“He’s Misstra Know-It-All” — Stevie Wonder

I read something recently which went along the lines of “it’s not what you don’t know that’ll get you, it’s what you don’t know you don’t know that will”.

The first time you hear this it might seem more like a tongue-twister than anything else. But think about this for a little while and it’s quite a profound message….one I experienced for myself a little while ago when an ego-maniac boss ran a business I used to work for into the ground because they were unable to accept that their view of the world was anything less than perfect.

They didn’t know…or more accurately didn’t listen to people, including me, who tried to tell them…that they had a huge blind-spot because of how they treated the provider of around 40% of the business’s income.

So convinced where they that this customer was an idiot, worthy only of their contempt, that they were completely side-swiped one day when our customer decided they’d had enough and came to the conclusion that they didn’t need my boss’s business nearly as much as my boss thought they ought to.

This precipitated a complete melt-down in the business and lots of good people lost their jobs because my boss didn’t know what they didn’t know, and wouldn’t take advice that didn’t chime with their worldview.

So I know from personal experience that Stevie Wonder’s conclusion in “He’s Misstra Know-It-All” is well-founded…

Take my word, please beware
Of a man that just don’t give a care, no
He’s Misstra Know-It-All

“He’s Misstra Know-It-All” was the final track on Stevie Wonder’s 1973 album, “Innervisions”. Widely regarded as some of Stevie Wonder’s finest work, “Innervisions” was number 23 in Rolling Stone Magazine’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time.

When you consider that’s a higher placing than “Dark Side Of The Moon”, “Ziggy Stardust” and “Tapestry”, among other classic albums, that perhaps gives you some idea how good an album “Innervisions” was.

You’ll recognise many of the other tracks on the album too, as they’ve become classics over the years… “Higher Ground”, “Living For The City” and “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing” all featured on “Innervisions” too, alongside “He’s Misstra Know-It-All”, of course.

It’s such a fine piece of work that it should be no surprise that “Innvervisions” won Album of the Year at the Grammys, with “Living For The City” picking up the Best R&B Song Grammy the same year.

Folklore has it that “He’s Misstra Know-It-All” was about President Richard Nixon…nicknamed “Tricky Dicky” in some quarters as a result of his somewhat shady reputation for being a man of his word and having other people’s best interests at heart. Harry Truman said of Nixon that “if he caught himself telling the truth, he’d lie just to keep his hand in”.

So there’s much to lead us to the conclusion that Nixon was the target of Stevie Wonder’s “He’s Misstra Know-It-All”. But I suspect the truth is more complicated than that. Certainly I can’t find anything definite attributed directly to Stevie Wonder where he says that Nixon was his intended target.

“He’s Misstra Know-It-All” is more likely to be a pastiche of a number of characters, possibly including Nixon, but the entertainment industry isn’t exactly short of smooth talking backstabbers itself.

Stevie Wonder’s boss at Motown, Berry Gordy, wasn’t always the nicest person to be around, if some of the stories are to be believed. And the same could probably be said of legions of A&R people and concert promoters Stevie Wonder will have come across in his long career.

He’s a man with a plan
Got a counterfeit dollar in his hand
He’s Misstra Know-It-All

Playin’ hard, talkin’ fast
Making sure that he won’t be the last
He’s Misstra Know-It-All

Stevie Wonder is telling us the tale of a “man on the make”…although please bear in mind this behaviour isn’t gender-specific. I’ve come across both men and women this song could have been written about.

Sadly, the undoing of people like those Stevie Wonder sings about is that they have trouble recognising that being successful in the short-term and in the long-term require two entirely different skill-sets. Before word gets round about their untrustworthiness, poor behaviour or sharp business practices, people can, and do, get ahead by screwing other people over.

Personally, I find that morally repugnant, so I’m not endorsing it as a strategy or suggesting you try this for yourself…far from it.

But I am acknowledging that sometimes, in the short-term, the strategy can look like it’s working to the uninitiated. Until you get found out…

If he shakes on a bet
He’s the kind of dude that won’t pay his debt
He’s Misstra Know-It-All

But once you get a reputation for being untrustworthy and not delivering on your promises, there’s no way back. People think they’re being screwed even when they aren’t and they’ll shy away from deals they would have taken from other people they trust more. The opportunities dry up.

After a while your “Misstra Know-It-All” characters find that only the desperate and the stupid will deal with them. But, again in the short-term, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The desperate and the stupid tend not to be the best dealmakers, so although the deals are fewer in number you can make more on each one, keeping your empire afloat a bit longer, even after most respectable operators won’t touch you with a barge-pole.

But that only lasts for as long as the desperate and the stupid remain solvent. Gradually, desperate and stupid people are subject to the same Darwinian processes that govern most other aspects of human behaviour and even that pool of people drops out.

At that point, the “Misstra Know-It-All” characters crash and burn, usually spectacularly, because they never saw it coming. They had convinced themselves they were so capable of bending the universe to their will that there would be a never-ending supply of desperate or stupid people even after the more respectable end of the market stop returning their phone calls.

They’re actually slightly emboldened by the fact that they’ve been able to keep operating, despite the fact that most of their market won’t deal with them any more. In their secret fears, they imagined that would be the point at which their business would fold.

But, au contraire, they’ve kept going just fine. For years, perhaps even decades.

By this stage they’ve suckered even themselves. They believe they can do no wrong. Their judgement is infallible. Their magnetic powers of persuasion will triumph over anyone they encounter.

They like to dispense advice on how great they are to other people. After all, they’re infallible, so who wouldn’t want to listen to them…?

When you say that he’s livin’ wrong
He’ll tell you he knows he’s livin’ right
And you’d be a stronger man
If you took Misstra Know-It-All’s advice

That was my old boss to a “T”. Someone who couldn’t even conceive that they might be doing anything wrong… “he knows he’s livin’ right”…it’s not a hope or a suspicion or a prayer. He knows it.

And if you know it, why would you listen to anyone telling you different?

But the truth is…

If we had less of him
Don’t you know we’d have a better land
He’s Misstra Know-It-All

Why I like “He’s Misstra Know-It-All” so much is that Stevie Wonder sings with sadness, not anger, in his heart.

It would be easy to angrily tear down someone who had behaved badly towards you. It takes a much better human being than I am to be sad for the person who had wronged him.

Sad that they’ll never know the joy of people warmly accepted by their peers as someone they like and trust. Sad that so many people they’ve “slashed and burned” in the past have had their lives destroyed because they trusted someone who was not deserving of that trust. Sad that a life which had so much potential was ultimately mired in failure and scandal.

“He’s Misstra Know-It-All” is a very gentle, almost contemplative, song. That’s a perspective on dealing with an unpleasant person that only someone with great personal qualities can adopt.

I just hope that in time I can feel about my old boss with the same level of class that Stevie Wonder mustered for whoever the original “Misstra Know-It-All” was.

I’ve long held the view that Stevie Wonder is one of the finest composers, songwriters and performers of the 20th Century.

Even with the high quality of his creative output over the years, “He’s Misstra Know-It-All” is one of those Stevie Wonder songs that showcases a master at the very top of his game…and bear in mind “his game” was already better than just about every other human being who has ever written a song or sung on a record.

Just the intro on “He’s Misstra Know-It-All” is better than many whole albums…even whole careers…from other artists. This style of long intro is something you’ll rarely hear nowadays, but Stevie Wonder certainly shows what you can do with a long intro if you take the time to craft something worth listening to.

Here’s the master at work…it’s Stevie Wonder with “He’s Misstra Know-It-All”…

The video is below, but if you prefer you can listen to the track on Spotify herehttps://open.spotify.com/track/7sQ9eys8uVNrCsPyzYlDgG

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Without words, it’s just a nice tune. Add words — now you’ve got a song. And songs can change your world. I write about some that changed mine.

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