By Daniel Tarade
Otis Redding, the king of soul. The most famous song recorded by Redding is also the most tragic. In the days before a fatal plane crash, Redding was still in studio recording (Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay. A work in progress, the song nonetheless became the first posthumous single to reach #1 on the Billboard Charts. It is an amazing song, but also one that is often interpreted as an ode to relaxation, to melancholy. That is not the case. Rather, the song chronicles a broken man mired in loneliness and depression. Despite its simple, poppy melody, the lyrics betray a moroseness so deep. And although highlighting a few choice lines would get that point across, there is a more subtle lyricism at play. Through repetitiveness and minute adjustments to common verses, the song conveys a spiralling into oblivion.
The first stanza;
Sittin' in the mornin' sun
I'll be sittin' when the evenin' comes
Watchin' the ships roll in
Then I watch 'em roll away again
It is striking how often Redding repeats his words, particularly when describing his own actions. I have taken the liberty of bolding all phrases and words that Redding repeats in the song. In embracing repetition, Redding juxtaposes the cyclical nature of the surrounding world with his own stagnation and lack of momentum. A world where the ships come and go, the sun rises and sets, and Redding, moored to the dock, sits and watches the world circle around.
I'm sittin' on the dock of the bay
Watchin' the tide, roll away
I'm sittin' on the dock of the bay
First, the chorus continues the description of the cyclical nature of Redding’s dock life. Much like the ships, here the tide rolls in and out. Yet, the chorus also provides the first hint of resentment. Redding does not prescribe sitting as enjoying or relaxing or rejuvenating. Instead, he feels that he is “wastin’ time.” Although an overworked populace often fantasizes about wasting time, the rest of the song makes clear that the dock of the bay is not a paradise but a prison.
I left my home in Georgia
And I headed for the Frisco Bay
'Cause I've got nothin' to live for
Looks like nothin's gonna come my way, so
It is in the second stanza that we find out how Redding came to sit on the dock of the bay. The tragedy is vague. A spectre stalks Redding across the continental United States, displacing him from his “home in Georgia.” Again, any argument that this song is uplifting or mere melancholy fails to account for the following bleak prescriptions. Redding repeats his words; he has “nothin’ to live for” and “nothing’s gonna come [his] way.” Accompanying his constant sitting is a constant misery. The despair he feels provides a metaphorical weight to the San Francisco Bay where Redding spends his days sitting. A view of the Golden Gate Bridge, famed landmark and implement in hundreds of suicides, must be melancholy. As an aside, Redding actually spent his time on the Richardson Bay (some ten miles from San Francisco) with no view of the Golden Gate Bridge. However, co-writer and guitarist Steve Cropper, not present during Redding’s stay in the Bay area, “always envisioned a ship going under the Golden Gate Bridge.” It is Cropper who contributed these lines.
Looks like nothin's gonna change
Everything seems to stay the same
I can't do what ten people tell me to do
So I guess I'll remain the same
The penultimate stanza begins with a line that closely mirrors the closing line of the last stanza. From Redding’s perspective, it “looks like nothin’s gonna change.” Increasingly ecliptic, Redding disparages “everything,” which “seems to stay the same,” but also resigns to “remain[ing] the same” in light of the conflicting advice he receives. The repetitiveness of the song begets a feeling of hopelessness, of being quagmired. How can you expect your life to change if the song you are singing keeps circling the drain?
I'm sittin' here restin' my bones
And this loneliness won't leave me alone
This two thousand miles I roamed
Just to make this dock my home
The finale. After describing his inner state, Redding comes back to the dock of the bay. He does not paint a picture of relaxation. Redding is “sittin’… restin’ [his] bones,” not his mind or his soul. Only his physical substrate finds relief from the exertion of life. Everything else aches. The plaintive peak arrives with a pang; “this loneliness won’t leave me alone.” After failing to heed the advice of others and running away from home, Redding feels alone. And all he wants to feel is nothing. Numbness. Redding did not journey for two thousand miles to find himself. He “roamed” passively to lose himself, “just to make this dock my home.” Remember, Redding “left [his] home in Georgia.” To now describe a dock as “home” suggests a complete severance with his past. And not a pleasant one either. The use of “just” brings to mind complete resignation, which is continued in the final refrain.
Now I'm just sittin' on the dock of the bay
Watchin' the tide roll away
Sittin' on the dock of the bay
I'm wastin' time
In earlier verses, Redding is “sittin’ on the dock of the bay” while he closes by “just sittin’ on the dock of the bay.” A degradation occurs with the passage of time. Perhaps Redding felt a momentary relief upon first sitting down, but this was later replaced with surrender. With the plethora of repetition already noted in the song, exceptions are also gleaned. In the first lines, Redding describes watching the ships roll in and an implied rising of the morning sun. Positive connotations can be drawn from those early moments, naked of song’s overall narrative. Now, all that there is left to do is watch the tide roll away. With one final cry, Redding exclaims the realization that he is “wastin’ time.” Not that time is being wasted, but that “I,” Otis Redding, have wasted it. This is not the story of a stoic person advocating acceptance or overcoming tragedy. This is the story of a scared, lonely person festering within a life devoid of meaning.
So what about the whistling? There is debate about whether the whistling was ad-libbed or intentional. Since Redding whistled on his final three takes, the popular story of Redding forgetting the words he wanted to sing and instead deciding to whistle seems unlikely. Accepting that the fading whistle was intentional, it can be interpreted as an instinctual, child-like response to overwhelming sadness. Perhaps Redding succeeded in feeling nothingness at last.