By Rory O'Connor
We turned down a back road off a back road and were met by a road block. Two policemen wearing "Town of North Brookfield" badges on the shoulders of their blue serge shirts marched slowly over to the car. They asked us who we were. The stash was right in the glove compartment, and old, familiar waves of paranoia washed over us.
We told them our names, and were checked against a Master List. Then they barked into a walkie-talkie, received a staticky reply, and waved us through. Everything was all right, our names were on the list. Life is different when you're on the list.
We drove on about a hundred yards, getting a first glimpse of the big red barn and the long white house. Just past the swimming hole we were met by another security man, probably the one on the other end of the squawk-box. Overhead a helicopter piloted by the "Projects Coordinator" swirled anxiously about. We parked and began to survey the scene of Gil Markle's dream.
Markle is the proprietor of Long View Farm and was our host for the day. Long View is his "state-of-the-art recording and mixdown facility in western Massachusetts, site of last Tuesday's gala all-day publicity preview of Stevie Wonder's long-awaited new double album, Songs in the Key of Life.
Markle greeted us and graciously led us over to one of the bars. "Stevie is about ten minutes behind," he informed us. "The buses are about two."
The chartered yellow school buses, he explained, were laden with nearly a hundred media types from Washington and New York, sporting IDs that said Newsweek, Crawdaddy, Rolling Stone, and The Washington Star. The reporters had been treated to a light breakfast at the New York Sheraton, bused to JFK, and flown by DC-8 to Worcester's airport (champagne service on board) in order to be fed, feted and filled with Stevie's newest music. All this while deep in the Disneyworld ambiance of Gil Markle's $1250-a-day rich freak's country dream.
Markle left to attend to some details, and we used the time to snatch a drink and check out the Farm. It was your basic gutted and remodeled nineteenth-century farmhouse complete with 16-track recording studio, control room and television facilities. Outside there were several other structures, a large barn, horses, cows, goats and various other barnyard accoutrements, all etched into a pastel panorama that could be entitled "The Valley at Harvestime." Just down the road, a large and mobile cloud of dust informed us that the buses were arriving, slightly behind schedule. I wondered if the Projects Coordinator was going to catch hell for that.
Suddenly Stevie himself was there too, clad in a cream-colored Gaucho outfit with matching kid gloves, hat, boots and shades. In addition he was sporting square holsters, which were filled with cardboard six-guns attached to album covers, and a cartridge-studded belt that read "#1 With A Bullet." He was immediately surrounded by a gaggle of photogs popping flashes six inches in front of his unseeing eyes.
Rather than answer any of the exceedingly silly questions the reporters were feverishly shooting at him, Stevie asked if he could take a few moments to address the gathering as a whole, after which the first two sides of his album would be played. After taking time to thank everyone associated with the production of the disc, he called for, "A positive tomorrow for all peoples," and added that "Love can be a reality, not just a temporary thing that we … feel, but a permanent condition." He concluded by saying of his album, "I sincerely hope that you all enjoy it … but in a sense I don't really care. Because I know that I gave my all in all to it."
"Is this guy for real?" my sidekick whispered.
I admit that I had my doubts. To the many of us left dazed and jaded by the last decade, Stevie Wonder's cliché-ridden peace-and-love rap and public air of humility inevitably ring somehow hollow. I pondered as Wonder was led into the control room, where he took a seat on the floor in the middle of the speakers. The room filled up rapidly behind him, and the rest of the company was urged to wander through the rest of the main house, the auxiliary living quarters outside, and the front yard, all of which were completely wired for sound. Soon the music began, and Wonder began to rock back and forth in time just like Little Stevie used to do. But it was a far cry from "Fingertips."
From the very first note of Songs in the Key of Life it became apparent that we were in the presence of a man who makes music so beautiful that there can be no doubt of the depth of his feeling and his genius at "making a reality out of what once were simply sounds inside my head." Each song sounded better than the next, as Stevie ranged through music as disparate as classical and disco, ballad and boogie, taking from each the sounds and rhythms that he wanted, and singing throughout finer than ever. The first two sides alone were enough to reveal him as a master of every style, a mature and inspired artist at the peak of his powers. After ten songs we broke for a banquet amidst dancing and much applause.
After loading up with slabs of roast beef, turkey, tomato bisque, ratatouille, corn on the cob, and well, I won't bore you with details, we moved inside to sit and eat. We had the good fortune of sharing our table with three young black women and a small child. The baby was of the age where her every gesture became an excruciatingly beautiful act, since the entire world was new to her. She laughed, she cried, she tried to repeat everything anyone would say, and she mugged for us shamelessly. Her name was Aisha.
After the meal we returned for the second half of the album. As the first song on Side C, "Isn't She Lovely," floated out into the air waves, I realized with a start that Wonder was singing about the very child we had just been with, that Aisha was his. "Isn't she lovely," he asked us in song. "Life and love are the same/ Life is Aisha/ The meaning of her name/ Londie, it could not have been done/ without you who conceived the one / That's so very lovely made from love"
Is Stevie Wonder for real? This was pure and direct communication of the essence, absolutely untouched by the intermediary of ego.
But judge for yourself. Songs in the Key of Life should be out in the stores by the end of the month. It's the culmination of all the directions Stevie's been pointing us toward for the past few years, and if it doesn't go number one I'll eat this column every morning for a week.
All original material copyright © Gilbert Scott Markle. All rights reserved.