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Weekend Songs: Steve Winwood, ‘Back in the High Life Again’

Classic rock is about heavy hooks, power chords and tight harmonies. But it’s also about letting loose and enjoying the good times. And there’s no better time for that than Friday evening, when we pick up our paycheck, punch out of work and enjoy a couple days of much-needed rest and relaxation.

One of the messed-up things about those good times is that we often don’t appreciate how special they are until they’re gone — something that tends to weigh on us more as we get older, and we begin to understand just how fleeting everything is and how quickly time passes, no matter how we might try to slow it down. Ironically, many of us spend our youth wishing things would speed up, trying to wave away whatever’s in front of us so we can hurry on to the next in a seemingly limitless series of adventures.

It happens to all of us, and there’s no getting around it, so there’s no point in being maudlin about it — something Steve Winwood understood well in 1985 and ’86, when he was putting together the tracks for what would become his fourth solo album, ‘Back in the High Life.’ Although he was only 38 at the time, Winwood was nearing a quarter century as a professional musician, and his career had already been through plenty of ups and downs. More than most, he knew that they were cyclical, and when things are low, you just have to wait for them to pick up again.

Even though he had no way of knowing it at the time, ‘High Life’ was positioning Winwood for one of the biggest high points of his career and a Grammy-winning comeback that returned him to the charts in a big way after a relatively fallow period following the middling success of 1982′s ‘Talking Back to the Night’ album. Like on its predecessor, 1980′s much more popular ‘Arc of a Diver,’ Winwood performed most of the instruments himself on ‘Night,’ recording at his home studio — a setup that, while certainly convenient, eventually proved a bit stifling and led to a major change in location, from the U.K. to New York.

“I went to New York simply to get the juices flowing again,” he recalled later. “I was in danger of becoming arty in isolation and really missed playing with other musicians. I was spending all my time reading computer manuals and tapping on keyboards rather than getting out and entertaining, which is my job.”

To that end, ‘High Life’ features a slew of musicians, from session ringers like Jimmy Bralower and John Robinson to famous names like Joe Walsh, James Taylor and Chaka Khan. The resulting production, while definitely slick enough for mid-’80s radio playlists, was more expansive and varied than Winwood’s recent solo efforts. Case in point: the title track, which employed a chiming mandolin in the lead and rested on a droning accordion in the background — one of the only times either instrument would appear in the Top 40 during the decade.

But ‘Back in the High Life Again’ almost didn’t make the record. As Winwood’s co-writer, Will Jennings, later told Songfacts, “I called one day and talked to Russ Titelman, who was producing the album. They were doing it in New York. I asked him how it was going, and he said, ‘Oh it’s going great.’ He said ‘Higher Love’ came out great and ‘The Finer Things.’ I asked him how ‘Back in the High Life’ would come out. There was this little pause, and he said, ‘Steve hasn’t shown me that song.’”

According to Jennings, he’d originally left the lyrics with Winwood during a writing session in 1984, but for whatever reason, Winwood had never gotten around to putting together music for them. As it turned out, fate was simply waiting to intervene. “At that time, [Winwood] was going through a divorce,” Jennings explained. “And because of the divorce, his wife got everything in the house, this big house in England. So he came up from London and went out to this house — which he still lives in and he had for years before he was married — and everything was gone, except there was a mandolin over in the corner of the living room. It was winter and it was dreary. He went over and picked up the mandolin, and he already had the words in his head. And that’s when he wrote the melody.”

That melody would go on to anchor a Top 20 hit for Winwood — one of four from the album, which sparked a revival in his solo career that continued into the ’90s. And although his brand of cleanly produced blue-eyed soul would quickly become synonymous with beer commercials and adult-contemporary radio, the emotions that fueled ‘Back in the High Life Again’ remain as resonant as ever. (Check out Warren Zevon’s stripped-down cover for proof.)

“‘Back in the High Life’ was not written to predict what I would be doing but because of what I actually was doing,” Winwood later mused. “I knew that ‘Back in the High Life’ was going to be my last album on my contract, and I had thought for a long time about going into production and stuff. I finally decided, ‘No, I might as well pursue my career as a solo artist and put everything into it.’ I guess I probably had never put everything into it, because I’d always felt that I was above being an entertainer.”

So if you’re in need of a little high life as this weekend approaches, never fear; like Steve Winwood says in the song, we’ll all get back there eventually. But you don’t need to wait to hear that plaintive mandolin — just scroll up to the video above, hit play, turn up the volume and let the weekend start … now.

Next: We Get Hysterical

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