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.

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