In April, I’m asked to write about an album cover I think is important, and I choose Talking Book by Stevie Wonder. I admire its candor and closeness: the first album cover to show him without his glasses. He looks more vulnerable than on his previous covers, and simultaneously more introspective and mature. I admire Wonder for his drive to evolve, to maneuver through new sounds and ideas; by 21, he was writing and producing all his own music. He had an early pop phase and a “classic period,” all by the time he was 25. I yearn for that level of self-awareness, self-confidence, self-sufficiency.
I listen to the album while I’m writing, and I get addicted. I march around town to the twangy beat of “Maybe Your Baby,” the sly chorus echoing on a loop in my head: “Maybe your baby done made some other plans.”
Midsummer, I buy a record player from an old high school classmate for 40 dollars. I’ve always wanted a record player. I don’t own any records other than a few I found for free at a yard sale last summer in Baltimore — some Tchaikovsky and Mozart, the Beach Boys’ L.A. (Light Album), a frayed folk compendium, Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP — because until now I’ve never had a valid reason to buy them. I ask my brother if I can look through his collection, gifted from my grandfather several years ago, and in those cardboard boxes, I unearth gold mines: Louis Prima, Ray Charles, The Beatles, Aretha Franklin. The one Stevie Wonder record I find is Talking Book, and I listen to it about twice as often as I listen to everything else combined.
As I’m nearing the end of a novel I’ve been working on for six months, my family flies west to visit the National Repertory Orchestra. In Denver, we see an exhibit featuring works by Jeffrey Gibson, which incorporates beading, weaving, neon lights, electricity, video and color all over the place. I’m enamored. The exhibit is titled “Like a Hammer,” after the idea that someone who is “like a hammer” is “capable of building up and tearing down.”
One material Gibson uses is song lyrics, and I spend several minutes staring at a decorated punching bag entitled “You Can Feel It All Over.” The description on the wall quotes “Sir Duke” and mentions the creative venture of reworking the words, of channeling joy into pain and vice versa. I take a picture of the punching bag and the description.
Writing the last chapter or two of my book on this trip, I start thinking about what will come afterward: I’m proud of the book, and I want to query it, to enter it in contests, to find an agent and get it published. I’m indirect and wishful when I talk about these things with my family and friends — “Published? If only,” I say, or, “That would be a dream come true” — but it is what I want. If not for this book, then for the next I write, or the next. However long it takes, it’s what I want, less in a dream way, more in a goal way.
I’m not close, but I do feel closer with this book than I’ve ever felt before. The prospect makes me incredibly nervous. I think about failure constantly. I teeter between optimism and realism, excitement and levelheadedness. Day by day, I coach myself with the same advice Stevie Wonder will give me later in the summer: “Be cool. Be calm. Keep yourself together.” Someday it will strike me as funny how that’s what the song tells you to do when the music itself sounds so jittery and urgent.
I start revising, and as I revise, I begin finding weak words in all of my writing: “felt like,” “slightly,” “kind of.” “Maybe” seems particularly common. Is particularly common.
Even when Wonder’s songs are excited and happy, there’s an element of apprehension. I know everyone relates to music differently, and this could be my own projecting. But I can’t think of him without thinking of the restlessness of “Higher Ground,” the bursting nostalgia of “I Wish,” the existential wariness of “Pastime Paradise.” The insecurity of “All Day Sucker,” “My World Is Empty Without You” and “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down).” Sometimes it’s in the melody, sometimes the lyrics, sometimes both. Yet I continue to associate Wonder’s music with happiness, the way I always have: music for a good mood, for inspiration, faith, joy, for picking yourself back up again.
I have my first real panic attack in June. I’m actually not sure if it’s the first I’ve ever had, but it’s the first I’ve decided to name, anyway. Two hours later, I drive the five hours from Ind. to Mich. I usually listen to music the whole way. It’s a tradition I love: singing my heart out, alone and loving it. A five-hour-long concert where the venue is my car and the star and the audience are both me, no one else to worry about.
This time, I worry about everything that crosses my mind. I listen to half of “Hem of Her Dress” by First Aid Kit, two or three minutes, then turn the music off in the middle of the song. The rest of the five-hour drive I spend in silence.
I get startled easily. I say this sentence all the time as half-explanation, half-apology for jumping into the air when someone surprises me by opening a door or saying “hello” when I didn’t know they were there. Lately, it’s been getting pretty comical. A dog will start barking, and I’ll fall out of my chair. Sometimes I even gasp, my hand flying to my heart like I’m a woman out of some Southern melodrama. I don’t know whatever got me to be so uptight (“everything is all right,” my mind sings), but this is one of the things about myself I’ve decided to just go with.
Sometimes I get tired of music. I love it, and I surround myself with other people who love it, and it seems like they never get tired of it. But I do. I get tired of books, too, reading and writing. My passions stem from the works and people who make me back up to the things I love: Mitski. “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” Haydn. Tomi Adeyemi. First Aid Kit.
This happens to me toward the end of Aug., with Stevie Wonder’s Down to Earth. I’m finally about to start querying my science fiction novel, and Down To Earth is exactly where I’d like to be, so I put it on shuffle at the beginning of a 20-minute car ride.
I’ve never heard of it before, and when I press play, I’m expecting to have to skip songs, make concessions. But I’ve underestimated Wonder, who was only 16 when he released it. The album wraps me up and carries me away. Suddenly there’s no place I’d rather be than here, “Sixteen Tons” trailing me like a ghost on a moonlit drive. Pulling up next to my mother’s house to “A Place in the Sun,” I spend five minutes accelerating and reversing, inching my car closer to the curb, even though it’s the suburbs and nobody cares. No one will crash into me here. I just want to hear the end of the song.
A few minutes later, like a cliché or a fiction, I pause in the middle of “The Lonesome Road” and turn off the car.
I don’t think about Stevie Wonder all the time, or I didn’t use to. Most of the moments I thought about him this summer didn’t feel like landmarks at the time, and it’s only in looking back that I see any thread at all. At the time they only felt like moments that were worth attending to. I’m hoping that’s the case with this piece of writing; I’m writing it because I can’t sort through myself alone and no musician can do it, either, not even Stevie Wonder, but there are times when it feels like the two might help each other along. This piece isn’t meant to be entirely about Stevie Wonder, but I wouldn’t have included him if I’d thought it was entirely about me, either. It’s about something in between somewhere — about the way music enters our lives, not only as a soundtrack, but as a translation of something very close to us, a message to be decoded.
It occurred to me as strange the other day that “Angel Baby (Don’t You Ever Leave Me)” never got as popular as “Uptight (Everything’s Alright).” It’s catchy and just as upbeat. Maybe it’s because it’s a more insecure song and people really do want everything to be alright. Then again, “Superstition” was a hit, so maybe I’m wrong. Maybe people love a good anxiety story.