Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Made out of love, to help each other win

I’ve been dying to repeat this somewhere. I was watching TV over the weekend—with a notebook and pen in my hand, because I was supposed to be writing something. I’ve watched a lot of VH1-Classic the last few weeks; it was recently added to our basic cable package, so it has novelty value, and I can really soak up some rock-music documentaries, or the odd re-broadcast of “The Wall” or “This Is Spinal Tap.”

Anyway, the documentary of the day was about soul music, and they devoted an hour to Motown. We learn that Berry Gordy founded the label out of frustration that white-owned labels wouldn’t serve his songs the way he wanted them served. Spotty distribution was causing his records to lag in sales, and Smokey Robinson suggested that Gordy may as well press records himself and market/distribute them to his liking, because hell, he was losing money anyway.

Motown’s very first record was a Top 5 hit, and the label was off and running. We hear several Motown performers telling us that in its heyday, Hitsville USA was active 24 hours a day, with a recording session going on in one part of the building, rehearsals in another, Holland-Dozier-Holland polishing a song in another. Members of the Motown stable would drop by and see how they could pitch in: twist a knob, shake a tambourine, suggest a rhyme, sing an ooh-baby-baby.

Duke Fakir, one of the original Four Tops, said that the Motown sound was “made out of love, to help each other win.” And that struck me as such a lovely phrase, practically a prayer, that I wrote it down in my procrastinator’s notebook.

Two days later, I’m still thinking about it, still struck by it, but I’m also thinking what a gloss that is on the Motown phenomenon. It wasn’t an Amish barn-raising, for cryin’ out loud, and even as a non-expert I’m certain there was plenty of drama going on at Hitsville. I mean, Berry Gordy and others at Motown had at least a corner of one eye trained on the cashbox. Artists were competing over who got the best songs from Holland-Dozier-Holland. Surely somebody from the Motown family, at some time, was really there for the party, the drink and the smoke and trying to get into somebody’s pants. Diana Ross was lording her status as big star and Berry Gordy’s girlfriend, and some people resented her. The documentary left all this out.

Also, I wonder how long Duke Fakir has been rehearsing that phrase.

On the other hand, petty shit goes on at least in the background of any communal human enterprise. I do believe Motown was a remarkable communal entity, marked by a high degree of trust and cooperation. There’s so often a cynical view and an idealistic view of the same thing. The glass is half-full or it’s half-empty.

"And then the blogger was hit by a truck." I have no conclusion to offer. I still like Duke Fakir’s phrase.

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