There Comes a Time to Wake Up to What's Happening

On Tony Williams, revelation, love, and what time it is.

When a wordless lyrical optimism gathering in the drum as demand yields to letters, loved words, the rhythm’s idealism doubles into a serendipity so coiled with itself like a sea shell you can hold close to the ear to stretch the tones into limbo and limber upward spiraling moans. Confession comes from this reluctant awakening piercing the dense yet taught beat of premonition. Then Tony’s Williams interrupts himself like a child tugging at his mother’s hem, but he tugs at his own boundary instead, dissolves it, and ends the suspense between one version of himself and another by uttering a whisper-scream so wistful and blues-souled  it aches and quiets his own drum solo— there comes a time to wake up to what’s happening. 

Nothing is more satisfying for me as a listener to what is called jazz music than sitting through a seemingly endless purgatory of improvised instrumentation onto which I’ve projected all of my spirit’s unspoken musings, only to have my own internal monologue interrupted with unexpected lyrics, the music having gone from restive and budding to bloom. This is the experience that Tony Williams offers us on his understated masterpiece, “There Comes a Time.” Tucked into a foreboding drum sequence that rides the tension of an unspoken emotional outburst ever resisting itself, the temperament and beat of gritting teeth seething at a target, is this impossible lightness, foil to the sense the drums insinuate, that the time of reckoning will never come, that we are submerged in the formality of the beat and cannot escape its sweet turmoil to dream beyond such strict enforcement. 

Fittingly, in its most deliberate release, “There Comes a Time” arrives on Williams’1971 album, Ego. Fittingly because the song is anthem for the most subtle and sublime version of ego death, the kind that leaves us frolicking, relishing indulgently in what’s left behind for a new, clearer vision. Music often offers us permission to reinvent ourselves within it but “There Comes a Time” is permission, even urging, to reinvent ourselves acapella, with or without instrumental accompaniment, perhaps even as fugitives from the music that would crowd our speaking. The lyrics arrive as a modest acoustic miracle, a possession, they startle even the singer. The same man, the same athlete hammering out all of his angst with the limbo stick called the drum stick, flips that stick it into wand, wanders away from the struggle to keep time, and releases all that to discuss the infinite jest that makes the end of love the beginning of love, the end of time the beginning of time. It’s as if a machine is resetting, reprogramming itself. I love you more than what’s happening, it sputters, and later… I love you more when you’re spiteful… I love you more when it’s over. A sigh as song of the unsung for all of us who know the endless cosmic love he’s exorcising and inviting back with these hauntingly ambivalent phrases, sung like prayers, lotus mouthed and entirely vulnerable, fugitive from and breathtakingly loyal to their source. 

There comes a time to get out of what’s happening the phrase that dangles at the heart of it all, begging the self in the song forward, begging the love in the song forward also. And the would-be clash between the timidity of the singing and the aggression of the drums which preceded it and then accompanied it, becomes synchronicity, destiny, where the secular and the sacred meet in a ritual of ego death and resurrection. This is maybe, in the dark meandering myth of today, on the cusp of a solstice between eclipses at the endless end of a pandemic at the beginning of some other nameless societal crisis of reentry, where so much of the collective ecstasy is also dread, so much of the passion also disgust and doubt, maybe this is the song of now, of a procession of intangible nows wherein everything and nothing changes and the changes mingle hesitancy and urgency so completely they defy and betray even themselves. I love you more than what’s happening, Tony Williams promises, most sincerely, before beating back his own tears with Legba’s limbo stick of justice. If we could all manage, through the portal that this song is, to remember that we love ourselves and each other more than we hate the steep vicissitudes of our society, the chaos and dysfunction and obliterative ease of recovery; if we could manage to transmute our dread with this memory of the past and future as lyric, and then beat that transmutation into the music the way Tony Williams does, maybe we’ll remember what’s really happening together,  and get out of it, together. 

I don’t remember the first time I heard this song because every time feels like the first time, every version feels like the best version. What I recall most about encountering it is this associative image it conjures, a combination of the live performance footage, the album cover, and the account of how Tony Williams left the planet— this image of the drummer/singer’s heart exploding to express its full capacity, exceeding this universe, while he whispers calmly like a machine resetting there comes a time to get out of what’s happening.