We are pleased to introduce a new feature from guest contributor, Kenan Hebert, who first caught our attention with his essay about the Wilco movie. This one’s even better. – ed.
1964. Martha Reeves’ voice bubbles up through unmentionable cracks, oozing with an indescribable, almost indecent sound. It’s soul, but it’s something else, too – soul with the gospel taken out. It’s pure sex, the most temporal of sounds, the sound not of a maven or a diva, but of a hot-blooded American girl, too high-pitched and raw for a Christian choir, but too powerful to be left in a shower. And while she did not write the songs that gave her voice form, neither would the songs have had it without her. Let’s listen.
Sometimes I stare in space
Tears all over my face
I can’t explain it, don’t understand it
I ain’t never felt like this before
Now this funny feeling has me amazed
Don’t know what to do, my head’s in a haze
It’s like a heat wave burning in my heart
I can’t keep from crying
It’s tearing me apart
Imagine it for a second. Somewhere in Detroit, a young woman newly in love sits at the edge of her bed, knees pulled to her chest, crying – actually crying – from the intensity of emotion welling up in her. “Love,” she calls it, but she’s not entirely sure. “Could it be a devil in me?” she asks, because it burns. Anyone who’s ever been young can identify the feeling far more readily than the woman can. It’s lust – tingly, hot, overpowering lust. It is the devil in her, that fiery demon of sexual longing. That feeling of wanting to run and scream and not knowing why, but instead you let the feeling settle deep inside, where it eats away like acid. It’s a helpless, confused, glorious feeling. And she cries. She doesn’t know what to call it.
By 1964, the true name of the feeling was already known to the world: Motown. Love and grief, lust and indifference, acceptance and loss, all at once. A big ol’ mess of feelings. A hybrid in every possible way, but most importantly between transcendent pop and deep, dirty soul. It’s simultaneously one of the most accessible sounds in music, and one of the deepest.
That was then. Thirty-eight years is a lot of time – time enough for youth to fade into old age, for new signifiers to become familiar signposts, and for culture to masticate and swallow a song like “(Love Is Like A) Heat Wave” so many times that it barely seems hot at all anymore. We forget, in thirty-eight years, how hot music like this can really be – thinly veiled sexual innuendo becomes thickly encrusted habit, raw emotion becomes worn and smoothed, like the marble step of a historic building. It’s not just that you’ve walked the step a thousand times, it’s that everyone else in the world has too. Suddenly it’s just a step, and the building isn’t even there anymore.
Only in the case of Motown, the building is still there. It’s an old house, not too big, nothing special really, save for the huge sign reading “Hitsville USA.” It’s where “Heat Wave” was recorded, along with nearly countless other Motown hits, in a basement studio affectionately referred to by all as “the snake pit.” Early in the film Standing in the Shadows of Motown, the ragtag bunch of session musicians called the Funk Brothers, the guys who backed up almost all of the Motown songs from 1959-1973, wander back into the basement room and reminisce. There was a door over there. This was where the piano sat. They laugh and joke and carry the aura of visiting their childhood home, the place where they’ve been happiest in their lives. As they exit, percussionist Jack Ashford waxes rhapsodic. “It’s still in that room,” he says. Whatever mystical elements made Motown one of the most important music machines since Beethoven, they’re still in that room. The point of the film is to prove that Motown was the Funk Brothers, that they were the Motown Sound, but it doesn’t prove that at all. It only proves that it – whatever it is – is still in that room.
* * * * *
2001. Joan Osborne takes the stage in front of the Funk Brothers and sings “Heat Wave.” She un-self-consciously embarrasses herself, the musicians around her, and the song, in that order, though no one involved seems aware of it. Apart from being clearly too old to sing the line, “I can’t explain it / Don’t understand it” with a straight face, she’s also far too white. She’s Vonda fucking Shepard up there, a bloodless mediocrity revamping a shopworn classic as if it had no more meaning to her than watching It’s a Wonderful Life for the hundred and fiftieth Christmas in a row. Joan Osborne is not that girl crying on the edge of her bed, and no number of original musicians is ever going to change that.
The musicians themselves think otherwise, demonstrating the kind of tunnel vision toward music that even casual listening always explodes. The Funk Brothers today serve as one answer to the old question, “Does playing music make you hear it differently?” Yes, it does. Absolutely. Especially if you’re as good as these guys. Making music is, in many important ways, the opposite of listening to it. It puts you inside the process, on the giving end, instead of outside it, on the receiving end. Listening to music moves you, and makes you feel something you have never felt before, and keeps you in touch with the important drumbeat of life. Playing music does all those things, too, but it also makes you proud. It’s an act of accomplishment instead of acceptance, an act of penetration rather than being penetrated. And with repeated accomplishment comes ego, and ego inevitably grows old and hardens into shortsightedness. And then one day, without even knowing what he is doing, one of the greatest musicians in history finds himself onstage playing with Vonda – er, Joan Osborne.
“When these cats cut tracks,” opines drummer Steve Jordan early in the movie, “Deputy Dawg could’ve sung on them and they would’ve been a hit.” It’s a lie born of his bitterness at being under-appreciated, and bearing no resemblance to reality. I’m sure in his own sincere way, he doesn’t know that, but come on now. Is he seriously implying that the Funk Brothers would have still been remembered, or worthy of remembering, had they not backed Marvin Gaye on “How Sweet It Is”? Because there are several incredible things happening at once in that song. One of them is the band, no question, tried and true, accomplished and inventive, and utterly indispensable. But there are also the songwriters, the famed team of Brian Holland, Eddie Holland, and Lamont Dozier, who also wrote “Heat Wave,” and “Baby Love,” and “Reach Out I’ll Be There,” and “This Old Heart of Mine,” and on, and on, and on. And of course there’s Marvin Gaye himself, up front, with a voice so honeyed and wide as to invoke a belief in God all by itself. Lose any one of these elements, and it wouldn’t be Motown.
The Funk Brothers call long overdue attention to themselves in the movie – they weren’t credited at all on the early hits they helped generate. But in doing so, they call attention away from the amazing collective that was Motown, and do more harm to its legacy than good. Pianist Johnny Griffith says later in the film, regarding people’s impression of the Motown Sound, “They would blame it on everything but the musicians.” The floor, the walls, even the food they ate were responsible for the Motown Sound, but never the house band. And yes, he has a point. The Funk Brothers were unfairly ignored. But calling Ben Harper onstage to lamely rehash “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” is hardly the way to reclaim their place in history.
The best way to reclaim that history is to go home, sit late at night in a darkened room, have a drink, and listen to these songs. Do not, under any circumstances, watch the movie The Big Chill. Those drained and useless yuppies wouldn’t know soul music if it did a finger-twirling line dance in front of them. Nostalgia isn’t the answer, it’s the question. What are we so nostalgic about? Why, after all this time, should we still care?
* * * * *
Listen more closely and “Heat Wave” is not a song about love at all, or even lust. It’s about the pain that love brings, like most of the great Motown songs. It’s also – amazingly enough – imminently danceable.
All put together, the Motown catalog represents the greatest chronicle of lust, love, loss, desperation, joy, and grief ever put to music, precisely because most of those songs take the same approach as “Heat Wave”: they put all those emotions into the same full-boil stew, and let each of them fight to rise to the top. Smokey Robinson’s “Tears of a Clown” is a sad song by any lyrical measure; it’s about loss and grief. But it’s not just blues. Oh no, not here at Motown. It’s sugary pop, too. It’s melody and harmony, thickly layered behind a transcendent faux-soprano vocal, a voice rich with texture and training and, yes, smoke. It’s a stomping drumbeat, a low, bleating baritone saxophone, a rhythmic tinkling arrangement of vibes. Only after all that is it blues. It’s the kind of blues you have to meet halfway, the kind you have to reach into yourself to find. Don’t worry, it’s there. And don’t be surprised if, after setting yourself about listening to Motown hits for a while, you start to get sucked deeper and deeper into each song. Get through the layers of happy, the layers of band and beat and timing and backup vocals, and usually what’s left is a lone troubadour, belting out words that he or she may or may not have written, but that he or she undoubtedly feels to the bone. They all sing of the only kind of lustlovelossdesperationjoygrief they know, and of the kind we all know. They sum up the human experience in a way that little other music does.
The idea behind this combination of R&B and pop was to make millions of dollars. That, more than anything else, was Berry Gordy’s master plan. (It’s somewhat telling that one of Gordy’s early hits, released on a small label that was a progenitor to Motown, was Barrett Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want)”). Blues was “race music,” and would be ignored by all but blacks. Gordy wanted to sell his records to white America first and foremost, even going so far as to establish a “finishing school” for his performers in the early sixties, teaching them to walk, talk, and perform like whites. They wore suits and party dresses on stage; they had their hair straightened; they were trained to be more “articulate.” Gordy wanted their image to be clean cut, and for moms and dads across the nation to approve of their kids’ purchase of Motown records.
Whether Gordy betrayed his roots or furthered them with this strategy is a topic for someone else to tackle. Whatever Gordy’s tactics, they worked in every way. He made millions of dollars, of course, but he also made grand, important music. No matter what the outer appearance of the performers, and no matter the catchy, accessible chops of the songwriters, not one note released on Motown between 1960 and 1973 sounds watered down in the slightest. Sure, he made “respectable” musicians out of his troupe of players, but he did not create Pat Boones. He couldn’t have done that if he had tried. He took kids off the streets of Detroit and made them singers; he took musicians out of jazz clubs and made them a pop band; he borrowed from his own cache of songwriters to write mesmerizing melodies, fraught with pain. Every song is as important today as it was then – like all great music, it taps into something elemental.
And the reason for this is… everything I’ve mentioned. No one factor made Motown, not even Gordy. In many ways, Gordy was just lucky. Motown is the tremendously talented singers, many of whom (Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder) became songwriters and titanic artists in their own right. It’s also songwriters, not just the Holland-Dozier-Holland team, but the many others who, after hearing Motown’s first few singles, were beating down the door to get their song recorded by these amazing people. It’s the spirit of the times, the tumult of the 60’s, brought to life in heartbreakingly complex songs, massively dramatic outpourings of conflicting emotion. It’s the floor, the walls, even the food they ate. And it’s the band. All these things existed in space and time, and will never exist that way again. Now they only exist on pieces of vinyl, pieces of plastic, digital files with no physicality whatsoever.
* * * * *
Which brings us back to the Funk Brothers. It’s important to know who they are, and what they did – they were probably the last unsung geniuses in the Motown story. But the movie that has been made about them is full of inaccuracies, most notably on the musical end. The film argues that the musicians are what made the songs, but without that all-important magical combination of happy accidents at work, the Funk Brothers do what Gordy could not. They bleach the music. They make it sound dry, and predictable, and white, to the saddening point that even Chaka Khan can’t save it. Finally, there is a sadness in Standing in the Shadows of Motown, rather than the elation and inspiration that the film aspires to. When those old men come out of that room, the “snake pit” where some of the best moments of their lives took place, it’s only a reminder that you can’t go home again. Because whatever Motown was, it’s still in that room, locked away, never to live again on stage, never to be performed again, never to sound the same way it once did.
It’s a damn good thing, then, that they made records.
writes about music regularly on
Analog Roam Gigantic. He is currently slithering in the underbelly of the Austin music and literary scene. He collects music, and dreams of one day being able to afford collecting it on something other than mp3.