Certain Songs #1183: Moby Grape – “I Am Not Willing”

Album: Moby Grape ’69
Year: 1969

On the shortlist of Prettiest Songs Ever Recorded, Cosmic Psychedelic Country Division, “I Am Not Willing” isn’t just the highlight of Moby Grape’s third album, 1969’s Moby Grape ’69 (nice!), but the greatest song they ever wrote, sporting a melody that is both as old and as deep as the mountains, while remaining fresh today as it was 50 years ago.

I mean, after all, I bought the the two-CD Moby Grape Vintage compilation back in 1993 because I wanted to have their classic debut on CD — and they knew it, as the first disc is all Moby Grape plus outtakes and live versions, leaving their other three records to share the second disc — so when “I Am Not Willing” showed up near the end of the second disc, I was completely gobsmacked. How wasn’t I prepared for this?

Never doubting
Always faithful
She returns

She says she loves me
And I could always
Come to her

She can’t imagine how
Another lover
Coulda make her turn

Musically, “I Am Not Willing” is incredibly simple: anchored by a slow, sad piano riff / drumbeat that is so rhythmic and repetitive that it could be a sample — and it should be, because I would love the fuck out of any song that sampled it (Beyonce, call me!!) — Peter Lewis sweetly sings about how utterly happy he is that the woman who left him wants to get back together.

And I’m so grateful
I’m still willing
To have her home

I’m so grateful
I’m still willing
To have her home

By the time they get to the first chorus, a guitar has snuck into the song, in tears the whole time, and there’s a high harmony on the second repetition of the chorus. All of which are belying the optimism and hope of the lyrics. Until it gets blown to hell.

Said she loves me
She won’t forget me
Then she’s gone

She thinks that later
We could pick up the pieces
And carry on

And I’d forgive her
Still not suspecting
She could be wrong

Uh-oh. During all of this, Peter Lewis hasn’t changed his tone one little bit, even the guitar solo he tosses in after each chorus is as short as it is sad as it is lovely, but it’s a tiny bit longer as it takes us into the fade after that second chorus, which let us know, as per the title of the song, things have indeed changed.

Now I’m so grateful
I’m no longer willing
To have her home

Now I’m so grateful
I’m no longer willing
To have her home

Like “You Don’t Miss Your Water” and “Train From Kansas City,” I think that “I Am Not Willing” is one of those songs that is impossible to ruin with a cover version, and while the covers didn’t really start until after the release of Vintage — noone noticed this song back in 1969 — there have been a few, from artists as diverse as Wilco, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and Lloyd Cole.

But while they are all worthwhile, none of them completely capture the calm despair that Peter Lewis infuses the original.

“I Am Not Willing”

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