This is a (very long-term) series of posts on songs that are exceptionally obscure, and that even most serious music fans will never have heard and that deserve more exposure. Of all the bands that could ever appear on such a list, Mr. Mister is a terribly unlikely name. Mr. Mister had one of the iconic albums of the 80’s, Welcome To The Real World, which spawned two #1 singles: the slow-dance standard “Broken Wings” and the positive-pop anthem “Kyrie”. And while Go On… didn’t sell anywhere near as many copies, it had an MTV-ready single (“Something Real”, which snuck onto the Billboard Top 30) and a standout movie’s title track (“Stand and Deliver”, also notable for appearing in a Hilliard Middle/Senior High School yearbook as a certain 1989 senior’s favorite song).
So “No Words To Say”, which turned out to be the first and only Mr. Mister song with lyrics by Richard Page alone, working without his longtime collaborator John Lang, is a Famous Song You’ve Never Heard because of the story of Mr. Mister’s follow-up to Go On….
If you were even aware that Go On… existed at all, you might be surprised by the existence of another Mr. Mister album. And you should be, unless you’ve paid the closest of attention. Because it was recorded. And then RCA never released it.
Andre Salles, of the Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. blog, wrote what’s in my mind the definitive ode to Mr. Mister’s late career seven years ago. His emotions about Go On… very neatly mirror my own; I’ve never lost my affection for the crisp opening tones of “Stand And Deliver”, for the yearning behind “Healing Waters” and “The Border”, for the unspoken stories in the textures of “Dust,” and for the determination in every word of “Something Real.”
But that story is comparatively known. The next part of the story – of Steve Farris’ departure, of the work the remaining three members did to work out a serious artistic step beyond Go On…, of the changes in the recording industry under the band’s feet, and of RCA’s ultimate rejection of the album breaking up the band, remained the stuff of fan rumor for the longest time. Salles even writes his own story of his exploration of that next step not by hearing an official release of Pull, the lost Mr. Mister album, but by tracking down and downloading bootleg copies of the songs that had leaked from RCA and been dubbed and redubbed.
The remastered and offical album was finally released in November 2010 on frontman Richard Page’s Little Dume Recordings, to the delight of die-hard fans and very few others. And ultimately, most observers – up to and including the members of the band themselves – understood why RCA didn’t hear a commercially viable album. The songs were much darker, from time to time they veered into pop/jazz fusion, and the lyrics were very challenging. Even the song the band called “son of Broken Wings”, “Waiting In My Dreams”, didn’t speak of hope but of hopelessness and loneliness, with the only outlet being the dreamlife – “when I close my eyes, you’re all I see…the only time you’re next to me.” The repeated “Kyrie Eleison” from Welcome To The Real World was a hopeful Greek prayer that any youth group leader could use; the lyrics of Pull’s “Lifetime” recalled Gabriel García Márquez’ Love In The Time Of Cholera, which (while hopeful over the long haul) didn’t get talked about near as much in church when I was growing up.
But the challenge is worth the reward, and like so much in the music industry in the 90’s, a label’s failure to hear the prospect of immediate sales robbed the musicians of a chance to share a fully realized piece of art with the world. There wasn’t a vision for how a unique album with a famous name behind it could find its audience. And how a uniquely challenging message could resonate.
And that message was needed, and still is needed.
I’d collaborated with John Lang for years and years on lyrics, but that song was one of the first I’d took on myself to write. It was kind of a seminal moment for me. Plus, it was a recollection of my growing up in the deep South in the ’50s with the civil rights movement and all the chaos, from a kid’s point of view…
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was there in Montgomery, Alabama, and they were marching and it was in the news all the time. I played pop warner football with George Wallace, Jr. My best friend across the street – his father was rumored to be a high official in the KKK. White and black drinking fountains and restrooms and things like that.
And yet, we had a maid – a black woman – who was so beautiful and kind. My mother worked, and this woman was with me and my siblings all the time, she was part of the family. From a kid’s point of view, again, why would anybody hate anybody because of their color? But more importantly, why didn’t people who knew better speak out? That’s what I achieved as an adult, looking back – where were the adults going, “This is wrong, we have to change this”? There weren’t very many – of course there were a few – but that’s where the song came from.
And that’s not to say I’m above any of the accusations I’m throwing either. We all carry with us a lot of prejudices and they’re unconscious, many of them. And again, not rocking the boat is more important than getting the truth for a lot of us.
What’s striking about “No Words To Say”, beyond the stark and evocative lyrics, is Page’s phrasing of them. For somebody who’s been accused of having a vanilla voice and a bland pop sensibility, Page weaves these words through the song in a fashion that’s almost more reminiscent of spoken-word than singing:
There were those who know the tables would turn
Running out into the burning streets
And hoping to hear the words
Of a prophet or a sage who might come along
And straighten out the mess they had made
The injustice and cruelty by their own hands
Of the ones of another shade
Page hears a the sound of protest vividly, the language of the unheard – “growing sweeter and more murderous all at once” – and longs for one of the adults in his very white life to lead with integrity, instead of pretending like everything is OK and taking advantage of the benefits of their privilege. Too many lived their lives quietly, silently.
It doesn’t strike the ear like a first tentative effort at solo lyricism. It strikes the ear as a masterwork.
When I finally heard it for the first time in 2010, Pull offered closure – the conclusion of the progression that the path from Welcome To The Real World to Go On… marked. But the more I’ve listened to it, the more Pull has become its own entity, and an album I go to in its own right, its own work of art.
And the song “No Words To Say” has challenged me more and more with each passing year. It becomes clearer and clearer with each passing day that whatever progress we’d allowed ourselves to believe had been made in hearing every voice and giving value to every life was an illusion, that the positive steps that had been taken can just as easily be walked back. The ways of change continue to be peculiar. People are still trying to hide their eyes.
Richard Page, it turns out, spoke the prophetic words he wrote about. They are words we still need to hear, perhaps now more than ever. And the mess we have made will require a lifetime’s of work to straighten out.