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.

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.

Liberalism from above: some random thoughts

  1. How does one deal with the massive information glut coming from the mass media as an artist? Simple: ignore it. This is the language coming from above, which is useless because it seeks to define and appropriate everything. It takes Gil-Scott Heron poems and makes them background noise for athletes selling anything from Coke to Gillette razors. It does not appear to be politically conscious of what it does, ostensibly, anyway: it just finds that “Howl” or “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” are catchy enough to sell their plastic junk. It may or may not know that it is appropriating and diluting the significance of the art that it appropriates. However, it knows very well that it doesn’t give a shit about “old men weeping in parks” and that it is absolutely opposed to anything remotely resembling revolution—as long as it doesn’t benefit from that revolution: in which case, the “revolution” becomes terrorism.
  2. The artist has the freedom to reject as well as absorb and appropriate, and in this instance, rejection is an absolute necessity. In “White Noise,” published in 1985, Don DeLillo highlights the mindless commercial jingles of Reagan-Era America, such as “Coke is It” (among billions of others) or brand-names like Toyota-Celica. Today nobody knows what a Toyota-Celica is—nobody under 30, anyway. Tomorrow nobody will know what a KIA or a Bentley is, just as nobody under 60 today knows what a DeSoto or a Packard Coup is.
  3. As a writer, the proper thing to do is observe the Coke jingle without highlighting whatever significance its creators imagine it has. When I was a kid (early seventies), the big jingle was “I’d like to teach the world to sing,” blah, blah, blah—one of the first big “multiracial” TV commercials, circa 1971-1973. Nobody born after 1980 remembers it. When describing a commercial, or the products of mass media, it is an imperative to play down their hyper-inflated importance—for in reality, they are NOT IMPORTANT.
  4. Folk culture, which is a creation of people, has been pushed completely into the shadows by pop culture, which is a creation of multinational corporations interested only in money. JUST BECAUSE IT IS POPULAR DOESN’T MAKE IT GREAT. Of course, one could persuasively argue that the opposite is equally true: what other vocal groups of the 20th century could seriously rival The Temptations (a pop group), to cite just one example? And John Cage’s effete experiments with noise simply could not hold a candle to the dadaistic sound experiments of late-eighties Public Enemy; the establishment poetry of most American lit journals pales beside your average rap lyrics by Nas or Mos Def. Eubie Blake dismissed Stravinsky as “lousy.” Of course, this is all a matter of opinion. Blake never wrote anything that equaled Stravinsky’s Rites of Spring. But then again, Stravinsky couldn’t write ragtime. And Charleston Rag is just as musically innovative as Firebird, if not even more so.
  5. The massive information glut is all of a piece with the phony liberalism coming from academia. It comes from an elite class which has both a liberal wing—a false face of tolerance—and a conservative one. They come on like enemies for the benefit of those below them. It has worked fantastically well, for virtually no one in the Western World, especially America, can tell that Fox News and NPR are controlled by the same elite class. It is irrelevant that, ideologically speaking, they are bitterly at loggerheads with one another. The important thing to know is that both of them imagine that they speak for the entire planet.
  6. The elite liberal class utilizes “political correctness” in a distinctly sinister and petty way. “Political correctness,” of course, is something that they, of the six and seven-figure crowd, have defined on their own terms, just as criticism of the foibles of the West—racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism and other noxious isms—must always be done by them, in their insufferably patronizing and high-handed manner. The critique is never too trenchant for it is merely the elite criticizing itself. Anyone who actually gets his or her hands dirty, who makes less than $85,000 a year for a family of three, who lives on the other side of the tracks, who is the wrong kind of black, brown, yellow, red or tan, the wrong kind of woman, the wrong kind of gay, the wrong kind of Muslim or Jew* (they always know just who is the “right” kind and the “wrong” kind) will be met, if they are lucky, with silence—or otherwise brutal police will escort them from the lecture hall.
  7. Actually these “wrong” kind of intellectuals will be lucky if they find themselves anywhere near any sort of American lecture hall; if they do, these intellectuals will find themselves patronized, at best, like unruly natives who don’t quite know their place.
  8. In effect, this is the colonizer telling the colonized that colonialism is bad, that it must be changed. The NPR crowd are agents of the same colonialism they claim to despise; the same holds true for the ACLU, the progressives of New York and the Bay Area, as well as the prissy, self-righteous bourgeois Social Justice Warriors: whether they are aware of it or not, none of these groups truly represent the interests of the ordinary, struggling American of color. Ishmael Reed has complained about them for years, so it is very easy to connect the dots and see exactly what is going on here. The impoverished white working classes in the West are infuriated by the arrogant, puritanical self-righteousness of the establishment left. It fuels their reactionism and racism, thereupon giving further power to the right. Unfortunately the white so-called “workers” are generally too hot-headed to see that the establishment left is simply part of a two-headed beast: one face wears the mask of Arianna Huffington whereas the other wears that of Bill O’Reilly.
  9. On the other hand, the establishment left has decided in its colonialist arrogance that the oppressed, which it imagines it champions, is still not enlightened or educated enough to be allowed to critique colonialism on its own. It is playing a dirty game. To begin with, no true “left” throws in its lot with the elite class and pretends to speak for the so-called “masses.” It certainly does not try to “instruct” the masses in how to conduct their private lives—i.e., what language should they use to address women, the elderly or the handicapped (or “physically challenged,” as they so primly put it); which customs are acceptable to their delicate sensibilities (for example, female circumcision or “genital mutilation,” understood by most enlightened Muslim minds to be an anachronistic abomination, needs their own particular censure above all others); which expressions of sexuality are acceptable to same (chiefly, the feeble homosexuality of the powerful Velvet Mafia, which is largely white and male). The real horror that the Left establishment has is not for the Tea Baggers, but for their own niggers. They fear that these niggers will start speaking in a distinctly progressive language that is their own, formulating critiques of capitalism, of anti-Semitism, racism, sexism, homophobia, etc., etc., that are genuinely theirs and not that of the establishment Left. Such critiques will naturally wind their way back to the establishment Left and expose their complicity in keeping the masses, so-called, silent and cowed.
  10. Orwell, 1942: “All left-wing parties in the highly industrialized countries are at bottom a sham, because they make it their business to fight against something which they do not really wish to destroy. They have internationalist aims, and at the same time they struggle to keep up a standard of life with which those aims are incompatible. We all live by robbing Asiatic coolies, and those of us who are ‘enlightened’ all maintain that those coolies ought to be set free; but our standard of living, and hence our ‘enlightenment’, demands that the robbery shall continue.”
  11. In other words, they fear having their Persian rugs yanked from under them.
  12. The liberal elite, or neo-liberals, make no bones—privately, anyway—about where they truthfully stand. Unfortunately, their elitist arrogance has provoked reaction in many corners. Camille Paglia has made a name for herself for kicking clueless white middle-class “feminists” in their bloated behinds. (Unfortunately Ms. Paglia can’t seem to tell the difference between pop culture and folk culture.) Sixties feminism, which sprung to life as a rejection of puritanical middle-class white mores and ideas of womanhood, has come full circle in the 2010s: it now epitomizes many of these same outmoded white mores. Among these is the absurd notion that women, somehow, need to be “protected” by the long arm of the state. Protected? By whom? By what? The Patriarchy of the One Percent. (Because that’s what runs this country.) Against whom? Against what? Against harmful words and thoughts that may in any way insinuate that (white) women are in any way, shape or form connected with adult sexuality–in other words, protection against reality.
  13. It has to be wondered whether this current pseudo-feminist upper-middle-class sex paranoia has a racist and xenophobic undertow, or is simply a classist reaction on the part of a greedy, narcissistic and shallow Western womanhood which–far from being concerned with liberation from the “establishment” or “patriarchy”–simply wants to take over this rotting establishment and run it for its own benefit. It appears they are not really opposed to male dominance; they simply hate the idea of being the boyfriends and husbands of ordinary working men and wish to be the bed wenches of the Fortune 500 crowd.  Of course, this is debatable. Contrary to what Hanna Rosin thinks, there is no “End of Men” in the West, only the continued replacement of men in the white-collar workplace with women. Those responsible for this widespread overhauling are, of course, rich white men. You know, The Patriarchy.
  14. A younger and more media-savvy group of white men appear to have come up with their own solution to the current moral, social and political crisis gripping the White West. As confused sexually as they are proud of their “whiteness,” these young men reject both the establishment left and right. They feel that all mainstream western politicians are “cucks.”
  15. “Cuck” appears to be a term of their own making. It is code talk, but unlike their neoconservative predecessors, the Alt-Right generally finds political code talk a sign of weakness. In their diseased minds, both ends of the western political spectrum are dominated by political cuckolds who let “illegals” and “terrorists”–in other words, “niggers” and “kikes” and “muzzies”–fuck their own nations. They are unapologetically racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-Semitic and anti-Islam. Their deep moral confusion is analogous to the moral confusion of young Germans in Weimar Germany; on the one hand they wish to fuck all the hot chicks, and on the other hand, take up precisely where Hitler left off,  but with far more efficient ruthlessness. Above all, these Alt-Righters are completely incapable of a single original thought and simply regurgitate 19th century colonialist rhetoric about the “superiority” of the Great White Race.
  16. If the Alt-Right somehow manages to take control of the Western political establishment, contemporary civilization as we know it will simply die. Their belligerent solipsism has already begun to lead the so-called “free world” off a cliff; one need only observe Poland’s hysterical lurch to the far right. Yesterday it was Ukraine and Greece; today it is Poland, Hungary and France; tomorrow (and quite predictably) it will be Germany, Belgium, Spain, Italy, the UK, Canada and the USA.
  17. The fantastic rise of loudmouthed populist Donald Trump and his stupid Guardian Angels rhetoric is a harbinger of disasters to come–this, whether Trump wins the Presidency or not. Rest assured that if Trumpkopf doesn’t win the nomination, the Alt-Right will simply dig in its heels and go full-on Nazi in ways that even their pinup-boy, Adolf Hitler, dared not dream of. There will be war. And the West will lose the war, because the West stupidly thinks it is living in the same world of their great-grandfathers. And it is highly doubtful if either China, Brazil, India, or South Africa will be much interested in any Marshall Plan to rebuild the shattered cities and infrastructures of the West.

*Apparently not hyperbole on my part, when one considers the abrupt silencing of Norman Finkelstein.