Steve Winwood’s birthday was about a week ago—the 12th—and today he gets his day in the sun. I thought about featuring one of my favorite tracks by Traffic, which features, as do many, great Winwood vocals: “The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys,” or maybe “Dear Mr. Fantasy,” or “John Barleycorn,” or “Evening Blue.” Then I decided against Traffic but couldn’t bring myself to access Winwood’s solo albums, even though Arc of a Diver (1981) was a favorite album at that time. I just can’t bear the video for the hit track “While You See a Chance.” It’s all so cheesy.
But as great as it is to see Baker play, and to hear Clapton take more of a role in the song than he does on the recorded version, the album is the place to go to hear one of Winwood’s most affecting vocals. This song used to floor us back there in the wasted days. If only for those great lines, “But I’m near the end and I just ain’t got the time / Oh I’m wasted and I can’t find my way home.” I hear ya, man. We would nod sagely or look off into imaginary flames as we embarked on gold-charioted reveries, or what have you, knowing there was a path somewhere back there we should’ve taken and didn’t.
The song’s mood might be called despairing but it’s more like there’s still a hope: “You are the reason I’ve been waiting so long / Somebody holds the key.” You know how it was in those drugged to the point of sagacity days: anything could be a portent, and anyone might come along, bearing—even unbeknownst to themselves—the “key” to it all. We were all illuminati in progress, I suppose. The next record, the next song, the next film, the next book, the next poem, line, word, might put it all in perspective. And perspective was the great thing to have. Without it, a chaos; with it, an ordered movement from somewhere to somewhere else.
|Winwood, Grech, Baker, Clapton|
The song as recorded features wonderful cymbal accents from Baker. In fact, I have to admit that I’ve neglected Mr. Baker, and that may be churlish of me. I don’t think I avoided becoming a Cream fan because of Baker but rather out of a sense that Clapton, for all his amazing speed and grasp of the instrument, was bloody boring. And I formed that opinion from everything he did after Layla. But before that? Well, OK, so there was Cream, and there was Blind Faith.
Steve Winwood, though, he’s what gets me in the door with Blind Faith. That voice often likened to a choirboy. Yeah, he actually was a British choirboy, how charming is that? And he puts it to the service of some damn good blues singing when he wants to. It’s a very pure voice, as rock singers go, and he’s a multi-instrumental talent whose keyboard playing was always distinctive, making Traffic one of the few keyboard-led bands I admired. The album The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys is yet another great release of 1971, and the title track is, lyrically, a more demanding song to talk about than today’s track. Still, a song that opens with “Come down from your throne / And leave your body alone / Somebody must change” has enough cryptic hortatory power to make it memorable. What throne? The spirit? Is it calling the spirit or calling it out? “Leave your body alone” might mean: Stop fussing with the physical (sex, food, drink, etc.) and change toward something else. Something somebody has the key to.
I’ve always been one who put special status into the word “home.” “I can’t find my way home.” Long ago, like maybe 12 years old, I wrote a poem, more like song lyrics as I recall it, called “Journey of the Soul” and it was all about trying to “go home.” Later I came up with a poem—which also had parts that could be sung—called “Images from Home.” The idea being that “home” was not where you came from but where you were going. It’s not about going back. It’s about discovering that place where you really are, in fact, home. Sure, if you want to call that heaven, go right ahead. It’s the exilic idea that appeals to me, and that may have come from the Bible and the Hebrews in search of a Promised Land—the place they will find, not the place they left. Ditto the story of coming to “the New Land” from Europe to make a home. And of course the story of Eden as the great homeland back there somewhere. Cast out, we have to find or make another one.
All good stories about why you need to search for home. Or get so wasted that you don’t bother looking for it, preferring to stay right where you are—with the flesh and all it promises. When it’s gone you’ll leave your body alone to return to home—or humus.