Tight Times: Anatomy of a Jam

Don’t worry, ducklings, I’m on an even keel again, but last week was pretty up and down with Wednesday being the most disruptive day. I woke up in the morning and went to a bar to watch the Boston Celtics win their 17th NBA championship and mercilessly squash the love ’em (as most of China apparently does) or hate ’em (as I do) LA Lakers. I walked (on air) back to my house and relived the victory for a little while on the internet. It was totally awesome. I was feeling very good. Then I went to unpack my bass and practice a bit. The bag was hanging in a funny way on the neck, and touching it didn’t assuage my fears, so I slowly unzipped the bag with the bass still lying on its side. The neck had fallen right off. It was shock, anger, sadness: the usual. Not only did this situation suck in a major way, but my god-given right to be thrilled about the Celtics had been taken away in less than a day! So, after staring at my demolished happiness and being cruelly forced to understand how Kobe felt, I watched this video:

Well, “watched this video” is an overstatement. It’s just the 45 of Booker T. & the MGs’ “Time is Tight” turning around and around. This song had reached My Jam status about a week before Crazy Wednesday, and has stayed there since. I watch it every day, sometimes two or three times in a row, and on that Wednesday it comforted me in my sadness as it had amplified my excitement and hope in happier times. A funny, irreverent little description of this song’s impact came to me when I first thought of writing about it, but the combination of religious and sexual impulses in music is well documented—especially in Soul of this period—and I don’t want to offend my mother, or any other members of the anti-blasphemy crowd. I can say, though, that this is the rare successful instrumental pop song. Although lyrics don’t necessarily pin down the meaning of a song—I once had a heated argument about whether the Beatles’ “I’m Only Sleeping” was a depressive retreat from life or an ode to the joys of sleep—their absence allows this song to encompass more varied feelings: reflection and hope, as well as ecstatic spiritual and sexual joy. Mache didn’t have the same reaction when I played this song for her. Perhaps the presence of a B3 organ had connotations of Austin Powers 60s kitsch, in the same way that large segments of the population hear a swing rhythm and have visions of either a drunk detective in a smoky bar or a bunch of smiling, clean-cut teenagers doing a silly dance, depending on tempo.

While it’s impossible to prove that a song is good, to me it has all the elements of a perfect pop song, all the tensions that make it compelling: simplicity and sophistication, repetition and progress, even contrasting lead voices in the direct B3 of Booker T. Jones and the dreamier guitar of Steve Cropper. It also has maybe the most essential ingredient of a great pop song: it’s three minutes long, increasing in intensity at the very end just as it fades. It’s like the ideal quickie. With Jesus. There, I said it.

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