In a recent post on the current resurgence of soul, Scott Homewood mentions that the cult funk act Black Merda is again active. When I stumbled on their website a few months ago their reemergence, though welcome, seemed improbable, given the apocalyptic desperation that pervades their classic second album, Long Burn the Fire. As far as I knew, nothing had been heard from the group since 1973.
Perhaps the pleasant surprise of their return is just the result of too-close identification of the artists with their work. Still, listening to Long Burn the Fire, it seems like an easy mistake to make. Warnings about the dire effects of economic depression, too rapid racial integration, and general social upheaval flash by like dispatches from the ghetto wire service, mixing with elaborately arranged confessions of personal failure that cut heartbreakingly close to the bone. It would have made sense if the band had, along with the family in one of their songs, “decided to go to the moon.”
On their site, which is the first information about the group I’ve come across beyond what can be gleaned from the sleeve of Long Burn the Fire, the second album is treated as the poor relation of the group’s canon. Frankly, this surprised me: their debut (which, admittedly, I came to later and know less well) strikes me as fairly rote post-Hendrix black rock, not that much different from what other groups were doing at the time. Long Burn the Fire, on the other hand, incorporates white pop elements as brilliantly as Cicero Park or even Forever Changes. The strings that appear on about half the tracks might have seemed unnecessary or even ideologically retrograde at the time, but from a more distanced perspective they serve an important aesthetic function, highlighting through contrast the band’s unconventional and unsentimental approach to the exposition of interior states.
From the opener, “For You,” the writing is startling sophisticated. Riding on a sprung, vaguely Caribbean rhythm, major/minor key changes mirror the inconstancy of the person addressed in the song and the bipolarity of the singer. In pop music, one normally takes the assertion that “I’m nothing without you” with a grain of salt; the statement itself implies a fairly significant level of egocentrism. When Black Merda sings “I could have been a great man, you know I could’ve/ But the great man is gonna be somebody else/ ‘Cause you lied to me. . .” it’s clear that even before his inamorata’s deception the singer’s chances of being somebody were slim at best.
The pay-off at the end of “My Mistake” ensures that it will remain Black Merda’s most notorious song, but it can obscure the care with which the evolution of the singer’s attitude toward his dead friend is elaborated throughout the song. The rambling lyrics, with their circularity and loosely extended metaphors, perfectly encapsulate the dynamics of thought: “I know my love for you will last through the ages/ Just like a monument/ To a president of our land/ Who was great. . . .” Why Coleridge himself couldn’t do better than that! The pizzicato strings that respond to the closing call of “I made a mistake” sound as if they’ve stumbled in, disoriented, from a Barry White session. If the listener laughs, it’s only to keep from crying.
Of course, the band’s own playing is sufficiently awesome to obviate the need for additional instruments. As they motor into infinity on the closing instrumental, “We Made Up,” it’s clear that even lyrics and vocals are unnecessary adjuncts to their ability to capture the rhythms of introspection. To me, this makes Black Merda not only funky but truly psychedelic as well. Do them and yourself a favor and buy their CD, The Folks from Mother’s Mixer, which packages both the early 70s albums, on Funky Delicacies. Let it burn!