After fifty years, I'm still looking for the meaning of "The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys"

A few years ago, I was having a discussion about the Traffic album, “The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys.” The person I was talking with claimed it was the best album of the 1970s decade. Although I loved the band and the album, I was more than a little skeptical. I did the research to put together a post of the greatest albums of the 70s. “Low Spark” turned up on my honorable mention section. Not bad, but certainly not the best of an amazing decade.

Since January, I’ve been writing about classic albums from 1971 to see if they hold on to their greatness after fifty years. Most have needed a new listen or two because I hadn’t heard them in their entirety in many years. That wasn’t the case with “Low Spark.” It’s been a regular on whatever music listening device I’ve used since its release. It’s also one of my go-to records when I’m looking to kill an hour on a long plane flight or car road trip.

However, I did play it a couple of times this week to get ready for writing this piece. I also played it because I love the music. The songs sound as fresh today as they did in 1971. Steve Winwood still plays four of the six songs from the record in his live sets. After fifty years, that tells you what he thinks of the album.

The highlight of the album is the title track. At more than eleven minutes long, it’s still a great listen. It never bores you. The sax parts from Chris Wood are eerie. The drumming of Jim Gordon is spectacular. The piano playing and vocals from Winwood are impeccable, as always.

So yes, the album holds up well and is still great after five decades. I knew that was going to be the case going in. The bigger question is this: what the Hell do the lyrics to Low Spark actually mean?

I’ve thought about this occasionally over the last half-century, but I never cared enough to actually check it out. A friend once mentioned it had something to do with drugs and drug dealers, but he didn’t explain what and how he knew this. Someone else said it had to do with folks who have nothing to do with the making of music stealing money and credit from the musicians who do the actual work. I don’t know…maybe…maybe not.

I think the best way to figure it out is to see what the lyric writer, Jim Capaldi, has to say:

Pollard and I would sit around writing lyrics all day, talking about Bob Dylan and the Band, thinking up ridiculous plots for the movie. Before I left Morocco, Pollard wrote in my book ‘The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys’. For me, it summed him up. He had this tremendous rebel attitude. He walked around in his cowboy boots, his leather jacket. At the time he was a heavy little dude. It seemed to sum up all the people of that generation who were just rebels. The ‘Low Spark’, for me, was the spirit, high-spirited. You know, standing on a street corner. The low rider. The ‘Low Spark’ meaning that strong undercurrent at the street level.

Pollard is the actor Michael J. Pollard. While we’ve known he was the one who came up with the song title, the explanation doesn’t really answer the question of the song’s meaning. Thanks, Jim.

I then dug a little deeper and found this:

The song is about drug culture and the relationships between users and suppliers. Low spark is injection, and high heeled boy is speedball, a mixture of cocaine and heroin. The first verse is about shooting up.
The second verse is about a dealer that got overdosed. The man in the suit making profits on the dreams of his customers is the dealer.
The third verse waxes philosophical and asks what you would do in a life and death situation, and if you haven’t been in a life and death situation, assures you that one day you will be, if not already. That what bothers you is that you know you are already in a life and death situation.

Okay…it’s a drug culture song. Good to know. But, I’ve heard there’s another explanation. I found this one:

It could be, about their agents. Low Spark refers to the low creativity of their High Heeled Boys who profit from the songwriter’s and musician’s dreams, their muse, while the artists live way too high and beyond all their means.

Hmmm….this makes sense, too. Musicians have always had issues with record label executives who cheat artists out of residuals and managers who steal their money. This wouldn’t be the first time a situation like this would be captured in a song.

Hmmmm again….both of them make sense and are possibilities, but we’ll never really know. Jim Capaldi died in 2005 and with that, he took the actual meaning of the words to his grave. Maybe we just have to accept and enjoy it for what it is….a great song and album in 1971 and still a great song and album in 2021.

Related Post: Steve Winwood in Concert-The oldies are comforting Type your email address in the box and click the “create subscription” button. My list is completely spam free, and you can opt out at any time.

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