Life Is Sweet

March 1985. Lankershim Boulevard, near the edge of industrial North Hollywood. The Palomino. Onstage: Lone Justice, pounding out a Parton-meets-punk mutation of country-rock that has seduced a city full of music critics. The Next Big Thing. They play stomping blue-collar tales ("Working Late") and brokenhearted weepers ("Don't Toss Us Away"). They showcase "Ways to Be Wicked," a catchy-as-hell rock tune given to them by Tom Petty, a song soon to be worked to radio. Twenty-year-old vocalist-guitarist Maria McKee, by then the recipient of more critical acclaim than most artists garner in an entire career, announces that Lone Justice's self-titled debut LP is due in a month and the band will soon be supporting emerging heroes U2 on an East Coast tour, Lone Justice's first ever.

That night, that moment of promise, would turn out to be the band's high point. The accomplished Lone Justice went on to sell in the 200,000-unit range, but soon after, the honeymoon ended. It had the ring of cliche: Impressionable young band gets crushed under weight of major label; band searches for vision; handlers search for accessibility. Handlers win.

Shelter, the band's 1986 sophomore album, showed a group on the brink of collapse, its original members (McKee, guitarist-vocalist Ryan Hedgecock, bassist Marvin Etzioni, drummer Don Heffington) having grown apart and/or been booted. The result: With hollow, booming production courtesy of Little Steven Van Zandt, Shelter is the sound of a desperate, futile search for the top of the charts.

Fast-forward thirteen years. Two events bring McKee back into the conversation for the first time in a long while. First, the upcoming release of The World Is Not My Home, a seventeen-song compilation of Lone Justice songs that succinctly demonstrates both the band's initial brilliance (via ten never-before-released demos, live tracks, and studio outtakes) and its subsequent tumble (songs from Shelter and a clumsy live version of Lou Reed's "Sweet Jane" with guest vocals from a self-involved Bono).

And second, McKee resurfaced last month for her first L.A. performances in two-and-a-half years. A pair of gigs that showcased several new tunes and served notice that the now-35-year-old wunderkind has neither burned out nor faded away. She's without a label for the first time in her adult life, she's completely devoid of any sort of a buzz, and McKee has gained complete control of her career. She is writing and recording precisely what she wants, and has come to an understanding of what roles fame and success (or lack thereof) play in her life. In short Maria McKee has finally been left alone to grow up.

"I have to be honest with you: I have a dream career," McKee says, sitting in her snug and homey West Los Angeles apartment one December afternoon, casual in a long-sleeved pullover and jeans. "I can do what I want. I have pretty much artistic control. I can tour. I make a very healthy living as a songwriter where I can, like, actually enjoy my life, and play music with people I love at gigs where there's reverential silence, with people going insane and having encore after encore."

How times have changed. Thrust into the spotlight with Lone Justice soon after dropping out of Beverly Hills High in 1981, McKee faced absurd hype: The Los Angeles Times's Robert Hilburn likened the roof-raising singer to Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, Chrissie Hynde, and Janis Joplin.

Lone Justice's first album was produced by their manager Jimmy Iovine, whose previous successes included Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run, Petty's Damn the Torpedoes, and Patti Smith's Easter. Furthermore, this virtually unknown band was given not only the aforementioned Petty tune but one from Bob Dylan, who showed up at the studio one day with the number, bringing pal Ron Wood along to play some guitar. (That song, "Go Away Little Boy," is available for the first time on The World Is Not My Home.) And, it's worth repeating, Lone Justice's first tour was a support gig for U2, a seemingly pointless pairing aside from the common concern of devout Christian faith.

In the midst of all this quick glamour, though, the quartet was busy dealing with more mundane challenges that it hadn't yet had time to overcome, such as fleshing out their artistic vision and learning to play together. That turned out to be their undoing.

"We were wusses," recalls McKee, who started singing professionally at age sixteen. "We were kids who had passion and we fell together, and we didn't know how to play. And because of that, we couldn't handle it."

McKee wanted to tell Iovine that she was scared and overwhelmed, but she didn't know how to do it. And by the time she made Shelter, for which an entirely new backing band was brought in, it was too late. Any hint of the rough-and-tumble cow-punk band was lost.

"I didn't know how to seize control," she says, refuting the notion that Iovine had a Svengali-like reign over her. "I turned him [Iovine] into a parental figure and sought his approval pathologically, trying to be the artist I thought he wanted me to be without actually being the artist I was best at. I didn't even know what that was yet. I was like, 'Okay, he's friends with Bono, he likes Stevie Nicks,' [and] he was flying me here and there to see Amnesty International, so I was like, 'Okay, I'm gonna try to be Peter Gabriel.' Shelter was like me trying to please Daddy. And that's my own fault."

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