The Death of Vanity

Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.


Denise Matthews died last week.  She was best known (although not really known at all) for being Vanity: a Prince protege from his purple patch in the mid 80s.  Because I often pursue pop tangents obsessively and have a Prince fixation I had already written about Vanity in 2008.


Back when Prince was just an ordinary guy he went out with Susan Moonsie (on the right in the photo below), and the song When Doves Cry is supposedly about that relationship (and animals in curious poses).  Susan was part of a group he created called Vanity 6.

The other members of the group were Prince’s wardrobe mistress Brenda Bennett (left), and Denise (aka Vanity).

Here was Prince’s master plan for Vanity 6:

  1. Get girls
  2. Call the group something controversial like The Hookers
  3. Make the girls all wear something controversial on stage like their underpants
  4. Try to call the lead singer something controversial like Vagina
  5. When the girls whinge about being called The Hookers have an even more outrageous back up name in mind like Vagina Sex

Obviously there were some back downs involved in getting Prince to budge from Vagina Sex to Vanity Six. The “six” in the band name was apparently a band breast count, but I suspect Prince just wanted something that sounded as close as possible to Vagina Sex so that every time he said Vanity 6 he could smirk. Then comes the final step:

6. Write classy songs.

Here is an example from the Vanity 6 song If A Girl Answers (Don’t Hang Up):

Hey tramp, take a bath in puke / What’s more, U can kiss where the sun don’t shine / If that don’t work, we can duke / U see, the only kinda man that would play with U / Is one that plays with himself / None of my friends could stand the sight of U / Much less the smell / And if I weren’t a lady, I’d take my money / And buy U a brand new face / Then I’d take my underwear and stick it in your mouth / And U’d love it cuz U got no taste

“If I weren’t a lady I’d pay for you to have plastic surgery” is a really confusing insult.

Vanity 6 had a hit on the dance charts, and a couple of minor follow ups. They toured with Prince during his 1999 period and were all lined up to be in Purple Rain, a movie that Vanity was supposed to star in.  However, Denise Matthews (aka Vanity) pulled out of the group and the movie at the last minute.

They wouldn’t pay me enough money to go through with the crap I would have to go through [to star in Purple Rain]. I don’t do things like this free of charge. I didn’t want to be stuck in the snow at 6 in the morning in some camper with no place to change clothes. Who needs that?
– Vanity

At the concerts Prince gave just after he heard of Denise’s death her “no shit” attitude seems to have stuck with him.

“Can I tell you a story about Vanity? Or should I tell you a story about Denise? Her and I used to love each other deeply,” Prince said. “She loved me for the artist I was, I loved her for the artist she was trying to be. She and I would fight. She was very headstrong ’cause she knew she was the finest woman in the world. She never missed an opportunity to tell you that.”

While Denise probably had a point back in 1984-5 about working conditions and pay rates, as a career move it feels like she made a bad call.  When you walk away from something like Purple Rain the conventional biographical arc is a sudden flare of attention followed by a long, invisible descent though the endless night of ignominy.  She followed that arc all the way down.

Straight after her walk out on Purple Rain there was talk of Vanity doing a role in The Last Temptation of Christ, and she does appear as the romantic interest in the movie The Last Dragon (the only video game I owned a copy of) which seems to be one of the best worst movies ever made (please, PLEASE, watch the trailer).  Temptation and Christ featured in her future as it turned out, even if she didn’t get the role in the movie. Vanity did crack (and Playboy). Her kidneys failed. She had a stroke. She briefly lost her hearing and her eyesight.  Then she found God and became a pastor, of a certain ilk:

The evangelist has a special message for young people about resisting peer pressure and standing steadfast in their beliefs. “There’s so much temptation. We’re in the last days. (My advice is) to stay equipped, fellowship and get close to people that are strong and read the Word for themselves.
There’s really not much that’s funny about the life path of Denise now that she has died, and the cause of her death at 57 suggests a lot of unhappiness from the time she was famous to the end of her life (her autobiography Blame It On Vanity describes a lot of unhappiness as a child too).
There’s a comic literary style called mock heroic where you use very high brow language to describe low brow topics.  It’s something that this blog does all the time, and I believe that quoting from Ecclesiastes after the death of Vanity might be flirting with that style again, but comedy is never far away from Prince:
[later during the concert] Prince… opened up about a fight where he threatened to throw Vanity in the pool. She said, “You can’t throw me in the pool, you’re too little”. [Prince] asked his six foot bodyguard Chick to do [it].
Sometimes people who don’t know me leave comments on this blog that are quite nasty.  They generally suggest I am an arrogant know nothing.  I think they confuse my delight in failure and absurdity with arrogance; as if I am looking down on the people I write about.  Actually I feel a perverse sense of identity with people like Kurtis Blow or Vanity.  I love them, and I see in them all of my failings and desires.
I genuinely feel sad that Denise has died.  I genuinely think of Ecclesiastes when I think of death.  For a woman who was once called Vanity, and then became deeply Christian it seems a hugely appropriate part of the Bible to think of when I think of all the hyperbole and excess of the pop world, and the long loneliness of wasted opportunities and poor decisions.
Ah, fuck it.  Better party like it’s 1999.
All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again.

Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians


It’s Like This (1986)
Shooting Rubberbands at the Stars (1988)
Ghost of a Dog (1990)
Stranger Things (2006)

Although What I Am is the hit from Shooting Rubberbands at the Stars and I like it, the song that always stuck with me from that album was Circle.  I can distinctly remember driving late at night with Melanie through the rain and the intersection of Lambton Quay and Bowen Street.  As it happened the light was red and I simply failed to notice this fact as I took the opportunity to enjoy once again:

Everything is temporary anyway
When the streets are wet
The colours slip into the sky

Luckily it was so late at night that there were no other cars, buses or trucks on the road and we didn’t need to be cut out of the wreckage of our vehicle or, worse, literally prove the point that we were temporary anyway.

The band I was in through the 1990s did a cover version of What I Am.  Like most cover versions we did, this cover also wasn’t very good, but it was probably the best of our bad bunch.  For a band with limited chops we sometimes took on impossible songs.  How about the Red Hot Chilli Peppers’ version of Higher Ground?  We could barely keep time, ffs.

Shooting Rubberbands at the Stars is good.  I’ve been listening to it again.  I once had the cassette tape.  It turns out it is kind of a major label draft two of It’s Like This (1986) which has a lot of early versions of the songs that appear on Rubberbands.  The early drafts are good too.  The It’s Like This songs are less produced; there’s much less of that clean sounding acoustic guitar that slightly dates Rubberbands, but it does keep that nice rootling around sound of the guitar.  That rootling around is from Kenny Withrow who co-wrote What I Am with Brickell.  In fact, a lot of the songs are whole band compositions or Withrow-Brickell.  There is, incidentally, a song on It’s Like This calledWicked (Shooting Rubberbands) which explains where the next album title came from.

Creeping around like an alley cat
Shooting rubberbands at the stars
(They never go that far)

Someone has uploaded It’s Like This to Youtube and you can hear the whole thing.  What I Am is really the same in 1986 as it was in 1988 except, actually, a bit better.  In fact, It’s Like This is really good.  It seems like getting signed to Geffen in between these first two albums really destroyed New Bohemians.  The record label fired the original drummer, and made them rebrand to Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians.  You can imagine what kind of stress that put on the members.

You can see the record label effect if you listen to their first three albums.  Album one, and album three – Ghost of a Dog – are albums by a band, and in Rubberbands Edie is positioned out front, the album listens much more like it’s Edie’s vehicle, and her lyrics and voice are ahead, and the band is often much more acoustic sounding.  In short something really crap happened here.  Their least representative album as a band was their biggest hit, and is a really good album, but the external dabbling needed to create that album soured things, and they broke apart.

Not before they did Ghost of a Dog though.  That’s a really good album.  Edie drops back, and the band comes forward.  Listening to this album it seems a real shame that it was their last album except for the inevitable reunion album.  Stranger Things is their inevitable reunion album and it has some good songs on it (like the first and last song), but I realised what was missing on the second listen through: Edie’s lyrics.  One of the highlights of Rubberbands, and part of what Edie brings to the band, are her lyrics.  On Rubberbands (not so much on Ghost of a Dog, but she sounds really confident) it’s hard not to smile quite a few times as she writes her self-reflective, circular, joking lines.  There’s nothing to say about the words on Stranger Things.

It also may have one of the worst album covers of all time. It  might work as a $2.99 kids’ nursery rhymes CD cover, but not really for anything else.

Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians are a strange kind of story.  Whoever it was who signed them to Geffen and shaped the album Rubberbands was right.  Even though Ghost of a Dog is good, Rubberbands is much better, and much more memorable, than anything else they ever did.  So faced with the decisions they had to make in 1988 they made the right decisions if you look at it from the output side of things.  Looked at from a band of brothers, personal side it was a disaster.  Difficult really to say what to do.  Just enjoy Rubberbands I guess,

Thursday afternoon you cast a shadow ’round my room
The breeze moved the curtains and lifted my perfume into the air