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When Steve Wynn's grandfather Matthew immigrated to this country from Russia at the dawn of the 20th century, he harbored one great dream: to be a songwriter.
Though a promising tunesmith -- legend has it that Irving Berlin offered him $50 for one of his songs -- the demands of supporting a young family beckoned. And so, at the tender age of 22, he stopped writing for good; Matthew Wynn would never hear his songs recorded in his lifetime.
The irony, of course, is that Steve Wynn could've stopped making music at 22 and he'd still be a cult icon. As leader of L.A.'s Dream Syndicate, the sharp, serious-looking record store clerk was barely drinking age when the band produced its seminal debut The Days of Wine and Roses in 1982.
An unapologetic fusion of the amphetamine-fueled skronk of the Velvet Underground, the lysergic tones of the Byrds and crisp pop sensibility of Big Star, the album rates as an enduring classic. At the time, it was a glorious anomaly; the sound of a band strapping on guitars and turning up amps, while the rest of the musical world was twittering away on Roland synthesizers.
Along with a handful of other pivotal platters, Days served as a touchstone for the burgeoning American alternative movement, and helped awaken underground audiences to an expansive style of feedback-laden guitar rock that had been all but forgotten in the wake of the punk explosion.
While some would argue that 1984's follow-up The Medicine Show topped it, or that 1986's Out of the Grey (featuring a revamped Syndicate lineup, including Valley punk legend Paul Cutler on guitar) was a more cohesive representation of the band, Days remained the nail upon which the myth of the group hung.
Wynn had become the indie-rock equivalent of Orson Welles, debuting with Citizen Kaneand then spending a lifetime in vain trying to top it. Despite the dilemma, Wynn continued to do yeoman's work, recording a string of accomplished solo albums -- and notable side projects like Danny & Dusty and Gutterball -- after the Dream Syndicate broke up in 1989.
Then, earlier this summer, just as Days was being reissued in expanded form, Wynn bowed with his seventh solo effort, Here Comes the Miracles. The culmination of four decades of music making, Miracles is a grand, sumptuous statement, simultaneously forward looking and anchored by nostalgia. It is, quite simply, the best album of the year, but more important, it succeeds Days as the highlight of Wynn's rich catalogue.
Musos are likely to toe the line, holding steadfast that nothing, nothing could surpass Days. Regardless of the public verdict, Wynn will continue to tread his own path. He is, after all, an uncompromising soul. At the height of the grunge movement, when he could've capitalized on his trailblazing work as a noise merchant, he instead opted to make a spectacularly ornate pop record -- 1991's Dazzling Display, which, in a twist, included one of his grandfather's compositions -- and suffered mightily for it.
But like his heroes -- Alex Chilton, Jonathan Richman, Neil Young -- Wynn has always been one to choose art over commerce. He knows -- as he puts it in Miracles' grand gospel closer "There Will Come a Day" -- that the patient will be rewarded.
Wedged on the corner of a sloping boulevard in Santa Monica, Delores' is one of those classic California coffee shops that seem to be growing scarce these days -- torn down in favor of strip malls and all-night chain eateries.
Seated in a small brown booth, looking healthy and considerably younger than his 41 years, is Steve Wynn. His hair -- cropped close in recent photos -- has grown out again, and for a moment when he greets you, Wynn's familiar, famously tousled persona seems to have been frozen in time.
A California native -- Wynn grew up in a variety of west Angeles suburbs -- he's spent the last seven years in New York, and his vigorous, mile-a-minute pace seems more suited to the East Coast than easygoing L.A.
As he pauses to sip his coffee, Wynn fidgets with a copy of Here Comes the Miracles, the album's stark white cover dominated by the image of a blood-red heart dripping from a turntable.
"This," says Wynn pointedly, accentuating his angular features, "has been my best-reviewed album so far." For a man whose shoulders are rounded from bearing the weight of so many critical hosannas, the comment speaks volumes.
Wynn's new record appears on his own Down There imprint. The label, which thrived for much of the 1980s -- releasing efforts by Green on Red, Naked Prey and the Romans, among others -- has been revived especially to release Miracles. It's a decision Wynn came to after Zero Hour -- the company that had handled his last three long players -- folded in 1999.
In addition to restarting his old imprint, Wynn began the process for the new album determined to break out of what he perceived as a recording rut.
"My last few records were done at home -- in New York or New Jersey -- so it was all very planned, very methodical. With each of the last three I had a sound in my head that I wanted to get on tape and spent the whole time just trying to get close to that sound. And that's what I didn'twant to do this time. I really wanted it to be a surprise. I wanted things to happen more accidentally. And I didn't think I could do that if I made it at home."