In May 1975 I had left behind friends and family, quit my job, and landed myself in Honolulu – imagining palm trees, a warm and wonderful Polynesian girlfriend, and no end of barbecued fish and papayas. By the fourth morning, I’d come to feel I’d made a terrible mistake. Employers were uninterested, I knew no one, and the $120 I’d landed with was swiftly disappearing. Leaning against the YMCA lobby desk after paying for another night’s stay, I was at the lowest, most brokenhearted moment of my life, when these familiar sounds from a decade before came across the desk clerk’s radio:
This great recording of 1966, “Reach Out I’ll Be There” by the Four Tops (and written and produced by the great Motown team of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Eddie Holland), of course didn’t solve anything about my circumstances, but I was amazed and grateful at how it immediately had me feel so much more hopeful and less alone. I see now because of what I’ve learned from Aesthetic Realism, that along with the words, which are both critical and encouraging, it was the structure of the music itself that gave me such hope.
That structure makes a one of opposites that are always together when a person has good will. I just mentioned encouragement and criticism, which take the form, in terms of sheer sound, of something continuous, steady, reassuring, along with useful discontinuity, a lively jolt–which prevents us from being stuck in a bad way.
In “Is Beauty the Making One of Opposites?” Eli Siegel asks:
Is there to be found in every work of art a certain progression, a certain indissoluble presence of relation, a design which makes for continuity?—and is there to be found, also, the discreteness, the individuality, the brokenness of things: the principle of discontinuity?
We just heard the very opening of the song, with flute and piccolo pitched very high and grating – over guitar chords and pulsing bass. They sound almost like a person crying, while at the same time having something dignified, grand. Already there is the sound of something reaching and something broken, like a person yearning and sobbing, sinking and hopeful at once. Percussive groups of three taps (played, I learned, using timpani mallets on the head of a tambourine which has had its little metal cymbals removed) sound like a galloping, racing heart – and at the same time, like someone coming on horseback to the rescue. They’re broken and they’re steady at once. And they contrast nicely with the more flowing cadence of the flute and piccolo.
Lead singer Levi Stubbs – I’ll say the great, the wonderful, the one and only Levi Stubbs – enters singing “Now if you feel…” And on that word “feel” other voices break in with that swift, jolting “Aah!” – all on the downbeat. So, right as he begins a steady stream of encouragement to the woman he’s singing to, there is this jolt. It seems to say “Don’t get stuck in your sorrow. There’s more to the story than what you’re feeling right now!” The verse begins:
Now if you feel that you can’t go on.
Because all of your hope is gone,
And your life’s filled with much confusion
Until happiness is just an illusion
And your world around is crumbling down,
Each short phrase of the singer is echoed by a chorus consisting of the other members of the Four Tops and three female Motown singers known as the Andantes. Levi Stubbs’ short phrases have a kind of reassuring continuity in the way they passionately stream forth – and also hover steadily around a single pitch, striving up one note near the end. The chorus answers him each time with a phrase similar, but different. For example, he sings, “Now if you feel that you can’t go on…” and the chorus echoes, “Can’t go o-on!” They continue him; they also keep interrupting him! As this pattern holds steady throughout the verses of the song, we do feel there’s “a certain progression, a certain indissoluble presence of relation.”
At the same time, the individual syllables that Levi Stubbs sings often seem to explode forth in distinct bursts, and we feel “the discreteness, the individuality, the brokenness of things.” The chorus, meanwhile, repeats his phrases much more smoothly, [”Much confusion!” – “Happiness is just an illusion!”], contrasting with his rougher, more broken quality. The result is very pleasing:
After inquiring so passionately about the woman’s unhappy, downhearted feelings, he sings “Darling…!” The chorus comes in with the solid phrase, “Reach out!” which spreads out across two measures, during which he hollers “Come on, girl! Reach on out for me!” Chorus: “Reach out!” Singer: “Reach out for me-e-e!” Everything now falls silent except bass and tambourine, who steadily march forward. Then, another jolt, as Stubbs interjects on the upbeat, “Ha!” and he and the chorus now sing together the triumphant refrain: “I’ll be there with a love that will shelter you. I’ll be there with a love that will see you through!” The emotion is heightened here by the return of piccolo and flute.
Of course, the words themselves express good will – but my point is that we are hearing the sound of good will in the music itself. This is where Aesthetic Realism is new, showing that ethics and aesthetics are the same thing. Good will, Aesthetic Realism says, is the oneness of encouragement and criticism. The long, spreading sound of the chorus on “Reach out!” imparts encouragement and fits beautifully together with the more critical-sounding staccato of “Come on, girl! Reach on out for me!” And on just those three syllables “I’ll be there!” – the words “I’ll” and “there” are held long, and sound comforting, while the “be” of “be there!” spikes up, giving another of those useful jolts.
Once, my idea of being kind was to sit across from someone with a doleful look on my face, nodding and agreeing as they complained. I wanted a person to feel I was “always there” for them, but my seeming steadiness was not so sincere.
From the moment I began to study it, I have benefited from the good will of Aesthetic Realism itself. It never lets a person down. From the very beginning, I reached out and it was there—and continues to be—a beautiful, critical, surprising oneness of keen comprehension and true human kindness. First in consultations and then in great classes taught by Ellen Reiss, I’ve learned that my happiness depends on my wanting to have good will for other people – beginning with wanting to know what a person feels. I also learned that, as much as we deeply yearn to have good will, there’s something in us that works against it. In one class, I asked why I seemed to have such a difficult time maintaining steady interest in another person. Ms. Reiss said:
Everyone has a preference for one’s own company. When you already have the best, why go elsewhere? There can be a feeling one is a pretty precious commodity; there are only so many minutes in a day – why waste them? Why give attention to others when there’s oneself?
This made something vivid to me and enabled me to change. Aesthetic Realism taught me that wanting to know someone—and wanting to be a means of that person being stronger and happier—is pleasure of the highest kind because it comes with an irreplaceable feeling of self-respect. I’m grateful to have that feeling more and more, including in my happy marriage to Carol McCluer.
As the song goes on, it’s affecting how the man tries in various ways to imagine and describe the feelings of this woman. But it would have nowhere near the value it has without the way the music conveys that real sense of good will through its structure as continuity and discontinuity.
And there is Levi Stubbs’s great delivery. I love the way he almost shouts “I know what you’re thinking: You’re alone now, in a world of your own!” and the sudden and excited way, just before a new refrain, he calls out, “Just look over your shoulder!” There are so many things to be thrilled by in this recording, I guess I should stop trying to mention them all. Let’s pick up where we left off, and hear it as a musical embodiment of good will: continuity and discontinuity, encouragement and criticism together. This Aesthetic Realism makes conscious for the first time!
Learn more: AestheticRealism.org