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Friday, January 10, 2020

Bobby Womack: God, mental health and Walthamstow

Bobby Womack’s final album, ‘The Bravest Man in the Universe’, contains one of the most emotionally honest and powerful vocal performances I have ever heard. Right off the bat ‘Please Forgive my Heart’ overwhelmed me, and it still does every time I hear it. “Please forgive my heart,” sings Womack, “It's not that the problem lies anywhere in there.” When he follows that by confessing “I’m a liar, I’m in a dream, Goin’ on my way, Nothing to rely on”, you know you’re witnessing a very private moment. I guess that not all will relate “the problem” he refers to as about mental health, but I think it’s an admittance that there are things that prevent us from loving because we cannot trust, or rely on, ourselves, let alone others. As Bobby sings in the song's second verse: "Oh, it feels like the sky is falling, And the clouds, clouds are closing in, Where did I lose control? Where did it all begin?"

I hope to God that I am not cheapening his divinely honest confessional by attempting such commonplace analysis. I somehow though need to express how it feels, thank God, to still be overwhelmed, to be brought literally to my knees, by playing such songs. I used to think that there were only a handful of singers, all white contemporaries of Mr Womack, who could, on occasion, work this kind of earthly divinity, this sacred and profane magic. It’s there in Dylan’s testament, ‘Every Grain of Sand’; Van Morrison had it on ‘Listen to the Lion’; and you can feel it when John Martyn preached ‘One World’. 

But Bobby Womack lived the religious emotion of the everyday right from childhood. He was no latter-day convert. Nearly four decades before Bobby Womack died he sang that “Love is the emblem of eternity.” You’ve got to believe that if you’re hurting big time. And the fact that he included that line on a funky number entitled ‘Jealous Love’ (from ‘What is the World Coming To?’) showed that he was a person, and an artist, who didn’t believe in siloing his emotions or his motivations.

Bobby Womack is a man very aware of his mortality on ‘The Bravest Man in the Universe’ (released 2012), but he sounded as alive and as exciting as ever. Credit is also due to former Blur front-man Damon Albarn, who wrote most of its songs including ‘Please Forgive My Heart’. However it’s plain on listening to the album’s carefully crafted retrospective but ultra-modern feel (Albarn also co-produced the album with XL Records founder Richard Russell) that the words were written with Womack in mind. The songs catalogue the singer’s belief in forgiveness ('The bravest man in the universe is the one who has forgiven first'), love, and, yes when necessary, serving yourself. 

Bobby Womack died in June 2014, two weeks or so before he’d been scheduled, implausibly, to headline that year's Walthamstow Garden Party. I still went, marvelling at the incredibly empty experience of hearing last minute replacements, the Brand New Heavies, trying to enliven the audience. Bobby Womack had had more than five decades in the business, as both a songwriter whose songs were popularised by many black (and some white) stars, and as a soul singer who had been (musically) born again several times over. If he’d had the strength to perform ‘Please Forgive My Heart’ with the feeling he conveys on the original, and to a field of Walthamstow revellers, would they have understood? Or would they have run screaming for the exits, as was once said of Laurence Olivier if he’d really turned up the acting volume. We shall never know. However I am grateful for Bobby Womack’s wonderful songs and for his wondrous voice. But I am most grateful for ‘Please Forgive My Heart’ because today it made me cry as I was reminded of the God-given gift of those artists who can use our tenderest feelings to lift us up from the floor and take us to the heavens. If only for a while.

5 comments:

Keith Rodway said...

Lovely piece of writing Neil as ever. It's made want to go home and listen to the album, so job done. I think Womack came from that blessed era when the term 'soul' meant 'from the heart' rather than 'to my social media profile' or 'to the bank account'. In retrospect it was short lived but it yielded a wealth of fine music whose ability to speak directly back to the heart has made it truly timeless. My personal all time exemplar would be Nina Simone. If the recordings sound dated, the emotional content seems as urgent as if it was recorded yesterday, and Womack belongs in that tradition.

Unknown said...

Really enjoyed this piece, including the introduction to an artist and song I was not very familiar with. Very moving. Cheers!

Neil Partrick said...

Thanks a lot to Keith Rodway and to ‘Unknown’ for their kind comments. I am really pleased that it made you both that interested in the Bobby Womack song/album. I agree with Keith on the difference between the Soul era and what’s these days blandly referred to as
RnB or Urban, and I especially love the way he expressed it.

Pete Sadler said...

I too wasn't familiar with this track so I have just listened to it and, probably more usefully, read the lyrics to get a cold feel for the heart of the song. I can see how it would touch the nerve of those who have sadly suffered from mental stress through no fault of their own and wonder if there is a carthartic reaction from listening to it. An interesting heartfelt analysis and commentary, Neil, on a song and performance of raw emotion from BW. Reminds me somewhat of Janis Joplin in her saddest days. As always a lucid and well written piece.

Neil Partrick said...

I am so grateful to Pete Sadler for his insightful comments about the Bobby Womack song and about my reactions to it. Yes, there IS a cathartic reaction from listening to it (and songs in a similar vein). 'The problem', though, is that sustained catharsis obviously needs a lotta nurturing and a lotta work. Very best wishes to you Pete.