Recently, I was given an assignment by Rumpus film critic and friend Ryan Boudinot to write about one of those pieces of music that is so execrable, so thoroughly gangrenous, that it’s nearly impossible to figure out why anyone would like it. This is outside of my brief since a) I am meant to be writing here about independent and unsigned and unreleased music, and b) I very rarely waste my meager scribblings on things I hate. Contempt is too easy. For these reasons, I was dubious about the assignment, though it’s a good one, and I would have shelved the whole notion, were it not for what happened next. What happened next was this: I wrote to Ryan as follows, “Give me an example of the kind of song you’re talking about.” And Ryan wrote back: “Higher Love,” by Steve Winwood.
Now this is a truly bad piece of music. An unredeemable piece of music. Its badness is complete. It is the kind of song designed to force you to submit. It is the sort of song you would hear while riding in a Lincoln Town Car to a conference of proctologists. Let me catalogue a few of the ways “Higher Love” is bad. Well, first of all, “Higher Love” was released during what appears to many right now to be the nadir of the popular song, a moment, when all was tinny synthesizers, bad digital effects, primitive digital mastering, MIDI, and so on, and, to its shame, “Higher Love” partakes of nearly all of these eighties musical cliches. Furthermore, it tries to buy black music credibility by featuring backing vocals from a soul singer for hire, Chaka Khan (also prominently featured in the “Higher Love” video, an MTV staple of the moment, which includes a sequence when Steve Winwood and Chaka back dance together), though upon reflection the song is about as black as a gross box of ivory soap. And—related to the ersatz, faked-up soul of the thing—it has one of those frothy but not much considered lyrics that seems to equate secular desire with spiritual love. Hard to believe, really, that Steve Winwood had to pay some guy to write this lyric for him (specifically Will Jennings who has also written songs for Barry Manilow, Jimmy Buffett, and Celine Dion), when it is the sort of lyric that probably could have been confected on the spot, or perhaps cribbed from a greeting card lying nearby. Oh, and here’s another bit of damnation, “Higher Love” is from an album that won a Grammy for album of the year, which usually in my book means the product in question is bland, conservative, and irrelevant. Sure, I dislike this song, and I can’t really imagine that anyone took it seriously at the time, even if I think of it as one of those heating-the-frog-slowly-so-that-it-doesn’t-know-it’s-getting-boiled situations. I mean, like others I sort of tolerated Winwood’s earlier album Arc of a Diver, when it first came out, because I liked the pacific drone at the beginning of “When You See A Chance,” even though I thought the entirety of the thing was too slick by half. Still, a pop song is a pop song, not to be confused with art, and so I tolerated Arc of a Diver, and I wanted to like “Higher Love,” though quickly it became tiresome, and gave me a headache. I’m guessing others wanted to like it too.
Maybe it was the eighties that bothered me. I hate them in retrospect, and I hated them at the time. I loathed Ronald Reagan. My loathing for Ronald Reagan was boundless. Ronald Reagan kept me up nights hating, sometimes, I hated his fucking hair, which looked to me like the kind of hair that a beaver would have, or some other kind of lower mammal, a rat, or a vole, and I hated his halting, folksy way of talking, and his premature senescence, and I hated his casual love of violence and tyranny, and his racism, and his classism, and his fucking jellybeans, and the flatulent culture of Ronald Reagan, the morning-in-America stupidity, I hated it, and I hated people who bought into it (my parents among them), the poverty of sympathy for anyone who was not white and working for a large corporation, the cynical courting of xenophobic evangelicals that has ruined the country ever since, I hated his non-acting, his bathetic movies, his anti-intelletualism, his wife, with her skeletal, steely exterior, most of their kids (except Ron, who seems like a nice guy), their faux-Wild West ranch in California, everyone in his cabinet, especially James Watt, Ed Meese, and Cap Weinberger, I hated his obsession with tiny little Central American countries that he liked to attack just for the hell of it, I hated hearing about him for another fifteen years after he left office.
And since I believe that the politics of an age affect the artistic productions of the age, I suppose I really do think that Ronald Reagan somehow forced Steve Winwood to make “Higher Love,” even though Winwood is a British subject (from Birmingham, I believe), and could theoretically make any recording he wanted to. On first blush, the theology of “Higher Love” is morning-in-America theology, theology of the kind that leads people to believe that Jesus wants them to make lots of money. Or that Jesus will somehow protect them from death, disease, poverty, bad luck, traffic accidents, and so on. This is Reaganesque, as is the presence of Will Jennings, and the presence of a great number of L.A. studio musicians. The jacket of the album is Reaganesque. The video is Reaganesqe. MTV was, and is now, Reaganesque, has the stamp of Reagan/Bush on it, and I mean both Bushes. Jesus will not insure your prosperity. With or without Jesus, you will watch the people around you die, you will have awful luck, you, personally, will do awful things in your life, things that you can’t believe you did, and later you will rue the day, and you will hate yourself, even if you do wish to behave virtuously and try to love your spouse or significant other, or what have you. The only thing you can rely on Jesus to do for you, if you are such a one as to consider the possibilities, is to feel sympathy for your wretchedness. Now that would make a good pop song.
Speaking of death: part of what interested me about abut Ryan Boudinot’s suggestion that I write about Steve Winwood is death. Back in the seventies, as many will remember, Steve Winwood, composer and performer of “Higher Love,” was the singer and principle songwriter in the British band called Traffic. They got their start in the later sixties, when Winwood was startlingly young (he’d just finished a stint in the Spencer Davis Group, which he’d joined at age sixteen). The band included Dave Mason, who later became a soft rock guy, Jim Capaldi, who drummed and wrote a lot of lyrics, and Chris Wood, a really gifted and interesting player of wind instruments. Their early singles were kind of psychedelic and influenced by that Swinging London period of the Yardbirds, the Beatles, the Stones, the Who, the Pretty Things. I didn’t know anything about this period of Traffic at the time it was happening, and neither did most people in the U.S. But then in 1971, after the first breakup of the band, Winwood owed an album to Island records, and he went into the studio to do it all himself, that is until he enlisted Capaldi and Wood to help out. The resulting album, called John Barleycorn Must Die, was the first genuine Traffic “hit” album, and it was one of the first albums given to me by my sister.
Having an older sister was a really effective way to learn about music that you would never hear when you were in middle school (junior high, as we called it then), where everyone was listening to top forty, like Elton John and Chicago and the Jackson Five. Some stuff trickled through in those days, like I remember that one of my friends from school spoke very highly of Made in Japan by Deep Purple. But basically, I didn’t understand much about rock and roll, the arty non-commercial iterations of rock and roll, until my sister came home on vacation.
The moment was fraught in many ways, because my mother had left my dad just a few years before, and we’d been moving around a bit. I think we were on our third address in three years, and my mom was occasionally in the company of various brokedown men who didn’t last very long. She was, I think, depressed. She was working sometimes, in telemarketing (because she never finished college and had little job experience, really), in an attempt to avoid taking money from my grandfather. My brother and I were home alone in the afternoons quite a bit. I waited for news from my sister, her tales of drugs and boys and freedom, like I waited for few things, because at least she was having some fun. I wasn’t. I was struggling in school.
What my sister brought back from school, in addition to tales of drugs and boys, were three LPs: Led Zeppelin IV, Dark Side of the Moon, and John Barleycorn Must Die. I think she gave me the Led Zeppelin album outright, and in the other the other two cases required that I borrow the LPs and tape them onto worn out cassettes, which I then played incessantly, having only brief intervals in which I was allowed to peruse the album jackets, to try to divine what was there. Each of the three albums had a remarkable impact. It would be a fib if I did not say that the pre-eminent of the three was Dark Side of the Moon. It sounded like nothing else that I had heard, its narcotic tempos, its ominous rumblings and sound effects, its looped cash registers, its eerie, breathy vocals. All very different from Elton John. The very specific lyric that lured me in was the track entitled “Brain Damage.”
If you accept the theory that the trauma of departed Pink Floyd member Syd Barrett’s mental illness was part of the catalyst for the album, then “Brain Damage” has to be exhibit A for this theory, the leaping off point. (The Syd Barrett theme would bear more fruit on the next album Wish You Were Here, another favorite of mine.) The lyrics of “Brain Damage” are, therefore, the sort of thing that would deeply terrify an 11 or 12 year old, whose only real contact with actual brain damage has so far been reading about it in books. “The lunatic is on the grass,” etc. I’d lived next door to a psychiatric hospital very recently, but its unfortunates were mainly seen in the distance walking in and out of buildings. I had no real access to the meaning of mental illness, to the pathos of it, until I began to hear it in the slow, melancholy tempo of “Brain Damage,” and Roger Waters’s understated delivery (when he got all screechy later, it seemed like such an asethetic mistake). “The paper holds their folded faces to the floor:” I spent a lot of time thinking about this and about, and: “You rearrange me till I’m sane.” I would later spend a brief period in the psychiatric hospital myself, and I would later know a fair amount about mental illness, more than I wish I knew, but this was the beginning of understanding it, of seeing how it really felt, how it operated in the lives of others.
It was true of all these albums, these three albums that my sister brought back from school, that they secreted into themselves an idea of mystery, a darkness that had been concealed from me before, even during my parents divorce. With the surging of change that is adolescence, I began to see these darker tones, on “Brain Damage,” and on “When the Levee Breaks,” which was, in fact, like getting pummeled by flood and destruction, and “The Battle of Evermore,” with its ominous mandolin ostinatos, and of course “Stairway,” which seemed meaningful even if you could never say why.
John Barleycorn was more obscure at first. Partly because Steve Winwood, with his soul mannerisms, was just very difficult to understand. Moreover, there was a jazzy feeling to the album, which was something my sister really liked (later she was incredibly passionate about The Wild, The Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle, and that album had a similar jazzy aspect). But the song on the Traffic album that lodged in my subconscious for a long time was the title song “John Barleycorn,” an old folk ballad that Winwood apparently heard on an album by the Watersons. It’s a song about cultivating the raw materials necessary for making alcohol, or so it seems to me, but like many British ballads of the really olde variety, the lyric makes a lot of use of personification and anthropomorphism, and, well, of magic. John Barleycorn, himself, is subjected to all manner of tortures—he makes Abu Ghraib look easy—but he keeps returning for more, and in some versions, as I understand it, the people even drink his blood. There’s a bit of Christian allegory here, therefore, lurking underneath the manifest content. But part of the beauty of this dark and violent lyric is simply the language. “They’ve ploughed, they’ve sewn, they’ve harrowed him in.” And so on. To an American kid, in love with the possibility of language, this antique English, rendered in Winwood’s high melancholy tenor, suggested some otherworldly place, some rich past where these old rituals and beliefs persisted. A pagan England, an agrarian England, an England of myth.
All three of these albums, then, connected me, the contemporaneous listener, to forces beyond childhood in the suburbs (for example), and maybe that is just what Jimmy Page’s occult obsession was all about. Led Zeppelin, but also Pink Floyd and, to a more limited extent, Traffic, were trying to get music to summon a kind of reverence and seriousness that nothing else can quite kindle in you. Live theater is supposed to do it sometimes. Film is supposed to do it sometimes. Religion is supposed to do it. And rock and roll was supposed to do it, and that was why people thought rock and roll was the devil’s music. The hammer of the gods, in Page’s often repeated formulation, or the uncanny, in the way it’s described not in Freud but in Ernst Jentsch, meaning “doubts [about] whether an apparently animate being is really alive; or conversely, whether a lifeless object might be, in fact, animate.” Page wants to bludgeon you with this dark majesty, the animation of the seemingly inert world. Pink Floyd and Traffic were trying through subtler arts.
Did my sister understand this, at all, the effect that these records had on me when she made them available to me, and otherwise went about her business (when you are 15 you don’t want your 12-year-old brother hanging around too much). I think, probably, that my sister just had good ears, and good intuition, but I can’t ask her now, because she’s no longer living. And the result of her no longer living, however, is that loss has given these albums of sheen, a veneer, of even more mystery. Mystery always adheres to non-being, after all, and this is one of the ways that the dead exert a powerful and ongoing influence over the living. For example, these are among the albums that my sister owned, and which were among her things, after she died. I made a beeline for her CD collection (she died in 1995, and so it was during the ascendency of the compact disc), where I started taking things out and playing them and making various compilations of songs that had her attention. She sure liked the Grateful Dead, but I’m not always sure that what she liked about the Grateful Dead so much was the music as much as it was the ritual, and the creepiness of the band and its willing-to-perish thematic reiterations. She went to see them a lot, but she didn’t dwell on bootlegs or particular shows, the way a lot of her friends did. I remember her boyfriend, after she died, saying: “I know she’s up there with Jerry smoking a joint right now.” This kind of thing could be sentimental, if it weren’t also unsettling.
I say all this, I guess, because this time of year (later autumn) is the seasonal anniversary of my sister’s death, which took place on All Saint’s Day, the day after Halloween. So my niece and nephew had just been out for Halloween the day before (10/31/1995), trafficking (so to speak) in the imagery of the beyond, and they didn’t know that Halloween had this old resonance, in which are called forth the dearly departed. If they were Latin American, it would have been even more uncanny, this strange timing, because then my sister would have died during the Dia de Los Muertos celebration. Anyway, for me now, Halloween always has this very specific haunting as part of it. All the weather has to do is turn cold, such that I am reminded of Indian corn and apple picking, and that feeling comes to the surface of me, that nagging feeling of grief. Some years you barely feel the sensation, and it’s no worse than a hangnail, and then other years, loss is a tempest, and you do what you can just to keep getting on with your affairs. There’s a numerology about this kind of reckoning, a numerology that I find disappointing, but then, on the other hand, in what other way can you allow yourself the gift of remembering?
Well, one way is by listening to these albums. To some extent I can’t listen to them without thinking a little bit of my sister, remembering, for example, the pattern of her bedspread in a certain room in Pelham, NY, or remembering this off-white color she liked in her straight-leg corduroys, or her laugh, or her brand of cigarettes, or her car. And this is, I think, one of the things that music can do, it can help you preserve these bits of life that are otherwise lost, because it adheres to feelings, the songs of a certain moment adhere to the past, and to the feelings of the past, this is well known, and if the feelings are of grief and horror (of, for example, the morning I woke and there were 12 messages on my answering machine and I knew someone had died), then the songs bring forth that time, and you are made better in recollection. And what if in this way music is about some higher love, in that music itself makes this possible, and is thereby consonant with agape, as opposed to eros, a part of whatever that order is, and this is something that we should honor about it. I remember in college reading the first section of Of Grammatology, by Jacques Derrida, wherein he tries systematically to take apart the “Overture” to Levi-Strauss’s Triste Tropiques. Levi-Strauss himself (resquiat in pacem) makes the case that music gives us access to some feeling that writing never can do, or this is my recollection of the passage, and I remember wanting to defend music from the attack of Derrida, even as it became clear that Derrida wanted to lay claim to some of this capability for writing itself, and where would I be, what kind of novelist would I be, if I didn’t feel a little bit that way too, if I didn’t feel that the agape of music is also the agape of literature, if by literature what we mean is prose that has no purpose but to experience itself as a kind of music, a music of memories, dreams, reflections.
Ryan’s assignment was that I try to figure out what people thought they liked when they were liking “Higher Love,” assuming that they didn’t really like that horrible fucking synthesizer sound (I think it’s the Yamaha DX7), or the digital reverb on the ghastly drum machines. Did they like the lyric? Did they like Steve Winwood’s voice? Did they like the fleeting image of Chaka Khan on the song and in the video? Did they like the slickness of the whole thing, the way it steamrolls any uncertainty, going down kind of like Kahlua and milk? I can’t believe they really liked any of those things. In fact, I would be really pleased to hear, in this forum, from anyone, anyone at all, for whom “Higher Love” is one of their favorite songs. In the meantime, I would volunteer the hypothesis that no matter how abject the pop confection is, there is often a moment of the sublime hovering in there somewhere (and a catalogue of songs where the lightweight and the weighty somehow oddly coexist might contain some of the following: “Walk Away, Renee,” “Crimson and Clover,” “Dream Weaver,” “Superstition,” “Sexual Healing,” and even “Beautiful,” by Christina Aguilera), and that Steve Winwood, with his rather thrilling past, his past of greater accomplishment, was calling forth this possibility of music, that it can fuse us to some more interesting set of forces and meanings, something more comprehensive than just what’s happening on the surface. A dreadful song, therefore, with a useful philosophical nugget concealed deeply within. And I would rather listen to “Brain Damage” any day.