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The Wild Stevie Wonder: Rolling Stone's 1973 Interview

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So you didn't miss a thing.
We listened to Redd Foxx and did all that stuff! We tried to sneak and do it to little girls. I used to get into a lot of shit, Jack! I got caught trying to mess with this girl. I was about eight years old. It was the play house trip. And I really was like taking the girl's clothes off and everything, I don't understand how I did that stuff, you know. I mean, I was in it! I had her in my room with my clothes off. And she gave it away 'cause she started laughin' and giggling 'cause I was touching her.

I used to hop barns with all the other dudes. You know those small sheds they used to have in back of houses; in the ghetto where I lived, we'd hop atop them from one to the other. I remember one time my aunt came and said, "OK, Steve, Mama said don't be doin' that," and I said, "Aw, fuck you," and there're some neighbors out and they said, "Aw, child, you oughta be ashamed of yourself, I thought you was a child of the Lawd, you out there cussin' 'n' everything." That was like back of our house in the alley, you know, so I just kept on, just hopping the barns, jumping around and everything, till all at once I jumped and fell right into my mother's arms. The ironing cord, the whipping. The Magic Ironing Cord Whipping.

You've mentioned in various interviews that you feel like you haven't paid a lot of dues. You were talking about Ray Charles, about how you can sense the pathos in that man's voice.
I heard a lot of things, you know, the way people really did him in, but I think he's doing a lot better now.

People did him in?
Well, they knew like when he was on drugs. A lot of people would like bust him, just to get money, or they would put him in jail in some of the Southern places just to get some bread.

In school, what subjects did you like best?
History, world history, but it got kind of boring. And science. The history of this country was relatively boring — I guess because of the way it was put to us in books. The most interesting to me was about civilizations before ours, how advanced people really were, how high they had brought themselves only to bring themselves down because of the missing links, the weak foundations. So the whole thing crumbled. And that's kind of sad. And it relates to today and what could possibly happen here, very soon. That's basically what "Big Brother" is all about.

I speak of the history, the heritage of the violence, or the negativeness of being able to see what's going on with minority people. Seemingly it's going to continue to be this way. Sometimes unfortunately violence is a way things get accomplished. "Big Brother" was something to make people aware of the fact that after all is said and done, that I don't have to do nothing to you, meaning the people are not power players. We don't have to do anything to them 'cause they're gonna cause their own country to fall.

"My name is Secluded; we live in a house the size of a matchbox." A person who lives there, really, his name is Secluded, and you never even know the person, and they can have so many things to say to help make it better, but it's like the voice that speaks is forever silenced.

I understand that when you don't hear anything and you hear this very high frequency, that's the sound of the universe.

Or a burglar alarm, which takes some of the mystery out of it...Tell me about your experiments with electronic effects and music. First, have you listened to Beaver and Krause, or Pink Floyd, Emerson Lake and Palmer, or Walter Carlos?
Walter Carlos, yes, but for the most part I've listened to just what's in my head, plus Bob Margoloff and Malcolm Cecil — they just built a new synthesizer you should see — they have their own company, Centaur, and they did an album, Tonto's Expanding Headband. They are responsible for programming and I just tell them the kind of sound I want.

I hadn't got tired of strings or horns or anything, it's just another dimension. I'd like to get into doing just acoustic things, drums, bass, no electronic things at all except for recording them.

How about the Bag [a throat-sound amplifier made by Kustom]? What does that do for communication?
It creates an emotion in that the voice is low. And it frightens you a little. We used it on Syreeta's album, "She's Leaving Home," I was just playing the ARP, not really singing, but playing the note and moving my mouth.

What else are you checking out these days?
There's this string instrument made in Japan. You tune it like a harp to a certain chord scale. It takes you somewhere else that's sort of earthy and in the direction where my head is slanting — like going to Africa. Maybe I'll take a tape recorder over there and just sit out and write some stuff.

In concert, your opening number includes African scatting.
I got that from this thing called The Monkey Chant that we used in different rhythms, and we came up with [chop-chants, in speedtime] ja-ja-ja-jajajajajaja...

And there are three pairs of drumsticks going.
It's like fighting. I'd love to go to Ghana, go to the different countries and see how I'd like to live there.

Do you know Sly Stone?
I've seen him a couple of times. I haven't heard too much about him lately, just rumors.

He influenced you to a degree.
...Ah...I think there's an influence in some of the things I've done, like "Maybe Your Baby." But I can hear some of the old Little Stevie Wonder in a lot of his early things [Stevie sings a bit of "Sing a Simple Song"]. It used to tickle me...

You've said that your writing was influenced by the Beatles.
I just dug more the effects they got, like echoes and the voice things, the writing, like "For the Benefit of Mr. Kite."

Did it make you feel that you could be more loose yourself?
Yeah. I just said, "Why can't I?" I wanted to do something else, go other places. Same thing about keys. I don't want to stay in one key all the time.

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Song Stories

“American Girl”

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers | 1976

It turns out that a single with "American" in its title--recorded on the Fourth of July during the nation's Bicentennial, no less--can actually sell better in Britain. Coupled with the Heartbreakers' flair for Byrds jangle and Animals hooks, though, is Tom Petty's native-Florida drawl that keeps this classic grounded at home. Petty dispelled rumors that the song was about a suicidal student, explaining that the inspiration came from when he was 25 and used to salute the highway traffic outside his apartment window. "It sounded like the ocean to me," he recalled. "That was my ocean. My Malibu. Where I heard the waves crash, but it was just the cars going by."

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