Categories
Ice Cream Castle, 1984

The Bird

A suitably ironic epitaph for the Time, Prince’s self-created rivals turned attempted usurpers.

In the months since Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis were dismissed from the Time, the group’s morale had reached an all-time low. Singer Morris Day, in particular, was all but fully checked out: “When we started switching musicians,” he later recalled, “it wasn’t my favorite band anymore” (Tudahl 2018 72). Only the promise of a costarring role in Prince’s upcoming film kept him from leaving the camp entirely–that and, he admitted in his 2019 memoir, a burgeoning cocaine habit (Day 83).

The powder keg was primed in the summer of 1983, when Day and the rest of the movie’s principal cast were enrolled in mandatory acting lessons with coach Don Amendolia. “He had these exercises,” Day wrote. “Pretend you’re a weeping willow tree. Pretend you’re a butterfly lost in the forest. Well, I didn’t wanna be no weeping willow tree. I didn’t wanna be no butterfly lost in the forest. I thought that was some dumb shit and said so.” Eventually, Day’s “cutting up” got back to Prince, who “said this was some serious business and I better not fuck it up or I’d be out on my ass… He’d banish me from his empire” (Day 86).

[Prince] said this was some serious business and I better not fuck it up… He’d banish me from his empire.

Morris Day
The new-look Time, 1984. L to R: Jerry Hubbard, Paul Peterson, Jerome Benton, Morris Day, Jesse Johnson, Mark Cardenas, Jellybean Johnson. Photo by Larry Williams, stolen from Lansure’s Music Paraphernalia.

Meanwhile, Day’s own little fiefdom of the Prince empire was crumbling around his ears. Since the end of the 1999 tour, the Time had been under retainer: paid, writes Day, out of his own $50,000 advance for Purple Rain (Day 85). Yet there was increasingly little for him to retain. He and guitarist Jesse Johnson had been tasked with finding replacements for Jam and Lewis, “but they weren’t even looking,” recalled production manager Alan Leeds. “I don’t know if it was just denial or if it was actually strategic–that if they waited long enough, Prince would have to accept [Jam and Lewis] back” (Light 2014 49).

In the midst of this standoff, after attending just one rehearsal for the movie, keyboardist Monte Moir left of his own accord. He was almost joined by Jellybean Johnson, but the drummer ultimately elected to stay for practical reasons: “I hadn’t worked a job in about [three or four] years,” he told Alan Freed for Uptown magazine. “I had quit college to be in this shit. I was having my first child… I needed the money, so I went back. It’s one of the hardest things I ever did, was to go back and have to put [my] tail between [my] legs and reconsider” (Tudahl 2018 92).

Finally, with a test show at First Avenue looming in early October, Prince intervened, bolstering the group’s dwindling lineup with three new additions: bassist Rocky Harris and keyboardists Mark Cardenas and Paul Peterson. The latter would turn out to be both the most incongruous and the most fateful choice. Peterson was an accomplished player and the youngest member of a Twin Cities musical dynasty; longtime readers may recall that his older brother, Ricky, was on the shortlist to join Prince’s touring band back in late 1978. He was also just 18 years old, a fresh-faced recent graduate from the Academy of Holy Angels Catholic school in suburban Richfield.

When Peterson got the call to audition for the Time, he was vacationing in the resort town of Breezy Point, about 150 miles upstate. By the time he’d come home and received his cassette of songs to learn for the audition, there was only a single night left to rehearse. “I went in and did the best I could, based on all the training I got from my family and all the gigs I had done prior to that,” he told K Nicola Dyes of the Beautiful Nights blog. “I wish I could remember the exact number… it felt like a million songs. It was probably four or five” (Dyes “Every” 2013).

Actual image of Prince auditioning Paul Peterson for the Time; © Warner Bros.

Jesse Johnson, by then serving as the Time’s de facto musical director, was sufficiently impressed with Peterson to invite him back for a second audition. It was there that he met Prince, who took the opportunity to mess with the new recruit: “He wrote down the words, Wreck. Uh. Stow. and he asked me to say that out loud,” Peterson recalled to Okayplayer. “He said, what is it. I don’t know. Say it again. Wreck Uh Stow. What is it? I don’t know. Where do you buy your records? Record store. Oh, ha, ha ha. So that was his breaking the ice with me” (“Stats” 2016).

Prince had an even more eccentric means of breaking the ice with the other new keyboard player: “he wanted Mark Cardenas to wear blackface!” Peterson told biographer Dave Hill. “He said, ‘If you wear blackface, people will notice you.’ Well, he would have been right there” (Hill 155-156). Lest you think this fanciful tale was Peterson’s invention, Cardenas corroborated it decades later: “I just said, ‘I’m not going to do that,’” he recalled to sessionographer Duane Tudahl (Tudahl 2018 93).

[Prince] wanted Mark Cardenas to wear blackface! …He said, ‘If you wear blackface, people will notice you.’ Well, he would have been right there.

Paul Peterson

While thankfully stopping short of outright minstrelsy, Prince and the veteran Time members did put the rookies through a kind of finishing school in the group’s aesthetic–particularly Catholic schoolboy Peterson. “He was just a kid, he was sweet, the way he didn’t know shit about grabbing his dick,” recalled Jellybean Johnson. “We knew we were going to have to teach him all that stuff.” Peterson concurred: “From the minute I got the gig it was like, Okay, well, here it is and how you act, how you walk, how you talk, what the schtick is… it was like you had to have this attitude, man. You could not be the little, tiny white kid from Richfield. You needed to be cool” (Tudahl 2018 93).

Still, not everyone was eager to nurture the fresh talent. On the rare occasions when Day deigned to show up to rehearsals, according to Jesse Johnson, the singer refused to speak to his new bandmates directly; instead, he “used to just come in and say, ‘Jesse, have ’em play something,’ and somebody would play something and he’d say…., ‘Jesse, come here. Go tell them to never play that note again.’ And I’d go back there and say, ‘Morris said don’t ever play that note again in front of Morris’” (Tudahl 2018 93). As Cardenas recalled, “The attitude of the entire time was you do this, you do this, you do this or you’re fired… And of course, as the new guys we heard countless stories about when they were new and what they had to do and all the shit they put up with Prince which gave them license to safely treat us like shit too” (150). Meanwhile, writes Tudahl, gossipers around the Prince camp were bestowing the new lineup with mocking nicknames like “Part Time,” “Half Time,” and “Time Out” (94).

[Morris] used to just come in and say, ‘Jesse, have ’em play something,’ and somebody would play something and he’d say…, ‘Jesse, come here. Go tell them to never play that note again.’

Jesse Johnson
October 1983 calendar for First Avenue and 7th Street Entry, featuring the Time heading up an “any style any type dance contest” on the 4th; photo stolen from the Minnesota Historical Society.

It was at the group’s First Avenue gig on Tuesday, October 4, that tensions between Day and Prince boiled over–albeit, as ever, thinly veiled by humor. The circulating recording opens with an introduction of the new lineup by compère Jerome Benton, followed by “777-9311”–with Morris flubbing the opening lines, an apparent consequence of his inconsistent presence at rehearsals. He quickly rallies, however, for a serviceable rendition of “Girl,” followed by the scorching live debut of “Jungle Love.”

After the new song, the needling begins, as one of the keyboard players riffs in the style of a church organist while the Reverend Day sends around the collection plate: a pointed reference to the paltry retainer fee being paid by Prince. Never one to be accused of subtlety, Morris also gets in a jab at the cover charge for Prince’s recent show at the same venue: “Now, as we all know, Brother Prince played here a week or two ago,” he drawls, “and from what they tell me, he charged 25 dollars a head. I don’t know about you, but I stayed home that night–that’s just a little steep!” His joke, of course, elides the fact that Prince’s show was a benefit, with donations to the Minnesota Dance Theatre included in the ticket price; but it nevertheless hits its mark, attracting hoots from the crowd as he calls out, “Prince, are you out there, did you give? You took, did you give?”

Having made their point, the band shifts gears once again for a crowd-pleasing sequence of “Wild and Loose,” “Gigolos Get Lonely Too,” and “Cool,” followed by an encore of “The Walk.” Finally, they close the show with another live debut: an introduction to a “new dance” called “The Bird.”

Morris Day explains the origins of “The Bird” dance on Tales from the Tour Bus, 2018.

Like “Jungle Love,” “The Bird” originally stems from a four-track demo recorded by Jesse Johnson during the 1999 tour; a version is circulating with Johnson accompanying himself on bass over a simple drum machine pattern, singing the first few lines along with a chorus he’d later borrow for the 1985 Ta Mara and the Seen B-side “You Turn Me Up.” As Johnson put it in a 2014 Facebook post, “Prince kinda like[d] the hook, he threw the rest of what I did in the trash can [and] commenced to write and [perform] a straight heater” (Johnson March 21).

He drew additional inspiration from a dance Morris had been doing onstage–one that started out as a source of friction between the two. “It’s really a takeoff of the old ‘Pterodactyl’ from The Flintstones, if you remember that,” Day explained to VH1 Classic in 2004. “It’s just a modernized version of that with some funk behind it” (Tudahl 2018 181). When Prince saw it, though, he “got pissed. He thought I was mocking a dance move he made.” According to Day, it was only after Prince saw how well it went over with audiences that he “decided to name it rather than fight it… saying, ‘Morris, you win. Do this Bird to death. I think the thing’s gonna fly’” (Day 90).

Prince cut a version of “The Bird” at his Kiowa Trail home studio in March or April of 1983, adding Day’s vocals and Jesse Johnson’s guitar later that same night. Like most of his “dance-craze” pastiches, it’s hilariously short on actual directions, though maybe that’s because the dance is so simple: As the song goes, “You don’t need no finesse or no personality / You just need two arms and an attitude.” Still, Prince and Morris find time to call out segments of their imagined audience, telling the “brothers” not to be too “cool” (“Women like it sometimes when you act a fool”), the “sisters” not to be “shy” (“Let your body get loose, you ain’t too fat to fly”), and the “white folks” not to be so “tight” (“You gotta shake your head like the black folks / You might get some tonight”). We’re also reminded that the Bird “ain’t for everybody, just the sexy people”–an instruction rap duo Salt-N-Pepa would famously borrow for their 1987 hit “Push It.”

The Time at First Avenue, October 4, 1983; L to R: Paul Peterson, Morris Day, Jellybean Johnson, Jesse Johnson, Mark Cardenas. Photo by Daniel Corrigan, stolen from Pitchfork.

The studio version of “The Bird” is good fun, but it feels oddly sluggish; for all its talk about flapping wings, it never quite manages to take flight. This is decidedly not a problem with the Time’s First Avenue performance. Fueled by a potent cocktail of onstage adrenaline and pent-up frustration (and, okay, maybe just a smidge of cocaine), the band takes the song at a much brisker pace, with Jellybean Johnson’s live drums driving the beat harder than Prince’s slow but steady Linn LM-1. Exhibiting much of the same “class clown” behavior that almost got him kicked out of acting lessons, Morris nails all of his ad-libs: making them sound almost improvised, certainly not recited from a six-month-old recording. By the time the group reaches the extended jam at the outro, they’ve made the song their own, with James Brown-style false endings giving way to vamp after infectious vamp. After one last “Chili sauce,” Day brings it all home: “It’s the last call for alcohol,” he crows, “If you ain’t got what you want, you got to get the hell outta here.” And with that, the first performance by the Time Mark II comes to its triumphant conclusion.

But this triumph would turn out to be short-lived. Alan Leeds recalled waiting by the side of the stage that night “to escort the band to the dressing room.” Instead, he told Tudahl, “Morris unexpectedly bolted to the door behind the stage, which leads into a private garage where his car was parked. He did not utter one word before getting in the car and driving off, still in his stage clothes. Even the band was stunned, looking for him to celebrate the well-received performance” (Tudahl 2018 182). It was the last show this lineup of the Time would ever play.

Morris unexpectedly bolted to the door behind the stage, which leads into a private garage where his car was parked. He did not utter one word before getting in the car and driving off, still in his stage clothes.

Alan Leeds

Like Prince’s own First Avenue date back in August, the Time’s performance was recorded from a mobile unit outside the venue; this tape would provide the basic tracks for “Jungle Love” and “The Bird” heard in Purple Rain. Both songs appear to capture the Time at the peak of their powers: “The Bird” sequence, in particular, is meant to show just what the Kid and his band are up against, with director Albert Magnoli cutting midsong from a packed house of clubgoers doing the Bird to the sepulchral mood of the Revolution backstage. After the show, too, the group remains a tight-knit unit: Rather than storming off on his own–really more of a page from the Kid’s playbook–the movie version of Morris leads his gang in a triumphant strut past their rivals’ dressing room, mockingly singing the chorus of “Let’s Go Crazy” and even getting in a poor-taste dig at the Kid’s father’s attempted suicide (look, I said they were tight-knit, not nice).

Yet this onscreen cohesion masked a group on the verge of imploding. Before the Time’s scenes were even filmed in November 1983, yet another lineup change had taken place, with Jerry Hubbard replacing Rocky Harris on bass–reportedly after the latter showed up late on the first day of shooting. Meanwhile, as he assembled the group’s third album, Prince continued to play the puppet master: replacing the live version of “Jungle Love” with his own studio backing track, and leaving his mark with extensive overdubs on the band’s performance of “The Bird.” Terry Christian, who assistant engineered the mixing and overdub sessions at Sunset Sound in January 1984, recalled Prince “going over old guitar parts, him playing guitar instead of Jesse. He made a comment like, ‘Jesse can’t play that good.’ Very arrogant” (Tudahl 2018 214). In the end, he completely redid Harris’ bass part and excised most of Jesse’s guitar solo, leaving only a few stray wails buried amidst the midsong wall of synths.

Prince was… going over old guitar parts, him playing guitar instead of Jesse. He made a comment like, ‘Jesse can’t play that good.’ Very arrogant.

Terry Christian
The posthumous 1985 single release of “The Bird”; © Warner Bros.

Indeed, “The Bird” was a suitably ironic epitaph for the Time, Prince’s self-created rivals turned attempted usurpers. After three years and two albums, listeners finally got to hear the members of the band playing on their own record–but “the band” was a new and unfamiliar lineup, with a recording heavily mediated by Prince. When the song was released as a single in January 1985, it performed respectably, peaking at Number 33 on the R&B charts and Number 36 on the Hot 100–but it was a posthumous achievement. Both Jesse and Morris had gone solo, with the former poaching Cardenas and Hubbard from the Ice Cream Castle lineup of the Time; and Jerome, Jellybean, and Paul Peterson now formed the core of another Prince side project, dubbed the Family. Meanwhile, Jam and Lewis, the first to be “banished” from Prince’s “empire,” were poised to take his place as standard-bearers for the Minneapolis Sound. The effects of the Time’s own October Revolution were only beginning to be felt; they would continue to resonate for decades to come.

(Thanks to Casey Rain for corroborating and clarifying my vague memory of the Jesse Johnson demo version. Also, thanks to Sean McPherson and Amanda Santos for becoming the newest members of the D / M / S / R Music Club! Speaking of which, there have been changes to the Patreon structure, which basically amount to simplifying things so that I’m not constantly over-promising and under-delivering; you can read more about my current approach to Patreon here. Last but not least, thanks to everyone for your patience on this post; I had hoped to get it up before Thanksgiving, but life got in the way. You’ll be hearing from me again at least once before the end of the year.)

“The Bird”
Electric Fetus / Spotify / TIDAL

One reply on “The Bird”

Prince was such and intelligent, talented artist. But there is something that he had a difficult time learning. He would teach his musicians how to run the farthest, jump the highest, leap over tall buildings with a single bound and then get angry that he could not keep them contained within his world. He required them to perform at his level because they were an extension of himself and their performance would reflect on him.

The reaching of their potential under his regimen of long, daily rehearsals, hours long soundchecks, and critiques of every performance, would eventually and quite naturally happen. It is then that Prince would begin to get uncomfortable. The band members would begin to realize that their situation had been evolving into one where the the gap between Prince and themselves was beginning to close. They would begin to feel like they were peers/collaborators/high caliber musicians and Prince would begin to feel like he was loosing himself, losing control over his career, his image, and those around him.

The very people he chose because they were either musicians or were somehow connected with music, were the only people that Prince could relate to. But they were also people he had a sense of competition with. This created tension. especially in the early years when he was rising, up till 1986 when those who had been there for him in his meteoric rise became exhausted and needed to be compensated monetarily for all of the energy that they had expended on his behalf. Those long-time relationships that were the foundation of his life and career began to fracture and break away starting with Andre,

It is said that friendship and business don’t mix. But all any of these people who became close to him needed was to be fairly compensated for the work they put in. None of them wanted to leave Prince. Most didn’t have a choice if they were going to remain financially viable. These people are often accused of only wanting Prince for his money. But Prince was the boss and was in a much better position to take advantage of the resources of time, talent, and the energy of others to manifest his vision for his life. From his viewpoint he saw himself as the giver of great opportunity. But leaving Prince’s employ meant the loss of that relationship with him, often being labeled by him as an ungrateful traitor, being left standing alone in a world so cold . . . . .the cold shoulder of Prince.

Leave a Reply