Monday, August 22, 2016

Aphorism No. 81 — One of a series; Collect the whole set!

The merrier, the merrier — more or less.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Luke The Drifter — Hank Williams Blows The Foam Off The River Of Life

by Bart Bull

By 1950, Hank Williams was the biggest thing in country music, the biggest thing there'd ever been in country music, and he was making real good progress at killing himself. Haunted by guilt, by sin, by God, by his wife, by alcohol, by chronic physical pain and the pills that dimmed it, by the periodic binges that seized the reins of his life if he so much as blew the foam off a beer mug, haunted by the idea and spectre and facts of divorce, and haunted as well by a fierce case of precisely what has haunted hillbilly music from the night it first hit town, by that weird dislocated experience of being a country boy in a city world even if you weren't actually a country boy, or even in the city, either one. Ever.

All alone and lost, lost on the river of life, Hank Williams could no more help but repent than he could keep free of sin. He began to go in the studio and cut remorseful monologues like "A Picture From Life's Other Side" and "Too Many Parties, Too Many Pals" and "Be Careful of the Stones You Throw" and "Men With Broken Hearts," songs that were often fierce old stump-speech leftovers from a time when minstrel shows and religious revivals were both showbiz tentpoles. The word "maudlin" was created for songs such as these. They're parlor pieces of the sort that bloomed up out of the fantastically enriched soil, Southern and Northern alike,  that followed the slaughter of the Civil War. (When Bob Dylan's first album ended with a Blind Lemon Jefferson song called "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean," he was aurally illustrating Samuel Charters' recent epoch-defining book, "The Country Blues," wherein Charters had located (not to say dug up)  the great blind bluesman's pitifully neglected grave and had painstakingly drawn arrows all around the irony. What neither Charters nor Dylan knew was that Jefferson's deep blues had been his adaption of the Civil War parlor hit, "See That My Grave Is Kept Green." No matter; somebody collected the publishing funds, and it wasn't no blind street-singing Negro, that's for sure.)

Between him and his publishing company and his record label and Hank again, somebody was slick and sober enough to make sure that these here ones, these morally down-lifting ditties, didn't hit the jukeboxes with the name "Hank Williams" displayed on them anywhere but just only inside of those little publishing-money parentheses where the songwriter credits get listed — even in the cases where Hank hadn't actually wrote 'em. Instead, these records were released under an unlikely old-school alias, under the name "Luke The Drifter."

Which didn't stop Hank from singing them — he couldn't help himself. A month after he was dead and buried and the loose earth stomped firmly over top of him, an Alabama reporter remembered Hank Williams asking of "Men With Broken Hearts," "Ain't that the awfullest, morbidest song you ever heard in your life?" By which he meant, the reporter explained, "Ain't that somethin?" But then, that same reporter described yet another time Hank had played the exact same song and afterward, Hank spoke with wonder and dread of his own work: "Don't know why I happened to of wrote that thing. Except somebody that fell, he's the same man as before he fell, ain't he? Got the same blood in his veins. How can he be such a nice guy when he's got it and such a bad guy when he ain't got nothin'? Can you tell me?" If anybody piped up with an answer, the reporter didn't mention it. Smarty-pants small town Georgia teenager Flannery O'Connor could certainly have launched a rocket-shaped response, especially being as she may have been the only one within a tri-state area who would've been inclined to make a joke about it. Never a giant big hillbilly music fan, young Miss O'Connor was not in attendence at Hank's funeral in Montgomery, which yet again made her one of the few — she would eternally be one of the few. It was his funeral but our trial. Her mordant joke is missed to this very moment.

Luke The Drifter was an ideal way for Hank Williams to watch himself get killed off before the picture ended, to ride the black stallion and still sit in the cheap seats too, to split his personality into two, to cleave his own head in half with a hatchet and see what in hell sprang forth. Who could resist the urge to attend their own funeral?  Especially if Hank Williams was the headlining act? Plainly, Luke had wandered out loose from the deep backwoods and the long lost old days with their old ways, while Hank himself was streamlined, jet-powered, chrome-plated, a two-toned pink-and-black Rocket 88 among men. The difference between Hank Williams's own music and rockabilly is a song by song thing, a matter of degrees and drumming, but it ain't much, most often, and it's very few rockabilly rebels who wouldn't have given it all up to be Hank Williams for a week or so, even if they came back chastened, head hanging low and tail 'tween their legs.  Hank Williams only just wanted to give it all up. He couldn't, but Luke The Drifter could carry some of his load.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

No Davy? No Dylan.

How Davy Crockett, Walt Disney, Mitch Miller,  Tom Dooley and the Beverly Hillbillies Conspired To Invent Folk Music
(originally published, if amateurishly, in True West, February 2011)

The Great Coonskin Cap craze of 1955 resulted in The Great Raccoon Shortage of 1955. In the absence of fresh pelts, desperate furriers remodeled molting raccoon coats, long abandoned in the wake of The Great Raccoon Coat craze of the mid-1920s, from way back when no freshman frat boy felt fully warm and wonderful without one. Can it be that some sort of . . . well, you wouldn't want to say "wisdom," exactly . . . but at least some curious cultural cross-over took place when the ancient armpit-stains of a ukelele-strumming college-boy pressed against the near-empty forehead of a prepubescent '50s kid, each perfectly united in fad-driven fatuousness? Or were they both just fat-heads?  Either way, "Davy Crockett; Indian Fighter" debuted on ABC-TV's  Disneyland on December 15, 1954.  Thus began The Sixties.

If 1955 was the year rock'n'roll was born — and it wasn't — it was definitely the year "Rock Around The Clock" got knocked off the charts. As ironies piled up like jukebox hotcakes, Bill Haley & His Comets' revolutionary breakthrough hit wasn't defeated by the dread sugar-saturated pop confections of the day, by "Mr. Sandman" and "Cherry Pink And Apple Blossom White," nor even by Pat Boone's notorious hollow-soul Little Richard covers. Instead, rock'n'roll got shown to its seat by a song from an old-fashioned blackface minstrel show, by a super-cheerful version of "The Yellow Rose of Texas," by a jaunty lament for a light-skinned mulatto gal,  as orchestrated by the beaming Mitch Miller. The goatee-sporting A&R director of Columbia Records, America's biggest, grandest, most distinguished label, Miller was notable for his complete, unequivocal disdain for the philistine sounds of rock'n'roll. He personally made certain that Columbia would remain untainted and unstained by such primitives as Elvis and his ilk, and thus, when it was eventually acquired by Sony in the age of catalog CD reissues, Columbia had an almost two-decade-long soft spot.

Instead, at that moment, pop music's new lightweight champion was Folk, Americana-style, as purely and authentically fake as Americana has always and ever been. This was folk music from Frontierland, born on a mountaintop (even while the Matterhorn was not yet under construction) under the guidance of Walt Disney and the publishing hacks of Tin Pan Alley, as designed for the unveiling of shiny new nation named "Disneyland" — theme park, television show, and avid, active, adventurous, dial-adjusting assembler of history. The spin-off products would arrive shortly . . . as indeed would Spin & Marty.  Just as "Americana" itself was a spin-off of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller's own annoyance at not being able to properly steer her Museum of Modern Art singlehandedly, and thus having to invent her very Disneyesque concept of American Folk Art, while sending out her "curators" to buy it wholesale, lock, stock, Pennsylvania Dutch hex-sign, and barrel.

Three faux-folk songs stayed stuck separately at Number One for week after week through much of 1955.  It was (or at least was supposed to be) an extremely unified country back then, and pop culture not only confirmed but proved it, cementing it solidly in place with stirring Americana-ism. Those three songs were "The Ballad of Davy Crockett," "The Yellow Rose of Texas," and "Sixteen Tons." Without them, without their massive, mighty success and the silent Shenandoah of shekels that flowed beneath them, there would likely have been no folk music revival of the 1960s, no Kingston Trio, no Peter, Paul & Mary, and definitely not PP&M's manager's publishing side-project, Bob Dylan.  Or, for that matter, much of the rest of what followed.  No Davy? Hey, definitely no Dylan

Davy came first — Davy, Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier. And what a wild frontier it was! So wild that even Walt Disney hadn't managed to properly pre-copyright the phenomenon —who knew that you could sell Old America to young Americans so successfully? Who'da thunk it? (Other than, of course, kindly Uncle Walt, visionary creator of Main Street USA in 7/8th-scale.)  Even Disney, busy launching a TV-show to launch his theme-park, forgot to frontload the merchandising. Raccoons, briefly pausing to wash their paws, began edging anxiously toward Canada.

Rock 'n' roll was most surprising — to anybody who'd been paying attention, anyway — because all its publishing money hadn't been sewed up. It was almost entirely the product of independent record labels who'd been forced to bottom-feed the murky ponds of rhythm & blues and hillbilly simply because they couldn't pay to play in the big kids' pool. Then and now, publishing was the secret source of much of the secure money in show business; then and now it was the undiscussed source of funds for payola, the steady stream of secret dollar signs that musicians mostly learn about only after it's a whole lot too late.

There were literally dozens of version of "The Ballad of Davy Crockett," — Fess Parker's version was actually the also-ran; soap opera star Bill Hayes had the biggest hit — and every time it was sung, by Hayes or Parker or Tennesee Ernie Ford, by The Sons of the Pioneers, by Louis Armstrong (admittedly not one of his finest trumpet solos, even while his lengthy lyric variations are immortal; The Supremes' high-on-a-hilltop proto-hiphop version arrived significantly later, and, astonishingly, stayed officially unreleased; "He sure loved those woods!....mmmmmhh!! Da-a-vy!") or by Burl Ives or Eddy Arnold or Lawrence Welk's basso-profundo Larry Hooper, the silent coins of publishing clinked into Disney's tri-piggy-bank-fecta. The "Ballad" wasn't in the Public Domain, but it sure sounded like it ought to have been. That may have been the biggest secret of all.

Meanwhile, Mitch Miller was launching a new career as one of the most famous Americans of the day, with his absurdly-influential hit television show of sing-a-long songs based, whether anyone acknowledged it or not, on those happy-go-lefty folkniks,  The Weavers. Who had, in 1950 or so, ditched both drunk-ass Woody Guthrie and their own Stalinist politics to sing barbershop harmonies to "On Top Of Old Smokey" and "Goodnight, Irene" and "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine," (publishing rights for the latter two stripped from their close friend Lead Belly, who died in glorious poverty, but not from the eternally vigilant folk-collecting Lomaxes) into massive chart-busting longterm Number One hits. (Their apple-blossom white collective collected the publishing collectively under the pseudonymn "Paul Campbell." Just as banjo-plinking Weaver Pete Seeger would eventually individually claim and collect authorship on hundreds of songs like "Wimoweh (The Lion Sleeps Tonight)" and "Guantanamera.")

Mitch Miller's initial aping of The Weaver's ultra-white orchestrated Americana-ism was nothing less than "The Yellow Rose of Texas." It was the tale of a "yella gal," a quadroon, a mulatto woman left behind, and it was part of the blackface minstrel tradition that had pretty much been American showbiz for more of our un-Americana-like history than we'd wish to remember. But it arrived in a moment of crotchety Crockettism, of inaccurately remembering the Alamo as a-historically as possible, as a symbol of defeating not merely the Mexicans but the soon-to-be-Sputnik-launching-Soviets as well. 

Now, "Sixteen Tons," —  that's the third tale.  Merle Travis, the song's author, was every bit the authentic working-class coal-miner's kid that all the larger-than-life folk music heroes, including both Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, desperately wished-upon-a-star to be, but entirely altogether unlike either of  the two of 'em, he could write snappy lyrics and pick the bejeezus out of a set of strings.  Still, he was just like them both in one way — when the first opportunity came, he got the hell gone out of Dodge and headed off for Hollywood or showbiz or thereabouts. 

Cliffie Stone, pudgy bass-fiddle-bumpin' son of the original Beverly Hillbillies' Herman The Hermit (and yes, the radio Hillbillies did indeed succeed in their multi-million dollar lawsuit against the television Hillbillies who'd snatched the name)  came to Merle one day, in the heart of the 1940s, with Burl Ives having a shocking huge Columbia Records success with "authentic folk songs."  Cliffie,  nothing like a fool, would personally crank-start the careers of Ferlin Husky, Buck Owens, Merle Haggard (named for Merle Travis) and many, many more, had a hot idea.  "How'd you like to make a folk music album?" he asked.

Rent, inevitably,  was due. "How much does it pay?" asked Merle.  

Well, not so very dang much . . . not until the publishing royalties show up.

Merle spent most of that night parked on his Indian motorcycle 'neath the foggy streetlights of Hermosa Beach, writing or faking or cobbling together songs like "Dark As A Dungeon (Way Down In The Mines)" and "I Am A Pilgrim" and "Nine Pound Hammer,' and such.  It's possible, there alongside the Lighthouse jazz club, that he may have drank down a soda pop or two.  He also knocked off a song called "Sixteen Tons."  Next day, in the same studio where Nat "King" Cole recorded, he played 'em with an acoustic guitar.   The album, "Folk Songs From The Hills," flopped.

As did that particular "folk revival."  It was just about a decade later that Merle's close compadre, a disc jockey named Tennessee Ernie Ford, needed a fast follow-up to his third-place cover-version of  "The Ballad of Davy Crockett."   "Sixteen Tons" became a sensation, massive, a bigger hit and even quicker so than "Davy Crockett" or the "Yellow Rose" — as big, even, as "Good Night, Irene" had been five years before.  Curiously, every American seemed to know the coal-miner blues of owing their soul to the company store.   It was, in its soulful way, protest music even before such a phrase existed.

The result of all this Americana-ism was a tremendous out-flow, and an opening-up, and a free-wheeling publishing jubilee.  Over the next few years, a curious kind of faux-authentic Americana would issue forth from radios and jukeboxes, at just the time that cultural historians from the baby-boom era tend to retrospectively declare the triumphal moment of rock'n'roll.   It crossed boundaries and barriers, and it worked hard, just like the TV Westerns in that same moment, at retelling The Tall Tale of America.  Johnny Horton's version of Jimmy Driftwood's  "Battle of New Orleans," (set to the traditional fiddle tune of "The Eighth of January") may have seemed emblematic, but then soon enough so did "North To Alaska" and "Sink The Bismarck."  (Not to mention "Honky Tonk Man.")   Johnny Cash had a near-miss with the TV-theme for "Johnny Yuma," but a hit with "Don't Take Your Guns To Town." Marty Robbins crossed every chart with his Mexicana-esque corrido "El Paso," and then "Big Iron," and other gunfighter ballads.   Lefty Frizzell's career revived with the pseudo-Appalachian murder ballad "Long Black Veil," and then again with "Saginaw, Michigan," but it was a real murder ballad named "Tom Dooley" that truly turned loose the demons of music publishing. 

Tom Dooley (or Tom Dula, anyway) had truly existed, and been hung genuinely good and high. His ballad, however, had been field-recorded and folk-collected to within an inch of its life, and as a result, as a crew-cut set of college boys wearing jaunty banjo-spankin' minstrel-show stripes racked up the biggest hit since "Sixteen Tons," some of the most prominent figures in the publishing business smelled blood in the water. (Tex Ritter's odd as hell psycho-billy take on the traditional cowboy ballad "Blood On The Saddle" showed up later, in 1959.) 

Ralph Peer had discovered both Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family in one blow, and had basically invented the modern business of music publishing, while also being a primary pioneer in the early recording of blues, country, and Spanish music.  He had never claimed to do it for any altruistic reasons whatsoever.  Alan Lomax had, with his father John, used the authority of the Library of Congress to "field record"  Negro prisoners and impoverished mountaineers, and always, in the name of the greater good, ended up with the name "Lomax" on the publishing royalties.  Howie Richmond had been a New York City publisher who'd been perfectly happy to help Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie and anybody else take any "folk song" that would quit wiggling and put their own names on it so they could all get paid.  Frank Warner had been a "folksong collector" who'd "collected" "Tom Dooley" from mountaineer named — sad irony! — Frank Profitt, and then seen it show up in one of the Lomax's beloved books of American heritage.  Once "Tom Dooley" became the biggest thing since the rise of the transistor radio, well, the outcome was clear — all hell broke loose.   According to each of 'em, despite the fact that "folk songs" were said to have never been written by nobody, they each owned all of it.   

Back in December, 1955, when Mrs. Rosa Parks was escorted off a Montgomery, Alabama bus, its driver,  James Blake, wasn't playing a transistor radio.  The very earliest primitive models were only just arriving that Christmas, though their effect would be transformative. But if there was a tube radio playing in the background at the police station where she was held, prominent among the Christmas carols were "The Yellow Rose Of Texas," "Sixteen Tons," and, yes, "The Ballad Of David Crockett." The light-skinned black woman — "a yella gal" —   a freelance seamstress, tired from another long day at low pay,  was, at age 42, just another day older and deeper in debt. She was about to turn Montgomery and the rest of America — the real America, not the "Americana" version — into a true new wild frontier, and do so five years before John F. Kennedy declared his and our "New Frontier."  A new frontier, a truly new one, was ever thus.

Only five months before, Mrs. Parks had attended astonishingly racially-integrated classes at the radical Highlander Folk School, located at the very tip top of the Cumberland Plateau in Tennessee,  greenest state in the land of the free.  Tennessee would very shortly close that  so-called "folk school" down.   Too late.  Mrs. Parks, like Mr. Crockett, had seen her duty, handled her risky chore,  and made herself a legend forevermore.  Our Civil Rights Movement, you might say,  was born on a mountaintop in Tennessee.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Aphorism No. 80; One of a Series; Collect the whole set!

You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him think.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

The Once and Future Prince — Prince, and The Time: Oakland Coliseum, Friday, April 1, 1983

When the Rolling Stones' processional played Los Angeles in the fall of 1981, the opening acts were the J. Geils Band, George Thorogood and the Destroyers,  and, at the bottom of the bill, Prince.  The Stones and J. Geils and Thorogood are all reasonably good examples of the rewards available to musicians playing black American music — or at least aged black American music — for a stadium-sized selection of white fans.  All three draw deep from the well of blues and soul, all point proudly in the direction of R&B roots, and the addition of Prince seemed a gracious gesture on the part of the headliners (somebody probably cut a deal), an intended symbolic acknowledgement of a young black rocker hailing from the same parts as Muddy Waters and Stevie Wonder and Little Richard, a twenty-one year old phenom who wrote fantastic songs, who produced and played every note on his albums personally, who had as many moves as Jimi Hendrix, as much juice as James Brown, and more jizz than either one of them.  It was an acknowledgement that Prince was, with them, an inheritor.  From all accounts, it was also a disastrous misunderstanding of a contemporary rock audience's interests and prejudices.  Prince was pelted with abuse and booed from the stage.  What he he had inherited, a stadium full of Stones fans didn't want.

Prince's early club dates in the Bay Area were attended by a racially mixed audience, but by the time he played the San Francisco Civic on Valentine's Day 1982, the attending faithful were almost entirely black.  Prince's opening act, The Time, from his hometown of Minneapolis had a debut album co-produced by their lead singer Morris Day and by someone called Jamie Starr, and everybody involved insisted strenuously that Starr was most definitely not Prince in Foster Grants.  The Time were about as popular as a band with only one hit single under their belt can be.  That single, "Cool, " had been all over black pop radio for months and months, and if they had never done anything else, they would have always at least been the band that cut "Cool."  Like Prince, they mixed funk and new wave pop and a lot of R&B; onstage, they came off like Little Richard fronting the Specials, but maintained gangster cool at all times.  "Ain't nobody bad like me!" Morris Day was given to announce while one of their dapper roadies held a gilt-framed mirror for him to primp his pomp.  They were outrageous showmen and death on a groove and when the Prince show was set for the Oakland Coliseum this year, and the Time was no longer advertised as an opening act, it appeared that the addition ofr another hit album and a couple more monster singles had made them too much of a draw to remain opening act proteges, Jamie Starr or not.

This year's produced-by-Jamie-Starr-and-not-by-Prince proteges are Vanity 6, and the only thing fortunate about my arrival as they were winding up their show with their hit, "Nasty Girl," is that I'll be spared the difficulties of describing three extremely attractive and shapely young women wearing merry widows and garters while performing onstage to music provided by The Time, who were hidden behind a scrim.  More's the pity.  The Time were on the bill after all, and while Prince functions as the most potent teen idol since Elvis, The Time are no slouches when it comes to romancing the ladies and role-modeling the gentlemen.  The backdrop they used was the same as last year's, with a black-on burlap sketch of steps and stoops on an old street setting the scene.  It could have been Minneapolis, and it could have been New York, and it could have been Oakland too.  It could have been anywhere where an attitude is the first article of clothing you put on in the morning, and The Time came on dressed to kill.  They've rapidly become one of the bigger black acts in the country, and their records are some of the most deserving hits you can hear today — funny, fresh, funky as hell, they're more inventive than most funk hits, and more flexible too.  I remain convinced that Prince's part in their success is substantially greater than anyone admits, but that doesn't make The Time any less of a live act.  Unlike a rock band, where everyone avoids dancing lest they be suspected of being frivolous, The Time's players dance like demons in unison steps and with individual inspiration, and the centerpiece of all the activity is Morris Day, the only singer in popular music with his own onstage percussionist-valet.  Some of the schtick they do is straight out of black vaudeville's choreography, while the music they play is fierce contemporary funk, rhythmically complex, rock hard, and swinging like mad.

Prince used the same set he had last year, an arrangement of fire ladders and venetian blinds and stainless steel catwalks and brass beds designed by Leni Riefenstahl as an R-and-R center for the Master Race's Olympic qualifiers.  It's a fitting playground for Prince too.  If the Time onstage is about the connections between R&B's roots and vaudeville, Prince's moves are an unceasing reminder of what little connection rock music has with dance any more.  The only white superstar who contains as much energy as Prince is Springsteen, and his moves are clumsiness turned to grace, not the dazzling drive of James Brown or Michael Jackson or Prince.  And while Springsteen occasionally comes down with a rather authentic case of the crotch conniptions, he has never given the impression that he'd like to bring the entire crowd to simultaneous orgasms; Prince does. Prince has shown a high enthusiasm for addressing sexual politics in the most specific terms — much of his press notoriety is based on that — but what's not generally noted is the fact that most of what he's done lyrically with sex, graphic and expressive as it may be, is simply contemporary version of black American music's longstanding determination to express desire in ways sidestepped by the "good taste" of white pop.  Every slang term we have for sex has arrived in the words of black music, in its lyrics and titles and sometimes even its very genre name, and nobody knows that better than Prince.

The difference between last year's show and this one is that Prince has now removed all material older than last year's Controversy album, (excepting a brief pass through the title track of the previous album, the no-holds-barred-but-animalism Dirty Mind).  That means that such tunes as his first radio hit, the delightful, sexually ambiguous "I Wanna Be Your Lover", and his revamped and majestic version of "When You Were Mine, " both of them high points of last year's show, have been sacrificed to focus on the here and now.  Princes's two big radio hits from the current record have been the title cut, "1999," and "Little Red Corvette," and the show was centered around them.  "1999" acknowledges the Apocalypse but choose to dance anyway, while "Little Red Corvette" melds the somber and reflective mood of one of Springsteen's revisions of the classic car tune with the exultation of Chuck Berry's original models.  Prince is simply a master songwriter, and like Springsteen, his songs endure under continuos rearrangement.

Bruce Springsteen served the '70s as the sole surviving noble savage of big bucks rock'n'roll, the salvation of listeners who needed to be able to invest emotion and intelligence as well as enthusiasm and money.  Prince functions in a similar way, and it's unfortunate that only black radio seems to have a place for a popular music genius with an innate understanding of the junctions between genres. . . who also happens to be black.  Prince's willingness to breach taboo in his writing and in his public persona has been daring but if the show he did in Oakland last Friday is any gauge, he has finally begun to abandon the naive optimism at the center of his talent. There were signs that suggested that this time around Prince has admitted to himself that he's only reaching a black audience, not the race-mixing American utopia he has sketched in, and it was disturbing.  He's selling more records than ever, and other than Michael Jackson, his is the black voice most likely to be heard in a white dance club, but that doesn't mean much when the only other white faces in attendance belong to either record business free-riders or Bill Graham.  He did a solo spot on electric piano midway through the show, beginning with a splashy high art glissando up the keys and following that with a pause, a smirk,  and a hard left turn towards the gospel according to Ray Charles that made it clear without a doubt what he thought was really high art, and what he thought really mattered.

It won't matter much if Prince never achieves the giant white audience he deserves; it certainly won't matter much to the black kids who scream and cream and gleam for him.  It will be kind of sad, though.  Without recognition of its contemporary black giants, rock'n'roll is nothing more than a coon-show, a sorry piece of minstrelsy. an anachronism that flaunts its removal from the sources it apes. Bruce Springsteen is one of the artists who made that most clear, but if a performer as drenched in gifts as Prince is unable to share the same audience, Springsteen's triumphs ring hollow.  Neither of them deserve that.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Prince: The First Prince Record . . . Sort Of . . . [from SPIN magazine; excerpt]

by Bart Bull
(published in SPIN; excerpt from May, 1986 cover story: "Black Narcissus")

It wouldn’t be fair to say that Prince didn’t exist before “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” but it might be right, and it would definitely be true. A quick little song from his second album, “I Wanna Be Your Lover” is a hit on all black radio stations, and in 1979, that means it’s beneath ignoring. And that wasn’t what Prince had in mind, not at all.

“I Wanna Be Your Lover” is a sketchy, edgy, cocksure set of unrehearsed pickup lines, nervous and confessional, bold and full of brag. He ain’t got no money, he ain’t like those other guys you hang around, and his sound is so stripped and skinny and spare you can’t help but believe him.

He wants to be your lover. He wants to turn you on, turn you out — a pimp’s phrase — all night long, make you shout, he wants to be the only one who makes you come (just a brief slight pause) running. He wants a lot. Delirious, in love with his own love, he slips it to you that he’s so in love he wants to be your mother and your sister too. He wants all of you.

He sings the song in the simple falsetto of the single-minded, chastely swaying girl groups like the Cookies, the Dixie Cups, the Orlons, and the Chiffons. In a few years, when he’s gathered the momentum of celebrity, Prince’ll spin off pointedly unchaste girl groups, funk bands, solo careers, New Wave crossover packages, vanity acts that will splash the charts and succeed with tunes he tosses off in his spare time. But in 1979, the world hardly knows he’s alive and cares even less. This is intolerable. Lacking a girl group, he sings it himself, makes it a Prince record. The first Prince record.

Pitching his voice up high and keeping it there, Prince uses passion’s peak as “Lover"'s bottom line. It’s a hit, but a segregated one, and — the real bottom line — it identifies him in the pop marketplace of 1979 as black. A bad move.

Male or female, that falsetto is indubitably black. The drums are funky, the bass is big, the stuttering guitar swings; ergo (it's 1979), disco. No matter how fine a song it is, no matter how great a record, no matter how it rocks, it’s a tactical error, a strategic mistake. Prince retreats.

It happens that Dirty Mind, the album that follows, is terrific. It happens that it flops. (Prince "The record’s not doing phenomenally well sales-wise, and airplay is pretty minimal . . .”) It also happens that it doesn’t produce anything like a follow-up R&B chart smash. It almost seems intentional.

“See," says Prince, ”this album, it was all supposed to be demo tapes, that's what they started out to be."  Dirty Mind sounds like nothing so much as a one-man Sun Sessions — what could make a rock critic any happier? — with Prince playing Elvis, Sam Phillips, and every other role. It wasn’t like rockabilly except in spirit; it was a new thing, a hybrid, a deliberate act of miscegenation — musical race-mixing at a time when anything that resembled a contemporary black influence was being quietly escorted out of “rock,” when a white disc jockey inspired a white riot of support by burning “disco” records on a major league baseball field.

Dirty Mind wasn’t so much funk as it was funkish; funk was fitted in and around the springy stiff rhythms of the newly-minted new wave. “So they were demos,” Prince said, “and I brought them out to the coast and played them for the management and the record company. They said, ‘The sound of it is fine. The songs we ain’t so sure about. We can’t get this on the radio. It’s not like your last album at all.’  And I’m going, “But it’s like me.”

The me that Dirty Mind is like is a typically oversexed teenager (though he’s 21 now), a true romantic, an uncontainable talent, a guitar hero, a studio whiz, a guy who believes the letters section of Penthouse with all his heart and soul, a very singular case, an exception. And he’s a mulatto, or at least a mutt, born and bred in Minneapolis, the northern-most cosmopolitan center of the Mississippi river, a place that manages to be a river city and a prairie junction simultaneously. Light enough to pass for white but not quite. Black enough to be completely ignored.

The black and white cover of Dirty Mind shows him stripped down to a bikini and a bandanna, his back against a bedspring. The making of the album had been an exclusive affair, a party in the privacy of his own imagination. It revealed that Prince considered himself a rebel, a sexual politician, a utopian visionary, a pundit. but there was also a photo of a band that made it clear that Prince had every intention of extending his fantasies into the real world. Like the record, his band was black and white, male and female, and they were pushing the new wavey two-tone motif of the checkerboard to its most obvious, most dangerous conclusion: Miscegenation, race-mixing. The Minneapolis of Prince’s mind had one small section, “Uptown,” where somone — maybe anyone — could live in simple defiance of society’s expectations. Uptown was the kind of place where Prince would not only fit but be the center of attention. Uptown was dancing, music, romance, and all that came after.

“Soon as we got there,” he sang, “good times was rollin’/ White, black, Puerto Rican, everybody just a-freakin’ . . . ” And freakin’ was, of course, street slang for sex. Like more men than would ever acknowledge it, admit it, or even just get it, Prince has an abiding faith in his dick as divinely inspired dousing rod.

It points him past pleasure toward passion and past passion toward epiphany. And after epiphany comes an instant of relaxation, a brief moment for reality to resume, and for his revulsion to set in. Beyond all else in Prince’s work can be seen a strategy that he creates to control and contain, a defensiveness. His band and the bands that come under his rule dress just the way he wishes them to, sluttish Barbies and Kens, strutting through the purple satin fantasies of a single very inventive adolescent. His own adolescence was likely a lonely one and the first Uptown he ever encountered was the one in his dreams, peopled by porn photos popped to life, and set in the milky mist of fantasy. With a boyhood spent behind closed doors, practicing and preening, playing a guitar and jerking off are exactly the same gesture to him.

Prince, "Sign o' the Times" review from SPIN, May, 1987

I guess you know what the problem with Prince is: he's too good.  Too bad, too. Because he's so good he can do anything he wants, and sometimes he wants to do some really dumb stuff.  And sometimes the dumb stuff he does works out to be the best stuff anybody's ever done.  Ever.

Now anybody else, after a debacle like Under the Cherry Moon had his career as a director/actor/auteur/love-god swirling down the toilet, nearly sinking his customarily brilliant album Parade in the process, would come out of their corner kind of cautious-like.  Maybe a quick cross-over step back toward somewhere in the exact very middle of Purple Rain terrain, something safe and sure.  Something career-minded.

So what does Prince do?  He takes a left, a hard left, and he does it laughing.  Sign o' The Times sounds so loose it could be nothing but outtakes — except nobody else's outtakes would sound so strong, rock so hard, swing so free.

Most folks would kill for a groove like "I Could Never Take The Place of Your Man" — it's that patented Prince prance of his, the strut that shook the butt of "Delirious," of "Private Joy," of so much of Dirty Mind — but too bad.  Prince lets it skip on down the road a little while, then he downshifts into something slow and lean and swampy, with guitar lines snatching around at each other somewhere near the bottom.  It starts building, it starts cooking, it starts rising and lifting and raising,; he brings back the Prince prance and stirs them together to see if it works — it works — and then he takes it all off the stove and sets it aside.  The only sound that's left is that of lesser mortals everywhere smiting their foreheads.

He's too good, he's too bad, he's too much.  Anybody else would have brought out one new record, not two — I guess he got sick of all those extra tunes cluttering up the studio — and nobody else  would have put out their first single since Parade with what looks like a photo of the auteur in a halter top, mini-skirt, and beaded garter.  (Michael Jackson considers these things, of course, but he's far too level-headed.)  And as always, he's letting us have more of a peek under his monogrammed silk sheets than we might even care for.  "If I Was Your Girlfriend" runs down the type of seduction concept only Prince cold come up with: She'd take her clothes off in front of him if he was her girlfriend, right?  So how come she won't just do it anyway?  He's never been happy unless he's revealing himself one way or another, so he can't keep from doing it here once more: "If I was your girlfriend, would you let me dress you? I mean, help you pick out your clothes before you go out?"

Sign o' the Times sounds like a throwaway, a toss-off, a relaxed runback of last month's bedroom tapes.  From anybody else, it'd be indulgent; from Prince, it's just more genius.  He sounds as goofy and loose as he's ever been, and lines like, "Baby, I can't stand to see you happy/More than that, I hate to see you sad . . ." go slipping by without any special notice.  He seems reconciled — for the moment — with who he is and what he is and even with what he isn't.  He's dropped his most messianic urges too, and that makes every moment that leans back in the direction of Dirty Mind and Controversy and 1999 all the easier.  There's nothing on Sign o' the Times that's as cool as "Kiss."  It doesn't sound like he was trying to do the finest thing he's ever done, it just sounds fine.
—Bart Bull