Back in the days when an adolescent consciousness wouldn’t yet be cluster-bombed with a virtually limitless stream of algorithmically pre-selected media from the moment they had learned to press a button, it was access to vinyl records that would determine most of your cultural intake as a young person – music, that is.
Where I grew up, the radio (and later MTV if you had cable) would serve contemporary Pop and Rock music. If you wanted to dive into the history that had made those two what they had become at the time, however, you would find yourself at the local record store looking up acts from the 1960s and 70s who had proven to still be commercially relevant to a white audience 20 years later.
Or, if you were me, a grown-up you would have expected it from the last would quietly give you an original copy of Aretha Franklin’s Greatest Hits album from 1971, on the B side of which they would send a message to you that you’d only begin to understand decades later.
My parents were not meant to live together. Their separation took a few years of back and forth, but when I was four, my father had moved out and lived with a woman he had met at work.
From all I know and feel allowed to tell here, it had not been some sort of loose workplace affair but was pretty serious from the beginning. They moved in together, stayed together, married decades later, and are a happy couple to this day. My mother eventually found a new partner as well, they married around the same time, and the four of them get along really well – just to spoil what I consider an amazingly fortunate outcome for all of us.
At the time it wasn’t easy, of course. My brother and I were being raised by three grown-ups (not counting two grandmothers), on wildly different standards and expectations. Two of them were present only on weekends and during a two-weeks summer vacation per year. And one of those two – my father’s new partner – we hadn’t even invited, nor had anyone asked for our approval.
I remember how small, exhausted, and angry I felt for years. How could these grown-ups not see me and the pain I was in? How could I make them see? Was I expected to talk about it? But how, they evidently didn’t listen! Otherwise dad would be home already – it’s not that I hadn’t asked.
All this could only mean one thing: grown-ups were never to be trusted. I would have to protect myself and my younger brother from their vicious trickery – and most of all from that woman who had ‘stolen away’ our father. Why couldn’t she just go away, so that dad would come home?
Don’t trouble the water
Like Janis Joplin’s Turtle Blues, Aretha Franklin’s rendition of Bridge Over Troubled Water kicks off the B side of the album. What is it with B sides and the secret magic they hold?
The song begins with an iconic bass intro (dubbed by Franklin’s electric piano) tumbling down an octave into a steady flow of Paul Simon’s original One-Four harmonies hovering over a gently grooving rhythm section, bass strictly on the root note, before the vocals enter with a gospel-style choir, the artist herself filling in ad-lib:
Don’t trouble the water (I won’t)
Give it up, why don’t you let it be
Still water run deep
Yes, it do (I know that)
(If you only believe)
These lines are an addition to Simon & Garfunkel’s original (in my opinion most impressively delivered at Central Park in 1981), and it begs the question: why? What for? Artistic freedom, probably, but given Mrs. Franklin’s biography, I do wonder if there is another angle to it.
- Aretha’s parents split up when she was six.
- At age ten she lost her mother.
- Two years later, still a 12-year-old child, she became pregnant…
- …and again two years after that.
While Mrs. Franklin herself mostly refused to discuss her early pregnancies, the director and author of the Respect biopic shed quite a clear light on their significance as the traumatic experiences they undoubtedly must have been.
The specificity [of who impregnated] her doesn’t matter as much as what it did, in terms of trauma, and children not being able to provide consent […]Liesl Tommy and Tracey Scott Wilson, Vanity Fair 2021
On that background, is it totally out of line to at least consider the possibility those introducing lines to Bridge Over Troubled Water could be more than just a stylistic ornament?
What I heard but wasn’t able to put my finger on as a teenager, is a young person – weary, in need of comfort, yet unable to express themselves with words – asking to be left alone by a demanding family or public:
Don’t trouble me. Don’t speak to me about things I had no chance to comprehend, let alone process at the time they happened to me. I know they happened, can’t that be enough? I hope to be able to let them go one day. Until then, can you just let me be?
Still waters run deep
What happens next in the song caught me completely off guard when I first listened to it. By all contemporary standards, you would expect a first verse, that is: vocals.
What you get instead, however, is a full chorus of one of the most graceful, dare I say affectionate instrumental call-and-response exchanges I have ever witnessed (and I used to play the Hammond organ in an African-American church).
Franklin leads the conversation, her stage piano telling the story of the melody in an almost humble softness. She takes all the time in the world, leaving generous space for Billy Preston’s airy drawbars to answer gently from afar.
Bear with me when I say it hit me like the voice of a burning bush coming out of my record player:
This was prayer, in its arguably purest form. No words, just rhythm and sound – the two most primal of all human experiences on this earth.
- Before we learn to express ourselves using the words of a language;
- before we are introduced to institutionalised religion and its vocabulary and dogma;
- before we learn to think of a ‘God’ as something we must, or can choose to believe in;
- before we discover the betrayal of the human mind and soul perpetrated again and again by the leaders of each and every mono-theistic religion throughout history;
- before we may opt to reject the concept of a ‘higher’ entity in this universe altogether –
– before all that, in our mother’s womb, or as apes under the stars millions of years ago, we have experienced comfort, redemption, and protection in just these two constants of life itself: rhythm and sound.
And that is prayer to me today. I couldn’t have spelled it out as a teenager, but I immediately felt it when I encountered Aretha’s piano and Billy’s organ sinking into each other’s arms as friends on their way through the first chorus on that B side.
This again meant galaxies more than a weary young soul was able to comprehend. But this time in a good way.
I’ll take your part
My father and mother both had complicated childhoods in different ways. When I finally was on my way, my father made a pledge to himself to treat his children better than he felt he and his brothers had been treated by their father.
Most importantly to him, that meant: no physical violence. And he kept that promise all the way. But he also wanted to be a better father in other regards, really be there for his children, earn their trust and live up to it. This obviously would become a challenge when he and my mother split up and his first-born turned out to develop quite a merciless wrath towards the new woman in his life.
The new woman on the other hand turned out nothing but loving and caring towards us kids. Not having any children of her own, she was way too smart and empathetic to assume she could replace our mother on those weekends or summer vacations, but she did take our side more often than not.
My dad could be really strict. His ideas of a proper education were not at all inappropriate, but severely at odds with what we were used to from our mother. Conflict was the order of the day.
Our stepmother (for lack of a better term) would act as a buffer between us when the going got rough. She would remind my father that we had a life in our mother’s care from Monday to Friday and that we shouldn’t be expected to be able to meet a completely different set of standards (his) come Saturday. And by speaking up for us – taking our part if you will – she would create the safety we needed to see (and sometimes even accept) that some of our dad’s ideas actually weren’t that bad for us.
Sail on, silver girl
She is approaching her eighties today, and her life’s purpose seems to be to take care of my father. And vice versa, I suppose.
They are really good together: funny, feisty at times, but they’ve managed to make up and keep going for over 40 years. I have no doubt he made the right decision back then, even if it meant overcoming some horrendous challenges for all of us for many years.
Before Aretha’s Bridge Over Troubled Water picks up speed towards the end, you can hear her shouting:
To me, the instrumental prayer at the beginning and that holler at the end are both the song and my father’s wife.
I tear up when I listen to that duet of piano and Hammond organ and think of the woman who laid herself down as a living bridge over the troubled waters between me and my dad over and over again, while she undoubtedly must have felt the heat of his child’s passionate resentment towards her during those earlier years.
When she realised music had begun to speak to me in a way it didn’t for every kid, she gave me Aretha’s Greatest Hits – and with it that message on the B side that I wouldn’t decipher until some 30 years later: how much I meant to her, how she had seen me all the time, how humbly she had offered me the gift of her friendship year after year, and how generously forgiving she had been when I had turned her down so many times before I began to know better.
And on top of all that, she gave me a song to blissfully cry along every time I put it on. And that’s a good thing to have in your life.