Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Stevie Wonder Is a Fool

Stevie Wonder is a fool. I state it that way--baldly, without qualification--because the qualifications are so obvious that they tempt us away from the truth. I'm not saying he's a complete fool; in fact, I'm not saying he isn't a genius. But you can't deny that if you were to turn on a phone-in station and hear Stevie rapping about divine vibrations and universal brotherhood, especially with that inevitable dash of astrology, you would not be impressed with his intellectual discernment.

Those who find small stimulation in both Leon Lewis's talk show and the Rolling Stone Interview probably regard this as a false issue. But I insist that it isn't, if only because Stevie's blather has more dimensions--about six in all--than that of the average Leon Lewis fan or rock and roll pundit. Foolishness is an annoyance; cosmic foolishness is an offense. Elton John and John Denver may be no smarter than the guy who tried to sell you Earth Shoes last week, but like most salesmen they do maintain a certain feel for the concrete.

Needless to say, I do not cite the Johns at the behest of my ouija board. EJ and JD, together with SW, are the pop music heroes of the year and perhaps the decade, and all three are united by simple-mindedness of a sort that seemed to have disappeared from rock and roll avatars a decade ago. Elton's fervent pursuit of stardom is invigorating because he revels in music as well as wealth and fame, but unlike his spiritual forebears, the Beatles, he does not set up the playful distance that made their avowed materialism seem nothing more than a precondition of its own transcendence. Denver purveys privacy with a smooth confidence that reminds us (by negative example) that James Taylor really can sing the blues and often seems to dislike himself almost as much as we do. These are times so confusing that they disarm most ironists entirely. In order to forge ahead (rather than hold one's own, like the Who or the Stones) it is apparently necessary to ignore the complexities. Containing them is too much of a strain.

Stevie's early precursors--blind genius Ray Charles, love-crowd soul fave Otis Redding, Grammy perennial Aretha Franklin--never indulged in the sort of wary self-knowledge that makes for contrasts as intense as Beatles/John or Taylor/Denver. Stevie might have seemed callow against the background of their down-to-earth maturity, but callowness is natural in a child prodigy. His real model, however, was Sly Stone, who like so many rock (not soul) stars resolved the paradox of personal power within a supposedly communal music by pretending to inscrutability. Sly's public pronouncements are incoherent to the point of put-on, which opens that incoherence to further analysis, while Stevie's nonsense is accentuated by the earnest context in which it occurs. As might be expected, the split between Stevie's embrace of oneness and Sly's union of opposites extends to their audiences: Stevie's is genuinely integrated, while Sly's is simply biracial, divided between the white hitters who have danced to black music for two decades now and the superfly blacks for whom Sly is the greatest hustler of them all.

It was Stevie's peace corps, however, that turned out at Madison Square Garden last Friday. Stevie's third arena gig in this area since March suggested Sly-calibre hubris in a recessed market, with the added twist that all profits were to go to charity. But virtue was rewarded. At his Garden appearance in June, Sly couldn't fill the seats for his own wedding, which may turn out to be his counter-charge in divorce court--mental cruelty, a wife who doesn't draw. Stevie's show of agape, on the other hand, sold out. Sometimes the man's success is enough to make you believe in faith. Which may just be the point, as we shall see.

It was a fine show, too--more electric, I'm told, than his Nassau Coliseum visit in September. It wasn't as thrilling as his first Garden appearance in March, which doesn't even qualify as a disappointment--counting on a repeat of such an epiphany would be like expecting to fall in love twice in the same restaurant. Last March, the only act who could have topped Stevie was Jesus Christ. He had come close enough to dying the previous summer to make a lot of us realize how much we hoped of him, and then proceeded to surge across the radio to his sweep of the Grammys, when the record business finally acknowledged a small part of its debt to black music. The Garden was his victory celebration, and the sweet spirit of the concert, in all its integrated optimism, was like a one-night Summer of Love. The next day, everything looked like 1974 again, but for a brief time we could feel our power to defeat our own death wish.

But even on that great night, Stevie was far from perfect, because fools like Stevie cannot muster the kind of formal discipline perfection requires--he began too slowly, fooling around. Last Friday was even laxer. Wonderlove's warm-up numbers dragged, the new star of the female back-up trio combined the worst of Sarah Vaughan with the best of Madame Nhu, and Stevie didn't so much improvise on his synthesizer as doodle. The trumpet player's travesty on a doo-wop recitative almost ruined an otherwise inspired oldies medley. Stevie's joke build-up to "Three Blind Mice" was even lamer than Ray Charles's joke build-up to "Pop Goes the Weasel." And so forth.

More foolish than any of this, however, was Stevie's teachifying and preachifying. A third of the way into the set he paused to introduce the band and specify his own good works. The crowd buzzed restlessly, and Stevie was quick to reprimand: "For those of you that are talking," he really said, twice, pregnant pause and all, "relax your lips." Eventually, he got silence in the cafeteria just so two disc jockeys could list every charity and type of aid the night's proceeds would support. And then Stevie began to preach: ". . . pure love between all people, a love that is willing to give honestly and sincerely regardless of the color of your skin . . ." There was applause, whereupon Stevie reminded the skeptical that he is not a complete fool: "I hear that so many of you may clap when I talk about what I'm talking about. But unfortunately the only place where I find this love that I talk about is in my dreams, in the songs that I write . . ." But it was still as boring as church, and when Carman Moore whispered to me that all this folderol was really down-home sanctified, touching if not moving, I assented only in theory. Soon thereafter, Stevie began to sing, "Visions."

I've often wondered about the visual imagery running through the songs of our blind genius. Maybe the eye bias of our thought and language forced him to go lookin' for another pure love, but it seems fair to surmise that only his deplorable penchant for clichés--metaphors so hackneyed they become abstract--turns that love into the apple of his eye. Even in "Visions," a title that refers explicitly to the phrase "vision in my mind," he goes on: "I'm not one who make-believes/I know that leaves are green/They only turn to brown when autumn comes around." If he's blind, how does the fool know the leaves are green?

It must be, however, that I really had been touched, if not by the undeniable fact that this star was actually giving away his money, then perhaps by one of his magic melodies, so much more compelling inside the concentration of a concert than on record. I found myself moved by the "vision in my mind" idea, for obviously the man could enjoy no other, and suddenly I understood how he knew the color of the leaves--he had been told that it was so, and he had no choice but to believe. That was the definitive condition of his life. Much more than you or me, he was in contact with the unconscious acts of faith that get every one of us through each day.

I began by calling Stevie Wonder a fool because that is the kind of judgment we shy away from--after all, the man is blind, he is black, and we love him. But if he is a fool he is a sainted fool. His simplicity will not save us--what will?--but it will do us more good than the simplicity of John Denver or Elton John. We may enjoy their simplicity, we may find it useful--Denver did write "Leavin'" and "Sunshine on My Shoulder"--but we do not need it. It just may be that we need Stevie Wonder.

The persistence of hope which we call faith has always energized black music, and in Stevie this energy is intensified--because of his blindness, and because of his fortune as a survivor. Stevie may sometimes be sanctimonious as well as sanctified; his musical expansiveness may puff him up; his dream of brotherhood for our grandchildren may cloud over the ironies of our condition more than he can ever understand. But he really isn't one who make-believes. Instead, he creates an aural universe--or maybe I should call it an aural condition--so rich that it makes us believe. His multiplicity of voices, his heavenly tunes, his wild ear humor, and even his integration of the synthesizer all speak of a free future not dreamt of in our philosophy. And it is not foolish to believe that the transcendence of philosophy is the reason we want music in our lives.

Village Voice, Dec. 16, 1974