Bobby Womack: An Introduction
I was fortunate enough to see Bobby Womack on Monday night at Camden’s Jazz Café, the first of four sell-out shows. In such a small venue as the Jazz Cafe, it promised to be something special.
Almost everything I’ve ever read about Bobby Womack, whether it be the back of a CD sleeve, preamble to an interview, live or album review, seems to have been taken from the same template. It is invariably a chronological one and runs ‘Born Cleveland… gospel group… the Womack Brothers… Soul Stirrers… Sam Cooke… the Valentinos…”It’s All Over Now”… the Rolling Stones… Chips Moman… Muscle Shoals…yadda, yadda. In many, the bulk is devoted, not to him in fact, but to the luminaries he has worked with at one time or another. I don’t intend to do that, so you might have to haul off to Wikipedia or similar if it’s background facts you want. Anyway, Bobby Womack should need no introduction. He is simply a Music Legend (you will notice I didn’t say ‘Soul Music’ or ‘RnB’ Music I think it’s more than either)
Monday night. Bottle of Becks if you can spot me
And it was. Special. Monday night, I mean. We go a long way back, Bobby and Me. (He doesn’t actually know this as we’ve never met – yet) but I guess for twenty five years, give or take a few months, he has been who I’ve turned to for solace, someone to build me up when someone’s let me down, or when I just want to listen to some good music. Music which has a common touch. For those who think Womack a second string to the likes of Stevie, Marvin, Prince, Michael etc. Have another listen. Listen to how broad it is (Okay, you may have to hide some of the album sleeves on grounds of maintaining good visual taste) but listen for the Country influences, listen to the guitar playing and look at his words. I’ve been a bit self indulgent below, with a pretty poor attempt at a BW bio, using only lines from songs. To be frank, I’m a bit embarrassed by it, so I may well have lopped it off by the time you read this. What it did do, however, was re-confirm that when he is good as a songwriter, he is very good.
Despite the dominance (or perhaps because) of a faceless, conglomerate, corporate music industry, which often relies on homogeneity and an easily-digestible diet; for much of his career, Womack has resolutely ploughed his own furrow, making music which is unafraid to deal with the mundane in life, the every-day and commonplace and which, plays to a backdrop of his deep scrutiny of relationships and sexual politics. These strands run through his work, from his earliest days.
Well, no surprises there you might argue, the last half a century of modern popular music has been predicated on just that. But Womack is different, there is at once a personal rawness, and courage with which he lays himself bare, something he does in distinctive and inspirational ways: ‘talking’ to his audience in his songs – asking them the same questions that he is wrestling with. And there’s empathy, in bucketloads. We might expect his view of life to be non too focused after breathing from the rarefied atmosphere we reserve for ‘Stars’ and suchlike for so long. (In fact, I think a look at the pattern of Bobby’s career and while we’re at it, Bank balance would probably reveal his enjoyment of ‘Star’ status has been more patchy than people think) but through his songs, you can tell – he knows what you are thinking and feeling.
Stylo – Great. I wait for Womack’s lines like I wait for Springsteen’s climactic ‘Born to Run’ chorus
It says something that an artist of his stature and age embarks on his biggest ever tour, effectively as a walk-on for one (two?) songs to audiences who would have had no idea who he was. My son saw Gorillaz at the Benecassim festival in Spain. He knows I am a big fan of BW, but didn’t even realise he’d performed!
And I’m not having a pop at Damon Albarn. Far from it. He is a musician I have the utmost respect for; besides it seems as if Gorillaz has revitalised Womack, prompted the current tour and God-willing, recovery from treatment for Prostate Cancer permitting, moved Womack’s already distinguished career onto a new trajectory. For which, much thanks.
Indeed, it was the deliciously sinister bass line of ‘Stylo’ that almost imperceptably slid into the Jazz Cafe, curling, swirling and eddying around the feet and ankles of the assembled and opened the evening. Before we knew it, that bass was thumping its way into our very muscle fibres, sinews and bones: a foil for as fine a snap-punch of a snare drum I have ever heard.
And there he was!
I’m too white
A man old enough to be my Dad (in fact, suffering the same complaint as my Dad) looking decidedly … not frail, but …’mortal’ shall we say. A man I’ve waited about seven years to see since his last London gig (an unhappy affair at Hammersmith Appollo. I was cross, because I felt it, by his standards was a half-hearted show. Him or just me? I dunno, but I felt it all ran rather too slickly, while I found the ‘talkovers’ indulgent to the point that they detracted from the songs.) A man who I first saw in 1985, and whose voice (I think, judging by what I have seen on You Tube, we were lucky to have got best night) can still send shivers down my spine, move me to tears, or groove like … well, a groovy thing. We were truly spoiled with the addition of the band, namely, Hense Powell – keyboards, Rustee Allen – bass, Arnold Ramsey – drums, Victor Griffin – percussion, Alex H. Marlowe – keyboards, Woodard Aplanalp – guitar, Michael Davis – trumpet, Michael Harris – trumpet, Louis Van Taylor – sax, John Roberts – trombone and backing vocals from Lisa K. Coulter and the great Alltrinna Grayson. All, if you’ll excuse the phrase – tighter than a camel’s chuff in a sandstorm. They rocked the house, the street, it felt like the whole of Camden.
We were treated to, among others ‘Across 110th Street’, ‘Nobody Wants You When You’re Down And Out’, ‘Harry Hippie’, You’re Welcome to Stop On By’, ‘That’s The Way I Feel About Cha’, ‘Daylight’s Gonna Catch Me Up’, ‘I Wish He Didn’t Trust Me So Much’, ‘A Woman’s Gotta Have It’, ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’, ‘If You Think You’re Lonely Now’ ‘Jesus Be A Fence Around Me’. It was so good, I didn’t mind that some of my personal favourites didn’t get an airing. Big voice, big band, small stage, small room, small wonder for the most part I was in seventh heaven.
And at this point I feel I should apologise to the people standing nearby me. Not knowing how my Parkinson’s was going to treat me on this ‘Once in a Blue Moon’ night out, I came with my minder, Russ and wheelchair. We arrived – thankfully before the bulk of the punters and got a good spot, right of stage. As it happened, my Parkinson’s ‘behaved’ – up to a point. I was at the mercy of bad Dyskinesias (uncontrollable movements, result of Parkinson’s medication side-effects) all evening, but despite that, was able to walk unaided. Always a difficult moment, when you have a wheelchair. So I decided to stay seated as I felt it would cause least disruption. About two thirds the way into the gig, I could stand it no more. I am sorry if this apparent sudden ‘healing’ of my affliction caused you distress, or indeed rapture. I know my progress from wheelchair-bound enthusiast to ebullient wedding ‘Disco Dad’ mover was followed with interest by many fellow concert-goers. Bobby’s good, but he’s not that bloody good.
Bobby and Me
I had a hunch he might hang around somewhere after, and thankfully I was right. The double-parked white Mercedes on Parkway was a giveaway. Members of Bobby’s entourage (who, incidentally were politeness itself) officiated and allowed people into the Cafe to meet the man. He looked very tired. So to cheer him up I said ‘Ey! man, you’ve still got another 3 nights to go!’ (Why is it when … well, you know what I’m going to say …) In fact, he looked so drained I immediately felt guilty for taking up his time when probably all he wanted to do was get back to the hotel and relax. ‘No, no trouble’ they insisted. Mr. Womack was gracious, generous with his time and thoughtful. He gave me a copy of the ‘Raw’ DVD, signed, with a personal message, even though I didn’t ask for, nor expect one. And a photo too! Okay, it’s not exactly Rankin: I’ve looked better, though never photogenic and yes, I’d like to have a word with the halfwits in the background. But that is Bobby Womack with his arm around me!
I think I may have come away a little ‘healed’ after all.
Who, who’s holdin’ who?
A few thoughts prompted by a superb performance in a suitably intimate venue by a true giant of popular music.
People say he’s a living legend in his time, but I thought I’d let you know where I’m coming from.
I’m standing at the crossroads, wondering which way does life go, where does that river flow? – turning the pages of my life’s storybook.
I was the third brother of five doing whatever we had to survive. I see that old house standing alongside the road, where Pappa laid his plan and he let us go. He’d say ‘Education is the thing’ and Mamma ‘Get up and try it again’: The roads of life are sometimes hard.
Night after night, my job takes me all around the world. Wild and crazy, chasing the ladies, we sure had a lot of fun. I spend all my money getting drunk with my buddies, wasting every cent I own. Where the champagne is flowing, you know Bobby is going I found it hard to say no.
But who’s fooling who? You see, games, once they start they never seem to end, and I can’t be in two places at one time. Money? It’s just a part of life, you can use it wrong, or you can use it right. Every now and then we all have to get away, to break away to find ourselves. Sometimes we get lost along the way. You know I often wonder sometimes what does it profit a man to gain the world and lose his soul in return? I was drifting away from reality, too far away from the roots in me.
I know today won’t be like yesterday, because I’m seeing it all in a different way. Funny how one thing could change at all when you watch the closest thing to you almost fall. It’s easy to be swayed by the gleaming lights because those lights will have you thinking that everything is going right. Just like they play your favourite song: they play it over and over and over again till the grooves are gone. But I can’t overlook the tears especially when those tears seem to be brought by me. You can’t get away from your destiny.
If you think you’re lonely now…
So, as I get used to the pain maybe then I’ll understand why tears fall down like rain. Everybody needs some kind of love in their life in some kind of shape, form or fashion. Looking back now I still wonder how I ever made it out alive: you came and saved me, with the love that you gave me.
Time has a story and how you play the game is all up to you: I’m talking about friends of mine. People like Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke. You’ve got to make your moves while you can still win them but you can never let the moves close in on you. Still, you find yourself asking: ‘Did I do right? Did I do right?
I know nobody wants you when you’re down and out, but they know I’m dependable, make the rounds and I take the blows and though my heart can’t take it and my feet don’t want to make it, I’m the only survivor left still standing here.
There are so many sides of you, so many sides of you that I like, while no matter how high, no matter how high I get, I’ll still be looking up to you.
Well, where do we go from here?
There’s only one way
Let it play a little while longer.
© Andy Daly 2011
Pic Credits: Battez, Zimbio, author, author, Brother G