By Al Green
Harper Entertainment, 352 pp.
In his smash-hit song from 1990, "Walking in Memphis," Marc Cohn offered thismocking tribute to legendary singer Al Green: "Reverend Green be glad tosee you when you haven't got a prayer."
Cohn, a one-hit wonder, isn't much remembered today, but Al Green is enjoying a bit of a career revival with his recently released autobiography called "Take Me to the River," co-written with veteran music writer Davin Seay. (There's a greatest-hits CD to go with it.)
Cohn is by no means alone in his desire to hear the old Al Green, sans his Christian convictions. Fans and critics alike have longed for Green to leavehis faith behind and sing about a love unbound from the moral constraints that that faith imposes upon it. The Christian community, on the other hand,has been equally adamant that Green leave his commentary on love and the world around him out of his music and record only hymns--something the singer did for most of the '80s. Over the course of a 30-year career, Green has tried to please both of his constituencies.
From the book's beginning to its end, the antagonism between the flesh and the spirit form a consistent theme. "The battle between the secular and the sacred has brought down more great black musical artists than drugs or loose living orany other hazard of the trade," he writes.
Like millions of other Christian children, Green was taught that music existed toaddress the spiritual side of life. Only gospel was acceptable. Music that addressed the rest of life--rhythm & blues--was not. "My daddy...never missed the opportunity to deliver himself of a stern lecture on the evils of such devilish music and how it could turn us away from God and put us directly on the broad road to perdition," Green writes. "There was God's music and the devil's music...nothing in between and no two ways about it."
Born in 1946, in Jacknash, Miss., Green got his start in the family gospel group the Greene Brothers, led by their father, Robert Greene. As a teenager, Albert Green was thrown out of the house by his strict father for listening to forbidden soul artists, then went on to live out his father's worst nightmare, starting an R&B group called the Soul Mates and moving in with a prostitute named Juanita. The group had a hit song called "Backup Train," and Green eventually went solo, producing Top 10 hits like "Let's Stay Together," "I'm Still in Love With You," and "Can't Get Next to You."
Even as he rose to fame, Green never forgot his musical training in the church, which, he writes, isn't always left behind so easily. "Most of us one way or another hark back to the church as the cradle of our musical birth, and of any ten soul stars you care to name, I'll guarantee that eight of them learned their licks in the choir loft. So when that siren song of worldly fame and fortune calls, it's not just temptation we have to wrestle with. It's that nagging voice in the back of our brains telling us we've betrayed our calling and commission. Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Marvin Gaye...the list goes on and on, each one of them facing the dark night of the soul when they must make that choice between the things of God and the lures of the Devil."
By the early '70s, Green had made his home in Memphis, but had slipped away from his God and was enjoying the fruits of fame, which in the world of rock and rollmeant women--and lots of them. "I wasn't paying much attention to the laws of God and the wages of sin at the age of twenty-five," writes Green. "I have had carnal relations with more women then I can remember or confess."
For anyone living in a culture that regards the celebrity life as the peak experience, Green's descriptions of fame make for especially compelling reading. "I was beginning to lose track of time, unsure whether it was night or day at any given moment," he writes of his first taste of success. "Most times you're too tired or confused, or scared of it all getting taken away from you to enjoy any of it. You've got fans, but no friends. You've got money to burn but you're living on borrowed time. You're sitting in the lap of luxury but it's all rented accommodations and you're paying the bills."
Green's already compelling story kicks up a notch when he is awakened in theDisneyland Hotel in the middle of a tour by shouting--his own. "I was praising God, rejoicing in the great and glorious gift of salvation through his son Jesus Christ.... Suddenly the shouting and celebration stopped and I heard a voice, calm and clear coming from inside me. 'Are you ashamed of Me?' was the question it asked and the words pierced me like a knife."