For most of the last two days I was either spending time with my brother or driving (or both) between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Today, all morning, he and I watched the news and the presidential inauguration. His interest lies predominantly in political policy and overseas affairs, and he remained glued to the set as everything happened. I did, as well.
It was not until I was back behind the wheel, speeding east across the Chesapeake Watershed, that I realized how magnanimously inspired I was by the event of the day. I had been a part of an experience that I had never imagined my generation would see. Three Dog Night’s ‘Black and White’—a touching melody about learning to read—was playing on the radio, when the gravity of today really sank in:
I had seen a live performance by Aretha Franklin.
I was breathless just thinking about it, and I lowered my speed until my odometer read 45 (the exact number of Top 40 hits she has on the Billboard Top 100). Eventually, the excitement got to be too much: I was hyperventilating, and so I had to pull over. There was something to be said for watching a tape, or listening to an old recording, but actually seeing something real, as it happened, even if it was over a television set, made the event into something of a minor miracle.
I was a child raised on Motown. One of my earliest ambitions was to become a Pip, and tour with Gladys Knight, which was essentially crushed when I found out that, to be a Pip, you had to own your own patent leather shoes. It proved too much for this man; I wouldn’t make it. I was overwhelmed with grief, as is the natural course of action when you’re 6 and your dreams are taken from you, but then I found a second chance through a Saturday Night Live spin-off movie.
The Blues Brother Movie is one of my favorite films, and for many reasons. It’s twisting, satiric storyline guided a tour de force of brotherly respect for civic and religious duty. Its gripping car chases were supreme in carnage, and second only to The French Connection‘s in suspense and Smoky and the Bandit‘s in duration. But there was something else about the film that made it special to a boy in love with classic rock and roll, Motown and early R&B.
A cameo appearance by Aretha Franklin as Mrs. Matt Murphy put my heart and soul back into action and at full hope.
Here was a woman who didn’t just deserve respect, she demanded it. An artist so humble and respectful that she not only waged a full singing career, but also worked part time in a shoddy dinner in Chicago as a waitress. A diva so pure, she didn’t have her own backup band.
I batted around the idea of volunteering myself, of forming a trio of male backup singers for any need she might have, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that she didn’t need one. That Gladys Knight, in all her glory, leaned on the Pips and, because of that, deflated herself.
I had a new Goddess, and Her name was Aretha.
Needless to say, I’ve seen the Blues Brothers movie at least 30 times, and learned the dance moves I need if I ever find myself doing Karaoke on the counter of a diner. Through her music I’ve learned how to make a woman feel womanly, why not to kiss and tell, and how to say a little prayer. She has had a profound impact on my love and on my life.
It took me several minutes to compose myself, but when I got back on the road I felt a renewed sense of vigor. Life leapt from every bush and tree on the side of the road; it dripped from every icicle on the rock banks cut into the mountains I drove through; it coyly whispered from the tractor trailer mudflaps, dripping dirt and salt, silhouetted with naked ladies.
Through the spirit of her accomplishment, and under the weight of an enormous, bowed hat, Aretha touched all of us today with her rendition of My Country, Tis of Thee, and was the uncontended triumph of an otherwise boring and uneventful day. When people ask, Do you remember where you were during the presidential inauguration? I will tell them. I was in Pittsburgh, with my brother, and we watched until George W. Bush disappeared in the White House helicopter.
But it will not be the new tenant at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue that makes me remember. It will be the woman who earned every bit of R-E-S-P-E-C-T she ever got.