One Saturday afternoon, when Sonny had been living with us, or anyway, been in our house, for nearly two weeks, I found myself wandering aimlessly about the living room, drinking from a can of beer, and trying to work up courage to search Sonny’s room. He was out, he was usually out whenever I was home, and Isabel had taken the children to see their grandparents. Suddenly I was standing still in front of the living room window, watching Seventh Avenue. The idea of searching Sonny’s room made me still. I scarcely dared to admit to myself what I’d be searching for. I didn’t know what I’d do if I found it. Or if I didn’t.
On the sidewalk across from me, near the entrance to a barbecue joint, some people were holding an old-fashioned revival meeting. The barbecue cook, wearing a dirty white apron, his conked hair reddish and metallic in the pale sun, and a cigarette between his lips, stood in the doorway, watching them. Kids and older people paused in their errands and stood there, along with some older men and a couple of very tough-looking women who watched everything that happened on the avenue, as though they owned it, or were maybe owned by it. Well, they were watching this, too. The revival was being carried on by three sisters in black, and a brother. All they had were their voices and their Bibles and a tambourine. The brother was testifying and while he testified two of the sisters stood together, seeming to say, amen, and the third sister walked around with the tambourine outstretched and a couple of people dropped coins into it. Then the brother’s testimony ended and the sister who had been taking up the collection dumped the coins into her palm and transferred them to the pocket of her long black robe. Then she raised both hands, striking the tambourine against the air, and then against one hand, and she started to sing. And the two other sisters and the brother joined in.
It was strange, suddenly, to watch, though I had been seeing these meetings all my life. So, of course, had everybody else down there. Yet, they paused and watched and listened and I stood still at the window. “‘Tis the old ship of Zion,” they sang, and the sister with the tambourine kept a steady, jangling beat, “it has rescued many a thousand!” Not a soul under the sound of their voices was hearing this song for the first time, not one of them had been rescued. Nor had they seen much in the way of rescue work being done around them. Neither did they especially believe in the holiness of the three sisters and the brother, they knew too much about them, knew where they lived, and how. The woman with the tambourine, whose voice dominated the air, whose face was bright with joy, was divided by very little from the woman who stood watching her, a cigarette between her heavy, chapped lips, her hair a cuckoo’s nest, her face scarred and swollen from many beatings, and her black eyes glittering like coal. Perhaps they both knew this, which was why, when, as rarely, they addressed each other, they addressed each other as Sister. As the singing filled the air the watching, listening faces underwent a change, the eyes focusing on something within; the music seemed to soothe a poison out of them; and time seemed, nearly, to fall away from the sullen, belligerent, battered faces, as though they were fleeing back to their first condition, while dreaming of their last. The barbecue cook half shook his head and smiled, and dropped his cigarette and disappeared into his joint. A man fumbled in his pockets for change and stood holding it in his hand impatiently, as though he had just remembered a pressing appointment further up the avenue. He looked furious. Then I saw Sonny, standing on the edge of the crowd. He was carrying a wide, flat notebook with a green cover, and it made him look, from where I was standing, almost like a schoolboy. The coppery sun brought out the copper in his skin, he was very faintly smiling, standing very still. Then the singing stopped, the tambourine turned into a collection plate again. The furious man dropped in his coins and vanished, so did a couple of the women, and Sonny dropped some change in the plate, looking directly at the woman with a little smile. He started across the avenue, toward the house. He has a slow, loping walk, something like the way Harlem hipsters walk, only he’s imposed on this his own half-beat. I had never really noticed it before.
I stayed at the window, both relieved and apprehensive. As Sonny disappeared from my sight, they began singing again. And they were still singing when his key turned in the lock.
“Hey,” he said.
“Hey, yourself. You want some beer?”
“No. Well, maybe.” But he came up to the window and stood beside me, looking out. “What a
warm voice,” he said.
They were singing If I could only hear my mother pray again!
“Yes,” I said, “and she can sure beat that tambourine.”
“But what a terrible song,” he said, and laughed. He dropped his notebook on the sofa and
disappeared into the kitchen. “Where’s Isabel and the kids?”
“I think they want to see their grandparents. You hungry?”
“No.” He came back into the living room with his can of beer. “You want to come some place
with me tonight?”
I sensed, I don’t know how, that I couldn’t possibly say no. “Sure. Where?”
He sat down on the sofa and picked up his notebook and started leafing through it. “I’m going to sit in with some fellows in a joint in the Village.”
“You mean, you’re going to play, tonight?”
“That’s right.” He took a swallow of his beer and moved back to the window. He gave me a sidelong look. “If you can stand it.”
“I’ll try,” I said.
He smiled to himself and we both watched as the meeting across the way broke up. The three sisters and the brother, heads bowed, were singing God be with you till we meet again. The faces around them were very quiet. Then the song ended. The small crowd dispersed. We watched the three women and the lone man walk slowly up the avenue.
“When she was singing before,” said Sonny, abruptly, “her voice reminded me for a minute of what heroin feels like sometimes-when it’s in your veins. It makes you feel sort of warm and cool at the same time. And distant. And- and sure.” He sipped his beer, very deliberately not looking at me. I watched his face. “It makes you feel-in control. Sometimes you’ve got to have that feeling.”
“Do you?” I sat down slowly in the easy chair.
“Sometimes.” He went to the sofa and picked up his notebook again. “Some people do.”
“In order,” I asked, “to play?” And my voice was very ugly, full of contempt and anger.
“Well”-he looked at me with great, troubled eyes, as though, in fact, he hoped his eyes would tell me things he could never otherwise say-”they think so. And if they think so-!”
“And what do you think?” I asked.
He sat on the sofa and put his can of beer on the floor. “I don’t know,” he said, and I couldn’t be sure if he were answering my question or pursuing his thoughts. His face didn’t tell me. “It’s not so much to play. It’s to stand it, to be able to make it at all. On any level.” He frowned and smiled: “In order to keep from shaking to pieces.”
“But these friends of yours,” I said, “they seem to shake themselves to pieces pretty goddamn fast.”
“Maybe.” He played with the notebook. And something told me that I should curb my tongue, that Sonny was doing his best to talk, that I should listen. “But of course you only know the ones that’ve gone to pieces. Some don’t-or at least they haven’t yet and that’s just about all any of us can say.” He paused. “And then there are some who just live, really, in hell, and they know it and they see what’s happening and they go right on. I don’t know.” He sighed, dropped the notebook, folded his arms. “Some guys, you can tell from the way they play, they on something all the time. And you can see that, well, it makes something real for them. But of course,” he picked up his beer from the floor and sipped it and put the can down again, “they want to, too, you’ve got to see that. Even some of them that say they don’tsome, not all.”
“And what about you?” I asked-I couldn’t help it. “What about you? Do you want to?”
He stood up and walked to the window and I remained silent for a long time. Then he sighed. “Me,” he said. Then: “While I was downstairs before, on my way here, listening to that woman sing, it struck me all of a sudden how much suffering she must have had to go through-to sing like that. It’s repulsive to think you have to suffer that much.”
I said: “But there’s no way not to suffer-is there. Sonny?”
“I believe not,” he said and smiled, “but that’s never stopped anyone from trying.” He looked at me. “Has it?” I realized, with this mocking look, that there stood between us, forever, beyond the power of time or forgiveness, the fact that I had held silence-so long!-when he had needed human speech to help him. He turned back to the window. “No, there’s no way not to suffer. But you try all kinds of ways to keep from drowning in it, to keep on top of it, and to make it seem-well, like you. Like you did something, all right, and now you’re suffering for it. You know?” I said nothing. “Well you know,” he said, impatiently, “why do people suffer? Maybe it’s better to do something to give it a reason, any reason.”
“But we just agreed,” I said, “that there’s no way not to suffer. Isn’t it better, then, just to-take
“But nobody just takes it,” Sonny cried, “that’s what I’m telling you! Everybody tries not to.
You’re just hung up on the way some people try-it’s not your way!”
The hair on my face began to itch, my face felt wet. “That’s not true,” I said, “that’s not true. I don’t give a damn what other people do, I don’t even care how they suffer. I just care how you suffer.” And he looked at me. “Please believe me,” I said, “I don’t want to see you-die trying not to suffer.”
“I won’t,” he said flatly, “die trying not to suffer. At least, not any faster than anybody else.”
“But there’s no need,” I said, trying to laugh, “is there? in killing yourself.”
I wanted to say more, but I couldn’t. I wanted to talk about will power and how life could be well, beautiful. I wanted to say that it was all within; but was it? or, rather, wasn’t that exactly the trouble? And I wanted to promise that I would never fail him again. But it would all have sounded-empty words and lies.
So I made the promise to myself and prayed that I would keep it.
“It’s terrible sometimes, inside,” he said, “that’s what’s the trouble. You walk these streets, black and funky and cold, and there’s not really a living ass to talk to, and there’s nothing shaking, and there’s no way of getting it out- that storm inside. You can’t talk it and you can’t make love with it, and when you finally try to get with it and play it, you realize nobody’s listening. So you’ve got to listen. You got to find a way to listen.”
And then he walked away from the window and sat on the sofa again, as though all the wind had suddenly been knocked out of him. “Sometimes you’ll do anything to play, even cut your mother’s throat.” He laughed and looked at me. “Or your brother’s.” Then he sobered. “Or your own.” Then: “Don’t worry. I’m all right now and I think I’ll be all right. But I can’t forget where I’ve been. I don’t mean just the physical place I’ve been, I mean where I’ve been. And what I’ve been.”
“What have you been, Sonny?” I asked.
He smiled-but sat sideways on the sofa, his elbow resting on the back, his fingers playing with his mouth and chin, not looking at me. “I’ve been something I didn’t recognize, didn’t know I could be. Didn’t know anybody could be.” He stopped, looking inward, looking helplessly young, looking old. “I’m not talking about it now because I feel guilty or anything like that-maybe it would be better if I did, I don’t know. Anyway, I can’t really talk about it. Not to you, not to anybody,” and now he turned and faced me. “Sometimes, you know, and it was actually when I was most out of the world, I felt that I was in it, that I was with it, really, and I could play or I didn’t really have to play, it just came out of me, it was there. And I don’t know how I played, thinking about it now, but I know I did awful things, those times, sometimes, to people. Or it wasn’t that I did anything to them-it was that they weren’t real.” He picked up the beer can; it was empty; he rolled it between his palms: “And other times-well, I needed a fix, I needed to find a place to lean, I needed to clear a space to listen-and I couldn’t find it, and I-went crazy, I did terrible things to me, I was terrible for me.” He began pressing the beer can between his hands, I watched the metal begin to give. It glittered, as he played with it like a knife, and I was afraid he would cut himself, but I said nothing. “Oh well. I can never tell you. I was all by myself at the bottom of something, stinking and sweating and crying and shaking, and I smelled it, you know? my stink, and I thought I’d die if I couldn’t get away from it and yet, all the same, I knew that everything I was doing was just locking me in with it. And I didn’t know,” he paused, still flattening the beer can, “I didn’t know, I still don’t know, something kept telling me that maybe it was good to smell your own stink, but I didn’t think that that was what I’d been trying to do- and-who can stand it?” and he abruptly dropped the ruined beer can, looking at me with a small, still smile, and then rose, walking to the window as though it were the lodestone rock. I watched his face, he watched the avenue. “I couldn’t tell you when Mama died-but the reason I wanted to leave Harlem so bad was to get away from drugs. And then, when I ran away, that’s what I was running from-really. When I came back, nothing had changed I hadn’t changed I was just-older.” And he stopped, drumming with his fingers on the windowpane. The sun had vanished, soon darkness would fall. I watched his face. “It can come again,” he said, almost as though speaking to himself. Then he turned to me. “It can come again,” he repeated. “I just want you to know that.”
“All right,” I said, at last. “So it can come again. All right.”
He smiled, but the smile was sorrowful. “I had to try to tell you,” he said.
“Yes,” I said. “I understand that.”
“You’re my brother,” he said, looking straight at me, and not smiling at all.
“Yes,” I repeated, “yes. I understand that.”
He turned back to the window, looking out. “All that hatred down there,” he said, “all that hatred and misery and love. It’s a wonder it doesn’t blow the avenue apart.”
We went to the only nightclub on a short, dark street, downtown. We squeezed through the narrow, chattering, jampacked bar to the entrance of the big room, where the bandstand was. And we stood there for a moment for the lights were very dim in this room and we couldn’t see. Then, “Hello, boy ” said the voice and an enormous black man, much older than Sonny or myself, erupted out of all that atmospheric lighting and put an arm around Sonny’s shoulder. “I been sitting right here,” he said, “waiting for you.”
He had a big voice, too, and heads in the darkness turned toward us.
Sonny grinned and pulled a little away, and said, “Creole, this is my brother. I told you about him.”
Creole shook my hand. “I’m glad to meet you, son,” he said and it was clear that he was glad to meet me there, for Sonny’s sake. And he smiled, “You got a real musician in your family,” and he took his arm from Sonny’s shoulder and slapped him, lightly, affectionately, with the back of his hand.
“Well. Now I’ve heard it all,” said a voice behind us. This was another musician, and a friend of Sonny’s, a coal-black, cheerful-looking man built close to the ground. He immediately began confiding to me, at the top of his lungs, the most terrible things about Sonny, his teeth gleaming like a lighthouse and his laugh coming up out of him like the beginning of an earthquake. And it turned out that everyone at the bar knew Sonny, or almost everyone some were musicians, working there, or nearby, or not working, some were simply hangerson, and some were there to hear Sonny play. I was introduced to all of them and they were all very polite to me. Yet, it was clear that, for them I was only Sonny’s brother. Here, I was in Sonny’s world. Or, rather: his kingdom. Here, it was not even a question that his veins bore royal blood.
They were going to play soon and Creole installed me, by myself, at a table in a dark corner. Then I watched them, Creole, and the little black man and Sonny, and the others, while they horsed around, standing just below the bandstand. The light from the bandstand spilled just a little short of them and watching them laughing and gesturing and moving about, I had the feeling that they, nevertheless, were being most careful not to step into that circle of light too suddenly; that if they moved into the light too suddenly, without thinking, they would perish in flame. Then, while I watched, one of them, the small black man, moved into the light and crossed the bandstand and started fooling around with his drums. Then-being funny and being, also, extremely ceremonious- Creole took Sonny by the arm and led him to the piano. A woman’s voice called Sonny’s name and a few hands started clapping. And Sonny, also being funny and being ceremonious, and so touched, I think, that he could have cried, but neither hiding it nor showing it, riding it like a man, grinned, and put both hands to his heart and bowed from the waist.
Creole then went to the bass fiddle and a lean, very bright-skinned brown man jumped up on the bandstand and picked up his horn. So there they were, and the atmosphere on the bandstand and in the room began to change and tighten. Someone stepped up to the microphone and announced them. Then there were all kinds of murmurs. Some people at the bar shushed others. The waitress ran around, frantically getting in the last orders, guys and chicks got closer to each other, and the lights on the bandstand, on the quartet, turned to a kind of indigo. Then they all looked different there. Creole looked about him for the last time, as though he were making certain that all his chickens were in the coop, and then he jumped and struck the fiddle. And there they were.
All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it. And even then, on the rare occasions when something opens within, and the music enters, what we mainly hear, or hear corroborated, are personal, private, vanishing evocations. But the man who creates the music is hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air. What is evoked in him, then, is of another order, more terrible because it has no words, and triumphant, too, for that same reason. And his triumph, when he triumphs, is ours. I just watched Sonny’s face. His face was troubled, he was working hard, but he wasn’t with it. And I had the feeling that, in a way, everyone on the bandstand was waiting for him, both waiting for him and pushing him along. But as I began to watch Creole, I realized that it was Creole who held them all back. He had them on a short rein. Up
there, keeping the beat with his whole body, wailing on the fiddle, with his eyes half closed, he was listening to everything, but he was listening to Sonny. He was having a dialogue with Sonny. He wanted Sonny to leave the shoreline and strike out for the deep water. He was Sonny’s witness that deep water and drowning were not the same thing-he had been there, and he knew. And he wanted Sonny to know. He was waiting for Sonny to do the things on the keys which would let Creole know that Sonny was in the water.
And, while Creole listened, Sonny moved, deep within, exactly like someone in torment. I had never before thought of how awful the relationship must be between the musician and his instrument. He has to fill it, this instrument, with the breath of life, his own. He has to make it do what he wants it to do. And a piano is just a piano. It’s made out of so much wood and wires and little hammers and big ones, and ivory. While there’s only so much you can do with it, the only way to find this out is to try; to try and make it do everything.
And Sonny hadn’t been near a piano for over a year. And he wasn’t on much better terms with his life, not the life that stretched before him now. He and the piano stammered, started one way, got scared, stopped; started another way, panicked, marked time, started again; then seemed to have found a direction, panicked again, got stuck. And the face I saw on Sonny I’d never seen before. Everything had been burned out of it, and, at the same time, things usually hidden were being burned in, by the fire and fury of the battle which was occurring in him up there.
Yet, watching Creole’s face as they neared the end of the first set, I had the feeling that something had happened, something I hadn’t heard. Then they finished, there was scattered applause, and then, without an instant’s warning, Creole started into something else, it was almost sardonic, it was Am I Blue? And, as though he commanded, Sonny began to play. Something began to happen. And Creole let out the reins. The dry, low, black man said something awful on the drums, Creole answered, and the drums talked back. Then the horn insisted, sweet and high, slightly detached perhaps, and Creole listened, commenting now and then, dry, and driving, beautiful and calm and old. Then they all came together again, and Sonny was part of the family again. I could tell this from his face. He seemed to have found, right there beneath his fingers, a damn brand-new piano. It seemed that he couldn’t get over it. Then, for a while, just being happy with Sonny, they seemed to be agreeing with him that brand-new pianos certainly were a gas.
Then Creole stepped forward to remind them that what they were playing was the blues. He hit something in all of them, he hit something in me, myself, and the music tightened and deepened, apprehension began to beat the air. Creole began to tell us what the blues were all about. They were not about anything very new. He and his boys up there were keeping it new, at the risk of ruin, destruction, madness, and death, in order to find new ways to make
us listen. For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.
And this tale, according to that face, that body, those strong hands on those strings, has another aspect in every country, and a new depth in every generation. Listen, Creole seemed to be saying, listen. Now these are Sonny’s blues. He made the little black man on the drums know it, and the bright, brown man on the horn. Creole wasn’t trying any longer to get Sonny in the water. He was wishing him Godspeed. Then he stepped back, very slowly, filling the air with the immense suggestion that Sonny speak for himself.
Then they all gathered around Sonny and Sonny played. Every now and again one of them seemed to say, amen. Sonny’s fingers filled the air with life, his life. But that life contained so many others. And Sonny went all the way back, he really began with the spare, flat statement of the opening phrase of the song. Then he began to make it his. It was very beautiful because it wasn’t hurried and it was no longer a lament. I seemed to hear with what burning he had made it his, and what burning we had yet to make it ours, how we could cease lamenting. Freedom lurked around us and I understood, at last, that he could help us to be free if we would listen, that he would never be free until we did. Yet, there was no battle in his face now, I heard what he had gone through, and would continue to go through until he came to rest in earth. He had made it his: that long line, of which we knew only Mama and Daddy. And he was giving it back, as everything must be given back, so that, passing through death, it can live forever. I saw my mother’s face again, and felt, for the first time, how the stones of the road she had walked on must have bruised her feet. I saw the moonlit road where my father’s brother died. And it brought something else back to me, and carried me past it, I saw my little girl again and felt Isabel’s tears again, and I felt my own tears begin to rise. And I was yet aware that this was only a moment, that the world waited outside, as hungry as a tiger, and that trouble stretched above us, longer than the sky.
Then it was over. Creole and Sonny let out their breath, both soaking wet, and grinning. There was a lot of applause and some of it was real. In the dark, the girl came by and I asked her to take drinks to the bandstand. There was a long pause, while they talked up there in the indigo light and after awhile I saw the girl put a Scotch and milk on top of the piano for Sonny. He didn’t seem to notice it, but just before they started playing again, he sipped from it and looked toward me, and nodded. Then he put it back on top of the piano. For me, then, as they began to play again, it glowed and shook above my brother’s head like the very cup of trembling.