Intensities in Ten Suburbs

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100 Years, 100 Songs: #80. Otis Redding – “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on August 13, 2007

“Watchin’ the ships roll in / And then I watch ’em roll away again”

Untimely deaths have a way of imbuing even the most relatively inconsequential of songs with a sort of gravitas that would never have otherwise seem intended. It’s why John Lennon’s “(Just Like) Starting Over” sounds haunting and tragic instead of just boring and retro, why Blind Melon’s “No Rain” is far more likely to make you weep than smile despite being one of the most utopian songs of the 90s, and why INXS’s “Not Enough Time” temporarily became the definitive sound of a nation in mourning back in 1993. Or, at least, it might have if Michael Hutchense had killed himself about a half-decade earlier. Whoops.

And so when viewed in context with the plane crash that would claim Otis Redding’s life a mere few days after its recording, we tend to see the hard-earned tranquility of a song like “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” as something close to a transmission from the next world, saying that he’s finally achieved total peace and serenity. Which, especially when compared to the irrepressible energy of so many of Otis’s earlier hits, definitely carries some logic to it, but it’s an incomplete picture, since the song isn’t really quite the celebration of life’s doldrums that it initially seems.

Really, “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” is closer to being the Waiting for Godot of 60s soul. Despite the blissful feeling of inactivity implied by the song’s famous chorus (“watchin’ the tides roll away / wastin’ time”), the verses are sort of unnerving in their despair over the inactivity. “I left my home in Georgia / Headed for the ‘Frisco bay / ‘Coz I got nothing to live for / And looks like nothing’s gonna come my way,” Otis bemoans, plagued by “this loneliness [that] won’t leave me alone”. This isn’t the statement of hope and faith implied by the last testament of the similarly taken-before-his-time Sam Cooke. This is Otis saying a change isn’t gonna come, and it’s fairly dispiriting to hear.

But there’s still a certain dignity to Otis’s acceptance of his static fate that keeps the song from ever lapsing into melodrama. It’s in the song’s climactic (and even somewhat empowered) bridge, in which Otis concludes “I can’t do what ten people tell me to do / So I guess I’ll remain the same, yeah.” It’s in the music, a sturdy, clipped rhythm punctuated by some exceptionally placed horns, and by the wave and bird sound effects that give the song its sealegs. And of course, it’s in Otis’s brilliant vocal, appropriately restrained and mellow but maintaining enough fire to make his going gently into that good night all the more heartbreaking.

Mostly, though, it’s in the whistling. Arguably the most famous whistle hook to ever appear on a modern pop song, the outro to “Dock of the Bay” says everything necessary to say that Otis couldn’t possibly vocalize in words. And I don’t even know what that is, exactly, but it’s something rousing and melancholy and peaceful all at the same time, and it’s one of the best musical epitaphs a legend like Otis could possibly have hoped for. And beyond that, it’s just an insanely catchy hook, so its use as the formative break for De La Soul’s similarly divine “Eye Know” 20 years later is both insanely inspired and totally unsurprising.

And even if Otis was still alive today, it’s hard to believe the song wouldn’t be just as powerful.


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