Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Celebrating Stevie: List Two: 15 Songs of Peace, God and Protest

by Odienator

Love dominated the last Stevie Wonder entry. This time, the focus is on both an angrier Stevie and a more spiritual one. Never afraid to put God in his lyrics, Wonder’s albums contain blatantly religious songs. After all, for the believers, God is the ultimate expression of Stevie’s favorite subjects, peace and love.  Stevie wants us to love, respect and look after one another; through these actions we can deliver a more peaceful universe.

Stevie’s into all that hippie-dippy shit, but you still don’t want to piss him off. He will use minor keys to chew your ass out on a record. These howls of protest and anger are some of my favorite Stevie Wonder songs. He can make you want to passionately rip someone’s clothes off in one song, and punch someone in the face in another. Stevie reminds you that the punch is figurative—you can get more done with activism than ass-kicking.

Herewith, 15 songs in this vein of

Peace, God and Protest

15. Love’s In Need of Love Today- The opening cut on Songs in the Key of Life is a summation of the entire album’s quirks and characteristics. It’s a tad too long, musically daring (those opening chords are striking) and lyrically suspect at times. Stevie still handles it brilliantly, haunting us with his call to arms against hatred and injustice. “The force of evil plans to make you its possession,” the “friendly announcer” of the song warns us. “We all must take precautionary measures.” The song is a telethon asking donors to call in not with pledges of money, but of love. It sounds cheesy as hell, but it only highlights just how good Wonder is at selling his lyrics with his voice. This is the musical equivalent of Robert Mitchum’s tattooed hands re-enacting the fight between love and hate in Night of the Hunter.

14. Big Brother- Stevie takes on the powers that be, and not for the last time on this list. Big Brother is the FBI (“they say that you got me all in a notebook, and writing it down every day”), politicians of both parties (“I live in the ghetto. You just come to visit me ‘round election time.”) and powerful folks who prefer the status quo of oppression continue (“you say that you’re tired of me protesting”). His message to the oppressed is to not give up hope despite Big Brother’s intentions. (“someday I will move on my feet to the other side.”) To Big Brother, he issues the stern warning that “you’ll cause your own country to fall.” With its harmonica and clavinet subbing for the acoustic guitar a folk singer would have employed on this track, Wonder brings a little Dylan, Seeger and Mitchell to Motown.

13. Chemical Love- Stevie rarely teams up with other writers, but when he does, it’s usually on lyrics. A few songs on this list have lyrical contributions by others. Here, the words are by Stephanie Andrews, who injects dark humor into what could have been just a preachy anti-drug message. Stevie supports her with a bouncy, playful melody and more than a hint of snark in his vocal. Chemical Love has Curtis Mayfield’s tone on his classic song, Pusherman. Like Mayfield, Stevie’s also practically taunting you for being hopped up on whatever shit you’re on. “Ain’t nuthin’ to it, getting cash when you’re broke,” Stevie sings. “Doin’ lots of time is worth a little snort of coke.”  The song collapses in the home stretch, with its simplistic notion that you should try God instead of yayo, but I’ll forgive its trespasses. “Some people find themselves hooked on the weirdest things,” Stevie tells us. I believe it; I’m hooked on this song.

12. Conversation Peace- The title track from the album that brought us the superb Grammy-winning For Your Love, is a faster, more direct retread of Love’s In Need of Love Today. Instead of donating love to help the peace effort, Stevie wants us all to talk to each other. Again, it’s a simple, obvious  message made compelling by the singer, aided by Ladysmith Black Mambazo on background vocals and a few lyrics that come out of nowhere like a sucker punch. His line about the number of casualties during the Holocaust and slavery is a shocker.

11. Jungle Fever- When I first heard this song, I thought “man, this is some lazy ass songwriting! I’ve got Jungle Fever, she’s got Jungle Fever, we’ve got Jungle Fever?!!” But I couldn’t get that shit out of head for hours. Wonder sings this “go eff yourself” song to racists over the opening credits of Lee’s second collaboration with Wesley Snipes. Stevie places himself in the shoes of Snipes’ Flipper Purify character, a Black man in lust with a White woman. He tells the naysayers “get real, come on!” and “you don’t know jack shit!” It’s more fun, and a lot shorter, than the movie’s uninteresting interracial story line.  A few years later, Stevie would once again upstage the director’s vision with an opening credits song. Stay tuned.

10. Higher Ground- Wonder’s wah-wah and gospel infused hand clapper is smack dab in the middle of Innervisions, my favorite album. Written in 1973, it played a crucial part in Stevie’s recovery from a near-fatal automobile accident. The crash left him comatose without an optimistic prognosis of recovery. Apparently, Wonder’s manager sang this song in Stevie’s ear, and Stevie responded by moving his fingers in rhythm. That’s some powerful shit right there, especially when you consider the lyrics. “I’m so darn glad He let me try it again,” sings an eerily prescient Stevie. “Gonna keep on tryin’ til I reach my highest ground.” As we’ll see later in this list, Wonder used his most spiritual songs to take some brutal swipes at the status quo. “Powers keep on lyin’,” he sings, “while your people keep on dyin’.” That might not be the most Christian thing to say, but it’s not wrong either.

9. Happy Birthday- Only Stevie Wonder could turn “Happy Birthday” into a protest song with a killer synth hook. The birthday boy in question now has a federal holiday in his honor, thanks in part to Wonder’s activism  and his songwriting skills.

After the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, a bill was introduced in Congress to make a national holiday in King’s honor. The bipartisan sponsored bill floated around until 1979, where it was voted on and failed to pass. “Oh HELL NO,” said Stevie (at least in this re-enactment of events). To protest, Wonder closed out 1980’s  Hotter Than July album with this 6-minute argument for creating a national holiday “where peace is celebrated all throughout the world.” Its verses shamed and scolded those who opposed Dr. King Day, and its chorus gave Black folks a new way of singing “Happy Birthday To You.”

Wonder used the song to kick off an active campaign to pressure the government via public opinion. Concerts were given, and the biggest petition in  history was signed. In 1983, the MLK Day bill became law. (That’s right, Republicans! Your Lord and Savior, Saint Ronnie, had to sign a bill honoring a Black person. Imagine if Obama tried that shit!) Of course, many states refused to celebrate the day, including the Alabama of the West, Arizona. Senator John McCain was one of the biggest opponents, which is why a stroke of Negro karma fried his ass in the 2008 election. See, John, if you’d just gotten with the program, you might be President right now.

"That Negro Karma, it will fry you ev'ry time. 
Ev'ry time it comes around, it comes to fry!"

8. Feeding Off the Love of the Land- If I did a top 5 of Stevie Wonder lyrics, this song would be on it. When I first heard it, at the end of Jungle Fever, it packed a far bigger emotional punch than the movie. Spike Lee prints the lyrics onscreen as the credits roll, recounting the story of how doomed we selfish human beings are. We’ve learned nothing, Stevie tells us, and therefore we’re deservedly fucked. This is a devastating little number (it’s even more heartbreaking in its original version, which is just Stevie and his piano). “Seems to me that fools are even more foolish,” the singer tells us early on, only to ask later “has the good in man expired?” It’s one of Stevie’s most hopeless songs; it almost feels as if he’s given up. It made me cry when I first heard it. It still does.

7. Master Blaster (Jammin)- This buoyant ode to Bob Marley musically yells out “boogie on, reggae woman!” From its opening drumbeats, Master Blaster is designed to make you feel irie with or without the ganja. “Everyone’s feeling pretty, it’s hotter than July,” sings Stevie, name-checking the album on which this appears. He also shouts out Marley while reassuring us that, despite all our troubles, everything’s gonna be alright. Wonder’s output is like the great reggae singers to whom Master Blaster pays tribute, a positive vibration full of love, Jah, freedom, struggle, and joy. “Won’t you help to sing these songs of freedom?” Marley once asked. We know what Stevie’s answer was and is.

6. They Won’t Go When I Go- When I was a kid, this song scared the shit out of me. I misunderstood Yvonne Wright’s lyrics, and thought they were about going to Hell. “People sinning just for fun, they will never see the sun,” warns Stevie as his piano cranks out ominous chords. There’s also a choir of Stevies wailing between verses, which is genuinely creepy. I now realize this song is some kind of Christian taunt (it practically says “I’m going to Heaven and you’re not, nyaah!!!”) but I still love every note of it. To warn us of the wages of sin, They Won’t Go quotes the same Curtis Mayfield lyric Bob Marley does in One Love/People Get Ready: “There ain’t no room for the hopeless sinner.”

"But there IS room in Hell for y'all." says Joe 
Gideon-lookalike Jesus from A Rage In Harlem

“Whatever,” says this lapsed Baptist, but I’m still terrified of this song and I’ll tell you why. It was almost the last thing I ever heard on this Earth. My tire blew out on Interstate 78, and as my car veered out of my control toward a tractor trailer in the next lane, I saw my life flash before me. I knew I was dead. Everything happened in slow motion, and while it was happening, I could hear this song’s choir of Stevie Wonders moaning and wailing on my CD player. “Well, if I’m going to die,” I thought, “at least I’ll die listening to a religious record.” I knew I was going straight to Hell too, with my eyes wide open just as my mother always told me I’d go. Suffice it to say, nobody had to sing Higher Ground to bring me out of a coma; I didn’t go when they went. Still, my superstitious ass will NOT listen to this song in the car, not even the rather excellent George Michael cover.

5. Misrepresented People- Stevie’s History of the Negro World, Vol. I takes us on a brutal tour of the history of Blacks in America, sparing no one as it ticks off events. Starting with the arrival of Columbus in 1492 and treading a path of injustice into the 1990’s where “our color fills the jails,” the misrepresented people in the title begin and end the song in some form of slavery. This is an irony not lost on Wonder, who sings phrases ripe with sarcasm and bitter truths: “In the so-called land of God,” he sings, “my kind were treated hard.” The song basically says “we’ve broken our backs doing your free labor, defended the country and invented countless things, yet we continue to be misrepresented.” Supporting his lyrics is one of Stevie’s most clever melodies. From its classical, harpsichord-like opening notes to the surprise key change 2/3rds of the way through, Misrepresented People fills the listener’s head with knowledge while making it nod to the beat. Spike Lee commissioned this song for his misfired satire Bamboozled, and once again, his composer upstages him by stating the cinematic thesis statement better and more succinctly than the director’s film does.

4. Village Ghetto Land- Again, here’s Stevie with the classical music angle, this time evoking madrigals* while guiding us on a scorching, ironic tour of poverty. (When Stevie’s live version with the Tokyo Philharmonic on Natural Wonder replaced the recorded version’s synthesizer with classically trained musicians, one hears just how in tune with all musical genres Stevie was.) Imhotep Gary Byrd’s lyrics give the ghetto a theme park-like ad campaign: “Would you like to come with me, down my dead end street? Would you like to come with me to Village Ghetto Land?” The sights you’ll see on your visit are harrowing, and the unsparing visuals are a striking counterpoint to the music. The jaunty melody brings out a pitch-black humor to the proceedings, resulting in blistering, devastating satire. The last two lines of the song twist the knife for those who think the singer is overreacting or merely complaining about the situation: After the litany of atrocities, Wonder asks “tell me, would you be happy in Village Ghetto Land?”

*classical people, don't kill me. I'm just writing what I read...

3. Heaven is 10 Zillion Light Years Away- Stevie’s most pointed comments are sometimes hidden in his most religious songs. God loves everyone, yet His followers were some of the biggest purveyors of racial hatred during slavery and segregation. Their excuse was that it was God’s will. Stevie addresses this in the song’s most stunning lyric, which hit me like a swift kick to the gut: “Why must my color Black make me a lesser man?” he asks. “I thought this world was made for every man. He loves us all. That’s what my God tells me.” Even more stunning is Wonder’s explanation for those who ask, in times of trouble, “Where is your God?” The response is that we’re not good enough for His return yet. “It’s taking Him so long ‘cuz we’ve got so far to come.” Before the situation becomes truly hopeless, he adds “but in my heart I can feel it. Feel His spirit.” I’ve long since left the Baptists and the church, but this song never fails to make me cry. There’s something just so beautifully perfect about its logic, right up to the final response to the question of God’s location: “Where is your God? Inside please let Him be.” Not at the megachurch, not in Rev. Money’s wallet, not in Congress. Inside you.

2. You Haven’t Done Nothin’- Curtis Mayfield, no stranger to songs of peace, God and protest, once sang “and Nixon talkin’ ‘bout ‘Don’t Worry!’ He say ‘Don’t Worry!’” The former President and owner of Checkers the Dog gets a Watergate Hotel-sized boot in the ass courtesy of Stevie’s funkiest song. It’s damn near impossible to sit still when this comes on, but if you pay attention to the lyrics, you’ll hear one hell of a political beatdown. With the Jackson Five on background vocals (Stevie calls them by name to assist him), Wonder rides his killer bass line and horn section to the conclusion in this song’s title. “We are sick and tired of hearing your song,” Stevie tells the gov’ment, “cuz if you really want to hear our views, you haven’t done nothin’.” Though explicitly about Nixon, this song has been used by detractors as a poison dart for every president after Tricky Dick, including President Obama. YouTube is full of videos set to this, making it one of the few things liberals and conservatives like. Funk brings the universe together. Just ask George Clinton.

"Make my funk the P-Funk!"

1. Living for the City- This list could only end here, with Stevie’s masterpiece from Innervisions. Wonder tells the story of a Hard Time, Mississippi native and his hardworking family, folks living just enough for the city. The character descriptions are Hemingway-spare, yet their familiarity sears a vivid, detailed image into your brain. “His sister’s Black, but she is sho’ nuff pretty,” Stevie tells us. “Her skirt is short, but Lord her legs are sturdy.” Every time I hear that lyric, I close my eyes and feel her presence as she walks past me down the street, underscored by the catchy “da-da-da-da” melody sung by Stevie after every verse. The main character, who’s “got more sense than many,” finds  himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, the country mouse victimized by the city mice from New York City. On the album version, Stevie stops the song for a skit detailing a harsh prison sentence for our protagonist. (Wonder even gets a studio employee to deliver the song’s immortal “COME ON! COME ON! GET IN THAT CELL, NIGGER!” line.) When the song resumes, Stevie warns “if we don’t change, the world will soon be over.”

Living for the City ends with the most haunting final moment of any Motown song since Marvin Gaye cycled back to What’s Going On at the end of Inner City Blues. (it’s at 4:26 of that link.) Both songs tell tales of ghetto strife and have repeated “no’s” in the lyrics. Wonder uses his repeated “no’s” to end Living for the City, and I always ask myself if Stevie is pleading with us to change, or calling out to us a second too late to stop something horrible from happening. I always think it's the latter.

Next time: 10 random yet great Stevie Wonder songs, including his collaboration with His Purple Badness.