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I Learned It All the Hard Way

ISSUE:  Fall 2005

I first heard Howard Tate back in 1995. These were the happy Clinton years. The mean kids hadn’t taken over the playground yet. We were all a little dizzy on peace. I was living in the suburbs of the South, Greensboro to be precise, where I had come to receive indoctrination into the good miseries of literature.

I was 30 years old, ambitious but insecure, a combination that led me to cast myself as the angry young man of the program. Everyone hated my guts and my guts hated everyone. I was pretty sure Tate had been sent to rescue me. We had so much in common, after all: loyalty issues, bad hair, a sporadic charm that could never quite mask our anger. I should emphasize the bad hair.

Tate wore his in a lacquered pompadour that sat atop his head like a small loaf of licorice. Mine had been shaved off entirely, a few months after I landed in Greensboro, revealing the pale bullet of my skull, with its unsightly knots and scars.

The album in question was a compilation of Tate’s greatest hits (though it would emerge, in subsequent research, that all of his recordings were hits). It had been mailed to me in my vague capacity as a freelance music critic. I didn’t bother to tear off the plastic wrap. It looked like another vampiric soul record, some whitey in a suit sweeping the vaults for a forgotten Otis Redding type.

It took a particularly bad night at the local bar, having my ego chewed on by a pair of glamorous heroin addicts, to prick my curiosity.

I slipped the disc onto my plastic boom box and Tate filled the room: confused, lovesick, convincingly aggrieved. He kept getting mixed up with the wrong ladies, beaten down by those bad broads, then wailing about it, demanding justice in a falsetto that set my soul on edge. That falsetto! I recognized it immediately as my given register, something to aspire to. Tate knew how to lose his composure with such explicit grace.

After that, I spent a lot of nights with him. I would listen to a song until (without meaning to) I had memorized every single high note and could sing along, sometimes contorting my face and letting my body crumple around an invisible mic. Such spectacular victimhood! That’s what I wanted. But I made for a lousy fall guy, a sweaty complainer. I spent long hours in an unfurnished carriage house, pecking away at stories that were little more than dim outlines of grief and waiting for the world to send me a thankyou note.

Then I met a girl. Of course I did. That’s how the story has to go. And having done so, another aspect of Tate’s music was revealed to me: it was a kind of sexual tonic. Those honeyed horn charts. Those crisp, cadenced drums and opulent organ riffs. When sprinkled over young lovers, the result was prolonged necking, very sleek frottage.

The girl in question was (let’s say) Natalie. She was a Southern belle in the classic mold, heavy on the makeup and gestures, the smoky laugh, with sad eyes and a boisterous set of saline hooters. We were dead in love for a month, bruising each other up in the sack, whispering the sweet lies of infatuation.

Tate was our chaperone for all this. We would lie in the dark after a solid pounding, touching at our bruises and listening to him wail. Then something curdled between us. She wanted me to be more polite, less irritable, and I got tired of her posh accent, which made me think of her as a Junior League rebel.

I pulled away from her and she, as required by the script, began to vamp around town with my best friend. It was at this juncture that I experienced Tate’s true genius. Because all his songs (I came to see) were about betrayal: “Ain’t Nobody Home,” “Glad I Knew Better,” “How Come My Bulldog Don’t Bark.”

On those nights when I made the mistake of drink, I would return home to my broiling shitbox, well past the legal limit of my shame, and lie on the splintered floor and listen to tinkling piano of “Get It While You Can,” the measured, mournful crescendo of the horn section. Then Tate would start in: “When you love somebody, you take a chance on sorrow . . .” stretching that last word into an elegy. And soon after, I would be mumbling ardently into her answering machine.

Sometimes, just to mess with me, Nat answered the phone. More often she would just show up on my doorstep, so we could inflict further damage. Once, in the midst of a savage winter storm, she drove me to her mother’s home and we did our business on her childhood bed. The window was open a crack; my feet went numb with snowflakes even as we made fire at our centers.

Another time, I self-administered one too many bong hits and walked outside, into the rain, because Tate had done the same thing, at the end of “I Learned It All the Hard Way.” This is what he did with that voice of his: he spoke to me directly. It’s what all great soul music does, I guess.

Nat moved to Chapel Hill eventually and I went looking for more Tate. But it turned out that there wasn’t much more than what I had. The guy had come blazing out of Macon, Georgia, in 1966, cut a couple dozen songs, and vanished by 1970. Hendrix had worshipped him, and Janis Joplin, all the worthy masochists. But nobody knew where he was anymore.

It didn’t much matter. The central effect of his music was religious. His songs were psalms. When I play them today all I can think about is the sad, hopeful schmuck I was back then. Tate was trying to teach me something— about the surrender that presages grace, about the conversion of rage into art. He was trying to give me courage. If I open my mouth and sing with him, I can still feel it all: those damp nights of sorrow, my chance for clemency. It’s the only reason I write anymore.


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