(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.”

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The 7″ single for “Bambi” in Belgium, where apparently this kind of thing is marketable; © Warner Bros.

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 Undertakerwhich 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

shadowy-sex
“A revealingly frank novel of women who love women because they fear to love men”; cover of The Shadowy Sex by Hilary Hilton, Softcover Library, 1970. Photo stolen from Pulp Covers.

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.

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Why doesn’t Bambi want a real man like this? © Warner Bros.

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.

“Bambi” (Prince, 1979) Amazon / Spotify
“Bambi” (The Undertaker, 1994) YouTube
“Bambi” (3RDEYEGIRL, 2013) YouTube

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8 thoughts on “Bambi

  1. One of my FAVORITE songs. Like you said – not for lyrical content, but for the SONG itself.I. can’t. even.

    Maybe I just don’t take offense to it b/c all of the things you mention (men chasing lesbians and trying to convince them to be with them – like Chasing Amy) has been part of my generation… since those songs/movies came out when I was a baby/kid.

    I hear the song in a way that he’s very JEALOUS of the “other lover” who “looks just like you”. From a psychological standpoint – maybe he’s jealous b/c he feels the need to be both masculine AND feminine – AND can’t fathom being “rejected” for any reason…….. EVEN if it’s b/c he’s not a woman. So he’s desperately trying to convince her that “It’s better with a man” – but what he’s saying is “it’s better with me, everyone knows that”…. haha!

    Regardless, my opinion doesn’t matter – I just LOVE this song so much. I had never heard the 1990’s version – so thank you for that!!!

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    1. Good point–so many of Prince’s lyrics around this time are him playing the underdog, trying to convince a woman to give him a shot. I definitely don’t think there’s much overt homophobia in his work at this point–he knew he had a significant gay fanbase, and would hire Lisa not long after recording this album–and while I know his religious beliefs changed things later in life, I hope that he eventually reached a more accepting position. Whatever the case, I’m with you, this song kicks ass.

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  2. “If it had been up to Prince, “Bambi” may not have made the album at all.” Yikes, that’s a scary thought for a placid Friday night. : )
    I’m with the Bambi lovers, and agree with the comments here. I also find I’m not offended where I might be if it had a different tone. As you say, “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.” For me, it also helps that this is a young Prince. Perhaps he’s clueless, naive, charmingly befuddled… : ) If it was older Prince, I’d probably be like, “really, seriously…please.”
    I’ll also have to think about where music, in general, is as far as depicting relationships beyond heterosexual ones. Many “I love you” songs are pretty nonspecific, or can be made that way easily, e.g. by dropping out just a few words.
    Also, you mention “cock rock.” So while thinking of “macho music,” I’m reminded that it seems like there might be a tendency for some in the heterosexual guy world to have differing comfort levels when it comes to gay vs. lesbian. I think I probably oughta let men weight in first on that one, though.
    Really appreciate points you and Kaitlyn make about masculinity/femininity and playing the underdog.
    And since you mention being a rock fan, can I ask if you like any of the music on Lotusflow3r?
    Thanks for DSMR blog. It definitely rocks!

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    1. Good point about youth being an issue here, Louise–for all his explicit sexuality, he liked to portray himself as an inexperienced naif around this time, so I can definitely see that “character” being confused by gay women. I think the lyrics meant less and less to him later in life, too–you can see in the 1994 and 2013 versions of the song how more than ever it’s just become a vehicle for his guitar. Interestingly, looking at Prince Vault, he doesn’t seem to have played it a whole lot right after his religious conversion, which was around the time (according to Wendy) he expressed explicitly homophobic sentiments; he also doesn’t appear to have played it at all between 2007 and 2010, which would line right up with the “Sodom and Gomorrah” comments in the New Yorker interview. Could just be a coincidence, of course, but it’s interesting nevertheless.

      Re: Lotusflow3r, that’s an album I really need to give another shot. I was pretty negative on Prince at the time it came out–Planet Earth had used up a lot of my goodwill for him, hahaha–and it just sounded like smooth jazz to me. I’ve heard a few tracks again since and I think I would appreciate it more now. Dreamer for example is pretty great. I’ve softened in general on a lot of Prince’s music since 2014 or so…I feel like if I’d attempted something like this blog 10 years ago, I would have upset a lot of people, hahaha.

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      1. LOL! Yup, I’ve changed a lot over the years, too. Prince wasn’t the only one with the big changes going on.

        RE: Lotusflow3r. How are you with Boom and Crimson and Clover? Is Boom a Bust for you?

        Thank you looking at the frequency of playing Bambi in connection to what was going on with Prince. Very interesting stuff. And that’s a great point of how it seemed more just guitar vehicle in later years. The lyrics played straight (maybe not the best choice of words : ) ) by older Prince would have been too much, but older Prince as the Bambi guitar god–that’s the best.

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      2. I liked Crimson and Clover for what it was, though I thought it was kind of weird that he recorded it (this is a theme with his officially released covers…I’m still puzzled by One of Us, etc. on Emancipation). Boom I honestly can’t remember, but I think I didn’t like it. It seems like this album has a pretty decent reputation though, so my interest is definitely piqued–I’m pretty confident I misjudged it.

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  3. It was fascinating to hear this when I picked up “Prince” last year. For a start, it telegraphed large portions of his future sound in a way that no one could have predicted at the time. Simply, it rocks like a BMF! The track was clearly an outlier to his future history as a rock guitar god. I don’t know what i would have thought of this in the context of its original release! For all of his studio chops, I think we can all admit that if it came down to his guitar playing alone, that would have been sufficient to have made a convincing case for his ascension into the pantheon of rock greats.

    As for the potentially obnoxious lyric content, you’re right. He did come across in his artistic persona as naive, and even shy and easily shocked [cf. the first verse of “Uptown”] early on, so to invoke a name already brought up here, hearing Ted Nugent singing this would be spectacularly offensive – even then. By delivering the potentially clueless lyrics in his trademark falsetto of the time he managed to take the edge off of it somewhat, and let some ambiguity drift into the song-space. Is he gently mocking himself at the end of the day? There’s a hair’s breadth of a chance that he is pulling our legs with this risible scenario, which makes a difference. At the end of the day we can all just shake our heads in disbelief, chuckling…and keep paying attention to that blistering guitar riffage; the real crux of this matter.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Great point; if anyone would be confused about lesbians in the late ’70s, surely the young Prince “character” would be that person! I had a similar experience with this song, having not heard it until well after I got into Prince’s later stuff–it really comes out of nowhere, and his guitar playing never really sounded this vicious again, at least not on his official studio albums.

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