To me, utopian moments in the pop universe are a matter of perfect moments—moments that suggest how rich, expansive, deep, and complex life and our living it out—sometimes, performing it—can be.
And such a moment can be no more than getting it right—as with this full-page ad that appeared on April 22, 2016, in the New York Times.
I say ad, but in fact it didn’t look like an ad, and you had to study it to find even a signpost—that little “Corvette” in the bottom right hand corner. This was an act of grace, marking a passage of one man who had made a difference, who had left the world bigger than he had found it, out of the world. It was funny, affectionate, direct, poetic, and heartbreaking. It said as much or more than all of the talk and all of the written tributes that followed Prince’s death on April 21, 2016. Maybe not more than the purple-lit bridges in Minneapolis and St. Paul, or the purple Eiffel Tower—but all were speaking the same language. We knew him.
I want to concentrate on three utopian moments made by Prince himself.
The first came with his first appearance in the Bay Area, at the Stone, on Broadway in San Francisco, on March 29, 1981.
Dirty Mind had come out the previous fall. It was a seven-hundred seat club, not that anyone was seated. Waitresses were walking on tables to deliver drinks. People were leaping and shouting.
It was a band of three Twin Cities African-Americans and two Twin Cities Jews—
– Dez Dickerson, guitar;
– André Cymone, bass (his upcoming album, 1969, includes a stunning “Black Lives Matter” that seems to have brought in a Dylan ghost on the vocals);
– Bobby Z, drums;
– Matt Fink, in scrubs, organ;
– Lisa Coleman, in black bra, piano
—and the most excited and diverse crowd I’ve ever been lucky enough to be part of: black and white, gay and straight, young and old, punk and funk, rich and poor.
“That was the history of rock ‘n’ roll in one song!” the friend I went with shouted at the end of “When You Were Mine”—a friend who became an alcoholic and died late last year, stumbling in front of a moving car—and he was right. “When You Were Mine” is as perfect a rock ’n’ roll song as Elvis’s “Don’t Be Cruel” or the Beatles “I’m Looking Through You,” both of which could have inspired it, which may be why the song doesn’t need four minutes to tell the whole story.
The show didn’t leave a wall, a fence, a barrier in the music standing. People walked out in a daze, strangers talking to each other, celebrating, “Can you believe that?” knowing they would never be in such a perfect place again, knowing they had a night in their lives against which they could—they would be cursed to—measure all that followed.
And that song is the one I hear playing on First Avenue North and First Street North in Minneapolis on the side of a building——a huge photo mural of a single photograph, Prince entering some sort of party, trailed by a much taller blonde woman, Prince looking at once like a prince and an ordinary party person—and that wall, untouched since Prince died, is a hint of another kind of utopia.
That was being in the Twin Cities last April 21 and for the week after—to be in a place where, really, there was only one conversation. It was like a blizzard—it seemed no one talked about anything else. Where were you? What did you think of? What’s your favorite song? When’s the last time you saw him—out and around, because he was the world figure who never left town, who didn’t live in a Graceland prison, who was always at shows, on the street, in the record stores. It seemed like everyone had met him, encountered him, knew him. Even me—I once shook his hand.
Another utopian moment: the opening show of the Lovesexy tour, at the Omnisport Palais in Paris, July 8, 1988.
As French rock critics insisted this was proof that Prince had sold out—to who? for what?—we looked out at a million dollar set. The equipment filled two 747 cargo jets or 14 trucks. It had what must have been the most sophisticated lighting and sound in the history of mass entertainment.
With a nine-piece band there were countless costume changes, skits, and choreographed dances across three hours in which every step was blocked out, every gesture was scripted.
Not a drop of sweat was left to chance—and the whole thing was contained in one man’s head, rehearsed past the point of role and spectacle and into the theatrical realm where artifice and routine communicate as necessity and will, like Etta James in her sixties in some ratty club singing “All I Could Do Was Cry” or “I’d Rather Go Blind” with more passion than she brought to it when it was a hit thirty or forty years before.
All that equipment was will and necessity—and the show transcended itself when sound overwhelmed, when it superseded, merely physical movement, merely electronic color. While people gasped at certain shifts in staging, this was the real shock. Again, it was “When You Were Mine” where it happened first, and most deeply.
Prince opened it up on his guitar with the all-hell-is-breaking-loose-and-what-the-hell-is-going-on confusion that kicks off the first moments of Claudine Clark’ “Party Lights”—but with the the excitement of the opening theme sustained for more than six minutes, the guitar shaping the singing to ring changes of wit on regret, seduction on defeat, maturity on adolescence, blues on rock ’n’ roll.
There weren’t any video screens. It was one of those moments when, confronted with a distant figure on the stage, with the huge noise that even after years of concert-going you can’t connect to the performer’s body, you almost shudder at the reaction building up inside you, as you ask yourself, “Is this real? It this actually happening?”
It was one of those times when you shut your eyes, trying to commit a thousand flashing nuances to a memory that can’t begin to hold them, not even one of them in its true shape—and you know that for all the rehearsals, all the effects, every detail of the script, the song can never be played exactly this way again.
This is an event: at its heart, in what it makes you feel, it can’t be predicted, and it can never happen again. Like a fan who won’t wash the hand that touched the star—and it was after that show that I shook Prince’s hand—
you’re afraid to go to sleep, afraid of what you might forget.
And then there is “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”—the performance that seemed to be on every screen after Prince died.
In Robert Palmer’s 1995 book Rock ’n’ Roll—An Unruly History, there’s a chapter called “The Church of the Sonic Guitar.”
Bob was a musician—he played clarinet and sax for Insect Trust on their album Hoboken Saturday Night, and he was a music critic, mostly for the New York Times. I’ve always treasured his modesty and his ability to be surprised. I remember a piece in the Boston Phoenix on Public Image’s Metal Box, the album originally released as a set of 12” 45s in a film canister, and Bob describing seeing it in a record store window, “wondering what it was.”
Bob wrote Deep Blues, Jerry Lee Lewis Rocks! and the posthumous Blues & Chaos, a collection that painfully did not stand up. But “The Church of the Sonic Guitar” is both rigorous and delirious. I’m not even sure the title is Bob’s—it seems to have always been there, waiting in the music for someone to find it.
Jerry Garcia once described Phil Spector’s production of Ike and Tina Turner’s “River Deep-Mountain High”: “That record sounds like God hit the world and the world hit back.” Here is Bob Palmer, defining the Church of the Electric Guitar:
“The electric guitar can merely make the instrument’s single-note lines a little louder, so that the musician can solo like a saxophonist or a brass player. But once a certain volume threshold has been passed, the electric guitar becomes another instrument entirely. Its tuning flexibility can now be used to set up sympathetic resonances between the strings so that techniques such as open tuning and bar chords can get the entire instrument humming sonorously, sustained by amplification until it becomes a representation of the sound of the wonder of creation itself.”
In other words, it’s the sound of God creating the world and the world creating back. That’s what happens in “My Guitar Gently Weeps,” the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame performance in 2004 when George Harrison was inducted as a solo artist, three years after his death—the same year Prince was inducted himself.
In this performance you see the church being sighted, plans drawn up, the place built, and the sermon being delivered—rock ’n’ roll has always been bound up with Biblical, especially Christian, metaphors, from before the Showmen’s “It Will Stand” (“They’re out, trying to rue it/Forgive them, they know not why they do it”) to long past today—you see that all happen in a performance I’m sure everyone here has seen.There are Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne, Stevie Winwood, George’s son Dhani Harrison—Prince is there, but he’s barely visible in the video footage, far off to the side—you catch a broad-brimmed red hat or you don’t.
The guitarist Marc Mann, Jeff Lynne’s collaborator, plays the Eric Clapton solo from the Beatles recording, note for note—this is a tribute, this is what you get with tributes. It’s what you want and what you expect and it’s satisfying.
The warmest moment I know in rock ’n’ roll comes near the end of Rod Stewart’s “Every Picture Tells a Story,” where just as Rod is winding up for the big close, a voice from someone in the band comes out of one channel. It’s just a soft, “Hey….”—but it’s like an embrace, of the singer, of the song, of the audience, for hearing how wonderful it is. A whole body, the presence of a real person, stepping into this dramatic, theatrical, fictional event, is in that single syllable, that one breath. I swoon whenever I hear it—whenever I merely think of it.
But the look on Dhani Harrison’s face when Prince steps from the side of the stage to the center is just as full, as loving, as thrilled, as complete. It’s a grin that says, this is going to be it, the time of your life, the time of my life, a time in the life of this song it never expected, that it may not ever deserve, but now this moment will be part of the song forever.
Prince opens up into a guitar solo—the first of what will be many solos, which open up into his grin. You suddenly realize how rarely he let you see him smile. The satisfaction, the pleasure of being the best guitarist in the world—as Eric Clapton said when he was asked what it felt like to be that, he said, Don’t ask me, ask Prince. We ride through peaks and valleys. We shudder and bend in false endings. The music reaches a pitch of technical mastery that becomes an aesthetic end in itself, something that defines the meaning and the place of art as such—that human beings could achieve such beauty, a symbolic enactment of the belief that anything is possible.
I want to move on to David Bowie—and “Young Americans.”
Is it possible to listen to this without feeling the sense of play Bowie brings to it? He’s grabbing ideas and images from everywhere as he walks down the street, as he walks through history—he’s wearing a dozen hearts on his sleeve and they’re all bright red neon, connected to a battery pack in his belt.
He can do anything. “Young Americans” sounds vaguely like “Hitler Youth” in his accent, but as the song goes on it opens up, and you see every kind of face.
Lars von Trier used it to orchestrate the montage at the end of Dogville—more than five minutes of still photographs of American misery, with blocks of black-and- white scenes from the 1930s (Dorothea Lange and Ben Shahn and more) alternating with present-day color.It’s a stunning movie, Nicole Kidman living too many lives of abasement ever to forget a minute of any of them. The use of the song is a typical von Trier cheap shot, as exploitive of the endless rapes Kidman has gone through as it is of the song. But the music escapes; it sucks you in. You are hearing, even watching the song more than you’re watching von Trier’s sour montage. The rush of the sometimes all-but-hysterical singing takes over, and you want to know how the song’s story turns out, whether the young Americans are going to make it—make it into history and out of the trap history has set for them.
At the end, everything comes to a head with one great shout:
Ain’t there one damn song that can make me
Break down and cry?
And it stops you cold, making you ask, Is there?
I believe that moment in the song. I believe it means exactly what it says—that it’s a real question, and that when Bowie wrote the line he didn’t know the answer. He had the radio on and there was nothing that moved him, so he had to write the song himself.
“You couldn’t call it soul/You had to call it heart,” Maria Muldaur sang in Kate McGarrigle’s “The Work Song” in 1973, about old-time music, “back before the blues were blue.” There’s a strain of heart music in Bowie that’s absolutely modern—with a sheen, a sparkle, a sense of casting back to nothing, a possibility that everything can be new and everything can be lost—and to me, rendering that, making that happen, is the Bowie utopia, the creation of a country too delicate, too subtle, to live in, and too glamorous to ever turn away from.
It’s there in the empathy, the ability to get lost in someone else’s crowd, of “All the Young Dudes,” which Bowie wrote for Mott the Hoople; it’s the sense of regret and loss in “The Man Who Sold the World”—the world is gone.
It’s in his tone of voice. The freedom to make fun of everything, including himself, while being completely serious, meaning every word, trusting every switchback in the arrangement, at the same time—this is what you hear all over Pinups and in “Modern Love”—how much fun he’s having, how much fun there is to have.
And that subtle utopia, held in a balance that is scary because you can’t believe it can be sustained, so perfect that you can’t accept that anything might ever slip, is there most completely in “Life on Mars?”
In that song, from Bowie’s 1971 album Hunky Dory, a young woman goes to a movie and comes out disappointed, humiliated because she paid money to see something she hoped she’d want to remember and leaves feeling as stupid as the people who made the picture think she is.
That’s all that happens. Chuck Berry once said that he wrote songs about cars “because everybody has one”—everybody’s been to this movie. But then, in the song, you’re in the theater, watching the movie whether you want to or not. At first, Bowie’s tone as the narrator conjures a man so close to the woman in the song that you can feel his eyes on her, looking for her every reaction to what’s on the screen, but it’s distanced, too: he’s taking notes.There’s melodrama in the chorus, as stock scenes from generic movies fly by in a manner so glamorous that, despite the contempt in the lyrics as mere words, you feel the singer is loving every moment and you’re afraid you’re missing something.
And then, after following the woman into the theater and finding himself caught up in the drama of art and audience, the singer is on the street, walking alongside everyone else, whole vistas of history and fashion opening and closing before him, and his tone is quiet, ordinary, accepting, and there’s a sense that modern life—all of its advertisements and conveniences, its comforts and distractions—is a diversion. It’s the class system offering you new clothes, a trick, a fraud, and that’s all there is.
The song breathes out the whole sweep of postwar British culture before the Beatles turned it on its head—the slow, squalid sink of pointless desires caught in John Osborne’s play Look Back in Anger (1956), Colin MacInnes’s novel Absolute Beginners (1959), Tom Courtenay and Julie Christie in Billy Liar (1963), Nell Dunn’s Up the Junction (1963)—and places it squarely in the present.
It’s a drama of ordinary life you can’t turn away from, because you’re seeing a life that you know, that you’re living, thrown up on the screen of the song.
The quietest tinkling piano begins it; at the end, the piano trails off into a huge, harsh crescendo of movie-finale strings—hero and heroine clasped in each other’s arms, wind propelling them into their future—as if the notes can’t remember the song.
It makes David Bowie’s formally utopian fantasy of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars seem hollow—the album, the art project that appeared a year later. It was really a bid for David Bowie superstardom—worship for a being who was so beautiful he could seem, like the character he was playing, more than human, or not human at all—and if that worship wasn’t there, it was like the Emperor’s New Clothes. It wasn’t there at Winterland in San Francisco in 1972, with an audience of two or three hundred in a cavernous auditorium that held at least ten times that, the few of us huddled together in front of the stage as if for warmth, with Bowie trying to pretend it was a huge crowd, the whole world, that would be transformed into something bigger, something better, when he commanded them to give him their hands, and there was nobody there?
There was no utopia in the tale of Ziggy Stardust—but there was in “Life on Mars?” as it asked the generic sci-fi movie question. The girl in the song is going to a lousy movie she’s seen ten times before, but because of the melody and stutter-step of the cadence of the song, the question remains a question, a utopian question: is there life somewhere else?
And there was—out in the world where the song was heard, and taken to heart, in the way that any fan hears any song. And so for me the real utopia, the perfect moment, the realization of the song, came after Bowie’s death, the same day, March 20, 2016, in both Girls and Vinyl.
In Girls, Zosia Mamet’s Shoshanna is in Japan, where she’d been sent on a fabulous job by Aidy Bryant’s Abigail, who’s now fired her, leaving her to fend for herself. Feeling guilty, maybe looking for a vacation, Abigail comes to visit. She looks at Akihabara district of Toyko at night, the pop-culture district, loving how she can’t believe her eyes: “You’re in fucking outer space.” That’s how Shoshanna feels, she confesses: “I’m really fucking lonely. I’m so homesick, and I swear to God if one more person that I bump into bows and says, ‘I’m sorry,’ I’m gonna, like, fucking cut somebody, you know?” Finally Shoshana wanders through Akihabara’s empty streets as Aurora’s “Life on Mars” plays behind her, trailing her—she couldn’t be more alone, and she couldn’t be closer to feeling what she really wants, who she wants to be, who she isn’t.
That’s interesting, but what happens with Vinyl is much more so. The new partner in American Century Recods, Annie Parisse’s Andrea Zito, brings now no-longer #2 Ray Romano’s Zak Yankovich to a David Bowie soundcheck—with Noah Bean as a very believable Bowie running through “Suffragette City.” Zak asks dumb questions about Ziggy Stardust, while saying that he’s really a Hunky Dory man. Then there’s a blowup when Bobby Cannavle’s label boss Richie arrives six hours late to Zak’s daughter’s Bat Mitzvah, coked up and raving as the party band is playing “Brandy.” Zak decks Ritchie as his family looks on horrified.
At the end, a cheesy, vapid “Life on Mars” begins to play. As the camera pulls back we see that the party’s over, Zak is sitting at a table looking at nothing, and the band is packing up while the piano player, played by Doug Smith, is singing the song—actually lip-synching a version Trez Songz recorded for the show—just the sort of cheesy version you’d expect from a Bat Mitzvah singer, the word “Mars” held forever, showing off, at least as the song begins. But the singer is putting everything he has into it, trying to get everything out of the song, and finally he does.He hasn’t made it his own—that’s an uncritical critical notion, an automatic cliché, a way to avoid thinking about what does happen when someone sings a song you know, a song you know is perfect, a song that is its own utopia and speaks for all utopias that have ever been an idea and all that have ever disappeared, in thought or in history. He’s done something much more complex. He has not dishonored the song, or what it made him feel. He has brought something of his own to the song—if only for a moment.
You wouldn’t really want to hear the Trez Songz version again—Zac is so moved he signs the singer, gets him into the studio to cut songs no one is ever going to want to listen to—but you might want to play that scene over and over again, on a screen or just in your memory.
That’s my idea of utopia, if you want to call it an idea.
With thanks to Daphne Brooks.
This talk draws on pieces first published in California, the Village Voice, and Artforum.
January 27, 2017