Stevie Wonderland

“Living for the City” by Stevie Wonder (backed by “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing”). 7 minutes. 7 minutes plus. Keyboards pulse and the singing begins like a car squealing out of a parking lot; hurried, caught in a getaway. Then some ragged snare, played raggedly by the ragged drummer, played by Stevie Wonder. Then a jazzrockfusion break (already) after the first verse: sparkly with weird stoned chords that float unhooked from the quarter note bass drum push of the song. Then Stevie harmonizing with the stoned chords as if viewing them from above, maybe the edge of a tenement rooftop. Then the next verse fuller, with more hi-hat– with Stevie, there’s always more hi-hat– then some added keyboard– a synthesizer here– and a long, crazy four-bar note sung until yet another keyboard zings through the mix: ghetto Rick Wakeman; Billy Preston on acid; a nod to Funkadelic; an Imaginarium’s doors flung open. Then some loud handclaps joining the chorus, and singers on top of other singers, and we’re not even at the three minute mark. Then everything empties except for a single rhythm– a hand tapping a box or the flank of an instrument– and, suddenly, we’re into a soundscape for a Melvin Van Peebles film: street sounds, cars roaring, a horn playing, alarms, shouting, a conflagration on a street corner, a newscast, a judge, the cops, and a prison guard. The pop song cedes to a radio play– repeat that thought a few times over: “The pop song cedes to a radio play”– and then, after a moment, it rises again; harder, fuller, with Stevie pushing the Fat Albert words from his neck with veins like piano wire. Melodically– and at the 5 minute mark of a song that seems to last 40 seconds– the keyboards (all of the keyboards) melodically wander away on their own: weird little animals exploring different streets with different views and different back alleys. 5:28 is fascinating. Stevie lets the song become high-jacked because of the busy mess it creates, but even though the chorus of singers rises, he still fights through to tell the story: “The war will soon be over.” And then there’s another break: a long drum figure before going back to the weird stoned chords which he plays over and over and which end the song, but not before the music break sand the singers sing “No, no, no…” and then, finally, it’s done, everything spilled everywhere, emptied across the silence of the mix. One other note: each instrument you hear on this song– basses, keys, drums, percussion– was played by one person. That’s probably another thought that deserves repeating.

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