Flower power

Passion vine from my backyard, tweeted to the Flower Report in June. ©Joyce Millman

2016 has been a year of unrelenting violence, shock and turmoil. The temptation is strong to tune it all out, turn inward, muffle all feelings. But there is a better way to cope. “Stop and smell the roses” is usually an admonishment reserved for people too busy to notice life’s small pleasures. But this year, the adage has been reborn as a mantra for all of us who are weary of the carnage, the hate and bigotry, the despair. What do you do when you’re overwhelmed by sadness, sickened by near-constant displays of the worst humanity has to offer?  You stop and tweet the roses.

Every Sunday since March 13, Alyssa Harad has been hosting the weekly Flower Report (#FlowerReport) on Twitter. Followers are invited to tweet photos of blossoms from their corner of the world using the FlowerReport hashtag, and Harad signal-boosts each photo with a retweet. Harad, the Austin-based author of the memoir “Coming to My Senses,” is cultivating a global community of Flower Report fans.  When your Twitter feed is filled with  pictures of blooms posted from Portland and Paris, Brooklyn and Melbourne, Hawaii and Barcelona, not to leave out England, Italy, California, Alaska, Saskatchewan, Japan, Kansas, Montana, Germany, Idaho and Iran, you start to feel your pessimism drain away. For a while at least, the world is smaller, friendlier and filled with loveliness.

Some Flower Report contributors send photos taken at famous botanical gardens; others tweet pictures of their own backyards, or of urban sidewalk planters, or wildflowers by the side of the highway. Some tweeters are knowledgeable about the names of flowers, while many more ask for help in identifying a juicy specimen snapped on a walk around the block. The variety of flowers on display is head-spinning: Recent tweets included hydrangeas, peonies, sunflowers, thistle, delphiniums, poppies, fuchsias, lilies, milkweed, daisies, lupines, sweet peas, hibiscus, bougainvillea and a riot of roses.

The Flower Report is a weekly reminder that there is beauty in this world. But, by coincidence, many of the awful events of 2016 have taken place on a Sunday — on March 27, it was the terrorist attack in Lahore, Pakistan;  June 12, the mass shooting at Orlando’s gay dance club, The Pulse; July 3, the terrorist attack in Baghdad; July 17, the killing of three police officers in Baton Rouge.

Harad says that the Flower Report wasn’t meant to be a response to these terrible events, but “it has certainly become a meeting point as we live through them. I try hard not to tweet or RT anything but the Flower Report on Sunday, even when there is breaking news. I try to hold that space open. But I do usually tweet something to connect the Flower Report to ongoing events, because I find it weird and upsetting not to acknowledge world events and collective pain. Connection is always better than suppression.”

Harad first made this connection when news of the Easter Sunday suicide bombing in Lahore broke during the Flower Report. “The attack took place in a park — a park! [Gulshan-e-Iqbal] So horrifying. And I thought, well, there must be photographs of this park. A park is a place where, among other things, people go to look at flowers. And I was right. There were many heartbreaking photos taken by people who had gone to this beautiful, popular park to look at the scenery. So I tweeted a few of them. It was a small thing, but sometimes small things help. It felt very important to me to see and know that park as something besides a site of terror.”

More Sunday horrors followed, and on those days, the Flower Report became a space of remembrance and peace. The following two tweets are from July 3, the day of the Baghdad suicide bombing that killed more than 300 people in the city center and a busy shopping mall.

On July 10, after a bruising week that included the police killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, the sniper attack on police officers in Dallas and the arrest of more than 100 protestors at a  demonstration against police brutality in Baton Rouge, Harad tweeted, “Friends, I am here for your flower report filings throughout the evening. We need extended blossom time this week.”

Judging from Twitter profiles, the majority of Harad’s contributors have been women. Which makes sense — Twitter can be a hostile environment, especially for women, but the Flower Report is an oasis of civility amid the never-ending fractiousness.

The alluring blooms, and the conversations that spring up about them, are also difficult to scroll past with just a cursory glance. These posts defy the lightning pace of Twitter, coaxing you to slow down and really look at the flowers. This Georgia O’Keeffe-like effect of the Flower Report lingers between Sundays. All week, you’re more alert to the flora around you, ditching selfies to focus on a velvety red rose glistening with raindrops, or a field of lavender bending in the breeze — little visual gifts to share with your fellow Flower Reporters. Says Harad, “I love the singular vision of individual tweets. Everyone has a different way of looking at flowers.”

Harad says it’s impossible to choose favorite posts, but “we definitely have some VIP correspondents who provide beautiful photos every week and really let us in to the floral life of their regions. I have a correspondent in Hawaii who always sends me something shocking that I’ve never seen before, and one in England who seems to be some kind of herbalist and sends flowers with glorious, hilarious names. I also get very excited when someone reports from a place we haven’t seen before. We had tweets from Cambodia last Sunday.”

Harad is such an enthusiastic and committed caretaker of the Flower Report that it’s surprising to learn she did not plant this virtual garden. That honor belongs to writer Teju Cole. “Teju did many interesting Twitter projects,” says Harad. “In fact, he was so good at Twitter that he had to quit . . . Because I’m such a Teju Cole fan and have a much smaller Twitter presence than he did, I was nervous about trying to take on the report, but I did a search of the hashtag and turned up a bunch of tweets from people saying they missed it, including one from myself in 2015 wondering if I should restart it. So I figured, well, why not try it? Someone who knows Teju personally told him about the revival and he wrote me a very sweet note after the first round, which gave me a wonderful sense of official permission.”

And what happens when the frost comes? Will the Flower Report go dormant for the winter? Harad says, “That is open for discussion. I originally intended it as a spring project, but people were very vocal about their need for it to continue, so here we are. I would love it if we got more tweets from the Southern Hemisphere as their spring and summer arrive.”

I’ll add my voice to the call for Flower Report to stay with us year-round. We desperately need this little place of refuge to revive our battered spirits in a world that seems determined to crush them. Let a thousand flowers bloom.

(To contribute to the Sunday Flower Report, use the hashtag #FlowerReport or tweet your flower photos to @alyssaharad.)

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2016

 

 

Tales from the bargain bin: An embarrassing obsession

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The Folk Years: Blowin’ in the Wind and Yesterday’s Gone (Time-Life). CD set found for $2.99 at Goodwill.

The first time I saw The Folksmen (Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer of Spinal Tap fame in their guise as a 1960s folk trio), I laughed so hard I had an asthma attack. But I also had an overwhelming sense of deja vu. The Folksmen were a deeply sourced spoof of the Kingston Trio and the Limeliters, seminal, earnest folk groups of the pre-Beatles era. This was some of the earliest music I remember hearing on my parents’ radio and hi-fi, along with Peter, Paul and Mary and the Brothers Four. How dead-on an imitation was The Folksmen? Take a look.

Kingston Trio:

The Folksmen, from A Mighty Wind:

And here are the Limeliters, circa 1981, singing the obvious model for “Old Joe’s Place,” “There’s a Meetin’ Here Tonight.”

For the full Limeliters/Folksmen comparison, this nine-minute European TV performance is pretty much a condensed version of A Mighty Wind. Enjoy, ye of stout heart!

Born on Saturday Night Live, the Folksmen were later resurrected in Guest’s underrated 2003 mockumentary A Mighty Wind, which chronicles the making of a public-televison reunion concert of the group and their ’60s folk scene compadres the New Main Street Singers (read: New Christy Minstrels/the Rooftop Singers) and Mitch and Mickey (Ian and Sylvia).

I should explain at this point that I’m obsessed with A Mighty Wind. I will watch that movie anytime, anyplace. This Is Spinal Tap is considered the masterpiece of the Guest/McKean/Shearer oeuvre. But I rate A Mighty Wind almost as highly because it nails the specifics of a less popular genre just as flawlessly. If you’ve ever seen the strangely watchable PBS Pledge Break special Folk Rewind starring John Sebastian (please tell me I’m not the only one who can’t look away), then you’ve seen just how right A Mighty Wind got everything about the music, the personalities, the gentle, well-meaning mindset of the people who performed and consumed this godawfully polite aural Cream of Wheat.

And I speak as one of them. Like many white kids in metropolitan and suburban areas on both coasts in the late ’50s-early ’60s, I grew up with folk music, or rather, a steam-cleaned, relentlessly smiley version of folk music, as part of daily life. I listened to Pete Seeger’s children’s albums (but not his overtly radical stuff), sang black spirituals like “Kumbaya” and “Michael Row the Boat Ashore” with no context at Jewish summer camp and endured the dreaded group-singing of “Erie Canal” and “Goober Peas” in elementary school. Hellishly cheery easy-listening folk tunes like “Walk Right In” by the Rooftop Singers and white-washed folk exotica like the Calypso-ish “Don’t Let the Rain Come Down” by the Serendipity Singers were Top Ten radio hits. (Where did the Lumineers come from? Here’s your answer.) In one universe, Bob Dylan was kicking folk music’s slumbering ass, energizing it with a protopunk’s spirit. In another, there was … this crap. I bet the killjoys who shouted down electric Dylan at Newport really dug this stuff. They deserved it.

Given all of this, you can probably imagine my fiendish delight when I came across Blowin’ in the Wind and Yesterday’s Gone, two discs from the eight-disc 2002 Time-Life CD set The Folk Years in a Goodwill crawl. Sixty songs in all, encompassing some of my most beloved/hated folk-mush ever, including “Don’t Let the Rain Come Down,” “Walk Right In,” the Sandpipers’ supremely dorky version of Pete Seeger’s “Guantanamera” and — YES! — the Limeliters’ “There’s a Meetin’ Here Tonight.” Now I can guffaw through my very own A Mighty Wind/Folk Rewind in the privacy of my home, whenever the spirit moves me!

I know, I’m being harsh. Even the blandest of this music had its purpose. Without it to learn from and, ultimately, rebel against, we might not have had Dylan, or the skiffle-bred Beatles, or the trailblazing British electric folkies Fairport Convention.

This Time-Life set (the half I own, anyway) does a good job of charting the evolution of folk B.D. (before Dylan) and after. Dylan’s influence is all over the Blowin’ in the Wind disc, even if he isn’t (the lone Dylan track, “Boots of Spanish Leather” is on disc 7, which someone must have grabbed before me). After the mostly quiet acoustic tracks on disc one of Blowin’ in the Wind, the crystalline opening electric guitar chords of the Byrds’ “Turn! Turn! Turn!” kick off disc two like a wake-up jolt of caffeine right to the bloodstream. Whoever segued the Byrds into the Kingston Trio’s smugly snoozy version of “Blowin’ in the Wind” has a wicked sense of humor. Two songs later, there’s the peerless Dylan interpretor Johnny Cash making “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” into a Johnny Cash song, and, you know, I think this was $2.99 very well spent.

The Folk Years also excels at conveying how the folk movement brought world music, part of that Mad Men-era tentative dip into suburban multiculturalism, to white middle-class American homes for the first time. If you’re of my vintage, I bet there was a Harry Belafonte album or two in your parents’ hi-fi cabinet. Belafonte’s beautiful “Jamaica Farewell” is included here on Blowin’ in the Wind, and his indestructible “Banana Boat Song (Day-o)” is on Yesterday’s Gone.

Blowin’ in the Wind also contains a live recording of Pete Seeger doing “Guantanamera,” complete with his educational spoken interludes explaining the song’s origin as a poem by Cuban revolutionary Jose Marti. It’s an important piece of political folk music. But, forgive me: besides making it impossible to watch PBS pledge programming or old Limeliters videos without falling into shrieking laughter, A Mighty Wind has also ruined educational spoken interludes about Hispanic history for me — see Christopher Guests’s epic downer of a Spanish Civil War ballad “Skeletons of Quinto” in A Mighty Wind.

I bought The Folk Years only partly as a snort. There are folk-pop songs here that I loved on AM radio as a kid, and continue to love now, even in their unfashionableness: “We’ll Sing in the Sunshine,” written and sung by the exquisite Gale Garnett, the winsome pop-ified cover of Ian and Sylvia’s “You Were on My Mind” by We Five, “Someday Soon” by Judy Collins. And there are some crucial ’70s folk/pop/country hybrids — Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe” and Glen Campbell’s “Gentle on My Mind” are two — that take your breath away with their emotional depths.

But while I’m happy to finally have many of these songs on CD, my chief motivation in pouncing on this Goodwill treasure wasn’t to complete my collection. It was pure, gooey nostalgia — for these songs that create sense memories of early childhood,  for how my dad used to think the Kingston Trio’s “Charlie on the MTA” was the cleverest song ever to hit WBZ-Boston’s airwaves. But mine is a nostalgia combined with an unsentimentalist’s horror of nostalgia. And maybe that’s the snarky quirk in my character that compels me to see the humor in the unabashed sincerity and unconscious elitism of the palest of these performances, and in tributes like PBS’s Pledge Break folk specials. In all of the above, I think, the creators of A Mighty Wind are my kin.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2016

 

 

Empty nest: Letting Timmy go

 

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Timmy and Buster brought me back to baseball, and only partly because the former Little League mom in me couldn’t resist players named “Timmy” and “Buster.”

In 2009, with an empty nest, I found more time to follow the San Francisco Giants again, and to really learn the game. Tim Lincecum, the slender, free-spirited “Freak” with the spring-loaded, high-kick windup, and his crewcut battery mate Buster Posey quickly became my Special Boys™. In the wake of the Barry Bonds steroid scandal, Tim became the new face of the Giants, and not a moment too soon. His shoulder length hair flying from under his cap, his chill attitude, even his pot bust (which launched a bootleg trade in “Let Timmy Smoke” T-shirts), all seemed made for San Francisco. He was never “Tim” or “Lincecum,” to fans, always “Timmy.” Even the Giants’ broadcasters, even manager Bruce Bochy, called him by the diminutive. But this little guy was as tough as they come. In his prime, his changeup was electric strikeout stuff, and he is the only pitcher to no-hit the same team in consecutive seasons (the San Diego Padres in 2013 and 2014, taking 148 pitches to complete the first one).

Without Timmy, the Giants would not have won their 2010 World Championship (and maybe not 2012, either). It’s that simple. In his first postseason start, Game 1 of the 2010 NLDS against the Atlanta Braves, he recorded 14 strikeouts in a complete game two-hit victory. In Game 6 of the 2010 NLCS against the Philadelphia Phillies, he entered in relief on one day’s rest, helping the Giants clinch the pennant. It was Timmy who started Game 5 of the 2010 World Series, who was carried on his teammates shoulders with his long hair blowing in the Texas breeze, at game’s end.

Timmy’s complicated delivery started to go wonky in 2012, but he accepted a postseason bullpen role with his typical graciousness and grit. He was the winning pitcher in long relief in the Giants’ 2012 NLDS victory over the Cincinnati Reds. Despite the no-hitters in 2013 and 2014, Timmy’s pitch command was erratic and their were stints on the DL throughout 2014 and 2015. So, Timmy the free agent and his surgically repaired hip are now off to the L.A. Angels. I wish the Giants had given him another shot, but he wants to be a starter again, and that wasn’t in the plan here. I miss him and wish him the best of luck. The only bright side to Timmy leaving home is that at least he didn’t go to the Dodgers.

I’ll never get used to a Giants rotation that does not include Tim Lincecum. If he had played for Boston or Philly, he would have been eaten alive when he started to skid. But whenever he took the mound at AT&T Park, he had the collective hope and good vibes of this fan base beamed his way. Maybe it was his sweet disposition, or the fact that he grew up before our eyes, or the nervy competitiveness he showed even in his most dispiriting seasons, but the Giants’ faithful never gave up on him. We had seen his brilliance, and we never stopped believing we would see it again. Call us softies, but he was our Timmy, and we loved him unconditionally.

Tim Lincecum’s Greatest Hits

1.First San Francisco Giant to win the NL strikeout title (256), 2008

2.Back-to-back Cy Young Awards, 2008-09

3.Tied with Sandy Koufax as the only two pitchers with multiple Cy Young Awards, multiple no-hitters, multiple All-Star Games and multiple World Series championships

4. Complete game shutout with 14 strikeouts (a Giants’ postseason record), Game 1 of the 2010 NLDS vs. Atlanta Braves

5. Winning pitcher, Game 5 of the 2010 World Series, the Giants’ first World Championship of the San Francisco era

6. Strikes out 13 in a no-hitter against the San Diego Padres, July 13, 2013 (and is the recipient of a patented Buster Hug)

 

7. First pitcher in MLB history to throw no-hitter against the same team in consecutive seasons, June 25, 2014

8.Winning pitcher in relief, Game 4, 2012 NLDS vs. Cincinnati Reds (forcing Game 5, which the Giants won on the way to their second World Championship)

9. 108-83 career win-loss record with the Giants

10. THIS:

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2016

A world turned purple

San Francisco City Hall lit purple for Prince
San Francisco City Hall pays tribute to Prince

The world turned purple when Prince died. Civic buildings and bridges in his Minneapolis home town and around the world were awash in his signature color. On Saturday night, heading out of San Francisco south on highway 280, with Sirius XM’s Prince tribute channel on the radio, we passed a suburban mall’s roadside message board flashing Prince’s glyph, the control tower and international terminal of San Francisco International Airport glowing purple ahead of us in the distance. As a fragmented society, we agree on so little, culturally. But we agree on Prince. And we agree on how to celebrate him. By allying himself so inextricably with a color (and, later, a symbol — turns out, he was a branding genius), Prince left us with a natural way to express our grief and love for him in the public space, writ large and without words.

It may feel like no artist’s passing has ever been so publicly and universally mourned , but that’s not entirely true. When John Lennon was murdered in 1980, the shock of it was vast and all-encompassing; fans spontaneously gathered to sing his songs, and President Jimmy Carter issued a statement saying in part “John Lennon helped create the mood and music of the time.” Michael Jackson’s death in 2009 also elicited worldwide anguish. The outpouring of emotion for David Bowie has yet to abate.

But there’s something about our reaction to Prince’s passing that feels bigger, more visible, expressed across the full spectrum of class, color, gender and generation, across nations and in so many different corners of daily life. Part of that is down to the times in which we live, with the internet functioning as the town square or church hall allowing us to connect with others in our grief, and to spread ideas for public tribute. And part of that is because baby boomers are now the elder generation; at the time of Lennon’s death, there were still people alive who regarded the Beatles as noise, nuisance and a menace to society.

But, mostly, the intensity of our public mourning for Prince comes down to the totemic appeal his music held for us, the stunning, life-changing majesty of it. Prince came onto a divided scene in the late ’70s. Pop music was factional and fragmented along racial lines, along the “(white) rock vs. (black) disco” mindset. And he wove together everything — pop, rock, soul, disco, R&B, punk, funk, new wave — into something new, beautifully inclusive and alive. Prince’s music united us and opened our ears and minds. And like Bowie, his gender-blurring, sex-positive freakiness gave power, pride, coolness to the weird and the different;  it rendered powerless epithets like “fag” and “disco sucks.”

Prince’s music was influential and crucial. But it was also deeply spiritual, joyful, in its devotion to the twin pursuits of carnal and spiritual transcendence. Prince raised funk to a religion, in an era when organized religion has become a destructive and divisive force. It gives the secular and the unbelieving among us a means to feel our hearts open, our souls lift up, to raise our voices and sing along with other humans. To connect. It makes sense that “Let’s Go Crazy” has been quoted in so many written Prince eulogies: it’s a sermon about focussing on living in the here and now, connecting to other people, while you’re alive. And it makes even more sense that “Purple Rain” has been invoked by fellow performers and fans alike to sing in praise, because, at its core, “Purple Rain” is a hymn, or at least, it has the structure of one.

The lyrics are a farewell to a relationship, but the gospel swell of the music is what moves you. Ever since the movie Purple Rain, fans at Prince concerts (or at anyone’s concerts where “Purple Rain” is played) waved one hand slowly back and forth in the air on the chorus, in imitation of the film’s climactic club scene. What many fans might not know (as an atheist and a Jew, I didn’t) is that the raised arm is a staple of both African American and white Christian worship. Each segment of the song — Prince’s quiet, almost spoken, delivery of the opening verse, the shimmering buildup to the sing-along chorus, the blazing release of the guitar solo, the soothing balm of Prince’s falsetto “woo-ooo-ooo-ooo” as the song winds down — have long been burned into our souls as secular chapter and verse, as comforting and unchanging as a familiar prayer.

In the days following Prince’s death, artists as diverse as Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Sufjan Stevens with Gallant, Old Crow Medicine Show, Jessie J, Jimmy Buffett, Pearl Jam, Slipknot’s Corey Taylor and the cast of Broadway’s “The Color Purple” (I’m sure I’m leaving out many more) covered “Purple Rain” before their audiences. I think the emergence of “Purple Rain” as the tribute of choice speaks not only to its anthemic emotional sweep, but to the hunger for spiritual expression among people who don’t consider themselves religious (though I’ve no doubt that many Prince fans do). For so many of us, music has always filled the religion void. We were Prince’s motley flock, and he gathered us in.

***

A small sample of the many versions of “Purple Rain” performed in tribute to Prince, plus one by the man himself. May he rest in power and purple.

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Barclays Center, Brooklyn.

 

Los Angeles massed high school choir tribute.

Old Crow Medicine Show (with Margo Price), Huntsville, AL

Prince, 2006 Brit Awards (“Purple Rain” is the third song in a stunning four-song set featuring a reunion with Wendy and Lisa).

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2016

 

 

 

 

 

 

Prince, 1958-2016

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Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life …

I’ve been sitting here for hours and I can’t put my thoughts into any coherent order. Prince was not supposed to die at 57. Prince was not supposed to die, ever. It’s been a tough year for eulogizing geniuses, but this one … this one rips my heart out.

***

This is the first piece I ever wrote about Prince. The year was 1981. I was 23, trying to be a “rock” critic. Prince, who had just put out Dirty Mind, was playing Boston’s Metro club, and I got the assignment from What’s New, a free paper given away at music stores and clubs. The writing is crap, but it encapsulates that moment when Prince first hit, and suddenly, all of the tidy divisions between R&B and rock, between “black music” and the stuff that white suburban Boston kids like me listened to, blurred and soon fell away. It was confusing. It was liberating. It was the one moment in my life when I saw a performer for the first time and knew that I had better go study up on my musical history and, oh, yeah, have some sex too, that would help. And maybe then, maybe in a few years, would I have the words to be able to describe the changes Prince put my head through that night.

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After that electrifying 1981 Metro show, I stood with a bunch of other local writers in a circle around Prince and we asked him feeble questions to which he whispered curt responses. The questions were all lame and all of a piece, asking him about comparisons to Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone, trying to get him to say something definitive about his sexuality. This was what my naive little world was like in 1981: Black or white, gay or straight, male or female, rock or R&B, all neatly defined, stereotyped, unchallenged, and never the twain shall meet. And Prince, playing guitar like no one since Hendrix, singing “I wanna be your brother, wanna be your mother and your sister too” blew that world apart. He was all of the above, all at once. He was uncompromising and free.

During this excruciating scene, Prince didn’t make eye contact. He was almost trembling. He was very small, except for his eyes, which were as huge, dark and soft as a deer’s. He fled after five minutes. I’ve often thought about that scrum, and regretted it. But today I’m realizing the courage, the determination, the confidence it took for Prince to get onstage at a rock club, wearing the banana-hammock and the thigh-highs and the trench coat before an audience of smug white people who thought they had seen it all. Fuck, that show was a glorious awakening!

***

White, black, Puerto Rican, everybody just a-freakin’ …

A year later, I saw Prince at the Orpheum Theater in Boston on the Controversy tour. My sister and I were in the first row. It was a more racially-diverse crowd, which in Boston in 1982 meant black and white people, together. This was something that would have been rare, and actually dangerous, only a few years before, given Boston’s terrible display of racist animosity that accompanied the desegregation of the public schools in the 1970s. But Prince’s music had been heavily played on the rock station WBCN since 1981’s Dirty Mind came out. Other FM rock formatted stations around the country wouldn’t touch Prince, but somehow, this city that was so recently torn apart along racial lines, had embraced him. Prince had brought us together.

I remember a few things about that show very clearly. Prince climbing onto a speaker cabinet to aim a guitar solo at the balcony, which was visibly shaking. Teasing us in the front row, coyly unzipping his pants. And this moment, which opens my review for What’s New:

The young black woman fought her way down the center aisle and she’d almost reached the stage when a burly bouncer grabbed her and tried to hold her back. “Prince!,” the woman shouted, holding an outstretched arm stageward where the object of her desire was sinuously bumping and grinding to “Do Me Baby.” Prince looked down at the woman — he touched her hand for maybe a fraction  of a second. “Oh my God!,” screamed the woman, just before she passed out in the arms of the bewildered bouncer.

I was not yet sufficiently enlightened to stop using race as an adjective. And, come to think of it, I’m pretty sure now that the woman was a plant, a part of the old James Brown-at-the-Apollo vibe Prince was putting out that night. This was a wild show, the prototype of tours to come, full of phallocentric sexual play, with a big, tight band of musicians of mixed gender and race, following their bandleader’s whims and direction. In the center of it all, Prince executed spins and splits and struck Christlike poses. I still didn’t understand this strange melding of sex and religion, though the music told me it had something to do with ecstasy.

***

I only want to see you bathing in the purple rain …

By 1984, Prince was such a huge star that he managed to get the backing of a major movie studio, just like Elvis. And he was so pervasive, on MTV, on the radio, that even little kids were  singing his songs. And that’s how Prince became one of the targets of Tipper Gore and the Parents Music Resource Center, who successfully campaigned to put warning stickers on the Purple Rain soundtrack album (and others), all because Darling Nikki masturbated with a magazine. Sure, MTV was in every home and moms were digging some of that catchy new wave stuff. But Prince was a line in the sand. All of a sudden, pop music had a bad rep; it became dangerous again, disruptive — just as its forebears had intended. One night that summer, my husband and I took his younger siblings and cousins to a suburban Boston showing of Purple Rain, family entertainment at its finest, spreading Prince’s corrupting influence to the next generation and making lifelong fans of them all.

***

A few lines from my Boston Phoenix review of the Purple Rain album in 1984:

The color purple holds a place of honor in Prince’s elaborate self-proclaimed myth. Purple is regal; it’s also a mixture of two other colors, as is Prince himself. Purple is the color of a bruise, and of passion.

“Purple Rain” is an unbridled black-light-and-hash-pipe album, complete with psychedelic backwards vocals and a flower-power cover …

He makes us want to party like its 1969.

If I had had a crystal ball, I would have saved that last line. A year later, he put out the even trippier Around the World in a Day. “Raspberry Beret” was the melodic, hippy-dippy, skinny-dippy pop song we all loved. But “Pop Life,” all rhythm, with sparse instrumentation and slicing metronomic drumbeat, was the song that was pointing the way to Prince’s funky grooves of the future.

***

In France a skinny man died of a big disease with a little name …

1987. The single from Prince’s first solo album, Sign o’ the Times, begins with a reference to the 1985 death from AIDS of actor Rock Hudson — closeted friend of Ronald and Nancy Reagan. The music was a somber, sparse, foreboding funk. Prince went there, in Reagan’s America, at a time when few wanted to hear it.

***

“Prince seems the self-conscious culmination of every dream that rock and roll has ever had about itself,” wrote my friend Mark Moses in a New Yorker column about Sign o’ the Times in August 1988. Less than a year later, he would be dead of a big disease with a little name.

***

Writing about Sign o’ the Times for the San Francisco Examiner, I called it “a chaotic crossroads,” the beginning of Prince’s investigation of the black pop underground, of house music, hip-hop and minimalist rap, put through the grinder of Prince’s singular sound and vision, and calling back to everything he borrowed from James Brown. After that sprawling double-album (a masterpiece in a career filled with them), came the smoother Lovesexy, with its coy, controversy-courting photo of a nude Prince perched on a bed of larger-than-life orchids; it was like a Georgia O’Keeffe painting, with Prince playing the part of the flower’s sex organ. And with Lovesexy came its evil twin, the legendary Black Album, which was pulled back from official release and slipped into the hands of critics and fans in the dead of night (metaphorically). From my Lovesexy/Black Album piece in the Examiner:

“The Black Album” plays like a 45-minute extension of “Housequake,” the funkiest track from “Sign.” It’s one long slamming, blistering, rude hip-hop groove, Prince’s throwdown to the New York rappers … who rule the black underground. … There’s no mention of Jesus, peace, love or apocalypse here. And though Prince surrounds himself with exuberant party voices, this is no love-in, but rather, a house-rocking orgy thrown by a bunch of sexual vampires.

“Lovesexy” isn’t a bad album, but compared with “The Black Album,” it’s a safe one. The difference between the two records recalls the way Prince has often spun out some perfect Top 40 jewel for the A-side of his singles and then put some unsuitable-for-radio sizzler like “Erotic City” on the B-side. It makes you wonder: Is “The Black Album” just Prince’s most extravagant B-side? And if he had his way, would he have released different albums to black and white audiences? 

Then I went to see Prince’s Oakland Coliseum concert on the 1988 Lovesexy tour, and that question became moot. This was the greatest Prince show I’ve ever seen, one of the greatest by anyone. I’ve never been to an African American gospel church, but I imagine this show comes close to that experience. We were all of us dancing, screaming, testifying. And somewhere between “Little Red Corvette” and “The Cross,” I was overcome by a kind of spiritual euphoria I had never felt at a show, before or since. Prince’s preoccupation with sex and salvation came from the same place, I realized, the need to transcend the here and now, to be just a soul, communing with other souls, outside of divisions of color, gender, ethnicity. Prince gave us the music that could set us free; all we had to do was be open enough to listen.

***

For the rest of my life, I will regret not seeing him on the “Piano and Microphone” shows in Oakland earlier this year.

***

“Sometimes It Snows in April,” music and lyrics by Prince

Tracy died soon after a long fought civil war,
Just after I’d wiped away his last tear
I guess he’s better off than he was before,
A whole lot better off than the fools he left here
I used to cry for Tracy because he was my only friend
Those kind of cars don’t pass you every day
I used to cry for Tracy because I wanted to see him again,
But sometimes sometimes life ain’t always the way

Sometimes it snows in April
Sometimes I feel so bad, so bad
Sometimes I wish life was never ending,
And all good things, they say, never last

Springtime was always my favorite time of year,
A time for lovers holding hands in the rain
Now springtime only reminds me of Tracy’s tears
Always cry for love, never cry for pain
He used to say so strong unafraid to die
Unafraid of the death that left me hypnotized
No, staring at his picture I realized
No one could cry the way my Tracy cried

Sometimes it snows in April
Sometimes I feel so bad
Sometimes, sometimes I wish that life was never ending,
And all good things, they say, never last

I often dream of heaven and I know that Tracy’s there
I know that he has found another friend
Maybe he’s found the answer to all the April snow
Maybe one day I’ll see my Tracy again

Sometimes it snows in April
Sometimes I feel so bad, so bad
Sometimes I wish that life was never ending,
But all good things, they say, never last

All good things, they say, never last
And love, it isn’t love until it’s past

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2016

 

 

 

In the rotation: Margo Price, “Midwest Farmer’s Daughter”

Margo Price ©Angelina Castillo/Shore Fire Media
Margo Price ©Angelina Castillo/Shore Fire Media

Nashville-based singer-songwriter Margo Price’s debut album Midwest Farmer’s Daughter evokes a time when AM radio was ruled by pop, country, R&B and soul — sometimes all mixed together in one boundary-defying hit song. The album sounds like it could have sprung from the  kaleidoscopic late ’60s-early ’70s music scene that gave us Tammy Wynette and Dusty Springfield, Aretha Franklin and Bobbie Gentry, Jackie DeShannon and Loretta Lynn.

The track “Four Years of Chances” opens on an R&B bass line that puts you in mind of Aretha’s “Chain of Fools,” adds in a swampy blues-rock guitar that wouldn’t have been out of place on Bobbie Gentry’s “Mississippi Delta” and tops it off with a Fender Rhodes electronic keyboard riff (think Billy Preston). Several tracks are adorned with a string section that recalls Billy Sherrill’s lush Nashville productions for Wynette and George Jones. The most pop-pedigreed song, “How the Mighty Have Fallen,” is pure girl-group bliss, with a “Be My Baby” heartbeat drum and “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” string filagrees.

And if the music doesn’t twig you to the old-school vibe, the typography on the CD cover and disc label might: It’s similar to the swirly font used on posters for the classic 1974 Pam Grier blaxploitation flick, Foxy Brown (and later for Quentin Tarantino’s homage Jackie Brown).

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Foxy_Brown_movie_poster

 

 

 

 

 

 

None of this is to suggest that Midwest Farmer’s Daughter is an exercise in empty hipster retroism. Far from it. Price, her band The Price Tags and producers Alex Munoz and Matt Ross-Spang infuse their melting-pot sound with the excitement of rediscovery. (And really, isn’t the Fender Rhodes one of the coolest sounds in popular music, unjustly relegated to the Goodwill bin of history?) Recorded at Memphis’s Sun Studios, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter fuses the sounds of a specific musical moment of the past with a modern sensibility;  the honky-tonking “About to Find Out,” for example, sounds like a lost Loretta Lynn followup to “Fist City,” except that it references selfies and the tech-fuelled class divide.

Price has been a working musician for years, but Midwest Farmer’s Daughter represents a last-ditch effort to make the kind of outsider country music she and her husband-collaborator Jeremy Ivey wanted to make without deferring to the hit-making-machinery of Music Row. (The album was released on Jack White’s Third Man label.)

Much of Midwest Farmer’s Daughter is autobiographical, beginning with the staggering leadoff track, “Hands of Time,” a catalogue of losses that finally arrives at an uneasy peace of mind. Price’s father really did lose their Illinois family farm when she was a child; Price really did suffer the death of one of her infant twin sons; she did grapple with depression and drinking. Her slightly nasal voice is softly brushed with just a hint of vulnerability, soaring to a clarity by turns sweet as a bell and sharp as glass. “I’m gonna buy back the farm/And bring my mama home some wine/And turn back the clock on the cruel hands of time,” she repeats throughout the song; the farm is redemption, those words are a mantra.

“Hands of Time” is a modern folk song in the way that Bruce Springsteen’s “The River” and “The Promised Land” are modern folk songs; they bear the stamp of a songwriter who carries their musical and lyrical antecedents so deep in the bone, they become their own.

Price has been promoting the album with several high profile TV appearances. On Saturday Night Live, she displayed a smart bohemian fashion sense, wearing a thigh-slit royal blue gown with long fringe on the sleeves that was absolutely on-point without being too much. And the album is filled with songwriting as elegantly edited as that dress. Price wrote the matter-of-fact “Weekender” about a stay in the county jail after a DUI.  Achingly yet economically detailed, “Weekender” describes the humiliation of the experience (“They took me down to Cell Block B and stripped off all my clothes/ Put me in a monkey suit and threw me in the throes”) without jerking us around for sympathy or wearing the incident as a badge of honor.

Price sings “Weekender” much the same way Merle Haggard sang “Mama Tried” — with the deep shame of having screwed up and the acceptance that it was nobody’s fault but their own. That “Weekender” swings along with a chorus made for sing-alongs only makes the self-lacerating pain of the lyrics more devastating.

Similarly, on “Since You Put Me Down,” a litany of bourbon and Tequila benders, Price’s half-sweet, half-sharp-edged vocals suggest neither self-pity nor bad-girl swagger; what comes across is a scrubbed-clean directness about using the bottle to banish depression. “Since You Put Me Down” begins with Price strumming and singing solo: “Since you put me down/ I’ve been drinkin’ just to drown/ I’ve been lyin’ through the cracks of my teeth/ I’ve been waltzin’ with my sin/He’s an ugly evil twin/He’s a double-crossin’, back-stabbin’ thief.” When the band kicks in after “waltzin’ with my sin,” “Since You Put Me Down” becomes a sultry-rolling tale of self-destruction with lyrics that feel freshly lived and raw. Yet, like the rest of Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, it leaves you feeling as if you’ve been hearing Price’s voice your whole life.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2016

Live review: Elvis Costello solo (San Francisco, March 30, 2016)

Elvis Costello in San Francisco, March 30, 2016 ©Fred Walder
Elvis Costello in San Francisco, March 30, 2016  ©Fred Walder

With the loss of so many giant entertainment figures over the past few months, many of them at a relatively young age, you can’t blame baby boomers for feeling the chill of mortality these days. That mood was matched by Elvis Costello’s solo “Detour” show at San Francisco’s Masonic auditorium on March 30.  In the stories he shared about his late father Ross MacManus, in the songs offered up to absent collaborators and friends Allen Toussaint and Dan Hicks, and in the slower, contemplative readings he gave “Complicated Shadows” and  “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes,” there were many ghosts onstage Wednesday night with Elvis.

Conceptually and musically, the show felt like a continuation of Elvis’s lyrical, stock-taking memoir, Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink, and the reading/interview/slideshow/concert he gave at the Nourse Theater here last October to promote the book. The middle of the Masonic stage was dominated by a huge box fashioned into a retro TV set. Pre-show, Costello’s music videos played on the TV screen, a canny way to give fans some of the songs that weren’t on the setlist. During the show, the screen played slides from Elvis’s family scrapbook and a sweet video of his father (looking so much like young awkward Elvis) and his band attempting a Latin flavor on the folk song “If I Had A Hammer.”

As Costello explained early in the show (and writes about so beautifully in the book), Ross MacManus, was a big-band singer who enjoyed a bit of renown in post-war England, playing dance halls, recording cover versions of popular songs of the day to be played on BBC Radio and appearing on television. While other kids would wait for their fathers to come home from the office or factory, explained Elvis at the Masonic, he would “take a screwdriver to the back of the TV looking for Dad”.

Unfaithful Music is as much Ross MacManus’s story as it is that of his son. Costello writes of an only child’s love for a father who wasn’t always there, and the connection they shared though music. In telling these intertwined stories, Elvis, who achieved a level of fame his father never did, pulls his dad up along with him. But Elvis also clearly identifies more and more with the journeyman musician now that he’s in middle age, and now that the radio/record company/MTV machine that brought him to fame over the course of his first handful of albums has long been dismantled. Costello now does exactly as he pleases, and he does it in a variety of genres, with the emphasis on the performing rather than the recording. More than Dylan, but less than Springsteen, Costello gives the people what they want in concert — he always plays “Alison” and “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” — but in exchange for those songs, he also gives us the music we need, even if we didn’t realize we needed it.

And that’s what happened at the Masonic, as Elvis offered up a long set heavy on welcome deep tracks (“Church Underground,” “Motel Matches,” “Blame It on Cain,” “Pads, Paws and Claws”) and covers (like Los Lobos’ “A Matter of Time”). Some durable crowd favorites were presented in their alternate forms; “Everyday I Write the Book” was wrapped into a lovely cover of Nick Lowe’s “When I Write the Book,” while “Radio, Radio”  was represented by its early draft, “Radio Soul,” which extols the true salvation of pop music rather than sneering at the medium:

“I was tuning in the shine on the light night dial on the front of my radio
When the man said there’s nothing in the news today except trouble and we all know
One thing we got too much of it is trouble, guess you know that’s true
What we need is a little music, so we’re here to entertain you.”

“What we need is a little music, so we’re here to entertain you.” After the recent string of soul-shaking losses of icons, those lines ring truer than ever. How many of us soothed the shock of David Bowie’s passing by listening to his music obsessively, trying to keep him with us?  But while we were merely fans of Bowie, Costello played on bills with him (and Lou Reed), as a slide on the TV showed us. We might have acutely felt the loss of Allen Toussaint and the Bay Area’s cowboy-swing-bluesman, Dan Hicks, but those people were Elvis’s friends. And the show felt at times  — a gorgeous “Ascension Day” for his The River in Reverse collaborator Toussaint, a quiet, heart-breaking version of Hicks’ “Not My Time to Go” at the piano — as if it had been crafted to allow performer and audience to mourn together. The setlist, and Elvis’s between song stories, kept returning to certain themes: life as a working musician, the shortness of time, what we leave behind.

Not that any of this was gloomy or draggy. Costello was, as always, a witty and genial host, and watching his mischievous “Take that!” expressions after he nailed an unexpected song choice or whipped off blistering, looped guitar work on “Watching the Detectives” was a treat. By the last two of the eleven songs he sang during encores, the Grateful Dead’s “It Must Have Been the Roses” and “Peace, Love and Understanding” (both augmented by opening act, the sister-duo Larkin Poe),  the audience was screaming, literally screaming, like this was a Beatles concert.

The highlights for me were his cover of the 1930’s standard “Walking My Baby Back Home” (which he dedicated to his wife and kids), his own plaintive “Jimmie Standing in the Rain” (with a coda of “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” sung a cappella and unmiked) and, at the piano, a downbeat version of the usually peppy 1927 chestnut “Side by Side.”

“Side by Side” was the key to everything that made this show tick. “Oh, we don’t know what’s coming tomorrow/ Maybe it’s trouble and sorrow/But we’ll travel the road sharing our load/ Side by side.” Here was the perfect expression of how the bond between friends, between family members, between musician and audience, makes life worth living.

But also, “Side by Side,” “Walking My Baby Back Home” and “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” are part of a bygone tradition and style of music-hall popular song, one that Costello draws upon in his empathetic portrait of showbiz has-beens and never-weres “Jimmie Standing in the Rain.” This music belonged to the world his grandfather Pat, also a musician, and his father inhabited. It seems as if Costello has taken on the responsibility of keeping a light shining on this dusty corner of pop tradition. He keeps singing the songs of the dead, keeping them alive.

(A June 2015 stop on the Detour was released as the DVD “Elvis Costello Detour Live at Philharmonic Hall.” Here’s a clip.)

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2016