There is no straight way to tell this story.
Music is a time machine. We hear a particular song and are immediately transported to a specific time and circumstance. Could be that any song, an ultra popular ditty or an obscure work of artistry, is the song that turns the key to our individual consciousness at particular moments in our life. We feel the feelings re-emerge. Literally. Even if no one else can observe the motions, our body actually trembles in a Pavlovian fashion responding to the aural stimulus.
I trust the music, believe in the music. I was randomly playing tracks when I heard Isaac Hayes singing “Fragile” and I couldn’t shake it. I played it again. And again. And one more once again.
The songs that ring your bell are particular to you, but if we came through the same time and circumstance, perhaps the seventies or the eighties, and we were young then, going through all the things that young people experience as we mature, then, although we have individual specifics, we also share responses to common triggers. Or we could come to the music at different times and under vastly different circumstance, nevertheless, a particular song plangently strikes us in a resoundingly similar way, leading to a knowing deja vu recognition or reminiscence. “Do you remember when we. . .”?
Ike’s sound means a lot to me. I was new to my life-long passion of writing as a professional. It was 1970, The Black Collegian Magazine. The first issue. Interviewing Isaac Hayes at the Soul Bowl on a beautiful Saturday afternoon in Tulane University’s Sugar Bowl Stadium, which has subsequently been torn down and replaced.
The program started around noon with Pacific, Gas & Electric, and Ike & Tina Turner, and ended late that night with James Brown absolutely killing the event. Literally had over 25,000 souls clapping, rocking, and foot-patting on his one drop. However, as good as they and all the intervening artists were, it was Ike who really got to me.
He came on around five in the afternoon. Imagine. Had already been there for hours when Isaac’s orchestra with Dale Warren conducting climbed on the stage. They had hired a string section of New Orleans classical people to perform with their band, which was why they handed out sheet music and had baton wielding Warren overseeing the unprecedented aggregation. Ike was just cracking the airwaves and wasn’t yet the Academy and Oscar Award winning composer of Shaft songs but he and his musical cohorts were absolutely at the top of their game.
This was at the beginning of Ike’s “Black Moses” period and he was luxuriating in his innovative approach to making popular music. At that time most songs on the radio were three-or-so minutes long, and here came raconteur supremacist, Isaac Hayes, going on for a quarter hour or more, recording two long songs on each side of a disc.
And then there was the way he leisurely interpreted standards of the time. The unique musical direction was auspiciously announced by Ike’s original and heart-rending score of a 1969 recasting of Jimmy Webb’s “By The Time I Get To Phoenix”, which featured the tale of a hard-working man who had had enough/too much of his wife’s gender-flipping, philandering ways.
We all knew such a situation; could be our friend Alfred from the countryside who recently moved in across the street, or a not so distant cousin Renaldo who was domiciled nearby, vainly trying to extricate himself from the quickly deminishing sweet throes of an amorous relationship gone irretrievably sour, until one day, with tears in his eyes and a tremor in his voice, he vows, he can’t take it no more, he is gone, gone for good, and drives away, forever and ever, a sad ending to a tragic tale (who had really been at fault? one of them? both of them? who knows, but old-boy has got to make his get-away). Ike was the master of drawling the weary rhythms of a timeless threnody, playing out in a tragic tableaux.
We all have been cut to the quick, to the bone, once or twice, maybe even thrice, before? Haven’t we? That’s why there are more songs about loss and leaving, than about sticking and staying. Like the once proud man moans, “it’s all in the game”.
Ike completely flipped what was happening on commercial radio with a sound-bed buffed and fluffed up by strings and things, layered under his trademark raps. In later years I found out that Isaac Hayes was interested in far more than rhythms, scales, lyrics and multipart harmonies. He was also heavy into Pan-Africanism and had a deep connection to Ghana.
Subsequent to that fate-filled day at the Soul Bowl, I would run into Ike three or four more times. Once, while interviewing him at Le Pavillon hotel, 833 Poydras Street in the downtown business district of New Orleans, we talked about his upcoming performance and he questioned me about some of the songs he was considering. I responded that he really needed to do “Ain’t No Sunshine” featuring his saxophone work.
Ike was truly a talented musician: singer, instrumentalist, composer, arranger, producer. Indeed Hayes had first made his mark with his late-sixties, soul era, song-writing partner, David Porter, composing hits for a stable of Stax artists, especially Sam and Dave.
Anyway, because I had a press pass, I was allowed onto the field and was so smitten by the sounds when Ike came on that I literally reclined on the ground soaking in Hayes’s enticing ballads that warm afternoon. I was deeply impressed by Ike’s musical conceptions, an entrancing combination of Stax funk and expertly crafted orchestral arrangements. Imagine strings on a football field floating behind a bald-headed baritone emoting about love gone wrong (or remaining sublimely right), as well as other worldly matters!
Many years later, Ike dropped the album Branded on us. That’s where “Fragile” comes from. But what got me to completely comprehend “Fragile” was the September 2019 situation in the Bahamas. I wanted to encourage people to donate to the repair and reconstruction of the island nation that had been devastated by hurricane Dorian.
I am aware that we all have problems, and most of us do not have a large cache of discretionary cash, but the people of the Bahamas can really, really use our help and I wanted to do something a bit more than just send fifty dollars or so when I could scare up the scratch. Go here to make recovery donations and receive information.
I’m from New Orleans. I know the suffering that tests one’s mettle during the challenging, long-lasting reality of recovering from a major hurricane. All of that is what led me to revere Isaac Hayes singing Sting’s song, “Fragile.” Here is both a live version and the original album version of brother man’s appreciation of the “Fragile” message.
Even if either the melody or the song’s meaning is new to you, hopefully these interpretations will spur you to support the recovery of the Bahamas.
In truth, when compared to the weight and immensity of the cosmos, our lives on this planet are but insignificantly brief, insubstantial interludes. At one time or another, most of us will need some assistance to survive. Help if you can and regardless, listen to the lyrics of this music. We (all of us) are so fragile; just ask the stars.