SAM COOKE: January 22, 1931 – December 11, 1964
Originally published January 22, 2015.
If there’s a common description about me, it’s that I’m very easy to get along with but difficult to truly know. I can be a different person depending on the company I keep. Some people can know me for years, possibly even consider me a friend, and not know much about me. Not surprisingly, I’m more open in exercises like this or on stage than I am when I’m face-to-face with people, even those closest to me. When I sing or when I write, I’m trying to express myself openly and accurately without concern for how it might be taken, or edited for the benefit of the audience. After 15 years of marriage, I’m still better at communicating with my wife through email than in a verbal discussion. Because of this distance that I cultivate, it’s difficult for people to trust me and to get truly close to me. For most people, that’s fine. They enjoy my company, they appreciate the time we spend and while I may not be vulnerable or compassionate enough for a deep relationship, I’m usually pretty fun to hang out with. It’s those closest to me who seem to regularly struggle with understanding me. It’s those who care the most who also live in fear of what might happen next; not because I’m volatile or explosive, but there’s an unpredictability to a person like me. And as difficult as it must be to care about someone unpredictable, I assure you it’s no easier to be the unpredictable person. To others, it feels like I hide secrets and dreams, and every example of my unpredictable nature is proof of a secret trying to burst through my emotional armor. The truth, however, is usually less linear. Most of what keeps me silent is an inability to know – or believe – that what I’m thinking or feeling has merit. That it’s accurate. That it’s even worth sharing. And so my unpredictable responses rarely are the result of a secret desire escaping from the vault within my soul. Usually, it is simply the lashing out of an emotional mute. A behavior not designed to send a specific message, but to blow off steam from the pressure of never trusting myself. People believe my actions to stem from a place I’m not willing to share; in truth, they usually come from the hollow place where I know something should be, I just don’t know how to fill it.
Throughout this project, I’ve written about many people I admire who have the ability to ignore the critics and the dissenters and follow their own vision to its glory. In a documentary I recently watched about Sam Cooke, a few fellow musicians described him that way. But the evidence doesn’t support that. Sam Cooke may have told people to go to hell, and he may have done things he was advised not to do. But he was always following a path that someone had cleared for him. When people do things we don’t expect, it’s easy to assume there is a grand plan or a hidden intent beneath it. But sometimes, all that lies beneath it is weakness. Or emptiness. Or a need for relief from anxiety and confusion. Grand plans and self-direction are what’s missing, not what’s being hidden. And hollow centers don’t hold, so anything that affects them – however well-intentioned or well-reasoned – can feel reassuring, while any contradiction just creates anxiety that may eventually demand to be released in unpredictable ways. And so it’s not nearly as sordid or confusing why Sam Cooke’s life ended the way it did. Or why his behavior was so unpredictable. Or even why his final words were explanatory – more shocked than terrified. Sam screamed out in recognition of being shot, but clearly didn’t assume he might die. Because when you live life like that – centerless, adrift, hollow - it often feels like it will never end, and it will never change. You can hear it in every note he sings in “A Change Is Gonna Come”; Cooke’s version is only partially hopeful, but mostly it’s just a weary voice clinging to salvation in some unknown, undefined form. For Sam Cooke, it didn’t change until he left this world.
Let us pray that other, similar souls among us get to bear witness to a better end.