Thursday, January 19, 2017

SONG #176: Papa Was A Rollin' Stone

The Temptations, All Directions, 1972

Where were you the first time you really “heard” music for the first time?  Do you have a memory of hearing something that made you different afterwards?  That made you a person who had now heard that music?  Can you still hear it? Feel it?  See it?

Hearing this song for the first time was a turning point in my life.  It changed me, and my whole trajectory.  Without the night I’m about to describe, I would have been (and become) a different person.

I was eight years old, and we were visiting my grandmother in Melbourne FL.  This was not an unusual occurrence.  We went to Florida all the time.  I was born there, and then we moved to Newport RI, and then back to FL (Gainesville this time) and then finally to Maryland, but we went to Florida to see my grandmother three times a year, including every Christmas.  I spent 25-35 days a year at her house until I was in high school.  For a kid who grew up in the snowy East, my memories of childhood Christmases are mostly tropical.

It was a difficult visit every time.  My Ya-Ya (Mom’s family is Greek) was a troubled woman, beset by demons real and constructed.  Being around her took its toll— other songs will let me tell her story more vividly at some other time— and visiting her took work and effort to endure.  Because we went so often, and because I was an only child, I needed to bring entertainment with me to pass the time and to have something familiar to simulate some kind of home space.  In the winter of 1977, I traveled with a little suitcase record player.  

Pretty cool, huh?

When I arrived, there was a stack of 45s sitting in my room waiting for me, left there by a series of my grandmother’s boarders.  Ya-Ya took in foreign students attending FIT, or the Florida Institute of Technology.  The one I remember best is Munder, sent over by Quadafi from Lybia to learn Engineering in English so he could fly recon missions for the Lybian air force.  I swear I am not making that up.  He was an American culture nut, and consumed it uncritically.  The week he left for good in 1981, he bought a radio with a cassette deck in it, 100 90-minute tapes, and taped a top 40 radio station’s broadcast for 128 straight hours.  “I’ll need it,” was what he said when I asked why.  I often think of Munder, flying below our radar throughout the 1980s, spying on American aircraft carriers on the Line of Death, all while listening to Pat Benatar on a knockoff Walkman.

So there’s me, a little suitcase record player, a pile of random 45s, a room decorated in the mid-1960s, and the instructions to stay upstairs and entertain myself.  

A lucite spaghetti lamp: there were several in that room.

The grownups were having a party downstairs, and between my mom’s old friends and the neighbors, things got pretty loose.  After spying on the party a little bit from the top of the spiral staircase, (favorite overheard dialogue: “So you know that I told that damn P.I.G. to go to hey-ell!”) 

In my memory, the partygoers mostly looked like this.

I settled in with the record player and the 45s, and started to go through them one by one.  I don’t remember any of them, though I remember reactions of indifference, familiarity, disinterest, strong dislike, etc.  After an hour, and getting a little bored and stiff from sitting cross-legged in front of it, I reached for the next one.

I can still see it, vividly— it had the purple and yellow Tamla label.  No picture, no real info.

I was intrigued by the length: seven minutes! 45s were four minutes at most in my experience.  And I knew the phrase “Rollin’ Stone” was important— the band, the song, the magazine.  I felt like the title itself gave the song gravitas.  And I loved the name of the band: who were The Temptations?  I pushed the little yellow spindle into the center,

How beautiful is that?

put the record on, and the needle sputtered and caught the outer groove.


I could feel the silence in between the notes.


Those first bass notes and hi-hat were like a punch to the face.  I looked around, suddenly terrified.  I felt like the room had collapsed in size.  The sound of the party downstairs disappeared for me.  Those faraway strings, the rubberband guitar, the lonely trumpet— what the hell am I listening to? 

When’s the last time you listened to this song?  The introduction takes forever— it’s two minutes (1:55, to be exact) before the vocal comes in— you think it’s coming at 1:25, but the track breaks down instead, and 1:42, it’s back to square one, with that brilliantly simple and discordant guitar part imitating the bass.  The introduction is longer than some singles.

And then… “It was the 3rd of September, that day I’ll always remember (yes I will) ‘cause that was the day… that my daddy died.”

My dad had me when he was 22; he was only 30 years old the night I heard that song, and the idea that a kid could lose his father that early hadn’t crossed my mind.  Hell, my dad was still a kid.  And I was eight— the songs that came my way were big radio hits— “We Are The Champions” was #1, I think, right around then.  This song was different.  It was important.  I could feel it reaching out to me.  It felt so stripped down and intimate.  I felt the responsibility to bear witness to what was coming.

“Mama I’m depending on you to tell me the truth.”

And then mama gives that enigmatic half-answer:  “Your papa was a rollin’ stone / Wherever he laid his hat was his home / And when he died / All he left us was alone.”

That was my way into the  song— I had asked my mom what was wrong with Ya-Ya, and her answers were unified by the same vague half-truths.  I already knew there were questions about family you weren’t supposed to ask, and for which there were imperfect answers.  I felt immediate kinship.

But then the song went deeper, and I knew it was a song about something else besides a dead father. It was about the world around the character that had claimed them all, and the song was going to show it to me.

In 1977, we weren’t a rich family.  We rented a two bedroom duplex, both of my parents worked, and we didn’t take vacations that involved airplanes.  My parents paid the rent in quarters one month. I knew we didn’t have a lot of money, but we were stable, and I leaned into that stability.

“Is it true what they say that papa never worked a day in his life?”
“Three outside children and another wife”
“Stealin’ in the name of the lord”

I wasn’t sure what “outside children” meant; for a few years, I thought it meant kids who were homeless.  But I knew it was evil.

This description of poverty explained the difference between my house and theirs— it felt the desperation in it, both the skeletal insecurity (that haunting backing track) and the shared, collective despair (to this day, I imagine five brothers, maybe 6 to 18, all finally asking mom to give them the full story).  I couldn't believe how honest the singers were; the fact that the lead vocal jumped octaves and registers made it seem less like a song than a confrontation.

That night, I watched that record spin around for seven minutes and click off, and then I just sat there, to quote F. Scott Fitzgerald, alone in the unquiet darkness.  I had never been moved by anything quite like that before.  Almost scared to, I started the song over, and then I spent the 90 minutes playing and replaying it, ten times in a row.  To this day, I still get the chills when I hear it.  I’ve gotten the chills writing about it for the last few hours.  If I've ever had a listening experience like the one Ralph Ellison describes in the prologue of Invisible Man, this was it.

I credit this song with making we want to be a real musician.  It taught me rhythm— the off beat hand claps were the first syncopation I mastered.  It’s also the moment when I first began to understand the consequences of America’s obsession with race that became the focus of my adult scholarship.  I was a white kid who’d spent years in the south— I’d seen and heard plenty of racism.  But this song explained to me why racism was more than just trashy behavior I’d been raised to reject; it explained the impact.  Something began to shift in me that night that has never relented, and as I’ve grown more conversant and educated, the song’s impact doesn’t change— it just hits me differently.  But it always lands— hearing this song means something to me.  Every time.  Without it, I wouldn't have been able to understand what Ellison was talking about eight years later, or have the capacity to let Invisible Man keep changing me just as that song had.

If you wanted to explain race in America to foreigners, or aliens, or yourself, and you could only use three pieces of art to do so, I’d recommend the Frederick Douglass slave narrative, Toni Morrison’s Song Of Solomon, and this song.  “Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone” explains the sociopolitical, economic, psychological, and artistic fallout of slavery in seven minutes.  It’s as fundamentally American a piece of art to me as anything I’ve ever seen or heard.

So on this inauguration eve, my song is this one, a song that still resonates for me as a cry for American justice.  I plan to continue to do what I can to help us all come up with a better answer for that kid who’s asking his mom why he’s in the mess he’s in.  Yes, his dad lost the thread.  But he had some sinister help finding that darkness.

Where were you the first time you really “heard” music for the first time?  Do you have a memory of hearing something that made you different afterwards?  That made you a person who had now heard that music?  Can you still hear it? Feel it?  See it?

If you have a minute, tell me below.   


  1. Although I was a fan of music and knew I already wanted to be a musician, my first time really "hearing" music was the first time I heard "Jeremy". This was pre it being a single or the video. I had liked "Alive" and my brother had ten, so i borrowed it from him and listened through. I remember being terrified when I heard that song. I knew it was about something troubling and important, I was just too young to understand what exactly. Although I didn't fully understand the story lyrically, it was the first time I learned and felt the true power of music. That it could immediately have an emotional effect on you and tell you a story just in mood and energy through melody. It's not exactly a complicated song musically either, it's more or less just "A" the entire time. There is just this power and tension to it that can hit you a guttural level. I couldn't explain what I was feeling, but I knew it was something far deeper than what I had ever experienced before. I would later have a second experience with a Pearl Jam song, the week "VS" had come out. I was at the mall with my mom and spent the better part of 2 hours bargain and pleading with her to get me the tape (from what we can remember, that was basically the only time in my childhood I ever did that). She eventually broke down and said yes, purchasing the cassette for me. As soon as I got home, I ran upstairs and put it on the stereo. I don't know that I even got through the first chorus before I declared "This is my favorite band" and they have yet to be dethroned in that. Hearing "Go" for the first time was such a punch to the chest. There are few recordings I have heard to this day that were able to capture and project that much raw energy and power.