Saturday, February 1, 2020

The greatest purpose

Booker T. Jones
The title that Booker T. Jones gives his new memoir, Time Is Tight: My Life, Note By Note, is apt: the book chronicles his life as one of the great musicians of the post-World War II era as music notes tell a story, evocatively, mysteriously, and sometime surprisingly. Time Is Tight is not a conventional chronological tale; it moves nonlinearly, from Memphis to LA to New York and back again, across decades, as Jones recalls, anecdote by anecdote, his rich and sometimes rocky professional and personal lives, letting the music he remembers and conjures shape the story in an associative way, the way a song works. This is very much a musician's story; as someone who doesn't play or write music, I felt at times that I was on the outside looking in as Jones meticulously explains a song's chord sequences or a player's virtuosity (there are actual music charts in the book's appendix). That's hardly a complaint, though I wish I was more fluent in the language. In this way, his memoir reminds me of Chris Stamey's recent autobiography; two musicians from disparate backgrounds and aesthetics united by their awe-struck love for the formal beauties of notes and songs.

I admit that before I began to read Jones's book in earnest, I turned to the passage where he describes the writing and recording session for Sam & Dave's sublime "When Something Is Wrong With My Baby," a song I've obsessed over for years and consider one of the greatest love songs of our time. Jone's account of the session does not disappoint, and is characteristic of the sweet, and surprising, surrender to art he was blessed to experience throughout his career. He's in his office, struggling with a melody, when he hears some chords coming from Dave Porter and Issac Hayes's office next door. "This was something different," he writes. "I lost concentration on what I was working on. Right next door to me, a true song was being written, and I could not take my attention away from it."
A picture formed in my mind of a man committed to his woman to the extent depicted in the song. This was why we were here. This was why I studied music and what we were dedicated to. Depicting life and love in its most beautiful state. This was one of the greatest purposes of music.
Jones continues, describing Steve Cropper, "Duck" Dunn, and Al Jackson, Jr.'s ensemble playing, nodding to each other as the groove came into shape, with Hayes on piano. Stepping into the arrangement, Jones added some Hammond B-3 organ, "a longing, wistful line that threads its way into the song's fabric from the inside." Indeed.

"There was a respite after the first verse," he continues, "a quieting, where all the elements settled down for the second verse, as if the song’s mood and place was established, and now it could relax for this next part." Sam Moore "sang his heart out," and when the chorus came, when the song's simple but profound truths and discovery arrive, "it came as a relief, a release, deliverance in the power of love." Jones adds, "That feeling was experienced by all involved in the recording and never forgotten."

Nor by this listener. I'd been waiting a long time to read an evocatively-written account of the recording of that remarkable song, and I'm so grateful that Jones delivered. I highly recommend Time Is Tight for its sweep over decades of music making, pausing in narrating, and delighting in, crucial moments like this one.

Photo of Jones by Erik Carter via The New York Times

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