We know that music can evoke powerful memories. A song not only takes your mind back, but takes your body back to another time. You feel the same sensations and emotions, the same twinges and secretions. Pure chemical magic. In the past few weeks with the I-pod on shuffle during my commute to work, I’ve relived moments of my youth. My first experience taking LSD with Santana’s “Singing winds, crying beasts.” A prickly nerve shiver spreads out into my limbs as cymbals and chimes sing and hiss behind the piano and piercing guitar. Driving, oppressive energy limned with sadness from an early sexual experience creeps over me with the Beatle’s drone: “I want you. . . I want you so bad it’s driving me mad.” Another time, a piano riff announcing Aretha Franklin’s edgy command “you better think” blasts out of the speakers, followed by “think about what you’re trying to do to me.” I sit straight up in the driver’s seat and start to move to the rhythm. This one took me back to 1968, I mean right back into our living room graced with a faded Persian carpet and upholstered teak chairs. That winter, the radiators whistle as wet snow falls over Toronto. I dance whimsically while belting into a pretend microphone. Beside me, my father plays air drums and my sisters wail on imaginary horns.
I turned 10 the year “Aretha Now” came out. It arrived at our house on Christmas day 1968 – perhaps my mother bought it for my father or my father bought it for my mother. But all I know is that that record album lit me up, moved me, and taught me about men and women, sex and love, power and desire. You could say it was formative.
Our record player was on a low chest in the living room. I’d lean the cardboard album cover against it, slide the LP out of its sleeve, and place the album carefully on the turntable. My father had taught me how to start the machine and use the little lever to gently drop the needle onto the first track, “Think.” That piano groove followed by the drums, and then Aretha’s full, strong voice would set me moving around the room.
“You better think (think)
Think about what you’re trying to do to me Think (think, think)
Let your mind go, let yourself be free”
I didn’t know what she meant–what exactly was he trying to do to her? But whenever she boldly told him to “Think,” I’d feel the impossible power of speaking up. At the end of the song, she sang “freedom, freedom.” Her back-up singers, the Sweet Inspirations, laced with horns, pushed each iteration to the next level like leapfrog on a steep hill.
I fell in love with Aretha’s smiling—almost mischievous—dimpled face. She looked off to one side, as if she might be looking at her sweetheart, her green turtleneck mirroring the lime green letters spreading over her high coiffed hairdo. My body woke up to the beat of this delicious music, her big buttery voice, and all of those fascinating lyrics that stirred an inchoate longing in my pelvis, even if I wasn’t sure what it was.
If “Think” made me feel the power of female authority, “Say a little prayer for me” made me swoon with dreams of romantic love transformed into a religion. I could imagine Aretha waking up in her shaded boudoir, sitting at her make-up table. Before she puts on her eyeliner she whispers a quiet prayer to the man she loves. I liked thinking of her in her own space, choosing her dress, combing her hair, praying for his love. . . hoping he’ll answer her prayers and love her back. The passionate crescendos rose with the Inspirations crooning like taffeta petticoats under the full-satin dress of her voice: “Forever, forever, you’ll stay in my heart and I will love you forever, forever, we never will part.” Listening to the song now, I hear the urgency and desperation in the ending “answer my prayer now, say you’ll love me too,” something lost on me fifty years ago.
Every song had a different flavour. I loved to sing along about the man whose love was “like a seesaw, going up, down, and all around.” Now the lyrics sound like they’re about an abusive relationship, but at the time, it was just another piece of the mysterious puzzle that was male-female relationships. Aretha sang Ray Charles’s tune, “The night time is the right time to be with the one you love.” Seductive horns like exclamation marks after Franklin’s lines were joined by a mix of other voices, all to that slow blues rhythm that intoxicated me. I didn’t know much about sex at the time, but apparently it happened at night with someone you love. “Won’t you please tease me, but don’t leave me,” came out in big swoopy yells and I could just feel in my bones the aching-ness of desire, sex, and love. Somehow it felt really good but it was sad and complicated and caused great suffering. Women had to keep praying and begging their men to love them, but then those men might treat them badly, ignore them, or put them down.
“Darling you send me, darling you send me. Darling you send me, honest you do honest you do.“ After “say a little prayer” this one was my next favourite. Aretha actually sang “I want you to marry me” Wow! Little did I know that this was Sam Cooke’s song and she’d changed it from his “I want to marry you.” It didn’t matter, it was revolutionary, a woman brazenly saying she wanted a man to marry her. This one was a sweet mix of love and sex, being thrilled and being sent, but I wasn’t sure where one was being sent to. It sounded very sensual but also spiritual, and I loved how Aretha pronounced it “shend” in the opening refrain. When I listen to the song now I keep expecting that little skip in the album just after the second verse, a skip tattooed in my memory, but of course it never comes.
In 1970, a year or so after I was first grooving to “Aretha Now,” my parents separated, surprising everybody and further complicating my labyrinth of male-female relationships. It was a labyrinth that I soon—too soon—entered, trying to figure out how to be alluring, how to be loveable, and yet how to appear “cool” and not too needy or emotional. The sweet, sexy, indelible music of “Aretha Now” had me saying little prayers, looking for thrills, and aching to be loved as I grew into womanhood.