James Carr’s dark ends

One of the pleasures of the shuffle setting on my music player is random re-discovery. James Carr, a Memphis legend and mystery, showed up a few days back and I’ve had his music on repeat since. He is such a special singer, one of those incredible figures from Memphis’ small label tradition: Goldwax, Stax, Hi. I’m a Memphis nationalist when it comes to music. James Carr makes that nationalism feel justified. He’s that special. The well-known line (in the 901, anyway) that a Carr B-side beats any other Memphis singer’s A-side rings pretty true, if you ask me.

He was also an incredibly complicated figure if you know his life story. A one of a kind talent and sound, haunted by struggles with bi-polar disorder his whole life. His touring career was famously ended when he seized up, unable to sing, in front of a large crowd in Japan, overwhelmed by his mental illness or the antidepressants or some combination of everything. After that, Carr was here and there, but never consistent. He’d disappear for long stretches of time, then reappear and perform and blow everybody away with a B-side no one could equal.

Memphis soul music fans always have a James Carr favorite. I can’t imagine a better song than “The Dark End of the Street.” It’s been covered a bunch of times, by other soul singers, rock bands, singer-songwriters. I think Cat Power’s version is pretty good. But I also think the song begins and ends with Carr’s Goldwax version.

“The Dark End of the Street” sounds just like the lyrics and story it tells. It’s about ending a secret relationship. It’s a slow walk that with each verse gets faster, just a bit faster, perhaps not in the actual pace you’re walking, but faster in how it feels to think about getting caught with your illicit lover. And the realization that it has to come to an end, while doubting that it can. The pain of that isn’t just imagining the loss of a world from which the secret love is kept safe – they’re gonna find us – but also the loss of the secret love, the strange sweetness of dark ends that feel right even though, in the end, they consume and destroy. For me, that’s the soul of a soul song and what, in this case, makes it a perfect Southern soul song, not an R&B or pop song. There’s no plea for a future or forgiveness here. Just this walk. Longing, too. Longing for the dark end of the street, even though that end makes everything collapse, because you can’t stop going there.

This song in particular – it has that sing-crying vulnerability that’s so rare, the something that makes a performance special. The lead vocal on The Marvelettes’ “Please Mr. Postman” is always, for me, this vocal in perfect form, matched to the longing of the pop song’s famous story. (I don’t care that they’re lip-syncing in this clip, it’s just fabulous.) Carr’s voice has that sing-cry naturally. It is open in tone and tremble, but there is also something so intimate about the first verse of “The Dark End of the Street” that makes the vocal’s feeling overflow. It’s also that Carr’s voice is heavy and masculine, though it never sounds or feels like a contradiction to be so broken up at the same time. Contradiction works in vocals, of course, but that’s not Carr. He’s not like Al Green, whose voice and persona have a swagger that can sustain and survive any vulnerability, keeping tenderness closely bound to strength. Emily Lordi’s piece on the 35th anniversary of Donny Hathaway’s death also comes to mind here, especially when, in a lovely turn of phrase, she writes about how Hathaway’s vocals could “recast strength as supreme tenderness.”

Strength to tenderness is all over Carr’s work too, but even the strength is already so, even too, vulnerable. Carr’s vocal in “The Dark End of the Street” sounds like the place – his own heart and the lovers’ place both – that the song describes: inconsolably sad that love has gotten trapped here on the dark end of the street, and so saying goodbye won’t mean saying goodbye to light, visibility, ecstasy. No familiar breakup. It means saying goodbye to what was felt too privately, could never be more, and yet the feeling was just so much overwhelmingness in that dark, private space. Too much. That’s why Carr’s vocal cries. He hangs on that word of in the opening line, then on pay in the second full verse. It’s not just the goodbye that makes the vocal cry, but also because “when the daylight hour comes around” they have to do that old Southern soul song thing: just walk on by. Darling please don’t cry. No, don’t cry, please don’t, because the dark end is already all those tears and love and shadows, all at the same time.

Time is gonna take its toll. That’s just Carr’s life, isn’t it? His voice and music go to such troubled places – full of sadness, romantic protest, despair, all those soul music places – and we can’t but hear his lyrics as also engaging his own struggle with depression. That’s how bi-polar disorder works: the sense that time’s toll will be taken, that this moment of lucidity and engagement is fleeting or will be soon, that this goodbye to clarity might be the last one and you never come back, or maybe you will come back and you’ll sing again – you know, just like the love he describes in the song. So we double these lyrics. The dark place soul music can take the singer is his end, both as the sadness of loss and as the sense that, as a depressive personality, perhaps this is his last walk down the street with his mind right. You might get stuck there on the dark end if you’re James Carr. I think you feel that in the sound of his voice.

I swear you hear that struggle even in the less melancholic arrangement of a song like “Pouring Water on a Drowning Man.” There, he wonders if he should have been a clown, and I’ve always heard something more in that line than a classic soul music trope. The vulnerability that cuts through his wavering strength makes the delivery work beyond a trope, and returns us again to that crossing of a soul song with the distinctive vocal sound that functions as a kind of autobiography of mental illness.

When he sings that line, that he shoulda been a clown, I wonder if he’s singing his anxiety about being a soul singer. A singer of “The Dark End of the Street” can’t just perform. That soul singer is a different embodiment, one that Carr does to perfection over and over. He embodies the place described and played fully; it is a mask-less space. If the song and the sound take him to that dark end of his own struggles with mental illness, then the performance is too much vulnerability. The clown could hide. Carr can’t and he made that pain – it was surely pain, even in the moments of pleasure – into art. I’ve always thought that the great soul singer lives in this precarious space between the mask-less inhabitation of a body and soul much too exposed – that really real emotion – and the peculiar human something that makes it possible to survive such exposure. James Carr lost that something in Japan for the last time. He was all tenderness and vulnerability. Beautifully so. Terribly so.

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I went to graduate school in Memphis. I went there because the University had a boutique program (I like small) and particular faculty members with whom I wanted to work. But I also loved Memphis music before that choice. I heard James Carr for the first time when I picked up one of his albums in a record store (remember those?) in the U-District in Seattle. I liked the cover and gave it a listen – they used to have turntables at used record stores. I remember that moment so well, how his voice was so compelling. My bank account was thin, but this was worth it. I also bought an album that day by Jessie Mae Hemphill – a hill country legend – recorded on David Evans’ High Water Records label, run out of the university where I’d later go to grad school, but that’s another story altogether. Funny coincidences.

When I got to Memphis in 1991, the Carr legend was everywhere. Surprised me at first, though I learned quick that musicians in Memphis live forever in folks’ imagination. I probably showed up at two dozen venues in my time there on the rumor that he’d show up and sing a set with Melinda Rogers at Marmalade, or even with The Preston Shannon Band at Doe’s Eat Place on Beale. At least a half dozen times, Green’s Lounge was supposed to host, and I drove once to a restaurant called The Catfish Barn (seriously) in Jackson, TN hoping he’d show. Always rumors. I saw a lot of favorites in Memphis (Ann Peebles live is something every Memphis music fan needs in their life at some point), but never James Carr.

I always come back to the strange paradox or enigma or tragedy: Carr’s genius as a singer came from a precarious place that, for all its beauty, always, in the end, got his mind messed up.

This is the song anyone thinking about Carr’s struggles goes to. Rightly so. It speaks to all of what it means to be hurt by love. We all get that. But it also always sounds a little like Carr talking to himself, like we’re listening to his encounter with a vulnerability he couldn’t refashion as a song and contain inside a performance. The performance of “You’ve Got My Mind Messed Up” is like “The Dark End of the Street”: both come from inside a place that James Carr could never leave and that consumed him, but from which he also sang a truly sublime artwork into being.

I never saw James Carr perform. The wonder of YouTube keeps some of that performance history alive, so I’ll end this with this fuzzy but amazing clip. It’s been awhile since he passed, but it is worth saying again: James Carr, you’re missed in this world.