Unknown Pleasures Chapter One: Arthur Alexander

Arthur-AlexanderUnknown Pleasures: A continuing series exhuming, exploring and exaulting the “lost” treasures scattered in the sands of music history. It’s never too late.

Arthur Alexander – Lonely Just Like Me

Nonesuch/Elektra 1993

If it’s really gotta be this way/I can take it, I know/I’ll just carry on day to day/

Until I make it on my own”

Arthur Alexander, “If it’s really got to be this way.”

One of the crueler parts of life is how often people make great, world-changing, universal-language art and die broke and forgotten while they’re at it. The list is long and discouraging: Poe, Stephen Foster, Van Gogh, Orson Welles. It’s a wonder anyone still tries to make art. Or maybe it’s not even a choice the true artist has: Change the World or Die Trying. Just more proof the gods must be crazy.

It should make you sad that Arthur Alexander’s name is at home on that list. His cult includes the Beatles, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones. Alexander is the only songwriter who can claim being covered by all three legends. Both the Beatles’ and Stones’ debut albums featured Alexander’s songs The Beatles covered the sad and resigned “Anna (Go to Him)” while the Stones [and Hollies] – took on the petulant and possessive “You Better Move On”. Dylan would cover the tough and sassy “Sally Sue Brown” [a song Melissa Etheridge should cover] during one of his less-fashionable periods. Along the way Ike & Tina Turner, Otis Redding, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Percy Sledge would all record songs written or co-written by Alexander, some with commercial success. Did I mention that Alexander’s own version of “You Better Move On” was the hit that launched Rick Hall’s FAME studios in Muscle Shoals? This guy has a resume.

Alexander wasn’t as glamorous as the coifed and groomed acts at Motown or as manly and soulful as the singers at Stax or Hi or Goldwax, which probably didn’t help his profile. It’s no surprise Alexander did some of his most memorable work at Monument, the eccentric, countrypolitan label where fellow oddball Roy Orbison would achieve success. The singers have common conceptual ground, having abandoning accepted masculine tropes for a far more emotional, vulnerable posture that, while singular, put them at odds with popular taste although Orbison’s cult is still large and enthusiastic [it’s easier to be an oddball if you have a few hits]. While Orbison’s take on love, loss and longing has an operatic sheen, almost reveling in roller coaster emotions; embracing heartbreak as an almost sensual experience, Alexander is a fatalist, proud yet gentle, hoping against hope. Alexander’s always certain nobody will love Her like he does, but has no assurance She’s able to see that fact. He loves and he loses, usually his heart, and occasionally even more. Alexander’s does what he has to because he has to, and nothing is harder than that. It’s easy to see why kids buying records would prefer Otis or Wilson or Marvin. Only Curtis Mayfield would find success dealing in this sort of high-drama soul. Despite a perceived lack of star power, Alexander’s talent was seen as a given by those as in-the-know as Rick Hall, Paul McCartney and Keith Richards. A comfortable, if not stellar career should have been in the cards for Arthur Alexander.

So what happened? What didn’t happen? The British Invasion showed up just in time to make the American rock, soul and blues that inspired it (and its creators) seem antiquated and staid [even as the invaders openly worshipped them]. More than one writer’s share of bad business/publishing deals that probably lost him millions. Doomed recorddeals. Drug and alcohol abuse. Short stays in jail and mental institutions. Obscurity and menial jobs…janitor, bus driver. A man talented enough to write songs for the Beatles and Elvis…a bus driver. Did it really have to be this way?

I’ll Try/And I’ll Get By…If it’s really gotta be this way.”

Fast forward to 1990. John Tiven, songwriter, bandleader and all around roots-soul archeologist seeks out Alexander, bringing the reluctant singer to NYC for a well-received showcase at the Bottom Line resulting in Alexander signing with Elektra records. “Lonely Just Like Me,” with Ben Vaughn producing and the Muscle Shoals crew he’d cut his first hit with backing, is a country-soul masterpiece, that finds Alexander re-visiting some older tunes as well as some brand new songs. Most telling is the absence of “hits”: No “Anna,” no “You Better Move On,” no “ Burning Love”. As if he was finally tired of being the guy getting covered and decided it was time to be The Guy.

Alexander seems relaxed and at home on the record, as if he’d been waiting on the then nascent AAA format to free him from having to pass as an R&B/Soul singer. Alexander’s voice, heartfelt and careworn with a hint of Charley Pride is never over-dramatic or self-conscious. Because he’s such a gifted writer and honest singer, Alexander’s tales never feel forced or cliche, even though we may think we’ve heard them before. Alexander isn’t interested in drama and because his stories are so genuine and matter-of-fact, he can take us places other singers can only point at. In the title track, he warns a potential lover that one way or another he’ll leave her “lonely just like me” – whether he wants to or not. Of course he keeps his word, leaving her at the point of another man’s knife. “Genie In The Jug” finds him clinging to a bottle after She leaves him only to find the coldest comfort inside. He pushes Her away in “Go On Home Girl” because loving her will break his best friend’s heart. Arthurian [sic] chivalry comes to Muscle Shoals. Alexander’s every day images and low-key delivery make “Mr. John” into a darkly thoughtful meditation of the costs of war – not to the old men who start them, but the young men/women who fight them and the people who love [and lose] them. Over and over, Alexander shows us scenes from a world where days are hard, nights are dark, happiness is fleeting [or illusory] and life itself is anything but guaranteed. What’s absent is any trace of self-pity even though he’s “In the middle of it all.” To Alexander it is what it is.

But after all the failures, false starts and raw deals, it looked like Arthur Alexander had found his long elusive happy ending, his overdue just deserts, his very own “Rainbow Road”. Coaxed out of retirement, signed to a major label and sporting a gorgeous, eccentric record the AAA crowd couldn’t help but love, Alexander began doing promos on NPR, various TV shows, another well-received appearance at the Bottom Line to build a buzz for the album. He was ready to tour, ready to seek out some of the publishing rights he’d lost, ready to remind the world of what a huge talent had been missing from it for so long. He was ready.

During a meeting with industry reps in Nashville, Aelxander passed out. He died of a massive heart attack the next day. Without Alexander to promote it, Lonely Just Like Me died too. With the exception of a handful of fans and artists in the know, the world went right on forgetting about Arthur Alexander, one of the great original talents of his time.

Did it really have to be this way?

NEXT: The Boss’ Wife…

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