It sounds like many of your songs were recorded on the first or second take.
Yes, that’s true. When I feel it, I got it ’cause like on “Changes,” I didn’t never know what that song was, never knew who it was or who did it, but Tom Brenneck asked me to do that song.
You weren’t a Black Sabbath fan?
No, I didn’t know who they were, but when I heard the lyrics, they fit me personally and my own personal life, so I didn’t know how to bring it out to my standards the way I feel it.
Did you immediately connect with the song when you first heard it?
The verse that really stuck to me was, “It took so long to realize/That I can still hear her last goodbyes/Now all my days are filled with tears/Wish I could go back and change these years.” Because it was like my mom saying she was sick and she was leaving me and something about that song … I just took the last lyrics and wow. So I got stuck on it. I didn’t really have to “learn” it; it just stuck to my brain.
You performed in New York the night your mother died.
I didn’t want to. Tom came over to the house the day my mother died. I was down in the basement sleeping and my niece said, “Charles, come upstairs.” And I went upstairs and my mom was just like shaking like this, where she was just laying there and you could actually see her leaving the room and I saw her eyes when they went still. And I was learning that song at the same time.
There was a long break in communication between you two, but judging by the documentary on you, things appeared to be better in recent years.
You know what really put a lot of different love on it? I was living in San Francisco in a cheap hotel around 1986 – six dollars a night. My mom got on the Greyhound bus and she came and my landlord said, “Charles, your mother’s downstairs wanting to see you.” She came all the way from Brooklyn, New York, on the Greyhound bus to San Francisco. And I saw that she really … if she came all that way, she has something to say to me. So we talked and we talked.
But you didn’t officially reconnect with her until the early 1990s.
I talked to her on the phone and when I came home on vacation, did work for her and things that she couldn’t do herself. I went home and saw that she had the same refrigerator since I was a kid and I opened it up and all around was nothing but roaches and I said, “Wow, mom.” She said, “Son, I was doing the best I could do.” So I went back to California, went to Sears and said, “I want this refrigerator and I want this stove. I want you to send it to Brooklyn, New York.” She called me up that night and said, “Son, this is not a tear of pain, it’s a tear of joy. I just want to thank you, son.” And from there we started talking … really started talking.
Was there any doubt in your mind that you would perform that night?
I didn’t want to ’cause I was … Wow, I was out of it. I ran down to the basement. I ran outside. I just couldn’t take it ’cause a week before she passed, she said, “Son, mama’s tired. What’re you gonna do when I leave you?” I said, “Mom, I don’t wanna hear that,” but I saw the way she was suffering. Part of me wanted to let go but part of me won’t let go, and I said, “I’m not gonna do that show.” And Tom said, “Charles, you don’t have to do the show.” But I went down to the basement and I couldn’t take the pain. I didn’t know what to do with myself. And she was right upstairs where she passed and I told Tom, “If I stay here, I don’t know what I’m going to do. I’m going to do something crazy. I can’t deal with it. I have to find something for my mind to focus on.” I got the clothes, went to the venue and saw some flowers sitting there and I said, “Oh, they know.”