Sunday, June 15, 2014

Aretha Franklin at Radio City

Last night a dream came true: I saw Aretha Franklin in person, performing in a live concert. Oh me oh my it was everything I'd imagined it would be, all these years of daydreaming and a-thinking of her, since I first got turned on to her magic when I was a teenager in 1960s Detroit. I own something like 20 of her albums and I never tire of listening to them. Still, there's nothing like the real thing, and last night at the magnificent Art Deco palace that is Radio City Music Hall, I finally got to experience it.

She was magnificent. Her voice is intact. Intact! I could close my eyes, in fact I did several times, and think I was listening to the Aretha of 30, 40 years ago. Everything that makes her unique--and I do believe she is unique, more on that in a minute--was on full display. Despite her health problems of recent years, including a life-threatening cancer siege that she ultimately vanquished, despite her years, 72 of them, which accumulation of time usually affects voice quality and range, somehow, the gift, the magic, the miracle are still there. Fully there, fully undiminished.

I'm not a singer or musician so I don't have the technical vocabulary to talk about what she does or how she does it. I only know that, IMHO, when Aretha Franklin sings it is a phenomenon unlike any other. She does things no one else does. There is a quality to her voice, sometimes a breathy lyricism, sometimes a deep alto swoop, sometimes an operatic pitch upward, something about her diction, her superb mastery of rhythm, her finely tuned conveyance of emotional depth. Her voice. What else can I say but: her voice! It is like no other.

There are and have been other great singers, certainly. There are and have been other singers whose work I love and admire, of course. But I believe there is no one like her. I believe she deserves every accolade she has ever received. And so when I hear, as one sometimes does, negative commentary by cultural critics or other performers who disparage what they deem the lopsided unearned acclaim accorded Aretha Franklin, I get mad. I disagree heartily. And I want to say to them: yes the system sucks, yes a music industry based on the drive for profit stacks all the odds against artists, especially artists of color, working-class artists, the young, the poor. But once in a great while, a true artist arises from the ranks of the masses and, by some combination of timing, luck, talent and unimaginably hard work, manages to break through all the barriers and bring her art forward. On the rare occasions when this happens, we shouldn't blame the artist--it's not Aretha Franklin's fault that her record labels figured out a way to make money off her music over the years, any more than it's the divine Toni Morrison's fault that the publishing industry recognized her, took her up and brought her work to the page. These exemplars of artistic genius should inspire the utmost respect, not resentment, in my opinion, especially as they get older and every note, every word they offer becomes that much more precious.

I've written often on this blog about my belief that there are deep wells of unrecognized artistic talent, unimagined creativity, residing in millions if not billions of individuals around the world. About the people, the workers and the oppressed, who have inside them masterpieces of fiction and poetry, whose voices would shame the nightingales, whose musicianship would shock and shake us, whose paintings and sculptures, plays and installations and dance would open our eyes and grab our hearts and stir up our minds. And about how none of them, or almost none, will ever get the chance to explore the art that's waiting within them, or perhaps even know it's there, because their life consists of the struggle to survive in the face of exploitation, racism and oppression. This, to my mind, is one of the great crimes of capitalism: how it robs human beings of the opportunity to explore their artistic potential and robs humanity of the culture that could be created if society were organized around meeting the needs of the 99%  instead of amassing private profit for the 1%.

So let's celebrate our luck at the exception, and her name is Aretha Franklin. My luck is that I experienced her gift for an hour and a half last night.

I'm going to close with two things: first this report on last night's concert, for those who want a more specific blow by blow. And last, a passage from the novel Moth Smoke by Mohsin Hamid. It combines a nice dig at U.S. imperialism with a beautiful tribute to Detroit's own wonder. The scene is Lahore, Pakistan, in the late days of the 20th century:
We met for tea and talk on Tuesdays, after which I gave him a ride (gratis) to wherever he was going. Our conversations ran from economics to automotive maintenance, broken noses, and Aretha Franklin. (A word about this last: a foreign tourist once left a cassette in the back of my rickshaw, and when I took it home and played it, I discovered the Queen of Soul. Life was never the same. In the past, when people said America has never given us anything, I used to agree. Now I say, "Yes, but America has given us Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul," and they look at me strangely. I never explain any further: one cannot explain Aretha Franklin; either you are enlightened or you are not. That is how I view the matter.)
Thank you, my dearest sister Ms. Franklin, for all you've given me over the years. And for last night, an hour and a half I'll never forget.