Stevie Wonder Sings “Jesus Children of America”

steviewonder_innervisionsListen to this song by Motown wunderkind turned soul-funk sonic visionary Stevie Wonder.  It’s “Jesus Children of America” as taken from his 1973 LP Innervisions.

From 1971 to 1976, Stevie Wonder pursued his own vision as an album artist with something to say about his country’s social landscape.  It was an artistic trajectory which most critics and fans agree represents his prime period as a songwriter, producer, and performer.

Innervisions is arguably his best record of this period, although this is a point on which many can argue for hours being as it is in extremely close competition with albums like Talking Book, Music of My Mind, and Fulfillingness’ First Finale, all of which were written and recorded in very close succession.

One of the most amazing things about this period was that Stevie Wonder fully embraced the latest technology of the times to make these albums,  and yet the music he created is entirely timeless.  Any one of the songs he recorded and which are now considered classics could have been recorded yesterday.  And thematically, of course, many of the songs which touch upon the issues of poverty, political alienation, and spiritual despondence are also sadly relevant today.

For instance, “Jesus Children of America” is an examination of a culture, with the questions surrounding how spirituality has the power to inspire people to change themselves and to change the world in which they live.  Yet, I think it also touches on the idea that a culture can often make faith into something that is little more than an accessory to human experience, not applied to the potential it has to inspire change.

stevie-wonder-1973
Much like his contemporaries Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder was interested in going beyond the three-minute single and trying to make a statement about his community, and his country as a whole. Perhaps ironically, much of his ability to strike out on his own artistically away from the yoke of his Motown singles days was down to the fact that the song royalities he’d amassed up until this point became fully available to him when he turned 21 in 1971!

At the same time, this song is a rally cry to those in states of confusion, that a spiritual dimension to life can be a stabilizing force – “transcendental meditation can give you peace of mind”.   This aspect of things stops this tune from being a judgmental finger-waggling exercise.  What it does is to turn the song  into a statement of genuine concern about losing out on the real message behind most religions, which I believe is to draw one closer to one’s true origins to finding meaning there, and then make the world better for others as a result.

And as the most important line in the song says: “you better tell your story fast”; the world isn’t getting any better without those stories, and without those stories being understood by others.

Enjoy!

Pete Townshend Plays Solo and Acoustic: “Drowned”

Here’s a clip of Who guitarist/visionary and rock opera guru Pete Townshend with a solo acoustic take on his song “Drowned”, the studio version of which appears on the Who’s 1973 concept album Quadrophenia.

The album Quadrophenia off of which the song “Drowned” is taken was meant to communicate two concepts.  The first was the lifestyles of the mods in the mid-60s, a scene in which all of the members of the Who were involved.  The second concept attempted was to capture something of the personalities of the band, with four disparate outlooks and personas existing in the same space.  Typically, these concepts were considered to be ponderous by many, including members of the Who.  Yet, the story was compelling enough to make this record success, inspiring a film in 1979 starring Phil Daniels, and (of all people) Sting.
The album Quadrophenia off of which the song “Drowned” is taken was meant to communicate two concepts. The first was the lifestyles of the mods in the mid-60s, a scene in which all of the members of the Who were involved. The second was an attempt to capture something of the personalities of the band, with four disparate outlooks and personas existing in the same space. This second concept was considered to be ponderous by many, including members of the Who. Yet, the story was compelling enough to make this record success, inspiring a film in 1979 starring Phil Daniels, and (of all people) Sting.

The reason the Who is in the upper echelon of British Invasion bands is that they helped to expand the possibilities of what a rock band means, and what a rock song can be about too.  This doesn’t simply refer to head writer Townshend’s penchant for lofty and ambitious rock operas and concept albums, although these forms certainly became his main areas of concern by 1969.  I think the underlying influence they had was making rock music into something which could be confessional as well as visceral.  Rock music, Townshend proved, could be used as a vehicle for self-examination.

This approach began with the 1969 album Tommy, and the live versions of the story which came afterward.  Ultimately, that album and the ‘rock opera’ to follow, had more to do with its writer than it did with a mythical deaf dumb and blind kid.  But, with 1973’s Quadrophenia, Townshend wasn’t just telling his story.  He was attempting to take on the stories of everyone he grew up with including, and maybe especially,  his band mates.

With this tune, I think there’s a nakedness to it that is even more apparent in his solo acoustic takes, which he’d performed in a number of settings as a solo artist by the 1990s.  On the surface, this is a song about the teenage mind, the driving need to belong, to matter, to align one’s identity with something greater.  This is what it means to be ‘drowned’ in this song – to be subsumed by something powerful, something that is elemental, and able to deliver one from the crushing reality of isolation often felt most keenly by teenagers.

In the story, our young mod hero Jimmy finds himself at the sea in Brighton, the city which was the epicentre of the war between mods and rockers.  There he waits to catch a glimpse of his hero, king of the mods Ace Face.  Yet what he feels is bereft, lonely,  and with the overpowering need to be included, to belong.  To me, the visuals of this are so important.  To see a middle-aged Townshend singing this tune, is to see that the sentiments in it go well beyond the confines of the story being told.  And his latter-day performances of this song ultimately illustrate that the need to find belonging and meaning goes beyond age too.  This is what it is to be human, to feel the overpowering drive to make a connection with something bigger than oneself.

For more, check out this interview with Pete Townshend from Rolling Stone magazine from 1968, before anyone was holding his feet to the fire for daring to get old after he’d made it clear that he hoped he wouldn’t. His main concern in 1968 was his work on a concept that he wasn’t sure he’d be able to communicate properly – Tommy.

Contrast that interview with this interview with Pete Townshend  in 2003, when his ‘research’ into child abuse caused him some bother with the law.  It seemed that his struggles to come to terms with his youth would be lifelong pursuit that would continue to lead him down some pretty thorny paths.

Enjoy!