(Written by W.A. Bisson, Esther Gordy Edwards and Berry Gordy)
Following on from her chaotic rendition of We Shall Overcome, cut as part of a Martin Luther King tie-in album to coincide with the Great March on Washington, Liz Lands – big-voiced, big-haired, classically-trained pseudo-operatic soprano Liz Lands – is here called upon to sing about the murder of President Kennedy. Without hearing the record, it feels as though she was in danger of becoming Motown’s Poet Laureate, wheeled out for political statements whenever the label wanted to Make A Comment with a serious, pretentious, “prestigious” gesture.
Certainly, the spectre of a real horror show was on the cards for this one – mawkish, sentimental, pompous, ghastly, even ghoulish. But instead, here, against all the odds, and in complete contrast to We Shall Overcome, the gravity of the situation and the sincerity of the record completely win out over stylistic excesses. It’s as though Gordy, Lands and everyone else involved knew they simply couldn’t bollocks this up, under any circumstances. And, incredibly, they don’t.
Everything about this should go hideously wrong, on paper at least. A tribute to a slain President laid with simplistic platitudes, (co-)written by Berry Gordy and sung by Liz Lands, neither of whom had exactly built a reputation for subtety or lightness of touch. But it’s actually almost perfect.
Berry Gordy believed in John F Kennedy, and this tribute may be the only thing he ever did that wasn’t a calculated commercial cash-in from the get-go. Maybe that makes me sound naïve, but I believe this. It might have been completely cynical, a bandwagon-jumping attempt of the most crass and brazen kind imaginable, but I don’t think so – it sounds honest to me, sounds hurt.
In today’s post-Band Aid atmosphere, this would have been cut as a charity single, with all the connotations of goodwill and cynicism and public posturing that phrase conjures up, but that doesn’t seem to have been the motivation for May What He Lived For Live. Berry Gordy sent copies of the record to both Jackie Kennedy and President Johnson as a heartfelt expression of solidarity; even Berry couldn’t be so appalling as to do that and not really mean it. No, this is for real, and I believe every word of it.
It helps that it’s actually one of the best songs Gordy ever had a hand in writing, no joke and no exaggeration. Like the Beach Boys’ The Warmth Of The Sun, inspired by the same feelings of numb shock stemming from the same event, it tries to deal with a national catastrophe on an emotional level. But instead of transposing the tragedy to a personal romantic problem, as with the Beach Boys record, here Motown confronts it head on. You think you’ve won, you twisted fucks? You’ve just lost. You will never, EVER beat us.
It’s disarmingly non-specific in its lyrics – Gordy later noted ruefully that it could apply just as easily to Dr King in the wake of his assassination, so generic are the platitudes when written down, and it’s no great stretch to consider it as a religious song about the crucifixion of Jesus rather than a lament for a politician – but at the same time it’s also very specific, because the context informs every moment of this, suffusing Liz’ every syllable, straight out of the speakers to the listener’s heart.
This is a steady, solemn march, a 55bpm dirge marked out metronomically in 4/4 time for organ, piano and gospel choir (the Voices of Love, aptly named here for once), stately but never funereal. Liz keeps largely in the alto and mezzo-sporano roles, perhaps out of deference to the seriousness of the occasion, and – some shock, this – she’s utterly brilliant, her standard operatic schtick suddenly appropriate, her delivery suddenly perfectly-judged, rich and resonating, as though knowing this might have to strike a chord with people for whom this really did seem like the end of the world, and to both echo and soothe their pain not just now but throughout the years. It doesn’t actually seem to have done so – it garnered little attention then and it’s little remembered now – but it certainly gets me, every single time.
It’s got everything and nothing to do with JFK; it’s just a towering, defiant record, and it’s magnificent in every sense. Kennedy himself is almost absent from the song, and similarly everywhere. Your own thoughts and feelings on the Kennedy administration and the assassination are irrelevant; this is about reacting to a loss, not the details of that loss. And if you don’t feel it in the pit of your stomach –
Enemies he made / Trying all to save / Let it be, now that he’s gone
Dreams he had for men / Have no dying end
May what they tried to kill live on
– then there’s no hope for you. That “live on” bit, the song’s true devastating punch, is majestic. Soaring right up the scale, resolving in something approaching a full-on, dramatic, defiant chorus, followed by a high soprano “LIVE!” to end the song, itself dissolving into a howl of anguish right at the absolute top of Lands’ register (the only point in the song where Liz abandons control, usually the downfall of her Motown recordings but perfectly fitting here), all backed up by an astoundingly well-judged brass riff… it’s just top-class songcraft and singing, regardless of the setting.
Liz Lands’ Motown masterpiece is no sober requiem, then – JFK himself becomes a cipher, a sand sculpture at the centre of the song – but the tone is resolute and inspirational, both for and about we who must survive rather than those taken from us. Keep calm and carry on.
MOTOWN JUNKIES VERDICT
(I’ve had MY say, now it’s your turn. Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment, or click the thumbs at the bottom there. Dissent is encouraged!)
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“He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands”
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