sunshine.
Over the past year, I have tried repeatedly to cure myself of Taylor Hicks, like he was a disease I had contracted. There are many ways to try to convince oneself that it’s unhealthy or irrational to enjoy his music. None of them stick. Maybe you’ve never tried to resist him like I have. But all I do is question myself: Why now? Why this guy? It’s a mystery. I don’t know if the mystery is in him or in me. The mystery is startling, clichéd, profound, alive, joyous.
But now that I’ve seen Taylor live, I know he’s here to help us touch whatever it was Sam Cooke was pointing at as his curtain lowered.
And I’m keeping my mind on that rose in a painted house in Las Vegas.
bloggers note: Thank you, Basenji, for allowing me to post this.