There was no mistaking the place for sunny Los Angeles. No awards, much less Grammys, would be given out. Instead, as the story goes, Joe South found himself performing at some small locale in Georgia, not a venue for an artist on the way up. It was late ’71 or early ’72. By then South’s stay at the top was behind him. In the previous three years his “Games People Play,” “Don’t It Make You Want to Go Home,” “Walk A Mile In My Shoes” and “(I Never Promised You A) Rose Garden” had climbed the charts. South was recognized as a songwriter of extraordinary talent, a brilliant guitarist and the finest interpreter of the songs he had written. That put him ahead of some good company. Well-known artists as diverse as Gene Vincent, Deep Purple, Elvis Presley, Lynn Anderson, the Raiders and the Osmonds had recorded his songs. For all most of us knew, South should’ve been on Easy Street, enjoying his riches and acclaim, but there he was, singing the blues, so to speak, before unappreciative fellow Georgians.
Between songs, South told the audience, “I tell you what, why don’t you just get out of your seats, take each other’s hands and start dancing around the hall. Then when you come down here in front of the stage, each one of you can kiss my ass.” He was venting at the crowd that night, but he’d also be venting at himself through some new songs he had written for his ’72 album, A Look Inside. It was quite a deep look inside of Joe South’s head and heart. South was hurting and it’s clear his pain was self-inflicted. Much of A Look Inside came across as disclosure from a guy watching his life come apart. There were serious transgressions. There was remorse. Absent, though, was a proclamation of starting over. South would go forth and sin some more. The life he sang of on the album was sad and bewildering. But even as he evoked feelings of pity, Joe South delivered the best album of his career.
People in his native Atlanta had heard of South’s problems with pills and booze. Reports on his public behavior were not favorable. His life had become like those he wrote about in “These Are Not My People” and worse. Therefore, on A Look Inside, he wasn’t pointing his fingers at a proverbial you or some straw man. Joe South was singing about himself.
The album begins on a poignant but soulful note with “Coming Down All Alone.” A studied and evocative 51-second guitar intro by South sets the mood. South plays it like Pop Staples, purveying the sound of wisdom learned the hard way. “Coming Down All Alone” is a lamentation in which the victim and perp are one and the same. The victim is wise enough to know why he has a problem but not strong enough to overcome it. He knows the chemicals that brought about another crash landing also lifted him up. The pattern is familiar and bound to be repeated. South’s grasp of the scenario is what makes “Coming Down All Alone” so urgent and stirring. As if it’s common knowledge, South observes, “There’s no kind of bummer that a dime bag can’t cure,” but with the cure wearing off, he admits, “You know that you’re dying just a little at a time and you know in your heart that it’s true.”
When South starts on the last verse, he calls out, “I need a witness.” That adds to the song’s gospel atmosphere; there’s confession, remorse and hope of redemption. But here, any sense of elevation here will be chemically-induced. Background vocalists chime in to great effect, recalling the Edwin Hawkins Singers, but this is no happy day South is dwelling upon. It’s a really rotten day as he laments, “When you feel like you want to die and you’d give anything if you could only get high.” It’s bad coming down all alone and having to live the life he’s made for himself. His friends have turned their backs on him; his only caller is the “dude with a plan” and more trouble to sell him. As the song ends, there’s no deliverance from the mess he’s in. Even though he’s recognized the problem and that’s half the battle, the other half toward a solution is uphill all the way. The perspective is mournful. Listening to “Coming Down All Alone” is daunting and wondrous at the same time. Seldom, particularly in the field of popular music, has a tale of hardship been conveyed so exquisitely.
South provides a second variation of a man’s self-imprisonment on the album’s next song, “Imitation of Living.” In contrast to “Coming Down All Alone,” the melody is bright and accessible enough to be a country hit in ’72, but the story is still a sad one. The figure in “Imitation of Living” is making it through the day with the help of “ups and downs.” The man conducting the imitation of a life has been doing so since he lost his woman; the parties and running around help pass the time but they don’t help him. In a terrific review of A Look Inside, Charlie Gillette, in Rolling Stone, points out that a Lynn Anderson, for example, wouldn’t likely touch “Imitation of Living” despite her success with other South songs (“Rose Garden,” “Fool Me” and How Can I Unlove You”) due to the line, “I make a lot of money, but I throw it all away to the dude who deals the dope, ’cause that’s my only hope to get you off my mind.” That was hardly what Nashville expected of a Lawrence Welk Show graduate. Besides, such ugly realities, so went the thinking, only played out in the rock and roll world.
South dealt with his reality and not very well. In ’94 he told journalist Robert Hilburn that when he won a Grammy in ’70 for “Games People Play” he “staggered up and sort of leaned against the mike and said something, but I don’t even remember…. The drugs had taken over.” In a very candid interview with Hilburn, South allowed that he had been addicted to amphetamines and tranquilizers which he thought would help stave off his deep-rooted insecurities.
“Nobody could get in touch with me,” he says of that time. “I had a problem with talking on the phone… Shyness, I dreaded to talk to anybody about anything… Don’t know why. I guess it was just part of my sickness with the drugs and shyness.”
When speaking with Hilburn, more than two decades had passed since A Look Inside. Over that time South recorded Midnight Rainbows, a “comeback” album that gained little notice and continued to battle his demons. He took on a drug-free life but suffered a relapse. Finally, as he spoke with Hilburn, he expressed a determination to make it without the pills.
“I think I’ve reached a turning point at last,” he says. “by allowing chemicals to be a god in my life for so many years, I’ve cut myself off from the things I love about music. It’s not the pills that wrote those songs… I’ve got faith that I’ll be able to keep at it… to express myself again in my music.”
South’s love for music was apparent even in the darkest moments of A Look Inside, even as half of its songs dealt with the devil that was dragging him down. And as for the other half of the album’s songs, the vigor and devotion he had long brought to his music was manifest. Side 2 began with South and his back-up vocalists half-announcing, half-singing, “The name of this song is ‘Misunderstanding.'” That kicked off one of the best performances of South’s career. “Misunderstanding” is a swampy, soulful track which Aretha Franklin would do well to cover. The song sounds as it was written for her and given that South played guitar on one of her greatest recordings, “Chain of Fools,” it may have been. South’s vocals are commanding and zesty. The song offers the perspective that a relationship has just hit a bump in the road and not an end. With brio, South sings:
Misunderstanding. No need to pack it up.
One shaky landing don’t mean we’re cracking up.
Misunderstanding is all that went wrong.
Misunderstanding is the name of this song, ya’ll.
The horns come in at the right time and as usual, South works his magic with the guitar. The musicians and vocalists fall in right behind him. It’s a stellar recording and why it wasn’t a hit, or at least pushed for airplay, is a mystery. It’s true that, by this time, Capitol Records had found South a difficult artist to work with, but “Misunderstanding” on the radio would have been a lift for all concerned: South, and his fans who wondered what had happened to him in such a few short years.
Joe South could’ve used a few more friends in the industry just as his character in “Coming Down All Alone” did. Perhaps with that in mind, the last cut on A Look Inside was “All Nite Lover, All Day Friend.” It’s one of the few straight-ahead rockers of South’s career. In fact, Gillette, in his Rolling Stone review, wrote that on a couple of bars of the song, South sounded like the lead singer in Slade. On “All Nite Lover, All Day Friend,” South pursues a woman first for her physical attributes, but then realizing he’s not in a league with the competing gentlemen, decides he can be her friend.
If everyone who wants you tonight should all of a sudden drop by
You know they’d have to form a line on the right
And me, I wouldn’t bother to try
In this song, South presents himself to the woman as having (when called for) honorable intentions and being a friend worthy of her trust. It’s hardly a conventional love song – after all, South was at his best when distilling his observations on the duplicitous world we struggle with daily. So on “All Nite Lover, All Day Friend,” South allows his world-weariness to color his perspective on fulfilling desires. Still, he may get this woman; his patience and concern might win her over. Call it winning at love incrementally.
Nearly a full page of the March 29, 1973 Rolling Stone was devoted to Charlie Gillette’s review of A Look Inside. The review’s headline proclaimed “A new, unslick Joe South.” Approval like Gillette’s back in the day would usually generate interest in an album and lead to impressive sales. But not with A Look Inside. In fact, it was difficult finding a copy of the album even in South’s hometown. In a way, that gave credence to what South had alluded to in another of the album’s finest songs, “I’m A Star.” Anytime he’s spotted, South can hear someone whisper, “He’s the one who recorded ‘Games People Play.'” When A Look Inside was released, it hadn’t been that long since South’s Grammy-winning song filled the airwaves. But less than four years can be a lifetime in a what-have-you-done-for-me lately business. And so the public thought of him as a has-been, ignoring that even with all his struggles, Joe South was still a great artist. The proof is in A Look Inside: a career peak, an exceptional work, particularly for an erstwhile “star.”