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

lovesexy

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

And

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

And

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.  

 

http://www.counterpunch.org/2016/04/22/life-and-death-in-the-purple-box-prince-what-happened/

RIP Prince

prince6402

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?

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2016/03/26/isaw-m26.html

How David Bowie Helped Save Dolphins

ENVIRONMENT

The late rock star is a hero to activists fighting the dolphin slaughter in Japan.

Photo Credit: 360b/Shutterstock

David Bowie is being remembered as a musical genius, a gifted artist, and a fashion icon. But to whale and dolphin activists, he was nothing short of a hero.

Bowie’s hauntingly moving song “Heroes,” the title track of his 1977 album, has become a rallying cry for people around the world working to end the killing and capture of whales and dolphins at the cove in Taiji, Japan.

The song, which includes the lyrics “I, I wish you could swim / Like the dolphins, like dolphins can swim,” accompanies the closing credits of the 2009 documentary The Cove, which brought global attention to the annual slaughter in Taiji.

Most people don’t know that Bowie, a quiet but generous supporter of animal welfare causes who died on Sunday at 69, personally intervened to make sure the song could be licensed for a minimal fee.

Cove director Louie Psihoyos said the movie’s producer, Fisher Stevens, knew Bowie’s wife, Iman. “That’s how we got through to him,” he said. “If we’d had to go through record-company channels, it never would’ve happened.”

According to Psihoyos, the cost of licensing a rock song for commercial films starts at about $25,000 and can reach six figures. After hearing about the film, Bowie insisted that RCA Records make “Heroes” available for $3,000.

“They had to charge something so they weren’t giving it away,” Psihoyos said. “It was hardly worth the time for the record label to write up the contract.”

A licensing employee for Sony Music Entertainment, which owns RCA Records, confirmed that the fee was reduced but said the amount paid “is confidential.”

The song, reportedly about an East German and West German couple who meet at the Berlin Wall—“I, I can remember (I remember) / Standing, by the wall (by the wall) / And the guns, shot above our heads (over our heads)”—became a powerful anthem for the anti-whaling movement.

“I didn’t know at the time about his support for animal rights,” Psihoyos said of Bowie. “But it turns out he had a huge heart.”

Ric O’Barry, star of The Cove and founder of Ric O’Barry’s Dolphin Project, said that during the film’s closing credits, “people jump out of their seats and want to do something. That song reenergizes people and helps keep the issue alive. Sometimes I meet people, and when they recognize me, they start singing ‘Heroes.’ ”

“There is nothing to galvanize a community around a movement like a movie, and with every social movement, you always needed songs,” Psihoyos said. “This was a song for that moment.”

The moment lives on. This Saturday in London, thousands of people are expected to march to the Japanese Embassy to protest the dolphin drives, which run every September to March.

Bowie and his hit single will be featured prominently during the day.

“We’re going to make it a massive tribute to Bowie,” said protest organizer Nicole Venter, founder of MEOKO, a platform for electronic music.

Venter said some protesters will be wearing Bowie masks and brandishing banners bearing his image. Meanwhile, a vintage car will lead the march, blasting sounds of dolphins being killed at the cove—and, of course, “Heroes.”

“We will probably play it several times, and people will sing along,” Venter said. “Still, this won’t become a circus. We’re there for the dolphins, but we also want to pay tribute to Bowie.”

The singer, who later sported a dolphin tattoo, was working to save dolphins and whales as early as 1972, when Bowie and the Spiders From Mars headlined the Friends of the Earth Save the Whale Benefit Concert in London.

O’Barry will not be at the protest. He leaves Sunday for Taiji, where police briefly detained him last August. On Tuesday, his Dolphin Project said 35 to 40 striped dolphins were killed at the cove.

“I think London is one of the keys of stopping the slaughter,” O’Barry said.

“ ‘Heroes’ is our theme song, and they’re going to play it loud,” he added. “The Japanese government will have a very difficult time dealing with that PR nightmare. Thank you, David Bowie.”

 

 

This article originally appeared on TakePart.com. Reprinted with permission.

 

http://www.alternet.org/environment/how-david-bowie-helped-save-dolphins?akid=13886.265072.QDzFVg&rd=1&src=newsletter1048995&t=14

DAVID BOWIE RIP

I was shocked last night when I turned on the news before retiring to learn that David Bowie had died. Bowie was such a powerful influence on my life. He was the quintessential 20th century artist: innovative, paradigm busting, creating culture both musically and visually. Recently he’s been a kind of Greta Garbo of rock. He seemed to disappear for a few years, and then…the amazing new album “Blackstar” and his totally unexpected death. My mind is replaying all the Bowie songs that left such an indelible imprint on my soul. I leave you with the moving “Lazarus” song from his last album:

Look up here, I’m in heaven
I’ve got scars that can’t be seen
I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen
Everybody knows me now

[Verse 2]
Look up here, man, I’m in danger
I’ve got nothing left to lose
I’m so high, it makes my brain whirl
Dropped my cell phone down below
Ain’t that just like me?

[Bridge]
By the time I got to New York
I was living like a king
Then I used up all my money
I was looking for your ass

[Verse 3]
This way or no way
You know I’ll be free
Just like that bluebird
Now, ain’t that just like me?

[Outro]
Oh, I’ll be free
Just like that bluebird
Oh, I’ll be free
Ain’t that just like me?

South Africa’s anarchist hip hop collective

December 4, 2015


Image courtesy the author

How do you make people realize they’re in chains? For Soundz of the South (or SOS) – an anti-capitalist resistance collective from Khayelitsha, Cape Town – you give them hip hop.

That injunction dates back to hip hop’s origins in New York City. At street parties in the South Bronx in the 1970s, sound equipment was often wired up to park lampposts. Hip hop’s origins were strictly DIY and, most importantly, a direct reaction to the structural marginalization of communities and the racism of the mainstream media. SOS are carrying on that initial spirit through hip hop activism that is relevant to their own struggles.

As a collective of both activists and artists they are committed to decentralization, direct action, autonomy and self-reliance. Like anarchist thinkers Emma Goldman or Mikhail Bakunin, they believe that hierarchies corrupt and only horizontal organisation can eliminate inequality. Besides recording albums, SOS hosts regular meetings and “critical” documentary screenings, weekly slam sessions, organize protests and discussions, attend regular conferences and have set up campaigns such as “Don’t Vote! Organise!” or initiatives to save Philippi High (a school on Cape Town’s Cape Flats). They also started the Afrikan Hip Hop Caravan, an annual series of events (this is the third edition) currently taking place through the end of December.

A recent track was directly inspired by the collective’s involvement in the#FeesMustFall student protests. When I interviewed members Milliha, Anele, Khusta, Sipho and Monde, they were resolute that their music has to be political. “What hip hop should be about is hold accountable those who are in power,” says Anele. The reasons are that it’s a genre young people can relate to, and accessible because, as Milliha explains, unlike punk music, “You need a pen and paper, and the beat will come on its own.” The sentiment is that, when country’s President, Jacob Zuma’s main virtue is a charismatic dance, and bling bling, booze and bitches flood the mainstream, grassroots hip hop is the alternative media.

SOS members, who are also part of other activist organizations such as the Housing Assembly and ILRIG, understand that there’s more to social change than music. To be part of the collective, you have to be involved in regular discussions, protests, meetings, take on tasks, organize, and identify with the principles. Many times on-the-ground work comes first, which inspires ideas for songs. But Anele stresses, what hip hop does do is help listeners wake up and mobilise action. “It demystifies big issues and brings politics back to the people,” he says, or as Monde puts it, “We’re taking whatever is out there and bring it closer to those who can’t reach it.”

The Afrikan Hip Hop Caravan aims to take this kind of awareness across the continent. It was conceived by SOS, Uhuru Network, and various cultural activists in 2011. In each participating African city, there’ll be the Afrikan Hip Hop Conference, to encourage discussion about hip hop’s role in community struggles, and the Afrikan Hip Hop Concert, to give repressed, underground hip hop a platform. 2015’s edition will start in Arusha, Tanzania, and the main focus will be migration against the backdrop of the recent xenophobic attacks in South Africa, the European refugee crisis, and shooting of black teenagers in the United States. Inspired by Dakar hip hop artists who got together to stop president Abdoulaye Wade from unconstitutionally seeking a third term in office, the idea is to explore the origins of certain problems, relate them to current issues and transcend borders.

SOS’s involvement in the caravan, as well as everything else they do, is self-financed. Strictly rejecting any funding from corporate brands (saying no to Red Bull for instance, Khusta tells me) to maintain autonomy, SOS decide collectively what happens to any proceeds. Nobody receives money to spend at their own discretion. Instead, Khusta explains, it goes back into the community. As a group with no set amount of members, they’re not interested in branding themselves nor registering with a label – “We don’t make songs for the radio,” says Anele.

In South Africa music has played an important role in the struggle of oppressed people. President Jacob Zuma must be aware of a rhythm’s convincing power – when it’s election time he brings mainstream DJs to the township. That’s why SOS don’t want listeners to switch off to their beats. Following Bakunin, they believe a “sweet” democracy that demands gratitude for pseudo-freedom distracts from important realities. “And that’s what we have, and that’s why we’re doing what we’re doing, to make people realise they’re in chains. They are working and creating wealth for others to enjoy,” explains Anele. Unfortunately, he continues, many anarchist comrades don’t get hip hop – “They see a lot of black power and think it’s nationalism” – but he’s convinced that there is no line between anarchism and hip hop. Hip hop is the voice of the working class.

*The Cape Town Afrikan Hip Hop Concert and Conference will take on December 12th 2015 at Moholo Live, and on December 13th at Buyel’mbo Village, Khayelitsha. If you can’t make it, watch out for Freedom Warriors Vol 3. and The Afrikan Hip Hop Caravan Collaborations from 2013 to be released soon.