Batdance

New releases in New Zealand, 2 July 1989

Batdance – Prince

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“They take the surface very seriously.  The package is the substance.  That is at the heart of their sense of beauty.”

Donald Richie on the Japanese

i

For a long time the movie theatre with the greatest feeling of faded-80s-class-grotty-90s-grunge in Wellington was The Regent.  It was the theatre no one went to anymore, built on the second floor of a small shopping mall no one went to anymore.  It was supposed to be a series of boutique shops, a flight of wide steps up a mirrored staircase to a movie foyer with gold handrails and red velvet curtains, and a fine dining restaurant.  What it became was a series of vacant shops and a worn out, chipped and faded foyer of B-movies.  A friend of mine was assaulted on the back stairs there.  Another worked in the only functioning shop on the ground floor and arrived one day to find it had been robbed and a big shit deposited in the middle of the floor.  The shop was called Mindgames, but the message of the shit was pretty straightforward.

One B-movie offered at The Regent was Graffiti Bridge.  It seemed like the poster advertising it was up in that foyer for years but that the movie itself may have never played.

ii

I have a long standing lack of interest in superheroes that stretches back to Batman (1989).  It might be because when I was a kid superhero movies were dumb.  There was Batman on TV which people now regard as a cult classic but at the time I just thought was silly, and there were some creaky Superman movies.  Superpowers seem like a lame plot device, and who the hell was Batman anyway: a rich man who likes cosplay?

Who were my superheroes?  By 1989 they were probably people like Prince.  Later on they would be Jim Morrison, Grunge bands, and Marlon Brando.  I wrote a poem for Sixth Form English that said: “my heroes always die at the end”.  I wrote that in 1988.  It was a prescient read on Grunge that’s for sure.  My favourite movies for a very long time were Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Gallipoli.  They end almost identically.  On the Waterfront‘s end is a muted victory.  Viva Zapata?  Back to everyone dies at the end.

The main thing I like about Batman now is Birdman.

And Batdance of course.

iii

I parted company with Prince for 25 years after Batdance.  I’m glad we made up at the end though.  Just before he died.

In 2016 I went to Auckland with a friend to see Prince.  It was eye-wateringly expensive.  I had reservations about the cost right up to the moment when the lights came up on the stage and there was a silhouette of Prince with a giant-ass afro, and a cane and the crowd went crazy.  My thought?  “Fuck, yeah!”  I mean, it was fucking Prince, and once the silhouette vanished it was really him – sashaying around the stage in a slinky suit soaking in the applause with an attitude that seemed to be humbly saying: “mmhm, that’s right, I am pretty fricken awesome: clap mofos”.  The audience clapped.  I clapped.  I imagined it was similar to – but not as spiritual – a Catholic meeting the Pope.  Actually, scratch that: it was just as spiritual.

Purple Rain had first melted my mind in 1985 when I was 12.  From 1985 to 2016 was 31 years.  The last album I had bought by him was Lovesexy in 1989.  I loved the song Batdance.  Then we drifted apart.  I was never into the Come, Diamonds and Pearls stuff, and even though he would occasionally do something like Sexy M.F. or Black Sweat, he really seemed to be adrift in bloated albums, slow jams and soulless not very funky funk workouts.  Thankfully in 2014 there was Art Official Age.  Not even some chipmunk vocals and lasers could spoil a good album album.  He was calling me home.  (Yes, me.)

There were many moments in the concert that were amazing.  U Got The Look was one of the highlights.  I always felt kind of so-so about that song, but he turned it into a dirty, honky-tonk, funk grind which went on and on being amazing.  Something In the Water sounded beautiful on piano.  I suppose the moment of greatest emotional impact was Purple Rain.  Even though it was just a truncated version as he was riffing through some of his greatest hits, it was the other moment – after his initial arrival – when I thought: “I cannot actually believe I am here and this is happening.”  I don’t know how many times I played air guitar to that song in the 80s but it was a lot.  It was a powerful feeling.  The opening notes punching though my 43 year old exterior and gripping me by my 12 year old heart.

iv

This story ends with him dying of course.  All my heroes die at the end.

He was in Auckland in February 2016, and died in April.

What was he?  A serious surface?  A packaging of substance?  It was always  a mistake looking for hidden depths in a Prince song.  The song Purple Rain is a great example.  It hints at meaning.  The music says a lot more than the words, but music of course talks in “feel” only.  So you are left with an evocative sound onto which a million thoughts can be projected.  Prince was mostly only direct and clear when he was talking about sex.  Otherwise, good luck trying to read something profound.  Let’s Go Crazy?  We get the vibe – let’s party – but as for the lyrics?  When the Doves Cry?  What is that sounds like doves crying and what the fuck does a dove crying sound like anyway?

On the latest posthumous release Originals, there is a great piece of fluff called Make Up.  The music is frantic and cold.  The vocal cold and clipped.  A list of make up applied; a look constructed.  You can dance to it.  It feels like it is maybe saying something.  The delivery and tension seems to point at meaning.  And then away.  A beautiful surface.

Definitely a kind of genius.

*

New releases in New Zealand, 2 July 1989

  • Funky Cold Medina – Tone Loc
  • Batdance – Prince
  • Forever Your Girl – Paula Abdul
  • Manchild – Neneh Cherry
  • Wind Beneath My Wings – Bette Midler
  • Can You Keep A Secret – Brother Beyond
  • Halleluiah Man – Love and Money
  • Room To Move – Animotion
  • Help – Bananarama

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.

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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.