VOICES: 5/ the window, quack’d
The Temptations: "Papa Was a Rollin' Stone" (Motown, 1972)
What's your most memorable pop date?
Mine's the third of September – a day I'll always remember.
"Because that was the day... that my daddy died."
That's not me singing, by the way, in that sorrowful bark you hear in your mind's ear. It's Dennis Edwards of The Temptations. The year is 1972. And Motown's chief production artificer, Norman Whitfield, has already laid down three minutes and fifty-three seconds of introductory instrumental carpet – rolls and rolls of it, in a variety of textures, weights and hues – prior to allowing Edwards even the merest sniff of an opportunity to bare his teeth at the microphone. The Temptations, and the saturnine Edwards in particular, are all pretty fed up. Three minutes fifty-three? Just standing around waiting? Not singing. Not dancing. Waiting. That's rather more time than most Motown records take in their entirety, from count-in to fade.
But there it is. Whitfield is artificer-in-chief and it is the fashion in soul's hottest production houses right now to be cinematic in scope, to soundtrack not only a moment but a mood – maybe even a scene. And that takes time. Stories take time to unfold. Especially stories that by their very essence entail instances of revelation, step by step, expressed in the first instance by increments of ostinato bass, ticking hi-hat, quacking cry-baby guitar, then jags of forked string melody – a motif really. And liquid trumpet, reverb'd to the max... These all consume time with rare appetite. The Temptations may be Motown's premier male vocal ensemble but they must wait.
As for Papa... Obviously I never got to meet Dad and I only ever heard bad shit about his reputation, which was dispiriting to say the least, so I have come to rely on you, Mama, to spill the haricots. Come on, Mum, tell me please – what's in your heart, as well as under the mattress?
And Mama says, "Son, your Papa was a rollin' stone. Wherever he laid his hat was his home... And when he died, all he left us was alone."
The full-length album version of "Papa Was a Rollin' Stone", the one with the ultra-extended intro, is a cool twelve minutes long. Even the single was seven. And that shorter one was the version you'll have heard, top 'n' tailed with both jibber and jabber, on British radio in 1972 and on pub jukeboxes, at discotheques and privately in the lounges and bedrooms of the righteous. I certainly heard it first on Radio One fighting for air in the hissy drizzle of the medium wave, the quacks of wah-wah cutting through the moisture as rocky outcrops poke through a thin waterfall. It seemed so heavy, the song: so real, so full of everything I didn't actually know about life.
I was twelve and I knew next to nothing. I certainly was not aware at the time that I was having my own first black-lives-matter moment.
It had not actually occurred to me that black lives might not matter. I was twelve. I was white, middle-class, provincial, rural, Church of England, reasonably bright and schooled fiercely in the notion that all men are equal and that humans should never be judged by the colour of their skin. A substantial set of privileges. But that did not mean that I had the faintest idea of how people were judged, out there in reality, including in the ghetto – which, to be fair, I had never visited. I didn't even know where it was. Racism was not an experience to which I had ever been exposed, not consciously. I did not know anything about black lives.
But "Rollin' Stone" opened a door and invited me to peer inside for seven minutes. I saw shapes and movement and heard voices. I was visited by the feeling that, even if black people were much the same as white people, qua people, then black lives might differ from those of their white counterparts as an experience. It sounded as if they did – both in the ghetto and perhaps elsewhere too. I heard something wounded in Dennis Edwards' voice – and was not to know that a portion of that woundedness arose from Edwards being made to wait in the studio and then do umpteen takes at the behest of his producer, who was winding him up to extract the right tone of sullen, pent-up indignation.
So Papa never did a stroke of work and had a slew of children by other mothers, plus another wife. He was a hypocrite too, preaching even as he leeched, "dealing in debt and stealing in the name of the Lord". And as her sons beseeched their mother to reveal the true nature of their lost begetter, Mama allowed her head to fall.
"Papa was a rollin' stone..."
It's a song about the repression of shame out of necessity, out of the human need for decency. The agony of that. The boys' enquiries are the subject of the song, but it is Mama's anguish that is its heart. As her sons grow more probing with their differing voices, Mama begins to crumple and tears appear in her eyes. She lifts her head.
The rhythm goes on, implacable. The ghetto goes on, wherever it is.
What did I take away from this peek through the door?
Not all that much really. Not consciously anyway, not concretely. You couldn't grasp whatever it was in your hand and hold it up to the light of a stained-glass window. You couldn't chuck it through the window.
Then again, I thought perhaps that I now knew a little more of the world, I suppose, and loving "Papa Was a Rollin' Stone" certainly added to the stock of my conviction that really good pop records had a lot more to offer in this regard than school did. It also instilled in me a lifelong weakness for wah-wah.
But there was no big takeaway. No blinding flash of insight. Nothing changed in my life, except for a noticeable increase in my curiosity about what else may exist in the lives of others – and what might be my relationship to that. I do remember, furthermore, being visited by shafts of self-congratulatory pleasure at my sharp-eared recognition of the ghost pun which finishes Mama's refrain.
All he left us was alone...
Or was it a loan?
Maybe it was both. Maybe he left the family two things.
Nick Coleman is the author of three books: The Train in the Night: A Story of Music and Loss, which was shortlisted for the 2012 Wellcome Trust book prize; the novel Pillow Man; and Voices: How A Great Singer Can Change Your Life. All are published by Jonathan Cape/Vintage.