Editor’s Note: There are certain tracks that are, well, “epic” — memorable, larger than life, carved into music history. In this series, we look at one of them.
Remember the old Columbia Record Club? For a penny, you could get something like ten albums to start (the trick was staying on top of the ensuing automatic monthly shipments. I spent plenty of my fast-food job money on those albums).
Among the first ten I chose was Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions. It featured hits like “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing” and “Higher Ground,” but one track in particular is a standout. “Living For The City” features Wonder’s amazing musicianship, coupled with a timeless social message about the struggle for justice and opportunity.
The moody keyboards at the start set the tone of the gritty reality African Americans are living through, whether in “hard time Mississippi” or on the streets of New York. The song is from 1973, but fifty years on, not much has really changed. Hard work and decency are getting a humble rural family in the deep South exactly nowhere, so the son strikes out for the big city, hoping for better things.
Of course, that becomes a cruel joke.
Wonder drives the point home by dropping a short story into the middle of the song: the eager young man arrives by bus in Manhattan (“skyscrapers…and everything”). In seconds, he’s targeted by a street hustler, busted for drugs, and tossed in prison for 10 years. One of the most chilling bits is the sound of a prison guard (voiced by a studio janitor) ordering him to “Get in that cell, n**ger.” The line was later sampled by Public Enemy.
The audio vignette happens in under a minute but conveys the helplessness felt by many in communities of color – then and now. Stevie’s gruff tone (with a curse word or two thrown in for good measure) in the second half of the song says it all; this is no place for the lilting vocals of his earlier hits.
Innervisions was another big step away from “Little Stevie Wonder” into a more socially conscious artist. He’s said that the song was the first one that allowed him to fully express how he felt about what was going on in the world at the time, “I was able to show the hurt and the anger. You still have the same mother that ‘scrubs the floors for many,’ she’s still doing it…That’s still happening.”
As he often did, Wonder played every instrument on the track, from electric piano and bass, to drums, handclaps, and more. The synthesizer was relatively new at the time, but with his characteristic genius, he utilized it in laying down an aching groove that, at times, almost sounds like muffled screaming.
“Living For The City” is a neat little 7:22 opera. Like all great operas, it tells a powerful story, one that still resonates. It won “Best R&B Song” at the 1974 Grammy Awards; Rolling Stone has ranked it at Number 104 on their list of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.” It’s been covered by Ray Charles, Michael McDonald, even Tina Turner, but it’s Stevie’s original view of a harsh world that remains the most epic version.
Take just one look at the cover of Innervisions, where a blind Stevie appears to beam his metaphorical “vision” out into the Universe and you understand that he sees far more than most of us.[Don’t forget to suggest your picks for an Epic Track in the comments. This one came in from thequickflickcritic: what’s yours?]
Photo: Stevie Wonder at the White House (public domain)