Thursday, September 5, 2019

That unseen wall

I've been listening to a lot of Edwin Starr lately. Most bio sketches will observe that Starr never received the level of fame and recognition that he was due; it's true that, although everyone knows "War," not everyone knows Starr's name—he's not on par with the Smokey Robinsons and the Marvin Gayes in Tamla Motown iconography. But his voice and interpretive skills were among the strongest and most enduring that the label ever featured. A ferocious singer with controlled yet extraordinary dynamics, Starr possessed vocals that were frightening in their righteousness and power. He died in 2003.

These days I'm obsessing over the track "Time" from War & Peace, released in 1970 (co-written by Starr with Richard "Popcorn" Wylie and Wade Marcus, it was also issued as a single as the follow-up to "War")The arrangement, propelled by the peerless Funk Brothers, is a sonic illustration of form nearly conquering content. The song begins with a chiming, and charming, tick-tock over a metronomic hi-hat; horns enter in the fifth measure playing descending notes until Starr enters, looks around with disgust, and commands "Well, well, well, well well well." Pummeled by a driving, headlong, full band rush into the first verse, that clock up on the wall's destroyed—though its looming presence is never absent from the song.

Oh let me tell ya. An emboldened Starr refers to the time of the second-hand moving implacably on the clock face, yes:
Time is the one thing everybody feels
It just expires with no regards to years
but also to the time of eras and moods and movements:
They say time can bring about a change—listen!
But I ain't see a doggone thing
"That's what they tell me: It takes time," Starr laments, his patience growing thinner with each verse. The problem?
"It's in the answer," that's what people say
But it looks like peace is getting further away
"Together we stand, and divided we fall / But we are still divided by that unseen wall" is one of the great lyric couplets of the late 60s/early 70s, a devastating comment on both the potential that time offers and the speed at which time is wasted, the unseen wall created by the spin of the earth and the bigotry and short-sightedness of the folks spinning upon it. This is a seriously pissed-off song, Starr's ferocity echoed in the relentless tambourine and the fiery backing vocals, clamoring for their own attention. Starr reaches for some measure of optimism in the last verse, but it burns to a crisp, really, under the white-hot heat of his performance. Like so many great songs, the content can't bear the form, which consumes it with its own urgency. ("How much time will it take?" the song pleads.) It's amazing that the musicians cut something this combustible without burning down the studio. A positively stirring recording, it will stand as one of the most powerful songs of its era. We can't solve time, but I'm tempted to give a victory of sorts to Starr.


I'd be remiss if I didn't acknowledge that War & Peace also includes the song to turn up when you've gotten the bitterness out of your system and you're ready to party. Starr's rip through Little Willie John's "All Around The World" (an absurdly fun and funky arrangement that the Fleshtones taught me via their 1981 cover) is the perfect antidote to the grim recognitions in "Time." Fuck the clock on the wall, tomorrow will never come as long as the joint's rocking. 

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