Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Song Lyric of the Day (Van Morrison, from “Jackie Wilson Said”)

“Jackie Wilson said
It was ‘Reet-Petite’”—“Jackie Wilson Said,” written and performed by Van Morrison, from St. Dominic’s Preview

A few years ago, hearing Van Morrison’s classic rock hosanna on my friend’s car radio, I suddenly had the urge to leap to my feet, clap, jump on the roof, and sing at the top of my lungs to innocent bystanders. I had to settle for turning up the volume, snapping my fingers, and rocking back and forth in the passenger seat.

My friend eyed me in the same quizzical way he had at the end of a Bruce Springsteen concert two decades ago, disbelieving my transformation from a sedate passenger to someone possessed. “What’s with you?” he asked.

“I’m so wired up/Don’t need no coffee in my cup,” I sang, by way of answer.

“Well, obviously not,” he said with a chuckle.

I learned later that he had reason to be understanding of my passion for this song—his girlfriend had jumped up in an ecstatic dance as soon as she heard the opening chords of this same tune in concert.

Enlightenment was the title of a Morrison album from the 1990s, but perhaps, in terms of what he’s always sought, that was a misnomer. What he’s really wanted all along has been rapture, a kind of ecstatic transport.

Yammering incessantly about the experience only drives it away—which is why Morrison might be the most notoriously cranky introvert in rock ‘n’ roll history. But rapture was exactly what he found and transmitted in less than three minutes of this infectious tribute to soul man Jackie Wilson.

Wilson—born on this date in Detroit 75 years ago—was one of the African-American R&B artists whose rhythms Morrison and other Belfast lads absorbed “down by the pylons” in their adolescence.

As a youngster, I wondered what “Rete-Petite” meant. I even speculated that I might have misheard the phrase.

I finally found out what it meant in a fine essay by Brian Doyle—titled, concisely and inevitably, “Van”—that appeared in the Summer 2001 issue of American Scholar Magazine. The phrase, Doyle revealed (at least to me--I'm no musicologist, alas!), came from Wilson’s first chart hit, penned by Motown-mogul-in-the-making Berry Gordy Jr., from 1958.

Morrison acknowledges “Rete-Petite” not just in words but in the exuberance that lifts this tribute immediately from its famously inviting opening—“Da, da, da, da, da,da, da, da…” Both works celebrate the joy generated by the mere sight of a woman—“the finest girl you’ll ever want to meet,” Wilson calls her, while Morrison simply declares, “I’m in Heaven when you smile.”

Wilson’s career was tragically cut short by a 1975 heart attack suffered in concert that rendered him, helpless and in agony, until he died a little more than seven years later. His commercial peak was even more truncated. Though his greatest hit, “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) “Higher and Higher,” came out in 1967, he had to hit the oldies circuit a mere two years later.

But, though death took Wilson far too soon, he had already lived his life at the fullest every moment he was onstage. (For an example of his power and range, check out his performance of “No Pity” in this brief clip from YouTube.) And you don’t have to look very far to find his DNA elsewhere at the heart of rock ‘n’ roll.

That dynamism carries over into both Morrison’s performances (when he’s in the moment and not royally pissed off at someone or other, that is), and the same urge to raise the roof, to hold a rock ‘n’ roll counterpart to an old-fashioned revival meeting, can be seen in almost every live Springsteen performance.

So now “lonely teardrops” for Jackie Wilson today. Turn on his music and exult that he and his apostles—Morrison and Springsteen—make you happy to be alive. Let it all hang out!

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