Goodnight, sweet Prince

Happy father’s day — to all the fathers, and to all of who have been fathered.

I’m thinking about Prince still, especially after reading anew “Life in the Arts,” from Air Guitar: Essays on Art & Democracy, by Dave Hickey:

“When Terry Allen called me in San Diego with the news that Chet Baker was dead, I just said, ‘Aw, shit!’ and hung up … I sat there for a long time in that cool, shadowy room, looking out at the California morning. I stared at the blazing white stucco wall of the bungalow across the street … I sat shivah for Chet Baker in that quiet room, acutely aware of my own breathing–aware, as well, that I had been listening to Baker breathe through his trumpet and through the language for more than thirty years.”

Did you receive a call about Prince? Who receives a call about anything anymore? The pixels on our devices beat our friends to the punch every time. Did any of us have the chance to sit quietly, to sit shivah for Prince? I took a break from work, combed the news media online, checked Facebook–but my response, and perhaps your response, too, contradicted Hickey’s response to the news about Baker. He simply hung up the phone. He knew no words would make the news not true–the loss of the artist “whose work I was forced to divine by the pure logic of sense.”

To divine the logic of Prince, I had the help of solid interpreters. It was 1984, our summer of lust, and Purple Rain was the soundtrack. My friends and I turned 16 that year and, in the suburbs of northern California, we drove, and parked, and drove some more. That July, I was still two months from my own sweet 16, but I had a copy of Purple Rain on cassette, courtesy of my friend Brian. Brian had tried to turn me onto Prince in 1983 via MtV, but on the first pass, Prince’s virtues (and virility) escaped me.

While watching the video for “Little Red Corvette,” I ventured, “That guy? He’s sexy?”

“Check out Dez, his guitarist,” Brian suggested, “and the kamikaze icon on his headband. That’s cool.”

That summer, Brian had his license, and Peggy did, too, and we finally had control of the tape decks. We no longer needed to bum rides off older siblings and, in turn, seized control of the soundtrack of our youth. I remember weekend drives with Peggy in her VW Rabbit, with Julia* in the front seat, and Brian, first, and then Noel, and me in the back. Brian had a thing for Julia, and Noel and had a thing for Julia, and I watched with bemusement, a trace of envy, and what I now regard as gratitude—for watching Julia respond to Prince reminded me of pulpit-inspired power of the best of rock‘n’roll.

Wholesome entertainment! for the whole family.

In spring 1984, my cassette collection looked awfully WASP-y—as in, white Anglo synth pop: Human League, New Order, and Depeche Mode. The closest things I had in my collection to an R&B album were the debut LPs by Culture Club and Gang of Four. So yeah: not very close at all. Sure, The Thompson Twins and Heaven 17 drew upon the musical tropes of disco and funk, but the tunes of Heaven 17 were more likely to draw the ire of your parents or teachers if they recognized the Marxist sympathies of Martin Ware and co., rather than their tempered representation of longing and desire.

Nearly 20 years after Mick Jagger had professed the syncopated terms of his dissatisfaction, Prince arrived to profess with absolute clarity the terms of his ecstasy. By Purple Rain, Prince stood alone in his ability to represent our urges and gratification, lyrically and sonically. He offered sounds and words designed to get us “through this thing called life,” apropos for headphones, the dance floor, and the car stereo. Initially, though, I recognized none of it—and instantly, with a bit of help, all of it.

Julia had jet-black hair, cut above the shoulder and feathered back, which covered her forehead and ended just above her thick, well-tended eyebrows. Her haircut seemed designed for brooding, which she did often, and honestly, and sometimes outrageously—to impressive dramatic effect, if the tales of her maternal spats were even half-true. Still, when Julia met your gaze and her eyebrows jumped, and she flashed that Doublemint smile bookended by a pair of deep and perfect dimples, she reminded you of the pleasures and the dangers of beauty, for the beholder and the beholding.

Through the dry nights of summer and into autumn, we spent our nights behind the wheel, windows down, stereo on. After dark, in the suburbs of California, life was always elsewhere, so we drove. If any tape provided a respite from the heavy rotation of Purple Rain, that memory and that tape are long lost.

“It ain’t braggin’ if it’s true” — or was that M. Ali?

Prince’s sense of the end of days, and the carnal delights that preceded it, contrasted sharply with the string of judgment days, real and imagined, that constituted our adolescence. In “Let’s Go Crazy,” Prince imagined Judgment Day as the gateway to “a world of never ending happiness.” Until then, “in this life, you’re on your own.” We were young, stood within a stone’s throw of dumb, and certainly had no better than a fuzzy vision of the long game. For me, what set Prince apart, above all else, at age 26, was his freedom from shame.

Immodest couture? Nearly guaranteed. Scatalogical lyrics? Absolutely. The idea, though, that Prince could experience the emotional pain associated with the ridiculous or the indecorous was baffling. Prince offered no apologies for being Prince. Armed with unrepentant confidence, Prince reached out to touch us, to bless us, to inoculate us from fear, sacrificing his own flesh in bars of falsetto ecstasy and demi-god-like guitar solos for our salvation. The notion that someone but 10 years our senior could wrest that from this world, and that maybe we could, too, seduced Julia immediately.

The content of this memory remains fuzzy, but the affect still rings true. Peggy drove, Julia occupied the passenger seat, and Brian and I sat in the back. “Let’s Go Crazy,” or “Darling Nikki” thumped from the speakers, and Julia sat up, turned around, and gripped the headrests and said something daring, something earnest, even defiant. In that moment, Prince’s beats reflected off her torso and back upon ours. Before I could nod or smile in agreement, she whipped back around and turned up the stereo, extended her right arm out the window, palm up against the wind.

At school, alas, Julia could not sustain such defiance, especially when it came to the perils of her own beauty. In the field of adolescent desire, power is a practice, not a given. In Julia’s case, the power of beauty resided not only in her capacity to attract and hold the attention of young men, but in the power to look away, to cast aside the desire of others, as if she herself lacked such hunger. But she didn’t. She held in ravenous regard the regard of others.

As autumn turned to winter that junior year, Julia and I lost track of each other, caught up in mutually exclusive circles of friends. The following fall, we shared a class, maybe two–until she stopped missed a day or two of English, and then a few more. I saw her a week later. “You all right? What’s going on?,” I asked. “Well,” Julia said slowly, “I skipped class last week, and then I couldn’t get an excused absence, and I didn’t want to show Ms. Wattel an unexcused absence, so I just stopped coming.” A few weeks later, I saw her sitting in the quad ahead of 4th period, ahead of 6th period, and after 7th. She sat in her long coat, a coat too warm for that balmy afternoon. “Hey. Is everything okay?” I asked. “I’m fine,” she replied. “Senior portraits came out today, and I have on the same sweater I had on for the picture.”

I don’t know that we ever spoke again. Months later, Kerry, a friend of a friend, reported that she had been to Santa Cruz with friends over the weekend and, at the end of the day, they stopped for dinner at a Taco Bell. “The cashier, it was Julia!,” she said. “She had bleached her hair, dyed it strawberry blonde, and I said, ‘Hey, Julia! What are you doing here?’ I apparently said it too loudly, though, as the manager came over and said, ‘What’s going on? There’s some mistake here. Her name is Kelly.’ We got our food and left. It was Julia, Randy, I’m telling you.”

In successive years, I became a much better listener of Prince. I hope Julia did, too.

*–One or more names have been changed to protect the misunderstood.

post-punk gems, v. 57 — Rudi

Happy Wednesday, punkers and punkettes. I’ve got two writers on my mind today, and one great single. Dave Hickey is one of the best we’ve got in the states on art, culture, and democracy, and he’s prolific poster on facebook. Among his recent gems he offered a resonant question for viewing art: “In what social context would this work be considered good art?” And, “would I prefer that society to this one?”

I love the digital age and all its gadgets, but when I get turned anew onto a track circa ’78 a la Rudi’s “Big Time,” I get a certain longing for record bins, a pittance of an allowance, and the ritual disc cleaning involving a ZeroStat gun. (Last click release away from the disc, of course.)

(Not quite sure why youtube is cueing up its “Jesus is Lord” ad to accompany this video–maybe I’m missing a subtext?)

It’s a great tune, with an in media res beginning, and then a more “natural” opening gambit a couple dozen bars later. Fun stuff from a band that barely made it out of Ireland, and never touched the shores on this side of the Atlantic. Too bad.

The only snapshot I can find of this melodic bunch.
The only snapshot I can find of this melodic bunch.


caught between (hard) rockism and a poptimistic place, pt. II

Happy Sunday, folks! I’m still abuzz from seeing producer/engineer Glyn Johns last night at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame archive, where he shared a few stories from Sound Man, his memoir out this week, and offered brief but telling replies to questions such as:

Glyn Johns middle, between a couple blokes you may recognize, circa 1969.
Glyn Johns middle, between a couple blokes you may recognize, circa 1969.

Q: “What was the most amazing thing you saw John Bonham do in the studio?”

A: “Show up.”

No more elaboration was forthcoming, and none was needed.

Johns is a rock hall inductee, 2012, and few others can claim to have been front-and-center to the making of so many albums in the rock canon. He worked with The Beatles, The Rolling Stones (Beggars Banquet, Exile, et. al.), Led Zeppelin, The Who (Who’s Next, Who Are You), and The Clash, and he spoke affectionately about capturing what the band was capable of, not what he was capable of once the band had left the studio.

For Johns (and for many fans of a rockist variety), the resonance of the beauty was possible because of the labor time entailed in musicianship, in part, but more so in what the band is capable of together as a unit. That unit proved its mettle (to paraphrase Joe Strummer) in front of audiences, and thereby figured out what worked (and what didn’t) by way of their fans. (The late Beatles, of course, are the compelling exception.)

On the drive home last night, I had my first listen to a live rendition of The Velvet Underground’s “I’m Waiting for my Man,” circa 1968, from the forthcoming anniversary packaging of Velvet Underground. This rendition of “Waiting” isn’t quite syncopated, but it abandons the drone quality of its vinyl version, and represents a band, well, I’ll turn it over here to Dave Hickey and a quote from his brilliant essay on jazz vs. rock’n’roll in Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy (1997)–which, if you don’t own it, should be the book you buy right after that book on The Clash (fun review here) that just came out.

Still vital, nearly 20 years hence.
Still vital, nearly 20 years hence.

“Rock-and-roll, on the other hand, presumes that the four of us–as damaged and anti-social as we are–might possibly get it to-fucking-gether, man, and play this simple song. And play it right, okay? Just this once, in tune and on the beat. But we can’t. The song’s too simple, and we’re too complicated and too excited. We try like hell, but the guitars distort, the intonation bends, and the beat just moves, imperceptibly, against our formal expectations, whether we want it to or not. Just because we’re breathing, man. Thus, in the process of trying to play this very simple song together, we create this hurricane of noise, this infinitely complicated, fractal filigree of delicate distinctions.

“And you can thank the wanking eighties, if you wish, and digital sequencers, too, for proving to everyone that technologically ‘perfect’ rock–like ‘free’ jazz–sucks rockets. Because order sucks. I mean, look at the Stones. Keith Richards is always on top of the beat, and Bill Wyman, until he quit, was always behind it, because Richards is leading the band and Charlie Watts is listening to him and Wyman is listening to Watts. So the beat is sliding on those tiny neural lapses, not so you can tell, of course, but so you can feel it in your stomach. And the intonation is wavering, too, with the pulse in the finger on the amplified string. This is the delicacy of rock-and-roll, the bodily rhetoric of tiny increments, necessary imperfections, and contingent community. And it has its virtues, because jazz only works if we’re trying to be free and are, in fact, together. Rock-and-roll works because we’re all a bunch of flakes. That’s something you can depend on, and a good thing too, because in the twentieth century, that’s all there is: jazz and rock-and-roll. The rest is term papers and advertising.”

Now, there’s a good case to be made that the conditions available to be that sort of rock band were not democratically available back in the day–today, well, that’s a good question, one I hope to return to before too long.

Thanks for tuning in this week to Radio-SAT. On this week’s version of The Spirit of ’77 (Th., 5-6pm, EST, @, the theme is punks grown-up: I’ll be spinning discs 15 years+ into their careers, by bands and musicians who embodied the spirit of ’77. It should be fun.