#24: Stevie Wonder, "Innervisions" (1973)

24 Innervisions.jpg

Stevie is in a coma. His head is swelled up big, fat like one of those punching bag balloons that kids play with, the kind that come in foil packages. Maybe it’s even bigger. John got off easy, comparatively, cuts on his thighs and glass up under his fingernails. Some of the papers are already reporting Stevie is dead. Of course they’re wrong. Management hasn’t stepped in to provide any information about his status so they assume the worst. Clearly the worst outcome, here, is Stevie dies, but it’s not like that’s the only bad outcome. The doctors are talking contusion—his goddamned brain is bruised. Even if Stevie wakes up, who knows if he’ll walk or talk again. Maybe he’ll never smash another piano key or sing another note. Doctors and nurses come and go, checking vitals, making sure IVs are secured, updating clipboards. The soft rubber of their white shoes barely make sound as they move across the room’s tiled floor. They are like ghosts. We are all like ghosts, caught on our own breath as we wait for Stevie to wake up.

*

This is happening because John drove the rental car straight up the ass-end of a truck. It was a farm truck, a ‘48 Dodge, the kind some folks use to haul timber, and so early reports stated that it was a log that did this to Stevie—as if some huge fucking tree trunk was jarred loose in the collision and shot through the windshield right smack dab into Stevie’s forehead. That shit didn’t happen, though, not like that. No, it was all far less dramatic—the truck, not loaded up with logs, slammed on its breaks and John didn’t stop in time. It was the truck bed that got Stevie’s forehead. He’s lucky to even be in a coma. Anyway, the other guys in the band came around not long after in their own rental car and found Stevie and John’s car fucked to scrap in the middle of the road, its hood smashed up under the back of this truck. I don’t know who called, but whoever it was said, “Ira, you need to come to the hospital.” I said, “Hospital? What hospital? Who’s at the hospital?” The voice on the other end said “Rowan Memorial. North Carolina. Salisbury.” The voice paused, then continued—“Fuck, it’s Stevie.”

*

In a little while, when all of this is over, when Stevie wakes up, he’ll say, “The only thing I know is that I was unconscious, and that for a few days, I was definitely in a much better spiritual place that made me aware of a lot of things that concern my life and my future, and what I have to do to reach another higher ground.” When I read those words I will feel a slight chill. That chill, it will be stupid of me. See, even before the accident, Stevie had been talking about his new spiritual consciousness. It was all over Stevie’s latest album—“Higher Ground,” “Visions,” “Jesus Children of America.” Stevie had really been getting in touch with that part of himself, and so when he eventually says the thing about trying “to reach another higher ground” I’ll get chills because something deep inside me maybe believes that something about what Stevie is going through with the accident and his recovery and spiritual awakening are somehow connected. That’s crazy, though, I know. That’s why my getting the chills was stupid. So forget all that shit. Forget it all.

*

The truck, the hospital, Stevie’s swelled head—this is all happening three days after Innervisions comes out. The album is dripping with spirituality. From the cover, which finds an illustrated version of Stevie staring a beam of gold light into the sky over the mountaintops, to the lyrics that are both spiritually and socially conscious, it was clear Stevie had some new shit to say. Just so we’re clear, though, he didn’t have something new to say because his subconscious or unconscious or whateverconcsious knew he was going to get in a car crash. No, Stevie had new things to say because he looked at the world around him and saw the ugliness, the institutionalized racism, the poverty, whatever, all of it, and saw that it was his duty as an artist to raise awareness about those issues while providing a way forward by championing human compassion and spirituality, and then after all that, he happened to be in a car crash that deepened his beliefs.

*

You know how sometimes people will talk to their friends and loved ones who are in comas? I sing to Stevie. He likes his music loud and so the doctor tells me to give it a go, so I get right down in his ear and start singing “Higher Ground” as loud as I can. After a few bars, his fingers start tapping along to the rhythm. For the first time I think that Stevie might pull through.

*

Also, not long after all this, Stevie will say, “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.” This won’t give me chills like the other thing Stevie said. This time, I will just roll my eyes, because what the hell else can I do? This whole narrative about Innervisions and Stevie’s ideas about it somehow being inspired by a car crash that hadn’t happened yet will be bullshit. I’m more likely to buy into the idea that time isn’t linear, that all moments exist at once but humans are capable of processing them only linearly. Or, like, I’m more likely to believe that trauma, as a rupture in a person’s life, can ripple both ways in time, but again, that’s dependent on the idea that all of time exists as a block of moments happening concurrently. Not to repeat myself too much, but even these ideas are nonsense. Stevie had some ideas about faith and goodness. And then he was in a car accident.

*

But Stevie believes in that shit. And I guess who can blame him. When he was recovering in the hospital and doctors brought in a plastic surgeon, Stevie told the surgeon to leave the gash on his forehead be. He wanted a reminder of the injury, a mark of faith. When he made his return to the stage the following year, at Fucking Madison Square Garden, after taking the stage Stevie pointed to the scar on his head, looked up at the sky, and thanked God that he was alive. The crowd roared their approval. The crowd was full of love and hope. Stevie was full of love and hope.

*

And, though Stevie’s music was growing more spiritual, it’s not like his approach changed that much on Innervisions. No, despite its lush arrangements and general warmth, the album is not particularly optimistic or uplifting—not the way someone who knew he was about to be “given a second chance” to inhabit a more spiritual space, or whatever, might describe something as uplifting. Sure, there’s a love song or two, and “Jesus Children of America” is basically a warm hug for those in need of one, but the rest of the album is dark. “Too High” is about addiction. “Living For the City” is about the toll institutionalized racism takes on individuals. "Higher Ground,” though vaguely inspirational, encouraging people to do better, ultimately and ominously promises that “it won’t be long,” the “it,” there, of course, being the end of the world. Hell, even “Visions,” one of Stevie’s most flat out gorgeous songs, asks if a land of equality and goodness “exists so beautiful / Or do we have to find our wings and fly away / To the vision in our mind?”

*

Eventually, after the accident, Stevie’s art will start to change—it won’t be like he starts seeing the world rose colored, or starts shying away from the shitshow around him, around all of us, but he will start emphasizing lifting up the wounded and scared, and spending a little less time on tearing down that which wounds and scares. But that was always part of Stevie anyway. Maybe that will just be me seeing shit where there isn’t shit to see. Here’s my take away: whatever Stevie will be after that accident is no different from what Stevie was before it. So of course Stevie could write a song like “Higher Ground” before the crash without somehow knowing that he was going to be in a crash. Stevie was Stevie was Stevie. Maybe it will make a good story to say the crash somehow redeemed the man, gave him a second shot at life, a new perspective. But you can listen to the records and hear that the man on Talking Book and Music of My Mind, and Innervisions isn’t that different from the man on Songs in the Key of Life.

*

When Stevie wakes up, we will bring in that clavinet he plays sometimes, try to get him focusing on something, give him something to get excited about. Stevie will look at the goddamn thing for a good long while without touching it. One of the other guys in there will say, “Ira—Tucker, man, you sure about this? What if he can’t play.” I won’t answer—if he can’t play, he can’t play. And then Stevie will put his fingers on that clavinet and start busting out some little tune, nothing big, something familiar, not one of his, and he will grin ear to ear and right then is when we will all know that Stevie is back, and Stevie is Stevie, and Stevie is going to be just fine. See, he doesn’t need to reach any sort of new “higher ground.” He is there already.

—James Brubaker