(Featured Image: From Kustom Kar Kommandos, Kenneth Anger, 1965. © Fantoma Films.)
Despite the band name on the label and the six musicians credited on the sleeve, the Time’s first album is often remembered as a thinly veiled solo effort by Prince. This, however, isn’t strictly true: not only was frontman Morris Day largely responsible for the album’s drum tracks, but Prince also drew heavily on his inner circle for songwriting assistance.
Guitarist Dez Dickerson wrote the lyrics for “Cool”–more on that later–and, less successfully, was solely responsible for “After Hi School.” “The idea was for the record to have a youthful vibe,” Dickerson wrote in his 2003 memoir, so he recorded a four-track demo for a song “where the main character is a kid about to graduate, facing the usual questions from adults, and decisions to be made. Prince liked it, but changed it from its original AC/DC-ish rhythm to a more up-tempo Brit/New Wave feel” (Dickerson 112). The song’s faux-Farfisa accompaniment does recall Prince’s New Wave-flavored “When You Were Mine”; but the cloying lyrics and Morris’ still-untutored vocals do it no favors.
For the album’s most fruitful collaboration, however, Prince didn’t have to look far: in April of 1981, keyboardist and recent Los Angeles transplant Lisa Coleman was still living in his home at 9401 Kiowa Trail. “My room was upstairs,” she later told biographer Matt Thorne, “so he would call me down. ‘Lisa, would you help me do this string part? What about these lyrics? Can you finish this verse?’ He involved me. I punched him in while he was playing the drums, whatever it was” (Thorne 2016). Lisa’s backing vocals are prominent throughout The Time: she, along with Sue Ann Carwell, is one of the “Various Girlfriends” credited in the liner notes. And it was Lisa who provided the lyrical spark–and maybe more–for the album’s comically raunchy closing track, “The Stick.”
Like “Get It Up,” “The Stick” is an extended funk jam–eight and a half minutes on the album–with a squealing Dr. Fink synth solo and Prince on guitar and (clearly audible) backing vocals. But where the former song is brash and busy, the latter is a cool slow burn, anchored by a fuzzy synth-bass groove you can sink up to your knees in. The piano part, most likely also by Lisa, adds a slightly jazzy touch, weaving deftly between Prince’s popping bass licks. If nothing else, her involvement on the track should assuage any lingering doubts of her capacity for funkiness.
The precise nature of that involvement, however, has been a point of some confusion. While the song is registered by ASCAP to Prince alone, Per Nilsen’s The Vault credits it solely to Lisa–a conclusion seemingly traceable to an interview with the album’s engineer, Don Batts (Nilsen 1999 86). I had actually decided not to write about “The Stick” for this reason (after all, it’s princesongs.org, not lisasongs.org), until a friend of the blog dug up this 2009 tweet from Coleman herself:
In the tweet, Lisa only explicitly takes credit for a single lyric: a putdown for a lover who is “so automatic I’d rather work my stick.” On the final version, of course, this becomes the immortal line, “You just come too quick, I’d rather work my stick.” I’d like to imagine, however, that Lisa’s influence on the song went just a little further than “sparking the idea.” Coming from Prince and Morris, the whole stick-shift-as-phallus metaphor is an effective enough innuendo in the dirty blues tradition; but it takes on a patina of sophistication and wry detachment in the hands–if you’ll pardon the phrase–of a gay woman. Lisa’s authorship would certainly help explain the song’s seemingly unique status as a paean to male sexual endurance: it’s tempting to imagine her writing from world-weary female experience, with the pronouns simply reversed.
But whoever was responsible for the lyrics, “The Stick” nevertheless marked another new milestone for Prince’s first successful side project. If “Get It Up” was a proof of concept for the Time, then “The Stick” is the moment when their own distinct personality begins to shine through: recognizably cut from the same Minneapolis Sound cloth as their producer, but more unselfconsciously funky, with a sexuality that is less provocative than cartoonishly tongue-in-cheek. It’s this personality that will finally, fully take bloom–with the help of another member of the Prince camp–in the subject of next week’s post.
(Thanks to Louise Be for finding the Lisa tweet that made this post possible–and, of course, to Casey Rain for posing the question to her nine years ago!)