" RIGHT DOWN HERE"
BY ASHA PUTHLI
BY SLY STONE
My hands were folded in my lap the first time I heard Asha Puthli’s “Right Down Here.” I know this because it almost never happens: it’s a starched pose, and a ridiculous one, back straight, fingers interlaced. This was in Key West, during my honeymoon, and I was sitting stiffly in a rental car, losing my patience. The midday sun was merciless. The skeleton of a bug made a Chinese character on the windshield. My wife and I had gone to Key West from our wedding in Miami instead of, say, to Athens, or Tokyo, or even Jamaica — my suggestions — because she wanted to unwind, do something quick and easy, limit the demands on our time and energy. I agreed, because that’s what marriage is, compromise, but after only three days the drawbacks of Key West were apparent. It’s a nice place to live, I’m sure, but I wouldn’t want to visit there. To keep our spirits up, we got more tolerant of, which is to say more ironic about, Key West’s tourist appeal, and while I was sitting in the car with my hands folded — the formality somehow made the time pass faster — she was checking ticket prices at the Ripley’s Believe it or Not Odditorium, which apparently contained photographic evidence of a man with two heads.
While I waited, I listened to the radio, which was tuned to a local station that subsisted on a diet of “Layla,” “Stir It Up,” and heaping servings of Jimmy Buffet. Just before noon, something common, probably “Take it Easy,” ended, and something uncommon began. Jazz-funk, I guess you’d call it, ticking drums and throbbing bass and watery organ. Then came the horns, the first sign of something special (they were short stabbing bursts, as if arranged for telegraph), and then the voice. It was a deep female voice, vaguely foreign and worldly, and it was singing about the fact that her man was keeping her “right down here.” In the second verse, the woman’s voice leapt an octave, into what it was immediately clear was her natural register. Then it dropped again, into a whispery kind of nonsinging. All in all, it was a spectacular vocal performance, so spectacular that I didn’t even notice that my wife was tapping on the passenger window. I unlocked the door and told her to listen to the song; even though she heard less than a minute, it hooked her, too, and we drove back to the hotel and spent the better part of the afternoon getting in and out of bed and calling the station to request the song again. We didn’t know the name of the singer, and we were just guessing (correctly, as it turned out) that the name of the song was “Right Down Here.” At around five, the station replayed the song; my wife looked at the radio excitedly and it was as if she was looking at me. The next day, we bypassed the Odditorium; instead we hoisted large pastel-hued drinks, walked along the beach, and even spent some time at the Solares Hill Cemetery, all the while remarking on the fact that stumbling upon that song on the radio was the high point of the honeymoon. (The closest contender was the trip we paid to the Duval County Courthouse to watch a murder trial we had read about in the Key West Citizen. It was a long story: one local drunk, a man named Bongo Billy, had killed another drunk, a woman, with a dildo.)
Eventually, it occurred to my wife to call the station back and ask for the singer’s name. It turned out that it was an Indian woman named Asha Puthli who had hit the charts in the mid-seventies with a disco song called “Space Talk,” recorded a handful of solo albums, and contributed vocals to works by jazz artists like Henry Threadgill and Ornette Coleman. When I got back to New York, I started collecting her records. I found “Right Down Here,” and I also found out that it wasn’t her best song; that honor went to a grand, melodramatic ballad called “The Devil is Loose” that sounded like the theme song to a great lost James Bond movie. She also had a penchant for covering songs by Beatles; her version of George Harrison’s “I Dig Love” is one of the most preposterously sensual records I have ever heard, beautifully stoned and sexy.
I don’t have much to say about Asha Puthli herself. She seems to be a very accomplished woman. I do, however, have two things to say about “Right Down Here.” The first echoes something I have already said: encountering the song on a crappy Keys radio station was one of the great thrills of my adult life. Being surprised by the radio is relatively common when you’re young, but gets rarer as you get older, and at some point it becomes impossible. I was long past that point — and yet, there it was. The second thing was that this strange little song by this strange Indian woman with the strange voice (sometimes she sounded like Amanda Lear, sometimes like Yoko Ono) had somehow managed to capture the spirit of the best Sly Stone songs. I will talk about Sly Stone at sickening length if given the opportunity, so I will restrain myself here and say only that I am certain that Sly Stone is a genius on the level of Picasso or Joyce and that all the people who copied his sound, from the Jackson Five to the Ohio Players to Rick James, are not. Many are wonderful bands with wonderful singers, but even when they wrote melodies as smart and as catchy as Sly’s (and they usually didn’t), they couldn’t, in their lyrics or vocals, distill that mix of elation and sorrow that simultaneously polishes and tarnishes your soul.
I guess I should stick with Asha Puthli, but I want to cite one small example of Sly Stone’s genius: a fortyfour-second fragment from the largely mediocre 1983 album Ain’t But the One Way, the last album Sly Stone released before he fell into drug-assisted oblivion. The fragment is called “Sylvester,” after Sly’s given name, Sylvester Stewart, and it’s a solo performance, just Sly on drum machine, organ, and vocals, musing about how fame had both made and unmade him. The lyrics are brief enough to reproduce in full:
Messing ‘round with the best of them
Not wrestling with the rest of them
He’s a stranger
But mother dear still knows his name
Looking through the glass in case he pass his name
Up and down his style his name is in a file of fame
They call him Sylvester
But his mama still knows his name.
Men are born and die. They get what they want, and sometimes what they want gets them. They don’t learn the truth about themselves, and the people they love, until it’s too late. All these ideas are in this song. Once I was out with a woman and she told me she cried at movies. We were at a movie, in fact, and I saw her cry. I told her that movies didn’t make me cry, that the only thing that made me cry was Sly Stone records. That was true and remains true. Asha Puthli managed to make me tear up a bit, though, and that’s something. I tip my hat — and fold my hands — to her, wherever she is.