Al Green and the Family War

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Art can divide a family.

In 1973, my family lived near a network of ponds and fields on the northern fringe of Battle Creek, Michigan. You can visit the neighborhood anytime through Google Street View and even check out our old house at 242 Wanondoger Trail. The area still looks pretty much the same: simple wood or brick ranch structures, the occasional split level, big lawns, trees, and, beyond the cluster of houses, an open expanse of grass that still invites kids to play war games in the summer and ride their snowmobiles in the winter, just as my older brother, Dan, and I did. I was 10 years old in 1973. Dan was 12. I had two older sisters: Karen, who was in high school, and Cathy, who had recently graduated, worked at a Dairy Queen, and lived at home. Our family lived uncomplicated lives, or so it seemed to me. Besides playing outside a lot, Dan and I listened to record albums, including Bible stories that our Grandma Deal bought us. And somewhere along the line, I had discovered the joy of Al Green.

I don’t remember when or where I first heard Al Green’s voice — probably on the radio during a family drive in our Monte Carlo. But I loved everything I heard. I was a quiet kid. By age 10, I had already lived in Peoria, Illinois; Atlanta; and Indianapolis, and I did not make friends easily. Mine was a lonely world defined by books, the fields, the pond, and Al Green’s voice. His music was like a companion. His soothing, sweet vocals on songs like “I’m Still in Love with You” made me want to sing. The romance and longing in songs like “Call Me” made me want to experience the passions that had inspired such powerfully emotional songs even though I was too young to truly understand what he was singing about. I lacked the money to buy his albums, but I could afford the occasional 45s, which I purchased at K Mart and kept in a small stack in our parents’ big wooden console stereo, right next to my dad’s copy of Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass’ Whipped Cream and Other Delights.

“You Ought to Be with Me” was my favorite Al Green single. I listened to it over and over. At the time, I didn’t know how songs were made. I thought singers and musicians performed them live as opposed to recording their parts separately and assembling the parts into a song. I wondered how Al Green made his voice become like an instrument in the opening few seconds, with his “Hey, yeahs” and drawn out “hey-ah” jumping an octave over a bed of horns and strings before pleading and asking someone to be with him. I always listened closely at the one-minute mark, when his teeth made a slight whistle sound as he sang the word “us” in “They don’t want to see us do.” I suppose someone else might have done a retake, but Al Green made every vocal tic sound like honey. And I thrilled at the way he made the word “night” sound like an extended “nigh-hi-ey-aye” as the song faded out. Whenever I saw the Hi Records logo on his 45s, I thought of that drawn-out “hi-ey-aey” and still do.

But Al Green was not an obvious choice for a 10-year-old growing up in Battle Creek. On the one hand, he was at the peak of his popularity as a soul singer. His sweet vocal style combined with Willie Mitchell’s slick production generated a slew of hit singles and albums that would help shape 1970s soul. But there was something about him that didn’t sit right with the masculine small-town culture that defined our neighborhood. Maybe it was the way his voice soared high and cooed. Maybe it was his occasionally florid choice of attire, such as the frilly coat and sleeves he wore on the cover of Al Green Gets Next to You. Never mind that he was a notorious womanizer in real life. He was just too sweet for the boys of Battle Creek.

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I soon experienced his impact firsthand when Cathy began to bring home boyfriends. They all looked big and rough to me in their greasy jeans, dirty flannel shirts, and long hair. When they hung out at our house, they always brought their records, and they played Cathy’s records, such as the Rolling Stones’ Through the Past Darkly (Big Hits Vol. 2) and Paul McCartney’s Ram. Sometimes they would discover my Al Green singles and play one, which always evoked the same incredulous “What is this shit?” expressions before the 45 was abruptly yanked from the turntable and replaced quickly with something more suitable, such as Deep Purple or Uriah Heep.

And Cathy was not exactly in a position to explain my odd musical interest. She really didn’t know me. We lived in two completely different universes. In 1973, she was soon going to turn 19. She was the oldest child, which meant being the first among us to experience the world, and I was the youngest, which meant I had experienced nothing, in her eyes. We were not hostile to each other, but we didn’t have anything in common. She tolerated me — but she accommodated her friends.

My mom and dad expected their kids to abide by the rules of the house, which, for Cathy, meant the usual prohibitions, such as on overnight guests without our parents’ consent, no drinking, no drugs, and generally no partying. It was fairly easy for my parents to enforce these rules so long as they were around.

But they weren’t always around.

My dad traveled a lot for his job as an insurance executive. We all grew up being accustomed to him living long stretches away from home. He would later keep an apartment in Chicago after he took a different job, and for awhile, the rest of us stayed behind in Battle Creek, as we had gotten used to him not being at home much. Part of my dad’s job involved attending annual company meetings in locations like St. Maarten. In 1973, he took my mom on one of these trips, and left the kids at home under Cathy’s care. Which meant Cathy had carte blanche to break the house rules. Which she did with relish.

She had her friends over. A lot. Overnight. With drinking. And maybe drugs. Probably drugs. I didn’t like it. Our house had been overtaken by a bunch of long-haired Vikings from the wild, drinking what they wanted, eating what they wanted, and sleeping where they wanted. And who could blame them, Cathy, or any other teenager once they discovered they had the run of the house? One morning, after a few nights of their general debauchery and hedonism had passed, I discovered my collection of Al Green singles had been reduced to a pathetic pile of sharp vinyl shards. I never found out who destroyed them, but it didn’t matter. Cathy had let them in. And they had violated my prized possessions. Even worse, Cathy didn’t care. Maybe she didn’t even notice.

That week, I discovered the meaning of revenge. I could never get those singles back, but I could get back at Cathy. So for the rest of the week, I kept a journal that described every rule violation that had occurred while my parents were away that week. Down to the minute, I recorded each party, each random cigarette butt tossed in our yard, each bottle of beer consumed by the Viking hoards, and every moment I had endured listening to their loud music. When the week was over, and my parents had returned home, I dutifully handed over the journal to my mom. Our parents never trusted Cathy to babysit the kids again, and they stripped her of the right to have any friends over for a long time, with or without my parents there. Essentially, the house became a prison for her, or so she thought. And my journal was to blame.

Today Cathy and I get along just fine. She lives not too far from me, and we share a deep love of music. But the journaling incident caused a rift that took years to heal. In Cathy’s eyes, I was nothing more than the worst kind of younger brother possible: a snitch. As I saw it, she was responsible for a horrible violation of my world. But I was willing to pay the price. You just didn’t mess with Al Green. Not my Al Green.

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