2016-06-30
I am not neutral when it comes to Al Green, not since I wept in the parking lot of his Memphis church during a service two years ago, wandering among the small herd of vans, Chevys, and faded Gremlins, overcome by the ecstasy he had conjured in his working-class flock.

Inside, the Full Gospel Tabernacle Church churned deep into its third hour. The congregation was on its feet, clapping and dancing as the choir unleashed all the joy in its lungs. People were speaking in tongues and rattled by tremors, soothed only by the church elders who walked up to them and carefully wrapped them in white sheets.

When I made my temporary exodus, a heavy-set man in a shiny suit, standing in the foyer chatting with friends, pushed the door open for me and smiled, as if he had seen this kind of tear-stained exit thousands of times. What I did is perhaps what many of the tourists--Japanese, German, or the kids up from the University of Mississippi for the day--have done when Al Green had whipped them into such high emotion. They topped off and then just went outside and cried against a Buick.

The average person just cannot go head to head with Green when he is cranking up the ecstasy meter. He glows with a weird, infectious happiness. This joy, he would insist, is just the Holy Spirit playing him like an organ.

But at one service, I remember him smiling and singing in my direction, and I started to wonder if maybe this is what mania looks like. Green's new autobiography, "Take Me to the River," opens with a somewhat disturbing third-person description of the three Al Greens warring within him. Another jarring tell appears in the brilliant Robert Mugge documentary, "The Gospel According to Al Green." Green--handsome, charming, supremely talented--relates the infamous story when an unhinged lover dumped a pot of scalding grits on his back and then fatally shot herself in his bedroom. Green's face goes slack. "The thing I want to ask you today is," he says to the interviewer, "Did that actually happen? And I'm not joking. I'm asking you a question." This is what happens when life gets too dark for Al Green. He tops off and loses his sense of reality.

The brilliance of Al Green is that he has harnessed whatever storm brews within him to indisputably good ends. Most Sundays, he arrives at Full Gospel Tabernacle about an hour into the service, dressed in a brown robe. After the choir warms him up, he walks to the lectern and begins to preach against the band's vamp. "That reminds me of something," he'll say, as he ends a line of biblical quotation. "And that something is Jeeee-sus..." His voice lifts off into a few pure, falsetto notes. Then eyes closed, he pats the air. "No, bring it down," he says firmly, and the dirty-organ player eases up, and the drummer switches to brushes. "I need it sweet," Green nearly whispers, then he launches into a gospel hymn, one he likely learned as a boy, singing in the family group, the Greene Brothers.

In this version, the song runs some 20 minutes long. He rolls through trills and barks and full-throated bell tones until he is staggering around the pulpit. Then, as he grips his forehead and whips his torso toward the ground, he starts to climb back up, in the music, in his muscle, until he has worked his way back seamlessly to preaching biblical verse again.

This is Green's gig almost every Sunday. On Wednesdays, he leads the Bible study. If the setting were more glamorous, Green's decision, two decades ago, to walk away from his pop career might answer better to the cynic's grumbling that, since no one can last very long at the top of the charts, Green had simply found a way to make a graceful exit.

But the Full Gospel Tabernacle Church is no substitute for the glitter of Vegas. It doesn't compare, for that matter, with the megachurches of Dallas or Denver. Green preaches to a small group of regulars in a modest building decorated with a couple of folk murals. He lingers appreciatively over a recital of the items in the cafeteria's box lunches available after the service. Each person approaching the offertory plate gets a personal greeting ("And how are you doing there..." "I like those shorts..."), often by name, as the band keeps up its riffing. In Memphis, it is Al Greene who makes his parishioners feel glamorous.

"I think they are people that lost it along the way, and come back and join up again. A lot of people like that go to our church," says Green on his cell phone from his car. He is in Atlanta for a book signing. Green speaks the way he sings, slowly and seriously, then giving way to lilting asides, jokes, inner dialogues issued without preface. "A lot of people, oh man, who had a lot of problems. 'But I'm going to try it again.' So always the persons keep reaching up there, thinking, 'I'll just give it one more...'"

Green doesn't lose heart when they drift away again. "I know what they're dealing with. I know what they're up against," he says. "But I still go back to the first principle: If it is in them--the Full Gospel Tabernacle--if it's in them, they'll come back to it. They'll come back. You can't stay out there and have known Him. You have got to come back." He lets out a whoop of ecstasy. He says something to his manager, Lisa, riding with him in the car, and I gather she is cautioning him not to get too excited and scare the journalist.

"No," Green reassures her. "She's laughing." And I am. Green has this effect.

His credibility rests on the fact that he has seen it all, even rejecting organized religion altogether as a teen singing in the family group: "Standing up there, singing to a lot of old folks in their stodgy Sunday best, I felt like I might go crazy if I heard them join in, flat and off-time, for one more chorus of "Savior, Pass Me Not" or "Standing in the Judgment."

In a sermon he delivered on Women's Day at the church, he cautioned the men against angling to win a woman's heart and then just kicking back. No, he barked, you have to go out and win it every day. And that went for the women too. The message, coming from a man who went gold with the album "Let's Stay Together," has more punch coming from Green. In his autobiography, he voices sentiments in which Thomas Merton would never truck: "What you wear--and how you wear it--is an expression of your soul."

I ask him to name spiritual people he admires. "There's a lot of great men," he begins thoughtfully. "Of course, Dr. King. He could just quote those poetic lines along with the ministry. He could just put it together, and just make it fit," he says, talking about King almost as he would another musician. "But I would like to point out, there's one named Jeee-sus..." He changes to a bright, instructive tone. "Jesus. I would direct you to look in him, before David, on the seat of Abraham. You've got it?" Then, to end the thought, he says in a charismatic, show-biz tone, "Thanks, babe."

Green says in "Take Me to the River" that he has spent his life trying to reclaim the happy innocence he knew as a child, wandering the farm his father worked in Arkansas, singing back to the birds. I ask him why he thinks people are afraid of their own innocence. "It takes them back, doesn't it," he says, "to the stage of the time and place of that innocence. It takes us back and sometimes we're afraid, you know, to go back because you have tender moments back there. Also, just like the present: You know you've got tender moments here, you know, and if you take me too far, I might have tender moments back there." He laughs hard. "You know, they're pulling for their spot, which is understandable, but still you've just got one person in the middle." In a husky half-whisper, he closes the thought, "That's right."

I ask him what in himself he is currently working on. "The same thorn that is in the Scriptures," he says intensely, "you have to overcome so many things of self. He said, 'I have a thorn in My flesh.' He was trying to overcome things within Himself, within His own mind, that He needed to overcome, and He sought out the Lord three times, and the Lord gave Him an answer, and that answer is, 'My grace is sufficient for Thee.' That's the place, grace."

There is tittering on the other end of the line, leading up to a full throttle laugh. "It's tickling us," he says. "That is so beautiful. I just...you know, 'Hey, all praise to Him.'

"What's going on?" I say, and I laugh.

"Well, we're over here cracking up and laughing because we're enjoying it, you're over there cracking up cause you're enjoying it, I mean, hey, oh man..."

I realize that Al Green has felt the Holy Spirit visit him again. I was simply laughing with him at his erratic joy and, in the process, feeling happy for a few minutes after what had been a particularly trying day. I don't know what that mysterious ecstasy in Al Green is. When he's passing it on, it can feel a lot like grace.

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