Music » Music Review

The world's most advanced rock star



Who could have predicted that black stars would so dominate the 80s pop firmament? Any accounting of the decade's most important acts would have to include at least three black acts in the top, oh, four or so, by my reckoning--Prince edging out Bruce for number one, the two of them followed closely by Run-D.M.C. and Michael Jackson. Plastic Princess Whitney Houston will never inherit the throne of Queen of Soul, but her phenomenal sales figures have at least to be acknowledged. And even if the rappers from Queens now seem passe, and even if Jackson is (finally) on the wane after the unfortunate Bad, there are still L.L. and Public Enemy on the rap front to contend with, and in pop-crossover fantasyland there's the looming ambition of Terence Trent D'Arby, a guy who wants to be both Prince and Michael Jackson.

This year's Grammy show, broadcast last March, was the best within memory; what charged it was the meeting of Prince, Jackson, and D'Arby. Jackson tried to close the show down with a naked, blistering coda to "Man in the Mirror"; he demonstrated that he was one of the world's most mesmerizing entertainers, but we knew that already--he ended up treading water. Prince, dressed in a polka-dot suit and a Jackie O. do, didn't perform: he just watched and glowered. D'Arby had the hardest part of all: getting up in front of Jackson and Prince without self-destructing. Doing a long, extended riff on "If You Let Me Stay"--including a cappella glimpses of "Wishing Well" and, surprisingly, "The First Cut Is the Deepest" (the Cat Stevens song covered by Rod Stewart)--he remained intact and emerged triumphant.

None of the three took home any awards, but who cares: Jackson doesn't need 'em, Prince should be above such things, and D'Arby has a bright future. Bono of U2, speaking as he took the last in a string of awards, did his gracious best to assuage the embarrassment he felt over being lauded in the presence of such august company by doing his own riff, on the concept of soul. "Soul is everywhere," he said. "Without it, we'd all be the poorer. If Bruce Springsteen didn't have any soul, he'd just be another great songwriter. If Michael Jackson didn't have any soul, he'd, be just another good dancer and singer. And if Prince didn't have any soul, he'd be just another maker of great records and singles.

"And if U2 didn't have any soul . . ." Bono stopped and grinned. "If U2 didn't have any soul we'd get better reviews in the Village Voice." The joke was that Prince had just run away with the Voice's annual Pazz and Jop Poll, leaving U2's The Joshua Tree way behind. (It can charitably be said that the Pazz and Jop award is a shade more prestigious than following in the footsteps of such previous Grammy sweepers as the Doobie Brothers and Toto.) Anyway, Bono's point was an interesting one: not literally, but for the implicit assertion of an elemental universality that comes out of a black soul-funk-pop-rock idiom--because such an idiom is, of course, what Jackson has been trafficking in since his breakthrough Off the Wall LP in 1979. Jackson gets hit about the head and shoulders a lot for his almost nauseating single-mindedness about selling zillions of records. He told intimates before the release of Thriller that he expected it to be the biggest record ever made, and part of the clever image-making that attended Bad had Michael staring into a mirror in one corner of which was tucked a piece of paper bearing the inscription "100"--i.e., 100 million, or three times the sales of Thriller, which was the biggest record ever made. That sort of thinking surpasses the pathological and approaches the cosmic--particularly since Thriller's secret weapons were "Billie Jean" and "Beat It," two last-minute, emergency additions to an already long-delayed project.

Jackson's number-crunching is not so much crass as weird. What's truly interesting about it is his methodology, which is quite remote from lowest-common-denominator calculation. The feelings that emanate from his records aren't the shotgun blasts of a gotta-please-everybody entertainer. They're extraordinarily sophisticated high-tech weaponry designed by an expert in mass-market enthrallment. Michael Jackson is the Aegis Early Warning System of popular music. And if the system sometimes fucks up--downing a civilian airliner or producing Bad--you still gotta thrill at the gadgetry. Indeed, Bad's four number-one singles and ten million plus in sales, even in the face of some of the worst publicity ever endured by such a star, is not, um, bad. What did it, of course, is personality, production, and some good tunes; but I'm also convinced that it has something to do with the utter confidence with which Jackson constructed the gospel cadences of "Man in the Mirror," the quiet authority that underlies "The Way You Make Me Feel," with its loping, call-and-response chorus. Other people have understood this concept--the fecundity, if not the primacy, of the funk-soul-pop-etc black musical language; one of them was Berry Gordy, Jackson's creator and exploiter. But no one's done it with Jackson's zeal or talent before, and it's doubtful that anyone will again--the point being, of course, that after Jackson one might not need to. The world, in a small dumb way, will be a better place--or so it is hoped.

And through this better world, this love-soaked landscape of chirping birds, blooming flowers, and pocket radios playing nothing but Michael Jackson's latest single, will roar Prince, the Mauve Marauder from Minneapolis, straddling his Harley and scattering everything in his path. Jackson is an instinctive inclusivist and a utopian by nature; Prince dances while Armageddon approaches and flirts with the avant-garde. Jackson looks over the world like Rommel over Africa; he strategizes and plans, and his latest record is his latest round of saturation bombing. Prince, by contrast, far from being even a guerrilla, avoids entanglement whenever possible; with each successive release he retreats, farther and farther, into the dark recesses of his preternaturally diverse musical sensibility. Michael J. is on the side of goodness and light; Prince sings about darkness as if he never leaves it, and sex as if he'd invented it.

Prince doesn't reject Jackson's methodology so much as ignore it. He doesn't seem to understand Jackson's urge toward unification and splendor, at least in those terms. Prince has a pop sense as innate and incisive as anyone's since Paul McCartney, and he wears an incendiary ambition on his sleeve; but top-ten singles and kudos like the Pazz and Jop Poll come only on his own terms, and they have little to do with things like universality. Jackson has refined black pop to what is conceivably its epitome, the point where it is a clear and shining exemplar--e.g., "Man in the Mirror." Meanwhile Prince drags black music through the dirt, into the clouds, around the corner, and down the block. He turns R & B ribaldry into a polymorphously perverse 80s salaciousness; whatever gospely religiosity remains imbedded in his soul he has recreated into a sometimes sincere ("The Cross") but nonetheless suspicious amalgam of sex, love, death, masturbation, incest, wishful transsexuality, and voyeurism. And musically he has produced the most remarkably diverse, adventurous, and successful body of work since (again) the Beatles--and he has done it alone, without a John or a Paul or a George Martin to help. His records are at once scary tours through the unpatterned windmills of his dark mind and calculated, deadly assassinations of his real and imagined predecessors, from James Brown ("Kiss") to Joni Mitchell ("Dorothy Parker"), from Sly Stone ("Slow Love") to Fleetwood Mac ("I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man").

Prince's drama and his Muse--and his success--are based on this forward, reinterpretive movement; by contrast, all others, including Jackson, are about the past.

We saw the future of Prince last week at the Rosemont Horizon, on the second night of his first U.S. tour since the massively successful 1984 outing that capped off the Purple Rain phenomenon. Spectacles like this are rare: choreographed completely (and daringly), musically explosive, and adventurously presented, the Lovesexy tour is a culmination of sorts. The show was as full of splendid effects as the legendary spectacles of Earth, Wind and Fire in the 70s; as cunningly shot through with meaning as the best of Springsteen; and as full of simulated sex acts as Times Square on a Saturday night. It was fun.

There was a big problem with the sound, which was horrendous; this may have been in part due to Prince's novel in-the-round staging, which might have made demands on any hall. But "barn" is too kind a word to describe the Rosemont: the sounds came out from the speakers in an undifferentiated mess; frequently the bass, the guitars, and the keyboards could not be individually discerned. Melodies sank in the murk and were sometimes lost altogether; Prince's voice was sometimes inaudible. It got me thinking how even the biggest star in the world can't buy an adequate facility to present his work. Here, in the third largest city in America, he had a choice between two outdoor amphitheaters entirely inaccessible to most of his public and the Horizon, whose small virtues--relative accessibility by public transit, something approaching intimacy given the in-the-round staging--were far, far outweighed by its ruinous acoustics. This is not a good situation for rock 'n' roll fans. (Why doesn't someone construct a 12,000-seat hall built in such a way that balconies or certain other parts could be blocked off, so as to accommodate everything from 3,000-seat acts to stars like Prince? Its versatility should be able to keep it in business.)

The show started with lots of fog covering the extravagant stage in the middle of the arena. Suddenly a reasonable facsimile of a vintage T-Bird, slightly downsized to accommodate its diminutive driver, appeared out of nowhere and zoomed around the stage. The star stepped out, and his diverse band--sometimes there were as many as nine people onstage, including two horns and Prince's female alter-ego, a dancer called Cat--slammed into "Erotic City," one of a half-dozen or so brilliant single B-sides that Prince has tossed off over the years. (Fans should definitely have "17 Days," "She's Always in My Hair," "Another Lonely Christmas," and "Hello," for starters.) Prince galumphed around splendidly for the next two and a half hours (including a prompt, efficient 15-minute intermission), racing back and forth, shooting a basket in a small playground on one side of the stage, and mostly engaging Cat in the simulation of just about every sex act one could imagine. Cat, besides making drummer Sheila E. look overdressed--which must be considered an achievement--was quite spectacular as a dancer and singer (as far as we could hear), if a bit shallow-seeming in the wake of Prince's former sidekicks, Lisa and Wendy. The rest of the band seemed energized and tight--again, from what I could hear: I haven't the faintest idea what the bassist sounded like. The elaborate staging, with about a half-dozen rising sections, three or four levels, and a garage sale's worth of paraphernalia dropping from the ceiling, all worked well, though I would hate to be the guy who put the spotlight on the wrong guitarist during the solo of "Little Red Corvette." James Brown used to fine his band members $50 for a missed downbeat; Prince probably had the guy's fingers broken.

The show wasn't constructed like your average rock concert: a break came only every 15 minutes or so. Prince grouped songs into sets of three or four, often playing only a verse and chorus of this or that track from his past: in the first half, we heard sketches of "Slow Love," "Jack U Off," "Controversy," "Love Bizarre" (a Prince-penned hit for Sheila E.), and about half a dozen others. The first set's highlight was a ten-minute "When You Were Mine," a kinky, plaintive song from the Dirty Mind LP, with one of the P-man's strongest hooks; it segued into a long blues middle featuring lyrics about how many women Prince needs. As it turns out, he needs:

One to wash my body
Two to wash my hair
Three to wash me here
And four to wash me … there!

Does anyone have any doubts about where "here" and "there" were?

Lovesexy, Prince's latest album, gave only one song to the show's first half: the eerie, black "Anna Stesia," which as near as I can tell is about wanting sex so much you wanna die. Lovesexy is a strange album even by Prince standards; aside from a fun but throwaway hit, "Alphabet St" (unplayed Saturday), it strikes me as unfriendly and nearly impenetrable. "Welcome to the new power generation," Prince announces on record and in concert. "There's no smack in my brain." The entire album is a case study in polar opposites, an apt metaphor for Prince's ambivalence toward desire, framed particularly in the opening cut, whose title consists of a drawn eye and the word "no" ("[Eye] No"), and the last, which is called "Positivity." "Have you had your plus sign today?" Prince asks. Buried in the recesses of Prince's mind are some astonishing social critiques; I think he's afraid to let them out because they undercut once and for all what little and diminishing yearning he has for society, love, or God. The final words of the album are: "We got a long, long way 2 go."

Amazingly, so does Prince, at 29 the most advanced rock star on earth. The second half of his show comprised most of the rest of Lovesexy and some more crowd-pleasing fragments: "1999," "Kiss," "Let's Go Crazy." For me, the high point of the show was "The Cross," Prince's most unambiguous statement of faith. It started with him standing alone, strumming an electric guitar: "Don't die / Without knowing / the Cross." The band came in halfway through, building to a thunderous, rapturous crescendo that provided the evening's one moment of sheer drama. No fragments here. But contrast that moment with the end of the bluesy, obscene riff in the middle of "When You Were Mine." Prince was dressed in a Louis XIV coat that looked like it had been decorated by Jackson Pollock, if Jackson Pollock had worked in brocade. His hair was pulled back in a short ponytail, and as the blues riff ended, and a scream from Prince brought the band back into the concussive exuberance of "When You Were Mine," the brilliant producer-songwriter-multi-instrumentalist-performer-dancer-singer-impresario stood illuminated for a minute looking like no one so much as the giggly, ribald Tom Hulce in Amadeus.

He's our Mozart! Michael Jackson can proceed apace, but he's rowing back ceaselessly into the past. Prince is standing on his shoulders and looking ahead. He's devilish and arrogant, spoiled and headstrong; most of all, he won't feed us black pop made palatable, or tell us what we want to hear. His thing, as announced on Lovesexy, is "the New Powersoul." It sounds like nothing else.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Frank Griffin.

Add a comment