Listen to this track by British singer-songwriter, poet, essayist, and all-around musical genre defier Labi Siffre. It’s “Watch Me”, a single on the Polydor label released onto the UK charts with a top thirty placement in 1972. That year, he would also release his third album, Crying Laughing Loving Lying.
Before his recording career as a solo artist began in the 1970, Labi Siffre was a jobbing musician in the jazz clubs of Soho in London in the 1960s. His music would be delivered in two separate stages. First, he would put out six albums from 1970 to 1975. Later, he would retire as a recording artist, only to return in the mid-eighties, and make four more records by the end of the nineties. His work would be covered by acts ranging from Madness, who had a top ten hit with Siffre’s “It Must Be Love”, to Rod Stewart who would record “Crying Laughing Loving Lying”. His music has since been sampled by Eminem, Kanye West, Jay Z, and Primal Scream.
In this early part of his career, he would become known in England as a writer of great depth and dimension to be compared to many of his contemporaries who had come out of similar scenes including Joan Armatrading, Cat Stevens, and Al Stewart. This song is a prime example of what he was able to do; write towering love songs full of beaming optimism without any hint of soppiness or hackneyed sentiment of any kind. He would also make a point of breaking down all kinds of barriers, both of a musical and of a personal nature.
Labi Siffre specialized in writing songs about human connection that went above and beyond the work of many at the time. This is one of them, a shimmering gem that has an almost childlike quality, balanced against its mature lyrical eloquence. Musically, it touches on a strain of folk-jazz, with a hint of psychedelia, thanks to Siffre’s acoustic guitar lines adorned in layers of phasing that give the whole song a dreamlike quality. This is not to mention his voice, which is a keening tenor that carries a hint of Sam Cooke, while also being distinct without the comparison.
During a time when diversity was not as well integrated or accepted in Britain as it arguably is today, Siffre was openly gay, the visible son of immigrants, and an atheist. His work on this song and on others is a celebration of love and acceptance during a time when it was commonly believed that gay men were nothing more than social deviants. As such, Siffre’s songs have a certain social undercurrent and importance. Even this awareness of the times is secondary to his sense of artistry. On this song, it is love that is the strongest force there is to stand in an unjust world.
It also communicates a certain optimism, as well as a lightness in tone and feel. It is an invitation to intimacy and to connection to another, as well as to one’s own identity. It is a celebratory and life-affirming statement no matter what the sexual orientation, gender, or cultural background. But, it has a particular value to those having to conceal their natures in a culture that was not ready to accept that love know no cultural boundaries. “Watch Me” reveals that art doesn’t have to be po faced and solemn to be important or powerful, and that love songs can be political, and still be primarily about the love of another, and love of self:
Watch me when I’m on my own
See me falling like a stone*
Come and be the things you are
I am still falling, but not quite so far
“Come and be the things you are” in particular in a powerful line, an act that was not quite so easy then for Siffre and for those who had had to hide themselves in order to avoid persecution, unable to love whom they chose in the open. For many in many parts of the world, it is not so easy now, either. But besides all that, “come and be the things you are” is at the heart of every relationship we seek, no matter who we are. If ever there was a secret to a happy life, surely this is it.
And for more insight still, read this interview with Labi Siffre at The New Humanist.
[Update, March 8, 2017: *Originally I had transcribed the line in the lyrics above as “see me falling like the snow”. But Labi Siffre saw and read (and was appreciative of!) this post, and set me straight via Twitter. Thanks, Mr. Siffre!]