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