“That record it’s so about pure things it make you want to cry. Why’s the world so tough? It’s like walking through meat in high heels. Nothing’s shared out right, money or love. I’m a quiet person me. People think I’m deaf and dumb. I want to say things but it hard. I have big wishes, you know? I want my life to be all shinied up. It’s so dull. Everything’s so dulled. When that man sings on that record there, you put the flags up. Because he reminds you of them feelings you keep forgetting. The important ones.” – Louise, from ‘Road’ by Jim Cartwright, 1986.
I’ll admit that discovering one of your favourite ever songs via the last scene of a play isn’t the usual way in which these things happen.
Road is a grim, blackly humourous play set in a deprived northern town in the middle years of Thatcher’s Britain. It caused a sensation – well, as far as any play staged at London’s Royal Court Theatre can ever cause a sensation – when it first appeared in 1986, the work of a completely unknown new playwright called Jim Cartwright.
In the final scene of the play, four of the characters get pissed and listen to Otis Redding – on 7″ vinyl single, no less – singing Try a Little Tenderness. But it’s about much more than just getting obscenely drunk and listening to music – most of us have done that, after all. No, for Brink, Carol, Joey and Louise, this scene is about gaining a temporary escape from the drudgery and unpleasantness of the world around them, even if just for one cathartic evening. And the way they do that is to listen to Otis, let the emotions of this heartfelt song completely overwhelm them, and then almost literally spit out their thoughts in a blaze of tumbling, passionate words: “If I keep shouting, somehow a somehow I might escape.”
The first time I saw that closing scene – not even in a particularly good production of the play, sadly – I got it. Immediately, I understood what these characters were doing. And the song made perfect sense too. As it’s something of a classic, I had obviously been aware of it before, but I was still at that stage of listening to music where a song recorded by some soul singer in the mid-60s – who had long since passed away – wouldn’t even have registered on my emotional radar. You see, I had yet to discover that the be-all and end-all of musical genius was not … well, Morrissey and various shambling and anonymous indie bands. I know, I know, but I was young and foolish. Forgive me.
Otis Redding’s version of Try a Little Tenderness is a masterpiece of slow-burning tension, starting out with a mournful brass introduction and a vocal that’s hardly there, and gradually increasing to a climax where the singer is improvising and barely able to get his words out because he’s so wrapped up in the passion of the music. Remarkably, all this is achieved in under three minutes.
In fact, that’s my only problem with the final scene of Road – how on earth do the four friends work themselves up into such a frenzy, spilling out their darkest and most warped thoughts, when they have only listened to the record once? It does, after all, fade out at exactly the wrong moment: the full band finally kicks in, Otis appears to be in such a state that he’s a glorious mess of frantic shrieks and hollering, the sound is about to become overwhelming, and then … well, then the producer decides that this would be a good point at which to perform the fastest fade-out in recorded history. Talk about ruining the moment. Idiot.
Every time I listen to this song and the recording reaches that brutal edit, I’m convinced that Otis and his exceptional Stax backing band must have done the decent thing and carried on playing for at least another six or seven minutes, until they were completely exhausted. I live in hope of some dusty studio out-takes being found and pieced back together, so that we can finally hear the full, unadulterated version.
Being a pretentious ex-drama student, I will admit to having tried the Road experiment a few times. All you need are some bottles of cheap but potent red wine, a few like-minded friends and a copy of Try a Little Tenderness, and away you go. These days, thanks to compact discs, it’s even easier too, because you simply put the track on repeat play until you’ve reached that point of no return; that moment when, as Louise says, “you put the flags up” and babble uncontrollably about everything.
Best make it the final track on the mix CD, in that case.