Graded on a Curve:
Gary Wright,
Rhino Hi-Five:
Gary Wright

I’ll always have a special place in my heart for Gary Wright. It’s the same place where I keep my love for Sammy Johns, spotted dick (the English pudding, filthbrain), and Wolfman Jack of American Graffiti fame, on whose Saturday evening TV show The Midnight Special back in 1975 I first saw Wright singing “Dream Weaver” with a portable synthesizer hanging from a strap around his neck.

I loved “Dream Weaver,” but even as a kid I thought the “synth on a rope” concept was ridiculous, although I unhappily assumed that within a year every keyboardist in rock would be wearing one, instead of standing immobile behind his bank of keyboards where he belonged. Fortunately I was wrong, just as I was wrong about Frampton’s talking guitar soon taking over the planet, and walk-about keyboards kinda caught on, but fortunately never in a big way. Had they done so, the world would be an awful, awful place, with somebody in every band extant wearing a portable keyboard like an albatross around his neck.

I love Gary Wright every bit as much as I love “Dream Weaver,” but I’m not so blinded by adoration as to think Wright has given us much great music. Ninety percent of his solo material is mediocre mystical muzak, magic crystal revelations that are as saccharine as crystals of Sweet’N Low, and bad (as opposed to badass) ersatz funk. This is the reason I chose his Rhino Records Hi-Five EP instead of 1975’s The Dream Weaver. Why review eight or so mediocre tunes when I can review just three?

A brief history of the immortal Dream Weaver: Wright, a native of Cresskill, NJ, moved to England and wound up as vocalist/Hammond organ player for the hard rock group Spooky Tooth, which got its name from the fact that one of guitarist Luther Grosvenor’s molars would occasionally play KC and the Sunshine Band’s “Shake Your Booty”—a song that wouldn’t be written and released for another 8 years. Wright wrote most of the songs for the Tooth’s first three LPs before leaving the band to launch a solo career.

In 1971 he formed the short-lived Wonderwheel with future Foreigner guitarist Mick Jones and contributed to tons of other artists’ records. The following year he re-formed Spooky Tooth with Jones and vocalist Terry Reid, who just might be the world’s most unlucky musician, having turned down invitations to join both Deep Purple and the band that would become Led Zeppelin. The new Tooth released the wonderfully titled You Broke My Heart So I Busted Your Jaw in 1973 only to break up again, and in 1974 Wright traveled with George Harrison to India, where he was infected with the Hindu spiritualism that would inform his solo recordings. He returned to England to regroup Spooky Tooth (the only thing spooky about them is how they kept coming back, like roaches to your kitchen) yet again, and they released a final LP before a kindly dentist finally yanked Spooky Tooth for good.

It was at this point that the pioneering Wright did something extraordinarily. He’d put out solo albums before, but for The Dream Weaver he put together what was in effect an all-keyboard band, with a drum machine and no guitars. The Dream Weaver’s dream was born. Wright did break down and utilize real live human drummers Jim Keltner and Andy Newmark on the finished LP, as well as a guitar part on one song, but otherwise The Dream Weaver was one of the first ever all-synth affairs.

I hate synthesizers. And it’s a sign of the greatness of “Dream Weaver” and “Love Is Alive” that I love them despite the fact. Unfortunately, I don’t love LP opener “I Really Want to Know You,” a cheesy Michael McDonald-style schmaltz-rocker off 1981’s The Right Place. Synthesizer whooshes and astral backing vocals do nothing to differentiate this baby from thousands of other bad pop songs of the sort that cause you to immediately turn the dial on the old radio the minute they come on.

And “Touch and Gone,” the title track of Wright’s 1977 LP, isn’t much better. It moves at a faster pace, and would pass for a rock tune if it actually rocked. Instead it sounds like, I don’t know, a Lionel Richie rocker, complete with bland instrumentation and banal lyrics that make you wonder whether Wright learned anything whilst hanging out on that astral plane of his. “Touch me and I feel the fever,” he sings, “You touch me and I lose control/Yeah you touch me and I’m a believer/Love has touched me in my very soul.” I detect no recondite spiritual insights in said lyrics, or in the clever tag line, “Love was always touch and go/Now it’s touch and gone.” Other than the very brief synthesizer solo, this song is completely without redeeming qualities. Unlike Touch and Gone’s next tune, “Starry Eyed,” which I swear begins with the words, “Love is shining from a fart.” Okay, so I’m probably wrong about that. But I can wish, can’t I?

“Phantom Writer” from 1977’s The Light of Smiles opens like a piano ballad, stripped down but with cryptic lyrics that have Gary looking out his window and seeing his name written in the sky, and then its tempo picks up and it isn’t half bad—like a sorta okay Traffic song or sumpin’. It features a very catchy chorus and lots of synth washes and at the three-quarter mark applause comes out of nowhere as Wright plays some cool synth before launching into what may very well be the best synthesizer solo I’ve ever heard. We have a winner! Wright isn’t a two-hit wonder!

Which brings us to the two cuts off The Dream Weaver, which features a fabulous cover that shows Wright, eyes closed, in a weird pod or wearing strange headgear, which makes him look like a space voyager who has traveled billions of miles to galaxies light years away in suspended animation and is now returning to Earth suffused with the arcane wisdom of distant astral planes, which will bring peace and love, as well as a new flavor of gelato, to us all.

“Love Is Alive” is a most excellent and archetypal slice of seventies rock, and as funky as Wright gets, with the synths playing a tuff riff and Wright belting it out instead of practically whispering, as he so often does. Why, this is practically a dance tune. Gary’s heart is on fire and his soul’s like a wheel that’s turning—just like the one in the Journey song!—and by god his love is alive, so alive he lets out a few “yeah yeah yeahs” and “Woos.” The great drumming increases the song’s funkification fourfold, and while I wish Gary had seen fit to throw in a cool-ass solo like on “Phantom Writer” you can’t have everything in this life. I’ll happily settle for the natty chorus and the heavy ending, when the drummer gives the cymbals a mean beating, the synthesizers really pick up, and Wright lets rip on the vocals.

I’ve saved the best for last. The mid-tempo “Dream Weaver” is a great song, opening with chimes and a synth drone and all kinds of esoteric blips before Gary comes in singing about how it’s time to board the dream weaver train. Then comes the great chorus (“Oooh dream weaver/I believe you can get me through the night/Oooh dream weaver/I believe we can reach the morning light”), Gary singing in an all-knowing hush filled with orphic wisdom. And he follows that with the anagogic lines, “Fly me high through the starry skies/Or maybe to an astral plane/Cross the highways of fantasy/Help me to forget today’s pain.” Forget that he’s already mentioned traveling by train, starship, and highway—he’s Gary Wright, goddamn it, and he can travel any goddamn way he wants.

As for the music, the synthesizers are perfect for the subject matter, and I love the song’s syncopated feel and the spot-on drumming and the part where the song slows and Wright sings, “Fly me away to the bright side of the moon” and cries, “Dream Weaver!” as the synthesizers take us back to the chimes, drone, and cabalistic blips of the opening. Should I ever travel to remote solar systems in a spaceship that folds time you can be darn sure I’m taking “Dream Weaver” with me. It’s nice to meditate to as well, although I never meditate so I’m just blowing hot air.

With the passing of the glory days of “Dream Weaver” I was afraid Wright had slipped into obscurity, but not so. He continues to release LPs and do soundtrack work. He was also a member of the 2008, 2010, and 2011 line-ups of Ringo Starr & His All-Starr Band (along with the likes of Edgar “Whiter Shade of Pale” Winter and many others!) He also joined a 2004 reunion of the evidently unkillable Spooky Tooth. And “Dream Weaver”—as we all remember—was featured on the soundtrack of 1992’s Wayne’s World.

Or perhaps Wright has really—thanks to the use of a body double—been gone this whole time, traveling aboard his starship The Dream Weaver to some brand new astral plane. Because Wright is a mystic and a seeker of truths and revelations and I wish him well, and hope he doesn’t end up getting run over by an intergalactic 18-wheeler as he crosses the eight-lane highway of fantasy. No stop signs, speed limits, why it might as well be the Highway to Hell.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B

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