Justice served

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McKee wanted to tell Iovine that she was scared and overwhelmed, but she didn't know how to do it. And by the time she made Shelter--for which an entirely new backing band was brought in--it was too late. Any hint of the rough and tumble cow-punk band was lost.

"I didn't know how to seize control," she says, refuting the common belief that Iovine had a Svengali-like reign over her. "I turned him [Iovine] into a parental figure and sought his approval pathologically, trying to be the artist I thought he wanted me to be without actually being the artist I was best at, which I still didn't even know what that was yet. I was like, 'OK, he's friends with Bono, he likes Stevie Nicks,' [and] he was flying me here and there to see Amnesty International, so I was like, 'OK, I'm gonna try to be Peter Gabriel.' Shelter was like me trying to please Daddy. And that's my own fault."

By 1988, Lone Justice was kaput, a mere memory--and a puzzling one for those who wondered what went wrong (including ex-Shallow Reign lead guitarist Patrick Sugg, who left Dallas for L.A. in 1988 to work with McKee). But the pattern was set for McKee: As her solo career developed, her decision-making process seemed still driven by a need for positive reinforcement. Thus, when 1989's Maria McKee--a grand, spiritual affair that continued her leanings toward Springsteen and Van Morrison--was received coolly by the American press, she exiled herself to Ireland, where "the journalists would bring me flowers and actually have tears in their eyes."

But after three years of mostly hiding out in the Dublin house she owned, she returned to Los Angeles, craving AM oldies radio, the food, the cars, the weather, and "the architecture in all of its kitsch glory." She also released a new album, You've Got to Sin to Be Saved, that found her reuniting with some of her Lone Justice bandmates and enlisting a few of the Jayhawks for good measure. The result was a punchy country-rock effort with an R&B tinge; it was workmanlike, inoffensive, and perfectly likable. McKee now considers it misguided.

"I still hadn't fully gotten to the point where I was brave enough to really do what I wanted," she says. "I thought, 'Well, the American media pretty much ignored my first solo record, so maybe I'll try to recapture some of that Lone Justice feeling.'"

General public reaction got even worse with Life Is Sweet, McKee's angry, driven album from 1996. The record contained moments so brash and unexpected (touches of Ziggy-era Bowie, Patti Smith, grunge; absolutely zero twang) that it was ignored by consumers and pummeled by many critics. The anti-McKee sentiments are best summed up by Ira Robbins' review of the record in The Trouser Press Guide to '90s Rock: "Life Is Sweet goes straight over the top in a bewildering styleless hodgepodge of bad production ideas, bizarre gimmicks, uneven writing, and singing so mindlessly zealous in spots that McKee can't possibly be hearing herself." As for Geffen, most executives at the label saw absolutely no commercial potential in the project and hoped it would never see the inside of a record store.

"The record company gave it such the enormous thumbs-down, it was not even funny," says McKee, whose relationship with Geffen ended soon after the label heard the like-minded demos that followed the release. "I was kinda shocked. There was talk of it not coming out, and I have to admit I was suicidal. And I thought, 'I can't kill myself, because I'm the Life Is Sweet girl. That would just be too sick.'"

Rock bottom? Not so fast. Sweet is often a mess, but it's a scintillating, stunning one. The risks McKee takes on it have the ring of defiance, not desperation; it plays like a striking arrival instead of a major misstep. It's her own private revolution. And while McKee's manager, her label, and a host of her former proponents likened it to career suicide, McKee considers it her masterpiece.

Sweet provided the first evidence of the focused, adventurous artist that McKee has become--a far cry from the youngster who, trapped in an endless cycle of losing creative control, "sabotaged gigs, pissed people off, broke hearts, had liaisons with guitar techs, and caused Greek tragedies to ensue in the middle of the most important leg of the tour, to the point where band members quit." The "new" McKee was in evidence at Los Angeles' Galaxy Theater earlier this month: During the set, she was relaxed and amiable as she showcased a half-dozen new songs on guitar and piano, sometimes with the help of Denis Roche and Jim Akin (the latter being McKee's fiance), sometimes going it alone. Such numbers as "Love Doesn't Love Me" and the drum-looped "Be My Joy" nicely fuse intimacy with a sense of high drama resuscitated from McKee's pre-rock dreams of studying musical theater at Juilliard. The lilting "Worrybirds" hints at opera as it pierces the skin with grace and delicacy.

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Neal Weiss