2016-06-30
"Take Me to the River"
By Al Green
Harper Entertainment, 352 pp.

In his smash-hit song from 1990, "Walking in Memphis," Marc Cohn offered this mocking tribute to legendary singer Al Green: "Reverend Green be glad to see 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 leave his 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 or any other hazard of the trade," he writes.

Like millions of other Christian children, Green was taught that music existed to address 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 roll meant 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."

Unlike Wilt Chamberlain, who exulted in sleeping with 20,000 women during his "career," Green's confession is full of remorse. "We sow the wind and reap the whirlwind," he writes of his cavorting, "fulfilling the desires of our flesh and bringing down upon ourselves the judgment of God."

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 the Disneyland 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."

Afraid he'd be dragged away for causing a disturbance, Green buried his face in an armful of towels shouting "Lord, no!" He writes of his conversion, "Whatever I knew...all that faded into insignificance. I was in the middle of a personal encounter one on one with my Creator and now at least I understood what all the words and all the songs and all the tears had really meant."

Green needed another lesson before he truly changed his ways, however. A short time after his hotel-room conversion, Green was scalded with hot grits by a spurned lover, who then turned a gun on herself. It proved to be a turning point. Green became an ordained minister, started his own church in Memphis, and soon emerged with perhaps the finest work of his career, the "Belle" album, where Green's carnality surrendered to his faith on the title cut. "The sadness you can hear in that song is real," he writes. "I loved those women, loved their softness and sweetness and the way they gave themselves away for the chance to be lost and found in love. While it hurts to say it, I had to leave the sensual for the spiritual. 'Belle,' I sang 'it's you that I want but it's Him that I need.' And I meant it. Each note and every word."

Two decades before artists like Creed, Collective Soul, Jars of Clay, and Sixpence None The Richer figured out that songs of faith belonged on the same record as songs of love and everyday life, Green had made the discovery that set him free.

"A man does have to make a choice between the things of the world and the things of God, but I've never been convinced that those things include music," he writes. "Is God offended when we sing a song of love to a woman? Does he condemn us for putting words and music to the longings and loneliness, the devotion and deep emotions that He made us to feel? Is there room in His world for songs about Jesus and songs about Judy? It took me a long time to answer those questions to my own satisfaction."

The choices Green made, though they don't please everybody, make for a great read, superbly crafted with Davin Seay, a publicist for Warner Brothers and former magazine writer who has helped a wide variety of artists, from Point of Grace to Snoop Dogg, put their thoughts to paper. Seay shares both Green's love for music and his faith, and the result is an amazingly eloquent work that lives simultaneously on the level of testament of faith and made-for-TV movie.

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