Sunday, September 8, 2019

Talking Back To The Night | Lefsetz Letter

It’s not on streaming services.

Oh, it’s on Deezer, where I’m listening now, but that’s the difference between U.S. and Europe, licensing, almost twenty years later the industry still hasn’t gotten its act together, even major label stuff is unavailable, like Steve Winwood’s 1982 album “Talking Back To The Night.” Oh, you can hear “Valerie,” the belated remixed hit on “Revolutions: The Very Best Of Steve Winwood,” but most of the rest of “Talking Back To The Night” is not, his very best that is.

There was the unanticipated comeback, after Winwood had been given up for dead after the failure in the marketplace of his ’77 solo debut. It was not uncommon for stars to fade away. They burned out and did not radiate. But then “Arc Of A Diver” came out three years later and brought Winwood back to the airwaves, you could not escape “While You See A Chance,” and this being the era when no one purchased singles, on the basis of that track boomers went out and purchased the LP and became infatuated, it was a living room staple. So there was great anticipation for its follow-up two years later, “Talking Back To The Night.”

I remember it sounding less vivid, somewhat muted. Until the belated impact of “Valerie,” I remembered it as somewhat of a dud.

Until I listened to it.

You forget how many times you listened to these albums. You were a fan, you purchased the new release immediately and spun it a number of times to get it. And then maybe you moved on if it didn’t resonate at that point, but I didn’t realize how much I continued to play “Talking Back To The Night,” when I was preparing for my Sirius show last week I played it and I was stunned, I knew every lick, it brought me back to that era, but even more I loved those tracks, I was disappointed I could not share them with my Sirius audience, but ever since they’ve been playing in my head, I can’t get anything else in there, they’re on an endless loop. Especially three. Starting with “Big Girls Walk Away”:

“Big Girls Walk Away”

You hold your broken heart out
And you say it won’t stop hurting
Like there’s something I can do

The lyrics are by Will Jennings, a harbinger of what’s to come on “Back In The High Life,” they’re sensitive and insightful, but it’s Winwood’s plaintive delivery that brings them home. And the sound, with the doubled vocal.

And then the mood changes with the chorus:

Big girls walk away

The only other song I know with a similar lyric is the Four Seasons’ “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” which my mother had to buy, she loved it.

And then come the most memorable lines.

You want to play with princes
On a million dollar holiday
But you never met their mothers

She’s a party girl, actually that’s in the lyrics:

You just got so high
Party girl just keep the earrings

It’s an observation, a warning. You picture an elite level of interaction you do not have access to, on the Riviera, where money and looks are everything.

And there’s even a bridge!

The second of the trio is “Help Me Angel”

“Help Me Angel”

It’s the repetition of the title of the song that resonates, only Winwood can turn a phrase into a whole musical experience, moving up and down the scale. And then there’s the synth solo that sounds like a horn. “Help Me Angel” is not the kind of song you listen to on the couch, you move around the house, cleaning up, organizing, nodding your head.

Right before “Help Me Angel” on the LP is “It Was Happiness”

“It Was Happiness”

“It Was Happiness” is an opus, just under five minutes long, with the vibe of “The Finer Things” on “Back In The High Life.” But what brings it home is the chorus:

It was happiness, so clear, happiness
It was happiness, no tears, happiness

It’s a love story. Seen from the wrong end, when it’s over, when you’re reminiscing about the good times. And unlike the relationships in Hollywood, all over TMZ, relationships amongst the hoi polloi are private, intimate, it’s just the two of you, at least they were when this LP came out, before social media.

That’s the essence of the album for me. Of course I liked the opening cut “Valerie,” but it’s the above three tracks that resonated and shockingly still do, my opinion of the album was wrong, it might not have hits, but its got a place in my life, because of the lyrics, the sounds, when it peaks it truly does.

And then comes the title track:

Talking Back to the Night

But this is not the version that resonated with me.

Sometime in the last century, when CD boxed sets were still a thing, I implored Steve Leeds to send me the Winwood one entitled “Chronicles.” It was a four CD set. Actually, maybe it was a promo, I can’t find it online, but I listened to it incessantly, and there was a remix of the aforementioned “Talking Back To The Night,” and I became enraptured with it. It was much more immediate, in your face, punchy, funny how it was the same record but so much more impactful:

Talking Back to the Night

Now it turns out this ’87 remix was on a single album compilation also entitled “Chronicles,” so it was commercially available, but you won’t find it on American streaming services.

High above the heat of a summer New York street
An out of work musician plays a solo saxophone
He’s a preacher and a teacher
And he stands up all alone

It calls up the memory of Sonny Rollins blowing on the Brooklyn Bridge in that ’77 Pioneer ad. But the truth was after achieving fame, Rollins played for years on the Williamsburg Bridge in the early sixties, to the fumes and the wind and himself, getting it right. It wasn’t about fame, but music.

And they look from such a height
That somehow it’s all right
They’re talking back to the night
It’s all that they can do
Talking back to the night
It’s how they make it through

How do you make it through? Especially when no one’s paying attention, when you’re stuck. You can give up, some do, today you can bitch online, but in the old days all you could do was soldier on, playing, practicing.

All these memories came back to me doing research for my Sirius show.

But when I was actually on the air, what followed the “Talking Back To The Night” album was, of course, “Back In The High Life,” starting with “Higher Love.”

It’s completely different from what came before, the ‘pre ’82 Winwood has never really returned. It was four years later, it was a shock to the system. Sure, it was still Winwood. And mostly Will Jennings. But the secret sauce was…

Russ Titelman.

Russ drew players from his little black book, legendary in studios but mostly unknown to listeners, at least their identities. Like Jimmy Bralower and his drum programming. And Eddie Martinez. And Paul Pesco. Never mind horn legends like Randy Brecker and Tom Malone. And never forget the rhythm of Nile Rodgers, long before Chic was chic amongst rockers, long before “Get Lucky”…where are Daft Punk when you need them?

To dedicated Winwood fans like myself, “Back In The High Life” was sacrilegious, overproduced, but oh-so-tasty. It seemed like Winwood had sold out, but you couldn’t stop listening to it. Ultimately you realized it was a breakthrough, a harbinger of sounds to come, a bridge between the rock of the past and the future.

But based on this huge success Winwood made a rich deal with Virgin and never grasped the grail again until 2003’s “About Time,” initially released on an indie label, a pushing of the envelope, quite possibly the best late term album by any classic rock legend.

But when that didn’t resonate with the masses, Winwood signed to Sony and released the jaw-dropping track “Dirty City,” with extended Clapton soloing, but it was too late, this sound was dead in the marketplace. Once again, only the short version is available on U.S. streaming services, the nearly eight minute take is only available on YouTube:

“Dirty City”

If you want to go back to what once was, relive the sixties and seventies, but in a different light, stream “Dirty City” till the end, the playing will blow your mind.


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