October 2020

Arts & Letters

Listening to Roberta Flack

By Anwen Crawford

‘First Take’, released 50 years ago, still echoes through the present

Maybe it was May, or early June, I think the roses were still blooming, fists of red against the dark brick of Federation houses. I was listening to Roberta Flack, specifically, to “Ballad of the Sad Young Men”, which ends her album First Take. The song is luxurious in its sorrow, now despairing, now tranquil, its minor seventh chords hung between bitterness and resolution. “All the news is bad again”, which suggests it always will be; still, the ear hopes to hear the minor seventh make it back to the root note of the scale, like the body wants to rest after a night spent in a smoke-filled bar, among the sad young men with their “glasses full of rye”. And though it’s spring now as I write this, and the roses have given way to thick sweet clusters of jasmine, Flack’s album still cuts through to me as little has, of late. It gives me the sense of a real time that once was passed – passed once and was gone – in a real room.

First Take was Flack’s first album, released in 1969. As its title suggests, it was recorded at speed. It’s only eight tracks long, beginning with the sharp, lean funk of “Compared to What”, a song that anticipates the proto-rap of Gil Scott-Heron, who would release his own debut album, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, in 1970. The concluding “Ballad…”, with its glimmering, alcohol-soaked ambience, was taken from a now forgotten 1959 musical, The Nervous Set, about Connecticut suburbanites touring beatnik Greenwich Village. Bookended by these tracks is an anti-racist Spanish-language ballad (“Angelitos Negros”), Flack’s arrangement of a gospel hymn (“I Told Jesus”) and two songs co-written by a then unknown Donny Hathaway: the maudlin “Our Ages or Our Hearts”, which is sung from the perspective of a young woman fallen in love with an older man, and the rather more urgent “Tryin’ Times”. Completing the set is a version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye”, and the song that, in 1971, became Flack’s first, belated hit, after Clint Eastwood used it in his film Play Misty for Me: a cover of Ewan MacColl’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”, which MacColl had written for his fellow folk singer and eventual third wife, Peggy Seeger.

The quickness with which First Take was made – it took somewhere around a day – would be unlike Flack’s albums to follow, and especially unlike her multi-million-selling 1973 album Killing Me Softly, which was worked on for more than a year, and sounds like it, all the air pressed out of the arrangements. First Take, by the nature of its recording, has a presentness – a presence – that I envy now. I’m tired out by time that feels unreal and circular: unreal since the bushfires began to spread a year ago, and circular because those fires, and then the pandemic, have shrunk what’s possible in daily life to a clutch of worried repetitions.

Flack was classically trained as a pianist, and a classical sense of interpretation cleaves to her performances on First Take: a song may be written but the point is to inhabit it, not just to play the notes. Flack’s art on this recording is to hold for herself and a listener a sense of where a song is headed, while maintaining the possibility that she may steer it elsewhere.

The exception is her cover of “Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye”, which can’t escape the fact that a Leonard Cohen melody will always spiral to its mournful and foregone conclusion. My theory is that singers love to cover Leonard Cohen songs because every decision has been made in advance: all you’ve gotta do is sing. This is true even when a singer does their level best to overload Cohen’s pathos with sentimentality, or ornament, in a bid to prove they can insert their will into something with the obdurate structure of myth. Don’t bother, just sing it. There’s a version of “Suzanne” on Killing Me Softly that runs for almost 10 minutes, and it’s barely coherent as a series of musical decisions that never even needed to be made. Obduracy is not why I turn to First Take, and especially not now, when Flack’s interpretive gift reminds me that everything is still contingent: that one must act amid contingencies.

I once said to a former teacher of mine – though no teacher one respects is ever really former – that, to me, writing felt arbitrary, unfolding one day in this way and the next day some way else that wouldn’t have come to be, otherwise. This is why it scared me – still scares me – to write. That’s not arbitrariness, she replied, that’s contingency. First Take isn’t live, in the sense of having been performed for a live audience, but it’s alive, and, more and more, that feels like an endangered quality. But then again, death surrounds us: unnatural death, mass and excess death, species death, pandemic death. Whatever is alive is precious. We don’t know what next week or next year will bring, amid our interlinked catastrophes, which means that the greater catastrophe would still be a resignation to the losses – of life, of rights, of environments – that are not predetermined.

At the centre of First Take is Flack’s arrangement of the hymn “I Told Jesus”. It’s a song about the cost of following one’s conscience. The singer asks Jesus to change her name, and Jesus warns her, “The world will turn away from you, child, if I change your name.” The singer replies that this will be alright, and as the world does exactly what Jesus has predicted – father, mother, brother each turning away – Flack digs into the bass octaves on her piano like a climber finding foothold. Horns and strings rise around her, clouds that skim the summit that she’s seeking. For the final time she vows, “It’d be alright, if He’d change my name.”

And as she summits her mountaintop, her last “my” rippling like a flag in the wind, I am reminded, all of a sudden, of an old and chilling record made in 1926 by a singer named Homer Quincy Smith. The song Smith sang, accompanied only by an organ, is called “I Want Jesus to Talk With Me”, and, at the end of it, Smith does something very similar to what Flack does with her “my”, making his last “me” high and cold and lonely, into a multi-syllabic flourish of self-assertion that is also an abnegation, because the cost of making a moral choice might include the sacrifice of a self you’d always known, even if – especially if – no reward follows. Maybe there’s no way off the mountaintop, or Jesus isn’t there.

Recently, for the first time I can recall, I dreamt of flying, but not flying of my own volition. I dreamt that I was strapped to the belly of a plane. Buildings tilted and the temperature cooled, as we rose higher; it was beautiful but terrible: no one could last this way. In waking life, I live in a world in which some people, in desperation, have chosen something like this, and died, having tucked themselves into the wheel well of a jet plane in order to try and arrive in a country that has closed its borders to them. But in my dream I had other choices: to let go or to figure out a way of getting back inside the cabin, with my fellow passengers. My luxury is not to have been driven to human aloneness, the question of Jesus aside. And so for me, the moral choice is to not choose to despair.

From the way Flack sings “Ballad of the Sad Young Men” (which, even in 1969, must have sounded anachronistic in its 1950s ennui) one knows that the tragedy is not the young men’s sadness but the fact that they have let themselves rot inside of it, going nowhere, getting older, as time passes. Theirs is a narcissistic sadness. On my walks now, I break off jasmine sprigs as I go, and bring them home and drop them into jars, filling the flat with their scent. After everything, gratitude. The presence of new air in familiar rooms.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford was The Monthly’s music critic from 2013–21.

© Michael Putland / Getty Images

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