Having departed The Spencer Davis Group by communicating his resignation through an intermediary, Steve Winwood played an after-hours jam session with Dave Mason, Chris Wood and Jim Capaldi, after which they decided to form Traffic. Winwood certainly had a clear vision for the new group: “The original line-up of Junior Walker And The All-Stars was sax, organ, guitar and drums with no bass. That was the Traffic concept. We were determined to make a uniquely British form of rock ‘n’ roll that incorporated or evoked traditional music.”
That determination went up in a thick cloud of marijuana smoke.
I was really looking forward to reviewing this album as “Dear Mr. Fantasy” is one of my favorite songs, for reasons that shall be explained later. I was hoping to hear more songs like that—songs that reflected Winwood’s vision. This proved to be a naïve error in judgment. In reflecting upon how my assumptions could have been so far off, I realized that I really hadn’t heard much of what Traffic did during their first phase except for the cuts on a greatest hits collection; the Traffic I know best is the post-John Barleycorn Traffic, a band that successfully integrated jazz, soul, R&B and rock.
I had no idea these guys started out so absolutely fucking weird.
Instead of doggedly pursuing their artistic vision, Traffic took a detour to a gamekeeper’s cottage in Berkshire where they smoked kilos of dope and tried to ignore a fatal flaw in group dynamics caused by the presence of one Dave Mason. While Winwood, Chris Wood and Jim Capaldi collaborated on songs, Dave Mason would show up with his own numbers and tell the others what to play. That was bad enough, but what made it even worse was that Mason had a different artistic vision than the other three, a conflict that was telegraphed to the listening public through their first two singles. The Capaldi-Winwood-Wood “Paper Sun” is clearly the more interesting and inventive piece, integrating multiple influences à la Winwood’s vision. The other, Dave Mason’s “Hole in My Shoe,” was bitterly and accurately described by Jim Capaldi as “Fucking pop bubblegum.” It was hardly surprising that Mason would leave the band before the album was released. He would return for an encore to fill out the second album and leave again, but really, he never should have been there in the first place.
Unfortunately, you can’t pin the uneven quality of Mr. Fantasy entirely at the feet of the wayward Mr. Mason. The core trio contributed more than a few stinkers as well, probably the result of the cannabis-filled environment in their Berkshire cottage and an overenthusiastic adoption of the rampant experimentation of the time.
The vision does come through in the opening track, “Heaven Is in Your Mind.” Composed by Capaldi-Winwood-Wood, the song opens with an ear-catching introduction of percussive piano and hints of sax that dissolve seamlessly into a sweet syncopated groove that is positively hip-shaking. The free-form panning style of the period is put to good use in this song, with the piano traveling across the sound spectrum on beat and the right-left transfer of the held harmonies on the last syllable of each line. The shift to waltz time in the chorus is executed with finesse, and the gently ironic lyrics point out the imaginative and spiritual limitations of the twenty-somethings who troll the hotspots for validation and attention:
You ride on the swing in and out of the bars
Capturing moments of life in a jar
Playing with children, acting as stars
Guiding your visions to heaven
And heaven is in your mind
Although Dave Mason’s extended guitar solo is pretty predictable, and I wish they’d opted for Chris Wood on sax for the fade, “Heaven Is in Your Mind” is a great opening track that confirms the promise in Winwood’s vision..
What happens next is “Berkshire Poppies,” which is a . . . no, it’s more like a . . . shit . . . let’s try this. It’s like you have opened the door to Traffic’s Berkshire cottage, and navigating your way through the smoky haze and around the beer cans, cigarette butts and food scraps that litter the floor, you plop your ass on a filthy paisley pillow and notice the band members fiddling with their instruments. What comes next is a series of starts and stops followed by a passage where Steve Winwood, a British national, sings like an American black guy trying to pass for a Cockney. Meanwhile, Chris Wood is fiddling with his horn, paying no attention to rhythm or melody. Then Mason does a guitar lick that sounds like the dying moans of a cat that has just been run over by a bus, and for some reason, this is a cue to the band to speed up the song and launch into a call-and-response vocal that clearly demonstrates the corrosive effect of cannabis on human motor skills. The rhythm then shifts to a striptease bash, but by this time you’ve already made a mad dash for the exit. As horrible as it is, “Berkshire Poppies” deserves recognition as the song that best epitomizes the micro-genre, “Self-Indulgent Stoner Garbage.”
Don’t believe for a minute that your escape from the hippie pad was in any way successful, for now you have to listen to Dave Mason’s “House for Everyone,” a bizarre, sugar-plum fairy tale where Dave Mason tries to position himself as the keeper of eternal wisdom. The climax of this clunker involves Mason having to choose between two doors: one labeled “truth” and the other “lies.” Dave passes on “lies” because it’s crumb-a-ling inside, then picks “truth” because the door “was very plain and stood up very strong.” Wow! That is so heavy, man, I can hardly get my head around it! Deep! Deep!
Steve Winwood then tries his hand at meaningful symbolism and comes a cropper. “No Face, No Name, No Number” is a ballad that Winwood sings in the broad dramatic style of an American Idol contestant, making you yearn for the understated vocal and string arrangement of “Yesterday.” The subject is the faceless girl, an image recycled by several bands of the era, including The Doors and It’s a Beautiful Day. Stevie’s faceless girl is simply a girl he hasn’t met yet, so the symbolic meaning can be summed up in a more succinct phrase: Stevie’s still looking for the perfect piece of ass.
With great relief, “Dear Mr. Fantasy” fills my headphones with its swaying groove, signature riff and Steve Winwood in the soulful vocal style where his sweet spot lies. Jim Capaldi wrote the lyrics after drawing a Mr. Fantasy cartoon character, and while they’re not bad, let’s face it: this is “Mr. Tambourine Man Redux.” The song works because of the feel, not because there is any enlightenment contained therein. It’s one of my all-time favorite posing songs.
Q: “Wait! You’re not a model—what’s this about posing?”
A: Posing is an art that precedes foreplay. It involves making an alluring entrance and then either moving to the music or using a particularly dramatic moment in the music to strike a certain pose designed to raise the sexual temperature of the viewer. Without getting too graphic and offending my more sensitive readers, posing allows a woman to display her assets in an enticing way, and music is essential to providing both mood and rhythm.
What makes “Dear Mr. Fantasy” such a great posing song is the series of contrasts between subtle and strong, between titillation and explosion. During the slow, bluesy verses, my moves are more graceful and teasing; during the faster segments more aggressive and dramatic.
Sorry, but there are no videos of me posing to “Dear Mr. Fantasy.” You’ll have to settle for this 1972 live performance and let your imagination run amok.
The rest of Mr. Fantasy is pretty disappointing with faint hints of greater potential here and there. “Dealer” features a dual lead vocal with Capaldi and Winwood and one of the worst examples of wordplay in rock history: “As the evening sun goes down/The Dealer shuffles into town.” The song has an Andalusian flavor to it that is more apparent in the Phrygian opening passage than in the verse structure; the flute marks it as a precursor to “Hidden Treasures” on Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys, a far superior piece. Dave Mason then tries to cement his status as an up-and-coming guru with “Utterly Simple,” a childish sitar song that shows only that Mason played hooky when he should have been applying himself to lessons in English syntax, narrative flow and Cartesian logic:
Everything really is stupidly simple
And yet all around is utter confusion
Fairy tales written may help you to see it
Do you understand about Lewis’s Alice?
We fit all our lives into regular patterns
All that we really know is that we’re really living
Let me try to grasp that: “All that we really know is that we’re really living.” Does two “reallys” in one line count as an esoteric form of the double negative? Or did Dave just run out of vocabulary words? The repeated rising melody gets really, really irritating, and that is not a double negative but a really, really nice way to say that this song is fucking awful. Fortunately (or not), the next two verses are spoken. I’m puzzled as to who is doing the narrative, as the voice is American and Traffic was 100% British . . . but really, really, I couldn’t care less.
In “Coloured Rain” Winwood finds his perfect piece of ass, but he sure has a hard time explaining it: “Till you came along there was nothing but an empty space and a pain/Feels like coloured rain/Tastes like coloured rain/Bring on coloured rain.” So, she feels and tastes like coloured rain, whatever the fuck that means. The music is at least halfway interesting and the most Junior Walker-ish track of the lot; Chris Wood finally gets some decent solo space and gives a yeoman’s performance. Unfortunately, we make a U-turn back to Masonland with his flanged vocal and equally distorted lyrics combining to create the disaster called “Hope I Never Find Me There.” I guess it’s supposed to be a lament of some sort about losing touch with the natural world . . . or the past . . . or life before TV dinners . . . Dave covers it all without bothering to connect the dots:
The horse I ride has lost a shoe, the buttercups are dry
The car I drive, has broken down and the blacksmith trade is dying
The meals I eat, have changed into a concentrated vacuum
We finally wind up back at the stoners’ cottage for “Giving to You,” an instrumental that opens with a barrage of bullshit pickup lines and period phrases like “where it’s at.” The musical section is similar to some of the work on Tull’s first album, with Chris Wood’s flute playing a prominent role in establishing the main riff. Sadly, Dave Mason’s solo is way too predictable and way too long, though, and Capaldi drums like a man who wants to wrap this sucker up ASAP.
And so do I. Traffic would eventually find their groove, but on Mr. Fantasy, they were still lost in the woods.