For every successful musical action, there are a thousand that failed. They failed, but in each case someone tried. The glorious restlessness and ambition in sheer reaching, the love of possibilities and the strength to endure the stress of realizing them, doesn’t get acknowledged in the heard music of mastery. Sometimes we appreciate, as backstory, how hard it is for a tenor to hit that high C, or how tricky it is to work out a convincing new chord sequence. But the difficulty factor in music isn’t the same thing as the infra-action of trying itself.
It’s easy to say that trying is doomed to obscurity; after all, anything that’s done is done, no longer tried. How could trying be expressed, anyway, except by disgusting grunts of effort? But trust music to find a way. I’ve got to, got to show you now. Can I get a– can I get a little help for an example?
Oh, sorry, you’re only reading. Well, you’ll find a wealth of examples in 1960s soul music, where it became a standard part of the singer’s style (especially the male singer–we are talking about gender here too) to pant and groan and even to ask the audience explicitly for help with his lack of mastery, his irremovable need to reach for something he doesn’t possess. His stricken outbursts have a wickedly beautiful tone and rhythm en passant, as if without him knowing it. The virtuosic skill with which the singer huffs and puffs is the great standing joke of the genre. It’s your choice whether to tune in to the mastery, the joke, or the trying at any given moment.
I contend that the supreme trying hook was created by Otis Redding in “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now).” He is speaking to a lover whose heart is no longer in the affair. He can’t stop trying to elicit her answering love. But he has to admit: “You are tired and you want to be free.” A subdued, tentative-feeling ascending horn line prepares for the words “You are tired,” which he sings in a wondrously uncertain ascent to a high A on “tired.”
This happens twice. I still can’t tell if he ever actually hits that note. What captivates and lingers in the mind is his gorgeously agonized attempt to get there–his real problem being of course not the A note but that his lover is now too hard to reach and he is left with only reaching.
This trying enterprise reaches out and snatches me up. I have to try to sing that phrase. But I can’t. Just flailing doesn’t count. It has to be that precisely formed trying. There was never a performer who expressed trying more precisely and in a less replicable way than Otis Redding. It is good to consider that each trying must be one’s own.
In his filmed 1967 Monterey Pop performance, Redding puts in a little “try it again” shtick with the drum and horn convulsion that precedes the ascending horn part, making it a challenge just to get from one part of the song to the next. He’s playing with the convention, utterly in control and downright cocky. It’s astonishing that he can sing “You are tired” so poignantly just a couple of seconds later. But that’s the point: no matter what he’s in charge of, it isn’t enough. The juxtaposition of the little finite victories along the way with the pervading passion of reaching without gaining is altogether the drama of sexual love. (That’s inside the world of the song. When we think of a black soul singer’s performance being offered to the world, it’s also the drama of being in a racial loser’s position in a white-dominated society. The effortful rapping of hip-hop brings this aspect more to the fore.)
Janis Joplin’s “Try (Just a Little Bit Harder)” by Jerry Ragovoy and Chip Taylor is a bit of an essay on this subject. It’s got the trying trope, that uncertainly upward-bending note (the blues lead guitar note as well) in the backup singers’ “Try” refrain.
It’s got the ascending horns section in the bridge. But Joplin overpowers the tune; she conquers and takes blazing possession, making it a song about her strength, not her trying–not like the deep-sunk losing-is-winning of “I Can’t Stop Loving You.” The lyric ties “trying” directly to “soul”:
Yeah, I’m gonna try yeah, just a little bit harder
So I can give, give, give, give him every bit of my soul
It’s a nice idea–that having a “soul” and giving oneself and trying are all intimately related, maybe even the same thing. And one can further ponder the unlikelihood that Otis Redding or any other man would sing that.