Aretha Franklin, Begging Bowls of Need, and the Fire of Love
I went to see the documentary Amazing Grace yesterday and cried more than once watching Aretha Franklin sing. I have come to recognize the eyes of those who lost mothers too young, and I saw it in Aretha and so that was also on my mind as I watched her perform, the curiousity of what happened to her.
Her father, a preacher, is in the documentary, and a part that also made me cry was when he dried her face rough-tenderly as she was singing at the piano, as one might wipe the face of a baby. It was a gesture of care and authority and struck me as both deeply loving and disturbing. Would Mick Jagger’s mother step up to him while he was singing I Can’t Get No Satisfaction and thoroughly dry his face with her handkerchief? Would anyone wipe my face with such ownership and care?
The documentary was shot in 1972 at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Watts, Los Angeles, over the two days Aretha was recording her gospel album. Sydney Pollack was shooting a documentary of the event that was never released until now. The movie could have been shot by a 12 year old, and the rough cinematography mirrors the energy, I think, of the event. You feel like you are there, sweating, swooning, on the edge of jumping out of your seat to praise Aretha and Jesus and the holy wild life of gospel music and black community (and white photographers and Mick Jagger).
It’s a strange experience to have someone sing in a way that makes you believe in Jesus, in God, in all that is holy and possible and to look at her eyes and to feel like the person who is creating all this magic is…is…either in another room or very tired or something I can’t even imagine. I worried about Aretha as I watched her sing. Something did not seem right, but I also thought that maybe the cost of transmitting the holy is that you must set yourself aside and let run through you what was being sent by this thing that is so much bigger than you.
At one point when she was singing Amazing Grace, her friend the Reverend James Cleveland, who sang and played the piano and acted as the master of ceremonies, stepped away from the stage to sit down, drop his head in his hands, and sob. I had this feeling that Aretha was carrying the fire of love in her chest, and she was sharing it with everyone in the church, and they knew it, they knew what was happening, and the fire was alive in their chests and it had made a grown man sit down and bawl like a child.
I saw that this was Aretha’s job, to share the fire she carried with others. This is costly work. It made me think about how I walk around with my begging bowl of needs in my hands, how I carry this bowl in front of me and focus on it: Please let me have enough. Please let me get what I want. Me. Me. Me. Me. Hunger. Hunger. Fear. Fear. Never enough. More please more. My begging bowl, the focus of my life, is so pathetic. It’s so small.
The fire in the heart, the fire of the heart, the fire of love, is dangerous and big and, I believe, the reason we are on the planet: we are here, I think, to feel this fire and to share it. It’s dangerous because it’s not about us as individuals. It’s about praise and love and how can I help you because you and I are the same fire and what you need, I need. It’s not something we control. It’s not something we have to work to fill or please others to fill. We just need to be ourselves and to recognize and dive into the belief that our hearts were built to burn.