Missing Prince

And so they released Piano & a Microphone (1983).

Prince more or less alone at a piano some time in 1983.  I think “genius” is a word that is used far, far too freely, but listening to this feels like listening to a genius.  Like – and I say this knowing full well who I am comparing Prince too – listening to Mozart jamming late at night in Vienna, 1785.

Listening to Prince one night in 1983.

17 Days.  The version he plays on the piano on this album seems, at first, only tenuously linked to the final version he released.  All I got is two cigarettes and this broken heart of mine.  But it is the same song.  The same song but sounding a bit sadder.  Or maybe it’s just that the lyrics come through more clearly and the gloss of his mid-80s production is not there to distract.  Let the rain come down… been gone 17 days; 17 long nights – main drag is knowing that you’re holding someone else tight.  The main riff is now handled by the piano’s left hand and not the bass as it is in the final release.  It’s that left hand that is the song’s centre, and the right hand that is playing with the song’s ideas; sometimes opening up to push out the chords into jazz.  He had such a good voice, and here it sits on the edge of sad and soulful.  As he plays on he begins playing with his voice too; enjoying himself but probably seeing if something he likes comes out that he might be able to use.

One of the highlights of seeing him in concert was hearing him reduce U Got The Look to a funk-piano grind that just went on and on.  I suppose it’s something he understood from James Brown: if it’s good you can just ride it on and on and on and it will get better and better and better.  He also understood that a song can go ten different ways and that releasing a song is sort of a lie because it locks something fluid into place.  Prince was a musician.  An excellent one.  The new releases coming out are proving that.  Again.  The new releases are taking one of the most incredible periods of pop in anyone’s career – almost all of Prince’s output in the 80s – and showing that what we got to see was only part of his breadth and depth.

On the deluxe version of the Purple Rain album there are a whole collection of “new” songs and other versions of old songs: it’s simply astonishing.  A ten minute version of I Would Die 4 U or Computer Blue?  Sure.  Or things that he didn’t release: The Dance Electric.  On Piano & a Microphone he does a very loose version of Strange Relationship where the piano jolts right out of the riff, and he slurs in and out of lyrics looking for how far you can pull at something before it disappears into something else.  In this case the something else is International Lover which, in this version, is a lot sadder, and slower than how it ended up on Sign o the Times.  Slowed down the song’s protagonist sounds hesitant rather than smooth and cheesy: tell me, am I qualified?

Mary Don’t You Weep is the blues and he sings the hell out of it.  I gotta a bad bad feelin’; he ain’t coming home.  This was released with a video posthumously which is very risky, even more risky to attach a political meaning to the words, but the idea of the video supercharges the song’s words.

Strange little things like Wednesday float past with lines like contemplated suicide from 12 o’clock to 2.  A great bit of comic funk about cold coffee, cocaine and a black mouse (what rhymes with house?) before Why the Butterflies.

Why the Butterflies is about as simple as you could get on the piano, and the lyrics are slipping into overwrought – Mama! Why the butterflies?  On the other hand Prince could get away with most anything in the 80s and he gets away with this.  Finding intensity and tension in the spaces between the chords that propel the song he begins to make me wonder with increasing existential dread: “why the fricken butterflies?”

***

Listening to Prince and looking out across the current top twenty is sobering.  Technology has a stranglehold on pop music at the moment and the producer and the sound deck have drained everything and everyone of passion.  I’m trying to imagine a hit artist on the top twenty now who could release a I-was-fucking-around-on-the-piano-one-night-and-this-is-what-it-sounded-like album that would sound any good. Almost none of them can play an instrument.  Almost none of them could sit in the pocket with a band and trade eights.  It’s a disgusting lazy ass disgrace.   Good music is built out of LOVING music.  The playing off it.  By yourself and with others.  It is built out of sitting in your bedroom for hours and hours playing riffs, or jamming with your band or your mates for hours trying to make the hooks hang together.  It is joy, rage, love, lust and not a endless string of semi-anaesthetised “artists” warbling across pre-recorded manipulated sounds untouched by the hands of anyone.

Unable to say anything in music or words tapped out celebrity artists take off more clothes, get into more fights, or make “controversial” songs that are not in fact controversial but simply and transparently offensive.  I Love it by Kanye and Lil Pump?  FFS.  A tedious backdrop of sounds that took 10 minutes to put together, a sample that gives cover, and a string of offensive, degrading, misogynistic bullshit.  You think teenage boys are listening to this ironically?

…as he twirls around the room, professing his love for blowjobs and boob jobs, a gold chain bearing the name of his late mother bounces against his blown-up shirt buttons. It’s a valid, albeit clumsy, attempt to show that the morbid details of his life can coincide with the humor.

Billboard

Valid.  How valid would an 18 year old woman feel at a party as a bunch of 18 year old drunk men sang this song?

Give me back Prince.

Please.

The Death of Vanity

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

Ecclesiastes

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.

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.