The Second Coming

The Second Coming

(Featured Image: Prince and friends, played by Susan Moonsie and Kim Upsher, emerge from the mist in Chuck Statler’s unfinished The Second Coming film, 1982.)

Controversy was released on October 14, 1981, days after Prince’s disastrous experience opening for the Rolling Stones in Los Angeles. The album outperformed both the previous year’s Dirty Mind and (narrowly) 1979’s Prince, reaching Number 21 on the Billboard 200 and Number 3 on the Top R&B Albums chart. A little over a month later, on November 20, the Controversy tour launched at Pittsburgh’s Stanley Theatre with opening act the Time.

After this time spent licking his wounds (and, more importantly, rehearsing), Prince returned with his most grandiose show to date. The tour-opener in Pittsburgh kicked off with the brazen call to arms “Sexuality”–complete with a full recital of the “tourists” speech–before hitting the audience with a turbo-charged version of “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?” “Jack U Off” flourished in front of the sympathetic, largely female crowd, earning squeals rather than jeers; it was followed by the similarly crowd-pleasing “When You Were Mine” and “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” both with glistening new synthpop arrangements. From there the band launched directly into a surgical rendition of “Head”–by then such a live staple that the audience got to take a solo on the chorus. Shifting gears from that song’s masturbatory climax, a punkish “Annie Christian” followed, enlivened by Dez Dickerson’s guitar solos; then it was back to the crowd-pleasers with “Dirty Mind.” Despite being only five weeks old, “Do Me, Baby” had already earned its place as a concert setpiece–a designation helped, no doubt, by Prince’s onstage striptease. Closing out the setlist proper was a rousing rendition of “Let’s Work,” followed by a hat-trick of encores in “Controversy,” “Uptown,” and “Partyup.”

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Jack U Off

Jack U Off

(Featured Image: Prince and Dez Dickerson face an unruly crowd opening for the Rolling Stones, October 1981; photo by Allen Beaulieu, from his forthcoming book Prince: Before the Rain.)

In January 1981, after the first leg of the Dirty Mind tour, Prince’s publicist Howard Bloom sent an exuberant memo to his manager, Steve Fargnoli: “The verdict from the press is clear,” Bloom wrote. “Prince is a rock and roll artist! In fact, the press is saying clearly that Prince is the first black artist with the potential to become a major white audience superstar since Jimi Hendrix” (Hill 82). Nine months later, with his fourth album, Controversy, days away from release, Prince faced the biggest test of his crossover potential to date: two shows opening for the Rolling Stones at the massive, 94,000-capacity Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

The booking was a major coup for Prince, who had made it his mission to break rock music’s de facto color line and even, according to guitarist Dez Dickerson, described his early vision for his band as a kind of “multiracial Rolling Stones” (Dickerson 95). “The one thing he talked to me about a number of times in the early going was he wanted he and I to be the Black version of the Glimmer Twins,” Dez elaborated to cultural critic Touré. “To have that Keith and Mick thing and have a rock ‘n’ roll vibe fronting this new kind of band. That’s what he wanted” (Touré 15). As keyboardist Lisa Coleman recalled to biographer Matt Thorne, “We were so excited, we’d rehearsed our little booties off, our funky black asses. This is it, we’re gonna make the big time” (Thorne 2016). But like so many of Prince’s earlier potential big breaks, things did not go according to plan.

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Ronnie, Talk to Russia

Ronnie, Talk to Russia

(Featured Image: President Ronald Reagan, circa 1981.)

During an early 1981 interview with Chris Salewicz of New Musical Express, Prince “rather startlingly” changed the subject from his Dirty Mind anti-war song “Partyup” to the recent inauguration of President Ronald Reagan. “Thank God we got a better President now,” he said, with “bigger balls” than his predecessor Jimmy Carter. “I think Reagan’s a lot better. Just for the power he represents, if nothing else. Because that also means as far as other countries are concerned.” Salewicz, good leftist rock journalist that he was, didn’t know how to take this sudden detour into conservative politics. “Perhaps this is Prince’s Minneapolis background coming out,” he wrote (Salewicz 1981).

Indeed, as a Midwesterner who grew up in the shadow of the 1980s, I can attest to hearing more than a few anti-Carter rants like the one Prince engaged in–even, in my case, many years after the comparative merits of the Gipper and the Peanut Farmer had relinquished any claim to relevance. Yet it’s also hard not to read a subversive undertone into his abrupt political endorsement. As Salewicz pointed out, there was unmistakable homoeroticism in Prince’s singling out of the president’s “balls” for praise; you can almost hear him smirk when he goes on to say, “He also has a big mouth, which is probably a good thing. His mouth is his one big asset” (Salewicz 1981). But whatever Prince’s actual thoughts on Reagan’s mouth and/or balls, the Salewicz interview was an early indication that even this sexually and racially ambiguous libertine had a soft spot for the Ur-Republican president–at least when it came to the Cold War.

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Controversy, Part 2: Am I Straight or Gay?

Controversy, Part 2: Am I Straight or Gay?

(Featured Image: A queer moment on the Controversy tour, 1981; photo © Lynn Goldsmith.)

Note: This is the second of three posts on “Controversy”: a song that presents so much to unpack, I’ve opted to split my analysis into parts. You can–and should–read the first part here.

Am I straight or gay?

In the same 1981 Rolling Stone interview where Prince intentionally muddied the waters of his racial background, he made another thing uncharacteristically clear. “Appearances to the contrary,” reported journalist Bill Adler, “he says he’s not gay, and he has a standard rebuff for overenthusiastic male fans: ‘I’m not about that; we can be friends, but that’s as far as it goes. My sexual preferences really aren’t any of their business.’ A Penthouse ‘Pet of the Month’ centerfold laid out on a nearby table silently underscores his point” (Adler 1981).

The artist was similarly adamant in a Los Angeles Times interview the following year, when he took the opportunity to address three rumors that were apparently needling him: “One, my real name is Prince. It’s not something I made up. My dad’s stage name was Prince Rogers and he gave that to me: Prince Rogers Nelson… Two, I’m not gay. And three, I’m not Jamie Starr” (Hillburn 1982). Of course, as we now know, Prince in fact was Jamie Starr, the fictitious recluse credited with engineering Dirty Mind and, later, with producing the early albums by protégé acts the Time and Vanity 6. But he appeared to have been telling the truth about his sexuality: despite his surface ambiguities, by all credible accounts Prince was unequivocally and enthusiastically straight.

These surface ambiguities, however, are worth examining; because, while Prince was notably less coy about his sexual orientation than he was about his ethnicity, he was in many ways equally strategic. We’ve already mentioned the famous story told by guitarist Dez Dickerson in which Prince announced to his band that he would use his onstage persona to “portray pure sex” (Dickerson 62). What he understood better than most heterosexual performers was that in order to create this kind of fantasy, he would need to court the attentions of not only straight women, but also gay men and others.

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The Stick

The Stick

(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.”

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