Lives of the great songs / Cheatin' meeting of minds: The Dark End of the Street
Sunday, 9 January 1994
'THIS IS probably one of the greatest songs that's ever come out of black American music,' announces Ricky Ross over the piano intro to Deacon Blue's live version of 'The Dark End of the Street' (1991). 'I first heard it done by Gram Parsons, and then by a guy called Ry Cooder . . .'
Strange, one might think, as neither Parsons nor Cooder could be described as black Americans. But that's really the point about 'The Dark End of the Street', an archetypal 'cheatin' ' soul ballad which has been done in every musical style from country to folk to blues and back to deep southern soul. There is something that sets it apart from other cheatin' numbers, an air of dread allied to an urgent sense of time and place:
At the dark end of the street,
That's where we always meet,
Hiding in shadows where we don't belong,
Living in darkness to hide our wrong.
You and me, at the dark end of the street,
You and me . . .
From the ominous descending chords to the central image - bringing the adultery so close while obscuring it in the penumbra of shame - the song is as stark and joyless as cheatin' gets. On the original version, recorded by Memphis deep- soul man James Carr in 1966, the chorus - 'You and me, at the dark end of the street/ You and me' - is both tender and terrified. With each chorus, the two voices become ever more furtive. The last one just goes, 'Tonight we'll meet, at the dark end of the street/Mmmmmmm . . .'
Haunted by their guilt, these adulterers 'know time's gonna take its toll/We have to pay for the love we stole': in the bridge section, Carr simply wails 'They're gonna find us]' three times over a blast of horns and a death-rattling electric guitar.
The song was written by Dan Penn and Lincoln 'Chips' Moman, southern whites with a deep love for black soul music who'd met at a Wilson Pickett session in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. One of the biggest hits to come out of Muscle Shoals had been Jimmy Hughes's 'Steal Away' (1964), virtually a prototype for the whole cheatin' genre. 'I'd been wantin' to write another 'Steal Away' for two years,' says Penn, 'and when I came to Memphis to work with Chips, I still wanted to write that great cheatin' song.'
One night in the late summer of 1966, Penn and Moman were attending a country-music DJs' convention at the Anchor Motel in Nashville - 'poppin' pills and playin' poker,' as Quinton Claunch, James Carr's producer at Goldwax Records, recalled. Claunch says that the two men broke off from the game and asked if they could use his room. 'I said: 'Boys, you can use it on one condition, which is that you give me the song for James Carr,' and they said I'd got me a deal.'
Dan Penn isn't too clear as to the exact sequence of events that night, but he does recall trading an acoustic guitar back and forth with Moman. 'We were only in there for about 30 minutes,' he says. 'I guess 'Dark End of the Street' was the culmination of two or three years of thinkin' about cheatin'.'
Only a few weeks later, Chips Moman engineered James Carr's 'Dark End of the Street' session in Memphis. His own American studio was being refitted that week, so the session was moved to Willie Mitchell's Hi studio, where Al Green later cut a string of hits. For both Moman and Penn, Carr remains the greatest male singer of Sixties soul. 'He had an emotional power that really stirred me up,' Moman says. 'I could have listened to him all day.' There is no doubt that some of the haunting power of 'Dark End of the Street' derives from the tragic enigma of James Carr himself, a man recalled by Quinton Claunch as 'a very reserved, religious-type person'.
After Carr's 'Dark End of the Street' made the R&B Top 10 in February 1967, several soul versions followed in quick succession - none of them a patch on the original. Percy Sledge managed a respectable stab in April that year, but lacked the gravitas to pull it off. Chips Moman engineered a preposterous rendition by Oscar Toney Jr, complete with sweeping strings and thunderous drums that all but buried the singer's harsh gospel tenor. The version by Roy Hamilton on Moman's own GP label was less bombastic, and certainly better than Joe Tex's lazy, ragged reading on his 1968 Soul Country album.
The most significant cover by a male soul artist was Clarence Carter's 1969 reworking, entitled 'Making Love (at the Dark End of the Street)'. Carter hardly bothered with Penn's lyric, using the song as an excuse to ham it up as a country preacher, giving a leery sermon about the birds'n'
the bees. According to the pianist Jim Dickinson (another 'redneck with a black soul'), Carter's 'Dark End' was a favourite record of Mick Jagger's. 'I was having dinner in Miami with Jerry Wexler, Tom Dowd, Mick and Bianca, and Clarence was playing at the hotel,' Dickinson says. 'Through the doors come the three chords of 'Dark End of the Street', and Jagger says, 'That's my favourite fucking song in the world]' Turned out he could recite the entire spoken intro.'
Aretha Franklin's treatment of the song on her 1970 album This Girl's in Love with You has become something of a litmus-test for her fans. Is it 'a brilliant, near-transcendent' reading, as the soul historian Peter Guralnick has claimed, or a typical example of her tendency to show off, riding roughshod over Penn's lyric? Whichever, it's a long way from the sublime understatement of her 'Do Right Woman - Do Right Man', the other classic Penn and Moman wrote in 1966, and comes perilously close to what Franklin's own producer Jerry Wexler called 'oversouling'.
Written by white country boys for a black soul singer, 'The Dark End of the Street' was soon being tackled as straight country. Hardly surprising, given the prevalence of adultery in both soul and country music, but it took that cosmic cowboy Gram Parsons to attempt a version which was both soulful and countrified. Actually, the version on The Gilded Palace of Sin (1969) by Parsons' Flying Burrito Brothers was all but ruined by Jon Corneal's Neanderthal stomp of a drum track, but Parsons' wavering twang intuitively caught the sombre fatalism at the heart of the song.
By the Seventies, respectable country artists were covering the song. Accompanied by her mentor Porter Wagoner, the 25-year-old Dolly Parton lent 'Dark End' her spookiest Smoky Mountain tremor of a soprano: no dark dread here, just Appalachian guilt, backed by softly strummed guitars, tinkling piano fills, and the wistful sigh of Pete Drake's pedal-steel. It took the Kendalls, a father-and-daughter duo, to push the country-duet treatment to its logical guilt-ridden conclusion - not that there wasn't an implicit incest in all the other cheatin' songs they recorded.
Compared with the Kendalls, Linda Ronstadt's crisp country-rock rendition on her 1974 album Heart Like a Wheel was bland. Much closer to the spirit of Dan Penn was Ry Cooder, who managed to capture all the song's fear and loathing in an instrumental slide-guitar version on Boomer's Story (1972), recorded at Muscle Shoals. The lyrics were reinstated when Cooder revisited 'Dark End' on the live album Showtime (1977); in fact, they were all but torn apart over six-and-a- half minutes by the wonderful vocal trio of Bobby King, Terry Evans and Eldridge King.
'Dark End' touched something in English musicians at the time when every pub-rocker in London wanted to be JJ Cale. If Chris Spedding's version on his 1972 solo album The Only Lick I Know was dire, the song was more successfully rendered as a folk ballad during Richard and Linda Thompson's 1975 performance at London's Queen Elizabeth Hall. It's strange to hear this classic song of infidelity sung by a married couple. A decade later, reformed pub-rocker Elvis Costello was performing angrily impassioned versions of the song, but if it's downhome authenticity you want, try the late-Eighties versions by R&B veterans Lazy Lester, James 'Thunderbird' Davis, and Artie 'Blues Boy' White.
The song's appeal for celtic soul boys - from Deacon Blue to the Commitments, whose Andrew Strong turned it into a piece of Joe Cocker breastbeating - is obvious, since Catholics are suckers for black guilt. Less obvious is its appeal to Cincinnati's Afghan Whigs, who began their career on the Sub Pop label, original home of grunge. But the Whigs, who regularly did 'Dark End of the Street' in concert last year, have a penchant for 'tearing the guts' out of soul classics. 'You can achieve so much more by not covering these songs in an obviously 'soulful' way,' says big Whig Greg Dulli.
Now Dan Penn has finally got around to recording his own version of 'The Dark End of the Street', for the imminent Do Right Man (Sire/ Blue Horizon). 'I really don't know why so many people have done the song,' he says. 'See, cheatin' was bigtime back in the Sixties, whereas now people know that cheatin' isn't necessarily too healthy. The song kinda glorifies cheatin', but there's some redemption goin' on in there too.'
'It's a song that transcends all barriers,' says Jim Dickinson, whose entertaining version is on a New Rose album by his band Mudboy & the Neutrons. 'It's been sung by men to women, women to men, men to men, and women to women. Dan says it's the ultimate cheatin' song, but I've finally decided it's about politics. It's about keepin' things secret - no matter what you get up to in the daylight, the real action takes place in the dark.'