Billy and Beyond

I wasn’t able to get tickets to the Piano and a Microphone tour when it played the Paramount Theater in February, but when an Oracle Arena show was announced days later, there was no way I was going to miss it. We were discussing babysitting options for our eight-year-old son when my wife said, “We should just take the kid to the show. Prince isn’t getting any younger. What if this is the last time he comes around?”

This sounded ridiculous to me. Prince loved the Bay Area. He would be back soon and often. And I wasn’t 100% sure that he wasn’t getting younger. But the boy was doing well in his piano classes, and his sensitive ears weren’t ready for screaming guitars, so it seemed like a good fit for his first concert. I bought three tickets, and I am so glad I did.

The wall-to-wall coverage of Prince’s death must have been difficult for my son to process. He could clearly see that Prince’s death meant a great deal to me. And just 41 days earlier, he saw this dynamic artist hold 17,000 people in the palm of his hand. He didn’t say much, but I did notice that his eyes would light up every time The Vault was mentioned. So much of the news must have been confusing to him, but The Vault is easy for a kid to grasp. It’s like the subject of a children’s book: a magical room overflowing with beautiful music and protected by a cartoonish bank vault door.

One day, out of the blue, my son said, “Dad, I don’t think they should release the music in The Vault. I don’t think Prince would have wanted that.”

It was a surprisingly thoughtful take on the situation, and I was proud of him. Any time a second grader shows concern for someone other than himself, it’s cause for celebration. Although on a certain level, I felt like I was sad enough about Prince already. My son being a moral irritant wasn’t helping matters.

Let’s face it; there’s nothing my kid can say that will change how I approach The Vault. I’m going to eagerly wish for music to be released, and when it’s released, I’m going to voraciously consume it. I’m Homer Simpson stealing cable, and I’ve got Lisa antagonizing me about it.

cable

Or maybe my son is the monkey in the Mr. Show sketch, taking the fun out of everything by asking why we’re going to blow up the moon.

monkey
Galileo just asked why… he said, “why are you blowing up the moon?”

I adore the eight-year-old angel on my shoulder, but Spooky Electric is on my other shoulder, dropping some serious funk in my ear. He’s only ten seconds into “Possessed” and I’ve already forgotten my kid’s name. I have chosen not to question the release of music from The Vault. Thank you for your submission, but I am not accepting opinions to the contrary at this time.

**

Lest you think I am completely bereft of morals, there is something I’m losing sleep over: what to do about the glut of unreleased Prince material that has shown up on YouTube and elsewhere since April 21.

I can’t cling to my “who knows how Prince would have felt about this?” defense here. Prince’s thoughts on the subject were made abundantly clear by his actions. For years he spent considerable time and legal resources scrubbing this sort of stuff from YouTube.

On the other hand, YouTube’s version of “All My Dreams” sounds so much better than the ninth-generation copy I’ve had on cassette tape for two decades. Hmmm… I guess that’s not much of a moral justification. Let’s try again. The world must be at least a slightly better place now that millions of people have access to “In A Large Room With No Light.” Right?

**

And then there’s “Billy,” a scratchy recording of a Revolution rehearsal from 1984. You may know it as “Billy’s Sunglasses,” or you may not know it at all, as the song is simply a 51-minute jam, and I am not aware of it ever being played before or after this rehearsal. It starts with ten minutes of Prince noodling/shredding on guitar and ends with ten minutes of Prince goofing off and teaching the band the chord progression of “Strange Relationship.” Both of these stretches are intriguing, but in between them? A half-hour of magic.

Starting with a simple mid tempo blues-rock framework, the band eventually finds a groove based on a soaring little guitar riff. I heard this for the first time two months ago, but it is one of those pieces of music that feels like it has existed forever. Maybe my brain is processing it as a variation of an earlier or later groove released by Prince (or a song by an unrelated artist), but I am unable to consciously identify it as such. Regardless, it lifts my heart in a way that I can’t describe, and when the glorious guitar solos kick in, I am damn near in tears. Listening to this jam is easily the most joy I’ve derived from Prince’s music since his passing.

The lyrics (if you can call them that) are a series of bluesy riffs on, “Oh Billy, where’d you find them glasses?”  Presumably, these glasses:

billy2

It’s a silly line, but Prince isn’t building a novelty song here. He doesn’t giggle through the lyrics or add much to the joke. It’s not thirty minutes of sunglasses jokes; it’s one sunglasses joke stretched over thirty minutes. Billy’s glasses are simply a placeholder as Prince tries to figure out what (if anything) this jam is going to become.

I am not a musician, and I’m sure my emotions are clouding my judgment here. But to my untrained ear, with a little effort (and a new set of lyrics), “Billy” could have become a legendary anthem. Replace “Oh, Billy” with “O, Jesus” and I can see this song as the closer on the Lovesexy Tour. (“O, Jesus, where’d you find them glasses?” Okay, it would still need a little work.) Regardless of the subject matter, this song would have slayed live. As if the guitars weren’t enough, at one point someone (Lisa?) drops in an arena-rock piano lick that would make the E. Street Band proud.

As it is, the jam became… nothing. Maybe at some point in the rehearsal, the band kicked something loose that ended up slightly influencing the released version of “Strange Relationship,” but that’s about it. You or I would have dropped to our knees and thanked our muse for sending us this once-in-a-lifetime groove, but Prince moved on to the next one and never looked back. As he sang on the extended version of “I Wish U Heaven”:

Take this beat, I don’t mind
I got plenty others, and they so fine

**

The contrarian view of The Vault pops up in quotes from insiders on occasion: “There’s a reason these songs were never released.” It’s implied that most of these songs were never good enough to make the cut, and I’m sure there are plenty of clunkers among the hundreds of studio recordings in The Vault. But I’ve heard more than enough to know that Prince had no problem burying a brilliant gem if he didn’t have an immediate use for it. And I’m hearing more every week. I’m hearing songs like “Billy,” which Prince never found a reason to release, and probably never even bothered to record in the studio.

Prince’s estate has a lot of fires to put out these days, but I’m sure that before long, they will have time to focus on copyright infringement, and they will start whacking these YouTube moles in earnest. They will probably end my YouTube binge before I make an ethical stand and do it myself. They will package some of these Vault tracks and sell them (undoctored, I hope, but that’s a topic for another day). I will give them all of my money. It will work out for all involved, particularly if my kid is off his high horse by then and I don’t have to hide the music from him.

Until then, what are your thoughts on tracks from The Vault leaking to YouTube and elsewhere? Let’s discuss it. On second thought, you all talk amongst yourselves. I’m going to be sitting over here with my headphones on…

Oh Billy, where’d you find them glasses?
Give up the info, now
Billy, Billy… where’d you find them glasses, now?
You know they’re the strangest glasses that I ever seen
I gotta get me some, Billy…

 

2 thoughts on “Billy and Beyond

    1. My wife bought herself some sunglasses for her birthday, and last night my son was singing, “Oh, mommy, where’d you get them glasses?” while we were out at dinner, so I think he’s coming around to my way of thinking.

      Like

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