Monday, September 19, 2011

The Night Prince Took A Dump On James Brown's Stage

Prince and James Brown (James in green), 1983
In 2007, I got to see Van Halen, newly reunited with David Lee Roth, at Madison Square Garden. To say I was excited for the show would be a massive understatement. Van Halen has been one of my favorite bands since about the time I started having favorite bands, so to see their (almost) original lineup 22 years later was, to say the least, very exciting. At the show it was apparent that my enthusiasm level probably rated on the low end of the scale for the audience as a whole; I remarked that I had never been to an arena rock show where the audience was so psyched to see the band. It was palpable.

That show was great, I had zero complaints about it, but the same week I returned with my wife to Madison Square Garden to see Stevie Wonder, where the crowd was WAY more psyched than the Van Halen crowd had been. From the moment Stevie took the stage with a 10-minute monologue about his reasons for giving the one-off concert (it was a tribute to his late mother), the crowd was ecstatic -- through the medley of his dozens of classic hits, through his many long, hilarious stories, and reaching a peak when he duetted with Tony Bennett on a slowed down, balladized version of his 1968 hit "For Once In My Life."

But the moment the crowd really, truly lost its mind -- I remember my wife clutching my arm and jumping up and down like a little kid -- was when Stevie started "Superstition" and, before the first verse, casually said, "I heard Prince is backstage. Prince, if you want to come jam with us, come on out." Never, before or since, have I seen a concert audience wet itself like when Prince joined Stevie Wonder on stage, borrowed a guitar, and got ready to jam on "Superstition."

But as he began to play, I got a weird case of deja vu, suddenly remembering a video that I had recently seen on YouTube: a clip from a 1983 James Brown show where James invites Michael Jackson, then at the peak of his "Thriller" ride, up onstage. Michael in turn persuades James to invite Prince, then between "1999" and "Purple Rain," up onstage as well. It's amazing and very interesting that footage exists of these three singular performers on stage at one time; but what makes this video a classic is the way Prince -- now rightly recognized as one of the greatest performers of all time, completely humiliates himself.

Let's watch together, shall we? 

0:01 We join the incident already in progress, after James has invited Michael to the stage, as Michael makes his way forward. The fact that James chose the vamp on "It's a Man's, Man's, Man's World" as the moment in his show to call Michael up is an odd one, or is that just in retrospect? 0:34 With a tiny gesture, James brings the band down so Michael can sing a verse. Michael doesn't actually seem to know what song it is (which is weird because this was a pretty big song for James in 1967), and kind of aimlessly improvises some "I love you"s. But that's a nitpick that makes it sound like he's doing worse than he's doing. He's Michael Jackson -- he's amazing even when he's not that great. 0:56 The band throws Michael a curve ball and breaks into "There Was A Time," one of the uptempo-est numbers in James' whole repertoire, and Michael responds by kicking into the brand-new set of signature dance moves he'd soon be immortalizing with videos. His moves are awesome and in part send up some of Brown's most famous steps, but he also does his superfast spin and the moonwalk, but stops just as he's getting started and gives James an awkward hug. Michael probably knew he would completely show James up if he applied himself at even half strength, because 1983 Michael Jackson was like 1991 Michael Jordan and James Brown was like 2001 Michael Jordan. And who really wants to beat 2001 Michael Jordan? James, for his part, is delighted by this young whippersnapper. 1:16 After presumably saying "thanks" and "big honor" and "you're the greatest" into James' ear, Michael goes in again and babbles something else. James looks confused, and strains to hear. Michael tells him again: you should call Prince up to the stage! James frowns. Call who up to the stage? PRINCE, says Michael. Trust me. Just call Prince up here! 1:30 You can see that James is wary -- the name "Prince" is not ringing a bell. But he knows Michael Jackson would not invite a scrub onto his stage so after a few "Really?"s, James shrugs and calls Prince up to the stage. You can tell by the way he's saying "Prince" that he's never heard of him, which is a little weird considering "1999" had been released the year before. Note the way James makes it clear that bringing this "Prince" to the stage was entirely Michael's idea. Michael insisted, so if this guy sucks, blame him. That's old-school show business: Never vouch for an act you haven't seen. 1:55 It takes Prince a while to reach the stage, as James calls his name out like "Prince" was the name of a puppy that had gotten loose in the audience. 2:14 Prince makes his breathtakingly stupid entrance, riding piggyback on a huge pro-wrestleresque bodyguard. The contrast in their body sizes is striking. As he takes the stage he makes a big show of removing his gloves with his teeth, one finger at a time, like it's sexy or something. (Have we culturally moved past gloves being sexy? I feel like we have.) Note that when he tosses the first glove into the crowd, somebody chucks it right back at him. 2:20 Prince saunters across the stage like it's his, and halfheartedly accepts a hug from James. Perhaps in reaction to the snub, or the attitude, or perhaps in reaction to the fact that Prince took 45 seconds to get to the stage (an eternity in band-vamping time), James barks, "Now DO SOMETHING!" His patience with this guy he's never heard of is waning. "You gotta do something," he says a couple more times, and steps to the side of the stage. I am not vouching for this guy, this introduction is screaming. 2:33 Bobby Byrd and James' guitar player sling a Telecaster around Prince's neck; he fusses with it a little, and then turns to the crowd. One thing people always forget about Prince, since he turned out to be such a weirdo (changing his name to an unpronounceable symbol was not necessarily the oddest thing he's ever done) and that overshadowed everything else from like 1988 on: the guy is a seriously bitchin' guitar player. His sound has always been high-gain, high-distortion, very loud, and he is an unusually precise soloist -- quite adept in the art of shredding. So, one assumes, that is what he will do to make sure that James Brown does not forget the name "Prince." 2:48 That seems to be his idea as he begins, but James Brown's guitar player is not there to shred so his guitar is not set up for shredding  -- it's set up for clean tone, chicka-chicka funk syncopation, as Prince soon realizes. So he starts playing some chicka-chicka funk licks, and doing it pretty well, but this is not flashy stuff. He tries to sex it up a little, but his guitar tone is just not appropriate for this kind of playing. It is decidedly not awesome, and it is not going to make James Brown (or anyone else) remember the name "Prince." So he drops to his knees and starts pulling out some Jimi Hendrix moves that don't work so well if, unlike Hendrix, you have no sound coming out of your guitar. James, in the top right corner, is clearly not impressed. 3:43 Finally, desperately, Prince tries a ruse: in the 60 seconds he has been on stage, he has overheated and must take his jacket off immediately, which means that he has to take off this stupid clean-tone chikka-chikka guitar get it OFF ME! 3:47 The jacket coming off gets the first audible reaction from the audience since Michael moonwalked. Prince's whole air through all this is very drama queeny, confusing "petulant" with "sexy." Now stripped to the waist and wearing skintight (leather?) pants, he approaches center stage. Is he really going to try and outdance Michael Jackson and James Brown? Right in front of them? Really? Apparently he is: he does one of James' signature moves, the mic stand rocked forward then back, adding a little under-the-legs razzle dazzle reminiscent of a game of Keepaway. It's fine, but once again, not awesome. 4:11 Now Prince steps up with the mic and hisses a few whispers that I'm sure he thinks are going to be much sexier than they turn out to be. Then back to some more of that super "sexy" dancing that really doesn't look the same without the bathtub and the smoke machine.   4:28 Nothing is working! Now having been on stage for two full minutes, and having failed to impress in three categories -- wank, dance, sing -- he now turns to the refuge of the truly desperate performer: audience participation. He tries to lead the crowd in an overhead clap, but on every fourth beat instead of every second, so the audience is confused and does not join in. Prince is marooned on James Brown's stage, shirtless, in front of a crowd that is starting to question Michael Jackson's judgement. 4:43 Abruptly, Prince takes a bow and without looking back to James or Michael or his pile of clothes, moves to leave the stage. He reaches out to swing himself down to the floor on the full-size recreation of a street light at far stage right, but as it is a prop and not a real street light, it can't support his weight, so he pulls the whole thing over and into the audience, and the video is over. It is stunning, really, the way this goes down. James Brown, inescapably THE looming figure of a generation of black music that was on its way out, invites its two biggest upstarts onto his stage (and James Brown, more than anyone before or since, saw any stage that he was on as HIS STAGE), and one of them takes the biggest figurative dump on that stage possible. I think the only way it could have been worse is if the figurative dump had been literal. Anyway, as Prince took the stage with Stevie Wonder and borrowed a guitar, it hit me immediately: Stevie Wonder's guitar player is not here to shred. His guitar is not set up for high-gain, high-volume shredding. History is about to repeat itself! And indeed it does, to some degree: Prince soon realizes that this guitar is not going to do what he wants it to do, and quickly abandons it, and dances his way through the song, not bothering to sing or really do anything. But, older and wiser, he has none of the brash, cocky peacocking that characterized the debacle on James Brown's stage. Almost 25 years later the name "Prince" means more than even he ever thought it would, so this time when he doesn't do much of anything, the crowd goes nuts anyway.

Monday, September 12, 2011

I Love Project Runway And I Don't Care Who Knows It

I have never been the least bit interested in fashion. One look in my closet, or at my person, quickly confirms this. I like jeans and t-shirts and the occasional solid-colored button down. I own one (1) suit, and I bought it in 2004. I refuse to wear anything with any kind of brand name or logo on it, I have never spent more than $60 on any piece of clothing (other than winter coats, boots, and the aforementioned suit), and I have been wearing the same kind of plain black and white sneakers since high school.

Nevertheless, I have somehow become addicted to Project Runway, the reality competition wherein aspiring fashion designers engage in themed challenges, only to be mericlessly critiqued by industry luminaries and the flawlessly preserved Heidi Klum. (I may have hit on this point before, but remember when models were really pretty? I miss that.)

Most any heterosexual man caught out as having seen this show would blame their wife or girlfriend for making them watch it against their will; I am the same in that I would have never watched this show if my wife hadn't introduced me to it, but unlike the majority of those heterosexual men, I feel no shame at all -- I'm grateful to my wife for turning me on to this show. I love Project Runway, and I don't care who knows it.

Most reality shows depend on artificial stimuli to create drama: alcohol (The Real World, The Bachelor, Jersey Shore), sexual tension (ibid.), claustrophobia (Big Brother), the intemperate slings and arrows of a panel of judges (Hell's Kitchen, American Idol, America's Got Talent), or good old fashioned lying and politicking (Survivor, Bachelor Pad). Project Runway uses exactly zero of these -- it simply makes its contestants work their asses off, 16 hours a day, every day for three or four weeks, at achieving their lifelong dream.

Nobody is chosen for this show because of what they look like. There has never been a coupling among the cast members in nine seasons. The rooftop champagne toast at the start of each season is the last time anyone is seen to be holding any kind of beverage. Ambition and fatigue are the key dramatic elements on this show. It's easy to forget, since episodes are a week apart, that there are no days off, that each day brings a new, bizarre challenge (Make a red-carpet gown out of the materials available at a newsstand! Create a whole line of sportswear using what you find in a gorilla cage!) and no sooner is the last one finished than the next one is upon them.

The fact that aspiring fashion designers tend to be either women or gay men amps up the potential for extreme cattiness and/or emotional confrontation, which is always very attractive in a reality show. The reality show convention of the "confessional" -- where contestants are individually pulled away from the action and address the camera directly about whatever is going on -- is its most entertaining when contestants take the opportunity to rag on each other's work, rather than about niggling personal issues (though they do dip into those as well), and this is another area where women and gay men excel. (I hope my gay readers will not feel I'm unfairly stereotyping them for their way with a cutting remark.)

One might argue that Top Chef and cooking shows of its ilk are also meritocracies; their contestants are also not chosen for their looks, and they also depend entirely on a merciless work schedule for drama. I'd agree with that, but I have never been able to get into cooking shows for one simple reason: I can't taste or smell the food. I have to take the word of the judges what's good and what's not. I may not agree with what the judges on Project Runway like -- I am constantly being reminded how little I know about fashion, in fact -- but at least I am able to form my own opinion with the same amount of information as they have.

And the judges are both amusing in their comments, and qualified to make those comments, which is refreshing on a show like this. I don't know how Paula Abdul ever got into a position to judge other people's singing, considering she has the thinnest, squeakiest voice ever committed to magnetic tape and would never have gone anywhere without the razzle-dazzle of her tightly choreographed music videos. Whereas, Michael Kors is an actual designer with an actual, ongoing product line, and has a marvelous knack for both stinging one liners and for praising good work. The same goes for the inscrutable Nina Garcia, who has been working at fashion magazines forever and looks slightly uncomfortable without a martini in her hand. The show's other star, the diminutive-yet-dapper Tim Gunn, is like the nicest uncle on planet Earth, and his mentoring segments are somehow very comforting even if they rarely seem to be particularly helpful. (And I call him diminutive because if I can tell how tiny someone is even on television, which tends to make everyone seem the same size, you are tiny! Tinkerbell tiny! Thumbelina tiny! I'm reaching for a tiny reference that doesn't sound like I'm calling him gay and I'm not coming up with one!)

And of course the show is anchored by Heidi Klum, who somehow manages to seem kind and sweet and approachable (and gorgeous) at the top of each show (when she's telling the designers about the challenges) and ice-cold at the end (critiquing the results and kicking people off). She's the Simon and the Paula, all in one beautiful body. She looks great! Have I mentioned that?

Is this show perfect? Of course it's not. It bends over backwards and then twists and then bends again to find new ways of shoehorning product placement, any old product placement, into every episode -- the one where the designers had to make clothes out of whatever they found at the Hershey candy store stands out in my memory -- to the point that it's distracting and obviously not very relevant to "fashion" or "making clothes" or "temporal reality."

It also, like all reality shows, has a habit of keeping the most colorful characters around longer than their work justifies, just so they can stir the pot a week or two longer. I'm prepared to forgive this indiscretion (most of the time) because I watch the show for entertainment, and because no one ever wins the whole show because they're colorful; this kind of thing is usually isolated to the early rounds.

This season has had an unusual number of team challenges, which predictably lead to a lot of interpersonal strife as the designers disagree about matters of taste and each others' skill. I think this is because this season's crop of designers has been doing something I've never seen in the four or five seasons I've been watching: they've been giving each other constructive criticism, generally being supportive of each other, and even literally helping each other sew (on non-team challenges). So if the producers of this show want to work the puppet strings a little and get some drama out of nice, well-adjusted people by making them work together, that's fine with me.

I'll close with this question, and it's something that's bugged me for as long as I've been watching Project Runway: why can't fashion designers dress themselves? I have never seen so many insanely bad haircuts and outfits in one place as one sees weekly in the Project Runway workroom. These people seem to have very good taste when it comes to what other people wear but make themselves look ridiculous. Even I know you don't wear a plaid bow tie with a short-sleeved polka-dot shirt and rolled-up jean shorts with braided suspenders. But maybe I just don't understand fashion.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Elvis Presley's Greatest Album Has No Music On It

It's odd, in a way, that I am so fascinated by the career of Elvis Presley, because apart from his Sun records singles that launched his career and maybe the first album he did for RCA, I'm not a big fan of his music. Nonetheless, I've read a few books about him, because I am a rock-star biography junkie -- I even read one about the Grateful Dead, who I consider literally the worst band ever to get famous -- and I find his story enormously interesting. The rise, the fall, everything in between -- the path this guy followed from weaponized sex symbol to torpid caricature is just endlessly engrossing.

I particularly recommend the oral biography "Elvis and the Memphis Mafia," written by three of his closest confidants. His exploits in the '60s, when he was making movies more than music, are unbelievable. He got into some truly demented stuff -- Scatter the pet chimpanzee comes to mind -- and that era is woefully underexplored and could make a really, really great movie just on its own. But having said that, I have always had a morbid fixation on the '70s era, when Elvis quit making crappy movies and returned to touring with a great enthusiasm that soon devolved into total boredom and self-hatred.

This boredom was largely the result of an increasing, well-documented opiate addiction, but there were definitely other factors. Much has been written on this topic. Entire books have been written on it. But if you want to know how Elvis really felt about his lot in life, circa 1974 (which is the same time he started blowing up like Violet Beauregard), the best source of insight is the man himself.

Now, Elvis granted almost no interviews, and famously limited his personal interactions to an inner circle of guys he went to high school with and a parade of starlets willing to indulge his fascination with white cotton panties. He did his best to keep a stiff upper lip for the public, to maintain a wall of mystery and the distance of a true star, but he did let his true feelings out on occasion. And, oddly enough, the person most invested in maintaining this code of silence, Colonel Tom Parker, was the one who made it public.

By 1974, Colonel Parker -- who was not a Colonel in any army, and had invented the name "Tom Parker" -- had an insane stranglehold over Elvis' business.  As his manager, he had kept a 25% stake of Elvis' earnings from the beginning of his career -- much more than the traditional manager's cut of 15% -- and in the '70s renegotiated that deal up to a 50/50 split of Presley's pre-tax, gross earnings. But somehow, this was not enough for the Colonel, and he devised various side deals, merchandising arrangements, and other ways to cash in on Elvis' name. One of these was Boxcar Records, a label that Parker set up himself, even though he had no rights to any of Elvis' music. (Despite his oft-professed business acumen, he had sold all rights and royalties on Elvis' music to RCA. This of course had deep financial ramifications for Elvis, but that's another story.)

So what do you put on your record label if you only manage one artist and you don't have the rights to any of his music? Having Fun With Elvis On Stage.

A shameless cash-in designed to exploit the many people out there who would buy literally anything with the word "Elvis" on it, Having Fun With Elvis On Stage is, as advertised (in small print) on its sleeve, "A Talking Album Only": An amateurishly assembled set of short clips of Elvis' remarks between songs during his concerts. '70s Elvis, lingering north of 220 lbs, tended to get a little winded between songs, so while he caught his breath he would wander the stage handing out scarves (each blessed with a single dab of sweat from his forehead) and kisses to the hysterical female fans in the front rows. He would also talk. And talk. And talk. A few themes emerge from these ramblings: Theme #1: Elvis feels old, and he's bored. At one point he mentions that he made his first record in 1927. He tells the audience that he has 228 songs left to sing tonight, and says so with the weary resignation of the seasoned clock-puncher. He remarks several times that people are freaking out when he really isn't doing anything at all to earn it. As the crowd goes wild, he says "If that's all I gotta do, I got it made." After taking the world by force twenty years prior, it had to be kind of weird to know in his heart that he was putting on crappy shows and the audience didn't care. Theme #2: Elvis thinks he's funny. His jokes are terrible, but after years of being surrounded by sycophants howling at his every word, he thinks he's hilarious. His favorite joke, done in various ways on this record, is his response to the many requests being shouted at him from the audience: "I can do that one, and that one, and the other one. You know what I can't do? (Cue descending staccato piano figure, ending with snare hit) All three of them at the same time." Or how about this one: "I'd like to do a medley of my biggest records for you. Actually, all of them were about the same size." Theme #3: Elvis really doesn't want to sing. I'm not quite sure what it is he does want to do  -- though my guess is that a tub of ice cream would probably be involved -- but he doesn't want to sing. Over and over, he sings "Well...." as though about to start a song, but just keeps repeating "Well... well well well well well we-e-ell..." before going right back to talking to the audience. Theme #4: Elvis is losing his grip on reality. "You didn't know you were coming to see a crazy man, did you?" It's hard to get this aspect of the record across with a quote -- it's more a vibe that pervades the whole record. Theme #5: Elvis is a slave to his female fans. He hands out scarves and kisses to the women in the front row, who can be heard practically ordering him around. "Just a second" is one of the most used phrases on this record, along with "I'll be right there."  "Where's granny?" begins one of my favorite passages on this record. "Hang in there, granny." The greatest sex symbol in the history of anything, reduced to pecking grandmas on the cheek in hotel showrooms. It would be sad if it weren't so funny. Or maybe I have that backward. PS: When I first read about this record in one of those biographies, I found its existence so fascinating that I read the passage about it aloud to my wife, who promptly went to a then-new website called eBay, found a copy, and gave it to me for my birthday. I listened to it a whole bunch of times and found it very weird and funny and fascinating. (My wife, on the other hand, almost immediately regretted buying it for me, as she finds it insufferable.) But I soon found another way to listen to it that was much more fun, which was to play it simultaneously with some other record, preferably a long instrumental. "Thank You For Talking To Me Africa" or "Sex Machine" by Sly and the Family Stone are great for this, as is "Got To Give It Up" by Marvin Gaye, but just about any record with not a lot of lyrics will do. What's amazing is that, no matter where you drop the needle on Having Fun With Elvis On Stage, it seems to sync up with whatever other music you've got on. Try it yourself: play the above YouTube embed along with the song of your choice (again, it's best if it's an instrumental) -- it seems like a deliberately produced remix or something. It's true of just about any spoken-word recording -- human speech has a natural rhythm that matches up well with music, even when the speech and the music have nothing at all to do with each other -- but it's more fun with Elvis. Enjoy!