(Featured Image: “Can a handsome, virile man come between two women who love each other passionately?” Cover of The Other Kind by Richard Villanova, Beacon, 1963; photo stolen from Pulp Covers.)
The sessions for Prince’s second album went much more smoothly than those for his first, but they were not completely without incident. Prince’s new managers, Bob Cavallo and Joe Ruffalo, had initially booked 30 days at Alpha Studios; but as the deadline approached, only rough mixes of the album’s nine tracks had been completed, and another client was scheduled to use the facilities. According to Alpha’s owner and engineer, Gary Brandt, Cavallo and Ruffalo “insisted that I give Prince any amount of time he wanted in the studio to mix the album. They wanted me to cancel everything and give it all to Prince” (Nilsen 1999 55). But Brandt was unable to extend the studio time on such short notice, so sessions were moved downtown to Hollywood Sound Recorders.
HSR’s staff engineer at the time, Bob Mockler, would become a figure of some significance in Prince’s early career: he would also assist with recording and mixing on both 1980’s Dirty Mind and 1981’s Controversy. Prince’s appreciation for Mockler can be inferred from the credit that appears on the final album, “Remixed by Bob Mockler and Prince”; as Mockler put it to biographer Per Nilsen, “That’s probably the last time he ever put anybody’s name before his” (Nilsen 1999 55). Indeed, Mockler seems to have had more creative input on the recording process than any of the artist’s collaborators since Chris Moon. Along with his aforementioned work on “When We’re Dancing Close and Slow,” his influence can be heard on one track in particular: the pulp-flavored cock rocker “Bambi.”
If it had been up to Prince, “Bambi” may not have made the album at all. “Something about the track was rubbing him the wrong way,” Mockler recalled to Nilsen. “Maybe because it was too different from the rest of the album” (Nilsen 1999 56). The song, to be fair, does kind of come out of left field: after four R&B-flavored cuts and one relatively tame power pop track, its opening guitar riff hits like a sledgehammer to the gut. It’s easily the heaviest thing Prince had recorded in 1979; and it would remain so for 15 years, until his scrapped 1994 album The Undertaker—which just happened to feature an even heavier version of “Bambi.”
Mockler helped Prince overdub “Bambi”’s guitar solo, and later confessed that “the track blew me away.” But Prince still wasn’t convinced it fit the album, so the engineer proposed a compromise: “I said, ‘Prince, let me have a chance to put this one together.’ He gave me an afternoon and came back four hours later, listened and said, ‘Let’s do it!’” (Nilsen 1999 56). Whatever Mockler did to the track, he has my thanks; because, for fans of hard rock like me, “Bambi” remains a highlight. I‘ve noted before that Prince’s flirtations with rock music, at least in the studio, tended toward the manicured, radio-friendly sounds of groups like Boston, Toto, and Foreigner. “Bambi,” however, was the exception to that rule: this is pure, raw-off-the-bone near-metal, in the grand, lunk-headed tradition of bands like KISS and Prince’s beloved Grand Funk.
Unfortunately, “Bambi”’s lunk-headedness also extends to the lyrics, which notoriously concern Prince’s attempts to convince a lesbian that “it’s better with a man.” At best, we can call “Bambi” an early entry in the “clueless straight guys chasing gay women” mini-genre that also includes “A Strange Place (The Alezby Inn)” by the Egyptian Lover, “Pink Triangle” by Weezer, and, in cinema, Kevin Smith’s Chasing Amy. At worst, however, it’s offensively macho and homophobic, with an understanding of lesbianism that seems wholly indebted to trash fiction from the 1950s and ’60s. Coming from an artist who otherwise tended to invert rock’s chauvinistic gender paradigms with songs like “I’m Yours,” that’s pretty disappointing.
Biographer Matt Thorne has criticized “Bambi” along these lines, dubbing it a “difficult song”–particularly in light of Prince’s later religious conservatism, which seemed to have inspired some homophobic comments in a 2008 interview with The New Yorker (Thorne 2016). I certainly take his point, but I frankly struggle to take the song seriously enough to condemn it. Maybe it’s just that I spent too many hours as a teenager listening to even more phallocentric music, by artists like Ted Nugent and the aforementioned KISS: an experience that no doubt inured me to much of rock’s casual misogyny. Compared to something like Nugent’s “Jailbait”–in which the future “family values” spokesperson offers to “share” an underage girl with his arresting police officer–“Bambi” comes across as pretty tame; though Prince’s weirdly violent, dick-worshipping suggestion that Bambi might “need to bleed” does feel beyond the pale.
All that being said, there’s something in Prince’s vocal delivery that makes his chest-beating machismo feel less than serious, even if his guitar clearly means business. Like the rest of his first three albums, Prince sings “Bambi” in an effete, almost camp falsetto: an affectation he told music journalist Steve Sutherland was “out of necessity,” because “it hurts to sing in a low voice” (Sutherland 1981). But his androgynous persona also gave him the leeway to say things other heterosexual male artists arguably couldn’t: as noted Prince fan Miles Davis memorably put it, “If I said ‘Fuck you’ to somebody they would be ready to call the police. But if Prince says it in that girl-like voice that he uses, then everyone says it’s cute” (Davis 385). In many ways, “Bambi” feels like the ultimate example of this phenomenon. Rockers like Vince Neil of Mötley Crüe might wear makeup and sing like they’ve inhaled helium, but they still exude a brutish sexual menace; Prince, however, sounds like a fey parody of cock rock, whether he means to or not.
“Girl-like” delivery aside, “Bambi” would remain Prince’s go-to track for exploring the more phallic side of hard rock. As Thorne notes, “It seems telling that he played the song a few times in the very early 1980s, dropped it during the Revolution years”–not coincidentally, a period when he had two gay women in the group–“then returned to it in 1990 as his act became more macho again, including it (albeit very sporadically) in his set ever since” (Thorne 2016). The song’s aforementioned reappearance on The Undertaker serves mostly as a showpiece for the artist’s guitar chops; he sings the first verse and chorus, then devotes the rest of the five-minute runtime to frenetic soloing–unsurprisingly, given the album’s planned distribution as a freebie with Guitar World magazine. On the other hand, the 1990 cover version by his Graffiti Bridge-era protégé T.C. Ellis suggests that by the ’90s, even Prince recognized that the torch for caveman misogyny had largely been passed from rock to rap.
In the end, then, there’s a kind of poetic justice in the fact that Prince’s last public performances of “Bambi” were with his all-woman power trio, 3RDEYEGIRL. Accompanied by guitarist Donna Grantis, bassist Ida Nielsen, and drummer Hannah Welton, the song’s misogynistic overtones were lessened; its aggression directed firmly toward the guitar, where it belonged. And it’s telling that in the new arrangement of the song, Prince ended the lyrics at their most pensive, uncertain moment: “Who’s to say, maybe you’re really having fun.” By 2013, Prince finally seemed to have realized that it wasn’t always “better with a man.” Better late than never.