So much is forgotten.
Somehow, I heard that Channel 2 were going to be showing a David Bowie documentary. This was an exciting thought.
For some reason, I was not going to be anywhere near our old black and white television set to view this program. This was a depressing thought.
I was so keen to capture something of this show that I set up my father’s reel to reel tape recorder, microphone in front of the TV speaker, in an effort to gather the audio from the broadcast. If I couldn’t see it, at least I could hear it. And for reasons I can’t recall the only person available to operate this often temperamental tape recorder was my technologically-challenged mother. And this was an anxiety provoking thought.
I returned from wherever I’d been and was deeply relieved to find that my bootlegging attempt had been successful. The show was called Cracked Actor, a BBC documentary on David Bowie’s killing off of his Ziggy Stardust character and his efforts to conquer the grand expanse of America. Being the audio track of a documentary, the playback was full of snippets; parts of live performances, scraps of found sound, bits of interviews and linking voiceovers. With no visuals, I had to conjure up and imagine the unknowns that had played out on the screen in my absence.
But there was a deeper, more nagging mystery on my ¼ inch tape. About five minutes into the program I heard a slither of music that sent a shiver up my body. It sounded perfect. It touched a nerve of sadness. And also gave rise to joy. It was sung with a sound that was utterly unknown to my ears.
A simple two bars of chorded piano, in waltz time. Then a voice, that must have been Bowie’s, that couldn’t have been Bowie’s, and, that wasn’t Bowie’s, intoned;
Lookin’ out on the mornin’ rain
I used to feel so uninspired
And when I knew I had to face another day
Lorrrrd, it made me feel so tired
Before the day I met you, life was so unkind
But you’re the key to my peace of mind
‘Cause you make feel, you make me feel,
You make me feel like a natural woman.
After thirteen years of hearing nothing but white, predominantly male, Anglo voices on pop radio, I was hearing the sounds of an African-American woman singing soul music for the first time. And what a woman. Aretha Franklin. The Queen of Soul.
But I didn’t know any of that then. All I had was a slice of song; a poorly recorded, third generation, mono dub from a three inch TV speaker. And intrigue. Without Soundhound, YouTube, the internet or any musically savvy adults around me, it would take years before I could make the connection between Aretha Franklin and (You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman.
When I did make that link, there was of course lots more magic to move me: Chain of Fools, Think, Do Right Woman – Do Right Man, Baby I Love You, I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Loved You), and of course Respect.
On the day she died, forty-three years after I first heard Aretha Franklin, Barack Obama gave word-form to the incredible mystery that had perplexed me when I listened over and over and over to that little piece of magnetic tape. He said:
Aretha helped define the American experience. In her voice, we could feel our history, all of it and in every shade — our power and our pain, our darkness and our light, our quest for redemption and our hard-won respect.
Cracked Actor, BBC documentary about Bowie. Listen for Aretha Franklin at 4 minutes 40 seconds.