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Steve Winwood relaxes in a hotel room in New York City, talking by telephone to reporters in every city he's about to hit on his current U.S. tour. The 43-year-old rock 'n' roll survivor has quietly endured a slew of critical jabs during the last few years for the highly commercial turns his career had taken. Those turns included performing in commercials for Michelob, donning duds for GQ and cavorting with models in his videos. So he's relishing the opportunity to hear journalists finally conceding that he managed, better than any other Sixties rock veteran, to ride out the Eighties in style.
But just as his detractors are acknowledging the validity of Winwood's more conservative, polished Eighties product, the former Traffic leader is pushing his image, and his music, in the opposite direction. "I can't tell you that I've decided to change my approach in response to the criticism that I've had," Winwood says. "I've just done that because I feel most of the music of the last few years has gotten very polished, produced and groomed. It's become more of a commodity.
"So with the new record Refugees of the Heart, I thought it wouldn't do any harm to bring elements of the Sixties and Seventies back into my music--like longer instrumental passages, more atmospheric sounds. I feel like I'm going into a Traffic renaissance of some sort. And maybe that's a reaction against the stability that my music and lifestyle had gone towards."
Winwood has been growing his hair longer and jamming with other musicians in a freeform style reminiscent of Traffic's heady days. This from the man who once dismissed punk rockers as "advanced hippies" and shrugged, "I'd been through that antiestablishment thing in the Sixties, and during the Seventies I suddenly realized the value of being establishment." Is he actually turning antiestablishment again--at a time when most of his generation is firmly entrenched in the conservative lifestyle he practically pioneered?
"Maybe," Winwood says with a laugh. "You know, the grass is always greener."
Winwood seems to be switching gears and looking for adventure at a time when most of his longtime fans are finally settling in for the safe, unchallenging ride he began with 1986's ultraslick Back in the High Life and the subsequent Roll With It. That may be because for Winwood, the kinder and gentler Nineties arrived about eighteen years ahead of schedule.
In 1972, most of rock's artists and listeners were still actively exploring the excesses of the lifestyle. But the visionary leader of Traffic, one of the late Sixties' most dreamily psychedelic bands, was already swearing off drugs and extolling the virtues of exercise and proper diet.
Winwood had been struck by a sudden bout of peritonitis, a potentially fatal disease he describes as "the last stage of a serious poisoning of the system." That forced him to adopt a conservative lifestyle that most of his contemporaries wouldn't dream of joining until well into the next decade.
"That was an important change in my life," says Winwood. "Not only from the point of self-preservation, but also it enabled me to see that there were other things in life besides just the musical lifestyle that I had been locked into. I kind of discovered other things, like sports and farming."
The ace keyboard player and singer skyrocketed to fame at the tender age of fifteen as lead singer of the Spencer Davis Group, for which he wrote and sang such classics as "Gimme Some Lovin'" and "I'm a Man." Jumping off the rock-star treadmill was a revelation. Winwood began hanging out with ordinary "nine-to-fivers" at his rural home in Gloucestershire, England, and applying a more disciplined, workaday approach to his songwriting--when he chose to make music at all.
Naturally, when the Eighties did arrive, Winwood was well-equipped to work within the corporate-minded, meticulously packaged music business that seemed to alienate so many of his peers. More than any other veteran of rock's adventurous second decade, Winwood was happy to don stylish suits, take dancing instruction (his new manager has handled Madonna and Michael Jackson), and even license a couple of his songs for use in beer commercials.
The moves brought Winwood the most successful hits of his career. But his behavior also drew fire from critics and fans alike. They felt Winwood, whose talent as a singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist had always been held in the highest regard, was cashing in his credibility in order to become a popular entertainer.
Today, Winwood appears to have done an about-face on each of those decisions. "There's no production or dancing or any of that kind of thing. I'm playing instruments much more on stage now," he says. "The new show is about interaction with musicians and musicianship more than anything else. I'm more comfortable with that. There are people who can entertain and dance and do videos better than I can. So I'm prepared to leave that to them and concentrate on what I do best, which is play."
Nevertheless, Winwood has no regrets about his MTV training. "I feel that it was important for me at that point to come out and be a bit more visible." He doesn't apologize, either, for selling his song "Don't You Know What the Night Can Do" to Michelob for use in a TV commercial before the song was even released on an album.