Everything I know about sex I learned from Bob Dylan

Purity culture slut-shame blues: 

Christian abstinence teachings wanted me to fear sex and be ashamed of my sexuality. Dylan showed me another way

Purity culture slut-shame blues: Everything I know about sex I learned from Bob Dylan

I was 10 years old when I sat through my first abstinence series at church. My parents had discussed its age-appropriateness, but had decided that my relative youth was a good thing. It meant my first introduction to sex would come within the safe, godly confines of our church. So I sat in the church sanctuary dutifully every week as various pastors took turns stressing the dangers of things like necking. I didn’t have any idea what necking was, but I made a mental note to avoid it.

Those first lessons in abstinence were downright confusing. I wondered why the French apparently kissed differently than Americans, and why their methods would be so much more provocative and potentially sin-inducing. To a 10-year-old, or at least to a 10-year-old who hadn’t even been allowed to watch kissing scenes in movies, kissing just seemed like slamming your face against someone else’s mouth; I couldn’t imagine there was a whole lot of technique involved.

Once I hit middle school, as others preteens were taking sex ed, beginning to learn about their developing bodies and eventually how to stick a condom on a banana, my mother assigned me to read books with titles like “The Bride Wore White,” “Passion and Purity” and “I Kissed Dating Goodbye.” My home school sex ed curriculum sounded like one of the D.A.R.E. commercials I’d seen while watching Saturday morning cartoons: Just say no.

Even masturbation could lead to your virginity (AKA your worth as a person) being devalued. So when I was much older than I care to admit, I asked my mother: “How do women even have orgasms? How is that possible? What’s happening?” and “Why do people move around so much when they have sex? Can people have sex without all that moving?” Her reply: “You’ll find out when you’re married.” Even learning about my own anatomy was off limits, apparently, until I’d signed my name on a marriage license.

Meanwhile in church, my youth pastor, after pulling a slimy pink glob of bubble gum out of his mouth, asked: “Does anyone want this piece of gum?” The teens all gagged. “That’s what it’s like to marry someone who has already had sex,” he warned.

Other classy youth group metaphors involved comparing teens who’d already cashed in their V-cards to soiled snow, a licked candy bar, a white sheet dropped in mud, duct tape that could no longer stick, and a glass of water a bunch of boys had spit in that no one in their right mind would drink. Eventually, I would learn to recognize this kind of talk as slut-shaming, but at that point I just called it “God’s design for sex.”

Sex outside of marriage was dirty, depraved and sinful. Words like “perversion” were applied to sex out of wedlock. But what was worst of all was the attitude that if you went to bed before you were legally wed you’d become dirty, unwanted, a disgrace. As my youth pastor and the purity books my mother gave me liked to say, “There’s nothing more valuable than a girl’s virginity.” Sex was a dangerous force; it had the life-ruining power to snatch your very worth as a person right out from under your nose.

The message was clear: No Nice Christian Boy would want to marry a girl who had already done the nasty.

Throughout high school I wore a purity ring my mother had bought for me at the local Christian bookstore. I did this partly out of a desire to fit in (everyone else at youth group was doing it) and partly with the hopes that it might scare away any ill-intended men. Losing my virginity was one of my biggest fears, so I wanted to keep anyone who might pose a threat to it at bay.

However, once I graduated from high school all the silver band reading “True love waits” really did was bring up my lack of a sex life in awkward settings with strangers. “Are you married?” a guy would ask. Or, “What does your ring say?” I felt like with that neon I’ve-Never-Had-Sex sign strapped to my hand I was announcing that I was really just a child.

“I’ve decided not to wear my purity ring anymore,” I told my mother one day when I was 18. I’d gone swing dancing and in the course of one night had had two guys ask what my ring said, and I’d had enough. I didn’t want to talk about my lack of a sex life anymore. I didn’t want it on display. I took my ring off and shoved it in a box in my closet.

Mom tried to talk me out of it. “Maybe you could get a different ring if you don’t like that one anymore,” she’d suggested. She was worried. Maybe she feared this marked the beginning of a change. But taking off my purity ring wasn’t the beginning of my sexual revolution.

That started with Bob Dylan.

The same year I took off my purity ring I discovered Jack Johnson. But the fact that I’d mostly traded in my Christian praise-pop for “secular music” was no sign that I was now the wild tart I’d been warned against becoming. I mean, I still deleted all of the more blatantly sex-themed songs by Johnson so that they wouldn’t even accidentally show up if I was listening to my music on shuffle.

Jack Johnson was a gateway. I began to investigate more singer-songwriters, working backwards through music history until finally, luckily, I found my way to Bob Dylan. “Lay, Lady Lay” was one of his first Dylan songs I heard, and the sensuality of the song was far from subtle: “Lay, lady lay / lay across my big brass bed.” But I didn’t delete this one. Instead, I hit repeat.

In church and at home, sex outside of marriage had always been chalked up to rampant hormones, a lack of self-control, and lust. “Don’t be friends with non-Christian boys,” my youth pastor had once informed the girls at church. “All they want out of you is sex.” Unless a guy offered a ring and his last name, his desire for you was deplorable. But even if marriage was part of the package, sex wasn’t seen as all that important. “People put too much emphasis on attraction. Just don’t marry anyone who makes you go ‘ew,’” had been my mother’s advice.

One line in particular from “Lay, Lady Lay” I wanted to hear again and again, until it began to echo in my brain: “I long to see you in the morning light / I long to reach for you in the night.” It took my breath away. I’d always imagined a guy expressing his desire to sleep with me sounding more like: “Hey, baby, I want in your pants,” like random strangers rolling down their car windows to call me a bitch or a whore and yell that they wanted to fuck me as I walked down the sidewalk.

But Dylan inviting a woman to come lie down next to him so that he could see her in the morning light wasn’t harassment and it wasn’t crass; it was art.

To my surprise, I realized that if a significant other ever said something similar, I’d be flattered.

I privately continued to listen to Dylan in college, keeping my ear buds in to prevent my mother from hearing. I created a special playlist called “sexy songs.” It was the first time in my life I’d written the word “sexy” and meant it positively.

Every time I listened to “I’ll be Your Baby Tonight” I’d close my eyes, imagining the scene and taking in every word.

Close your eyes, close the door
You don’t have to worry anymore
I’ll be your baby tonight
Shut your eyes, shut the shade
You don’t have to be afraid
I’ll be your baby tonight

One by one Dylan’s songs taught me about sex. While he might not have given me IKEA-style instructions, complete with stick figure illustrations regarding the mechanics of sex or how to properly use a condom or when to apply lube, Dylan taught me the thing I needed to know more than anything else about sex. He showed me sex was something I’d never known it could be before: beautiful.

In “Tangled Up in Blue,” Dylan sings about how a woman opened up a book of poems “And handed it to me / Written by an Italian poet / From the thirteenth century / And every one of them words rang true / And glowed like burnin’ coal / Pourin’ off of every page / Like it was written in my soul.” Every time I replayed my scandalous, secret playlist I felt like every word Dylan sang was being written in my soul, healing the broken parts of me and slowly eroding the negative, shaming things that I’d internalized about my sexuality.

I was 23 when I finally got the chance to see Dylan perform live at Seattle’s Bumbershoot music festival. It was originally going to be a date, but my mother had invited herself along because as she’d put it, “Seeing Dylan is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!” And I hadn’t had the heart to deprive her of such an opportunity by pushing back.

At one point during the show I leaned against my boyfriend Ian and he slid his arm around my waist, pulling me in closer as we watched what looked like a miniature Bob Dylan performing up on stage. In response, my mother stood up dramatically to go watch the show from somewhere else. She was clearly angry — the dagger eyes were a dead giveaway — and the next day she locked herself in her bedroom for hours to sob about how her daughter had gone astray. “I don’t even want to think about what you’re doing when I’m not around!”

Seeing Dylan live was one of the most romantic moments of my life. After my mother stormed off, Ian wrapped his other arm around me and we swayed together among a sea of humanity and the glare of stage lights. The guy I’d fallen in love with was holding me close as I sang along with every word of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.”

Eventually Ian would tell me in his own way that he longed to see me in the morning light, to reach for me in the night. And eventually he would. Dylan may have won the Nobel Prize for Literature “for having created new poetic expressions,” but I would give it to him for showing me the beauty in one of the oldest poetic expressions of all.



Nobel Prize for Literature winner Bob Dylan is too cool to respond to the committee

He’s just kinda wasting their precious time


Nobel Prize for Literature winner Bob Dylan is too cool to respond to the committee
FILE – In this Jan. 12, 2012, file photo, Bob Dylan performs in Los Angeles. Dylan was named the winner of the 2016 Nobel Prize in literature Thursday, (Credit: AP)

The internet may have gone crazy when Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature, but it seems like Dylan himself can’t be bothered to return the Nobel Prize committee’s calls.

At least, that’s what the Swedish Academy, the organization responsible for awarding Dylan the prize, is currently claiming. As The Guardian reports, there have been multiple efforts to contact Dylan to formally notify him of his victory, but the famously individualistic singer has been chronically unavailable. He didn’t even mention his Nobel Prize at a Las Vegas concert on Friday night, even though it had already been publicly announced at that time.

“Right now we are doing nothing. I have called and sent emails to his closest collaborator and received very friendly replies. For now, that is certainly enough,”explained Sara Danius, the committee’s permanent secretary, on state radio. Danius made it clear that she wasn’t worried and thinks Dylan will ultimately show up to accept his award.

Because he is the first musician to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, the decision to give Dylan the award was met with some controversy. Novelist Jodi Picoult tweeted, “I’m happy for Bob Dylan, #ButDoesThisMeanICanWinAGrammy?” while author Rabih Alameddine wrote “Bob Dylan winning a Nobel in Literature is like Mrs. Fields being awarded 3 Michelin stars. This is almost as silly as Winston Churchill.”

Matthew Rozsa is a Ph.D. student in history at Lehigh University and a political columnist. His editorials have been published on Salon, The Good Men Project, Mic, MSNBC, and various college newspapers and blogs. For a full review of all his published work, visitmatthewrozsa.com.

Dylan, the American Left, and What We Have Lost

Posted on Oct 14, 2016

By Juan Cole / Informed Comment

Bob Dylan would no doubt be as distressed as the American corporate media to see an ideological interpretation of his 1960s anthems that helped win him the Nobel Prize in Literature. Especially after his 1966 motorcycle accident and retreat to Woodstock and domesticity, Dylan turned inward, exploring an internal life of ethical values and love and rejection of political cynicism (as with “All Along the Watchtower“). But the early ’60s were a different matter.

Since the mass media won’t tell you Dylan was in his youth a leftist or that some of his greatest work came out of a critique of our corporation-dominated, unequal, militaristic and racist society, it is important to underline it lest the celebration of his masterpieces become merely maudlin (and he would hate that outcome, too).

After a brief stint at the University of Minnesota, the small town Midwestern youth arrived in NYC’s East Village in 1960 and joined the coffeehouse scene. That scene had been the incubator of the Beats (Jack Kerouac’s post-War “Beatitude” movement influenced by Be-Bop and jazz and Omar Khayyam). It was also a scene for jazz. But in the late ’50s coffeehouse performers began turning to folk, and Dylan arrived in New York during that transition. As Brian Lloyd* has argued, he brought with him a blues and rockabilly sensibility gained from listening to music drifting up from the Delta. (Elvis was a much bigger influence than most observers realize).

Lloyd writes that in Greenwich Village, living with his leftist girlfriend Suze Rotolo, Dylan came under her influence and came in contact with organic intellectuals who turned him on to books. He says, “Suze Rotolo, his lover during this period, introduced him to art galleries, off-Broadway plays, New Wave films, Living Theater productions, Brecht and Rimbaud — and to the world of civil rights and ban-the-bomb activism” (Rotolo 199 – 213, 233 – 35; Dylan, Chronicles 268 – 70). It is important to underline Rotolo as his intellectual guide in this period. It wasn’t just guys who made the counterculture.

The profound influence on him of the Left (Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s “Pirate Jenny” was a revelation to him) and of the American Left (Woody Guthrie had strong Communist ties even if he wasn’t a Party member and his song “This Land is Your Land, This Land is My Land” is a Marxist hymn) cannot be disregarded. Pirate Jenny from the Threepenny Opera is about a maid’s imaginary revenge on the class system that oppresses her. Other influences were Pete Seeger, who was hauled before the House Un-American Activities Committee and Dave von Ronk, a Trotskyite. Ron Radosh+ has argued that when Dylan went electric at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, Seeger was distressed because he interpreted it as a bid to enter the market of capitalist consumerism. But he was hurt precisely because Dylan had been his protegé. Anti-war beat poet Allen Ginsburg on hearing Dylan is said to have been satisfied that the counterculture would continue into the next generation.

Dylan, being on the left, attacked the far Right John Birch Society in a song (the Society was an incubator for the Goldwater campaign and then the rise of the New Right). In 1963 he was booked to appear on the enormously influential Ed Sullivan Show (“The Voice” of its day), but when he was forbidden to sing “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues,” he walked out rather than accept censorship.

Now I am going to do a riff on one of Dylan’s more radical songs, “Blowin’ in the Wind,” updating it for 2016. Because I don’t think it can be read by this generation as it was intended– the context has changed too much. The US had demobilized after the Korean War, and the looming Vietnam War was not viewed by the Left and by youth as normal (we now have a set of standing wars, so 60s anti-war sentiment–as an insistence on return to normalcy– can’t even be imagined anymore). African-Americans still lived under Jim Crow and people were arrested for sitting at “white” lunch counters. Dylan’s strong sense of social justice, imbibed in part from his close-knit Midwestern Jewish community (ancestors came from Odessa and Turkey) and from the Hebrew Bible, and in part from the influence on him of the New York Left intellectuals, spoke to my generation viscerally, because we could read his poetic metaphors as allusions to a real set of crises. I know the below is too on the nose, and you shouldn’t mess with a classic, but just hear me out and maybe weep a little for how far backward we went from Dylan’s youthful vision of a better future.

“Blowin’ in the Wind” (with apologies to Bob Dylan):

How many roads must aliens walk down
Before they become citizens?
How many seas must a white dove sail
’till peace in Afghanistan?
Yes, and how many times must the unmanned drones fly
Before they’re forever banned?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind

Yes, and how many years can our seashores exist
Before they’re washed to the sea?
Yes, and how many years can women exist
Before they’re allowed to be free?
Yes, and how many times can a man turn his head
And pretend that he just doesn’t see?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind

You get the idea.


*Brian Lloyd (2014) The Form is the Message: Bob Dylan and the 1960s, Rock Music Studies, 1:1, 58-76, DOI:

+ Ron Radosh, “The Communist Party’s Role in the Folk Revival: From Woody Guthrie to Bob Dylan,” American Communist History Vol. 14, Issue 1.


The explosion of Native American hip-hop

Fighting the power and speaking for the earth: 

From the reservations to the big cities, a new generation of Native American hip-hop performers emerges

Fighting the power and speaking for the earth: The explosion of Native American hip-hop
Still from Supaman’s video “Why” (Credit: Supaman)

“I see 20/20 … they pimp us for money. Revising our story, they’re televising … Hey Diane Sawyer, I am a warrior, give me your camera and send me your lawyer,” raps Frank Waln, a young Sicangu Lakota hip-hop artist from the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. His 2011 track “Oil 4 Blood” continues on a political bent, referring to war-mongering politicians who seek mineral wealth but “want the earth dead.”

Waln’s politically charged subject matter is fairly representative of a whole new generation of Native hip-hop performers. But Waln is not just your typical “angry young man” from a reservation. A recipient of the Gates Millennium Scholarship, he attended Columbia College in Chicago, originally intending to become a doctor. He wasn’t always as focused in his life.

“When I was a kid, music was a sanctuary for me. I was very insecure,” says Waln, who started playing piano at age 7.”Part of that was growing up in a rodeo cowboy family, and we had to just ‘cowboy up.’ We were Native Americans in survival mode with a history of genocide.”

His first solo album, called “Tokiya,” will drop later this year. In the meantime, Waln is releasing a new track entitled “7″ this week, on Indigenous People’s Day. (That’s the holiday celebrated by many Natives and supporters of Native rights instead of Columbus Day.) “7” is a reference to the Seventh Generation philosophy originating in the Iroquois Confederacy that all Native people strive to live by. “The theme of violence towards Native people is in the new album, like pipelines being built on our land,” Waln says.

A particular focus of many native hip-hop artists’ music today is environmental damage. “Back when I wrote ‘Oil 4 Blood’ in 2011, it was born of frustration,” Waln says. “The government was trying to build the Keystone pipeline on our Rosebud Reservation.” He’s excited about the recent wave of activism around the pipeline issue: “It’s really dope what’s going on in North Dakota – those kids on the rez ran to DC!”

Native hip-hop, especially when it comes from the reservations, has a unique flavor, blending hip-hop with Native culture. Sound and style differs between regions. There are seven reservations in South Dakota, and the sound is different from each. “We are all pioneers,” says Waln. “For the longest time, we never got looks from mainstream media, so even this article is an example of Native messaging getting a closer look.”

Supaman, born Christian Parrish Takes the Gun, is an Apsáalooke Native American from the Crow Nation Reservation near Billings, Montana. In 2014, he was Artist of the Week on MTV, and he’s unique. He rhymes about some of the same issues better-known African-American rappers do, but there is an added element of reservation life. His parents were alcoholics, and he was a foster child until he went to live with his grandfather. Reservation life provided too much idle time and too much poverty, and no good came of it. He was involved with crime and drugs. Takes the Gun says hip-hop – in its more negative aspects – influenced him to play the part of a gangster.

But in his early 20s, Takes the Gun realized this was not the way he wanted to live – and concluded that his music sent the wrong message to his fellow Native young people. So he changed course. After a record deal with a Seattle label saw him leaving his wife and child behind and living a rapper’s lifestyle, Supaman found religion and returned home to Montana, embracing his ancestral traditions and cultural mores. Today, he’s an educator and performer, and one of the best-known Native hip-hop acts.

“’Rapper’s Delight’ was one of the first songs I heard,” he recalls. “I liked the drums, the percussion; I like all kinds of drums. If I’m producing, I have to have the right kind of drums.” Supaman performs in full tribal regalia, a personal approach that other artists don’t typically use. He says he knew this gambit would get audiences talking, and makes clear he is using his tribal dress not as a costume, but toward education.

“We would be invited into schools to educate kids, sharing music, culture and hip-hop,” he says, “and we realized wearing regalia was a great tool to reach the person who was watching and show [we’re] proud of who we are. It also told other Natives they should be proud, too.” The dance Supaman does when he performs is also unusual, contemporary form of powwow culture dance called men’s fancy dancing that originated in Oklahoma. “It’s good to have all these elements to speak to audiences,” he says, adding elements both Native and non-Native audiences probably haven’t seen before.

Reached on the plane on his way to perform and speak at Harry Belafonte’s Many Rivers to Cross festival in Atlanta, Supaman says he makes music to address issues of social injustice. He’ll be singing with artists like Dave Matthews and T.I., and speaking about core social-justice issues, he said. “Most of the artists are about that theme, and positivity. I’ll be talking about the Dakota Access Pipeline and Sacred Stone Camp, which I had the opportunity to visit for a few days recently. The unity of people coming together; people from all over the world, standing up for simple things — clean water. The little guys, the regular people fighting against oil companies. That was inspiring.”

Tall Paul, an Ojibway M.C., hails from Minneapolis. He says his life’s purpose is to spread messages of peace. He grew up listening to hip-hop from all regions, initially making music for fun. In 2009 he dedicated himself fully to the art form. He says that his goal is to make people shed tears of joy and pain, and to share a common experience.

Molly McGlennen, an Ojibway poet, is an associate professor of English and Native American Studies at Vassar College. She says there is a direct link between the Native oral storytelling tradition and the storytelling of hip-hop as a form of expression — and ultimately a form of resistance. “I’m interested in Tall Paul, because he’s using the Ojibway language and English to convey the experience of Ojibway people in Minneapolis,” she says. “The issues that he speaks to resonate with Ojibway people, but at the same time, he’s also speaking to broader indigenous issues of class and race and struggle,” she says. “Because he’s speaking to so many layers of society, indigenous and non-indigenous, he’s an example of the forms of indigenous storytelling. He’s a powerful voice in the contemporary scene right now. He’s fabulous.”

Throughout Frank Waln’s new album, he talks about politics and politicians. “I don’t believe in U.S. politics,” he says. It’s all driven by money and capitalism. Honestly, as a Native person, I can see how there are people who don’t want to participate in the system. It’s parasitic, built on exploitation of human beings, stolen land and labor.” Waln recently scored a short message film called “Miranda and Shonta,” about harmony with animals in nature; the backdrop is the Sacred Stone camp at the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Supaman’s forthcoming album “Illuminatives” speaks to many political concerns that go beyond Native issues, including the pipeline and immigration. He sees a need for “bringing the south-of-the-border Native people up here, and connecting more with other indigenous people.”

Supaman is a voice strongly in favor of unity of all peoples, as are most Native hip-hop and rap artists. “I think that it has always been the case with artists that I know,” he says. “They have used their platform to bring awareness of issues important to Native people. I just finished a tour of a bunch of junior high schools in Colorado; they have no idea bout Native Americans. I’m about bringing light to the darkness and times that we live in. I want to let people know that there is always light and hope at the end of the tunnel.”

Waln is excited that music and political action hand in hand seem to be enabling positive social change in his lifetime. “I am so happy to see it,” he says. “Native young people fostering change and being the source of worldwide movements. I never thought I would see that.”

Alli Joseph is a writer/producer and family historian; a Native New Yorker, she is a member of the Shinnecock Indian Nation.

Life and Death in the Purple Box: Prince, What Happened?


Cover of Prince’s “LoveSexy”, Warner Bros. / Paisley Park, 1988.

Yesterday I understood for the first time how old-timers must have felt on the day that Elvis tumbled face-first off his porcelain throne almost 39 years ago. Told of Presley’s death, John Lennon—who had once said, “Before Elvis there was nothing”—reportedly shrugged it off with the kind of pitiless succinctness that only a bitterly disappointed lover could reach: “Elvis died when he went into the army.”

Is it too harsh—or too soon—to acknowledge that something like that happened to Prince too? Anyway that was my first reaction yesterday when my wife phoned and blurted out, in a voice mixed with incredulity, grief and anger, “Prince is dead.” The news was so shocking and unexpected that I had to ask her to repeat it. It still hasn’t really sunken in.

It was only later that I realized part of my problem in absorbing the fact of his death was that it’s seemed to me for many years that Prince died sometime around 1990. After that point he spent most of the next 20-plus years releasing indifferent-sounding music and filling arenas on the strength of his well-earned legend. Like Elvis, he continued to scatter the occasional gem in an interminable run of joyless, by-the-numbers music; there were still singles like “Get Off,” “Sexy Motherfucker,” and “Let It Go,” and you should check out the little-noted One Nite Alone… Live! two-disc set, if you can find it. (Worse, like Elvis–at least if TMZ’s sources are to be believed–he appears to have died from ingesting high-test prescription pharmaceuticals.) For reasons no one has been able to explain, the Prince I had followed and written about during the preceding decade–well, he just left the building.

The Prince we are all mourning now worked from 1978-1988. Barely past his teens at the outset, he spent that decade trashing every boundary of music and identity he encountered with a sense of joy, discovery, and complete self-assurance. During those years he released 10 albums and salted away enough material for God knows how many others. The Black Album, released belatedly in 1994, was recorded during those years, and I have tapes of a couple dozen additional vault tracks from 1985-87 that deserved release then and still do today. That body of work earned him a spot in a 20th Century American pantheon that includes not only the usually cited suspects (James Brown, Sly Stone)  but such virtuosic composers, players and bandleaders as Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. (And yes, that’s an all-black list–not in observance of the kind of racial boundaries Prince despised, but because I can’t really think of any white people who deserve to stand with them as musical pioneers.) He was that exciting. That germinal.

For me his last great work—perhaps his greatest—was the Lovesexy album and tour in 1988-89. A mammoth production on record and on stage, it was an electrifying, gloriously cluttered summation of everywhere he had traveled musically and emotionally in a decade’s worth of frenzied creativity.

It certainly didn’t feel like the end of anything, but in retrospect it was–the only conceivable title for any box set retrospective of his post-1990 records would have been PerFunkTory. For years I talked with friends and colleagues–Prince’s as well as my own–about what exactly happened. Our theories ran the gamut. One music-writer friend chalked it up to Prince’s mounting disappointment with the way his music was received by the critics he sniped about but read religiously. By this line of thinking, the confused, ambivalent reaction to Lovesexywas the last straw. Others said, well, his time was up: Who, among rock & roll era giants, has stayed at the top of his or her game as a performer and as a composer for more than 10 years? Nobody.

Both those observations make sense, but I always suspected that gravity simply caught up with Prince. Here was a freaky-talented young man who hatched a very personal vision of a musical community with no fences around matters of race, sexuality, musical style–that is, a place without any of the limitations he routinely encountered as a short, skinny, preternaturally ambitious black kid growing up in what was then the whitest major city in the country.

But another way to put that is to say that his vision was hatched in a state of profound isolation, and that it drew its power in large part from the desperation born of that isolation. How many of the Prince songs about sex, God, and the polymorphously perverse were really about loneliness at their emotional heart? Lots of them. Squint and you might say all of them. Go back and listen to “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” “Anna Stesia,” even “When Doves Cry.” You’ll hear lines like,

I wanna be your brother
I wanna be your mother and your sister, too


If I was your girlfriend
Would U remember 2 tell me all the things U forgot
When I was your man?


Have you ever been so lonely
That you felt like you were the
Only one in this world?

Have you ever wanted to play
With someone so much you’d take
Any one boy or girl?

I would submit that none of this is about gender-bending, or sex, or even pleasure, for its own sake; it’s about trying to escape the sort of desperate, terminal solitude from which he came and to which, in the end, he seemed to return. Last night they closed the street in front of First Avenue, the Minneapolis club made famous by the Purple Rainmovie, and a huge crowd danced there through the night. Seeing the pictures at a local news site this morning reminded me of a story that one Prince insider told me years ago about one of his private birthday bashes. Everyone there was given a Prince mask and asked to put it on. Soon the entire ballroom was choked with Princes, but Prince himself was nowhere in sight. He was lurking by himself in an alcove above the crowd, my source told me, watching his guests dance without him. And there he stayed until he left the party.

And this is about as close to his own utopian vision of community as Prince the man ever allowed himself to get. So yeah, his death was shocking. It was sad. But from here, in these first numbing hours, I keep thinking–please forgive me–that it was his life and not his death that constituted the more profound tragedy. He deserved better. So did Elvis. So do we all.

Beginning in 1984, Minneapolis writer Steve Perry covered Prince’s music and career in the Twin Cities weekly City Pages and elsewhere.  



RIP Prince


I loved this man and his music and am shocked to hear of his passing. I remember how delighted I was when I purchased his first album “For You” in the seventies. I have all his releases. A musical innovator and genius. At his last concert on Saturday he sang David’s “Heroes.” There are now officially none left.


An artist among artists:

“I Saw the Light”: A biography of country singer Hank Williams

By David Walsh
26 March 2016

Marc Abraham’s I Saw the Light is a film biography about country music performer Hank Williams (1923-1953), who died at the age of 29.

The gifted British actor Tom Hiddleston plays Williams and also creditably sings his songs (musician Rodney Crowell worked with Hiddleston for a month). I Saw the Light follows Williams’ life from his marriage to Audrey Sheppard (Elizabeth Olsen) at a gas station in Andalusia, Alabama in 1944 (the owner is also a justice of the peace) to his death, from alcohol and pill-induced heart failure, en route to a concert in Canton, Ohio on New Year’s Day 1953.

Abraham’s effort is a fairly standard film biography. It treats some of the ups and many of the downs in Williams’ life. The singer drank heavily, between occasional bouts of sobriety. He was often in considerable pain because of spina bifida occulta, a condition in which the outer part of certain vertebrae is not completely closed. He and his wife frequently fought––over money, over her desire to sing, over his affairs, over her affairs. They eventually divorced, and shortly before his death, Williams married again.

Elizabeth Olsen and Tom Hiddleston in I Saw the Light

Williams had his first big hit with “Move It on Over,” appropriately about a man in trouble with his wife, in 1947. In fact, it is an early rock and roll song, one that unmistakably reflects the postwar atmosphere. After a successful stint on the Louisiana Hayride, Williams first performed at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry in June 1949, where his version of “Lovesick Blues” (first performed in a Tin Pan Alley musical in 1922) was a triumph. The glory did not last long.

He was eventually fired from the Opry for alcoholism in 1952, and his famed producer, Fred Rose (Bradley Whitford in the film), stopped working with him. His life went from very bad to even worse … It did not help matters that a quack, who had obtained his “Doctorate of Science” for $35, began prescribing amphetamines, Seconal, chloral hydrate and morphine for the ailing and addicted singer.

I Saw the Light fleshes out these various episodes. Hiddleston, Olsen and Cherry Jones as the formidable Lillie Williams, Hank’s mother, all do well. The film avoids painting any of the characters as yokels, but it also avoids saying too much of anything about them. This movie is not an immense step forward from Gene Nelson’s Your Cheatin’ Heart, the 1964 film with George Hamilton as Williams and Susan Oliver as Audrey.

Williams was a remarkable singer and songwriter. His lyrics are clever and insightful about everyday life. His liveliest songs “swing” with confidence and swagger, finding a large audience in a population that had endured the Depression and the war and now, with jobs and with some money in their pockets, had no intention of returning to the darkest days of the 1930s: “Move It on Over,” “Honky Tonkin’,” “I’m a Long Gone Daddy,” “Lovesick Blues,” “Mind Your Own Business,” “Why Don’t You Love me,” “Hey Good Lookin’,” “Honky Tonk Blues,” “Settin’ the Woods on Fire” and more.

Hiddleston as Hank Williams

In one of the better scenes in I Saw the Light, Williams-Hiddleston is in New York City—where he feels like a fish out of water—for the Perry Como television show (of all things!) in November 1951. He speaks frankly to a reporter from a big city newspaper. “Everyone has a little darkness,” he says. Williams refers to the anger, misery, sorrow and shame that everyone feels. “I show it to them [the public]. … They think I can help.”

In another comment, cited by Colin Escott in his biography of Williams, the real-life singer told an interviewer (perhaps the one fictionalized in the film?) in 1951, “Folk songs [which are what he termed his own music] express the dreams and prayers and hopes of the working people.”

This element seems deliberately played down in I Saw the Light. Perhaps Abraham was frightened of making sweeping and too easy generalizations, and unsubstantiated generalizations should obviously be avoided. But Williams was born in immense poverty in rural southern Alabama and grew up during the Depression. His father was a terrible drunk and his mother was not an easy person. He himself drank, and ultimately took pills, all his brief adult life to alleviate physical and psychological pain. But his songs reflected something more than merely his own personal distress and striving. Their rhythms and words tapped into the sentiments of large numbers of people.

The film convincingly recreates the physical look of the late 1940s and early 1950s, but pays little attention to the bigger, more revealing forces at work that shaped and propelled Hank Williams and country music in general. One does not really obtain a sense in I Saw the Light of the quality and character of everyday life out of which his songs emerged.

Country music, including its very name, is full of contradictions that deserve to be explored. Like Williams’ family, which moved from rural Butler County to Montgomery, Alabama, a city of 70,000, when the future singer was 13 or 14, the genre was created and developed for the most part by those who were, in fact, leaving––or had already left––the “country.”

As historian Rachel Rubin notes: “In its most important early decades (the 1920s to 1940s), country music told the story of urbanization, and the genre’s relationship to rural living was more a musical epitaph for a way of life increasingly being left behind as both black and white Southerners fled the rural South for the promise of good jobs in the city.”

Neither is the question of Jim Crow segregation touched upon in the film. Abraham may have had the healthy notion that I Saw the Light should not become prey to contemporary identity politics, but simply sidestepping complexities is not helpful either.

One of Williams’ earliest influences was the African-American street musician Rufus “Tee Tot” Payne, who apparently showed the eight-year-old how to improvise chords on the guitar. Williams had many African-American fans. The final sequence in I Saw the Light includes newsreel footage from the day of Williams’ funeral in January 1953 in Montgomery, and one sees many black faces in the crowd milling about on the street.

Claudette Colvin was one of the pioneers of the civil rights movement in Alabama. She was arrested for opposing segregation on Montgomery’s buses in March 1955, nine months before Rosa Parks was taken off a city bus by police, sparking the famous boycott. Speaking of her childhood, Colvin told her biographer Philip Hoose, “I listened to the Grand Ole Opry, too. The star of the show was Hank Williams, a famous country singer from Montgomery. When he died, his funeral drew the biggest crowd in the history of the city; Hank Williams’ wife invited the black community to attend since so many of us liked his music, but Mom wouldn’t let me go because the funeral was segregated.”

These are the sorts of important dramas and conflicts that a more serious work on Hank Williams’ life and times might have raised. As it is, I Saw the Light is a pleasant film that does not go terribly deep.

Popular music has played, and continues to play, an immense role in American life. There are many reasons for this, including the extraordinary heterogeneity of experiences, traditions and nationalities that jostle against one another in the US and seem worth calling attention to. But is it not possible as well that a population that has been so politically disenfranchised and suppressed must find some outlet for its feelings and sufferings?