Gave the People What They Had

Stevie Wonder: The Wonder Years

It was 1971 and Stevie Wonder had just turned 21, but when he reached into the trust that was to hold the estimated $30 million he had earned with such hits as "For Once in My Life," "My Cherie Amour," "I Was Made to Love Her," and "A Place in the Sun," Wonder discovered that Motown Records hadn't been setting aside his share. "Trust fund" is an oxymoron in the music business, and Wonder was given just more than a million dollars for eight years of smash hits.

Rather than take to the courts, in which case Wonder could've siphoned off some of the profits Motown was making with its new sensation, the Jackson 5, Wonder made a deal with Berry Gordy: Keep your money, Mr. Gordy, and give me complete artistic control. In the world of Berry Gordy, a hands-on Svengali who even liked to dress his acts, such a demand was like Oliver Twist asking for more porridge. But Gordy loved his money, and since Wonder had just proved that he could produce his own hits, with 1970's "Signed Sealed Delivered (I'm Yours)," Gordy gave him the keys to the studio. What followed was, with the exception of The Beatles of 1964-'65 and Bob Dylan releasing Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde in a span of 15 months, the most fertile spurt in modern music history.

From May 1972 through August 1973, Wonder brought the world a trio of masterpieces: the synth-pioneering Music of My Mind; Talking Book, with "Superstition" and "You Are the Sunshine of My Life" showing an incredible range on the charts; and Innervisions, which provided funk-rock models with "Higher Ground" and "Living for the City." What made Wonder's accomplishment all the more amazing is that he produced the records and played nearly every instrument--at ages 21 and 22.

In conjunction with Stevie Wonder's 50th birthday last May 13, Motown/Universal reissued earlier this year those musical landmarks, as well as 1974's slightly less important Fulfillingness First Finale (whatever that means) and Wonder's crowning commercial achievement, 1976's Songs in the Key of Life. Just last week came the remastered Original Musiquarium 1, 1982's double-disc best-of that collects songs from 1972 to 1980--the glory years.

Hearing these records again after so many years of letting them gather dust is to be startled anew at just how fully and completely Wonder could create visions from vibrations. No one, before or since, ever sang and played with such instinct. His lyrics were often simple to the point of being childish on the written page, but there's poetry in the notes and true meaning in a voice that proves the existence of a higher power. Stevie has the shining, plain and simple.

Get a bunch of rock critics to engage in a "greatest of all time" conversation, and you'll hear all about The Beatles, Hank Williams, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Louis Armstrong, Prince, Bruce Springsteen, Howlin' Wolf, Charlie Parker, Jerry Lee Lewis, Kix (who invited Chuck Eddy?), and the like. You won't hear anybody bring up Stevie Wonder, who truly is the most all-around talented musician America has ever produced. It could be, as Jack Black's character in High Fidelity wondered, that the artist is being punished in perception for a couple of decades of triteness such as "I Just Called to Say I Love You" and "Part-Time Lover." Wonder's recent years have been so musically unproductive that he must be referred to in the past tense as an artist.

Even at the top of his game, Stevie released a few errors of judgment, such as the annoying cry of a baby in "Isn't She Lovely" and the jive Spanish lessons that open "Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing." His messages were often as heavy-handed as a Spike Lee script, and he dressed like, well, someone who couldn't see. These are things that shouldn't mean so much when your calling is to make the air good with sound. But how many "Stevie Wonder at 50" appreciations did you read back in May? Perhaps a handful, even though critics had at their disposal At the Close of a Century, last year's four-disc set that contained one CD too many.

If Stevie Wonder had died on August 6, 1973, when a truck threw a log through the window of a car in which he was traveling and put him in a coma for almost a week, you can be sure he'd get his full recognition. He'd have streets named after him, and his tunes would become national anthems (in addition to their current status as wedding songs). As it was, Wonder recovered from the accident and went to work finishing Fulfillingness First Finale, which contains the hits "Boogie On Reggae Woman" and "You Haven't Done Nothin'," plus the gorgeous ballad "Heaven Is 10 Zillion Light Years Away." Two years later came Songs in the Key of Life, which sounds so current today that Coolio managed to lift that record's "Pastime Paradise" wholesale; all he did was talk over it, and still he managed to sell millions of copies of "Gangsta's Paradise" in 1996. Will Smith would do the same thing with "I Wish," bastardizing it as the title song to Wild Wild West.

If the techno-hip-hop cut-and-paste mindset has changed anything, it's made us listen to music differently. The mind's ear has been taught to isolate certain instruments: the high hat, the bass line, the keyboard fills, the guitar strokes. Today's listener is much more attuned to hearing the parts that make up the whole. Hearing these old recordings after so much has passed between listens is a revelation. Rather than sounding like oldies--which is what the radio stations continually playing "For Once in My Life," "You Are the Sunshine of My Life," and "Sir Duke" would have you believe--Wonder's music sounds fresh. Listen to what Wonder was doing musically, really listen, and you can trace where so many of today's subgenres grew up. Hear Stevie Wonder wail all over the melody on "You and I" (from Talking Book), and you can hear Whitney Houston, R. Kelly, D'Angelo, and every other overwrought R&B singer trying to hit those notes Wonder reaches so effortlessly. Play Music of My Mind from beginning to end, and you can hear a man discovering that the synthesizer needn't be sterile, machine-like. Wonder was looking for new beats decades before such a pursuit became an obsession for rap and R&B producers.

At the core of artistic challenge is the ability to completely convey the song, the painting, the movie, the book in your head. The pure musician becomes merely a conduit in the transfer of the idea into being. In his darkness he's invisible, so Stevie Wonder becomes the instrument. He becomes the soul. His voice goes unimpeded to the edge of heaven as far as he knows. (Michael Corcoran)

Bruce Springsteen: Nebraska Calling
When Sub Pop Records announced earlier this year it was releasing a tribute to Bruce Springsteen's 1982 album Nebraska--the one he recorded in his bedroom, the one on which he sounded like Bruce Springsteen doing Bob Dylan doing Woody Guthrie doing Bruce Springsteen--it sounded like a novel concept, if not an awfully good idea. If Nebraska--with its songs about serial killers and state-sponsored executions and used-car salesmen and factory workers living in the shadow of glowing mansions on the hill--was the essential reflection of Ronald Reagan's mean-spirited America, it seemed appropriate that another generation of singer-songwriters was going to tackle and interpret these songs. Maybe they had noticed how germane the album had become again--how eloquent it spoke not just about the barely distant then but to the here and now, a period in American history when the gulf separating the haves and have-nots is wider than ever despite cheerleading claims of "national prosperity." Where Nebraska once lingered like a ghost, the "meanness in this world" sung about in the title track now seems solid and whole.

At the very least, one hoped that fans of such disparate artists as Aimee Mann, Hank Williams III, Deana Carter, the Pretenders, Son Volt, Ben Harper, and Johnny Cash would see their heroes listed on the back of the just-released Badlands: A Tribute to Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska and seek out and purchase the original. Even now, it remains among the lowest-selling albums in Springsteen's catalog--oh, yes, and the best. But Badlands will likely do nothing to bolster its rep; it might even make a few people sell their copies of Nebraska to the used-CD stores. One can find no sense of urgency so essential to the original on Badlands; it's nothing more than a collection of inappropriate artists mimicking and/or butchering Springsteen, a standard tribute album that makes you wonder yet again why anyone thinks such things are tributes at all. Why, Lord, do people insist on honoring their heroes by performing the work as though none of it rubbed off?

Maybe we should have seen this coming. After all, Nebraska is of a whole--a novel about one thing (what happens when the world, be it a lover or a job or a religion, betrays you), rather than a collection of short stories to be divvied up and handed out. It needs one voice, not a dozen; to chop it up is to kill it. Most of the artists on Badlands possess neither understanding of nor disdain for Springsteen, his legacy, his predecessors, his anything; they are therefore bereft of passion. Like radio-contest winners waiting in a room backstage, they don't have any business here, but they don't seem to know it.

Nebraska means little to most of the musicians here; it could have been any Springsteen record, even Human Touch. Deana Carter, three Dixie Chicks in one, told the Dallas Observer two weeks ago that she liked the "seductive twist" of "State Trooper"--a song about a man fleeing his family as he heads out into the dark and wet nowhere of New Jersey. Springsteen's original was dangerous, a song sung by a man with bloodshot eyes and white knuckles and a sweat-soaked shirt and a gun beneath his seat. Carter performs it like a come-on; she misses the point, and then dulls it to a nub.

So too do most of the other artists here: Chrissie Hynde turns the title song, in which 1950s serial killer Charles Starkweather waits for his soul to be hurled into "that great void," into a monotone lullaby; Dar Williams gender-bends "Highway Patrolman" (among the 12 perfect songs ever written) until it makes no sense; and Ben Harper burns down "My Father's House" with all the care of an arsonist. Only Johnny Cash has any reason to be here--he's covered songs from Nebraska before, on his own albums--but his contribution, "I'm on Fire" (a Nebraska discard later resuscitated for Born in the U.S.A. and MTV) feels like an afterthought, like something left off his new album Solitary Man. Oh, joy--the best song here could have been an outtake.

It's easy enough to understand why Sub Pop would choose this album to honor instead of, oh, Darkness on the Edge of Town or Born in the U.S.A. It's his finest, most forgotten moment, a harrowing album of straightforward, sparse narratives about what Springsteen would later call "the unknowability of God." After so many years of writing about the arrogance and ignorance of adolescence, after all those songs about boys fitting uncomfortably into adult skin while drinking and screwing on the Jersey shore, he sat down with a four-track in his bedroom and pretended he was Flannery O'Connor and Robert Johnson.

Springsteen originally intended these songs as demos for the whole band; in a note sent to manager (and former rock critic) Jon Landau that accompanied these rough sketches, he insisted over and over that these songs "need band...for full effect." He made these recordings sitting in a chair, singing and playing into two microphones leading into a Teac four-track, after which he would fill the remaining two tracks with harmony vocals and/or tambourine. He then mixed them using a guitar echoplex and a jambox. A bootleg of unreleased and, thus, unmastered songs from these "sessions," Fistfull of Dollars, sounds like John Lomax field recordings; you can hear the chair scraping the floor, the fingers scraping the strings. When Springsteen finally gathered the band in the studio to rerecord these songs, he discovered he had ruined them; the band only made things "worse," he recalled. "Finally satisfied that I'd explored all the music's possibilities," Springsteen wrote in 1998, "I pulled the original home-recorded cassette out of my jeans pocket where I'd been carrying it and said, 'This is it.'"

And it still is. (Robert Wilonsky)

The Kinks: You Really Had Me

There's an old parlor game, handy on first dates and family vacations, that goes something like this: You ask a person to name the three animals that, if given the opportunity, he would most like to be and why. Each choice betrays something about the respondent's psychology: The first reveals his self-image, the second his true self, and the third what he seeks in a lover. As quaint as such insights may be, though, there remains but one truly accurate gauge of a person's mettle, one guaranteed revelation of his character, one brief glimpse of his soul: which period of the Kinks' career is his favorite. If, for example, he (and it will most certainly be a he) tells you that he's most fond of the band's raucous early hits--"You Really Got Me," "All Day and All of the Night," and so forth--you can assume that he shoots straight, thrives on emotion, is possibly a hedonist (that, or a simpleton). If he says he doesn't particularly like the Kinks, he's either very lazy, very stupid, or hosts The Adventure Club. Regardless, you'll probably want to find another seat. And if he declares himself partial to the '90s comeback albums, it's a safe bet you're sitting next to an employee of the band's label.

The extent of the Kinks' influence has been well chronicled, and a detailed recapitulation here would only substitute obviousness with tedium. Suffice to say that of late, with perhaps a half-dozen exceptions, anything involving British people and guitars has been done before, and better, by the Kinks. Consider Britpop. It took Pulp 11 years to attain the quality and Anglocentric wit of His 'N' Hers, one of the top 100 albums released in 1994; it took the Kinks five years to attain the quality and Anglocentric wit of The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, one of the best albums ever recorded, and without which your life is not complete. Blur wrote "Girls who are boys who like boys to be girls." The Kinks wrote "I'm glad I'm a man and so is Lola." Liam Gallagher once hit his bandmate-brother Noel on the head with a tambourine; Ray Davies once stabbed his bandmate-brother Dave with a fork. And as for Radiohead...well, Ray was calling himself a "musical action painter" while Thom Yorke was still singing about creeps.

The period eulogized on the newly reissued Come Dancing: The Best of the Kinks--the Arista years, 1977-1986, when a third spate of commercial success arrived via such hits as "Do It Again" and "Come Dancing"--is also the band's most problematic. At least Ray had booze to blame for his mid-'70s concept albums, and he salvaged some dignity from his 1990s' Storytellers nostalgia by engaging in a fruitful collaboration with Yo La Tengo last year. Conversely, the Arista tenure contained some of the few moments in Davies' career when he had both his youth and his wits about him, but Dancing often finds him in a rush to abandon both. At their worst, the songs here exhibit that peculiar brand of desperation that causes an artist to begin imitating his imitators: "Catch Me Now I'm Falling" could pass for Greg Kihn, "A Gallon of Gas" for Donnie Iris; the 1980 live version of "You Really Got Me" opens with a guitar solo that lamely pisses on Van Halen's "Eruption." Then there's "Destroyer," which surely set a new standard for pandering to past glories: It opens with the line "Met a girl called Lola" and proceeds to steal its melody almost verbatim from "All Day and All of the Night." Title of the album on which it first appeared: Give the People What They Want.

A joke, of course, but the joke turned out to be on Davies: The very production techniques once intended to make the band sound current--heavy guitars, digital sheen, disco edits--now render these songs hopelessly dated; it's an effective reminder of why the words "arena rock" used to be an insult. Fortunately, it's also an occasional reminder of how a good song can overcome whatever handicaps a producer saddles it with. (Even if, as on all but one song here, the producer in question was the songwriter himself.) Ray screeches and solos his way through "Low Budget" like a bad Skynyrd parody, but there's no denying that chorus. "Come Dancing" no longer plays like the odious MTV staple it once was; age has turned its weightlessness into charm. Dancing even manages a six-song stretch--two each from Sleepwalker and Misfits, the irresistible "Do It Again," and the lovely "Better Things"--of unobtrusive production and peerless melody. In short, of vintage Ray Davies.

But while eight good songs in nine years might be a career for some bands, it's a slump for the man Pete Townshend once called the "only true and natural genius" of British rock. There's not a song on here you wouldn't trade for "Victoria" or "Sunny Afternoon" or "I'm Not Like Everybody Else"; in fact, you'd probably trade all 18 of these songs for one of those. The Arista years can't match the nadir that was Preservation Acts 1&2, but neither do they approach the apex of Arthur or Something Else or Village Green. Anyone who tells you otherwise obviously lacks refinement, tends toward the superficial, and cannot be trusted. That much is certain. (Keven McAlester)

Little Feat: Waiting for Lowell

Many rock historians (a rather portentous title for people who write about their favorite bands for a living, but what can you do?) tend to gravitate toward narrative extremes. Either the chronicle of a performer is a tale of unabashed triumph over a series of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, or it's a tragedy in which the subject's talent (and often the subject himself) withers and dies in the face of ignorance, misunderstanding, disloyalty, greed, substance abuse and/or the misalignment of the planets. But, Behind the Music to the contrary, the lives and careers of musicians, like the lives and careers of the rest of us, are seldom so easily explained--and Little Feat, the largely forgotten but once inspired major-label cult act celebrated in Hotcakes & Outtakes, a four-CD set just issued on the Warner Archives/Rhino imprint, is an apt example.

In the voluminous liner notes that accompany the new box, veteran journalist Bud Scoppa casts the combo in the most flattering light possible, portraying its founder and leader, Lowell George, as a shambling genius, his premature demise (of a 1979 heart attack likely spurred by accelerating obesity and his frequently advertised fondness for drugs) as the snuffing out of a star at its peak intensity, and his bandmates' eventual decision to carry on under the old name as proof that the outfit's magic could stand up to even the Grim Reaper's most lethal scythe work. Too bad the evidence presented on Hotcakes calls most of these contentions into question. George was indeed a unique and gifted performer, but these attributes were ultimately watered down by commercial considerations and a tendency toward giving in when he should have been standing fast.

His decision over time to cede more and more album space and authority to Feat cohorts Paul Barrère and Bill Payne--sporadically clever songwriters, yet not on George's level--was symptomatic not only of the pitfalls of musical democracy, but also of a more wide-ranging creative withdrawal that even afflicted Thanks I'll Eat It Here, the solo album George issued just after leaving Little Feat (and shortly before his death); its slack nature showed that the artistic shortfalls of his latter period couldn't all be pinned on a band that changed beneath him. Finally, the sounds made by the survivors, while marked by excellent musicianship and more intelligence than most of their fellow graybeards can manage, is light-years away from capturing what was best about Little Feat. It's heartening that they haven't surrendered, but it would be more so if their biggest accomplishment were something other than keeping up with those mortgage payments.

That's not to imply that the Little Feat story is somehow uninteresting or unworthy. Far from it: George churned out plenty of gems during his decade or so in the public eye, and the manner in which his work slowly declined says more about the dangers lurking beneath the seductive surface of the Los Angeles music scene during the 1970s than "Hotel California" ever could. He was able to check out--permanently--but only after making the sort of compromises that prevented him from becoming all he might have been. And as Hotcakes' highlights demonstrate, he might have been great.

George grew up an L.A. kid, and he was exceedingly familiar with the opposite poles of the city's musical environment: the sophisticated professionalism encouraged by the record companies based there and the anarchic vibe put out by those rebelling against the vapidity and superficiality of a culture based on celebrity worship. From the beginning, he kept feet in both camps, playing the flute in sessions for Frank Sinatra as a teen, only to later hook up with Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention, the antithesis of SoCal slick.

But Zappa eventually sent him packing:, and shortly thereafter, George assembled Little Feat, whose first squad featured drummer Richie Hayward, with whom he'd worked in a short-lived collective dubbed the Factory, plus keyboardist Payne and bassist Roy Estrada, another Mothers refugee. Their first disc, 1971's Little Feat, represented on Hotcakes by two swell efforts, "Strawberry Midnight" and "Hamburger Midnight," sported rough-hewn production (by Russ Titleman), eccentric structures, skewed lyrics, and George's idiosyncratic vocals and slide work.

The result was a bracing collection of American miniatures that didn't sell squat, so George and company began looking for ways to make their offerings more accessible. The subsequent Sailin' Shoes (1972) was notably more sleek and FM-friendly thanks to producer Ted Templeman, who had turned the Doobie Brothers into a reliable hit machine, but George chipped in too, penning digestible pop nuggets such as "Easy to Slip"; retooling "Willin'," which had appeared in a rougher version on the preceding platter; and generally attempting to convince the mainstream that Little Feat belonged. George's abilities were such that most of the tracks worked well, despite the appeasements, and the act kept a few curve balls in its arsenal--most notably "Teenage Nervous Breakdown," a wonderfully witty burst of pre-punk that, unfortunately, appears on Hotcakes in a jam-happy 1976 live rendition and a tentative demo.

But again, sales were modest, prompting Estrada to split, and the addition of second guitarist Barrère and the funky combo of bassist Kenny Gradney and percussionist Sam Clayton fundamentally changed Little Feat. Suddenly the succinct tunesmithing of the first two albums was supplanted by arrangements that allowed room for improvisation. The transition wasn't an immediate one: 1973's Dixie Chicken is still a relatively tight affair, with George compositions such as "Fat Man in the Bathtub" and the ultra-witty title track adding immeasurably to what is probably the group's most consistent long-player, and 1974's Feats Don't Fail Me Now, recorded after a brief breakup, has strong George moments such as the sparkling "Spanish Moon." But the balance of power in the band was shifting, and so was the sound, which was taking on an almost jazz-fusion flavor.

The move expanded the group's audience among Deadheads, but as the group's fortunes rose, its main man retreated. George made comparatively few contributions to 1975's The Last Record Album and 1977's Templeman-produced Time Loves a Hero, allowing Barrère and Payne to dominate, and the majority of the tunes he supplied for these salvos, including "Long Distance Love" and "Mercenary Territory," had a somewhat juiceless quality about them. Although the band's growing renown led to friendship with and adoration by the Linda Ronstadt crowd (Payne, especially, became a studio favorite among her clique), not to mention a taste of the success for which George had long hungered, it also left him strangely unsatisfied. He stuck around through Waiting for Columbus, a 1978 live package that solidified Little Feat's in-concert rep, but bailed during the sessions for the tepid, patchwork Down on the Farm in favor of a solo gambit too strenuous for his heart to handle.

It takes the first two discs of Hotcakes to cover this period, and if the song selection sometimes seems to include more ditties by Barrère and Payne than is strictly necessary to accentuate the thesis that Little Feat was more than George, it still provides a decent overview. But the decision to devote all of the third CD to comeback recordings canned between 1988 and 1998 goes much too far in trying to prop up this highly questionable argument. Former Pure Prairie League vocalist Craig Fuller, who was hired to fill the large vacancy in the lineup, does a decent job of aping George on cuts such as "Hate to Lose Your Lovin'" and "Let It Roll," but his impression wears thin quickly. Worse are the tracks helmed by Fuller's successor, Shaun Murphy, who alternately sounds like a faux Janis Joplin and a bogus Bonnie Raitt. And while the fourth disc, labeled "Studio Artifacts," contains some curios that will rev up the true believers, the most entertaining items--"Lightning-Rod Man," a Factory session produced by Zappa; the Howlin' Wolf-inspired blues of "Rat Faced Dog"; and the impassioned "Juliet," which became "Juliette" on Dixie Chicken--are the ones magnetized before George became worried about popular indifference or ground down by band politics. On them, he's simply making music for the hell of it, and it shows.

The spark that George gave to Little Feat had been dimming for some time before it finally went out, and in the 20-plus years since then, the rest of the band has been unable to rekindle it. Hotcakes & Outtakes, like so many other pieces of historical revisionism clogging the marketplace these days, tries to tell a different story, but the real one's still in there. You just have to look for it. (Michael Roberts)



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Michael Corcoran
Keven Mcalester
Michael Roberts
Contact: Michael Roberts
Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky