The Infinite Jukebox: Otis Redding’s ‘(Sittin’ on) The Dock of a Bay’

Some songs create their own space and time around them, inspired by but detached from the circumstances in which they are created. Sam Cooke’s ‘A Change is Gonna Come’, with its overt political foresight, it’s understanding that things just could not carry on that way any longer is one, and Otis Redding’s ‘(Sittin’ on the) Dock of a Bay’, recorded when accident was so soon to rob him of the chance to make more music, is another.
Neither man outlived by much the song that would render them immortal. Both would die violent deaths, as did many men of their colour in those times, and each are remembered for songs that looked far beyond those lives, Cooke regarding a future that would follow him, Redding a past that had brought him to a point of stillness from which he could reflect.
‘Dock of a Bay’ was different from anything else Redding recorded. Redding was a soul man, with an incredible voice and energy, but for this valedictory song he turns all of that off. The beat, the rhythm, the horns his audience expected are all missing. Instead, there are sound effects, the sound of a shore, gulls, the sea, over a quiet, reflective pulse that owes more to San Francisco psychedelia than deep south soul.
Though Redding identifies his setting as the dock of a bay, watching the tide roll away, watching the boats head out into an ocean whose shores cannot be seen, though he identifies himself as having travelled from his origins, his home in Georgia, travelled 2,000 miles, he has nowhere ele to go.
Yes, he’s journeyed, but this journey has taken him nowhere. The land he has travelled has changed, exactly as Sam Cooke said would be coming, but it doesn’t seem to have taken him any further. He has travelled in body, but wherever he has gone, he feels the same, and what is around him feels the same.
A few years on from Cooke, Redding sings, like a man in mortal pain, ‘Looks like nothing’s gonna change’. Everything still remains the same. People demand things of him, but he cannot do what they ask, for he has ten times the demand, and all want something different and he cannot pull himself in so many directions at once so his only option is to remain the same.
In America, the lost and the lonely and the helpless have always gone west, and have always ended up in California, where there is nowhere further to go. This is where Otis Redding has arrived. In front of him, others are leaving. He can see them, but in the meantime he’s resting his bones, full of a loneliness that won’t leave him alone. He’s hollow. he’ll just go (on) sitting on the dock of a bay, wasting time.
Listen, not to the words but to the voice. All the things Redding was – the deep soul man, the performer, the fighter, the lover, the dynamite – are absent. Whisper it lightly but this is almost Redding the hippy, borrowing some of the trappings of the white music in this year when things are astir among them. In their Revolution there has to be a place for Otis Redding and his folk. In this space of time, to rest, to kick back and think about who he is now, and what he will do with his music to further those ends, Redding’s voice is weary, alone. It is almost as if he has a premonition.
On a shore overlooking the Pacific, whistling for his own, quiet amusement, the song fades out. But that whistling is also a moment of resignation, a replacement for further words reflecting his thoughts, out here, questioning where and why he is and having no answers.
Sam Cooke was killed by a motel owner’s bullet in debatable circumstances. Otis Redding died in a plane crash three days after recording this song, without ever finishing it to his satisfaction. What we have is what was finished off by his co-writer Steve Cropper, the guitarist for Booker T and The MGs.
What either man would have made of a longer time in which to grow is unknowable. Cooke was spooked by his vision of the future and only ever sung his song once after recording it. I do not know if Redding ever had the time to sing his masterpiece for the audience he wanted to hear it. I believe, I wish, I hope, that he would have come back stronger, raging with the defiance that was required of the era.
The dock was never really going to be his home, if time had but given him the time. We listen to him, moving away from us into a temporary peace, a moment he had earned for himself, wondering, as we all did in that year of 1967, what future we would create, when we were ready. I cannot believe that with Otis Redding in it it wouldn’t have been better.

2 thoughts on “The Infinite Jukebox: Otis Redding’s ‘(Sittin’ on) The Dock of a Bay’

    1. I respect Redding’s work withut necessarily being into it. I had some of the CDs once, second hand and cheap, including Otis Blue or however it was exactly caused, but that was not enough in my wheelhouse. Dock of a Bay was something else entirely: even a deaf man would know that.

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