B-side of High Heel Sneakers
(Written by Willie Nelson)
This B-side – another live recording from the same Paris package tour show that yielded the energetic throwback topside High Heel Sneakers – was pulled in favour of Music Talk for international releases and later US pressings, which I’m always bound to find tantalising. Why did Motown second-guess themselves, and what was it about this that made them switch it out for something else?
Unfortunately, now that I come to actually play the thing, there’s nothing particularly exciting about Funny (How Time Slips Away). Not about what’s on the record, anyway; it’s a cover of a Willie Nelson song (which I haven’t heard and, frankly, can’t be bothered to look up right now), but I only discovered this from looking at the label, because it sounds very similar to a previous Stevie ballad, Tears In Vain. It’s set to almost the exact same tune, and the similarities are striking, right down to the unwelcome appearance of Stevie’s producer and handler Clarence Paul turning this into another duet nobody was asking for.
In fact, the more I play this, the more I’m getting a sense of why it was pulled. It’s not awful – I mean, for what it’s worth, I quite liked Tears In Vain – but this live retread is both redundant (because it’s less good) and confusing (because it’s less exciting, especially in a live setting).
Clarence Paul, again, has no business here, and the uncharitable stories about him trying to “grow his part”, crowbarring himself into his protégé’s spotlight in order to revive his own DOA performing career have rarely felt more plausible. He’s slightly less dominant over Stevie than on Tears In Vain (which makes sense in the live setting, given that presumably Stevie was the person who the French crowd paid to watch), but only slightly (it sounds as though he’s actually mic’ed up louder than Stevie), and while his vocal is decent enough, it’s still incongruous, competing rather than complementing, almost as if someone had decided the voice of his teenage charge wasn’t strong enough to carry a song like this in a setting like this without outside help.
Plus, as if Paul’s guest spot wasn’t enough, Stevie also has to contend with a stage band – presumably the corps of travelling Funk Brothers brought to Europe by Motown for a rare spell in the limelight – over-egging the pudding so as not to be left out, Earl Van Dyke in particular having lots of fun bashing whatever keys he feels like.
Maybe I’m being too hard on this. Maybe this is the sound of a bunch of great mates having a brilliant time; from Nelson George’s Where Did Our Love Go we read that Stevie, Clarence and the musicians all got on splendidly behind the scenes, sharing cigs and booze and prostitutes. Perhaps this is nothing more than a spontaneous expression of that laddish camaraderie. For all I know, the whole thing was Stevie’s idea; perhaps this is a much looser and more relaxed exercise than Motown had expected. Back in Detroit, the Paris live tapes were “edited and assembled” (whatever that means) for release by Robert Gordy, Bob Kayli himself, brother of the big boss, implying high-level supervision, and it’s impossible to know their reaction to this, nor what was cut out, nor why Motown then decided to quietly drop it.
But it’s still not all that good, regardless of whether it really is an off-the-cuff indulgence. It’s almost a quintessential example of “you had to be there”; on record, unlike the thrills of Fingertips or High Heel Sneakers, without being able to see the grins and sweat and dancing (or rather, without being able to see whether there was any grinning or sweat or dancing), it’s just impossible to hear what the fuss is about.
At worst, this is several older men indulging themselves at a starlet’s expense; at best, it’s some people we don’t really know all that well having a blast at someone else’s party, while we turn up late and then stand by the punch bowl and try to work out who’s who. I might nod my head, might smile, might dance a bit, but the fun isn’t inclusive, the in-jokes sail over my head, and I’m left feeling like a gatecrasher.
MOTOWN JUNKIES VERDICT
(I’ve had MY say, now it’s your turn. Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment, or click the thumbs at the bottom there. Dissent is encouraged!)
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“High Heel Sneakers”
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