“Stevie knows that nobody’s gonna bring me down.”
Anthony Kiedis ad-libbed that line toward the end of the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ 1989 cover of Stevie Wonder’s 1973 single “Higher Ground.” The Chili Peppers’ aggressive, relentless take on Wonder’s song helped to shape the Los Angeles funk-metal band into a superstar act—Mother’s Milk, the LP from which the single was culled, would eventually become the band’s first platinum LP. The Chili Peppers, six years into a career marred by addictions, failures and death, probably looked at the chorus of Wonder’s song—I’m so glad that I know more than I knew then/Gonna keep on tryin’/’til I reach my highest ground—and saw it as a blueprint for redemption. And it was.
Kiedis was absolutely right: Stevie Wonder would know that no one could bring the Chili Peppers down, once they made up their minds to succeed. He would know that because, more than once, Wonder had faced similarly bleak odds and powered through them. Accidents, commercial failures and even blindness were never more than momentary obstacles to the musical great born Stevland Hardaway Morris, whose 50-plus-year career has been all about catching his fingers on that next plateau and hoisting himself up.
Wonder’s headlining spot at Life Is Beautiful has the makings of a historic evening for those reasons. In terms of the “highest ground,” you couldn’t ask for better than 30-plus legitimately huge pop and R&B hits, a room full of shiny metal-plated honors ranging from Grammys to a Presidential Medal of Freedom, and a name that has become a kind of shorthand for multidisciplinary musical genius. And at the age of 65, no one could blame Wonder if he decided to retire from the stage, having reached a place that seems plenty high enough. In fact, even though he’s made no announcement about his future, it’s not a stretch to speculate that this very well could be one of the last festivals Wonder ever plays; likewise, it’s possible this could be your last chance to see him perform live.
If that doesn’t sound like a potentially historic night to you, maybe a bit of context is in order. I’ve recently been racking my brain trying to think of which Wonder songs I’d be happiest to hear him play. I recognize that some cuts are just too obscure (“Earth’s Creation”—a terrifying, Aphex Twin-like instrumental from his 1979 LP Music From The Secret Life of Plants—is probably a 1,000-to-1 long shot), and some are inevitable (we’re gonna hear “I Just Called to Say I Love You,” so get over it). But even if I get none of my A-choices and all my B-choices—say, “Sir Duke,” “All I Do,” “Master Blaster (Jammin’),” “You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” “Part-Time Lover”—I’ll still walk away cowed by Wonder’s genius.
Now imagine what it would be like if we get a selection of what I consider Wonder’s bedrock work: “Superstition,” “Living for the City,” “Fingertips,” “Isn’t She Lovely” and, yes, “Higher Ground.” Imagine how you’ll feel if he gifts us with “My Cherie Amour,” “That Girl” or “Overjoyed.” Even the titles of these songs are invested with memories and feelings. I can’t even say “Superstition” without invoking thoughts of that strutting rhythm, those incisive electric piano stabs, and when you believe in things you don’t understand. That’s because Wonder’s music, over time, has transcended song and become a kind of language.
Let me walk that last one back a few steps: One of the several ways we define “communication” is the successful sharing of feelings and ideas, which is something Wonder excels at. Perhaps it’s because he doesn’t have visual cues to rely on in communicating with others; he has only voices, with their assorted tones and inflections. Put another way: Imagine writing love songs for someone you’ve never seen. Imagine feeling outrage over events you can’t witness through forwarded YouTube clips. Imagine using four of your senses to re-create the fifth—to craft sounds that encourage listeners to close their own eyes and “see,” almost as clearly as their author did.
Given all that, you, too, might learn to communicate in ways that anyone could relate to, from the Red Hot Chili Peppers outward. Then again, you might not. Stevie Wonder, like Albert Einstein, is a whole-cloth original. (Lest we forget that Einstein created a language, one that regulates our relationship to light itself.) If aliens ever visit this planet, don’t be surprised if they know the entire Wonder songbook, and have strong opinions about Talking Book vs. Songs in the Key of Life.
One last thing: If you’re one of those cynical types whose opinion of Wonder continues to be informed by Jack Black’s rock-snob outburst in the 2000 film High Fidelity (Google it), I suggest you listen to the last new Wonder song I flat-out loved from first listen: 2005’s “So What the Fuss” (Spotify it). It’s pure, 1970s-era Wonder-funk, with sweet guitar fills by none other than Prince. And it proves that the restless, relentless genius that made “Superstition” our common tongue still lives in Stevie Wonder. It’s up in there good, and nothing is ever gonna bring it down.