“We dig repetition in the music and we’re never going to lose it” sang Mark E Smith. He probably didn’t have tunes like this in mind, although knowing the contrary bastard, maybe he did. The sound of long hot summer nights and slow dances you probably never had; a perfect antidote to the January blues. Robert Wyatt did an astonishing version on his covers album that’s also worth checking.
We’re indebted to Citizen Smith for filling us in with the story behind this track. Perhaps this explains the malevolence that lurks just underneath the saccharine soul. Nile Rodgers explained it in an interview with Mojo in 2013:
“At Last I Am Free is a song that was in my life well before Chic. We played it in one of my early rock bands. I wrote At Last I Am Free only a few months after I first picked up guitar. I was 16-and-a-half, maybe 17 years old. It was a hard rock ballad, always a ballad, very Led Zeppeliny kind of thing. John Bonham was a huge hero of mine. Led Zep were just massive in my life when I was a kid so I wanted that big epic rock thing. And that’s what At Last I Am Free was.
When we turned it into an R&B song we kept the chorus but Bernard was most responsible for rewriting the verse, because I couldn’t do it. At Last I Am Free I wrote when I was in the Black Panthers. A good friend of mine, a young guy who had just joined our section, we were hippies and we went to Central Park and dropped LSD. And, er, he had what was a pretty good trip until the cops started beating him up.
He took off all of his clothes and was running around naked in Central Park. It was daylight, thousands of people there. I heard this huge commotion and a blood-curdling scream, and I ran over and what I saw in this crowd was my friend. The police had beaten him to a bloody pulp. But he felt no pain, he was screaming but I think he was screaming more from the bad trip. The cops couldn’t subdue him. They had horses, the whole bit. It was very brutal and violent.
Anyway, in Central Park they have a police precinct inside the park and so I pretty much knew that’s where they were gonna take him and so I started to walk towards that precinct. And every time I took a step the buildings took a step with me. For hours and hours, I would take a step, the building would take a step, I would take a step, the building would take a step… and I was walking for what seemed like an eternity.
Finally, I got to the edge of Central Park and the words that kept resonating in my head were, “At Last I Am Free, At Last I Am Free…” Now I gotta go help my comrade, my brother. He was covered in blood and it had started to coagulate and dry on these crusty bandages on his head. It was horrible. And what was funny was that he didn’t even remember it. He knows it’s true because many people have corroborated it and he did wake up with bandages, but he doesn’t remember being beaten, he doesn’t remember taking off all his clothes, none of that”
Citizen also points out that this song features on the aptly-titled compilation Sugar and Poison, which pulls together a bunch of these sweet, soulful cuts written against a backdrop of hard drugs and harder living. Unsurprisingly, Sly Stone features as well, the master of double-edged tenderness.