It’s now a week since I’ve been at the shore. You could say I’ve gone through ocean withdrawal. And we're past the summer solstice so we’re in summer now. OK, so why not choose a great song from a great time that belongs with summer?
Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay” was released posthumously in January, 1968, after the singer’s death in a plane crash in December, 1967. That fact lends poignancy to the song, certainly, with the speaker’s insistence that he’s just going to sit and watch the tide roll away, wasting time. In that spirit, it might be sensible to see the song as a grim reminder about how short time is, in terms of a lifetime. If you sit about wasting time, watching the tide, well, you might not have much to show, in the end. But everything about the song suggests that it isn’t trying to dissuade from meditative watching but is rather meant to spark that experience. Travel 2,000 miles from Georgia (where Redding was born) to Frisco (where he had a huge success at the Monterey Pop Festival in June, 1967), then sit a spell and let the tide roll in and out, just, y’know, breathe for a while.
Redding, who was a great R&B singer, probably the best, chose rather abruptly to co-write (with Steve Cropper, the guitarist on the song) this song in a rather different style. Slow, easy-going, meditative. It’s his best-known song and one of the best songs of the era. Having heard it first when I was a kid and it was on the radio, it’s hard to imagine not knowing it. It’s probably the most essential and instantly recognizable song I’ve so far posted on. It’s so familiar that it may seem to be unspectacular. It’s such a given.
The closest it gets to Redding’s usual sound is in the bridge: “Looks like nothing’s gonna change / Everything still remains the same / I can’t do what ten people tell me to do / So I guess I’ll remain the same.” He starts to sound a bit agitated there, where the “nothing changes” doesn’t have the serenity the rest of the song seems to express. We hear the harried sound of someone rising in his career and not having opportunities to relax and be himself. But there’s also, perhaps, an implied glance at the larger world where things aren’t changing fast enough, where social setbacks can make one want to withdraw, to “make this dock my home” and let the world go by.
The rest of the vocal has just an amazing presence. It feels so warm and direct right from the start, coming at you from the radio, bringing you into its idyll. One of those truly mood-altering songs. To hear it is to collect oneself, to enter a kind of dream-awake state. In that sense, it’s very much of the Sixties, where “reverie songs” became fairly standard, with the speaker reflecting on his state of mind, as a poet would, becoming more convincing and meaningful. To be alone, but not alone and blue, to speak of oneself but not as one pining or strutting. Just, y’know, being.
The guitar figures are bright and crisp—nothing languid or bluesy about that sound. And the way the “Stax horns” start sliding in, with the “left my home in Georgia” verse, insinuates like the big, exciting world out there that the singer is trying to eclipse, insulating himself with a musical meditation. The way the guitar seconds the “this loneliness won’t leave me alone” line creates a kind of up mood that belies the words, and leads, it seems to me, to the whistling in the fade.
The whistling at the end is such a nice devil-may-care touch. Kids whistle to kill (or keep) time, and the figure of a whistler has long been associated with a certain fecklessness, as of someone with time on his hands, gadding about, up to nothing but not bothered by the lack of useful activity. And that’s the take away from the song too—with its sound effects of waves crashing and gulls—that there are times when it’s best to do nothing but reflect on the doing of nothing.
And the way the tide comes in and goes out, while the sea remains the same.