If you're like me (and I hope this is the only way in which you are like me, for your own good), you go through phases where you obsess on certain songs for days. Recently my musical OCD latched upon Timmy Thomas' “Why Can't We Live Together.” This 1972 hit haunted me during my youth, as its mournful yet hopeful tone and ominous, primitive drum-machine beats starkly contrasted with the bulk of relentlessly upbeat fodder most of the dial offered.
(Don't get me wrong, though: commercial radio during the '60s and '70s—in the Detroit area where I grew up, anyway—was relatively awesome compared to the inane narrowcasting that prevails today. Why, in the early '70s, spacey funk instrumentals by Billy Preston, Deodato and Dennis Coffey could grace prime-time airwaves and somehow the peasants didn't revolt, Mr. Clear Channel executive.)
But let's get back to “Why Can't We Live Together.” Thomas' voice here is like a honeyed balm of essential vitamins and his Hammond organ vamps sting like Muhammad Ali jabs. The words are extremely simplistic and the sentiments unrealistic (even if Obama wins the next election), but, no matter. The song's crux is outlined in these six lines, which are as poignant and timeless as anything ever heard in a chart-dweller (I'll take this over John Lennon's soggy, milquetoast “Imagine” any damned day).
No more war, no more war. All we want is some peace in this world.
Everybody wants to live together. Why can't we be together?
No matter, no matter what color. You are still my brother.
As is often typical in popular songs, it's not the lyrics themselves that compel, but rather the way in which they're sung. In Thomas' case, he transforms humble source material into a deathless hymn to human possibility—even as Richard Nixon occupied the White House and the Vietnam War raged. Talk about insurmountable odds... Thomas sure enjoyed a challenge.
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