Seconds
Sam Cooke: Rome (Wasn’t Built in a Day)



stylus Magazine's Seconds column examines those magic moments that arise when listening to a piece of music that strikes that special chord inside. That pounding drum intro; a clanging guitar built-up to an anthemic chorus; that strange glitchy noise you've never quite been able to figure out; that first kiss or heartbreak; a well-turned rhyme that reminds you of something in your own past so much, it seems like it was written for you—all of those little things that make people love music. Every music lover has a collection of these Seconds in his or her head; these are some of ours.

A lesser vocalist would have sung it in one of two ways. He might have left the "o" open longer, extending the vowel, and possibly adding a brief kick to the melody. He also might have clipped off the word, hesitant to add a fraction of a beat to a closed-mouth syllable. Sam Cooke held the word "Rome" to its full length, but he paused on the "m." On that pause, which you can't sing along to without closing your eyes, Cooke manages to paint nearly all the shades of losing love, without sacrificing his poise.

In that way, "Rome (Wasn't Built in a Day)" depicts a rare character: a man reduced almost to begging, but with no loss of confidence. When Cooke (or the narrator of our dramatic monologue) repeats the first four phrases of the chorus, he doesn't stumble or search for words. He strolls through his conversation because he's patient. The song's form and presentation reinforce the idea that great works—including the relationship under discussion—take time.

That confidence and patience allows the song to move along fairly briskly, cheery enough that someone giving it a background listen might not realize the crisis the narrator finds himself in. The upbeat movement of the music underscores Cooke's relaxed pacing and, consequently, his self-assurance. Far from despair, he’s enough at ease that melody springs from him. He knows that it's common sense that things are going to be okay, and he slips in another hackneyed (but non-titular) phrase to show it: "Where there's life, there's hope."

That same cliché reveals Cooke's underlying concern (not fear or anxiety), because the phrase usually applies to people with the last vestige of either life or hope. Cooke hasn't reached that point, but he can see it on the horizon; you can picture his partner with one hand holding a suitcase and the other on a doorknob. When he references Romeo and Juliet, the slightest crack of seriousness shines through the comfortable talk. They had hope, too.

Even so, it's true that Rome wasn't built in a day, and if couple of wolf-raised brats could erect an empire, Sam Cooke can make his beloved give it a few more weeks. He knows—absolutely knows—that she'll come back. Or at least pause on the threshold, leaning against the jamb to consider. That's the beautiful sight, because when that suitcase touches the floor, Cooke's bought himself some time.

Which is just what we hear when he just noticeably stretches that "mmm." The hum of love renewed and disaster averted. We also hear the acknowledgement that bags have been packed, when the heart starts to constrict before deciding it's nothing to worry about, at least not yet. Underneath it all, we hear the sigh of Juliet as she finally gets to rest with her Romeo. Cooke's phrasing on the title line is that peaceful and still very much alive, acknowledging hope and recognizing gravity, but knowing only trust.


By: Justin Cober-Lake
Published on: 2006-04-12
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