Working Up A Black Sweat

“I’ve got three acts. I don’t need four. I mean, what would you do in my position?”

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“Um… I would fire Dez Dickerson & the Modernaires. I can’t believe we’re even having this discussion. You do realize I wrote every song that these four acts play, right?”

Or at least that’s what I thought The Kid should have told Billy. Prince’s character in Purple Rain was believable as a Troubled Misfit, but as an Underdog just trying to hold on to a nightclub gig?

Sure, Prince lore does feature one classic underdog story. In November of 1981, 90,000 rock fans showed up to the L.A. Coliseum for a show featuring The Rolling Stones, J. Geils Band, George Thorogood, and a tiny unknown black man wearing high heels and a thong singing “Jack U Off.” What could go wrong?

“Jack U Off” was an aggressively heterosexual come on, mind you, although as bassist Brown Mark explains…

When you talk about street lingo, where I come from, guys don’t jack girls off. I don’t think Prince understood that—Prince was in his own world.

If you are guessing that the Los Angeles crowd reacted to Prince singing “I’ll jack you off” by breaking into discussion groups to ponder how sexual slang varies among different regions and cultures, you are mistaken. They didn’t know what to make of Prince to begin with, and “Jack U Off” was the last straw. They chased him off the stage in a torrent of verbal and literal garbage. To Prince’s credit, he showed up again two days later to face the same ordeal.

Prince was taken from us much too soon as it is, but I look at a picture like this…

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…and I’m grateful that he wasn’t taken 35 years earlier.

So, The Kid as an underdog might have worked if the antagonists in Purple Rain were racist homophobes, but by the time the movie was shot, “Little Red Corvette” and “1999” were burning up the charts, and Prince was clearly oozing otherworldly talent over every frame of the film. You’re trying to tell me that he can’t cut it at First Avenue, portrayed in the movie as a multiracial, androgynous Wonderland? His days as an underdog were clearly behind him.

Or were they?

On August 3, 1983, Prince and the Revolution were at the top of their game, producing the live tracks that would anchor the Purple Rain album/film during a landmark First Avenue gig. But just 17 days later, before shooting for the movie began, Prince would be humbled in Los Angeles once again, when James Brown called Michael Jackson and then Prince to the stage.

Jackson performs for only 31 seconds, but it’s a transcendent performance nonetheless, an all-time “leave ’em wanting more” move. You could show that 31 seconds to a baby or a Martian and they would know they were looking at a superstar. After setting the bar high, Jackson spends the next 31 seconds pleading with Brown to call Prince up too.

Some may say Prince’s performance got off on the wrong foot when he was carried to the stage on the back of his massive bodyguard, Big Chick Huntsberry. I would disagree. I think it’s a perfect way for the diminutive Prince to make an entrance, and if a director ever wants to make a smaller, personal film about Prince’s world, they could do a lot worse than exploring the relationship between Prince and Big Chick.

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But things soon go downhill, as Prince commandeers a (left-handed?) guitar and is unable to accomplish much with it. He salvages the appearance with a solid double “microphone between the legs” move, he preens a bit, and then he takes a bow, leading to perhaps the most relatable moment of his career. Have you ever been mildly embarrassed and tried to exit a party without calling any extra attention to yourself? I certainly remember what that’s like. It feels something like…

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“Okay, this isn’t my night, but that wasn’t so bad. The guitar bit flopped, and it kills me to be shown up by Michael Jackson, but who cares… it’s not like anyone with a computer will be able to watch this performance on demand in 30 years. I just need to finish my bow and quietly exit past this sturdy lamppost and I can forget all about this.”

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“This is not my night. What kind of lamppost collapses when a hundred-pound man lightly places a hand on it? Actually, why is there a lamppost here in the first place? That’s okay. Be cool. Just help push the lamppost back up, and as long as it doesn’t break…”

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“This is not my night.”

This serves as a reminder that not everything came easy to Prince. And while we are all familiar with the many contrasts of Prince’s persona (black/white, male/female, sacred/profane), there is one more dichotomy that stood out to me: the enigmatic Genius who floats on a magic cloud of talent and charisma versus the Human.

With the exception of the Rolling Stones story, all Prince lore serves the Genius theory. He wrote his first song when he was seven. He played all 27 instruments on his first album. He wrote and recorded so much music that there are “thousands” of unreleased songs in The Vault. The idea of Prince as a savant is explored in detail at Daily Grail, with quotes like this one from keyboardist Morris Hayes:

I was just one of those church cats that played music by ear, so at first it was very difficult for me to keep up. We wouldn’t just learn one song, we’d learn a string of songs, and when we’d come back the next day I’d forget some. I remember he pulled me to the side and said, “Are you a genius, Morris?” I said no. “O.K., then write it down. I don’t write it down ‘cause I’m a genius. I’ve got a million of ‘em, and I can remember. But unless you’re a genius, write it down.”

People who encountered Prince often tell stories of him mysteriously appearing or disappearing, a reputation Prince played with when making his Twitter debut in 2013.

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I suppose there is one other humanizing story in Prince lore. Wikipedia states that Prince had epilepsy as a child. I think we can all relate to this, because illness doesn’t care how gifted you are…

My mother told me one day I walked in to her and said, “Mom, I’m not going to be sick anymore,” and she said, “Why?” and I said, “Because an angel told me so.”

Oh. Never mind.

In early 2004, Prince opened the Grammys with Beyoncé, was inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame (before destroying it with one of the greatest guitar solos ever), and launched his Musicology tour. From that point on, every time I saw Prince perform in person or on screen, his brilliance was seemingly effortless. “I’m working up a black sweat!” he sang in 2005, but it never looked like he was working or sweating. It was like Michael Jackson’s 31 seconds in 1983, except for 12 consecutive years. And it’s why I thought he might live forever.

Ironically, when he was at his peak in the eighties, he usually did appear to be a fallible human working up a black sweat. He was more like the other man on that 1983 stage, the “hardest working man in show business.” His most successful tours financially (Purple Rain) and critically (Lovesexy) were scripted affairs that required a lot from Prince (multiple instruments, a wild range of vocal styles, costume changes, and a fair amount of acting), but left little space for him to improvise and let his genius flow naturally. If you saw a two-hour show in 1985, you might think, “That was amazing; he left everything he had on that stage.” If you saw a three-hour show in 2011, you might think, “That was amazing; I bet he could have played for another three hours.”

Throughout his career, I would sometimes use his physical appearance as shorthand for whether we were looking at the Human or the Genius. If he looked constrained by too much lace or too many accessories, he was struggling with something (his record company? stardom? God?). If he looked comfortable, he was invincible on stage.

This action figure wrapped in eight layers of lace at the 1985 Grammys?

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He was working something out, and while his performance of “Baby I’m A Star” was fabulous, it was Human. He left a puddle of sweat on that stage. An extra layer of lace knocked over the microphone stand…

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…and then Prince clocked himself with the microphone in his haste to pick it up. (What is it about L.A.?)

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He somehow managed to belt out the first lyric of the song (“Hey!”) at the exact moment that the microphone tried to kill him, and he never looked back. It was an admirably professional moment, and the performance was ultimately brilliant. But it was human.

A year later, this guy was comfortable and confident, and his performances were unbridled orgies of natural ability.

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Prince has been gone for three months now, and this photo is 30 years old. But regardless, he just stole your girl.

The guy on the cover of the Lovesexy tour book was a troubled human…

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…but the guy at the Super Bowl fluttered into Dolphin Stadium on the wings of doves and exceedingly funky angels.

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This is reductive bullshit, of course. The times when we were able to see Prince’s flop sweat, he was still a once-in-a-lifetime talent. And when the genius seemed to be flowing through him with ease, he was still working his ass off. He could knock things over in his pajamas, or dazzle when he was BeDazzled. He would do his best to look cool when he was struggling, and when he was in the zone, he might draw attention to imperfections. I saw him do that in Oakland just weeks before his death, making an exaggerated “that’s not quite right” face as he repeated the last measures of “Under The Cherry Moon” on the piano three or four times. (They all sounded perfect to me, for what it’s worth.)

Bruce Springsteen is a much more prolific songwriter than people give him credit for (he’s got his own vault of unreleased material), and he was considered somewhat of a guitar prodigy as a teenager. But if you were to ask his fans to describe him in one word, few would say “talented.” His relationship with his fans is based on letting them see him sweat.

As a Springsteen fan, you would think I would appreciate seeing Prince sweat as well. But while I am certain that the internal conflicts behind his more human performances also fueled some of his greatest records, I must admit that I grew quite attached to the Genius on stage. I saw this infallible man perform eight times over the past dozen years and it was breathtaking every time.

What about you? Do you ever consider the Human and the Genius separately, or do you always see the complete picture? Were your favorite Prince performances sweaty or sublime?

Either way, I don’t care how many lampposts The Kid knocks over… Billy should just fire Dez and move on, no?

One thought on “Working Up A Black Sweat

  1. You’re such a good writer! I can’t say it enough. I never knew about those ‘human’ moments you brought up (especially the time he followed Jackson). That would be sad for ANY artist, genius or not.

    Liked by 1 person

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