I live in the only non-Christian country in the Western world. We’re Jewish here, and we have a looong history of being different. In high school and college, half of my classmates and most of my neighbors were Jewish, but the subject was virtually unmentioned. Unmentionable. Obliquely noted only on a very few holidays, it was not something you talked about. If you weren’t ashamed of it, it was certainly nothing to strut. Why would you want to be different?
Well, most of my friends chose to be less different than their parents (first-generation Americans) and grandparents (European-born, speaking English with a Yiddish accent). The Old World was left back there, Hitler obliterated it anyway, we are all Americans. Well, most of us.
Our grandparents had rescued us from Hitler, our parents had couched us comfortably in suburbia. But in the throes of the Vietnam War, the Chicago convention and Kent State, the American Dream was going sour. My entire generation sought meaning elsewhere – drugs, alcohol, Molotov cocktails, feng shui, communes, even dentistry. A perverse few of us did a retro backflip into the religion of their forefathers. And some of us even found ourselves in Israel, embracing and embraced by Zionism, Orthodox Judaism, and 10,000 miles distance from our nagging mothers. I wrote a song about this very odyssey.
We Jews have our own calendar. The day starts at sundown (yeah, I know, that’s oxymoronic), the month starts with the reappearance of the moon (whew, I was really worried it wouldn’t show this time), the year on Rosh HaShana (Head of the Year), which occurs (according to our half-lunar/half-solar calendar) somewhere between September 5 and October 5 (except after 2089, when it will come no earlier than September 6 – let me tell you, this is one tangled can of worms).
The event is proscribed in the Bible (Leviticus 23:24 and Numbers 29:1) as a day of blowing the ram’s horn. Nowadays here in this Jewish country Rosh HaShana is a two-day holiday. Everybody puts on their holiday finery, buys a lot of flowers and newspapers, and gifts for the friends who are hosting them for a holiday meal (as of press time, no Covid restrictions!, though many people are self-distancing).
For most folks here, that means vacation and rest. For those of us who joined OAR (the Observe All the Rules club), it means the Day of Judgment, in which we’re called to account for our behavior during the past year. It’s the beginning of a ten-day period of soul-searching, climaxing in the Yom Kippur fast. In practice, Rosh HaShana is a 48- hour prayer marathon in synagogue, with occasional breaks for eating and sleeping and reading the newspapers. I want to tell you, 50 hours without screens is a very long time. Or, to put it more philosophically, “Life is short, but the days are very long.”
Some people, spiritually more highly evolved than myself, manage to engage the day in all its gravity. I overheard a young security guard at the entrance to the mall saying to a friend, in utter earnest, “It’s so frightening – we’re all gonna stand before The King in judgment. Scary, man!”
I will confess that during breaks in the prayer my two regular synagogue buddies and I occasionally exchange a word or two about such spiritually lofty subjects as the Yankees winning streak or Dylan’s latest official bootleg release. Z and D and I grew up with Lesley West’s Mountain more prominent in our landscape than Mount Sinai, and we all made a similar journey to the same pew in the same synagogue, mouthing the same prayers that our great-grandfathers did in Eastern Europe. That’s a very gratifying concept, but great-grandpa was hardwired in a way that we’re not. Our attitude to spirituality is somewhat wry, to put it mildly. So it’s at times like this, with Divine Judgment hanging over our mortal souls, that Z and D and I and our like reach into the bag of cultural resources on which we were raised for a booster.
And there’s nothing more boostful than Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles’ rendition of her ‘Spirit in the Dark’ as performed at the Fillmore West on March 6, 1971. The folks up on the stage grew up singing their hearts out in churches in Detroit and rural Florida. The kids in the audience occasionally visited Temple Beth Israel in Squirrel Hill or Shaker Heights.
The 3-night gig was a big one for Aretha, her commercial popularity burgeoning. Jerry Wexler put her on stage in front of a white audience singing popular white songs (Beatles, Paul Simon, Stephen Stills) mixed with pop soul (‘Respect’, ‘Dr Feelgood). He replaced her road band with A-level studio musicians King Curtis and his band The Kingpins (featuring Billy Preston) and The Memphis Horns, with Aretha’s regular backup singers.
On the second night, she spontaneously brought Ray Charles on stage to duet with her on ‘Spirit in the Dark’, a quasi-spiritual she’d written and had a hit with a couple of years previously. She sings the song, then disappears off-stage, then returns with The Genius: “I discovered Ray Charles”, she quips, a reference to Flip Wilson’s Christopher Columbus 1967 skit in which “Queen Isabel Johnson” tells Chris that he can have “all the money you all the money you want, honey — you go find Ray Charles!”
The gig was documented in the album “Aretha Live at Fillmore West”, not one of her big hits, but gaining respect over the years. It includes a recording of part of the second night’s version of ‘Spirit in the Dark’ with surprise guest Ray. Aretha: “I actually saw Ray a week or so earlier and told him what I was doing at the Fillmore but I didn’t think too much about it – until the night and there he was in the crowd. The next thing I knew he was up onstage and we were singing ‘Spirit.’ It was really a fantastic show and one that I’ll always remember.”
In 2005, Rhino Records released a 4-CD box set, “Don’t Fight The Feeling: The Complete Aretha Franklin & King Curtis Live At Fillmore West”, but the version of ‘Spirit in the Dark’ there is from the first night.
The entire duet with Ray is recorded in video, all 25 minutes of it. Technically, the quality is low. Musically, it’s sublime. Do yourself a favor, watch it all. Then watch it again. Watch it just before Rosh HaShana. Watch it just before Christmas and before Aid al-Fitr. Watch it before Martin Luther King’s birthday. Watch it before your own birthday. Watch it on your cat’s birthday. Just watch it.
It’s magic. It’s inspired. Know what? It’s spiritual.
Aretha is ostensibly singing about God, but it’s one very funky God: Are you gettin’ the spirit in the dark?/People movin’ oh and they groovin’/Just gettin’ the spirit in the dark/Tell me sister how do ya feel?/Tell me my brother, how do you feel?/Do you feel like dancin?/Get up and let’s start dancin’/Start gettin’ the spirit in the dark./Riiiiide Sally ride/Put your hand on your hips/Cover your eyes/And move with the spirit.
Ray may be singing a church tune, but he’s doing it across the street in a honkey-tonk: Every time you get a girl singing with you, can you feel it deep inside?/When my woman wake me up in the morning, she give me the spirit/I gotta find me a woman tonight, ‘cause I feel the spirit.
Maybe Brother Ray can find The Spirit in a honkey-tonk or at the Fillmore West, but me and Z and D, we’re going to be in our neighborhood synagogue, and if we do any singing it’s gonna be a whole lot tamer than Ray’s. What can I tell you? We didn’t grow up in Rev. Franklin’s church. Well, we didn’t grow up in Grandpa’s shtiebel either, but each of us decided that those are the roots we choose to embrace. Not drugs, not Moonyism, not Fillmorism. We’re gonna sit in shul for three days and be bored out of our minds and try real hard to reconnect with where we came from and seriously ponder our destiny for the coming year. And maybe here and there we’ll even sneak in a little schmooze about Aretha and Ray’s ‘Spirit in the Dark’.