Thursday, June 25, 2020

Magic Sam's secret heart

I'm astonished at the places singer and guitarist extraordinaire Magic Sam goes in his version of "My Love Will Never Die," one of the great obsessive love songs in blues history. Willie Dixon wrote the brooding tune and released it in 1952 with his Big Three Trio. After Otis Rush and others, Magic Sam recorded a version at Sound Studio in Chicago with his Blues Band for his debut album West Side Soul, released in 1967. Mighty Joe Young aids and abets on guitar, and Stockholm Slim on piano, Earnest Johnson on bass, and Odie Payne on drums round out the band, who play—surrender to, really—the compulsive 12/8 time as if they have no choice: the song arrived, and well, that's it, you may as well not play it like might you stand out in the rain and stay dry. The music masters the musicians, even as they master its dilemmas.

I'm not a musician, nor am I an actor. But like every human being in existence, I present a different persona for any given time of the day. We get into roles and we play them. What's brilliant and unsettling is how Magic Sam navigates words he didn't compose, lyrics which dramatize either a pathetic and delusional man or a brave and noble one. Sam amazed with his expressive guitar, but I keep coming back—on this record, his equally great follow up Black Magic, and the terrific Magic Sam Live—for his voice, which can leap into a falsetto so graphic in its expressiveness that I'm startled nearly every time. What Sam lacks in finesse he more than makes up for in gruff urgency; he's too close to the mike at times, the needle in the red just a corollary to his own heart pounding. He's steeled by the song's insistent, coiled beat, which gives the impression of a brave march, yet the minor key gives away his desperation and weak bargaining position. "You've done me wrong for a long, long time, and all you've done still never changed my mind," he—asserts? wills himself to believe?—and those dozen or so words lay out the song's problem to solve: she's hurt him, yet he still loves her. Now what? The last verse—
These flowers grow where I lay and rest
And these colored blossoms darling, hold to your breast
And darling, I know it's my mind breaking out
From inside my love for you will never die
—says that he's here for the long haul, but to what end? Does he believe that his declaration will win her back? (And why would he want to?) Doesn't he realize that his feelings for her, however noble and earnest, might look like neediness to her, or, worse, as tiresome and creepy obsessiveness? Yet either way he's singing, he has no choice, and that's what's both moving and exhausting about "My Love Will Never Die." The more he sings, the further she moves away, until he's alone at the end, clutching little but his continuing, baffling affection for a person who's hurt him. How to solve that age-old dilemma.... The strutting time signature has its knees taken out by the sadly knowing minor key; Sam's needful vocal is undercut by the helplessness of the very words he's singing. No matter how many times I listen to this remarkable performance, my sympathies remain at war: the singer's tired yet confident, resolved yet weak, emboldened yet haunted, assertive but owned by a weepy tremolo that he can't keep out of his voice. Of course, this is what I hear, with my own history, biases, and needs—you might hear something else.

Magic Sam's performance cut in this studio on this day in 1967 is timeless, and reveals a surprise or two with every listen. Like all great art, "My Love Will Never Die" remains in many ways unresolved. Joyce Carol Oates, who knows a thing or two about the dark heart, says “Lovers of pristine harmony, those who dislike being upset, shocked, made to think and to feel, are not naturally suited to appreciate art, at least not serious art, which, unlike television dramas and situation comedies...does not evoke conflict merely to solve it within a brief space of time."
Rather, conflict is the implicit subject, itself; as conflict, the establishment of disequilibrium, is the impetus for the evolution of life, so is conflict the genesis, the prime mover, the secret heart of all art.
It's an observation as old as dirt, sure, yet the paradox that Magic Sam tries to sing himself out of sounds and feels desperately fresh every time I listen. In the eternal present tense of the song's finish, he's battling a problem so ancient that it's as new as yesterday.

Trying to figure it all out


jimmyb said...

I agree with you. I heard West Side Soul for the first time about 40 years ago and I was hooked. The West Side Soul sound of Magic Sam, Buddy Guy, Otis Rush, Junior Wells et al shows how a music style can evolve and remain relevant and incredibly exciting. Love your blog and also the great selection of links.

Joe Bonomo said...

Thank for reading, Jimmy, and for the kind words. Magic Sam was one in a million.

jimmyb said...

He sure was. I think you just inspired to post some of his music up the road at Twilightzone. Always good to have a little inter-blog crossover.