Inner City Blues

I was nineteen or twenty when I first heard What’s Going On. I remember checking it out from the library and playing the title track and “Mercy Mercy Me” over and over and over again. I was literate enough at the time to understand that this album was important — that it marked some kind of radical departure from the earlier, “Heard It Through the Grapevine”-style pop that Gaye was known for. (I think this was the same period when I was listening to the first box set of Stax singles — my teenaged “soul” period, I guess you could call it.) But at the time, the only opinion I would have offered up with any confidence was that “What’s Going On” and “Mercy Mercy Me” were two of the most beautiful songs I’d ever heard. They still are. Obviously.

I suspect that “Inner City Blues” didn’t hit me with the same force then for two reasons. The first goes back to a complaint I’ve heard my dad make fifty or sixty times over the years: “When’s that chord gonna change?” (I heard it most recently a few weeks ago, when I played for him Radiohead’s “Everything In Its Right Place,” followed by Brad Mehldau’s version, both of which left him underwhelmed.) When I was nineteen or twenty, I was playing piano several hours a day — practicing at home and playing in a community big band, all in preparation for what turned out to be a remarkably short and unsuccessful stint in music school. I was taking theory and music history courses, discovering Bartok and Stravinsky and Debussy, and trying, for the first and only time in my life, to “be a composer.” Which is to say that I could appreciate the songwriting of “What’s Going On” and “Mercy Mercy Me” like I was learning to appreciate Gershwin, Basie, Ellington, and Satie.

If I’m remembering theory notation correctly, the change for “Inner City Blues” is i-IV. Two chords. It opens with twenty-four straight measures of the minor root before finally changing to the major IV, where it stays for all of four measures before returning to the root. Would have bored me senseless a decade ago; now, I’ll be damned if that change ain’t transcendent. The song is a chant-like, soul-filled lamentation. An angry prayer.

The other reason I’m dumb-struck by this song right now is because I’ve been reading Mark Kurlansky’s 1968: The Year that Rocked the World, a social history of the period out of which What’s Going On was born. I’ve spent most of the last year reading and writing about the late-1960s and early-1970s, an era the twenty-year-old version of myself ignorantly dismissed as a distant history populated by hopelessly naive hippies who happened, from time to time, to produce some decent music. I knew about the war and the Movement and the assassinations, but I didn’t understand the anger. The anger is all over What’s Going On, and it’s in constant tension with all that beauty. That’s what I didn’t get the first time, and that’s what makes “Inner City Blues” the perfect final note to a perfect album.