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Miracle Worker

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 Kane and 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't want 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."

Last fall, after urging from old friend and Arizona native Howe Gelb of Giant Sand, Wynn booked himself and his band into Craig Schumacher's Wave Lab studios in Tucson. Located in the city's downtown warehouse district, Wave Lab has served as a haven for all manner of musical oddballs, functioning as the official home base for Giant Sand and Calexico, among others.

An experienced -- perhaps slightly jaded -- record maker, a wary Wynn began the Tucson sessions with decidedly low expectations. "I figured if everything completely got screwed up, at worst I had a 10-day vacation in Tucson, ate some good Mexican food and went home. If I'd gotten a few B-sides I would've been happy."

What Wynn ended up getting was something else entirely: a sprawling, career-defining, double-disc opus that is -- as the press sheet enthuses -- "his Exile on Main Street, his Zen Arcade and yeah, his Physical Graffiti."

"One thing I really hate about a lot of records now," says Wynn, in between bites of an omelet, "is that people are so hip, they have such a good record collection, they know their favorite bands too well.

"The first thing they do is get the same equipment, the same outboard gear and just duplicate their favorite record. I think there is a real danger in that -- or at least it seems like there's little point in it. And I certainly didn't want to do it."

Last fall, with a clutch of nearly 20 songs written, Wynn holed up in the Sonoran Desert to record. He decided -- almost subconsciously -- that the album would not merely mimic the sounds of his well-worn vinyl, but rather deconstruct what he loved about them in the first place, then rebuild the parts into a new machine. As a result, Miracles plays like one long ride, the soul-bearing sound of a life spent writing, playing and loving music.

Naturally, Miracles boasts all the markers one might expect: the detached cool of the Velvets, the swagger of the Stones, the anthemic dissonance of Crazy Horse and a wealth of pop hooks to rival any bubblegum auteur. Much of those disparate influences crop up, not just on the same album, but often within in the same song. But despite its constantly shifting shape, Miracles is a thoroughly consistent effort -- a record with many faces, but a single soul.

If Wynn's more recent albums have seemed polite, on Miracles, the title and opening track announces his new intent with a slash of guitar, fatback organ and distorted vocals.

"It does start abrasively. In a way that was not typical for me. It's like the secret password at the door. If you can get past that, it's going to be fine," he says with a chuckle.

The album moves into familiar territory with "Shades of Blue" -- the one song that clearly traces its lineage back to the Dream Syndicate catalogue -- before exploding in the sunburst euphony of "Sustain" -- an opening triumvirate that heralds the wonderfully schizophrenic nature of the disc.

From the outset, the record sparkles as a result of Wynn's decision to enlist the help of longtime collaborator Chris Cacavas as a player and co-producer. A legendary Tucson punker, Cacavas gained fame as a member of '80s roots avatars Green on Red, as well as guesting on a handful of Dream Syndicate and Wynn solo albums. (Wynn also produced Cacavas' 1988 self-titled solo debut and '97s Anonymous.)

Cacavas -- arguably the greatest musical talent to emerge from Arizona -- is, for lack of a better comparison, the poor man's Al Kooper: a consummate sideman with a natural instinct for coming up with memorable hooks and the perfect accouterments for any song. And, as Wynn is quick to point out, his presence proved vital in marshaling the small army of sounds and textures that find their way onto Miracles.

"I wanted somebody involved who would shake things up," says Wynn, "who would bring in weird ideas, things I wouldn't do on my own. But if you bring in someone you don't know to do that, you're always a little suspicious. You have that thing in the back of your head of, 'You obviously don't understand what I'm doing.' But with Chris, since we know each other so well, that wasn't a concern."

Wynn's trust in his old mate is rewarded as Cacavas infuses the proceeding with mesmeric organ drones, squiggles of Wurlitzer, atmospheric piano fills and swathes of synth noise -- elements that blithely weave their way into the warm, welcoming fabric of the album.

"He was constantly doing things on the record that were nuts," says Wynn. "Things that were weird, noisy or dissonant or against the character of the song, but I let him run with it."

Another friend who contributes is Giant Sand-man Gelb. The dedicated desert eclectic lends a further left field quality to the proceedings with a corrosive, contortionist guitar solo on "Sustain" and eerie piano/arrangement on the funk brooder "Topanga Canyon Freaks."

"Howe will typically do the exact opposite of what you think anybody would do," says Wynn, laughing. "It's like, it couldn't be more wrong. You can't imagine anybody taking a more contrary approach, but what he does always works out great."

Input from these multiple sources helped generate the kind of welcome creative tension that the singer was seeking. Throughout, Miracles benefits from the friendly tug of war being waged between Wynn's ideas and the players' interpretations of the material.

A perfect example of this occurs with "Morningside Heights." Though the finished track exudes a bittersweet Beach Boys vibe -- a languid, loungey mutation of "Surfs Up" and "'Til I Die" -- Wynn's original concept for the piece was set closer to Detroit than Doheney.

"In my mind I was trying to write a Motown soul song like 'Ooh, Baby, Baby' by the Miracles," he says. "But everybody came to the song -- like [Calexico's] John Convertino playing vibes -- with more of that Pet Sounds thing in mind. And I didn't try to force them the other way. That kind of thing makes for a more interesting record. You can't just pinpoint the influences."

Elsewhere, "Death Valley Rain" -- a song Wynn wrote after listening to the Feelies landmark Crazy Rhythms -- mutates from college-rock pastiche to classic rock romp, thanks to Cacavas' baritone guitar, which turns the tune into a kissin' cousin of Elvis' "Burning Love."

A veteran of projects ranging from Richard Buckner to the Friends of Dean Martinez, co-producer/engineer Craig Schumacher -- who also steps in with lap steel, harmonica and vocals -- deserves equal credit for the multicolored collage of sounds.

"Craig works differently than most producers. Instead of thinking in terms of a batch of tracks, he works on each song individually -- like they were a different character," says Wynn. "And he's very hands-on. He gets in there and throws up different mikes and different amps for each track, to give them a unique identity."

The full production team of Wynn, Cacavas and Schumacher forge an atmosphere so thick that, at times, you almost have to brush it away. The album possesses a sonic flair that delights in conjuring visceral imagery, whether it's grafting a ghostly choir of vocals onto the Burundi beat of "Strange New World," creating the spooky momentum of "Sunset to the Sea" or the dense wash of noise that comprises the white-hot "Smash Myself to Bits."

Wynn's core band, the Miracle 3, also generates a fair amount of heat, with drummer Linda Pitmon -- a veteran of Minneapolis pop-punks ZuZu's Petals -- turning out a handful of unassailably cool percussive touches: the rattlesnake shaker on "Strange New World"; the clink hammer of "Death Valley Rain"; the bone-dry snare of "Let's Leave It Like That." Meantime, bassist Dave DeCastro's oscillating four-string and the prowling tones of Chris Brokaw's guitar lend an adroit backing to a clutch of tunes that veer wildly -- and beautifully -- from start to finish.

Wynn's vocals similarly take on a variety of different hues: from lurching Time Out of Mind-Dylan ("Butterscotch") and the winsome, reedy register of Neil Young ("Good and Bad") to the deadpan delivery of old standby Lou Reed ("Blackout").

In sum, the scorched environs of the naked pueblo proved to be the very tonic needed to revitalize Wynn's muse.

"Going to Tucson, being around people who are kind of freaks. Working in a studio that specializes in recording freaks, with an engineer who has a good taste for freaks, but having the freaks all be friends of mine was a good combination," offers Wynn. "It was the best session I've ever had in my life."

Though recorded in Arizona, the album's themes are steeped in the seamy underbelly of Los Angeles, which has led several critics to deem Miracles a concept album about SoCal lowlifes -- something Wynn denies. While there are sections that could be interpreted as conceptual -- and admittedly, Wynn's writing does possess a literary bent -- it's clear the record was not intended as straight pulp fiction. (The notion may also have something to do with Wynn's recent association with hardboiled author George Pelecanos, who penned his bio and conducts an interview with the singer in the current issue of Magnet.)

Thankfully, when he does try his hand at noir imagery, Wynn succeeds where so many would-be musical Tarantinos fail, capturing a mood and a moment without merely relying on depictions of shock-inducing carnage. He details the first bloody stirrings of a life gone bad on "Blackout," later delivering the foreboding "Watch Your Step" before a farrago of death and deceit takes over on the jagged "Southern California Line."

"The whole noir, hardboiled thing is very comfortable for me because it's a form I really like and it's a big part of what I've read my whole life," he says. "But as far as all the California stuff -- Death Valley this, Topanga Canyon that -- it's weird, 'cause I lived here for 34 years, but I've never written about this area so much before. It wasn't intentional, it's just how it came out."

Ultimately, Wynn's lyrics rely less on setting than a combination of clever word play ("Well, you can strike up the band/With the back of your hand") and dark imagery ("Your ghost don't stand a chance when it's filled with flesh and blood"), yielding a platter that somehow manages to stay fresh over the course of 19 songs and 80-plus minutes.

"At this point in my life, I know I'm not U2 or somebody whose audience is going to feel obliged to say, 'Man, I gotta take and digest this whole thing.' Still, it felt like it made more sense as a long record than as a short record. It covers a lot of ground.

"In a way," muses Wynn, "[Miracles] sums up what I was doing 20 years ago, what I've done in the last 20 years and the things I'm more into now."

Critics claiming that Miracles is a nostalgic return to form, a flashback to The Days of Wine and Roses, are also off the mark. In fact, the album's grown-up garage rock probably owes more to the formative woodshedding Wynn did as a youth than anything he offered up with the Syndicate.

"Yeah, it's funny. The band I had when I was 12 -- doing covers of 'Riders on the Storm' -- it might have more to do with this record than something I was doing in 1982.

"The main similarity is that there was a lot of freedom in the Dream Syndicate. Letting things happen, in an extreme but unforced way. Just pushing it as far as you could. I think that's what this album has in common with The Days of Wine and Roses."

Last year during a visit to L.A., Wynn was dining with Rhino Records senior vice president Gary Stewart -- the man who'd hired him as a teenage record store clerk, then signed him as a solo artist a decade later -- when he found out the label had acquired the rights to the Slash catalogue, and The Days of Wine and Roses along with it.

Over the course of the meal, the two agreed that Days, which had been out of print since the mid-'90s, would be among the Slash titles reissued this summer.

"It couldn't have worked out better," says Wynn. "That record is just too important to me for it to have been done wrong. So I was really glad to have Rhino handle it."

The disc -- released in July -- receives the full Rhino reissue/remastering/repackaging treatment (see accompanying review). To some, Wynn's embrace of the project may seem a bit surprising. Or at least a turnaround for the man who, in the midst of a burgeoning solo career in the early '90s, wondered aloud whether he would still be talking about Days when he turned 70.

"Now," he says, grinning, "I've accepted I will be."

"But," he adds "I'm proud of The Days of Wine and Roses; I always have been." True to his word, Wynn has long retained Days cuts like "Tell Me When It's Over" and "Halloween" as staples of his live sets.

"I know so many people that go solo and won't play anything by their old band -- even if they wrote the songs. I never understood that. It's like, 'Are you not proud of it? Is that like some big mistake from your youth?'

"Granted, there is a period of time where you don't feel like you want to be forever defined by something that you did when you were barely old enough to drink in a bar," he says. "But I look around and it's the same with anybody who does music -- no matter how big they are. Even if it's the Rolling Stones, John Fogerty or Bob Dylan or anybody, they're still having to answer to things that they did when they were 21. My [situation] is no different and there's no reason to feel strange about it. I mean, if Dylan can still play 'Like a Rolling Stone,' I can play 'That's What You Always Say.' It's not a burden."

Not so coincidentally, then, Wynn will be spending much of his current tour playing songs from Days. In fact, when he reaches Tempe next week, the show will be divided into two sets: one focusing on material from Miracles and the other consisting of The Days of Wine and Roses in its entirety.

In the meantime, Wynn seems to genuinely be savoring his status as rock's consummate cult hero while accepting the fact that his work may never reach that elusive commercial zenith.

"There was a time where I tasted that kind of success," says Wynn of the swirl of attention that accompanied his 1990 release Kerosene Man. "I've been on the cover of Billboard and on MTV, and all that. I like it and it's fun, but I don't work for it. I would love to see [Miracles] get all the attention and success that it can, but I'm not basing my life on it. I just feel like it's a worthy crusade, but it's not a necessity for my happiness or long-term survival. Most of my heroes were cult artists, anyway."

Wynn's plans include a tour of Europe -- where he remains a star attraction from his Syndicate days -- and a return to Tucson to record a follow-up to Miracles for a 2002 release. And though he talks of writing "the inevitable novel," for now, Wynn is happy to bask in the warm glow of his latest work.

"It sounds so cliché to say, but I think I've just made the best record of my life. And, to me, having just made the best record of my life at 41 means that I gotta keep doing it and get even better. I really feel like I'm learning new things and finding better and better ways to communicate this stuff. I don't want to stop.

"Fortunately, I'm in a nice place -- which wasn't planned, but it's worked out great -- where I'm popular enough to be able to sustain this as my living, but I'm not big enough that there are a lot of demands on me; people breathing down my neck telling me what kind of record to make and where I should play.

"I don't even think about the age thing anymore. Last summer, in one month I went to five shows where nobody was under 70 -- Cecil Taylor, R.L. Burnside, Ornette Coleman, Max Roach, Hubert Sumlin. They were all great shows and nobody was under 70! Compared to that, I figure I'm just a kid."

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Bob Mehr
Contact: Bob Mehr