The Freelance Mentalists.
Tuesday, November 16, 2004
 
I didn't really have to think about this one at all. "Have You Seen Her," by the Chi-Lites, is not my favorite song (that would be "I Can't Stand the Rain" by Ann Peebles), nor even my second-favorite (the Zombies' "She's Not There"), but it is the only one I would play to melt those alien hearts of stone. There is no other song that could save humanity.

I first heard it when I was five. The Chi-Lites, led by the silver clarity and undeniable songwriting of Eugene Record, had bounced up onto the national consciousness in 1969 with "Give It Away," but I was three and living in Idaho then, so I don't think I heard it then. But I do remember how hard "Have You Seen Her" hit on the AM radio, what acreage of loss and heartache it covered for me even then, a white near-sighted skinny kid with poofy 1971 hair, riding in the back of a wood-paneled station wagon. It was always the only song in the world.

So now that the slavering tentacled beasts want to raze our civilization, I give them this gift. The acid-rock guitar notes simultaneously with the rising falsetto harmonies give you a glimpse of where you're going right away: sandpaper and honey, it's gonna hurt, but it's the truth. Sometimes, you have to wallow in the pain to remember the love. This is pretty much Usher's "Burn," 33 years ago.

The monologues make this song. The first one wastes no time:
One month ago today, I was happy as a lark.
But now, I go for walks: to the movies, maybe to the park.
I have a seat on the same old bench, to watch the children play.
Heh, you know, tomorrow's their future -- but for me, just another day.
They all gather round me, heh; they seem to know my name.
We laugh, tell a few jokes, but it still doesn't ease my pain.
I know I can't hide from my memory, though day after day I've tried.
I keep saying, "She'll be back"...but today, again I've lied.


This is not just a man in pain. This is a homeless man. This is a street cat, one who is down with the brothers shooting hoops in the park -- but he's got nowhere to go, he's got nothing to do, he is a shattered shell of a man. Give it another couple of months, and he won't look so good. Give it a year, and he'll be frozen to death on that park bench. Now THAT, my friends, is careless hopeless love. THAT is crazy in love. THAT is epic romance.

The singing is impeccable, of course, we expect that in an early 1970s soul song. But the production work here is typical Eugene Record/Carl Davis work: not flashy but clean, evenly spaced echo effects, sound nailed to a cross. It's a bit overdone perhaps, but intentionally, the way Brett Favre will underthrow Javon Walker on purpose because he knows the cornerback thinks he's gonna throw to the outside so he goes back-shoulder and then boom touchdown -- well, that's the Chi-Lites style. Here, the continuo is formed by what appears to be a proto E-bow effect, which ratchets the tension up a huge notch, but the aliens will also be impressed by the way the drums barely seem to be there at all, how the bass is getting quietly funky so as not to disturb anyone -- because this song belongs to the human voice.

Record's lead voice is always as humble as it can be, understated and soft, while the backing harmonies are all involved in weird stuff that sounds avant-garde now if you're all into that but the radio was F.U.L.L. of stuff like this back then. There are periodic explosions of pain, like the classic "Why oh why / Did she have to leave and go awayyyyyyyyyyyyyy?", but he keeps trying to damp his passion back down, so as not to draw the interest of the tough Afro-ed characters on the court.

He sees her face everywhere, even at the picture show. He feels the cold wind blow. She left her kiss upon his lips, but left that break within his heart. This vocal performance could not possibly be more OTM; Record nails the feeling of someone trying to trace back the breadcrumbs of his life out of the forest, someone singing as the sun goes down to keep the wolves away. He's been used to having someone to lean on, but he's lost. Baby he's lost.

He's got help, too. The rest of the group (Robert Lester, Marshall Thompson, Creadel Jones) are the golden cloud for Record's silver leads. Sometimes, they say what he can't: "Oh I see her hand reaching out to me / Only she can set me free"; sometimes, they say what cannot be said: a soulful hum behind the main melody, or the bridge when the group goes "bup bup bup" and answer themselves "bup bup bup" and then repeat it and then leap up an astonishing octave "bup bup bup bup bup BUP bup," way the hell over the top but that is what they want, they have to shake you out of your complacency, to make you understand that This man is going to die for the lack of love.

Haven't you ever felt like that? I feel like that ALL THE TIME, and my wife hasn't even left me. (Yet.) This is the naked fear of all human beings: that we will die without love, with no one to lean on, all alone like in Gregory Corso's dope-ass poem "Marriage," all alone with pee stains on our underwear. When you look in our hearts, when we open up our hearts, at the end of the day, at the end of the world, what we want is to get back what we've lost, that love that we think will complete us and make us whole and make us beautiful. And nothing is sadder than someone who has had it, and lost it, and knows what he has lost, and has to live with that knowledge.

This is made clear with the ending monologue, which has hit me like a stepdad ever since I couldn't even tie my own shoes:
As another day comes to an end,
I'm looking for a letter, or SOMETHING, anything that she would send.
With all the people I know, heh, I'm still a lonely man.
You know, it's funny: I thought I had her in the palm of my hand.


And then comes the saddest sound I have ever heard on a record: Eugene Record singing "Have you seen her?" softly twice over the closing vamp. Singing to himself, because he knows the answer. He's not even singing, really. He's carving it, carving it into himself, writing his own epitaph right there on the park bench.

If the aliens can't feel that, the deep dark pathos of loss and fear and love so strong it drives you into a downward spiral for days or months or years, then screw 'em, they don't deserve us. Let them burn it all away and make room for their icky Up With People world.

But I have a feeling a lot of tentacles will be wiping saline excretions from huge freaky eyes. I bet Eugene Record saves our fuckin' lives. Then, I put on "We Are Neighbors" and we dance.
 
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