Today’s birthday boy is another notable talent cut down much too soon—like Holly, Otis Redding was still hitting his stride when, in 1967, it was all over. Today’s song takes us back two years to Otis Blue, possibly his best album. Certainly it’s one of the best LPs of that year, notable as the year “Dylan went electric” and The Byrds debuted and The Beatles had “Help!” and “Yesterday” and Rubber Soul, and the Stones gave us “(I Can’t No) Satisfaction”—which #1 song is covered by Redding on this album and turns it into a breathless rave that makes Mick and the Boys sound rather white and polite.
The entire album has a great sound—and I’m happy as hell I got a Sundazed reissued mono of it—with Isaac Hayes and Booker T. on keyboards and piano and Booker T.’s band—with Steve Cropper on guitar and Duck Dunn on bass, Al Jackson Jr. on drums. Everything sounds so convincing, even when Redding is torching Sam Cooke’s “Wonderful World” and putting more funk into his “Shake,” and giving us the initial version of “Respect” before Aretha took it over.
“Satisfaction” is followed by today’s song, the album closer. And my favorite on the album. It showcases how Redding can plead, cry, moan, testify—you name it—all at once. The vocal rides a deep-down blues groove with little surfacings of hope, in those stirring Stax horns. It really sounds like a drowning man trying to come up for a breath. “But now that you left me / Good lord, good lord, how I cried / You don’t miss your water / You don’t miss your water / ’Til your well run dry.”
How’s that for homely truth? The song is the cry of realization—in utter misery—of a guy who didn’t take a woman’s love seriously. Sure, he knows she loved him, but, so what? Plenty of fish, and all that. Now that she’s withdrawn her love—which he thought would never happen (cf. Buddy Holly’s “That’ll Be the Day”)—he’s all “woe-is-me,” how could I have been so foolish! The words aren’t even that important, but “In the beginning you really loved me” is the opening and that’s where the real remorse comes from: seeing that she did and that he didn’t give it much status at the time; there’s also “I was a playboy, I just wouldn’t be true.” That admission might make us assume we’re listening to the musical equivalent of crocodile tears, which is why you need someone like Redding to put the song across.
I listened to William Bell’s version (he wrote it) in prepping for this and it convinces me even more how great Redding’s version is. Bell’s recording has a very sprightly, almost cloying, piano and his belting is of the “let me show big feeling” variety. Fine for what it is, but I wouldn’t be writing about that song.
Redding’s rendition is another matter entirely. Redding’s song is emitted through clenched teeth, eyes shut tight, leaking tears. And when he gets to the end and starts babbling about “I keep missin’ my water / I need my water / I need wanting my water / And I'm a little thirsty now” we might as well be in Hades with Tantalus. This guy is just now facing the fact that he’s never gonna draw another big thirst-slaking draught from that particular well ever again. It done been dried up.