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Old 08-12-2021, 07:20 PM   #10 (permalink)
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Super Freak, Super Ego: On the Road with the James Gang

Enter sex god Rick James, whose albums had experienced something of a slowdown in recent times. James was known as a sort of James Brown clone, lewd and promiscuous on stage, a bundle of energy and not really caring too much what folks said about him. But he cared when, in order to boost sales, he packed his fourth album, Garden of Love, with soft rock ballads, and was in danger of being seen as a sell-out to whitey. He needed a strong opening act that showcased the kind of values he was about himself; a protege, perhaps, maybe even a clone of a clone. Someone who could show he was still black and proud, and had not sold out, and had plenty of juice left in his love trunch… you get the idea.

James had of course heard Prince’s single, and liked the album, too. What he heard gave him to think that maybe his search was over, and when he got a video of Prince and saw how he performed this idea was reinforced, and so Prince joined him on his Fire it Up tour. It was to rank as perhaps one of the biggest missteps in the career of Rick James. Arrogant to a fault Prince may have been, but he knew talent when he saw it and while he could play and record like almost nobody else, he was a virtual beginner when it came to playing live. So he watched as James went through his repertoire every evening, watched all the moves he made, the signs he gave, the way he worked the audience, and essentially stole them all. When James found out, he was furious. It got to the point where James could no longer perform his signature moves, as they had become Prince’s signature moves, and it looked to the audience as if James were copying Prince.

Life on the road is traditionally hard, but Prince used it as an opportunity to come up with songs that would surface on his next album. One of these, “Head”, would cost him his keyboard player, Gayle Chapman. The song refers to a bride on her wedding day being met by Prince who wants her to give him a blow job (or maybe she wants to give him one, not sure; check the album review later) and was perhaps one of his first truly controversial songs (something he would address with the title of his fourth album), written specifically, he said, to get a response and to make his name. In order to push this idea, he would perform the song live and asked (well, told; Prince never asked anyone to do anything) Gayle to indulge in the mock-fellatio with him onstage. She being a devout Christian seems to have been a little embarrassed and scandalised by this, and among a host of other reasons it led to her quitting the band. Her departure would clear the stage - literally - for the emergence of one of the most important people in Prince’s life.

Looking for a replacement for Chapman, Prince was sent a tape by a young keyboard player and songwriter called Lisa Coleman. From the first they hit it off, and Coleman moved to Minneapolis to join the band. He wrote a song for her (imaginatively titled “Lisa”) but Coleman’s sexual preferences tended in another direction. It’s always possible they got together, as neither ever revealed anything to the contrary, but she certainly became an integral part of his band. Prince continued to write songs, including ones intended to shock, such as “Sister”, in which he contemplated - and, within the song, engaged in - incest, and the never-going-to-be-played-on-the-radio “When the Shit Comes Down.” Life on the road was, however, taking its toll, and he began to suffer from fits of black depression, which he found hard to break out of, and needed the help of friends to resist.

Depression or not though, Rick James had had enough of this pretender to his crown, and decided to sort him out, man to man. The two bands had a meeting, during which it was threatened that if Prince stole James’ moves, then he would be ejected from the tour. Quite who James was going to get to replace him at such short notice is not recorded, but he related with satisfaction in his Memoirs of a Soul Freak, “he acted like a little bitch while his band and mine patched up their differences.” After this meeting - which seemed to intimidate Prince, as surely it was meant to do - Prince no longer copied James. I think his quote above is a little unfair. After all, James was six foot, a big, tough, no-nonsense black guy who would probably deck you as soon as look at you, and all his band the same. Prince was five-foot nothing, quiet and reserved when not on stage, and a beginner in this whole music business deal. James was an icon, and to some extent Prince might have been overawed by him.

He had the last laugh though, as years later Rick James was forced to admit that Prince was “a great player and a very innovative person”, but to me this reads as forced, like someone who had held that Hitler wasn’t so bad or that Bowie wasn’t a musical genius being forced, by the weight of the evidence of history, to admit to their mistake and grudgingly give credit (or blame) where it was due. I feel (though I don’t know this, but given what I’ve read about him I wouldn’t be surprised) that James never quite forgave Prince for stealing his thunder. He had brought the little newcomer on as a way to prop up or revitalise his somewhat shaky career, or at least reinforce his image as a true black musician who had not sold out, and Prince totally upstaged and embarrassed him. In essence, if not intentionally Prince was saying “your day is over, man; this is how it’s going to be.” And I doubt James ever got over that.

And how did his career go? Hmm. Let’s have a look. Oh, I see! Indicted for assaulting - both sexually and physically - a woman, torturing her, holding her prisoner in 1991, and while out on bail again assaulting another woman, this time a record company executive. A cocaine addict, sent to jail for five years (though he only served two), accused of two more rapes on his release, one historical, of a fifteen-year old (though he won the case), it seems his record career plunged as Prince’s was rising. His last clutch of albums, from about 1985 - 1997, were all poorly received by critics and hardly bothered the charts, while Prince at this time was riding high with albums such as Purple Rain and Around the World in a Day. Revenge is sweet. James died in 2004, at the age of 56. Prince outlasted him by twelve years, and by two in terms of age, dying at the age of 58. People in the funk and soul world remember and probably love James; people all over the world and across the music spectrum remember and love Prince. It’s possible the general public remember one or two James songs, but stop anyone in the street, anyone with the slightest musical knowledge or interest in music, and they will more than likely be able to name a dozen songs by Prince.

But enough schadenfreude. Not enough? One more then. Rick James was a hateful, narcissistic, sex-obsessed cocaine addict who spent time behind bars for violently assaulting women. Prince was a narcissistic, sex-obsessed music addict who never, to my knowledge, saw the inside of a jail and never assaulted anyone, certainly no woman. If you’re a Rick James fan, apologies... are not necessary, as these are all matters of record and nothing is rumour or hearsay. It’s all there, easy to find. Apparently, according to his own account, knowing quite well that Prince did not drink, he accosted him at his (James’) birthday party, to which all the band members had been invited, and forced drink down his throat. Which Prince spat out, leading to James again calling him “a little bitch.” And that’s all I’ll say about the man. Now let's go back to the man about whom this journal is written.

Prince may have been destined for stardom, but it would not be an easy road, and while his first single from the self-titled album may have given him the impression he was on his way, the next one bombed. Much heavier, much more in a rock rather than disco vein, and much more acerbic and bitter, “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad” completely failed to follow its predecessor into the charts, fizzling out at number 13, and the ballad “Still Waiting” did even worse, not even scratching the top forty - and this was in the Hot Soul Singles Chart; neither of these single made the slightest impression where it mattered, the Billboard Hot 100. On the strength, so to speak, of lacklustre sales of the follow-up singles, and poor sales of the album anyway, Prince began to slide down the charts, and was gone after a mere twenty-eight weeks.

Disheartened, and hurting from his time with Rick James on the road, Prince moved into a rental in the costly suburbs of Lake Minnetonka to begin recording his third album. He doesn’t seem to have been able to stand still; if he wasn’t writing he was recording or performing live. Music was, almost literally, his life, and he seemed to, again almost literally, eat, drink, breathe and sleep the stuff. It was therefore one final insult when, having unpacked all his gear in his new pad he found his synthesisers, so central to his sound, were missing. James had robbed them, taken them on tour and later sent them back with a sarcastic thank-you note, but only after he had finished his album. How he had managed to steal them is a mystery, though personally I think if he held all of them behind his big fat head nobody would have seen them, and he could have smuggled them out.

For Prince, once again it was all-night sessions, and once again he did everything himself. But his mood had changed. Two not-particularly-successful albums and a very uncomfortable tour with Rick James had shown him the world was not the beautiful place he had believed it to be, and that people were not to be trusted. He distilled a lot of his anger into the third album, with tracks such as those he had written on the road - “Head” and “Sister” among them - nestling warily alongside newer material such as “Uptown”, “When You Were Mine” and the song which would later become not only the title of his new album, but something of an anthem for him as a later star.

The guitar took a back seat, and I guess he must have acquired synths from somewhere, because the album would be rife with them, diffusing cold electronic rage across the melodies where earlier warmer, more friendly danceable beats had frolicked. In some ways, the second track on his previous album - and the single that began his slide down the charts - “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad” could be seen as a turning point, a signpost indicating the way his new material would go. Out went the sappy love songs, in came hard, cynical, nasty explorations of the human condition, heart, and, well, other organs. Drummer Bobby Z thought it was the best work he had done since he had begun working with him. Critics would agree, praising the album as a “surprise” from the man who had released two basic funk albums with dance songs and ballads, but this would not translate either to chart success or massive sales, nor would it return him to the Billboard Hot 100.

His mode of working changed slightly. He began to accept, even court opinions from his band members, taking a keyboard riff Fink had written and improvising a whole song around it, retooling a Morris Day drum pattern and offering him a choice of ten thousand dollars or a recording contract, of which the drummer wisely chose the latter. Twelve days after he began recording, Dirty Mind was ready for release.
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