[15 February 2010]
“By the Time I Get to Phoenix” - Isaac Hayes
Written by Jimmy Webb
From Hot Buttered Soul, (Enterprise, 1969)
“By the Time I Get to Arizona” - Public Enemy
Written by Carlton Ridenhour, Cerwin Depper, Gary G-Wiz, Stuart Robertz, and Neftali Santiago
From Apocalypse ‘91… The Enemy Strikes Black, (Def Jam/CBS, 1991)
These two songs are bound together, musically, lyrically, and spiritually, by the inventively funky vision of the artists, and by both artists’ commitment to civil rights. In 1969, after taking a break from music in the wake of the death of his close friend Dr. Martin Luther King, Isaac “Ike” Hayes took a country/pop hit performed by Glen Campbell and turned it into a striking, 18:40 soul-sermon about love and leaving. Twenty-two years later, Chuck D of Public Enemy (PE) borrowed the title of Isaac’s tune, swapped a state for a city, and lit into that state’s racially-charged refusal to acknowledge the holiday for Dr. King. Isaac Hayes and Public Enemy are both unabashedly funky, strong, cerebral-in-a-good-way, and multi-dimensional in their approach to conveying their desired message.
Hayes’ version of “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” begins with a hypnotic ride cymbal and organ (courtesy of the Bar-Kays), and Hayes’ stretched-out rap exploring the meaning of the song. He gives it an incredible back-story, expanding on Webb’s emotionally detailed lyric. He also breaks into little melodic moans every now and then, but for the most part, he sustains a very compelling, spoken-word-only intro for about nine minutes or so. Many old-school R&B songs have brief, spoken explanatory intros or interludes (e.g., the Chi-Lites’ “Have You Seen Her?”, Earth, Wind, and Fire’s “All About Love”, )—but Ike really shows off here, digging deep and coming up with a fascinating narrative to complement Webb’s song. His “sermon” is packed with details about the protagonist’s “love blindness”, the nonchalant emotional (and financial) exploitation of the protagonist at the hands of his partner, sexual betrayal, and the dangers of mistaking a kind heart for a weak constitution.
Public Enemy’s “By the Time I Get to Arizona”, has a less personal agenda than “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.” In this piece, Chuck D’s lyrics detail his (allegorical) journey to the southwestern state to confront the governor about the King holiday (a controversial video accompanied the song’s release). There’s no doubt in my mind that Chuck D, ever the sonic post-modernist, gleaned a great deal of joy out of simultaneously paying tribute to Hayes’ jam (and Webb’s title) while also subverting it for his own powerful message. PE’s song samples Mandrill’s mindblowing “Two Sisters of Mystery”, a thick-n-sick psychedelic-funk thing that pleases rhythm-fiends but probably frightens the hell out of folks who don’t like big beats and rumbly bass sounds. Over that groove, Chuck D spits his lines, which since the beginning of his career have imparted a unique, poet-meets-sportscaster vibe that goes beyond rhythmic rhyming. In the following excerpt, Chuck D (not too surprisingly) casts his impending confrontation of a hostile power structure in a prophetic light:
So I pray
I pray everyday
I do and praise Jah the maker
Looking for culture
I got but not here
From Jah maker
Pushin’ and shakin’ the structure
Bringin’ down the Babylon,
Hearin’ the sucker
That makes it hard for the brown…”
It’s almost impossible to describe how those lines, which read like they wouldn’t flow at all, actually spill out of Chuck D’s mouth in a completely natural, listenable way, with that same sense of mission and authority which informs all of his best work. Chuck D’s delivery here, and the fact that the PE song so boldly references Hayes’ song, reminds the listener of the tremendous importance and influence of the Black American tradition of testifying and signifying; it’s that same oral tradition of offering testimony and referencing earlier work which binds Isaac Hayes, Chuck D, and other tuned-in artists in a way that runs much deeper than clever turns of phrase, well-placed samples, or a hooky chorus.
Of course, songwriter Jimmy Webb (himself a preacher’s son and no stranger to oral traditions) and his beautiful piece are also central to all of this business. I’ve always loved the opening lyrics to “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”, which paint a scenario that leaves you wanting to learn more:
By the time I get to Phoenix, she’ll be rising
She’ll find the note I left hangin’ on her door
She’ll laugh when she reads the part that says I’m leavin’
‘Cause I’ve left that girl so many times before…”
This is Webb at his best. His unique imagery (“Wichita Lineman”, “Macarthur Park”, “Up, Up, and Away”) and master craftsmanship have influenced countless songwriters, and his work has also inspired thoughtful reflection by fellow artists and fans of all genres, as evidenced in Isaac Hayes’ work. In turn, the work of Hayes and Public Enemy continues to impact and influence artists of all kinds, as well. It’s a fitting full circle for Webb, who, though not primarily known as an R&B songwriter, received priceless songwriting training in the early Motown camp.
A larger-scale full circle also emerged when in 1992, a year after the release of Public Enemy’s “By the Time I Get to Arizona”, and 24 years after Isaac Hayes marched with Dr. King, the state of Arizona decided to join 44 other states in recognizing the holiday for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.