Justice served

March, 1985. Lankershim Boulevard, nearing the edge of industrial North Hollywood. The Palomino. On stage: Lone Justice, pounding out a Parton-meets-punk mutation of country-rock that had seduced an entire city of music observers. The Next Big Thing. They play stomping blue-collar tales ("Working Late") and brokenhearted weepers ("Don't Toss Us Away"). They showcase "Ways to Be Wicked," a catchy-as-hell rock tune given to them by Tom Petty, a song soon to be worked to radio. Twenty-year-old vocalist-guitarist Maria McKee, by then the recipient of more critical acclaim than most artists garner in an entire career, announces that Lone Justice's self-titled debut LP is due in a month and that the band will soon be supporting emerging heroes U2 on an East Coast tour, Lone Justice's first ever.

Turns out that night, that moment of promise about to be delivered, would be the band's high point; the accomplished Lone Justice goes on to sell in the 200,000-unit range, but soon after, the honeymoon ends. It now has the ring of cliche: impressionable young band gets crushed under weight of major label; band searches for vision; handlers search for accessibility and success. Handlers win.

Shelter, the band's 1986 sophomore album, shows a group on the brink of collapse, its original members--McKee, guitarist-vocalist Ryan Hedgecock, bassist Marvin Etzioni, drummer Don Heffington--having grown apart and/or been booted. The result: With hollow, booming production courtesy of Little Steve Van Zandt, Shelter is the sound of a desperate, futile search for the top of the charts.

Fast-forward 13 years. Current day. Two events bring McKee back into the conversation for the first time in a long while. First: the upcoming release of The World Is Not My Home, a 17-song compilation of Lone Justice songs that succinctly demonstrates both the band's initial brilliance (via 10 never-before-released demos, live tracks, and studio outtakes, and the high points of the still fine Lone Justice) and its subsequent tumble (songs from Shelter and a clumsy live version of Lou Reed's "Sweet Jane" with guest vocals from a self-involved Bono). And second: McKee resurfaced last month for her first L.A. performances in two and a half years. A pair of gigs that showcased several new tunes and served notice that the now-35-year-old wunderkind has neither burned out nor faded away. She's without a label for the first time in her adult life, she's completely devoid of any sort of a buzz, and McKee has finally gained complete control of her career. Finally, she is writing and recording precisely what she wants, coming to an understanding of what roles fame and success (or lack thereof) are to play in her life. In short, Maria McKee has finally been left alone to grow up.

"I have to be honest with you, I have a dream career," McKee says, sitting in her snug and homey West Los Angeles apartment one December afternoon, casual in a long-sleeved pullover and jeans. "I can do what I want. I have pretty much artistic control. I can tour. I make a very healthy living as a songwriter where I can, like, actually enjoy my life, and play music with people I love at gigs where there's reverential silence, with people going insane and having encore after encore."

How times have changed. Thrust into the spotlight with Lone Justice soon after dropping out of Beverly Hills High in 1981, McKee faced absurd hype--the Los Angeles Times' Robert Hilburn likened the roof-raising singer to Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, Chrissie Hynde, and Janis Joplin--and the pressure that came with it. Lone Justice's first album was produced by Jimmy Iovine (the Interscope records cofounder who had also become their manager), whose previous successes included such classics as Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run, Petty's Damn the Torpedoes, and Patti Smith's Easter. Furthermore, this virtually unknown band was given not only the aforementioned Petty tune, but one from Bob Dylan, who showed up at the studio one day with the number, bringing pal Ron Wood along to play some guitar. (That song, "Go Away Little Boy," is available for the first time on The World Is Not My Home.) And, it's worth repeating, Lone Justice's first tour was a support gig for U2--a seemingly pointless pairing aside from the common concern of devout Christian faith--that found the outfit staring out at indifference night after night.

In the midst of all this quick glamour, though, the quartet was busy dealing with more mundane challenges that it hadn't yet had time to overcome, such as fleshing out their artistic vision and learning to play together. That turned out to be their undoing.

"We were wusses," recalls McKee, who started singing professionally at age 16 and whose brother is former Love guitarist Bryan MacLean, who died just days ago (on Christmas, no less) from an apparent heart attack; no doubt the connection probably didn't hurt Lone Justice's chances of getting hyped early. "We were kids that had passion," McKee says, "and we fell together, and we didn't know how to play. And because of that, we couldn't handle it."

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Neal Weiss