Books on the lives and music of Stevie Wonder and Van Morrison By Dave Shiflett
Sunday, June 27, 2010; B07
SIGNED, SEALED, AND DELIVERED
The Soulful Journey of Stevie Wonder
By Mark Ribowsky
Wiley. 337 pp. $27.95
WHEN THAT ROUGH GOD GOES RIDING
Listening to Van Morrison
by Greil Marcus
PublicAffairs. 208 pp. $22.95
The lives of celebrity musicians are a bookseller’s dream, especially when there’s plenty of sex, detox and perhaps a spin at talking in tongues before the star expires in hideous delirium — hopefully with cameras rolling. These new books on Stevie Wonder and Van Morrison are a little light on the lurid, but their subjects have produced substantial bodies of work, especially Wonder. Both are also still with us, and both books hold out hope they have more good music up their somewhat frayed sleeves.
Mark Ribowsky’s “Signed, Sealed, and Delivered” bills itself as the first biography of the Motown wunderkind — now 60 — who has racked up 26 Grammys and 34 top-10 hits in a career spanning nearly a half-century. Wonder’s life has its intriguing aspects. Born in Saginaw, Mich., in 1950, he lost his eyesight hours after birth, and there is some dispute over his exact birth name; Ribowsky writes that the name on his incubator may have been Steveland Morris, though other accounts say he was born Steveland Judkins, which was later changed to Morris. There was also a booze-guzzling father who doubled as his mother’s pimp and a later trip to a faith healer in hopes of bringing the boy’s eyes back to life.
His ears, however, were always top-notch. He played the bongos before he could walk and was a prodigy on another front as well, having his first sexual experience as early as age 8 (his sex drive never seems to have deserted him, as Ribowsky reminds us throughout the book). While there are also plenty of details about Wonder’s hardscrabble upbringing and latter troubles, including a residual sadness and a near-fatal encounter with a logging truck on a North Carolina highway, the emphasis is on his music.
It’s not always a pretty picture.
Wonder inked his first Motown contract at age 11, signing the document with an “X.” His virtuosity as a harmonica player, infectious stage presence and eventually a long string of hits won him many fans, including Ribowsky, who writes that Wonder is “dripping in genius” and “he is more than cool. He is real.” There’s no doubting his contribution to the American popular music songbook, from early hits such as “Fingertips (Part 2)” (1963), “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)” (1965) and “For Once in My Life” (1968) to terrific albums including “Talking Book” (1972) and “Songs in the Key of Life” (1976), the latter, in Ribowsky’s view, representing Wonder’s creative peak.
Ribowsky’s reverence does not always extend to Wonder’s musical associates, and his book will reinforce many negative stereotypes about the music business. Berry Gordy, founder of Motown Records, comes across as the Tyrannosaurus rex of music industry weasels. The contracts he offered musicians, Ribowsky writes, “could be the definition of chattel.” According to the author, the proceeds from a million-selling record went almost entirely into Gordy’s deep pockets: the artist would get $20,000 while Gordy would take $730,000 plus whatever expenses he wanted to tack on. No wonder Marvin Gaye referred to Gordy’s company as the “Gestapo.” Gordy also claims to have come up with the name “Stevie Wonder,” though Ribowsky suggests an origin lower down the corporate roster.
Gordy was not the only one to exploit Wonder, and he certainly treated him with more respect than other musical colleagues, including the Rolling Stones, who used Wonder as an opening act during their 1972 tour supporting “Exile on Main Street” (the Stones had opened for Wonder on one of his 1965 tours). He was usually paid no more than $1,000 per show, Ribowsky writes, and after dividing the loot with his band he “would end up poorer than when he began.” Keith Richards called him vulgar names, and the Stones “hated the overheated reaction he got” and “found it tough to follow him.” In retaliation, “they took steps to undercut him,” including keeping his name off the marquee for most performances.
Van Morrison has not enjoyed Stevie Wonder’s marquee success, though his “Brown Eyed Girl” may have been played at more frat houses than anything Wonder ever wrote. He, too, has attracted fiercely loyal listeners, none more so perhaps than Greil Marcus, whose deeply considered views are presented in “When That Rough God Goes Riding.”
Marcus provides a few details of Morrison’s life, including that his mother became a Jehovah’s Witness while his father remained a table-pounding atheist, which may shed some light on the spiritual nature of much of his work. The brief book, however, almost entirely concerns the music, about which Marcus can wax quite ecstatic, especially when discussing Morrison’s masterwork, “Astral Weeks,” which was recorded in New York in 1968.
He characterizes the album as “forty-six minutes in which possibilities of the medium — of rock ‘n’ roll, of pop music, of what you might call music that could be played on the radio as if it were both timeless and news — were realized, when you went out to the limits of what this form could do.” He says he’s played the album more than any other record he owns.
Thankfully, the book is not an exercise in extended treacle-ladling. Marcus slices up his subject pretty well, both personally and artistically. Morrison, he writes, “is a bad-tempered, self-contradictory individual” who has made a great deal of lame music, including “the endless stream of dull and tired albums through the 1980s and ’90s” whose titles, he adds, read like “warning labels,” including “No Guru,” “No Method,” “No Teacher” and “Inarticulate Speech of the Heart.” Elsewhere, he says Morrison’s cover of Bob Dylan’s “Just Like A Woman” is “an affront . . . to the song if not the songwriter,” and in a notable negative superlative Marcus writes that the recording of “Friday’s Child” includes what “might be the worst instrumental break in the history of the form.”
Yet neither author insists that his subject is washed up. Marcus says that Morrison’s “Behind the Ritual” (2008) is a turn toward the better while Ribowsky, quoting Wonder from a 2004 interview, holds out hope that he’s not a spent force: “For me to say I’ve reached my peak is to say that God is through using me for what he has given me the opportunity to do. And I just don’t believe that.”
Let’s hope he’s right — this sad world can always use another good song. May the worst fate to befall either of these musicians be a steady gig at a minor Vegas resort.