ANN PEEBLES / “I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down”
Other than her distinctive voice, the first thing I notice about Ann Peebles’ classic sides is the drums. Beneath the strings of “I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down,” it sounds like somebody is hitting the drum skins with a hammer head instead of a drum stick. And even on the records where the drums are fairly low-key – “Breaking Up Somebody’s Home,” for example – the guitar, bass and drums play so tight and hard that they give you a compressed, almost panicked feeling. There are no superfluous sounds. Everything feels rolled off. There’s no echo or decay - the notes evaporate too quickly. These records sound like they were recorded at night and in a hurry.
That crunching churn is the signature sound of the so-called ‘Hi Rhythm Section,’ the cats responsible for the instrumentation on just about every hit the Good Reverend Al ever had as well as great records by the likes of Willie Mitchell, Otis Clay and Syl Johnson. And of course, Ann Peebles. It was the Hodges Brothers, Teenie, LeRoy and Charles on guitar, bass and organ, respectively, along with drummer Howard Grimes. Together, they created a sound as unique in black music as Motown’s or Stax’s.
Of course, it helps to have a singer like Ann Peebles up front. On her best records, Ann is a storyteller. Whether she’s singing her own words or interpreting the words of others, Ann puts you in the room with her. You feel what she feels. And frequently, it literally was a room.
I thought about that the other day when I listened to “Can’t Stand The Rain,” “Tear Your Playhouse Down” and “Breaking Up Somebody’s Home” back to back. They were like three sides of the same coin. (Yeah, I know. Two sides. Heads, tails. Whatever.) In all three songs, I imagine Ann sitting at the same kitchen table, looking at the same four walls, thinking different versions of the same thoughts.
It was the early Seventies, but the songs sound more like something out of the Fifties, out of a time when a married woman’s place was in her home and nowhere else. If her husband was home she was serving him, one way or another. If her husband was out, well, he was just out. Maybe he was at work, maybe he wasn’t. Where he was and what he was doing was none of her concern. Her job was to keep the house tidy, keep the kids fed and most of all, to wait. In “I Can’t Stand The Rain” when Ann asks, “Do you remember how sweet it used to be?” she’s not talking to her man or even to a friend, she’s talking to her windowpane, and I imagine it’s the window right above the sink beside which she’s neatly stacked the dishes she’s just cleaned. It’s a regret song. She doesn’t give us the back story, but then, we don’t need the back story. It’s enough to know that she goes from talking to her windowpane to talking to “the pillow where his head used to lay.” “I know you got some sweet memories” she tells her pillow, “but like the window, you ain’t got nothing to say.”
Move from that one – where Ann is trapped by the rain in a too-quiet, too-familiar house – to “I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down.” For “Playhouse,” Ann’s tone is different. In “The Rain,” her tone is all pain and anguish. Her man is gone, she’s alone with the memories and there’s nothing she can do about it. At the beginning of “Playhouse,” Ann’s man is gone again, but this time she sounds cool. A little too cool. Scary cool. “You think you got it all settled,” she sings, “You think you got the perfect plan.” Seems Ann is alone again in that empty house, but this time, she’s not talking to windowpanes or pillows. This time, she’s talking to her man and she tells him, “I got news for you.” Seems her man has another little house he’s been maintaining somewhere else. A playhouse. The spot where he “plays Daddy with every Mama around.” I love how Ann never raises her voice in this one. Never even attempts to sound angry or aggressive. She’s past all of that. “I’m going to catch you off guard,” she tells her man. It’s one of those ‘just don’t go to sleep’ songs. You can imagine “Playhouse” as the prelude to something like The Persuaders’ “Thin Line Between Love And Hate.” Ann’s man is going to show up sometime just before dawn, half-expecting Ann to be waiting for him with fire in her eyes and a knife in her hand. But instead she’s just going to give him a smile and ask, “Are you hungry? Did you eat yet?” But once he goes to sleep…. Well, you know the record. You know how that story ends.
And then there’s “I Feel Like Breaking Up Somebody’s Home.” Drama time. “I’m about to put on my red dress and my good wig and start some shit” time. “I know I look too damned good to be sitting alone in this house crying” time. It’s raining again. It might even be later on the same night that Ann was walking around talking to windowpanes and pillowcases. But now she’s done with feeling sorry for herself. The tears on her face are dry. “I got nowhere to turn,” she says, “And I’m tired of being alone.” The interesting thing about “Breaking Up,” though, is the way the line is phrased: “I feel like breaking up somebody’s home.” Makes you wonder if Ann is actually going to go out there and do some dirt or if she’s going to stay in the empty house by herself, watching the raindrops slide down her windowpane. Waiting. Like I said, three sides of the same story.
As a bonus, here are two covers of “Breaking Up Somebody’s Home.” First, blues musician Albert King’s hit version (from I’ll Play The Blues For You, Stax, 1972), about which I have mixed feelings because those same words coming from a man give the song a different feel. There’s a certain power-play in there that I don’t particularly care for.
Second, there’s Denise LaSalle’s version, which I like a lot (from On The Loose, Westbound, 1973). Denise was one of the premier shit-talkers of her era: loud, terminally over-confident and never, ever at a loss for words. Her version of “Breaking Up” rivals Ann’s.
And I’ll throw in Cassandra Wilson’s version of “Can’t Stand The Rain” (from Blue Light ‘Til Dawn, Blue Note, 1993) which, as Stephanie Renee pointed out in last week’s comments, I should’ve actually put in last week’s jukebox.
The original versions of “I Can’t Stand The Rain,” “(I Feel Like) Breaking Up Somebody’s Home” and “I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down” are all available on The Best Of Ann Peebles. If you want more, Ann’s first three albums as well as several b-sides are compiled on The Complete Ann Peebles on Hi Records.
—Mtume ya Salaam
Well. Well! It bees that way sometimes. It’s almost like Ann be singing to herself, be in a room and just letting her feelings ooze out of her and there just happens to be a microphone and a band in the same room, but there didn’t have to be. The way Ann sings is not for the stage in the sense of putting on a show, even though I know she can put on a hell of a show, but really Ann sings for to release something deep down inside herself, something deep down inside all of us.
Pain is the price of pleasure in this here lifetime. You don’t get no real deep pleasure without experiencing some real deep pain, in fact, maybe it is pain carving out craters in our hearts that creates our capacity to cup pleasure in those holes in our heart…or something. All I know is I been there before. Ann been there before. And if I were asked to describe how that “been left/been done wrong/been hurted all up in the ups and downs of love,” how all that ball of confusing love feelings felt, if I were asked to accurately describe it, I would simply tell somebody: you want to know how it feels? Go listen to Ann Peebles.
—Kalamu ya Salaam
This entry was posted on Sunday, April 15th, 2007 at 12:51 am and is filed under Classic. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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