Monday, October 22, 2007

Innervisions, Stevie Wonder

This is the first in a series of articles I am writing as homage to the music of my life. Because I began listening to recordings in 1964, most of my experience is rooted in vinyl recordings (with occasional 8-tracks and cassettes thrown-in); and I am still surprised how the experience of digital media is so different from my memories of analog media.

I hope you enjoy these articles, and that they inspire you to remember the music of your life and celebrate the greatness that was the music industry.

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Motown musicians were not on the vanguard of anti-war music, but they did record songs addressing the war, along with racism and its ancillary problems of poverty, projects, promiscuity and prison.

In 1973, Stevie Wonder released "Innervisions," considered by many, including me, to be his masterpiece, his most important recording. Comprised of songs about love, poverty, societal ills, racism, war, God, drugs, and politics, the album starts strong with "Too High," and rocks steadily through to the closing attack on Richard Nixon ("He's Misstra Know It All").

I was fifteen when the LP was released, and I purchased it immediately that summer, that magical summer of 1973. In those days, albums were released on LP, cassette and 8-Track. Some wealthy folks could afford reel-to-reel technology, but nobody I hung-out with. The LP meant that I was forced to listen to one side of the record, stop, flip the record and listen to the second side. I am certain I am not alone when I say that this meant I would choose one side to listen to more often than the other side.

"Innervisions," however, was a record that begged to be heard straight through. I probably favored side one, because it included "Living for the City" and I new all the words and all the breaks and it was so amazingly radical. But "Higher Ground" was on Side Two, which necessitated listening to both sides.

On "Too High," the opening keyboard riffs harmonizing with background vocals are poetry without words. The bass line is driving while the song remains relatively low-key. The lyrics are rhyming without being nonsensical, and like so many of his arrangements, the blend of harmonica and electric guitar is almost seamless. The song is about being high, getting high, staying high, living high, dying high, and never coming-down; pretty standard content for the times, but presented without being dramatic or obsessive.

"Visions" is a lovely, slow song that if released in 2005 would have been rapped, and would probably work well on a Jay-Z record. Again the lyrics rhyme, but without the tension of forced vocabulary trying to be witty. As a fan of Rodgers & Hart (even at 15 years old) I fell in love with the song-writing style of "standards." Wonder is blind (sight-impaired), sings simply over a couple of guitars, and uses the notion of vision easily and without irony, singing about colors and sights and beauty. "Do we have to find our wings and fly away to the vision in our mind?" "I know that leaves are green, they only turn to brown when autumn comes around." Simple, romantic, visual. Brilliant.

There is no gap before the bass line of "Living For The City" begins. Political songs can be tedious, but I am a fan. This cut is the story of a black family in Mississippi. They are poor, but they work hard. Their clothes are old and used, but they are clean. It is a long way to school, but they are educated and smart. The underlying themes of segregation, separate but equal education, racist labor practices, and an economy rigged against black people were not historical references; they were still very real in 1973 from Biloxi to Boston, from Los Angeles to New York. In the song, the son makes his way to New York City (" . . . just as I pictured it! Skyscrapers and everything. . . . ") where, on his first day in town, he is caught up in a police sweep of street drug users at Port Authority near Times Square. He is innocent, of course, but is arraigned, tried and sentenced (as most young black men are) to five years in prison. The bitterness in the song is engendered by racism in America. The song is not a fairy tale or an exaggeration, and in many ways is as valid a statement on the selective enforcement of drug laws in 2007 as it was in 1973. Though interrupted by the dialog of arrest and imprisonment, Wonder manages to get right back in the groove to bring the song to a tense, melodic crescendo. The song won a Grammy for best R&B single.

The tension of "Living for the City" is relieved by the beautiful love song "Golden Lady," and like the previous transition, there is no gap between the songs. A solo piano leads to a standard early-70s soul sound. The simple lyrics are a straight-forward love song. I never understood why this cut wasn't a charting single. Maybe if it had been sung by Lou Rawls, or another singer with a deeper soul sound, it may have garnered more attention. Wonder's is a pop voice, and does not really have the richness of the world's great soul singers.

The album's anti-war song, "Higher Ground" opens side two. A hit single that climbed to #4 on the pop charts, it has been covered by rock bands over the years and is totally relevant in the 21st century. This is a dance song whose message can be ignored by the ignorant, and can rock the socially conscious unlike most other message songs of the era. "Higher Ground" is one of my all-time favorite songs.

I never quite got "Jesus Children of America" in my teen years. It is an attack on religious zealotry, and then an attack the futility drug abuse.

Are you hearing, praying, feeling what you say inside?"

Are you standing for everything you talk about?"

Tell me junkie . . . Are you happy when you stick a needle in your vein?"

and then ends with the prayers:

Jesus died on the cross for you."

Mother Mary feels so much pain looking at him."

I need you Jesus."

In 1973, I was not a religious person, and I tended to shy away from music that was religious. Wonder is able to sing about God, Jesus, Mary, hope, drugs, desperation, dishonesty, and many spiritual conundrums without sounding preachy, Christian, or even religious. Is this his attitude, his tone of voice, or is it his song-writing skills?

Is "Jesus Children of America" a self-criticism, a personal plea for deliverance from the hell of addiction?

"All in Love Is Fair" is the weakest cut on the record. The lyrics are sophomoric and predictable, but the song is not unlistenable. It is leaps and bounds better than many other popular soul and R&B songs of the era. But when writers write about writers and their pens ("A writer takes his pen to write the words again that all in love is fair.") they have really gotten lazy. He can really turn a lyrical twist, but I find this particular attempt to be lacking. Some of the greatest songwriters write about writing, so it is not a crime against creativity, just a sort of cheap trick that has been used by some of the best. Unlike other cuts on the record, the precious poesy of this cut leaves me waiting for the next song to begin, which is easier to remedy in these days of digital media than it was when I had to lift the needle from the vinyl and find the groove that separated the songs.

"Don't You Worry 'bout a Thing" also placed in the Top 20 of the Pop Charts, making a final count of three Top 20 singles from nine songs. An impressive feat. Most recently, "Don't You Worry" was covered by John Legend. Opening with an amusing Hispanic rap replete with maracas, and a list of countries he's visited including "I-rock, I-ran," it is not the lyrics that make this a great song, it is the singing. Wonder shows-off his pipes and skills with pop-py scat singing and harmonizing; and the mixing of the background vocals is a precursor to the chaotic production of later artists like Lauryn Hill and other 21st century R&B artists.

"He's Misstra Know It All" almost doesn't fit on the record and almost seems like an after-thought, but it does work as a closing piece. It has always been said that Wonder wrote this song about then-President Richard Nixon, but most of the lyrics are generic enough that it could be about the Rockefellers, Bechtels, and Hunts of that time, or the Trumps, Waltons, and Romneys of today. The only real hint that it is about the nation's leader is this set of lyrics that reference our land and taxes:
If we had less of him, don't you know we'd have a better land, he's Misstra Know-It-All.

So give a hand to the man, although you've given out as much as you can, he's Misstra Know-It-All."

Nixon was an easy target in 1973, and Wonder's anti-homage ranks as one of the finest examples of popular opinion. It is probably second only to David Bowie's soulful lyric in "Young Americans" that asks us to remember Nixon and his connection to the state of our economy in the mid-70s.

Clocking in at 44:16 in its CD form (which adds tiny gaps between songs on "Side One" that had no gaps on vinyl), this is the fastest three-quarters of an hour in pop music history. The songs fly by and work perfectly one right after another.

The production is almost flawless, with my only complaint being the rough endings of some of the cuts on "Side Two" which were imperceptible in analog form but are irritating in digital form. I don't know if it is simple to fade-out a song, but it sure was a sloppy process on this record.

Innervisions won Album of the Year and Non-Classical Engineering at the Grammys, and "Living for the City" won for Best R&B Song.

If you have not ever owned this record, you are doing yourself a disservice. Buy it now and listen to it four or five times in a row. If you won't buy it, do yourself a favor and borrow it from the library. Everyone should hear this record all the way through at least once.

Track List:
Too High (4:36)
Visions (5:23)
Living for the City (7:22)
Golden Lady (4:58)
Higher Ground (3:42)
Jesus Children of America (4:10)
All in Love Is Fair (3:41)
Don't You Worry 'bout a Thing (4:44)
He's Misstra Know It All (5:35)

Total Playing Time: 44:16

Produced by: Stevie Wonder, Robert Margouleff and Malcolm Cecil

Recorded at: Record Plant (LA) and Media Sound (NYC)

Date of release: August 3, 1973

Label: Tamla

Stevie Wonder Bass, Harmonica, Piano, Drums, Keyboards, Vocals, Moog Synthesizer, Multi Instruments, Fender Rhodes, Moog Bass, Fender Electric Piano, Moog Bells
Ralph Hammer Acoustic Guitar
Dean Parks Acoustic Guitar
David T. Walker Electric Guitar
Clarence Bell Organ
Robert Margouleff Moog Synthesizer
Malcolm Cecil Bass
Scott Edwards Bass
Willie Weeks Bass
Larry Latimer Percussion, Conga, Background Vocals
Yusuf Roahman Percussion, Shaker
Sheila Wilkerson Percussion, Bongos, Gourd
Tasha Thomas Background Vocals
Jim Gilstrap Background Vocals
Lani Groves Background Vocals

All Music Guide
Official Stevie Wonder Site

Dick Mac Recommends:

Stevie Wonder

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