If The Elevator Tries to Bring You Down: On Prince and the Horror of the 80s

I wasn’t so sure if I needed to write anything concerning Prince’s life and death, since I felt everything I wanted to say concerning the man had already been said by so many others, and probably better than anything I could reasonably attempt. When I found out about it, I was deeply disturbed by it.

To start with, I was never a fan of his music. At all. He did not operate in my idiom, and still does not. I am a jazz, ragtime, blues and (sometimes) gospel head. I would rather listen to Beethoven’s Violin Concerto than Raspberry Beret, which frankly, I can’t stand. I remember Prince all too well. When he was at his height in the mid-eighties he was also at his most commercial and accessible with hits like 1999, Purple Rain and Kiss. I thought he was very campy and over-the-top.Me and my friends used to make fun of him while most of us dug his music…yet slyly, I found something strangely moving in his music, especially Purple Rain.

All of this is coming from someone who hated 80s music and 80s culture with a passion when he was growing up. And still does, when I think back on it. For it was in the Eighties that I decided to become a writer, a radical and a bohemian. I have not changed.

Many people who never lived through that MTV nightmare called the eighties thinks it was a wonderful time. It was not. Of course seen in retrospect the eighties was a hell of a lot more creative and off-beat than today’s decade. But that isn’t saying much. We have simply fallen so far down the toilet historically and culturally speaking that the Eighties, in retrospect, seems like a cultural height.

May I repeat: it was not.

Personally, I would prefer not to relive the eighties. The music was brittle. The clothes were ugly. The art was nasty. Sex was AIDS and drugs were crack. Politics was even grosser than usual. –Stephen Marche, GQ Magazine, June 10, 2010

You had to have been there, I guess, to see what an ugly, shallow, racist, marginalizing scene it really was. I guess you needed to have a bit of melanin in your skin, too. Celebrities said things on national television that they would not dare say now. Islamophobia? It was normal. Nobody thought anything about it.

The Eighties: described once by Stephen Marche as “the shittiest of decades,” in which the “music was brittle” and the “art was nasty.” All true. Totally true. And the reverse–“the art was brittle and the music was nasty”–summed up the 80s culture even more so. Romeo Void? Please. The late David Bowie? China Girl, Dancing with the Big Boys, etc. etc. Sorry sir, you’re time was up c. 1977 or so. Wham!? Fuck you. Duran Duran? Cyndi Lauper? Boy George and the Culture Club (and all that other slop from England)? Miles Davis’ inauspicious comeback doing some seriously light-weight things in contrast to even his seventies experiments? Art of Noise? UTFO? Ice T? NWA, the negro nightmare that spawned an entire generation of jungle-bunny chest-beating bojangling sambo thugs? Or Ghostbusters, The Other Woman (Ray Parker Jr.–no offense, but I could not stand this motherfucker’s music, not one track: from Jack and Jill to The Other Woman to Ghostbusters, it was so corny that (to quote Mezz Mezzrow) the husks were still on that shit). To think that many people think this shit is hip literally makes me cringe, though it shouldn’t: many people get off on being whipped and shitted on, so what can I say?

The Eighties wasn’t simply the Reagan Era, or the MTV Era, or what the hell have you: it was the age of AIDS. Born in 1967, I remember rubbing my hands with glee at the thought of joining the still-ongoing sexual revolution of 1980-3…and being bitterly disheartened to watch the country to an about-face when it came to carnality in the proceeding years. The freewheeling sexual revolution (which probably never even existed outside of TV and movies and songs) dried up like old prunes, and horny young men like me were left with less than the crumbs from what we imagined was a sexual feast. Mini-skirts were back in but thanks to this hysterically inflated AIDS scare, they didn’t mean shit. According to its creator, Mary Quant, the mini-skirt represented precisely sexual liberation. In the 80s and beyond the mini-skirt represented nothing but a huge middle-finger to those of us who’d hoped we could have some sixties sunshine.

PrinceCab
Prince Rogers Nelson and Cab Calloway: in the tradition of HIP

Michael Jackson. Yes, his death was disturbing, a shock, but one could see it coming; it was just a question of when: would he make it his life’s goal to make himself back into a black man again, I often thought. Michael was universally worshiped and reviled by the same jackasses that made him into a god. But Michael Jackson was corny. Michael seemed, at least, a safely packaged little black eunuch for the masses of people everywhere to drool over–a perpetual Toys R Us kid, the man from Neverland, who never wanted to grow up and subsequently became idolized just for that specific reason, in my opinion: here was a black superstar who seemed not to have any balls, basically safe and tame, until he was suspected of sniffing up young white boy’s butts.

Prince, on the other hand, was a spade of another color. Only an inspired lunatic like Prince Rogers Nelson would dare to walk out on stage with his goddamn hair fried (wearing conks was not exactly popular among black men in the seventies), and with a perm and eyeliner that made him look like a Cuban transsexual. And on top of that, huge hooped earrings, a g-string, fishnet stockings, and spin-off bands like Vanity 6 and Apollonia 6 prancing about on stage singing Sex Shooter and Nasty Girl: the music was not great, but I dug the message. I, who went to an uptight Catholic parochial school, where girls were non-existent, where teachers tried to instruct us on the evils of masturbation, “fornication” and the terror of looking into Playboy and getting sexually aroused and where half the fucking school, it seemed, was on the down-low. When my fellow students tried grabbing my crotch or touching my thighs, I naively thought that this was something that also went on in sexually integrated high schools. It didn’t.

Prince was the only pop idol I recall from that time who, even remotely, had a healthy slant on sex.* With Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, Hall & Oates, Michael Jackson, UTFO and the lot, sex seemed shrouded with the usual American hangups. With Prince it was different. Sex was not evil; it was good, it was healthy. It was a reason for being-in-the-world. Prince sang about erotic cities and I began to dream of Berlin and Bangkok. The square popsters tipped their hats to the AIDS hysteria and sang “That’s What Friends are For”; Prince responded with “Erotic City,” “Kiss” and “Jack U Off.” Subconsciously Prince shaped many of my attitudes toward sexuality, along with Burroughs and Henry Miller. Subconsciously I developed a begrudging admiration for Prince. Prince was one of the few pop idols who I found to be a hepcat in disguise. Maybe he was not too hip in my cynical adolescent eyes–Miles, Duke, Louis, Fletcher Henderson, Charlie Parker, Hawkins, etc. were and still are my musical idols–but even within the brittle nastiness of eighties synth-driven junk music I could still sense Prince as head and shoulders above the majority of them. One could feel his music. Prince put 101 percent into virtually everything he put out.

Even I could not be sure if I really hated Let’s go Crazy or not. I did not “like” it, in the same way that I so obviously liked Potato Head Blues or Shanghai Shuffle. But I knew I didn’t hate it. in fact it was a relief to my ears after the  synth-driven cacophony of Art of Noise or Wham or Men at Work or Romeo Void or some other asshole New Wave shit band–after hour upon hour of hysterically overwrought lyrics and shitty melodies, and almost always backed up by some hideously squawking saxophone: some were so bad they sounded like busted kazoos. Not Prince. Even “When Doves Cry” was like a mild balm to my ears. And I could listen to Purple Rain without sneering because I heard something in his music that I didn’t hear in Wham!: humanity.

You don’t have to like any form of music to hear the humanity in it. Hopefully, the humanity in music and art forms that are not to our taste can lead us to listen a little harder, not dismiss it outright because it uses chord changes that we are not familiar with, because it is in a style we are prone to sneer at, because it is pop music and may well be shot through with silliness and artifice. Sometimes we find ourselves in a position where we are obliged to look and listen past what appears on the surface. With Prince’s music, this is possible. One can NOT say the same for most of Michael Jackson’s work. Unlike Michael Jackson, Prince, even at his most tasteless, mediocre and meretricious, was never corny. Even those songs of his I despise the most are never corny. My ear for music is fairly sharp; I can compose music myself.

Ironically Prince hit his musical peak long after the party died down: say, mid-1990s, when he got fed up with picking Warner Brother’s cotton and scrawled slave on his face–just to let everybody know that the big media party of the previous decade (Graffiti Bridge, Cherry Moon and Purple Rain) was not nearly as fancy-free as MTV made it out to be. For a time he even got rid of his name.

No popular music figure I knew of in that culturally benighted decade–not even the old warhorse Miles Davis, reduced to rehashing Cyndi Lauper and a few of MJ’s less cheesy pieces–could hold a candle to Prince. Prince stood for something else besides the music. As I said, the man did not give a damn what other people thought about him. No man today, let alone a black man, could get away with such shameless gender-bending (and apparently just for the sheer hell of it, since Mr. Nelson was apparently straight). Oh, no. Minstrel rap performers today take great pains to let you know they are “no homo,” to the point where the idiotic phrase has entered the vocabulary. The phrase is as much an insult to heteros as it is to “homos”: if you really weren’t a fucking “homo” you would not need to obsessively remind everyone that you are not. The sexual insecurities of today’s rap-tards is getting old already. They should be lucky enough to live in an age where nobody shits their pants in fear at the sight of a bare buttock. For when I was turning eighteen, today’s crude, ugly parade of mafia strip-club sexuality was unthinkable; a Nicki Minaj or a Lil Kim or Foxy Brown or Miley Cyrus was equally out of the question.

And like Jimi Hendrix, an obvious influence, Prince was very much in the tradition of African-American music. He could play the blues. He was no B.B. King but by my ear he’s authentic and If I Had a Harem is in the sexual boasting tradition (“I got 49 women and only need one more”). In fact his signature tune “Purple Rain” is a mere re-working and updating of two old tunes: “Blueberry Hill” and the traditional “Bucket’s Got A Hole In It”. It takes careful listening, of course, to hear that the chord progressions between these three tunes are nearly identical. Prince in fact operated in the shadows of Jimi, Sly Stone, Little Richard, Esquerita, Cab Calloway, all the way back to old-timers such as Frankie “Half-Pint” Jackson, and possibly even Jelly Roll Morton, Tony Jackson and Louis Chauvin, the three masters of whorehouse piano. So maybe this is why, unlike when I heard of the death of Michael Jackson, I felt deeply troubled that this scrawny little high-yellow kid from Minneapolis, who set the whole musical world on its ear for four decades, ended his life on the floor of an elevator, sick and all by himself. When it is all over, and people stop painting their asses purple in heart-felt tributes to Prince (he has already been cremated!), we will go back to wringing our hands over talentless assholes like Kanye West or Miss Sticky-Fingers Minaj and her escort-service antics. (As I write this, the media is pissing all over themselves about Justin Bieber’s dick–Justin Bieber, the talentless little bimbo-boy who can’t write or sing a decent line about anything–not even himself:

“This past Tuesday night before my show I was picking out an outfit…I was so tired from the past week of endless traveling and gigging that I grabbed my Prince shirt and said fuck it I’m gonna channel the purple one tonight…I didn’t shower after the gig out of pure exhaustion…I went to sleep in that shirt and then I wore it again all day yesterday…today waking up to this news I am truly beside myself…devastated…the last of the greatest living performers…my guitar idol…his connection to ALL his instruments yielded a sexual transcending aura and the world is just less fucking cool without him walking on it… ‘Electric word life — It means forever and that’s a mighty long time — But I’m here to tell you — There’s something else… The after world’ #RIPPRINCE,” Andrew wrote on Instagram April 21.

Sadly, I have to report that Justin Bieber is alive and well and still churning out corny hit tunes like his pals Kanye, Jay Z, Miley Cyrus and all the rest of them. Vanity, who never had much talent, yet oozed a sensuality and eroticism that Miss Kay’s cakes can’t even touch, is dead, too. Mercifully, however, so is the brain-dead and thoughtless Eighties, where no one dared say what they really thought about America’s endless problems. I am starting to feel old. But not that old.

*Sorry, George Michael, but I Want Your Sex didn’t quite cut it.

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One thought on “If The Elevator Tries to Bring You Down: On Prince and the Horror of the 80s

  1. Laaawd Hammercy P. Lewis….This Awesome Post Packs A Wallop!! Coming Up In The ’80s Myself On MTV & New York Hot Trax, My Experience Was Quite Different, But You Shared A Most Retro-Comedic Perspective I Couldn’t Help But Keep Nodding Yes And Chuckling At…Last But Not Least The Best Piece Written So Far On One Of, If Not The Best, To Do It From That Era…

    Liked by 1 person

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