Poet, Preacher, Soul Man. Bobby Womack: 1944-2014

Hard times have befallen another Soul Survivor.

Go down the list. Among the luminaries no longer with us Whitney’s gone. Luther’s gone. Isaac’s gone. Teddy’s gone. Michael is gone. You really need last names?

Bobby Womack is one of the greatest R n’ B vocalists most folks don’t know about. He never had a big crossover hit. Never showed up on American Idol. Never was celebrated by the critics and taste makers the way others are.

But Bobby could SANG. Not “sing.” The real OG’s know the difference.  Womack didn’t make a lot of great albums, but oh, did he make some truly great singles.

I Wish He Didn’t Trust Me So Much

Harry Hippie

A Woman’s Gotta Have It

If You Think You’re Lonely Now

Across 110th Street

Bobby Womack 1944 – 2014

I liked Bobby Womack’s music but I like his attitude nearly as much.  When they get to be that old they don’t care what they say about anyone.  In a 2012 interview Womack gave to The Guardian as his last album was released, The Bravest Man In the Universe, he held back nothing.

Womack was a session music on “Suspicious Minds” by Elvis.  He wasn’t a fan: “People say: ‘What did you think of Elvis Presley?’ I say: ‘He wasn’t shit. Everything he got he stole.'”

Womack co-wrote “It’s All Over Now” with The Rolling Stones and made it a hit but Womack wasn’t all that impressed.  “To be honest with you, I said: ‘Let the Rolling Stones get their own fuckin’ record and record that.'”

Many years later, Womack would show up on the Stones Dirty Work album and found he liked Keith Richards and Ron Wood just fine, but about about Mick Jagger he said:  “Some people never grow up if you give ’em too much. They gonna be assholes, then they just become a bigger asshole.”

Warming Up The Hague Jazz 2011 - Bobby Womack

Warming Up The Hague Jazz 2011 – Bobby Womack (Photo credit: Haags Uitburo)

Janis Joplin was a friend and Womack was one of the last persons to see her before she died.  Same thing with Marvin Gaye.  “The last time I saw him, the day before he died, he said: ‘Bobby, what’s a nigger got to do to get on the cover of Rolling Stone?’ It was all white acts. I said: ‘Die.'” It’s bullshit, it’s really bullshit. One of the greatest singers in the world. Marvin never knew he was gonna be as big as he is. Now you hear him on commercials every day.”

If character is built through tragedy and hardship, Womack really was The Bravest Man in the World.  One son suffocated when he was four months old.  Another committed suicide.  A third is in prison for second degree murder.  Womack’s brother Harry, the title character of his hit, “Harry Hippie” was murdered by a girlfriend  Womack dealt with the violent death of his friend Sam Cooke, divorces, a 30-year cocaine habit, lousy records, prostate cancer and Alzheimer’s.

Womack didn’t have to sing about hard times.  He lived it.

“Bad as I been, I can sing my ass off, better than I could before. Maybe it’s been preserved or something. If I can take control of my life from drugs, divorces, anything, I stand tall.  I’m speaking for all those singers who gave up. Marvin, Jackie Wilson, Sam Cooke, Wilson Pickett: I can keep naming them until you say OK, I got enough. They need more respect than can ever be given to them. And I’m gonna set the record straight.”

For those of you who don’t get what the big deal about Womack is, I cordially invite you to go listen to some ersatz Robin Thicke “soul” shit as he begs his estranged wife to take his dog ass back or some other plastic poseur.

Another of the real deal, great, original Soul Men has crossed over to that Great Gig in the Sky. R-E-S-P-E-C-T, Mr. Womack.

What’s Going On With These Marvin Gaye Movies?

“Another Marvin Gaye movie? Let’s get it on!”

There’s news from the Will-We-Ever-Get-A-Damn-Marvin-Gaye-Movie-Made? Desk.   Now Lenny Kravitz is attached to one if you need that sort of thing.

Rocker-actor Lenny Kravitz has reportedly been tapped to portray Marvin Gaye in filmmaker Julien Temple’s forthcoming biopic.

The controversial British director stepped in to revive the project last year after both Cameron Crowe and F. Gary Gray abandoned plans to bring the soul legend’s life story to the big screen, and now Kravitz has been cast as the music icon… 

Talk about making a movie about Motown’s sexiest singer has been going on since 2008, but talk is all there’s been so far.  The original MSN article was skimpy with details so I read the London Evening Standard story it linked to.  Here’s the graph that leaps out at me.

It would chart the final years of Gaye’s  life in London from 1981, when he was suffering from an addiction to alcohol and an allergy to the taxman, and how he was rescued by music promoter Freddy Cousaert and spirited away to his flat in Ostend, Belgium, to recover.

Let’s translate what that really means.

These boots weren’t made for walking.

By focusing on the last years of Gaye’s life overseas,  that likely means his critical Motown years (and the Motown music and those messy licensing rights) will be skipped and so will the songs from Marvin’s most fertile years.    No “What’s Going On.”  No “Inner City Blues.”  No “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.”  Probably no Tami Terrell and definitely no marriage to Berry Gordy’s sister.   Such omissions would be like doing a Martin Luther King, Jr. movie and skipping the “I Have A Dream” speech.

What we will get is the years when Marvin was a drugged-out hot mess who was too busy getting stoned and jacking off to porn (read Divided Soul by David Ritz like  I did) to make music.   Marvin was actually over and done until Freddy Cousaert cleaned him up that he could squeeze out a last gasp of brilliance with “Sexual Healing.”

Going to take a wild guess here, but I would bet this movie will focus on Cousaert saving Marvin from himself.  In other words this will be a Good White Man rescuing a Talented, But Bad Black Man movie.

We’ve seen this movie when it was called ‘Round Midnight, The Blindside or The Hurricane.  The Good White Person is the opposite  of the Magic Negro.  Whether it’s The Help, Mississippi Burning, Cry Freedom or Ghosts of Mississippi it’s the same old shuck n’ jive of White people waking up to realize “Gee, those Negroes got it tough,” and in falling all over themselves to aid those poor, helpless Black people shifting the emphasis to a coming-of-age story of the White person instead of the Black protagonist.

Finally, here’s the thing about a Marvin Gaye biopic: haven’t we heard this before?   Never mind whether Lenny Kravitz can pull off playing Gaye.  Jesse L. Martin left Law and Order to make a Gaye film and how much luck has he had?

“(Making the film is) impossible. It’s just not… I don’t know (if it’ll happen). I mean, I just sort of threw that one up to the universe and said, ‘If it’s meant to be, it’ll be’, but it seems impossible to put together, it really does. It just hasn’t happened… There’s five or six (other Gaye projects) in the works. I actually feel less pressure. There’s so many stories out there trying to happen that it just seems like it might be impossible. Nobody’s done it yet. We haven’t done it, nobody else has either, so there seems to be a reason you haven’t seen that story on the big screen yet. I don’t know what it is, but we’re gonna have to change tactics and do it on stage, or something like that. That would actually be a great idea! So we’ll see, we’ll see.”

“Gaye? Nah, bro. I like the ladies.”

A few years ago there were no less than four Marvin Gaye biopics floating around, but none of them went into the production phase.    F. Gary Gray (Set It Off) had one.  Cameron Crowe worked on another for four years with Terrence Howard attached before he hung it up.  Julian Temple’s was called Midnight Love (and still may be for all I know) and focuses on Gaye’s years in Brussels stoned out of his mind until he cleaned up long enough to record “Sexual Healing.”

Don Cheadle has tried for years to make a Miles Davis biopic with no luck.  The most recent thing I’ve heard about that project is that instead of it being a biography of the Dark Magus, now it’s just going to be Miles meeting a White fan and how the fan’s world is rocked by the encounter.

I’m not going to gripe about the casting of Kravitz to play Gaye.  He doesn’t look or sound anything like Marvin, but Beyoncé didn’t look anything like Etta James either.  The way I’m looking at it is, I sincerely doubt this movie will ever see the light of day or the dark of a movie theater.

Gaye was a brilliant singer, a sex symbol, a neurotic freak; his chaotic life was made for the movies, but deserves an in-depth exploration, not a Spark Notes version.

I’ll believe in a Marvin Gaye movie when I see it and I doubt I ever will.


Donny Hathaway: If Not the Best, He’s In the Conversation.

A brilliant artist waiting for his renaissance.

Have you ever woke up in a mood where you knew before the day was done you had to hear a particular singer and no substitutes would do?

I woke up today wanting to hear some Donny Hathaway.

Donny Hathaway is perhaps one of the greatest singers most people know nothing about. He ranks right up there with his contemporaries of the time, Marvin Gaye, Al Green and even Stevie Wonder, but due to his short recording career and tragic death, he has been largely ignored and undiscovered by the public.

If they’re cruising down the radio dial, maybe they’ll stumble past “The Closer I Get To You” or “Where Is the Love,” two of his duets with Roberta Flack. During the holidays they may even be strolling through one of the hipper malls and Hathaway’s classic, “This Christmas” is being piped through the sound system.   They may even know Donny’s daughter, Lalah Hathaway has enjoyed some success as a vocalist.    Unfortunately,  for far too many that’s where their knowledge of Hathaway ends.

When my father brought Everything Is Everything home and started playing it, Hathaway’s voice grabbed me first and then how brilliantly a song like “The Ghetto” took me along with him on a trip through some pretty mean streets.   “The Ghetto” should be the flip side of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?”  Both capture the frustrations and to a lesser extent, the pleasures of life on the edges of polite society.

Hathaway was both blessed and cursed. Blessed with a rich and expressive voice that poured out deep, heartfelt, soulful sentiments that could deliver soul, blues or gospel. Hathaway was a gifted songwriter and pianist as well. The curse was he suffered from depression and debilitating mental illness that required hospitalization. This is in part why Hathaway’s discography is limited to three studio albums and a pair of live recordings. The best starting point for anyone curious about this immensely talented, but troubled artist is the 1990 compilation, A Donny Hathaway Collection from Atlantic Records.

I have serious problems with this compilation, but it’s a good enough starting point before diving into Hathaway’s solo recordings. I agree with All Music Guide that Everything Is Everything and Extensions of A Man are his best work. The go-to place for his duets with Roberta Flack is The Very Best of Roberta Flack,  but  after 22 years, Hathaway is long overdue for a better anthology of his music.   There is a four-disc import from France, Someday We’ll Be Free, that is pretty exhaustive, but is still missing the music from his collaboration with Quincy Jones for the movie soundtrack, Come Back, Charleston Blue.    It’s probably as good as it gets for the committed collector like me, but it’s far too much for the casual listener.    Time for someone at Atlantic to step up their game and put together a better introduction to the greatness of Donny Hathaway.

Where is the love? Right here with Roberta and Donny.

In 1979, Hathaway either fell or jumped to his death from a hotel room in New York. He was in the process of recording a new album with Flack. The two completed songs ended up on her 1980 record, Roberta Flack featuring Donny Hathaway. He was 33 years old.   That’s a lot of potential lost far too early.

Mental illness has destroyed its share of troubled souls in music.  Hathaway and the late Phyllis Hyman, who ended her life at 45 with a drug overdose.   Talent and acclaim were not enough to pull them out of their downward spiral.   The same could be said for the late Amy Winehouse, who gave Hathaway a shout out in her breakthrough hit, “Rehab.”

They tried to make me go to rehab, I said no, no, no
Yes I’ve been black and when I come back, you’ll know, know, know
I ain’t got the time
And if my daddy thinks I’m fine
Just try to make me go to rehab I won’t go, go, go

I’d rather be at home with Ray
I ain’t got seventy days
Cos there’s nothing,there’s nothing you can teach me
That I can’t learn from Mr Hathaway

All lists are by nature, purely subjective and subject to be rejected by the reader, but Rolling Stone ranked Hathaway at #49 on their list of the 100 Greatest Singers.   I can’t argue too strenosuly when I’m glad Hathaway was remembered at all.   The rock n’ roll magazine said of Hathaway,  Donny Hathaway died in 1979, but his warm, suave soul has never been more influential. He’s been name-checked in songs by Amy Winehouse, Nas, Common and Fall Out Boy (the new “What a Catch, Donnie”), and Justin Timberlake calls “(Another Song) All Over Again,” from FutureSex/LoveSounds, “my homage to Donny Hathaway.” It’s easy to hear why Hathaway still appeals to modern-pop and neo-soul singers alike. He was equally comfortable with smooth ballads (“The Closer I Get to You”) and rolling funk (“The Ghetto”). He was a master of melisma (while never overdoing it), and his smoky voice wrapped superbly around his female duet partners, most notably Roberta Flack. No wonder Timberlake calls him “the best singer of all time.”

I won’t go as far as Justin Timberlake and declare Donny Hathaway the best singer of all time, but he’s certainly in the conversation of who the best singer is.

The (Not So) Great Lost Paul Hardcastle Review

A guy with one good idea he's run into the ground

Whenever you write a review of an album, typically the editor checks it for spelling and punctuation errors, makes sure it’s formatted correctly and that it fits with the publication’s internal style guide.  99 percent of these reviews sail through without a problem.

Then there’s the one percent like this one.

The editor of All About Jazz kicked this review of Paul Hardcastle’s new album back to me with a lengthy grocery list of reasons for doing so.   Among the more interesting ones were “this kind of verbiage simply sounds like a writer scoring points off the artist, who they clearly don’t like” and the review “doesn’t reflect well on either yourself or AAJ.”

Every writer who has ever submitted their work to an editor occasionally disagrees with editorial decisions.   Creative people have their conflicts.   The editor suggested I rewrite the review.  I declined having figured I had already devoted enough time to a musician I have no strong feelings for and upon going back to the review, I found it acceptable.  My opinion is admittedly biased, but I disagreed with the editor and wrote back to tell him so.

It’s evident to me we don’t agree on the Paul Hardcastle review.  I went back and gave it another reading.   Your comment about me trying to  “score points on the artist”  is not how I see it at all.

This is a review about a guy who hasn’t had an original idea in 26 years.  If I wanted to “score points” I’d call him Paul Hackcastle, not Paul Hardcastle.   That is scoring points.  That is criticizing the music, not the man.   I didn’t do that.  You’re right that I don’t much like Hardcastle, but I believe I gave valid reasons in the review.

It’s your call to run the review or reject it.   As a freelancer I’m well aware what a writer thinks is perfectly acceptable, the editor may say, “Sorry.  Not so much.”

I’ve spent all the time on Paul Hardcastle 6 I intend to.   If I wanted to write it for my blog I would have posted it there.   I wrote it for AAJ.   If you don’t feel it’s up to AAJ standards, then you don’t have to run it.

However, your criticism that it “doesn’t reflect well on either yourself or AAJ”  reads like you’re scoring points on me.

As AAJ’s editor you’re well qualified to reflect upon what doesn’t reflect well on AAJ.   I’m the person who can best assess what doesn’t reflect well on me.

He responded, but bottom line is we disagreed.  It happens.  He’s the editor.  I’m the contributor.  The final word is always his so there’s no point in arguing and ending a relationship both parties have found mutually beneficial until now.  I get free music.  They get reviews of the music.  It’s a win-win and I’m not going to walk away from a five-year professional relationship over a guy like Hardcastle who keeps endlessly recycling the one or two ideas he had 20 years ago. 

Maybe he is a hack, but why jeopardize my access for him?

I did however change my mind.  I figured since I wrote the review, somebody might want to read it besides myself and the editor.

So here’s the (not so) Great Lost Paul Hardcastle review. that was too strong for All About Jazz.

The only thing more generic than the cover is the music.

What’s the difference between a Paul Hardcastle solo album and his Jazzmasters side project ? Okay, that’s a trick question. There is no discernible difference as one project sounds exactly like the other. The music is interchangeable and indistinguishable between the two as the signature sound of Hardcastle’s laid back soundscapes haven’t changed much from his mid-Eighties hits, “Rain Forest” and “19,” both of which show up here in remixed form.

The chill sub-genre leans heavily on plenty of synthesizers, airy vocals, some random sax solos with a some stray flutes and what sounds like vibes (but probably isn’t). It’s too fast for New Age but too colorless to be called jazz, Hardcastle VI lacks the heart or soul to be thought of as little more than fast-food music; mass produced with enough flavor that it tastes good, but not enough to be memorable.

Which isn’t to say this is necessarily bad. Fast food can taste pretty good if you’re in the mood for it and the “Rainforest/What’s Going On” mash-up of Hardcastle’s “Rainforest” and “19” with a sample of {{Marvin Gaye}}’s activist anthem, “What’s Going On?” deserves points for audacity. Depending upon how open the listener’s mind is, this is either an interesting idea or a total travesty. Either way, Hardcastle deserves credit for blending two totally conflicting styles in one pretty passable package.

“Night Time Hustle” and ” Easy Come Easy Go” pick up the pace to the point that if you’re not careful you might actually try to get up and dance. Though Hardcastle is often associated with dancing, whenever Hardcastle VI risks prompting a response other than listening passively another humdrum track featuring Becki Biggins’ vapid vocals wobbles in until the urge passes.

The fans of the Paul Hardcastle formula will welcome the latest installment in what seems like the longest single album in recorded history. It might take only the most hardcore Hardcastle devotee to discern the deviation between Hardcastle VI and the straight line that runs to his eponymous debut some 26 years earlier. For others they may well wonder how this bloodless, passionless music got classified as any sort of jazz.

“Unsung,” Ugly Egos and a Superstar That Wasn’t.

"Unsung? Who me?"

I watch very little television anymore.  I’ve been getting smarter every day.  A lot of pro football, throw in some news and DVR Frontline, and I’m pretty much good.  I don’t do reality shoes, competition shows, talent search shoes and any kind of Real Basketball Skanks from Jersey Whores crap.

Television doesn’t entertain me much these days so I’ll settle for being educated.

Which is why I enjoy TV One’s Unsung.   I learn stuff.  If you’ve got a favorite R n’ B act you’ve been jonesing to find out what they’ve been up to after they fell off the charts and have been relegated to night clubs and state fairs, this is your show.   It’s about as good a Behind the Music clone can be since VH-1 killed that show off and resurrected it as an zombiefied version of the original.  .

For those whom aren’t familiar with the show, the Wikipedia synopsis will fill in the blanks.

Each episode usually begins with the upbringing of the artist within his family, painting a picture of the issues driving the artist in his adult music career. Themes of “escaping the hard-life of the streets” and “experiencing physical abuse”, as well as “signs of musical genius”, can be found in many of the lives of the subjects of Unsung. Those interviewed in this segment of the show typically are family and friends, although some are famous if the subject of the episode is an R&B group. The story then progresses into the trials and triumphs of the artist’s early days in the music business, as the artist chases his “big break” which propels him into the limelight on the way to stardom. Fellow artists / music producers / managers of that time pepper this section of the show with anecdotes of the artist’s musical prowess and potential, and also possible hints to what may have lead to the subject’s downfall. The next stage highlights the pinnacle of the artist’s fame with the perks and perils that come with it. The final part of the show details the “turning point”, in which a major incident, mainly of a tragic, health-related nature, occurred that caused the artist to put his music career on hold for an indefinite period, if not permanently.

Unsung has tailored this formula, depending on the show’s subject, to portray artists whose “turning point” occurred for more business or personal reasons, and who may have recovered from it to continue a far-less famous, but rewarding, career.

A wizard, a true star, and a total egotist

The three stories I wish they would tell are the rise and fall of Marvin Gaye, The Isley Brothers and Sly and the Family Stone and I doubt they ever will because nobody else has.   Remember a few years ago there were not one, but two Marvin Gaye bio-flicks in production, one that was supposed to star Jesse L.Martin from Law and Order?   Not ringing any bells?  Probably because they’ve been in development hell for so long we’re no closer to seeing a Marvin Gaye movie today than we were in 2008.

There are other acts I’d like to see get the Unsung treatment including Tevin Campbell, Ray Parker Jr., Angela Bofill, Mtume, Stephanie Mills, Starpoint, Karyn White, The Brothers Johnson, Stevie Woods, Atlantic Starr, and Terence Trent D’Arby,  Especially Terence Trent D’Arby.   As far as “the Next Big Thing” goes, it doesn’t get bigger than D’arby.

Ah, TTD.  Before Kanye West grabbed the crown of the world’s most arrogant pop star, the American-born, British transplanted singer was the undisputed champion of the Ugly Ego.

D’arby was good.  Real good.  His 1987 debut album Introducing the Hardline According to Terence Trent D’Arby (pompous album titles was a running theme with TTD) sold 12 million copies including a million copies within the first three days it went on sale.

At the time, TTD was being mentioned in the same breath as other superstars like Prince and Michael Jackson. It seemed like he could do everything they could and then some.  He was also something of an egotistical prick.  He was nasty to interviewers, uncharitable to his competitors and hostile to his record label.   He had a Master’s Degree in boastful braggadocio.

“I had a job writing in a weekly newspaper but after a while that got boring because I realized the people I was interviewing were far less interesting than me and I didn’t see why I should be talking to them.”

“I am a true soul genius and, unlike certain other singers, 100 per cent man.”

“I may say a lot of strange and incomprehensible things as far as other people are concerned, but that is the way of all brilliance.”

These are not the words of a man suffering from a surplus of humility.   Long before Kanye West declared himself a genius and the rest of the world had better come to accept it, Terrence Trent D’arby was letting Prince and Michael Jackson, that there was a new neo-soul sensation on the scene and he wasn’t settling for running third behind them.

Hadn’t he already proclaimed his first album was better than Thriller and The Beatles ‘ Sgt. Pepper?  TTD was here to kick pop star ass, take names and without naming Jackson and Prince, serve notice there was only one “100 percent man” on the scene and it was him, not them.

What did D’arby in was the failure to follow-up The Hardline with a sophomore effort that could approach the debut’s brilliance.   The follow-up Neither Fish Nor Flesh: A Soundtrack of Love, Faith, Hope & Destruction was a pompous, sprawling, eccentric mess that tanked without fielding even one hit song. Nobody who sings as well as D’arby and has as many ideas can be a total failure, but by into indulging his excesses, D’arby confused his audience, turned off the critics and missed his chance to solidify his status.

You can be a smug little goof and an indulgent flake, but you have to deliver when it comes time to feed the fans.  A wounded D’arby chose retreat after Neither Fish flopped and wouldn’t release another record for four years until Symphony or Damn which while not as good as The Hardline,  it’s not as terrible as Neither Flesh Nor Fish.

Instead of showing he was 100 percent man, all D’arby’s bluster, hype and b.s. proved  was the difference between a shooting star and an enduring superstar.   A star does it once and flames out.   A superstar does it over and over and even when they fall off, they have built a legacy that extends beyond one lucky hit.

D’arby came, saw and he didn’t conquer.   He didn’t even have enough successes to be a failure.  He did it once and anybody can do it once.

That’s pretty much where the story ended for Terence Trent D’arby.  Literally.  He changed record labels, cut his dreads, dyed his hair blonde and legally changed his name to Sananda Maitreya.    He still makes music on his own label and like most other Unsung subjects, claims he’s never been happier.

Riiiiiiight.  Who wants to sell millions of records and make millions of more dollars?.  Going back to bars and nighclubs to sing for your supper is so much more rewarding.

Look, I get it that it’s better to be true to yourself and have no audience than play to the audience and have no self.   I’ve been known to put the intangible of art before the commerce of being a salesman, but one of the most played, tired and unbelievable clichés is the Musician Who Has It All, Loses It All and Couldn’t Be Happier That It’s Gone.   I’m not saying it’s impossible.  I am saying not everybody is happy about it and they need to stop lying that they are.

I am not expecting Sananda to be the first.  Okay Unsung, I’ve practically written the episode for you.  Go to work.

"Man, I'm boring myself."

Meshell Ndegeocello: Extraordinary Moments of Everlasting Brilliance

The artist at repose: proof that labels are for cans of beans.

One of the highlights of our April weekend in New York City was catching singer Meshell Ndegeocello performing her 1999 album Bitter.   Telling the folks back home elicited a vague smile and the comment, “Well, whatever happened to Meshell Ndegeocello?”

Well, actually nothing happened.  That describes her career in a nutshell.  Meshell was the victim of a fairly common dilemma for many artists:  She played her strongest cards first and her follow-ups weren’t as strong as her first efforts when critics were calling her “the future of the funk” and “one of the artists that really matter.”

I’ll argue to my dying day that her first two albums, the 1993 début Plantation Lullabies and the 1996 follow-up, Peace Beyond Passion are among the finest pair of freshman/sophomore efforts any musician has ever made.   Not since Marvin Gaye’s double shot of sex, seduction and sensuality, Let Get It On and I Want You has there been someone who sang about Black-on-Black love as Meshell.   The fact that a bald, bass plucking bisexual badass was singing these incredibly sultry songs only added to the allure.

Plantation is simply an epic opener.  I played it continuously when it came out in 1993 and 17 years later it’s still fresher than any of the Auto-Tuned up the ass garbage on the radio.  Listening to it and Peace Beyond Passion is like rereading Watchmen; I pick up something new and nuanced that was always there but just slightly out of immediate notice.

If Plantation is a pro-Black Pride and Love album, Peace is about sexual politics and gender issues.  As  co-produced by David Gamson, Peace Beyond Passion doesn’t lecture  in a grab-you-by-the-collar and club-you-over-the-head kind of way, but with subtle restraint.   Yet Meshell is upping the stakes in an  unmistakable way.  “Leviticus: Faggot” rips into homophobia, “Niggerman” is less provocative than its, the remake of Bill Withers “Who is He and What is He to You?” takes on a whole new meaning when it’s a woman singing about another woman (or could it be a man being checked out by another man?) and the shimmering, sensual, “Stay” which  along with “Soul Searchin’ (I Wanna Know If It’s Mine) ” might be my two favorite Meshell songs.

If you let me have you just this once I promise never to want you anymore
‘Cuz what’s happening now feels so good
And the forbidden always arouses temptations
Come here let me have you
Just stay
Ooh baby come on let me

But ooh,  some awfully bad shit must have went down in Miss Meshell’s private life during the three years between Passion and 1999’s Bitter.  Gone was co-producer Gamson and in was a much sparser, stripped-down sound provided by k.d. lang producer, Craig Street.  Bitter isn’t so much a bad album as much as it’s no fun at all.    The hummable moments are few and the danceable ones are non-existent.  It’s essentially the chronicle of a failed love affair and a really messy one as well.   An intensely personal album,  it feels like a peek into Meshell’s private diary.   It is not an easy listen though there are moments of brilliance.  Bitter is the musical equivalent of Schindler’s List:  Listen to it once or twice every few years and you’re good.

It’s a little weird Meshell’s biggest “hit” isn’t even one of her own songs, but a duet with John Mellencamp in a remake of Van Morrison’s “Wild Night” that got all the way to #3 on Billboard.  Then again, maybe not so weird since like Mellencamp she never wanted to be a pop singer and she never wanted to sing pop songs.  Marvin put the moon-in-June tunes behind him when he started crooning, “You Sure Love to Ball” and like him, Meshell has always been more interested in grown-up lovemaking than horny teenagers fumbling around.

After Bitter, I only listened to Meshell’s albums sporadically.  Cookie: The Anthropological Mixtape was a confused mess and I don’t remember anything about Comfort Woman.  She’s gone on to make three more albums I haven’t heard including a non-vocal jazz album.  I might get around to checking them out.  I might not.

It’s no mystery why Meshell Ndegeocello never became a big star.  She never fit into any of the tidy little categories.   Too unabashedly Black for White radio.  Too blatantly bisexual for Black radio.  Too weird for everybody else.  It seems fitting that she was considered at one-time to join the iconoclast Black rock band Living Colour as their new bassist. How successful Meshell’s five album stint on Madonna’s Maverick Records was I can only guess, but maybe they just couldn’t figure out how or who they were supposed to sell her music to. There simply aren’t enough brave souls in the music business or open minds in the public for bad, bald, bisexual bassists.

Seeing her perform in New York was a treat and she put on a good show, but in some way it was like running into an old friend whose address  you lost  and the longer you talk the more you realize you don’t have much in common any more.

I wouldn’t say Meshell Ndegeocelllo peaked too soon.   The star that burns the brightest and hottest doesn’t necessarily burn the longest.  But oh, what a pretty light those first two albums made.

Up against the wall, non-conformist!