On July 23rd 1973, I went to the Rainbow in North London to see Van Morrison. I was very excited as I had not seen him perform live before. Over the subsequent 40 years I was to see Van Morrison, at least 50 times I would guess. In 1982 I saw him 7 times in 2 weeks and he was brilliant every time, although Martin fell asleep at one concert and John got so excited that he ran to the front of the auditorium for the encores. But nothing beats the first time you see a great artist. By this time I had all of his first 6 records and the two records he had made with Them. I knew them very well. I had read reviews of his concerts which had made it clear that every time he performed it was different. Sometimes he walked off stage in a huff and sometimes the whole audience transcended onto a higher plane. I know that looks pretentious but there have been many occasions Van Morrison was performing when I genuinely felt that I was on a different plane of existence. Enough of that, suffice to say that I was very excited and to say that I was full of anticipation would not be doing justice to my state of mind.
It was the summer holidays between my First and Second Years at Royal Holloway College and I was living with my parents for three months in Sevenoaks. I didn’t know anybody else that wanted to come with me so I went by myself. I also had a ticket for the following night – again, on my own. I got the train from Sevenoaks to Charing Cross and then got the Tube to Finsbury Park. As I got to the entrance of The Rainbow, I showed my ticket (long lost, sadly) and walked into the auditorium. My seat was half way back on the left hand side and I entered from the back. The whole area was brightly lit and when I arrived it was about one third full. I looked at the stage and was overawed. I had been to a fair few concerts in the past (by other acts) but I had never seen so many instruments on stage. On the left hand side there was a cello leaning on one of four seats grouped together. I had no idea that Van was going to play with a string quartet comprising cello, viola and two violins. On the right hand side was a keyboard and next to that but nearer the centre were two microphones on stands that were very close. This was going to be for the great Jack Schroer on saxophone and Bill Atwood on trumpet. There were other microphones and a whole range of monitors, amplifiers and speakers. It looked amazing. There was recorded music blaring out over the speakers as I found my seat and I heard the lyrics “Makes a deal with a smile, knowin’ all the time that his lie’s a mile. He’s Misstra Know-It-All”. I had never heard this song before but it was just so cool, so brilliant, so wonderful that I could barely contain myself. Of course with nobody to talk to and being too shy to strike up a conversation with a stranger, I internalised it all. In fact I don’t think I’ve ever talked about this to anyone until today, 17117 days later.
The gig was amazing. The best bits were released on four CDs called “It’s Too Late To Stop Now” so I can confirm that the music was astonishing. I had to leave early to make sure I got the last train back from Charing Cross so I missed “Listen To The Lion”, one of my favourite songs. He was equally good the next night.
The music that I heard was “He’s Misstra Know-It-All” by Stevie Wonder from his record “Innervisions”. Not only was this a cool song to play to the audience while waiting for Van Morrison to start, it was extra cool because very few people in the audience would have heard it before; the record wasn’t released until August 3rd. I heard the song on the radio a week or two later.
Royal Holloway College is about a mile from a town called Egham which had a great record shop called “Record Wise” which was run by a bloke called Adam Gibbs. It was a good shop and had lots of stock. The best thing about the shop was simultaneously the worst thing about it. You could borrow any record in the shop for a small fee, I forget what it was – probably 20p for a couple of days. This was great for those of us with a tape recorder. However, it meant that if you saw a record in the shop which you wanted to buy, you had to bear in mind that it wouldn’t be brand new and had probably already been played by a large number of people. Anyway, I taped a large number of records over my three years at Holloway and one of them was “Innervisions”. On the other side of the C90 I recorded “Talking Book”.
“Innervisions” is an outstanding record. In 2012, “Rolling Stone” made it the 24th best record of all time. Stevie Wonder plays all (or virtually all) of the instruments on 6 of the 9 songs. It is one of the first records to make extensive use of a synthesiser and the sound of the synthesiser became “hugely influential on the subsequent future of commercial black music” according to Wikipedia. The BBC website says “After the release of Talking Book, Wonder said: “We as a people are not interested in ‘baby, baby’ songs any more, there’s more to life than that.” As a result, “Innervisions” is like a snapshot of America in 1973, seen through Wonder’s mind’s eye. “Too High” looks at drug addiction; “Living for the City” addresses urban issues; “Jesus Children of America” conveys the cynicism of some organised religions. That said, this being Stevie Wonder, the album is rich in Motown schooling, its maker crafting a body of unforgettable, catchy tunes that coat the polemic sweetly – and this is most obvious on “He’s Misstra Know-It-All”, the album’s biggest UK hit. Its tale of greed and deceit – a thinly-veiled swipe at then-US president Richard Nixon – is set amid a ballad plaintive enough to be included in the chart-topping Motown smoochers collection The Last Dance at the turn of the 80s. “Innervisions” routinely sits near the very top of critics’ polls and that’s because everything is in appropriate measure: the ballads are not saccharine, and the jazzy interludes minimized; the song and the message is everything. Working with programmers Robert Margouleff and Malcolm Cecil, every synthetic squelch and innovation is incorporated within organic, analogue soul. “Higher Ground” is funky and punchy; “Don’t You Worry ’Bout a Thing” became the template for acid jazz; and that is before the beauty of “Golden Lady” and “All in Love Is Fair”.
It becomes a bit hackneyed to keep saying things like “the issues of 1973 haven’t really changed today” but here are some more words to He’s Misstra Know-It-All: “Must be seen. There’s no doubt he’s the coolest one with the biggest mouth. He’s Misstra Know-It-All” Biggest mouth and a know all? Thinks he’s cool? Remind you of anyone? Or “When you say that he’s living wrong, he’ll tell you he knows he’s livin’ right and you’d be a stronger man if you took Misstra Know-It- All’s advice.” It was supposedly aimed at a President…..
Rolling Stone put “Living In The City” as the 105th best song of all time. “Stevie Wonder went epic with “Living for the City,” a bleak seven-minute narrative about the broken dreams of black America that was so powerful, Richard Pryor later recorded the lyrics delivered as a church sermon. Wonder sings about a boy growing up in the mythical town of Hard Times, Mississippi, surrounded by poverty and racism. When he takes the bus to New York in search of a better life, he gets set up for a drug bust and goes to jail. Wonder filled the song with cinematic dialogue, even recruiting one of the janitors at the recording studio to play the white prison guard who mutters, ‘Get into that cell, nigger.'” Racism in 1973. Racism in 2020.
“Higher Ground concerns reincarnation. Stevie Wonder said “I would like to believe in reincarnation. I would like to believe that there is another life. I think that sometimes your consciousness can happen on this earth a second time around. For me, I wrote “Higher Ground” even before the accident*. But something must have been telling me that something was going to happen to make me aware of a lot of things and to get myself together. This is like my second chance for life, to do something or to do more, and to value the fact that I am alive.” *Stevie Wonder was involved in a serious car accident three days after the album’s release.
17117 days ago, I think I was on higher ground from the moment that I first heard Stevie Wonder.