It was the ’90s. Boyz II Men and Jodeci were hot. Kevin Costner was a huge star. A Tribe Called Quest was still together. Marky Mark was modeling Calvin Klein underwear and was not yet professionally known as Mark Wahlberg. O.J. Simpson hadn’t killed (allegedly, ha!) anyone yet. While everyone was sporting Travel Fox, I had a pair of Bugle Boy boots and Snagga Puss was doing the Tatie dance. This was before email accounts, search engines and blogs. It was a world before PVR’s and Youtube.
The latter point is particularly significant. In those days, if you missed a television program you were out of luck. People worldwide spent countless hours reading manuals trying to figure out how to program their VCR’s so they could watch the Leafs game and tape the American Music Awards. (if you’re so young that you don’t know what a VCR is, ask a parent. Or Google it.) If you were like me, you tuned into MuchMusic and taped programs like Soul in the City and X-tendamix to get a fix of hip hop, R&B and reggae. Like many people, I had a stack of videotapes bursting at the seams with my favourite videos.
Thing is, though I was into all the music my peers were into, I was an even bigger fan of the oldies. I mean, I appreciated the Snoop Doggs, SWVs and Beenie Mans as much as the next dude. But I really connected with the oldies. Stuff my parents would have been listening to. You know, Al Green, Sam Cooke and Ken Boothe. In that vein, you better believe I was geeked out of my mind when I tuned into MuchMusic one day and they were airing a special presentation: Stax-Volt European Tour (1967).
I rushed to the stack of videotapes on the shelf beside the television. My head nearly exploded when I realized that I didn’t have any blank ones. I made the executive decision to use a tape that my siblings and I used to record episodes of a soap opera. (whose name will remain nameless because I want to maintain the façade of cool masculinity I’ve worked hard to establish.) I pushed the tape in the VCR, pressed record and sat transfixed as footage of some of my musical heroes flashed before my eyes: Booker T. and the MG’s, Sam and Dave and Otis Redding.
Now, the big O may have been Stax’s headliner, but there is no doubt that Sam and Dave stole the show. Their performance was electric. Edifying. Soul personified. Their performance of “Hold On, I’m Comin’” is one for the ages. The soul singer as preacher, as witness, as symbol of suffering, anguish and passion is such a well worn trope, such a pervasive cliche that to refer to their performance as a truly spiritual experience is almost meaningless. I say almost because the cliche was created for performances like this.
Listen to their voices. Really listen. Sam Moore’s voice is defiant, proud. The sound of a man prepared to go the distance, unafraid of the final mile(s) because he survived the previous 500. When he sings “Hold On, I’m Comin'” it sounds like a threat as much as a promise. Dave Prater on the other hand, sounds like a man walking a tightrope (in)secure in the knowledge that only the power and obstinance of his voice will keep the wild winds at bay.
When the song breaks down into that hypnotic groove (at the 2:28 mark in the clip above) you can feel the pressure building. But it’s a beautiful pressure, the kind that you just know is leading to a catharsis, a release. A tension and release that the band (Booker T and the MG’s), the singers and the crowd are creating together with every gesture, every pause, every note, every snatch of approval and applause. When Sam addresses the audience (3:14 mark in the video), hair stands up on my neck. I feel like I can feel his fatigue, his sweat. It is practically a baptism.
Sam repeatedly asks the crowd to “Do me a favour”. They can’t help but answer in the affirmative. At his urging they stand in unison. Whenever I watch this clip I find it hard to stay seated; half the time I stand up too. And it all feels as inevitable as daybreak. If you can watch that footage without being moved, then you don’t like soul music. And I might not want to know you.
Anyway, with my taped copy of this show I felt like I had struck pay dirt, the mother lode. Over the next few months I watched the tape repeatedly. That summer, I came home one evening and planned to end my night by watching that video. Again. I took it from the shelf, popped into the VCR and….nothing. The nothing was followed by over-emoting actors playing that familiar scene where so and so comes back from the dead to tell what’s his name that she still loves him even though he sold their love child to who gives a crap and is now married to her sister. I was furious. Apparently one of my siblings (my sister) decided they just couldn’t miss an episode of this melodramatic tripe.
Keep in mind folks, this was the 1990s. I had no way of finding that footage. Anywhere. I prayed to the gods that MuchMusic would rebroadcast the program. I prayed that some evil would befall my sister. (hey, I was young and soap operas don’t have a monopoly on melodrama.) Nothing doing. As a result, I held a long and deep grudge against my sister. For years, behind my sister’s back, I would tell the story to anyone who would listen. I imagined inflicting bizarre, painful and above all uber-effective torture on her. I imagined that I could shoot laser beams from my eyes. I imagined shooting them into the back of her head. I imagined her hair catching on fire and me screaming:
“That’s what you get for taping over Sam and Dave…”
But I’m better now. This thing called the Internet came on the scene and then some enterprising individual developed YouTube. And miracle of miracles, I was able to find the footage again. I was able to get over my pain. (It still kind of burns me though. I mean, I anguished for years about this.) So I want to take this opportunity to say thank you to YouTube. If not for this wonder of the Internet I would still be harbouring a grudge against my sister. And that would be too bad because I do love her. You know, she’s getting married this year and thanks to Youtube I will be able to toast my sister and her husband (to be) with joy, with a heart free of malice. So let me say it once more:
Thank you Youtube, for allowing me to forgive.