Wednesday, February 07, 2007

“Living for the City” / Stevie Wonder


I grew up with Stevie Wonder. First he was Little Stevie Wonder, Motown’s 12-year-old genius, doing “Fingertips” on TV (I just thought he wore those sunglasses to be cool, until my mother set me straight). A blind black child prodigy seemed just a novelty, though; it wasn’t until the later 60s, when his voice changed and he started that amazing run of hits (“”For Once in My Life,” “My Cherie Amour,” “Signed, Sealed, Delivered”) that I sat up and took notice, even in the midst of my Beatlemania. And then, just as I began to itch to leave the nest and go to college, Stevie turned 21 and struck out on his own, re-negotiating his Motown deal to obtain artistic control.

Artistic control – wasn’t that what we all wanted in 1971? Except what I did with it was a few not-half-bad English papers; what Stevie did with it was Talking Book. And then Innervisions. No one since the Beatles had written entire albums that scored so high on both social meaning and sing-along-ability. By the time Stevie hit Songs In the Key of Life, I felt like the kid down the street had just earned the Nobel Peace Prize.

By then I’d outgrown commercial Motown and discovered “real” blues, but Stevie’s politics earned him a free pass. Why a pampered child prodigy should be an authority on ghetto life I don’t know, but I believed it when Stevie sang it. This song in particular, which clocks in at 7:03, was an entire mini-opera. It begins at the beginning, naturally, with a hardscrabble childhood in the rural South (Stevie, by the way, was born in Saginaw, Michigan, far from Hardtime, Mississippi) – it’s like a Richard Wright novel, piling up the injustices, the father’s low-wage 14-hour days, his mother scrubbing floors for the white lady, his sister wearing secondhand clothes, his brother unemployed because “where he lives / They don’t use colored people.”

Oddly enough, coming from a tunesmith like Stevie Wonder, this song’s not much on melody – the verses are like talking blues, though the chorus is more catchy. The real hook is the repeated synthesizer riff, a jazzlike fanfare melting through several chord changes. Notice how Stevie’s voice gets a harder edge as his protagonist gets older and more frustrated with life. Eventually things slide into a long musical interlude, simmering synthesizers and counterpointed vocals, propelled by that same hard-driving beat that’s hustled us along from the start.

By all rights the song should be over now, but no – now our hero arrives in the city, the promised land. In an awed voice Stevie exclaims "Wow! New York, just like I pictured it -- skyscrapers and ev'rything" (a line that became my personal slogan for several years) as the track evolves into a cinema verite montage: sound effects of a bus pulling into Port Authority, a street hustler’s jive patter, sirens wailing, the echoing whack of a gavel, and the clang of a prison door (“Get into that cell, nigger!”) – boom boom boom, a swift and shocking series of events. By the time Stevie sings again, all that’s left is a gruff vocal wreck. But our hero's still singing, damn it. He’s still singing.

This one song telescopes 25 years of civil rights protests into one man’s story, and I have to say, Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” never reached me the way “Living for the City” did. Here I was, a white college girl identifying with these characters in a Motown song – but then, that was the early 70s, when we still hoped we were all on the same side. Well, some of us still do, thanks to Stevie Wonder. Maybe they should have given him a Nobel Prize.

1 comment:

Julie said...

I sometimes forget how I connected to Stevie Wonder's songs, thanks for the reminder.