Friday, October 23, 2009

Mr. Pitiful

Sitting on the deck of the gay disco Paradise Garage, Otis Redding watched the planes fly away. New York shone at night, and the view of the illuminated skyline was magnificent from the rooftop patio atop the West Village nightspot. The fall air was crisp and Otis needed to cool down, his powder blue jumpsuit drenched with perspiration from the ruffled sleeves down to the flared cuffs. He’d just come offstage and, after stopping at the bar, made his way upstairs. He passed by the movie room, filled with people watching Mark of the Devil.

“Otis, my man!”

An effeminate black man greeted Otis cheerfully. Why were people saying this to him all the time? He’d noticed that the phrase came up over and over again since mid-summer, but why? Folks say the strangest things, he thought as he sipped his grapefruit juice. The Garage didn’t serve alcohol, but Otis didn’t mind. He wasn’t much of a drinker, or a drug user, for that matter. Occasionally he’d smoke a reefer, but not often. He thought back ten, or was it eleven, years ago to Monterey and all those cats taking stuff - smack, weed, acid. He never was shocked by it, hell, even Shang-a-Lang was hooked on junk. As long as he could blow his horn, Otis didn’t mind.

Monterey. Was it really over a decade since then? Otis loved those rock and roll kids, they really got the groove he was laying down and he got where they were coming from. He dug Dylan and The Beatles, and it changed him. “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay” couldn’t have been written if he hadn’t heard those rock songs. He went with the flow, becoming a rock star because that’s what the people wanted. The more he got into the psychedelic scene, the further he got from his pure soul sound.

He always had that voice, sometimes soft, sometimes hard, sometimes weak, sometimes boastful. He was “The Big O,” the man who supplanted Elvis Presley as the greatest vocalist alive, but like the King, Otis fumbled his way through the musical fashion of the moment – soul, psychedelia, funk, Philly soul and now disco. He had lost his way. One of Otis’ inspirations, Jackie Wilson, suffered in similar ways, led into musical dead ends and winding up collapsing in some place called The Latin Casino in New Jersey back in ‘75. For three years now poor Jackie was lying in a bed someplace in a coma. They used to play together in “cattle call” shows, a slew of acts running out on stage to sing a couple of songs at fast tempos. They’d do their thing, and then run off to make way for the next singer. Man, Jackie could belt ‘em out.

What the -? The force of a hard back slap sent Otis’ drink flying. “Hey Otis, my man.” Reaching down to pick up the glass, Otis sighed, stood up and looked at the stars. Almost 37, Otis’ afro was showing specks of gray, his midsection puffy enough to strain the polyester of his outfit.

Monterey Pop, June 1967. Three days of beautiful music and far out people, almost 100,000 hippies grooving during the Summer of Love. Otis was the headliner on Saturday. All day long, the great bands wowed the crowd, one after the other – Electric Flag, Janis and Big Brother, The Byrds. Otis thought back and could see himself, younger and finer in his aqua jacket and pants, and light green shirt, almost square, hanging off stage, and digging Jefferson Airplane. When they finished, he was on.

After smoking a quick joint, Otis hit the stage at 1 AM and, with Booker T. and The MG’s grooving from the first note, blasted “Shake” with a power that shook the crowd and lifted them from their seats. Monterey made Otis Redding an international sensation. Now, in 1978, he was belting them out in a gay black disco club, singing novelties like “Disco Shake,” “Love Man Boogie,” and a discofied “Knock on Wood.”

Another plane roared over head. Otis put the empty glass to his lips and chewed some ice to cool down further. The rooftop reverberated from the beat of the records played below. This shit all sounds the same, Otis thought.

“Hey Otis.”

Otis was deep in his mind. Gotta get back to my thing, straight ahead rhythm and soul. Maybe call the old band together. Get those old Stax guys like The Bar-Kays, Booker T., Steve Cropper, “Duck” Dunn. Steve and “Duck” were deep in their Blues Brothers scene, but Otis knew they’d want to be back with him, the real thing. This disco shit was ruining him, he knew that much.

“Otis, my man!”

Otis was in his own head, thinking of all his wrong turns. He had been on top of the world, adored by all, but slowly, year by year, he was falling. Everything had gone wrong. He lost everything he had and, as he went through all this in his mind, he knew he had to go back to what made him great, to be able to sing his song to everyone.

“Hey Otis! My man!

“WHAT?” Otis was shaken from his reverie. “WHAT DO YOU WANT?”

Up close now, Larry the DJ lowered his voice. “Otis. Hey, man, relax. You’re on.”

“Oh, oh, yeah, OK. Sorry I yelled at you,” Otis replied, his voice filled with sadness. Larry walked away, shaking his head, puzzled.

Otis descended the stairs to the stage floor, red lights glowing, rhythm pulsating, the heat unbearable.

Otis Redding, along with four members of The Bar-Kays, were killed on December 10, 1967, when their plane crashed into Lake Monona in Madison, Wisconsin. Paradise Garage, the legendary disco club at 84 King St. in the West Village, was a member’s only club that catered to a mainly gay black clientele. It closed in September 1987.

No comments:

Post a Comment