Tuesday, March 13, 2012

End of An Era: Stevie Wonder: "Yester-Me, Yester-You, Yesterday"

For many, the end of the 60s must have been something of a cross between the ending of a particularly good party and the physical uneasiness after getting off a twisting and turning funfair ride - wobbliness and an odd feeling of being slightly above the ground, feet only sort of connecting with it. There was disappointment as well, a haplessness - that so much went wrong, that the warmth and optimism and high hopes instilled by JFK - his death being the first of many blows - were as transitory and disorienting as that ride, a ride that (if you will) included just about everyone who cared about anything in the 60s, from the students in Paris to the antiwar protesters to civil rights activists. You did not have to be involved directly in the 60s to have this unease; the 60s, even for the most mild-mannered of bystanders, was compelling and involving, inspiring and exhausting.

Here Stevie Wonder sings as if it is the decade itself that he is breaking up with; it is as if the time and the people are bound into one, so much so that when he sings, acutely, "I had a dream" you know he is signifying more than just his own dream, but Dr. King's as well; while Wonder might well be singing specifically to his American audience, it's not as if people in the UK didn't pay attention - everyone did, and this song is big enough to include them, and also big enough to realize that there were "games" played that were more destructive than constructive; and that the world "we once knew" has been lost, a world where everything seemed to turn out right, where everything seemed possible.

That is an awful feeling, I think you will agree, dear readers - and this song, while a bit cloying with its use of "yester"s, gets to the point. The decade is gone; hopes have vanished; time has inevitably passed. Did anyone at this time actually look forward to the 1970s? I do wonder about that, but as so often happens, a decade ends and another begins, with not much noticeable difference at first. One person, however, who was looking forward to the next decade was Wonder himself - still a teenager at this point, he had to do things the way Berry Gordy wanted them done; and for that matter, the sing the songs he wanted him to sing. (Compare this pretty ballad with what Norman Whitfield was doing with the Temptations ["I Can't Get Next To You"] at this time, and Wonder comes off as a little old-fashioned, though not as melancholy as Robin Gibb or stoic as The Bee Gees.) For Motown Wonder was the prodigal teenager, but soon he would be old enough to do what he wanted, and his work would change drastically.

But this is a bittersweet farewell, a goodbye baby and amen to a relationship, a time, a tumultuous ride that I expect more than a few were glad to see end, at least chronologically. Souvenirs are packed away, sights and sounds are bid adieu, and crying starts, or stops. That is that, Wonder says, and it's sad. But it's gone, and the puzzle is, as another Motown group sang once, where did our love go?

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