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Why are Al Green's 1970s soul singles still the perfect choice for a dark bar or a wedding dance? Maybe it's because they feel like the curve of life itself: momentous rather than fast, hesitant with ecstasy instead of extravagant, turning but not resolving. "Let's Stay Together," "You Ought to Be With Me," "Take Me to the River"--all shift their weight as they move. They feel human like that, alive to the ease and sensitivity of Green's impossibly sexy falsetto, which goes quiet with intensity, letting the organ catch its breath.
The Reverend Al Green today remains the divided man who made those songs. A quarter-century after giving up pop for the Lord, he has reunited with his '70s mentor and producer, Willie Mitchell. On Monday, he plays the Guthrie in support of I Can't Stop (Blue Note), the duo's first secular collaboration since 1976. They recorded it at their old studio, too: Royal, in Memphis, the city where Green still lives and preaches. Speaking over the phone recently, the reverend sounds musical even while laughing about his unredeemed past.
City Pages: A question from the old days: What was "Take Me to the River" about, anyway?
Al Green: I wrote the song, "Take me to the river/Wash me down/Cleanse my soul/Put my feet on the ground." That's what I wrote down. Now, [guitarist] Teenie Hodges and Willie Mitchell wrote, "I don't know why you treat me so bad," and "took all my cigarettes," and da-da-da. I didn't write none of that. I wrote, "Put my feet on the ground." That's what I wanted. And at that time my feet definitely wasn't on the ground. Far from it. I was zinging away, I'm telling you.
CP: Do you still feel like your feet aren't on the ground sometimes?
Green: No, no. I asked to be delivered from that. And I was delivered from it. God said to me, "You have to pray about this. Now what I want you to do is...uh, what's that in your shirt pocket?"
I'm going like, "Huh? Oh, well, there's some junk up in it. But I just bought this." [laughs]
The man says, "Well, when you need my help, you call me."
I say, "Hold it, hold it. I need your help."
So he says, "Okay, speed up a little bit. Take the bottle out of the bag, roll down the window, start shaking. Ah ah ah, don't look back. Keep going."
Honestly, I never talk about that. But that really did happen. And since that time, I haven't done that. It's a waste of time, a waste of your money, a waste of your life. You betray your children, you betray yourself. I don't need that. I need to be... [breaks into song]"I don't know why/I love you like I do."
CP: Have you heard any of the gangsta rap being recorded at Royal by Willie Mitchell's sons?
Green: I haven't heard a lot of it. I think Willie's in the hospital. I've got to call him in a few minutes.
CP: Is he okay?
Green: Yeah, he's okay. Except that, you know, he wants to have diabetes and also drink vodka. I told him, "The doctor said that you can't drink the vodka if you're going to take the medicine." Willie said, "Forget you and the doctor." He's kind of like crazy like that, but you've got to pay for your crazy, too. That's why he's in the hospital.
CP: Do you drink at all these days?
Green: Me? Oh, no. I can't drink, man.
CP: Did you have any Willie Mitchell memories come back to you while recordingI Can't Stop?
Green: No, we didn't go back, we went forward. I just finished the last song on the next album. It sounds like a Willie Mitchell-type recording, but we also have some hip-hop tracks in there. I had a little kid named Ice, who's 19, do some tracks. I met him because he's working on his own music at the adjacent studio next door.
CP: Would you have any advice for a young performer like Justin Timberlake?
Green: Justin's my neighbor out here. We live about a mile, two miles from each other. I don't have much advice for Justin other than, "It's what you want." It's not what the people want. It's not what they say you ought to be. It's what you say you ought to be. Don't let people be your mirror.
CP: What's a typical day like for you?
Green: For me, I have to read this book [the Bible]. If I don't read the Book, nothing goes right. Everything is wrong. The band is wrong, the music is wrong. So I got to get up and read my book at, like, 4:00 in the morning, 3:00 in the morning. Then I go to my studio, and I record what I hear in my spirit, in my soul. And then I go over to the studio on Lauderdale and try to cut what I heard. And after that, I go on the road and try to sing what I heard. And then I come back to the church and try to preach what I heard.