What Makes For The Perfect Song? (v7.0)

115 views

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.


Recommended:

Be My Woman
1968        


 Let the author know that you liked their article with a “heart” upvote!

6
Subscribe
Notify of
17 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Phylum of Alexandria
Member
Famed Member
November 23, 2022 8:29 am

Wow, what a find. I’ve never heard of Terry Callier, but what I’m hearing is fantastic! Soul certainly had a micro-era with psychedelic touches in the songs, but soul artists tended not to get into psychedelic folk, save for Arthur Lee (mostly rock though). This is lovely.

Thanks for the recommendation!

Was “Be My Woman” written as an answer song to Nina Simone’s “Be My Husband?” It’s got a very similar sound and structure, but wildly different lyrics.

Virgindog
Member
Famed Member
Virgindog
Online Now
November 23, 2022 10:33 am

Speaking of psychedelic folk and psychedelic soul, tune into the next edition of Theoretically Speaking. It’ll be psychedelic.

cappiethedog
Member
Famed Member
cappiethedog
Offline
November 23, 2022 9:02 pm
Reply to  Virgindog

Festival is available on Criterion. The crowd doesn’t appear to be composed solely of “hippies”. Psychedelia may be too much for those Pete Seeger fans. And that would include me. I can’t quite get into The Flaming Lips. I like Mercury Rev, though.

Aaron3000
Member
Famed Member
Aaron3000
Offline
November 24, 2022 1:46 pm
Reply to  Virgindog

Perfect thing to go with leftovers of Phylum’s mushroom turkey! ✌️

LinkCrawford
Member
Noble Member
LinkCrawford
Online Now
November 23, 2022 9:23 am

Interesting! Putting your favorite music out there can be a little scary, because no one else can quite appreciate it the same way you do. This song creates a powerful atmosphere. I really like his guitar work…that’s what kept me listening the whole time. Good stuff.

Pauly Steyreen
Member
Famed Member
November 23, 2022 10:31 am

Very cool, BG! I definitely dug the vibe and the story. The twist was kind of haunting…

Now Nina Simone is my queen… I could listen to her sing the phone book and I’d be captivated. She has such a spirit and personality, a truly unique voice (in all senses), and I’m 100% on board with everything she has to offer.

This song makes me wish I knew how to play a horn, for example:

https://youtu.be/59_8QhdHepU

JJ Live At Leeds
Member
Famed Member
November 23, 2022 11:18 am

Yes!!! I love this song. I first heard of Terry through Beth Orton, appearing on two songs of her Best Bit EP in 1997. He then appeared on the gorgeous Pass In Time on her Central Reservation album.

Lazarus Man was by far the standout in the Timepeace album for me, such a sublime piece of music and the vocal performance is stunning for all the reasons you point out.

Thanks for reminding me of what an incredible song this is.

https://youtu.be/TI3sy4bWpY8

Last edited 11 days ago by JJ Live At Leeds
cappiethedog
Member
Famed Member
cappiethedog
Offline
November 23, 2022 8:47 pm

I like Lana Del Rey just because she doesn’t take six years between albums. Beth Orton doesn’t record enough. Weather Alive didn’t get a whole lot of coverage stateside. Do you think there is a UK/US rivalry, in which music journalists would rather cover musical acts from their side of the ocean? I like “Pass in Time”. I also like “Stars All Seem to Weep”.

Orton is touring America. Oh, what a shocker. She’s skipping my neck of the woods. The last UK act to play here was New Order in 2018.

JJ Live At Leeds
Member
Famed Member
November 24, 2022 3:07 am
Reply to  cappiethedog

It would be nice if she was more prolific but this interview from when Weather Alive was released shows she’s had a lot to deal with and its not entirely her fault.

https://www.google.com/amp/s/amp.theguardian.com/music/2022/jun/09/i-was-losing-words-i-didnt-remember-the-week-before-beth-orton-on-chronic-illness-metoo-and-motherhood

Even this far into a well respected career she had an unhappy major label experience that ended with her going back to the drawing board. With that, parenting and managing Crohn’s disease I guess as much as I’d like more music she’s got a balance that works for her.

As to the US/UK rivalry I think there is an element of parochialism where people support their local acts. There is plenty of cross Atlantic cheerleading for decent music but I’d say for someone like Beth who has been around a long time so is no longer fresh and up and coming there isn’t the same enthusiasm for journalists to cover her. As with the music industry as a whole, there has to be a big push to create the next big thing as that’s gonna generate more views than someone who has long settled into their own niche in the industry.

Last edited 11 days ago by JJ Live At Leeds
lovethisconcept
Member
Famed Member
November 23, 2022 12:32 pm

Just. Wow. Brand new to me, and I thank you for it.

thegue
Member
Famed Member
thegue
Offline
November 23, 2022 6:58 pm

Said it perfectly, LTC! Grouse, great choice!

dutchg8r
Member
Famed Member
dutchg8r
Offline
November 26, 2022 6:38 pm

BG, thank you for introducing that to me. I love a well told/sung story in a song, and that was a lovely journey. Especially appreciated your thoughtful and sincere insight into the song and Terry Callier himself.

17
0
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x
()
x