Monday, July 26, 2004

Jamie Starr's a Thief!

Cooler than Santa Claus, baby
I had the pleasure to attend my (belated) first Prince (and Madison Square Garden) concert a couple of weeks ago on his first-of-a-series stadium show in the NYC area. The 'true' fans out there can dissect his every move and joyously compare notes and memories of previous concerts. I’ll simply say it was a great show. Everyone seeing Mr. Nelson this year is catching him after many years of bitterness about the industry (not entirely purged) and right before he will turn his back on many of the classic songs that the fans demand of him but must tire The Artist out. Prince enthusiastically reworked many of the hits for us old-timers (That ‘When Doves Cry’ dub-like break-down into a ‘Kiss’ sample knocked me out). The highlight was definitely his acoustic set with acoustic guitar and 360-swivel stool in the center of a ‘theater-in-the-round’ crucifix stage. This set was probably familiar to the crowd from seeing glimpses of it on his recent television special(s), right down to crowd interaction ("Now I know y'all can do better than that!") but his showmanship and charisma that I had admired via film and video all these years, was simultaneously surprising and precisely as the crowd wanted it. This intimate portion of the show allowed my envy of the 'after show club jam crowd' to subside.

The rest of the show emphasized the funk band idiom that Prince has pushed since ‘Sign O’ the Times’ and into his New Power Generation but I was feenin' for the old synchronized Revolution guitars immortalized in the ‘Purple Rain’ film with 'Let's Go Crazy'. Although Maceo dropping the Flintstones theme was priceless, I felt a bit 'Vegas-ed out' with the horn section… something too smooth and clean in this version of The Funk. This became quite apparent to me when drummer John Blackwell took a solo which brought in the off-kilter kit and caboodle of the Prince penned '777-9311'. As the drummer came to the end of the solo he and Prince harmonized a Skrewed-down version of the Time's jarring end to 'Onedayimgonnabesomebody', the declaration "We don't like new-wave!" and all of a sudden the flashbacks kicked me back to 1981 when my friends and I obsessed over the first album by The Time and struggled to figure out the connections to Prince. By golly, they sure sounded similar…

In '81 The Time was the shit… MY shit. They were blowing up 'black radio' (KDIA, KSOL and 'KPOO Sundays' in the Bay Area). Prince was definitely heavy in the broadcast mix (especially since all the kids knew it was 'nasty') but The Time had a special role. They were nasty too but also cool and unambiguously masculine. Everyone at the local Boys Club bugged out when Prince sang "Am I straight or gay?" on ’Controversy’ but there was really no doubt that The Time were pullin' honeys to 'Get It Up' and work the 'Stick' in their rides. For us, Morris Day put the swagger into 'soul songs' (we used to generically lump all black musics into that category). At the time we were only getting that swag from a handful of 'rap songs' that were sneaking onto the music countdowns. The Time sound was badass minimalist funk that cut through the smoother sounds of black radio at the time. Simple, bass-heavy, very looong grooves, a laid back singing style, distinct braggadocio…

We knew that Prince and The Time were connected but it would be years before I found out how connected… Prince would say that The Time was one band that no one in the Minneapolis scene wanted to follow since their set was a show-stopper and dubbed them 'the only band he was ever afraid of'. It was revealed that Prince and Morris Day (‘Are they cousins?’) were in a band called Grand Central. And when Prince became involved with the group Flyte Tyme, he asked Morris, a drummer, to takeover the lead vocals from the departing lead singer (who I would later learn was Alexander O’Neal).

The various album credits for one ‘Jamie Starr’ seemed to connect the artists in a more concrete way… Starr is listed as engineering 'Dirty Mind' and producing The Time's debut. When 'What Time is it?' was released Starr continued his production. The topper came with '1999' where Prince declares on DMSR "Jamie Starr's a thief!/It's time to fix your clock!"… even though Starr is credited on that album as well… Clearly something was rotten in the kingdom of Minneapolis.

Of course the brilliant ruse, as we found out years later, was that Prince WAS Jamie Starr. The Time's first album is allegedly just Morris Day on vocals (and possibly drums) and Prince on everything else… keyboards, bass, guitars, background vocals. And although the theories still swirl, his presence explained some of the mysterious Prince-like elements that showed up in the straightforward jams (the mysterious answer 'Four!' to the question 'What time is it?'... Those amazing falsetto harmonies that I could never credit to the group or ‘various girlfriends’ and the very Prince-like chant on ‘The Walk,’ “We don’t like policeman/We don’t like new wave/We don’t like television”)

Coincidentally I attended my first Time concert a few weeks before the Prince show. Morris, with some incarnation of the band (‘Oh shit! There's Monte Moir and that’s Jellybean on the kit...and Jerome…!’), threw down at some kid's day celebration sponsored by Target (thanks to Jay Smooth for that heads up). For the first time I was hearing the LIVE version of those musical elements deeply ingrained in my brain nee gut: the crunchy lead-glove vamp that opens ‘Stick’, the sleazy keyboard melody that starts ‘Get It Up’, that drum riff from ‘777-9311’...

Seeing both Prince and The Time perform live within a month brought me to a realization… For me, The Time show resonated deeper than the Prince show. I know that statement is near sacrilege. Part of it stems from the lack of shine The Time gets. Part of it was the joy of being at a free show in an audience that knew ‘The Walk’, ‘Gigolos Get Lonely Too’ and ‘Wild and Loose’ as well as I did. Part of it stems from the show being EXACTLY as I imagined it would be and still being a great party for me and everyone there. But, I’ll admit, it mostly stems from the sentimental fact that The Time dominated my love of music during the first couple years of the eighties.

It would be ridiculous to say that The Time is a ‘better’ group than Prince and company… but it might make sense to reconsider the first Time albums as Prince concept albums…his masculine funk albums… minus the symbolism, minus the ambiguity, the spirituality, the complexity and, yes, minus the beauty of his work as Prince. I’m not really saying The Time hits deeper than Prince since The Time WAS Prince… plus Morris… plus the tightest live show made up of a band including Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis etc.… plus alleged contributions from Andre Cymone and Lisa Coleman…

Of course, Morris and later incarnations of The Time can easily be criticized for losing the balance of ‘cool’ and ‘fool’ perfected on ‘What Time Is It?’ and portrayed in the ‘Purple Rain’ film. And without a doubt, the later songs never recaptured the lean, loose-but-tight sound created under Prince’s reign.

But I will say that Prince’s current band, as talented as the musicians are, had nothing on Morris and Jerome doing their simple dance steps in caricature and in sync with backing players. Minimalist funk? Delivering the goods and nothing but! Even Prince says his favorite bassline that he ever composed was the ‘bauuu-ump-ump’ of ‘777-9311’ and he says he will always regret giving ‘Cool’ to The Time but, c’mon, he owed Morris for ‘Party Up.’

So if I had to choose my favorite Prince projects… sure, ‘Sign O’ the Times,’ then ‘Purple Rain,’… and beating out ‘Controversy’ and ‘1999’?… The Time?… yeah, maybe… ‘cause, you know, as Jamie Starr and I like to say “We don’t like new-wave! Baaa-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!”