Faced with a song that climaxes with a bone-chilling, shockingly unexpected twist, some listeners would be hesitant to declare it “perfect.”
I’m not one of those listeners.
Terry Callier didn’t specialize in bone-chilling shocks.
But he was a singer/songwriter of uncommon range and power, one of those undersung cult figures whose name is held in high regard by aficianados.
On the rare occasions that he’s brought up, he’s usually described as a “mystic folk/jazz/soul man,” which, surprisingly, is basically accurate. If the idea of a cross between Curtis Mayfield and Nina Simone (and really, the best parts of each) appeals to you, you owe it to yourself to give him a listen.
Callier got his start in the 60’s and had a respectable run in the 70’s with some well-regarded albums on the Cadet and Elektra labels, but then dropped out of the biz for over a decade.
He had a triumphant return in 1998 with TIMEPEACE, a masterpiece of an album that includes today’s song, “Lazarus Man.”
Like dark clouds building on the horizon, the minor-key acoustic guitar lines and spine-tingling percussion suggest unsettling developments ahead. Callier isn’t bluffing here. Lazarus Man lifts the rock on one of Western culture’s centuries-old foundational tales:
“I met a young man on the Skeleton Coast,
He was out on his feet, pale as a ghost
I asked him name – he said ‘Lazarus, man,
I’ve come to this country from a faraway land’…”
Here again, Callier isn’t bluffing. He lays the story out in the second verse, starting at 3:16. Callier’s account of Lazarus’s experience includes these twelve of the most gripping, immediate lines that I know of:
“He said ‘I woke up one morning, felt a little bit strange,
By mid-afternoon there was fever and pain,
Later that night, with my friends at my side,
I went off to sleep, and I guess that I died…
I was stumbling, rising, so I couldn’t quite tell,
One foot in glory and one foot in hell,
On one side the garden and on one side the flame,
And I thought I heard someone call out my name…
Yeah somebody was saying, “Lazarus arise!”
So I sat up, and opened my eyes,
You know I wanted to dance, but I didn’t have room,
So I threw off the sheets and walked out of the tomb…’”
The words are compelling in themselves, and Callier’s delivery gives them a gravity that few singers could equal.
Check out the way that he imbues “I guess that I died…” with horror and disbelief (3:33).
It makes my hair stand up.
So does the way he delivers the last line with a melody and a bit of swagger, whereas the lines leading up are just shy of hysterical shouting.
It’s fair to question how someone becomes known as a “mystic folk/jazz/soul man,” and even what exactly is implied by the descriptor “mystic.” The chorus perhaps provides some insight:
“It’s wind on the ocean,
Rain on the land,
Three drops of water,
One grain of sand…”
Without drifting too far out into the hinterlands with this (hopefully), there are a couple of specific ideas being evoked in these lines – at least in my mind, that is. Remember, this is entirely conjecture.
The first half of the chorus puts me in mind of two verses from Genesis, ones that most likely will be familiar to everyone reading this:
Genesis 1:1 “…Darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.”
Genesis 2:7 “Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.”
Regarding the last half of the chorus, there’s an association I made when I first heard this song:
the idea of the human body being mostly water.
Over half, if not quite ¾ water, in fact.
So, “…three drops of water, one grain of sand…”
In most contexts, heavy biblical allusions like these might seem pretentious or out of place. But here it works – partly because it’s not overt, and partly because the context fits.
Lazarus is a biblical character, after all.
In my estimation, this chorus is poetically rubbing up against the very nature of existence, and how profound it is to have the gifts of occupying a body and living a human life. Of course, the song is about someone – the only person besides Jesus Christ himself, if memory serves – who was literally raised from the dead. Thus, Callier’s songwriting presents the listener with consequences that might arise if the natural cycle were to be upended.
The “shocking twist” happens in the third verse. Naturally, I’m not going to give away the surprise.
But I can practically guarantee that it’s worth 5 ½ minutes of your time.
After the plotline climax, the single most gripping moment vocally is at 6:23. He repeats the first verse, and between the last line (“…from a far-away land…”) and the beginning of another round of the chorus, the listener can hear him audibly gasp. Maybe he was gasping for air due to the physical demands of singing the song, but it also makes sense as a depiction of the slow, gradual hysteria that would come along with Lazarus’ experience: the consequences of being resurrected, and the knowledge of what’s been lost.
I’d rate “Lazarus Man” as perfect because of the twist, and also because of the audacious storytelling. Plus, it’s an opportunity to hear Callier bellow and gasp.
I would walk a solid day for that alone.
Sadly, Mr Callier left us in 2012, but not before gifting us with an occasionally-glorious body of work. For a taste of his haunting, spare early work, check out “Be My Woman” from his 1968 debut. His highlights from the 1970s include the gut-wrenching African Violet, the truly sublime Pyramids of Love, the disco-fried Sign of the Times.
Finally, I’d like to mention Timepeace / No One Has To Tell You / Build A World Of Love, the final song on TIMEPEACE, the same album that Lazarus Man appeared on.
Not only is it a white-knuckle political screed, the song also features saxophone by the newly-departed Pharoah Sanders.
Both Callier and Sanders were men of uncommon decency and artistic gravity, and this song is enough to give you a sense of the emotional heft that both of them had at hand.
Be My Woman
Pyramids of Love
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