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Sunday
Nov132016

Leon Russell: Song for You... and Me... and Gone

I was wearing brand new Prada velvet maryjanes, with saddle leather straps, and a big velvet men’s cut shirt from back in the late ‘80s when I was first in LA, trying to be a baby rock critic of merit. The shirt was one of the few nice things I owned, and Icherished it; sliding into it with banged up jeans and forest green cowboy boots, a little bit of luxe boheme splendor for a girl living on a lotta ramen.

Seems somehow right to be dressed like that to get a text that read, “Is Leon Russell someone you can write one of your passionate tributes to?” Reading it, figuring this was a pro-active editor, looking to stay ahead of the bodystack the last couple years has turned into, I replied, “Yes, why? He hasn’t died?”

But, of course, he had. Hand in the air, I asked for and paid the check, purse flying to my shoulder, soles to the sidewalk. Leon Russell, always sort of fragile, always incandescent like a candle flame. He was never quite a hippie, nor a gypsy, nor a field preacher, yet somehow he embodied all, and so much more. 

Men like Leon don’t really die, maybe shimmer a bit and fade a touch. But dead? C’est impossible. Except the Google Seach confirms – even Fox News says so. And once again, here I am, dizzy from the loss, torn from the moments and music surrendered to the sky.

 

I can’t even remember the first time I saw him, probably on the great equalizer of humanity, music and social consciousness – and my father’s favorite – “The Johnny Cash Show.” All I know is my mother snarled, as only she could, “He looks high…” at the tv set in their bedroom – and I truly thought Santa Claus had truly made good on that summer of love promise to “Tune in, Turn On & Drop Out.” 

There he was at a shiny black grand piano, silvery cascades of hair pouring down like white waters, eyes behind mirrored aviator shades as his hands kept rolling and pumping over the keys like some kind of baker making kolaches or other kneaded and twisted delight. He had a voice like an old dog lifted in protest, though there was a zestiness to it, too: you wanted to taste what he knew. And I was far too young to even imagine.

But I wanted; oh yes, I wanted to know.

 

Leon Russell invaded my school car, too. The disembodied voice, wrung out and twisting, floated over the vinyl bench seats. The jaunty “Tight Rope,” all carny and “hey, y’all, watch this” and the arpeggiated “For You,” which pledged of loving someone “beyond this space and time” – and because it was Cleveland, the rock & roll capitol of the world, yes, Russell’s version spun on the rock station in defense of the man who wrote the Carpenters’ inescapable rendition on every pop, ac and elevator music station on the dial.

 

There was “This Masquerade” for George Benson, “Delta Lady” for Joe Cocker, “Superstar” for the Carpenters. And there were the conversations my hippie babies would have about Mad Dogs & Englishmen, miscegenation (I couldn’t spell it, so I couldn’t look it up back then) and Mary Russell, about Concerts for Bangladesh, records with Willie Nelson and being a genius.

 

I still thought he looked like Naughty Santa, too much fun and treats and music. I didn’t know about the years in Los Angeles, working with Phil Spector or producing Bob Dylan’s “When I Paint My Masterpiece.” Nor was I aware that it was Russell’s Shelter Records, partnered with the producer Denny Cordell, that was soon to toss the terse raw rock/punk Tom Petty and the fist-in-your-face “Refugee” into my world. And I didn’t care. Just knowing someone like him existed was plenty.

 

It was during my tenure as a freelancer in the mid-80s working the country and black music beats for The Miami Herald that the competitive paper’s Jon Marlowe called me to meet him in the stairwell. Stringy white hair, motocross jacket when no one wore such things, The Miami News’ sole critic’d cackle and tell me what I was missing; treating me like a colleague, though I was mostly starry-eyed kid.

 

“You have to pay attention to Leon Russell,” he advised. “As important as Dr. John for mainstreaming that New Orleans shuffle, but a much wider hoop – he’s gospel, and rock and roll, and soul. And he doesn’t flinch or pander. They can’t make him commit to a box, so they act like he’s some bit of fringe of an Indian jacket. You dig in, you’ll see.”

So out to the Hialeah swapmeet I went. Nickels and quarters and dimes. A few bucks could fill in the gaps back then, bad cassettes and slightly blemished vinyl. But the content was there, and man, “Stranger In A Strange Land” was an existential question that suited my own no-man’s-land existence; “Roll Away The Stone” took the metaphysical promises of my Catholic Easter and sowed them with a fiery promise, the spongy striphouse piano “Roller Derby” rubbed the undercarriage of the seemingly innocent enough – all of them bolstered by a peacock feather fan of brash female background singers, equal parts streetwalking working girl and street smart seraph. Divine and dirty, glorious and porous all at once.

If I got The Band – and the power of “Cripple Creek” and Music From Big Pink… If I thought I was figuring out C&W’s bastard Byrds/Burrito’s children Sweetheart of the Rodeo and The Gilded Palace of Sin… If I believed in the mellifluous tone of the steel guitar rising off those Poco records… Then this was the grittier, funk on the roots cornerstone to whatever those other acts were scratching away it.

 

It’s the reason Eric Clapton, the Stones, Dylan embraced his musical touch – and Jerry Lee Lewis took a young Russell and his pals out as his back-up band on a two month tour. To have the kinetic charge to serve as the Killer’s band, you gotta know the inside out from the ground up.

And so, I had my own kinda sphinx: behind mirror’ed shades, in crisp white suits, playing hillbilly music under the nom du chanson Hank Thompson and wearing a top hat or Stetson like some kind of real world crown. When I felt down, his records were like tapping a vein; Leon Russell & the Shelter People offered a soundtrack for a dreamer’s diaspora. Promises of home and redemption, songs of raw ache and utter brio, guitar notes twisting and piano thump-thumping like a strong heart taking pleasure, it wrung out my own young angst and hung it on the line to dry in the bright light of the sun.

 

But Leon Russell, like so many of the ones who came before, seemed elusive. Like the scent of Nag Champa, it is in the air, but impossible to touch: sweet, spicy, sense-piquing, yet ever ephemeral. Leon Russell always in the back hallways and fire escapes of my life and times in LA, when FAX machines were super-high tech and Tower Records was almost a city block of sheer heaven.


You don’t meet men like Leon Russell. Tulsa-born and Tulsa-tied, visionaries don’t exist among mere mortals, so just the notion is plenty as life whips by – and stacks up at your door like so much chord wood for the winter.

Until ex-fiancee #4 said “Let’s go to dinner, let’s go to 12th & Porter…”

He had that naughty twinkle in his eyes, the one that always promised too much fun and plain adventure. I probably put on something velvet with my banged up Levis, probably pulled on cowboy boots of some sort, wiping my mouth with whatever bright pink lipstick I was favoring then.

At a table on the black and white squared linoleum floor, with a perfect view through the giant fishbowl front window, I saw the biggest old school Cadillac pull up. It took up the whole view, the rumble of the Detroit muscle almost rattling the glass… It was obviously old school hillbilly royalty pulling up, but here?

 From out of nowhere Sherman Halsey, the scion of the country booking Halsey Co. dynasty, whirled from out of nowhere, silky caramel hair tumbling down his shoulders like some sharp dressed Jesus. Opening the car door, he reached in and helped a gorgeous black clad arm emerge…

 My jaw was by now slack, not even completely knowing what was happening. But by now I understood, it was something – and my thrilled at the secret boyfriend looked like he’d swallowed a 100 watt bulb.

 

Blinking twice, I saw a large, sturdy yet frail man emerge. Sherman helping, taking his weight, the gentleman moved slowly, his fingers circling Halsey’s elbow. There was a halo of serious and a cloud of “holy shit” all around him.

Looking at Little Steve, as Stephen Charles Hurst was known at our house, I couldn’t find the words. Finally, an “OH… MY… God…” sorta tumbled out, knowing my ability to talk like a cloud of syllables was evaporating. “That’s, that’s…”

“Yup, Toots! It sure is,” said my very-satisfied beau. “I thought you’d get a kick out of this…”

 And then they were upon us, and my face flushed, and I felt my hand being held by a papery set of fingers, the sinews and pads very apparent. His face was so carved, so lined by life – it felt like a gypsy reading your palm in reverse. You could see the world’s wisdom in the crags and watch its best parts sparkle in his sharp as a hawk’s pupils. 


It is rare that I lose conversation, especially when it’s important. I remember the oxygen leaving the room, the temperature feeling hot, myself perhaps a little dizzy. I smiled, perhaps beamed – and I think I spoke a little bit, but am not sure. I just remember how warm and welcoming, kind and familial the elegant gentleman was. He was happy to be out, even on a cane – or was it a walker? – and knew he’d have to get his hips replaced sooner than later.

 He was recording some, trying to figure out the next moves for a creative man who might have been passed by by lesser musical beings. He spoke of Bruce Hornsby, who I knew from the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Will The Circle Be Unbroken, Vol. 2 and I believe I spoke the Virginia-based keyboardist ability to smear genres without losing the musicality. Russell seemed heartened. Men like him, you see, are meant to play.

 

Working with Sherman Halsey, my fiancée saw Russell quite a bit. He’d come with reports that the rock legend none of my friends would’ve cared about had asked about me. I’d see stardust for days; far more impressed by that than many of the more famous people I worked with. Because those who practice magic get inside you in deeper ways.

 Russell didn’t have the comeback with Hornsby that he deserved. Didn’t get the flex that found Levon Helm or Bonnie Raitt, but he just kept moving forward. No doubt a good musicians union pension – for recording with Sinatra on “Strangers In the Night,” Bing Crosby, Johnny Mathis, the Ronnettes, Delaney + Bonnie, Joe Cocker, the Beach Boys and beyond had added – and songwriting royalties kept his bills paid, but there was more fire to him than that.

 The Hank Thompson country albums were staunch Texas/Oklahoma honky tonk issue. The genuflecting Willie Nelson offering up a partner in crime for one slice of who he was. It didn’t matter; he kept playing. Got the hip operation, kept playing. Had other health issues, would take a break – and keep playing.

 

Yes, there was a high profile reclamation of the man who knew no other way by Elton John. For a duet record, produced by T-Bone Burnett, called The Union. A debt for the flamboyant Brit rocker/pianist, John intended to see his exalted influence into the Rock & Roll of Fame – and to have Russell’s contributions to the genre recognized. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pT5aYRgmgyM)

 And so it came to pass. Inducted in 2011, Russell spoke of John rescuing him from a ditch along the side of life’s highway. But he also had bought a new tour bus, and was about to embark on making a new album with Tommy LiPuma. As I said, music men keep on playing always.

Little Steve and I drifted apart. He found an incredible woman named Shaye, and they’re so much in love, I was glad I could be a way station on his journey to her. We still talk, for what it’s worth, sharing news of Leon or Sherman, ‘til Sherman died somewhere in the blur of the last several years. Love that “exists beyond place and time,” you see, isn’t bound by things like rings or marriages – or even death.

 Lately, between the election and Leonard Cohen and the death of my own uncle, it feels like life is coming faster and faster, sadder and darker, too. I’ve not had time to pause and reflect, collect and consider – all that has been lost, all that I’ve been blessed to know, to touch, to embrace as part of my life.

Leonard Cohen, truly the ultimate ladies man. Dapper suits, hat cocked just so – and songs redolent of musk and evocation, enough to make a kid’s knees quiver. Like Russell, his gifts transcend the basics of language: he holds much in a few words, scrapes away the sludgy build-up and finds the essential emotion in melodies and imagery.

 Walking around a corner too fast, returning after lunch with Don Was, I bounced into a recording studio just a bit too fast and slightly off balance. The crease in the pewter sharkskin pants could’ve slashed my jugular – only the hand that extended, steadied me and dark cocoa irises bore into my own.

 Set right, the steadying hand extended and a low voice announced, “I’m Leonard.” I gulped. And stared. “And you are?” Again, stammering, I managed to get my name out, as Was laughed and Sweet Pea Atkinson took it in with a guttural chuckle.

 

That’s the thing about the Towers of Song, they don’t have to flex. They just need to be. The poetry of who they are permeates everything, ignites songs with the right amounts of reserve and tension or raw desire and hell-raising. For each, the way they walked or looked into your eyes was as profound as the songs they wrote.

And whether people realize who these non-attention seekers were, their songs live on. “Hallelujah” has been recorded – like Russell’s “Song for You” – well over a hundred times. Each has their cannon, each has their own special stew; but both created an image, a sonic template, even a place within the times that solidly maintained their reality.

 

“Shoot Out On The Plantation” is playing as I type this. As the nation is torn in half by what they think is unthinkable, it’s all here in this song. With the chunky funky beat, the sticks moving across the high hats and clanging on cymbals with the pace that says, “We mean business,” Russell suggests the upside down reality of it all --
“Yeah, the last one to kiss is the first to shoot/ And stabbing your friends is such a drag to boot…”

 That’s the thing about these lives, whether spotlight or not, they’re often long gone. Chasing the dream, the song, the money to pay the rent or the rush to keep on going, there is a restlessness inside creative that never truly goes out.

 If Ray Charles won a Grammy in 1993 for his version of “Song for You,” this could be anyone’s refrain who plays the game of plying music for other people to find their truth.

            I've been so many places in my life and time
            I've sung a lot of songs, I've made some bad rhymes
            I've acted out my life in stages, with ten thousand people watching
            But we're alone now and I'm singing this song for you

 

As a woman who’s chased the road and gently blown on the kindling fire of dreams built on stages and studios, the fragility and need is something I’ve witnessed and felt my own damn self. When it’s late and lonely, you wonder about the cost… and you hum a song, and hope that the price is worth what you’ve paid.

You know, you never know. You really can’t. The rush of when it’s working is so intense, and the emptiness of doubt and all alone can’t truly be measured. Somewhere in between, there’s a lot of boredom and the baseball cards of dreams. You flip’em over and remember how sweet it was, waiting on the next song to come up on random rotation that takes you back

 

The editor told me Russell, who’s already survived a massive cardiac event and major brain surgery, went in his sleep. He was 74, at home in Nashville. A man who loved and kept it funky, whose humanity was pervasive and reached far beyond those who knew about the Tulsa Scene, who warmed their haunted places with Carney or Americana or Leon Live.

 Somewhere, Leon’s looking down, fingers spread like sunrays as he surveys all he left behind. The grisgris and the juju is our’s to keep alive, and the songs, well, the songs are here for all to love and live inside. Funny, too, how a man who can find the magic in “He Stopped Lovin’ Her Today” and “Rollin’ In My Sweet Baby’s Arms,” as well as “I Put A Spell on You” and the live combust of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” merged with “Youngblood,” would write his own elegy almost half a century ago.

 For all its need and ache, the larger truth in “Song for You” comes now. As the piano rises and falls, the lyrics open wide to hold us in their embrace now that he’s gone. Gentle catch and benediction, it seems Russell had already spelled it out… it’s just we were all too pinwheel-eye’d to believe this moment would ever come.

            I love you in a place where there's no space or time
            I love you for my life, because you're a friend of mine
            And when my life is over, remember when we were together
            We were alone and I was singing my song for you

Like all the real hippies, he didn’t fear death – or heaven. He shook his songs, plied his guitars and piano, mined the chutes of Dixie, swamp, Appalachia, Tulsa and tumbleweeds to conjure that sound that shook its tail and balmed the wild night. When America stood at a crossroad, Russell emerged saying “Why not merge it all?”

Uptopian. Idyllic. Hopeful. Impossible. It was who he was, and all that existed in his music from the very beginning. For a young man who started out Claude Russell Bridges and morphed into Leon Russell by virtue of a fake ID to play in LA clubs, it doesn’t matter… only the music, and how it lifts us up.

 For me, trying to make sense of everything, I’m gonna try to let it do that. And it’s funny, I’ve not been around Mr. Russell – except random airport gates on flights in and out of 6-1-5 – in years, but the idea that he’s gone still guts me somehow, lays me open wide. Maybe it’s for those days when I was young, and he was some kind of earthy paternal presence of us all; or maybe just like Leonard Cohen and David Gleason, there are some who seem as if their inextinguishable no matter what.

With the candles lit and day still blazing, I think I need to walk it off. Find a park or trail, touch the bark and hum just a little bit. He ain’t coming back, but perhaps in the songs, I can hold that smile and white-white hand with the knuckles protruding just a little in my soul again.

www.HollyGleason.com

Saturday
Jul092016

Dylan @ Forest Hills Stadium; Jester/Joker/Romeo/Poet

the tone and velocity of notes conveying perhaps more than even good diction could. Dylan’s appearance wasn’t a ratification of what was, nor a protest against time, but more a revel of where we are right now.

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Tuesday
May172016

Randall Knives, Desperados & Homegrown Tomatos: Guy Clark's Gone

Guy Clark was the Hemingway of the Texas expats, living beyond the confines of structural Music Row hitmaking. A Grammy-winner, painter, man in full, his songs capture pathos, small pleasures and what it means to be heroic over the course of almost a century. Today, he died. I look back on a longstanding friendship and the kind of person he was.

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Thursday
Apr212016

I Wanna Be Your Lover: Prince Nelson Rogers Finds That Purple Reign

 

At the college radio station, the poster hung on the wall. A scrawny li’l thing with a few flaccid chest hairs, greaseball hair tumbling down as much Guido Romeo as Latino playa... naked but for a pair of skimpy bikini panties and a cross.

He watched you. Every little thing you’d do. There in that still wet shower, promises of things that should scare you behind his eyes; pleasures untold still glistening on his lips.

Prince hadn’t broken wide when Controversy found WPRK, there on Rollins’ manicured Spanish style campus on the lake. My mother came to watch me turn the radio show on one morning, alone under the library before Chris Russo my news and sports guy got there.

As the generators hummed and the equipment whirred and warmed up, I ran around flicking light switches, grabbing logs and clipboards, tearing the latest Associated Press news feed. I found her, hair teased high and wide, three platinum stripes rising out of the impossibly immobile Lady Bird Johnson ‘do, staring intently at the rumpled poster as long and as thin as he was.

Pressing the Marlboro 100 to her lips, her eyes narrowed as she dispassionately inhaled almost the entire thing. The tip burned angry red, intensifying as she sucked in. When she finally stopped drawing the burning tobacco into her lungs, she let out a plume of smoke, turned to me as I settled behind the turntables and board, preparing to put the radio station on the air.

“And what in the hell is that?” were her only words. Flat, cold, appalled.

“Welcome to another morning of broadcasting at WPRK, 91.5, Winter Park, Florida,” I said as mellifluously as possible, then read from the sign on card. I feared her ballast; I knew it didn’t matter. She wouldn’t get it, didn’t care. The image offended her for so many reasons, though sexuality had never been a problem for the woman with the heavily dented dance card.

Cold drop on “Night Shift,” the Commodores tribute to the glory days of Motown. Turn the volume up slowly. Close the pots, check the logs, find another record. Look up.

“His name is Prince Nelson Rogers. They call him Prince. From Minneapolis. Funk. Controversy...”

"He looks like a freak, no wonder there’s controversy.”

“NO,” I picked back up from the interruption. “It’s the name of his album. A lot of people think he’s offensive. He’s also a musical genius with a big pop aura. Like the black soul Todd Rundgren.”

She inhaled what was left of her cigarette, dropped it into her coffee.

“He looks like a faggot.”

And there you go.

           

Prince Rogers Nelson, like James Brown, like Stevie Wonder, like Rick James, carved deep veins of funk. Grooves you could do the laps in, beats that’d bounce you like a little kid on a trampoline. But he was a masterful musician: to hear him slash and spike strings, you understood the musical violence that melody could sustain.

My gateway drug had been rollerskates. Fat wheels, stiff leather, laced way above the ankles. When “I Wanna Be Your Lover” played, it was so juicy, so emollient, it felt like that polished hardwood floor would push you by virtue of the silky pop grooves. And the way he squeezed his voice in the end? Oh, yeah!

There were no little boys like that at any of the prep schools I went to: sensitive, melting gender, sprawling across rock and rhythm & blues and pop and funk. But Prince did it with such insouciance, such bravado, such luster, you couldn’t walk away. To me, he was everything Carly Simon sang about in that first verse of “You’re So Vain,” only wickedly talented and able to scoop me up in a few bars.

If Rick James was hard and ghetto, there was something so bohemian about the man wearing ladies clothes long before arena rockers found Fredericks of Hollywood. Looking up through that thick black shock of hair, he was a doe-eyed sylph who was all tease, then taunt, then... Well, the mind bucks.

Which was exactly the point. And while those early Prince albums were a thumb on the sore spots, a freaky sex show of “Head” and “Do Me Baby” and “Soft and Wet” and “Dirty Mind” and “Do It All Night” and “Annie Christian,” “Jack U Off,” “Sexuality” and “Private Joy,” they were as fraught because of how overt his approach. Here was a 90 pound banty rooster, often in a frilly shirts or no clothes with a band as tight as James Brown’s making no bones about pleasure, eroticism or the various forms of coitus and release.

And I loved him. Nice girl from the suburbs, plaid skirt, white cotton blouse, I couldn’t look away. Unlike my mother, he didn’t repulse me, but excite a curiosity about what happens when hormones run wild. Even if I remained a nice girl, it’s good to know what happens when you close that door...

Wasn’t that really the permission people who leaned into the erogenous charge were seeking? When the lights go down, the heat goes up, what happens next? Being nice didn’t mean being a mandrake root, and Lord knows, there was a reason Eve looked so good to Adam.

 

So I listened. I sought him out. Almost died that early morning, having just signed WVUM, the Voice of the University of Miami, onto the air – and saw 1999, a double album pleasure fest of untold delight. So new David Fleck, the MD at the time, hadn’t even pulled suggested tracks. Virgin vinyl. Mine! ALL Mine! There as day rose over the student union in Coral Gables.

Scanning the titles – for length as well as provocation, because sometimes size matters – I settled on “Let’s Pretend We’re Married.” Cued it up, hugged myself tight – and opened the mic as soon as whatever song by local faves The Front was done.

“And this,” I said in my flattest Angel Dust voice, “is brand new from Prince...”

Letting the record go, I knew I could talk a bit over the hard pulse of the intro.

“The album is called 1999, and this... ahhh, promises, promises... is ‘Let’s Pretend We’re Married.’ Enjoy the commute...” and I laughed as I faded my voice down. Once the channel was closed, I blasted the song, shrieking and jumping up and down, tossing my head from side to side, spinning and twisting and yes, grinding away to the synth-ladden, guitar-heavy slice of throbbage.

It was heaven. It was fun. It was one of the moments where the song swallows the moment, there is only music and you and all those delicious gyrations coming from your body swept up in it all.

Suddenly, I noticed the flashing red light angrily spinning. The Hot Line was for emergencies, invasions, matters of national crisis. Oh, Lord... Throwing the volume down, I picked up breathless, squeaking, “Hello...”

“What in the HELL are you DOING?” came the angry bark of Glenn Schwartz the impossibly good looking summer GM. “Jesus, Holly...”

“It’s new Prince,” I stammered. “I thought I’d checked the levels. Am I pinning the...

Before I could say “meters,” he interrupted. “Get. IT. OFF! GetitoffNOW....”

“Uhm, uh, uhm, ah....”

Scrambling, I set the needle flying across the vinyl, shoving in a cart of the English Beat’s ska-skankery “Mirror In The Bathroom,” hoping it wouldn’t be too abrupt. Pulling the pot up, I didn’t bother to break, just cover the silence which is the mark of sloppy radio.

The telephone receiver dangled from all the scrambling. I could hear yelling on the other end. Picking it up to an “Are you there?,” I murmured “yeah,” not understanding. As the shouting resumed, I did pick out “For the love of Christ, ‘I sincerely want to %$#& the taste of your mouth?’ REALLY? Do you give a shit about our license?”

I wanted to be adult, professional. Trying to say, “Yes, yes, I do. I am so sorry,” I somehow fell into a giggle.

“This isn’t funny, Holly. What the hell? Didn’t you preview the track?”

Preview the track? Well, no. I thought we could all burst into spontaneous combustion of funky pleasure together. That was probably not the answer he was looking for.

“Uhm, no,” I said, always committed to telling the truth. “I, uhm, I got excited – and it was a long song. I figured there’d be some jamming, some really grinding down into the groove. I was so lost in it, honestly, I wasn’t even listening to the lyrics.”

“YOU?! The person who plays Pure Praire League on our station? You didn’t check the lyrics?! Are you kidding me?”

“No, Glen, I didn’t. I just knew...”

“Knew what?"

“It was gonna feel good.”

He hung up.

 

And so Prince became my own private rebellion. If my street school friends knew about Earth, Wind and Fire and Rick James’ “Superfreak,” I knew something even more out. Prince was mine, and I liked it that way.

Only “1999” became the omnipresent party anthem. “Little Red Corvette” took a penis metaphor and unbridled desire and roared across suburban Top 40 radio. It seemed America was turning on, finding the libertine with the sick beats, the narcotic melodies, and those grooves you couldn’t climb out of.

Jealous, I watched his star rise. Watched as he became the James Dean of funk, a tortured misunderstood artist against the world with the film “Purple Rain” and an album of the same name that seemingly outsold everything else combined.

My mother was still not impressed. One night after a few pops, she wandered  by the tv as the still whippet thin musician rose from a steaming tub. Again inhaling her Marlboro 100, she paused with her lungs full, slowly turned as the smoke plumed and decreed, “He still looks like a faggot to me.”

Maybe. But in purple brocade, he was launching careers. Porn motifs as the Shirelles in Vanity 6, world class percussionist as women who knows in the seductive Shiela E(scobedo), cracker jack band with the swerve and the verve the Time, which eventually spawned Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, who’d produce Janet Jackson’s biggest albums.

There were also the contributions to others: an innuendo laden hit for throwaway popper Sheena Easton with “Sugar Walls,” the rush rush working girl soda pop effervescence of the Bangles “Manic Monday,” the turbo synth shaft driven departure for Stevie Nicks “Stand Back.” Cindy Lauper cut a roiling “When U Were Mine” and Sinead O’Connor hit the mainstream with the stark lament “Nothing Compares to You,” not to mention Chaka Khan’s blazing return with “I Feel For You,” all sass and verve and whew! and well then...

Oh, yeah, Prince was happening. He hit Miami like a hurricane, blowing into the Orange Bowl with full gale force for the Purple Rain Tour. This tiny little man who danced like a chicken on a hot plate, downstroking his electric guitar and yowling with the demand and gratification of a true sexual avatar.

Yes, yes, yes. Garnering an invitation to the post-show party at the high end South Beach when it was busted hanger-sized disco Club X, I chewed my straw and watched the wide curving stair way hoping for a glimpse.

When he showed – somewhere between 2 and 3 in the morning – it was old school glamour.  A meltingly luxurious suit in a pastel so pale, it was unidentifiable. Tiny like a jockey, but a presence that consumed the room.

Shiela E was with him, laughing into her hand. Caramel hair falling in waves and curls, a pencil skirt slit up, lace stockings and a satiny blouse whose tailoring seemed almost to be designed to second-skin her.

Rock & roll didn’t look like this. Nothing did. I was gobsmacked.

For suburban kids with their bad perms, Manic Panic hair color and mousse to defy gravity, wearing Jordache jeans with combs in the back pockets, this was as unattainable as the lingerie clad court of women who surrounded him like a merry widow army. Little did we know about the members only, nose bleed expensive Trashy Lingerie on LaCienega, where Prince would pull up in a limo and shower these women with whale boned satin corsets, ribbony garter belts and push up bras dotted with feathers, diamante, leopard prints in scarlet red, baby pink, midnight blue, white and naturally black.

 

Black. The color. The whispered about album. Mythic. Vaunted. A unicorn from Paisley Park. If Prince colonized a forbidden place kids couldn’t get to fast enough, he had his own dark thoughts, his own raunchy excess and grooves to scrape and twist into a scrap metal abyss of “oh, yes.”

There might’ve been “Kiss,” and “Raspberry Beret,” and “Cream.” All those albums that tumbled out, each slightly more obtuse as the funk widened. Was it – like Miles Davis or Coltrane – an attempt to explore universes obscure to the rest of us? Or was the Purple One seeking to shed himself of the obsessive outcasts and mall rats who’d never truly be free or forward or... beautiful.

I got my copy of The Black Album on cassette from the Dazz Band on their way back into the country from a tour of Japan. Winning the 1983 Grammy for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group – tying Earth, Wind + Fire – with the unlikely “Let It Whip,” a song considered to be the first B&D smash, it seemed somehow appropriate.

Steve Cox, the jazz-driven synthesizer programmer, slid the Maxell heavy duty across the bar towards me with a knowing smile. “This is the stuff,” he said. “You’re gonna like it.”

It was the beginning of the extended game of chutes and ladders Prince would play with the record business. Getting a fade that read “Slave” cut into his sideburns... refusing to turn in records to his label... figuring out how to circumvent standard business procedures.

He would make the Noel Coward-evoking “Under The Cherry Sky” motion picture. He would turn up here and there. He would release a ridiculous album on Larry Graham. He would  play hide and seek with the public eye.

But whenever he turned up, it would be worth the watching, Sexy*funky*strange. Not to mention, a feminist and wicked appeciator of the feminine form. When “The Most Beautiful Girl In The World” descended, every shape and type and trope of woman was celebrated – suggesting the sensual in us all. It was genius, and it made women feel empowered in the world as well as the boudoir.

When you feel good, when you feel desired, what is more erotic than that?

It’s what made Prince someone you wanted to hear, to feel, but also to see.

 

Having cashed out my journalism chips to take a job at Sony Nashville, running their Media & Artist Development Department, I knew the writers that I needed were the ones covering the mainstream. In the waters where people thought country was – to parrot Sylvester Stallone in “Rhinestone” – “worse than liver” was where the beachhead needed to be.

Explaining to my very forward looking boss Mike Martinovich my thinking, he blessed me to go to the MTV Awards, where Don Was was serving as musical director. In true Penny Lane fashion, it was Was who “found me a pass.” It was standing by him, too, that saved me when they cleared the Universal Amphitheatre for Prince’s rehearsal.

Beyond the assless pants, where it all hung out and a big buzz, here was this loose electric wire, screwed up tight, showering the tech people, script folks and sundry production staff with such sweltering guitar playing, I can’t even remember the song. Bass notes rumbled like big trucks on old brick roads, fat tires flattening just a bit, the drums slapped hard like an open hand on a wet face.

But it was Prince, leaning in, hearing things we couldn’t as the synthesizers pushed what we thought were the boundaries. Binding the music together, it was the closest thing to combustion I’d ever seen at another person’s finger tips.

Even in rehearsal, even with his energy pulled in, he held nothing back from that guitar. It was man and music, entangled, thrashing, pressing and seeking. It was, perhaps the aural equivalent of sex with an instrument – and it felt good.



And when "Screwdriver" dropped out of the blue last year, it was just as alive, just as much voltage rushing through it. An entire day, I did nothing but play the YouTube with the flimsy little video. Over and over. Kept sending the link to friends, loving every Facebook reposting or tweet or gushing email reply.

That sense of the groove coming from the inside out? I never recovered, and all these years later, it still hit me in the face and dropped me to my knees. "I'll be the driver, you be my screw." Uh-HUH.

Like the mixtape a pretty famous regional musician made for me. The expected Buddy Millers, Patty Griffins, Springsteens, a random Vince Gill. But in the middle of all that, a few piano notes formed a curl, chords fell lilke tears as the notes ascended -- and a papery, whispery falsetto intoned, "I am lonely painter, I live in a box of paints..." and i sucked my breath in. So gentle, so soulful, so washed in a carousel of emotions -- want, regret, love, need -- I pulled over.

Prince singing Joni Mitchell. "A Case of You." One of her most sacred songs of love and longing, connection and those feelings so rarely sound, so aggressively sought, even chased. A drummer mostly played the rims, the piano rolled over notes and built, the falsetto rising ever higher before settling into the pledge of "I could drink a case of you/ and still be on my feet."

 

I could go on and on. But I can’t. I’m not spent. I’m crying again. Not just tears running down my face, sitting here in some deep Alabama truck stop, people who were never touched by the music milling by in search a hot shower, a little food, some gas or coffee.

Not me. I had to pull over when an editor mentioned it to me in a phone call. Had to start writing like Hans Christian Anderson’s Red Shoes possessed my fingers. Had to try to remember it all: the way my blood felt like schools of little fish, nibbling my veins when his music was loud, the pulse racing when I glimpsed him at X or my jaw went slack just watching him push that glyph-looking guitar to places I didn’t know existed.

But always the music pulls me back, holds me down. I am not sobbing, but I am audible. People are looking. What can you say? They think you’re some silly teenager in a flashback moment, lost on a tide of who you were when you didn’t know any better.

They’d be wrong, of course. Prince is the one who brought a freedom and a knowledge, a conquistador’s brio and the hunger of starved wolves to our lives. Like the snake in the garden, he gave us an apple that tasted like music... and sex... and love...

It is easy to remember the freaky, the odd demands, the ego, the flamboyance and excess. But it was the teeter totter of a Jehovah’s Witness, an intense privacy, a wild distaste for how the music business worked – and a drive to make music, play far into the night that balanced those things.

Prince was 57. Too young, not enough, no reason.

As the poet’s say: WTF?

And even worse, the truck stop has no cut rate For You, Prince  or Dirty Mind to buy. Not even a bad second generation Purple Rain or Parade or Sign O’ The Times. It is raining now, just a little, a good cover for my tears.

US 280-E beckons. Miles to go before I keep, and it is that keeping on that is what will pull me to where I’m headed. A football stadium at a massive SEC Stadium, the first ever concert where the Auburn Tigers play.

Ironically or perfectly, Kenny Chesney’s 2016 Tour is called Spread the Love. Inadvertent, yet appropriate. In a very hippie, free-spirited way, it almost siren calls the youth to let themselves go and be in the moment.

As for me, you can find me driving and crying in what most certainly won’t be purple rain. But before I pack my things, back up and drive away, do me a favor: remember, all we have is right now. Today, do something bold. Tell someone how you feel. Wear that expensive thing you’re saving. Drive a little too fast if it makes you feel more alive. Turn up the music, especially, and let it play!

We never know. It never lasts. Take it for all there is before it’s gone. Wherever, however, whatever, forever and ever, amen.

21 April 2016

www.hollygleason.com

Thursday
Apr072016

Bourbon'N'Big City: Merle Haggard Sings Us Back Home

Merle Haggard was a singular artist, an American voice, an individualist -- and a mountain that was so hard to climb. He's gone now. No other shall ever be like him.

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