Few songs in pop history have been as evocative of the place their title describes as Otis Redding‘s “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.” The wave sound effects that begin the song set the tone right away, and then the steady roll of the drums and acoustic guitar take it from there. The bass rumbles soft and low, like the bellow of a cargo ship off in the distance, while the horns slowly rise and fade just beyond the horizon.
It’s the most serene, impressionistic three-minute pop song you’ve ever heard. It’s also incredibly depressing, and maybe even a little bit frightening.
“(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,” which was released as a single 50 years ago this Monday (Jan. 8), was co-written by Redding and M.G.’s guitarist Steve Cropper as the soul legend was looking to expand his audience to the pop and rock worlds, a crossover he’d begun in earnest with his incendiary performance at the Monterey Pop Festival in the summer of 1967. He was inspired by The Beatles’ recently released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band to add newfound detail and depth to the lyrics and production of his music, and he started writing “Dock,” appropriately enough, while on the houseboat of famed rock promoter Bill Graham.
Because of its laconic vibe, accessible melody and whistling outro — which Redding didn’t originally intend to keep — manager Phil Walden worried the song would be seen as “too pop” for his artist, who’d made his name largely on fiery, horn-led stomps and frenzied vocal performances. And “pop” the song certainly was — but it was also possibly Redding’s richest composition to date, a mix of blissful Stax stillness and profound existential anxiety that showed a complex level of contemplative soul previously unexplored on the pop charts.
From its opening lines, the song finds Redding stuck in a Mobius strip of mundanity: “Sittin’ in the morning sun/ I’ll be sittin’ when the evening come/ Watching the ships roll in, and then I watch them roll away again.” The lyric could be written off as a country-fried ode to simple-life contentment, but Otis grows increasingly despairing as the song goes on: “I’ve had nothing to live for/ And looks like nothing’s gonna come my way” he moans on the second verse, giving way to “Sittin’ here resting my bones/ And this loneliness won’t leave me alone” on the third and final verse.
Indeed, the song could be read as Otis venting his frustration at folks like his manager telling him to stay in his R&B lane, and curtail his Fab Four-sized ambitions. A recent Rolling Stone history on “Dock” reports that not only were Walden and Stax co-founder Jim Stewart wary of Otis’ new direction, but his own wife, Zelma Redding, was left unimpressed: “Oh, God, you are changing,” she told him in dismay. “It’s time for my to change in my music,” he insisted in response. Given all this, it’s hard not to read the song’s climactic bridge — “Looks like nothing’s gonna change/ Everything still remains the same/ I can’t do what ten people tell me to do/ So I guess I’ll remain the same!” as a glum lament over the lack of support he received while attempting to evolve his sound.
That might even be the optimistic way of interpreting the lyric, which when read out of context comes off nearly like the pop equivalent to No Exit, a bitter resignation to an eternity of monotony, without potential for escape. Not that it plays anything like that over its sweetly swaying groove, which lends a sort of lazy nobility to the “Sittin’ on the dock of the bay/ Wasting time” refrain, Otis’ desperation barely breaking through the determinedly placid production. The verses and chorus practically stage a war between singer and song, whether its lasting impression when finished will be one of miserable angst or supreme chill.
The famous whistling outro essentially calls it a draw. Initially, Redding intended the song to feature a sort of rapped ad-lib, but forgot the words he intended to sing and just whistled instead, possibly intending it as a placeholder to be returned to later. The song was infinitely better off for it, though — it’s the only conclusion “Dock of the Bay” could have reached, one that offers no resolution but a sense of continuation, a debate to be settled another day, or not. And as one of the catchiest wordless hooks in the history of recorded music, its early fade out practically taunts you to put the record on again, for another 2:42 of wasted time at the dock of the ‘Frisco Bay.
Of course, “Dock of the Bay” essentially ended up as Redding’s closing statement, due to the plane crash that tragically claimed his life in December of ’67, a month before the song’s release. The song was unmixed at the time of his death; Atlantic Records demanded that Cropper finish it within days to capitalize on the attention surrounding Redding’s demise — which he did, getting the record out to radio DJs by the end of the year.
The ploy worked — “Dock” topped the Billboard Hot 100 in March of ’68, the singer’s first visit even to the chart’s top 20. It was a bitter irony befitting a song of such contradiction: The single that deplored Redding’s inability to change his station ended up breaking him to every audience imaginable, and perhaps stands as his signature song decades later — far too late, of course, for the singer to enjoy the validation. Today, though, the song plays not as a eulogy or a triumph for Redding, but just further confirmation that time rolls on with or without us, while all there is to do is to just sit back and whistle through it.