When Aretha Sings... oo

Alyce Miller


"It just ain't no way, baby . . . for me to love you . . . if you won't let me." She still sends hot chills up my spine, and I am fourteen again, and it's Saturday morning, and I'm cleaning our house so I can party that night, and Aretha's on the hi-fi at top volume, and I'm swiping at every nook and cranny with the dust cloth and am about to suck up whatever's left over with the Hoover upright when Sister Caroline blows with that "shatter-a-wine-glass" siren harmony at the end, and it's like being hit with a bolt of lightning each of the hundreds of times I play that 45 until it wears thin as a dime. I listened to "Ain't No Way" ad infinitum until I discovered every nuance, or it discovered me, until I could imitate each inflection, pause, and hesitation down to the milli-second, and my girlfriends and I could harmonize ourselves right into heaven, and the record turned night and day in my head as spontaneously as my own invention. Some thirty years later, I still have the album Lady Soul on vinyl, plus practically every record Ms. Franklin ever made after that. 

"You . . .  know . . . that . . . I . . . need . . . you," and she's moving in and out of key, because that's the motion of desire, never hitting dead center, but deliciously unlocatable, refusing to deliver the relief of the easy note, knowing that elusive satisfaction is boundless and can't be hurried; it's about unbearable patience, and that ungratified desire is the most potent and dangerous of all. It's the moment right before -- who cares about what happens after? -- and we know this from the way Aretha will work one phrase over and over, rough and spontaneous at first until she smooths it out ("How can I . . . how can I . . . how can I . . . ") and all our pre-romances selves gone practically orgasmic, imagining all the things Aretha can, will, can't, and won't do, because she is hitting the nail dead on the head about what it means to want a man from your very core.

When you're fourteen, you know when you fall in love, even at a distance, no one else has ever felt the ache you do, the spark, the flames, the way you're burning up inside, and it's this secret heat that binds you to Aretha, because she's conjuring up the fire, not for anyone else, but you, for you. It's her voice gone liquid in your mouth, smooth as melted butter, and when you travel all the way up the scale with her, her voice soaring like smoke, you don't hear the raggedy edges of your own attempts, but only the sharp-edged sorcery of you and Aretha joined in raw need.

When you are hit with a song like "Ain't No Way" when you're fourteen, someone might as well just come along and peel back your skin, leaving your organs exposed to the elements.  Desire is frost, heat, fire, drought, all at once. It's the agony of wanting, and a long swallow of forbidden Boone's Farm from a paper bag and a draw on someone's Kool Long on a cold winter night in someone else's backyard might be just enough to take the edge off the chill but not enough to fulfill:  "And if you need me, well, darlin', say, I need you..."

It's a cold February, '68, when that song is first released, the flipside of "Since You've Been Gone," the more popular song initially, the one promoted on the radio and played at dance parties where couples used to two-step knowingly under red and blue strobe lights, until we all discovered the kind of groove you could get into on "Ain't No Way," just by turning the record over and flipping off the light switch. This is the kind of slow drag that ignites body heat and sends it soaring upwards to inferno proportions, groins grinding themselves to ash, some boy wailing along off-key in your ear, and you trying to pretend it doesn't matter, certainly not the undangerous boy copping a clumsy feel in your arms, because he is just a stand-in for the man you and Aretha know the song is really about. 

This isn't the smooth sweet harmony of the Dells or the soulful falsetto croon of Smokey Robinson, and it isn't the gritty funk of James Brown that makes you sweat and get nasty. It doesn't  take long for us girls to know which song is best. And it doesn't take long for us to not-let-go-just-yet, but turn our eyes away from the starry night, just as another winter storm blows in off icy Lake Erie, praying someone will have the nerve to set that needle back down at the beginning of the song -- damn the other records stacked above! -- before we lose the mood, the grip of imagination, the silk feel of a boy's body, and the sharp, cutting glitter of the rhinestones of heartache.


Alyce Miller is the author of  Stopping for Green Lights and The Nature of Longing, which won the Flannery O'Connor Award. She has been published in The Iowa Review, Seneca Review, Story, Glimmer Train Stories, Prairie Schooner, The Los Angeles Times Summer Fiction Issue, and more. She lives in Bloomington, IN, and Sonoma County, CA.


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