THERE IS Amma, who travels the world, offering hugs. And there is Ram Dass, who reminds us to live in the heart, not the head. There are countless others—spiritual, artistic, or otherwise—whom we seek in times of need.
For me, there is Charles Bradley.
I was in the midst of a motorcycle trip. I made my way to Denver, in part to see a girl who I wasn't sure wanted to see me. But also because I knew I wanted to see Charles.
I arrived to find the girl upset and the show sold out. Both had been that way for some time. I left, riding east, into the barren high plains. Hoping to flee not only myself, but also the miserable mess I'd made. After 200 miles, I stopped for a drink.
Then the word came: There was a ticket with my name on it in Denver. I jumped back on my bike, blasting another 200 miles in what became a 400-mile loop through the scorching 95-degree heat. Suddenly I was no longer despondent. In the midst of storming confusion and self-loathing, the clouds broke. I found energy. Purpose. Confidence. I had a place to be.
I arrived three hours later. The club was dark, cramped, and sweaty. The room was too small for the soul singer's ever-growing audience, as was the stage for his seven-piece band. Anticipation crackled, and than the crowd cheered wildly toward the still-empty stage.
Charles and His Extraordinaires let the fever build for an hour or more. The Extraordinaires went on first, cracking like a whip with crisp kicks and shining leads, momentum and big-band thermo-dynamite. When Charles Bradley emerged, we shook, pulsed, shrieked, fawned. We reached out to touch him. He opened his arms.
The room swelled. Problems became trivial then ceased to be problems at all. Charles made it clear: "We are all brothers and sisters"; "Just give love a chance!"
Perhaps in my words, by this delivery, it may sound trite. But from Charles, these declarations radiate, taking transcendental flight.
He opens, he connects, he beams, he absorbs and reflects. With nothing but total love. Burning, he cries, he shouts, he looks deep into our eyes. The room tumbles. God shines down. Couples kiss, friends caress, and wayward souls glimpse eternal hope. They glimpse it through this man, who for 60 years got the ever-loving shit kicked out of him at the alternating hands of poverty and obscurity, who now travels the world towing not a hint of bitterness or vengeance, only blasting unconditional, all-encompassing, ever-learning love.
From the stage, Charles steps down into the audience, which quickly envelops him. Eagerly, tenderly, totally, they exchange words, hugs, sweat, and deep gazes. Some can't get enough, coming back three, four, five times. Others now seem to float. One woman breaks down completely, falling back into the arms of her man, with tears of joy, catharsis, and uncorked sorrow streaming down her cheeks.
The scene repeats, once, twice more. Encores and embraces. Unwilling or unable to let go.