Sam Cooke: Living with Art

Guest post by Colin Fleming, author of Sam Cooke’s Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963

A first post from a man who used to sing his head off to Sam Cooke with his roommate.

Greetings 33 1/3 readers! I’m excited to be talking with you here in a few blog posts I’m going to do pertaining to my book in the series on Sam Cooke’s Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963. I imagine I’m likely speaking with some wise, veteran readers in the series, but perhaps some sagacious newcomers too, to whom I say welcome! I do a lot of writing on my own blog over at my website, so this seemed well up my street and I’m stoked to get started with you.

I was doing my normal routine on a recent Sunday in what is a period of solitude in my life. That is, I walked ten miles, I ran a few thousand stairs, drank a lot of coffee on the go, and I stopped into a place called Brookline Booksmith out in Coolidge Corner, which is about five miles from where I live in Boston. I saw a couple copies of this new book of mine for the first time, and that set me to making some notes about what could be worth discussing on here. Bonus materials, if you will. You know how you get those Criterion Blu-rays and you’re like, “oooh, neat, supplements! Orson Welles blows his nose and does a summersault!” Well, I thought I’d supplement Sam Cooke. Not that he needs it.

When I was in college, I read a lot of James Agee in my free time, and a lot of what I learned involved things I “grew up” to write on. He wrote it in the 1940s, and the first thing he said to readers was basically, “Look, I don’t know jack about film, I just like it, makes me think, let’s just chat about movies, shall we?”

Agee wasn’t being totally above board—he knew a damn lot about film. But I always dug that vibe he set. I thought we’d borrow it, especially with this first blog post from me.

I want to share something with you that’s not heavy at all, in that my aim isn’t to rive the fabric of the universe and let the answers to the mysteries of life pour fourth. It’s something frothy, perhaps, but foundational. But I think it gets to the spirit of Sam Cooke and what the purpose of true art really is.

So when I was in college, I was writing professionally. Academia, to me, was something that held you back. Or it held me back. There was a lot of autopilot in the teaching, and what was expected of people in the writing. I know this series technically bears an academic imprint, but it’s far more catholic—in the broad sense. If you’ve read a handful of these books, you know the various approaches they take.

What I’ll say for my book is that I wrote the book I wanted to write. Looking at it for the first time in print, all finished, that’s what I thought. I was dumbstruck by the power in it at certain points—power blended with limpid criticism—but I was grateful in my perusal that I was encouraged to write the book I wanted to write. What’s that old expression—you give a horse his head? I was given my head.

There’s a passing mention in the book to a college roommate of mine. I say passing, because though there is some first person, I’m not a big memoir-y writing person with a music book. I think you tell a story, and maybe it’s a massive story in emotional scope. It can be like Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and certainly I think the story of Sam Cooke’s Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963 is that way, only with more rising than falling. That long-ago roommate also turns up in the acknowledgements. Here’s why.

We’d be sitting there in our room deep into the night. He’d be studying at his desk on one side, I’d be working on my writing on the other. I wrote a lot of music stuff at the time. When I first met this guy, he was all about the soft rock. Christopher Cross. Air Supply. You’d think he was some sixty-year-old with a Hawaiian shirt two sizes too big for him who’d like nothing more than a couple wine coolers and a day at the marina living the life of a sandy-haired dude in a yacht rock video. I’m not going to say that I resolved to work on this Pygmalion-style, but yeah, I kind of did.

Wasn’t long before we were a couple of fellows who both kicked it hard to Arthur Alexander, Otis Redding, early Oasis, and lots and lots of Sam Cooke. When we were both starting to drag at some crazy hour of the morning—that time between times when Cooke cut his album Night Beat, which is discussed in relation to Harlem Square Club in the book—we only had one option if we were to keep going, and that simple moment of wordless friendship—for we weren’t talking; we were simply being together, experiencing something—has always stood out to me as a metaphor. The embodiment of a telling theme.

Night Beat – Sam Cooke

In this current age, people strike a lot of poses, right? You see that person who takes the 1200-page tome to the café to be seen with the book, have someone else think, “Wowzer, they’re so smart!” and they’re not actually going to read that book. Or they have the literary magazine tote bag, the name of which is lost on everyone who sees it. They’re not invested in authenticity. That’s also how most people write. Without that investment. It’s about other things. And I think art, or the attempts at making it, should never be about those other things. Art is something that should inform your life. It’s made to be lived to, do you know what I mean? Lived in, even. Lived with. Helped to live better—wiser—by. It’s more than workout music, though it can be that as well. Nothing has greater critical application than art. Noting is more necessarily critically applied.

What we’d do, my roommate and I, is turn to Harlem Square Club, but not before my friend insisted upon calling the local soft rock station, making a request for Christopher Cross’s “Sailing,” which the DJ—who should have been all about “Sailing”—refused to play, as if the song was the favorite of the interloper who had made off with his wife. Perhaps on a yacht. I don’t know. But with the jape complete, man how we would listen to that Sam Cooke live album that I was later to write a book about. The energy in that room. I’d think more, think harder, write deeper. Trying to get to the authenticity. My own. It was powerful. Just two dopey guys doing their late night thing. By the time we got to “Bring It On Home to Me,” you’d think we had both morphed into latter day Sam Cookes ourselves, and we each sang that vocal exactly as Cooke himself did—the best we could. We knew every nuance in his phrasing.

Christopher Cross – Sailing
Bring It On Home to Me – Sam Cooke

I’ve had a lot of moments like that with Sam Cooke. Some have been very lonely, hard. On a Tuesday night many years later, I honestly did not know if I would be able to endure Wednesday. If I’d be alive for Thursday. I walked a lot with Sam Cooke, both in my thoughts, and in my ears. And though the spirit of those excursions was different, it all came back—all got brought back home—to this idea that the best art is art you actually live to.

That’s Sam Cooke’s art, and that’s partially why I wanted to write this book. We’ll poke around in some other reasons too, look at the methodology, plus other aspects of Cooke himself, but I just think that’s so worth saying. Art. Live to it, baby. That’s what it’s there for, when it’s the best it can be. Then it helps you get better at living to you, if you will. Which is everything. And what I wanted to write about. In the sense of me, the sense of you, the sense of Sam Cooke’s times, the sense of culture, the sense of our world now. All of it is on that record. I hope you’ll join me with these subsequent blog posts on here, and that you’ll check out my book on Sam Cooke’s Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963. I wrote it to connect with people. To immerse them, and for us to find ourselves all immersed together. I think that’s the only art worth doing, and I believe—and have for a long time, even before those nights when me and my buddy were screaming our heads off—Sam Cooke would have thought so as well.

Sam Cooke's Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963 cover

Colin Fleming writes about music, and has written about soul, jazz, and blues for dozens of venues including The Atlantic,The New YorkerThe GuardianRolling StoneVanity FairThe Washington PostMOJODownBeat, and many others. He is a regular guest on NPR’s Weekend Edition

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