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).

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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."

By 1988 Lone Justice was kaput. But the pattern was set for McKee: As her solo career developed, her decision-making process seemed to remain driven by a need for positive reinforcement. Thus, when 1989's Maria McKee -- a grand, spiritual affair that continued her leanings toward Springsteen and Van Morrison -- was received coolly by the American press, she exiled herself to Ireland where, she says, "the journalists would bring me flowers and actually have tears in their eyes."

After three years of mostly hiding out in the Dublin house she owned, she returned to Los Angeles, craving AM oldies radio, the food, the cars, the weather, and "the architecture in all of its kitschy glory." She also released a new album, You've Got to Sin to Be Saved, which found her reuniting with some of her Lone Justice bandmates and enlisting a few of the Jayhawks for good measure. The result was a punchy country-rock effort with an R&B tinge; it was workmanlike, inoffensive, and perfectly likable. McKee now considers it misguided.

"I still hadn't fully gotten to the point where I was brave enough to really do what I wanted," she remembers. "I thought, Well, the American media pretty much ignored my first solo record, so maybe I'll try to recapture some of that Lone Justice feeling."

General public reaction got even worse with Life Is Sweet, McKee's angry, driven album from 1996. The record contained moments so brash and unexpected (touches of Ziggy-era Bowie, Patti Smith, grunge; absolutely zero twang) that it was ignored by consumers and pummeled by many critics. The anti-McKee sentiments are best summed up by Ira Robbins's review of the record in The Trouser Press Guide to '90s Rock: "Life Is Sweet goes straight over the top in a bewildering styleless hodgepodge of bad production ideas, bizarre gimmicks, uneven writing, and singing so mindlessly zealous in spots that McKee can't possibly be hearing herself."

As for Geffen, most executives at the label saw absolutely no commercial potential in the project and hoped it would never see the inside of a record store.

"The record company gave it such the enormous thumbs-down, it was not even funny," declares McKee, whose relationship with Geffen ended soon after the label heard a set of like-minded demos that followed the release. "I was kinda shocked. There was talk of it not coming out, and I have to admit I was suicidal. And I thought, I can't kill myself, because I'm the Life Is Sweet girl. That would just be too sick."

Rock bottom? Not so fast.
Sweet is often a mess, but it's a scintillating, stunning one. The risks McKee takes on it have the ring of defiance, not desperation; it plays like a striking arrival more than a major misstep -- her own private revolution. And while McKee's manager, her label, and a host of her former proponents likened it to career suicide, McKee still considers it her masterpiece.

Sweet provided the first evidence of the focused, adventurous artist McKee has become -- a far cry from the youngster who, she admits, while trapped in an endless cycle of losing creative control, "sabotaged gigs, pissed people off, broke hearts, had liaisons with guitar techs, and caused Greek tragedies to ensue in the middle of the most important leg of the tour, to the point where band members quit."

The new McKee was very much in evidence at Los Angeles's Galaxy Theater earlier this month: During the set she was relaxed and amiable as she showcased a half-dozen new songs on guitar and piano, sometimes with the help of Denis Roche and Jim Akin (the latter being McKee's fiance). Numbers such as "Love Doesn't Love Me" and the drum-looped "Be My Joy" nicely fused intimacy with a sense of high drama. The lilting "Worrybirds" hinted at opera.

Lone Justice has become a pointless reference. Think instead of a kinder, gentler Life Is Sweet, with a nod toward Broadway. That's who McKee wants to be these days, much to the delight of one audience member who screamed for her hand in marriage halfway through the set -- and to the delight the 600 others who gave her a standing ovation after she closed her set with an arresting acoustic version of "Shelter."  

McKee says she's preparing to make an album her way, selecting a dozen or so of her 30 or 40 latest compositions (among them a new version of the incomparable "Life Is Sweet") and recording them in her own bedroom studio with Akin and other musicians of her choice. The production sensibility will also be hers, entirely. She talks of shopping it around, but is considerably more enthusiastic about the potential for a self-release.

"I know I need to make it first," she asserts. "Because I don't want anyone telling me how to make it. Those days are over.

"I was the new kid on the block once upon a time, and people were excited about me and there was a huge buzz. And everybody sort of keeps that moment," she continues. "But then you have someone like Neil Young who disappears, falls out of fashion, and suddenly he's 50 years old and he's an institution. I'm not in any rush.

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