Ray Charles – Going down slow: A remembrance of Ray Charles
In 1967 I was 6 years old and my family moved from Charlotte, North Carolina, to Atlanta, Georgia, leaving behind all kinfolk and everything I knew to be familiar. In our new house I shared a room with my older brother Dave, and we went to sleep every night listening to a white bakelite Phillips radio. I had never had a radio before, and listening to the disembodied voices issuing from the nightstand was to me like looking at the images of dead World War I soldiers through my grandmother’s stereoscope. (In her collection there were several pictures of decaying foxhole comrades, faces frozen in death grimaces and with their leathery skin and gums receding from their teeth. I don’t know why she had them.)
Every singer I heard — Jim Reeves, Ray Price, Dusty Springfield, Jimmy Dean, Henson Cargill, Johnny Cash — sounded to me like people who were already dead and reaching out from beyond the grave. If not the singers themselves, then certainly their messages were from the next world. These were coded messages from God, like the ones delivered by people who went into religious trances and spoke in tongues like some of my aunts did.
I felt vulnerable and uprooted as I lay in the dark, the room smelling strange and unlived in. A nearby streetlight showed through the tops of the curtains and formed what looked to me like a pair of slanted eyes in an upper corner of the room — a kind of visitation — and my mother had to stuff towels in the gap between the curtain rod and the ceiling.
Memory has compressed time, and all of this I remember now as if it had been a single long night: the smell of new paint, the slanted eyes, the late innings of a Braves game interrupted by the news of the death of Judy Garland, her little-lost-girl voice playing softly behind the announcer’s, still wishing upon a rainbow. And then, finally, signing off the evening’s broadcast (there used to be an end to them), there was Ray.
Ray Charles has been from that moment forward an unearthly presence in my life; speaking to me in a stage whisper, from just out of frame, like a long-gone great uncle in a tintype photograph whose old letters you have just discovered. And on this night in 1967, as I lay trembling in the bunk above my brother (who seemingly slept through everything), the song Ray sang was “Yesterday”. Even then, I believe, I knew that what he was getting at was a brutal recognition of mortality — his and mine. It wasn’t just a song about lost love, as it was when a young Paul McCartney sang it, but a grown man’s realization that time has slipped quietly from beneath him and will continue to. Just why, he couldn’t say; but though the singer grappled with his own responsibility in the matter — as if accepting some might allow him a margin of control — it was clear that time would not stop consuming itself, and there were plenty more “yesterdays” on the books than would be “tomorrows.”
Suddenly, I’m not half the man I used to be
There’s a shadow hanging over me
I was terrified. Ray wasn’t sugarcoating anything for the sake of an audience hoping to be entertained. He infused the lyric with a funereal finality that I, even at 6 years old, couldn’t fail to recognize.
I “got religion” (as they used to say in North Carolina) in a big hurry. And if it was fear and panic that put me on my knees — as it does many — it didn’t defuse the joy of my newfound salvation: I began to listen the way my mother studied the letters of the Apostle Paul, looking for every kernel of understanding that might be a lamp along my own musical journey. Music became my religion and songs my lexicon. Ray Charles was a church elder.
We moved to a suburb north of Detroit just as I was to begin high school, and by then I had immersed myself deeper into Ray’s canon and all of the elements it contained: roadhouse R&B and storefront gospel, Nat Cole, Fats Waller, Blind Lemon and Frank Sinatra. And Bing Crosby and Charlie Parker. And Rosetta Tharpe. And Lead Belly, Perez Prado, Hank Williams and Chet Atkins. It was all in there as surely as Miles Davis encompassed Louis Armstrong and Marlon Brando, and Bob Dylan constructed a persona by fusing Woody Guthrie, Arthur Rimbaud and Cassius Clay. I understood the truth of that alchemy long before I knew it took genius to achieve it.
And that’s an awful word, genius. It sounds vaguely dirty, and it is certainly an anchor around the neck of anyone it tries to describe; for they want to take flight, and we want to trap them in amber, lest they double back and forsake the investment we’ve made in them, tarnishing the good name of the pageant and embarrassing its sponsors.
As I sit here this morning at my long table, though, the Genius that is Ray Charles has trapped himself in amber by becoming what I first mistook him to be, through his disembodied voice years ago: dead. He has wholly contained his earthly self by allowing the trajectory of his arc to describe all at once a beginning, a middle, and an end; by connecting one horizon to the other. And by so doing, he has left the rest of us behind to make a narrative out of the nonlinear, to form a lasting image of him that will continue to sustain us through our desperation.
And these are truly desperate times. It has been less than 24 hours, as I write this, since Brother Ray has departed, and our nation cannot be roused from her 21-gun rewrite of Ronald Reagan’s own arc into amber just a few days ago. The girl can’t help it. We have become too deeply invested in Reagan’s charade of a benevolent America, its mask allowing us to make convenient war upon a sad and brutalized region, killing on behalf of our own adolescent desire for comfort and dominance, sparing only those who would agree to desire as we do. “Believe it because you need to,” seems to be Reagan’s legacy; and it would appear to be enough for many people, who find the deaths of young soldiers and even younger civilians to be fair trade for spreading the gospel of western might and consumption. And all forgivable because we’ve had the piss scared out of us.
But we’ve always been afraid. Of darkness and change, of new paint, slanted eyes, Judy Garland, stereoscopes, foxholes, aunts who speak in tongues and, finally, of death.
When I picked up my 12-year-old son Levon Ray from school on June 10 and told him the news of his namesake’s passing, he said without pause, “Sorry, Dad. I’m sorry your road sign is dead.” He understands that abstraction very well because it barely is one.
Ray Charles has, in fact, been my eternal signpost since long before I knew I would ever be in need of such a thing. Ray couldn’t protect me from rough roads or bad directions, or from the bitter truth of mortality, but what he did do was reaffirm for me that there is beauty in life’s brevity, and a lusty joy to living in spite of it. I mourn him, but I can accept his death because he always spoke to me in the only way the Eternal Servants of God can address the mortal: with the disembodied voice of the long gone.