Percy Sledge - Dark End of the Street
tylus Magazine's Seconds column examines those magic moments that arise when listening to a piece of music that strikes that special chord inside. That pounding drum intro; a clanging guitar built-up to an anthemic chorus; that strange glitchy noise you've never quite been able to figure out; that first kiss or heartbreak; a well-turned rhyme that reminds you of something in your own past so much, it seems like it was written for you—all of those little things that make people love music. Every music lover has a collection of these Seconds in his or her head; these are some of ours.
In the end, if it's worth a damn, the song wins. Let it score teenage disquiet, tribal celebration, a mescaline tour in the Outback. But if it’s truly worth a damn—if you can carry it across the globe like an open hand—all your personality, the culture, the consensus leaches away. It’s what I want to believe, at the least. As the air cools and tamps, I turn over the Soul Treasures compilation in my hands and think about the late and worthy Dave Godin. He’d probably agree with me, I decide.
Dave Godin would never begin the pitch for Percy Sledge’s rendition of “Dark End of the Street” with an anecdote about discovering it on an impulsive-buy CD, driving home to the girlfriend he had just spent the weekend cheating on. And neither shall I. A song this good, even sung from the perspective of a deterministic asshole, stands on the emotions it stirs, not comments upon. I’ve often hated this song, hated what it told me about myself, hated how noble Percy makes the darkness sound. “They gonna find us,” he insists in his milky tenor, while refusing to change a thing. He can’t look his lover in the eye for staring down the scales. There’s a full moon tomorrow.
The song was winning. I sought other versions. Since 1966, when it was stitched together by Dan Penn and Chips Moman for James Carr (some swear by his cut, but Percy got to me first, and we know what’s said about first cuts), “Dark End of the Street” has never lacked for suitors. I auditioned as many as I could, tracing the bloodline. The burbling guitar figure at the beginning, which settles on the opening lines like a shrug, echoes in both Ry Cooder’s instrumental and the Flying Burrito Brothers’ arid attempt. Dorothy Moore sexed the backbeat and turned nobility into brassy defiance. Ken Boothe—well, he just made it reggae. I received a tip from secret hero Mike Powell: Clarence Carter gives a four-minute sermon on how all God’s creatures gotta do it, before launching into the chorus, where he is promptly faded out. It’s pretty funny.
But for all the versions I found (and I found it interesting that I never heard a poor version—this song just wins), Percy’s is tops. It starts reluctantly, with an imitation of a guitar tuning up and Sledge sighing his locus: “At—the—dark end of the street / That’s where we always meet.” Sledge has made a career wearing the white hat, from the wretchedly devoted anti-love of “When a Man Loves a Woman” to the joyous shelter of “Out of Left Field”. But he’s never inhabited a lyric better than he does here. Just listen to his cords twist for “shadows”! When contemplating the light—“when the daylight hour”—hear him pause disgustedly, as if he can barely imagine such a thing coming to pass—“goes around…”
It’s a song that never quite overplays its drama. The backing vocals could have been gauche, but save a woman’s crushing wail during Sledge’s shameful daytime walk, they’re just extra texture, illicit promises that embarrass once you leave the scene. Like I wrote earlier, there’s a reluctance about the whole affair that infects Sledge’s treatment. Also shrewdness. I learned to stop breathing when he started instructing his lover how to act in the sun. “If we should meet,” he stresses, “just walk on by. Darling, please don’t cry.” (I’m sorry we never had time for “Walk On By,” but that’s something else.) And then, after a beat, the pitiful offering, the life and line brought ‘round: “Tonight we’ll meet / At the dark end of the street.” I don’t want to tell you how many months I wondered if those lines were an inevitability. Dave Godin might’ve been ashamed. Most people were.
But finally, last night, Texas treated us to autumn. Four of us put the stereo on the porch and carved jack-o-lanterns. As soon as the girlfriend heard the quiet call of “Dark End of the Street,” she turned to me. She whispered one word: “Dance.” Strands of pumpkin clinging to my right arm, I pulled myself off the concrete and curled her close. She was aware of this history and my thickest shadows that I shared with Percy years before she ever caught my name. In front of my friends, she did for me what Gram Parsons and Dorothy Moore and J. Blackfoot—what no musician yet—could ever do: she transformed the song. And I think, Mr. Sledge, I’ve won.