I didn’t even blink when my longtime friend Carl told me matter-of-factly he lived on Saturn with Stevie Wonder. It’d been building for 37 years.
You see, Carl’s listened to exactly one album over and over since 1976: Stevie Wonder’s masterpiece “Songs in the Key of Life.” Through the years, he had it on LP, cassette, CD and he downloaded it from iTunes as well.
Like many people, I love – or rather loved – that album, too. I mean, it’s a freakin’ creativity explosion. A double record set featuring chart-toppers like “I Wish,” “Isn’t She Lovely” and “Sir Duke”? Fuggedaboutit!
Those songs were sumptuous taken piecemeal, but listening to the entire album was a feast. The haunting lead-off “Love’s In Need of Love Today” set the stage for a tour-de-force statement by an unrivaled artist at his peak. It explores love, loss, nostalgia, faith and other themes via a mesmerizing musical stew filled with captivating lyrics and fueled by Wonder’s inimitable voice.
The original album also included a four-song EP – called “A Something’s Extra Bonus” that featured the songs “Saturn,” “Ebony Eyes,” “All Day Sucker” and “Easy Goin’ Evening (My Mama’s Call).” It was like Stevie even added an encore.
As I said, I loved that album, but thanks to Carl I could no longer enjoy it.
When it first came out, he holed up in his room for three weeks and whenever I called, his mom would say he was busy, but I could hear “Another Star” or “Knocks Me Off My Feet” playing in the background.
The album included a 24-page book that Carl memorized. Not just the lyrics; I mean the whole thing. Many knew that Minnie Riperton and Deniece Williams sang background on “Ordinary Pain,” but Carl also knew that Gil Scott-Heron, Frank Zappa and the Doobie Brothers were among those Stevie personally thanked in the liner notes.
Carl later was the first person I knew who had a Walkman and he listened to the cassette version over and over.
In 1995, when Coolio adapted the album’s “Pastime Paradise” to “Gangsta’s Paradise,” Carl would rage when he heard it. He snickered a bit when he first heard Weird Al’s parody of Coolio’s adaption, “Amish Paradise,” but still considered both abominations.
Carl played the album in his car, hummed it at work, “Village Ghetto Land” was his ringtone – he even got a tattoo of the album’s cover on his back.
Then the fan fiction began.
I’d heard of fans of science fiction franchises like “Star Wars” and “Star Trek” writing their own stories or making their own films using their respective iconic characters, but had never heard of someone using an album as their source.
Carl’s rambling story was about a blind announcer named Stevland from Saturn with ebony eyes who was called Sir Duke on his home planet . . . and . . . you get the idea. Soon, Carl completely unplugged from reality.
I understand that there is something “wrong” with Carl, but it’s not like he is dangerous like Charles Manson, who believed The Beatles were sending him coded messages in songs from the “White Album” to start a race war.
Carl no longer listens to the album continuously because it is always playing in his head. His communication now could be called “Songs in the Key of Life”-ese. Sometimes he speaks in lyrics which can be funny, like last week when he started talking about looking back on when he was a little nappy-headed boy.
It can be off-putting, like when he mimics the guitar in the rock-fusion instrumental “Contusion.” And it can be heartbreaking, like when he came up to me with pleading, tear-filled eyes and explained that love was in need of love today and asked why I hadn’t sent mine in right away.
I guess I should feel sorry for Carl and in a way I do, because he can’t really care for himself and his brother Pete took him in.
But the album that consumed Carl is mainly about love. In the song “As,” Stevie Wonder wrote: “I’ll be loving you until we dream of life and life becomes a dream.” That’s where Carl now lives. He calls it Saturn; I call it Wonder World.
Reach Fairfield writer Tony Wade at [email protected].