over the past weekend the regional association of our denomenation had its annual series of meetings and workshops in the midst of the hub. I attended most of it and had a good time seeing folks I hadn't seen in a while and some I only get to see when this happens. one of the most interesting things happened friday night when I checked in and the woman getting my paperwork turned out to be a member of the congregation I belonged to in the mid to late 90s before we moved further out on the rim. she didn't recognize me by looks but by name and when she found out I'd been a member she said, "you gave a talk about meeting al green, didn't you?" this was a long time ago, nearly 15 years ago, but I had indeed done that and she said, "I was just thinking about that story a few days ago when I heard an al green song on the radio. every once in a while I hear one and think of your story. it was very strong."
I've reflected on what she said and decided to put that up here since, to be honest, I haven't thought of that story in quite a while but like the opportunity to be reminded of my past successes. (I don't think it's necessary for me to say it, but I was also in awe of the president recently referencing al in a speech.) thus, here is my story of meeting al green:
“SWEET JESUS, BUT THAT MOTHER COULD TALK!”
Words are talismans, and as such they are independent and we have no control over their effects. Words, names, bundles of organized sound can hurt and they can help, and we’re all familiar with how they can say what we did not mean for them to say. But there is power there. Names mean things that otherwise can’t be said. We should wrap them in leather and hang them from straps around our necks, like charms.
Al Green. That’s a pair of words I would hang around my neck. Just the name evokes memories of late nights when I was twelve, lying awake in my upstairs bed, innumerable blankets piled over me, the cheesy black plastic radio I’d saved for for weeks snuggled under the pillow next to me, turned way down, the antenna poking up from the mound of pillows, blankets and me. Its tinny sound came all the way from big-town Albany, fifty miles north. Rock 99. I’d keep that radio nestled next to me and playing all night long. If a cloud drifted in from the west and the signal faded, even in my sleep I’d move it just the least bit away or closer, and the tinny sound strengthened. Between Led Zeppelin and Joe Cocker and Three Dog Night and even Dobie Gray the sound waves would suddenly slow down and I could feel a palpable dip in the night, like reality paused a moment to take a breath. Everything quieted and then the impossibly mellifluous strains of “Let’s Stay Together” melted out of the tinny speaker and across the expanse of the pillow and white sheet and into my ear like some tiny meandering bug. I always went to sleep when I heard that song. Not because it was dull or soft, but because it added to the haven I’d set up for myself inside the pillows and the blankets and the whole world was all right.
I saw that set of words on a marquee outside a little church in a dusty town in rural Georgia. The words stopped me cold, or more precisely, I stopped my car and craned my neck to read them. They said, “Our Guest Speaker This Sunday: Rev. Al Green.” There could have been any number of Reverend Al Greens, and I’m sure any of them would be nice guest speakers; but it didn’t take much for me to stay a few days near that town. My life wasn’t going anywhere fast back then. I set up my living stuff in the parking lot of a local wilderness park and spent a few days hiking and reading. That Sunday came and I’d almost convinced myself not to go—idol-worship being bad and all that—but I found myself walking into the church at the right time. It was one of these large, single-story modern plaster-and-white stone churches, almost more ecumenical in design than in practice. The carpet was gray and beige and then when you entered the nave it was star-patterned with bright yellow.
It was, indeed, my Al Green. He wore an off-white, three-piece suit, and shoes that were reddish-brown as the clay out in the parking lot. The local preacher introduced him—sort of his opening act—and then sat down and Al Green stood up and opened his mouth.
Years before I’d agreed to store a friend’s large screen television. I hooked it up to my VCR and spent most of my time in front of it watching pornography. There being no cable in that town back then, I got one station, the Trinity Broadcasting channel out of Poughkeepsie. The 24-hour God channel we called it. I got into a habit of watching that after long binge-drinking nights. Most of the broadcast day was given over to Pat Robertson and Jack van Impe and Benny Hinn, but at three o’clock in the morning there was a preacher whose message was a strange mixture of counterculture and establishment religion. I don’t remember his name and I probably never knew it: I never made it home in time to catch the beginning of his show or stayed up long enough to watch the end. Like so much of life, it was a permanent present when I switched on the television. Jesus was a hippie with dirty feet and callused hands to him, and by God he was proud of that. His audience was composed primarily of yuppies, a smattering of blacks and Latinos, and one or two older faces. He had a style like an old fire and brimstone padre with the addition of a few hip phrases. I loved to watch him while I was drunk. I do recall something he once said in relation to this dirty, hardworking Christ: “Sweet Jesus,” he said, “sweet Jesus, but that mother could talk!”
This is what I was thinking as I sat in the cold wooden pew in the white small town modern church on a sweltering summer Georgia Sunday afternoon, listening to the Reverend Al Green. Because Al Green could talk. I could have listened to him forever. His message was simple: like Calvin Coolidge’s preacher, he was against sin, and he was for Jesus. And then the choir sang some gospel and the congregation joined in—thus, I can claim that I once sang with Al Green. And then, because you can’t have Al Green’s voice and not sing, he sang an a cappella gospel number that sent the shivers of the being-naughty-and-knowing-you’re-getting-away-with-it style down my back. I was back, unbelievably innocent, to that time of tinny radio speakers and covers drawn up over my head and the cold outside and the warm right in here.
I stood with the rest of the congregation for the local preacher’s closing benediction, but snuck out before it was over. It was too much to take, those memories, this voice, that throb that filled my head and opened up some other part of my heart.
Because I lived in my car public bathrooms were precious to me. I visited this one and relived myself and splashed water across my face. I headed out for the hall and then to my car.
Coming toward me from the other end of the hall was Al Green.
He was sweating in his white suit in the Georgia August day, and it put a sheen on his face like I’ve seen on wooden statues of San Martin de Porres in Santerian shrines. He walked like a man with places to go. That wide, friendly, open face I’d seen on albums, television shows, Soul Train, was clouded, downcast.
I wanted to say hello—what an opportunity, not always available to people like me, to touch for a second some tangible part of their past—but I didn’t want to disturb him. This was a man with the tragedies of the world on his mind, weightier matters than I presented. Al Green was trying to solve the problem of existence and he had nothing but his voice to fight with, so I gave him room.
He walked alone. I walked past him, giving him that nod and crooked smile guys give one another, that little “I-know-you-and-if-you-were-hip-you’d-know-me, but-it’s-okay-that-you-don’t” sort of grin and eye lock. But he didn’t play the game. Al Green stopped and his face took on the dimensions I’ve seen on supplicants contemplating God. He broke out a smile the width of the hallway and he stepped over to me and he took my hand in both of his and he said, “How are you?”
He seemed to mean every word. I was astonished. Al Green had stopped to talk with me. You must picture this. He was sweating in the August heat in his off-white suit. I stood there in a stained T-shirt with the arms ripped off, a pair of cutoffs whose worn fabric held together just below my crotch, old running shoes that didn’t smell very good. I had dreadlocks then—there are few places to wash one’s hair on the road—and they stuck out in every direction. I pray I remembered to brush my teeth that morning.
I was sweating too, but the heat I felt came from this man who had stopped to talk with me and whose two large, black hands encased my small, callused one so that when I looked down—and I can still see it—it looked as if I’d dipped that hand into molasses. It was as warm and gentle a grip as if I’d done exactly that.
I said a word or two, something along the lines of, “oh, I’m all right, how are you?” And he said “fine, fine”, and he seemed to mean that, too. And then because you can’t speak to Al Green and hold his hands and not say what’s on your mind, I said, “My God, Al, you can sing.”
He laughed. And then this man with the weight of the world’s sins and flaws and tragedies continued to laugh as he let go of my hand and turned around and headed into the bathroom. The sound of his laugh bounced off those walls and come to rest inside me. That laugh has continued to reverberate, crashing against the walls inside my skull, like a pendulum out of control in a too-small space, until it finally breaks everything down and all that’s left is the pendulum, swinging slowly and unhindered and alone.