The doldrums lasted five months this time, the longest I can remember, from somewhere roughly in November to right around the top of April. Its nature keeps me from remembering exact times, but normally it just feels like a valley; this time it felt like being under the earth. Somewhere in that space nothing tried to keep me alive, not even God, especially not God, but nothing killed me either. I would probably just call it depression if I was suicidal, as if that was the defining symptom. It’s “the doldrums” for me, and it’s bad enough.
People that know me know that I have a tremendous memory, but being in the doldrums makes everything fuzzy around the edges for me. It’s a romantic idea to begin with: that out consciousness is like a string tied to our umbilical cords at birth, the terminal end tied off somewhere in the ether a zillion miles away that we can follow along and reminisce over. In truth our lives are remembered in the roughly linear manner of a flip book; some moments inked broader than others, some actions more clearly sketched, but mainly incomplete. That’s not the norm for me; I can remember even minute details of mundane happenings when I’m leveled out. That detail attention has always been a part of how I listen to music, how I appreciate it, which may be part of why I’m just now getting these thoughts out in the open, the pages that still resonate.
Somewhere in the doldrums my foot ulcerated again, giving me a small glimpse of my corpse to tend to. Flip to me smiling through a panic attack at a seafood restaurant bathroom during a Christmas shopping outing. Flip, and I’m thinking of the raw aggression of Jamaica again, thinking of the cormorants riding thermals over Montego Bay. It’s Thanksgiving and I’ve gone manic about whether the food I had made was any good, blabbering about ingredients. I’m taking a drink of bourbon; flip, and I’m taking another. I’m losing friendships. Losing relationships. My car dies on the side of a country highway in the middle of the night. Flip.
I turned 40 years old on New Year’s Day, and I bought a new turntable. I planned to listen to Fulfillingness’ First Finale right off the bat and publish this review about it the next day, but the doldrums wouldn’t let me, and the next flip was God shrugging His shoulders and going back to work.
2. “Too Shy To Say”
Fulfillingness’ First Finale is an album about God, but God was different in 1974, a time before the Moral Majority decided that Jesus was a Republican. You can split the songs in this album into three groups: songs about love and relationships, songs about politics, and songs about God. The nearly didactic, almost self-righteous heft of the “God” songs tint the lyrical content of the other two groups, though, to the point that a song like “Too Shy To Say” almost takes on a “You Light Up My Life” vibe; if it wasn’t for the demurring female giggle at the beginning, “Too Shy To Say” could easily be Stevie Wonder singing directly to Jesus. “You Haven’t Done Nothin'” is obtusely about Nixon, but there’s still a feel of a spiritual airing og greviances to the lyrics. Only “Boogie On Reggae Woman” sounds 100-percent secular, and even then Wonder can’t bring himself to fully enunciate the word “naked”, in fear that Jesus is still listening to the final mix in the room next door.
At this point in his career, Stevie Wonder had near complete control of every aspect of his music, so you can rely on the spiritual intent. Musically, Stevie Wonder had become proficient enough to play nearly every instrument himself, and if he wanted it better he only got top-shelf talent; the steel guitar player from The Flying Burrito Brothers, the top Moog technicians not named Robert Moog, and the well-known backup singers The Jackson Five. Contractually, and more importantly, he had the ballsiest, biggest contract Motown had ever seen, giving him all the freedom he wanted, nearly the singular cause of the switch from the popularity of the “singles on one album” format to the near “concept” albums in the R&B world to come. For sure this album has its devotional moments, but it doesn’t sound like a gospel album. There’s plenty of pop sensibility to be found. But, down to the keyboards ascending to heaven on the cover, the spiritual center of the album is intentional.
To be fair, the cover of Innervisions has The bust of Stevie Wonder shooting the Bat Signal straight to heaven with his eyes and even has a song with “Jesus” in the title. But the themes in Innervisions seem to come together as a pastiche of scenes, from the church to the streets to the ghetto to the White House(and Nixon, again). Fulfillingness’ First Finale seem to filter all of its songs through the prism of God. God gets his shoutout in Songs In The Key Of Life, too, but there doesn’t seem to be much of a religious thread to follow, down to Wonder’s place at the center of the album cover’s incongruent and widening suns.
I wonder if the spiritual angle was as heavy handed as it was because of his near-death car wreck that took place before he produced this album. Was this an exaltation for an answered prayer? An offering of humility before his masterwork, Songs In The Key Of Life, capped off his “classical period” of outstanding music? Is Fullfillingness’ First Finale his three days in the tomb? Nothing earlier in his catalog, and nothing since, ever was so heavy handed when it came to God. For me it became cloying, the more I would listen and try to kickstart my efforts to write. There were three songs in my vocal range, especially in the morning before I’d stretched out my vocal cords, and each time I’d sing them the lyrics would hit harder and harder, to the point that I would sing “Let God’s love shine within to save our evil souls/for those who don’t believe will never see the light” and even hearing my own voice muffled through the headphones I would think of God dying in the doldrums, think about how my old prayers stopped working.
3.”They Won’t Go When I Go”
Craig Strickland died in the doldrums, too, as bold of a page as any. He was, in as many ways as you could care to list, the exact opposite of Stevie Wonder. The band he was in, Backroad Anthem, is what the minds behind radio call country music these days, with the words “country” and “music” in the largest scare quotes imaginable. Not just compared to Wonder’s music in particular but to country music(even the music in Backroad Anthem’s “bro-country” peer group) in general, the music Strickland made was pop and insubstantial to the point of it being vapid, partly relying on Strickland’s colloquial success as a TV personality to promote their brand, partly relying on trend and the band’s good looks. Oddly lucky and privileged, low on talent, and a child of a God as different from the God of Fulfillingness’ First Finale as Wonder was to him.
Strickland made a strange hunting trip during the largest winter storm of a hundred years, a trip he made with his close friend, and the reason that his story was a breath of breeze in the listness of my depression was it immediately appeared to me his hunting trip was with a lover, straight out of the pages of Annie Prouix. I’ve made these secret trips before during the holidays. Most likely it was just ill-timed platonic bonding, and I’ve made those trips, too, ill timing included. In the doldrums I made them, looking for proof that land was near, looking for olive branches. My worst problem is doubt about my worth, doubt that leads to panic, living the flip book life through a land mine. I didn’t die, but Craig Strickland did.
And God followed suit. My social media was filled with moments challenging me to remain compassionate about Strickland’s death, with each message of how miracles were possible in regard to finding him alive, prayers and exaltation for his safe return, seeming more ridiculous as the days passed. This storm was Goliath in name and in stature, and all the stones laid still under a thick coat of blizzard and ice. The Facebook prayers became imprecatory towards doubters. When they finally did recover Craig Strickland’s body, days after the body of his friend Chase Moreland was found, the people of what God had become noted not that he was dead but that his body was found with his arms outstretched, just like Christ. The bigot Ronnie Floyd gave his funeral eulogy in the gaudiest church of the Ozarks. It wasn’t the house of Stevie Wonder’s God, and I would rather God be dead than to belong to Ronnie Floyd and the Facebook Jesus police. I’ll wait for his return, but for now that stone has rolled shut.
I turned 40 in the week during Craig Strickland’s disappearance, and my plan was to listen to the Stevie Wonder album and start collecting my thoughts. I got forty-five seconds in before I heard the record skip and jump. Somehow it had warped to the point of being unplayable. I can’t remember how it could have happened but it was a time for jumping from thought to thought, where music, as good of a God to me as any, caught an arrhythmia in still waters. Flip to a Canadian Indian on 45. Flip to Terry Riley, flip to the plantar wound. You’re in your dead car with no streetlights, unplugging the aux cord and letting Katey Red finish. Flip again and you’re covered in an amber grass fire smoke, 70 miles per hour on the Tulsa turnpike, realizing that music has always saved your life but this time you’re not so sure.