Wednesday, April 15, 2015

“When A Man Loves a Woman” /
Percy Sledge

Another icon is gone. The great soul singer Percy Sledge died yesterday, after a long struggle with liver cancer.  R.I. P.
Ever since this song came out in 1966, I don't think it ever went out of rotation on radio playlists.  Even pre-teen me, head-over-heels in love with British beat bands, stopped whatever I was doing when this record came on.  I remember seeing Sledge sing it on Hullaballoo or Shindig or one of those shows, pouring his heart out on stage. I was way too young to have any idea what he was singing about, but I knew it was true.
This is the ultimate slow dance, slouching and grinding from beat to beat, each chord shift groaning toward resolution. I remember this song coming on during school dances – one round of dancing this song, and you practically felt knocked up. (Usually I’d wimp out and flee the dance floor.)
You have to go back to the 60s to find a song that believes in love like this song does. Not sweet and innocent love, not pure and noble love -- no, it's torment and sexual obsession he's singing about. The very first notes announce Major Emotion -- those blaring horns, the resonant organ, the ominous bass -- and then comes Percy Sledge's anguished vocal, elevating lust to epic heights. 
“When a ma-an loves a woman,” Sledge trumpets at the outset, flinging his voice into those high notes, pitched just over the key’s octave note. He's testifying, all right, testifying to the glory of love.  
But is love glorious?  Right away things start to disintegrate, slip-sliding down the scale, as he stuffs in the details – “Can't keep his mind on nothing else / He'll trade the world / For the good thing he's found.” The crap that besets this man seems inevitable (in other verses he turns his back on his best friend, spends his very last dime, sleeps out in the rain); but somehow all of it means nothing next to the fact that he’s loving with his whole heart. The stately, almost lazy tempo takes this all in stride; it’s the way of the world, and eternal as the pyramids.

For the first three verses it’s all theoretical; in verse four he confesses that he’s singing from his own experience: “Well, this man loves a woman / I gave you everything I had / Tryin' to hold on to your precious love / Baby, please don't treat me bad.” He’s not accusing her, not exactly, but he does have a sickening sense that he’s going to get the shaft.

He goes back to the third person, but it’s pretty clear he’s raging about his own situation: “She can bring him such misery / If she plays him for a fool / He's the last one to know / Lovin' eyes can't ever see.” Is she cheating on him? Or, in the final verse, is he the one cheating: “When a man loves a woman / He can do no wrong / He can never own some other girl.” We don’t know; probably even he doesn’t know – that’s how muddled up you get when you’re in love.

Whatever’s going on, there’s pain and heartache here, that’s for sure. But as Percy Sledge sings it, there’s not one minute of blame or regret. He knew coming in that the path of true love wouldn’t be smooth – but it’s still the most glorious thing in the world. And if you can’t get that, then you don’t deserve to be in love.

1 comment:

wwolfe said...

The rare record that can be described as both majestic and humble. Thanks for taking note of Percy's exit.