Sunday, August 10, 2008

I was still trying to absorb the news of Bernie Mac's death when I signed on about an hour ago and learned that Isaac Hayes has died.

"No!" I exclaimed at my computer, as if that would undo the headline.

Janet and I went to see Isaac Hayes just a few weeks ago, on June 26, at the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra's Community Partners Concert. I noted to Janet that he was moving really slowly, and that his voice wasn't as robust as it once was (I heard somewhere, later, that he had had a stroke). It seemed to me that it was about time for him to retire from performing live.

"I think that's the last time I'll go see him," I said.

I had seen him twice before. The first time...gosh, it must have been in the early 1970's, before "Shaft." He came out wearing this big ol' floppy fur hat, and bowed as he pulled it off with a flourish, revealing the shining dome of his bald head.

I think the women in the audience had orgasms.

I don't remember the entire program. I do remember an extended performance of "By The Time I Get To Phoenix," with a rap that told more fully the story of the young man who came home and "found another bull...grazing in his pasture."

I don't remember the entire program, but I remember that it was a heck of a show.

And then came "Shaft." Hearing that on the radio for the first time was one of the few instances when a piece of music made me feel like something new was happening in the world. I think it was like that for everybody who heard it. That driving percussion caught you right away, and then came...what is that? I've never heard anything like that before! That's a guitar? Dang! That is baaaaad!!

Then came the orchestra, building bits of melody on top of one another, but so slowly, just taking their time...flutes....organ....brass...strings....but so slowly, just taking their time...is this an instrumental number? There's no vocals, right?

Most songs are only three minutes long, and at 1:45, it changes up, with a strutting bass line. Okay, he's gonna start singing now, right?

Wrong, wrong, wrong...the orchestra just kinda starts over with a second theme, with the brass doing their own strut over the bass. And the strings come back in, and the strings - the strings! - are jammin'!

Finally, at 2:43, that this-is-where-Barry-White-went-to-school baritone comes in, and because it's Isaac Hayes, he doesn't even have to sing, you know, he just lets the violins sing a languid melody over yet another change in the bass line, while he talks. And what's the first thing he says?

"Who's the black private dick that's a sex machine to all the chicks?"

Omigod, did he say what I think he said? Did he say, "dick?" He did!

Okay, he said "private dick," as in private detective, but private-dick-as-in-private-detective is white folks' slang from the '40s. Isaac Hayes is messing with my head here, and with everybody else's who hears this. Because not only is Shaft is a "black private dick," he's a "sex machine to all the chicks." A sex machine? A black sex machine? An ebon pneumatic Priapus? An atavistic primitive for whom women are still "chicks?"

It was 1971. Blacks had received the vote. Were entering college, graduating, and entering corporations. We were wearing suits and ties. Although some of us still wore Afros.

Oh, and feminism was in full flower.

"Who's the black private dick who's a sex machine to all the chicks?"

LOCK UP YOUR DAUGHTERS!!!!

And his backup singers identify the Scary Black Man who is the subject of this paean: "Shaft!"

And what's the very next thing Isaac Hayes says? "Damn right!"

Omigod, he said, "damn!" What the...?????

But there's not even time to absorb that, because the bass is driving, surging forward in double-time, while he moves from simple speaking to singstimme:

"Who is the man that would risk his neck for his brotha-man?"
("Shaft!" "Can ya dig it?")
"Who's the cat that won't cop out when there's danger all about?
("Shaft!" "Right on!")

"You see, this cat Shaft is a bad mother-" "Shut your mouth!"

*GASP!!!* He almost said...I can't say what he almost said! It's a good thing those background singers came in! And I want the D.J. to play the song again, or to back it up to play that part again, because I want to make sure that he didn't actually say what I think he almost said, underneath the background singers, because you can't actually say that!

Isaac Hayes knows this, so he immediately apologizes. Sort of:

"But I'm talking about Shaft!" "Well, we can dig it!"
"He's a complicated man, but no one understands him but his woman." ("John Shaft!")

And at 3:39, that's all Isaac Hayes has to say. In words, at least. There's no second verse, nor should there be...this song is already longer than anything else on the radio. The drums and guitar reprise the opening theme. This is where the song is going to fade out.

But it's not fading. At 4:00, the orchestra, tutti, goes rat-a-tat-tat, rat-a-tata-tat-tat (gunfire?), and - whoa! - that freaky guitar is moving between my left and right speakers!

And the orchestra slams a chord, then a second, then the first again, while that guitar is still wah-wahing and the drums still pulsing, then the second chord again, and again, and again, and finally - finally! - lays down the first chord quietly and holds it, letting it fade.

At 4 minutes and 38 seconds, it's over, and I am in a state of shock and awe. Like every other person in America who grew up on AM radio, I've been trained to listen to music for 3 minutes at a time, and now I have just listened to a song for 4 1/2 minutes, and for almost the first three minutes, it was just an orchestra and a guitar with a sound I've never heard before, and when the artist did start singing, if you can call it that, he talked about sex and said damn and almost said m.f. , and after I thought it was over, it just kept going some more!

I want that song! I want that album!

So did everyone else, apparently. The "Shaft" soundtrack album was an unprecendented smash.
Only now, remembering the theme song, listening to it again over and over, does it occur to me that its four segments, played by an orchestra, are distinct enough to be called movements, and that the "Shaft" theme may be the most popular, and most subversive, symphony of the 20th Century.

The second time that I saw Isaac Hayes was a free outdoor concert in Nashville during my fellowship at the Diversity Institute in the summer of 2004. By that time, he was known to a new generation as Chef on "South Park," and he and the audience had a good time with "Chocolate Salty Balls." (if you haven't heard it, I won't try to describe it; just think about the title and remember that it's from "South Park.")

But "Shaft," was the signature piece, the show-stopper, the show closer. As it was on June 26, when despite his declining condition, he worked the onstage members of the PSO like slaves, not letting them stop, not letting the final movement end, until he was tired.

I don't think they minded.

R.I.P., Mr. Hayes. No disrespect to Richard Roundtree, but for many of us you were Shaft.

NOTE: YouTube, of course, is bursting with "Shaft" videos now. Of the ones I've seen, this is my favorite. (UPDATE, 1/30/2013: That link is broken, try this one.
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