We’re all Buffy now

I’m sorry I haven’t written here in months. I’ve been having trouble focussing on the things that used to be so important to me. Music, TV, arguing about the fine points thereof … that was life before. Now, I spend more time glued to Resistance Twitter and poring over the Washington Post and New York Times for glimmers of hope that our national nightmare will end in something other than an ignorant, grifting fascist tweeting us into nuclear war.

But I was roused from my tunnel-vision by the realization that there is a meaningful anniversary to mark this week. Twenty years ago, on March 10, 1997, Buffy the Vampire Slayer premiered on The WB. At the time, I was the TV critic for Salon, and writing about BtVS and its darkly satisfying vampire/detective-noir spinoff Angel was one of the greatest pleasures of my career. Both shows still rank in my Top 10 of the best TV dramas ever.

Throughout its six-year run, BtVS remained a cult hit on the WB and (for the final two years) UPN, marginal broadcast networks that didn’t even reach every major market; the show never cracked the top tier of the Nielsen ratings, never earned any major Emmy nominations (star Sarah Michelle Gellar did pick up one Golden Globe nomination). Rich in mythology, seeded with zingy pop culture references and crackling humor, the then-singular tone of BtVS would have been perfect for Netflix or Amazon, but those cachet-dripping alt-TV platforms had yet to be invented. The influence of BtVS, though, reverberated through the past two decades in shows about uncommon young women (and their friends) fighting seemingly unbeatable evils, from Veronica Mars to Orphan Black to Supergirl to The Good Place. 

The tale of Buffy Summers was a feminist hero’s journey; the snarky California teen grappled with her responsibilities as the once-in-a-generation Chosen girl tasked with protecting the world from the supernatural evil known in the show’s shorthand as “The Big Bad.” Created by Joss Whedon, BtVS mashed together a slew of genres — sci-fi, fantasy, mystery, John Hughes teen angst, Anne Rice vampire hotness — into something thrillingly new.

There were moments of genuine terror, of both the scary-monster variety (all these years later, the free-floating, skeletal “Gentlemen” still give me the creeps) and the quiet, personal kind (the premature death of Buffy’s mom). The empowerment of women, their strength, courage and sexual agency, was a central theme of the series. Not that the show put Buffy on a pedestal. She was Chosen, but she was also a poignantly human young woman. She struggled with being a savior;  she sometimes made bad choices that hurt the people she loved, and herself. She was realistically imperfect, and as the series went on, we watched her come to terms with her imperfections and her life (and death).

One of Buffy’s flaws was that she took too much on her shoulders, shutting out the loyal members of her “Scooby Gang.” The Scoobies each had a role to play in saving the world from the demons that issued forth from the Hellmouth beneath Sunnydale, Buffy’s suburban hometown. This misfit gang was named for the crew in Scooby-Doo, which itself borrowed from Sherlock Holmes’s Baker Street Irregulars. Buffy’s Scoobies included a Jewish-computer-geek- lesbian-witch (the incomparable Willow Rosenberg, played by Alyson Hannigan), a proper British middle-aged librarian (Rupert Giles, played by Anthony Stewart Head), a mean girl (Cordelia Chase, played by Charisma Carpenter), a loyal platonic guy friend (Xander Harris, played by Nicholas Brendon), and a platinum-haired punk vampire (Spike, played by James Marsters) with whom Buffy indulged in a masochistic affair that even now retains its power to polarize fans.

Despite their differences, the Scoobies were a true community; in fact, their power derived from the linked diversity of its members. Willow’s computer skills early in the show and her witchcraft later in the series, Giles’ knowledge of occult arcana, Xander’s selfless dedication — these were just a few of the weapons in Buffy’s arsenal.

I’ve been thinking a lot about BtVS, and Angel since the election. How did this happen to us? How could a cabal of the worst and the ugliest turn our democracy upside down so quickly?  Russia? The KKK? Nazis? It’s as if the Hellmouth opened and set all our existential foes running wild at once.

But if we learned one thing from BtVS and Angel it’s this: We know what a diverse group of people working together for the common good can accomplish.

So much of BtVS and Angel seems astonishingly familiar now. Mike Pence, fronting  homophobic and anti-woman politics with an impossibly tidy veneer of churchgoing blandness, could be a doppelgänger for the creepily paternalistic, gosh-golly Mayor Richard Wilkins of Sunnydale, who lurked through early seasons of BtVS. The Mayor was the Big Bad of season three, secretly fattening up on dark power until he shed his human form and revealed himself as a giant snake bent on destruction. Mr. Vice President, we see you.

Creepy paternalism and rapey and misogynistic men made for a recurring theme throughout the run of BtVS. The Trio, the Big Bad of season six, were three computer game nerds who couldn’t get laid; they developed the magical equivalent of a date rape drug and built robot women (including a robot Buffy) to abuse and debase. (Sound familiar?) Later, in the final season, an army of young women — the entire line of Slayer succession through time — banded together to help Buffy fight Caleb, a misogynistic preacher who railed against “dirty girls” and the primal evil of woman. The preacher was clearly meant as a personification of the religious right’s contempt for women’s rights — contempt that has become bedrock Republican policy today.

Angel, which ran for five seasons on The WB, was even more persistent in weaving social and political commentary into its storylines. One of the most indelible of the show’s story arcs transported the vampire-with-a-soul and his own Scooby Gang into the home dimension of pal  Lorne, a gay, disco-singing demon. In this brutally Medieval shithole, women were regarded as “cows” and there was no music; being able to hear music in his head made Lorne so different, (read, “gay”) as a child, that he’d had to flee this place for his life.  This three-episode arc from season two has only grown more biting with time. And the ending of the last episode of Angel still gives me chills, a tiny band of comrades steeling themselves against dire odds, as every beast and monster ever known is unleashed on Los Angeles. “Personally, I kinda wanna slay the dragon,” says the battered Angel with a grin. “Let’s go to work.” Freeze-frame.

The fact that BtVS and Angel are so on-the-nose in our current political reality is not an accident. As a country, we’ve been locked in the same cultural war — women’s rights, LGBT equality, racial equality on one side, and fear and meanness hiding behind a warped version of evangelical Christianity on the other — for the past two decades. Back then, BtVS and Angel showed us the monsters that lurked beneath the surface of our country. The monsters all out in the open now.

But, on the upside, isn’t it easier to slay the dragon you can see than the one you can’t? Which is why, on this anniversary of the birth of the Buffyverse,  I’m taking solace in the organic Resistance that arose on November 9 and continues every day against xenophobia, misogyny, racism, transphobia and, yes, Nazis. The Resistance is the Scooby Gang writ large. We may be snowflakes who watch too much TV, but we know how this story goes. We know the sacrifices and the setbacks. We also know that if we stick together, we will win.

Buffy once said, “I’m the thing the monsters have nightmares about.” The Big Bad that slimed its way into the White House when we were looking the other way? It’s more afraid of us than we are of it.

***

Here are a couple of my favorite BtVS pieces from the vault:

The Death of Buffy’s Mom (Salon, Mar. 12, 2001)

Getting Buffy’s Last Rites Right (New York Times, Apr. 20, 2003)

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2017

 

 

2016 in 10 songs

 

david-bowie-blackstar-640x640

I pretty much fell apart on November 9, so apologies for not writing anything new here in a while. I intended for this post to be a year-end list of my favorite new music and TV, but it kept wanting to go in a different direction. So, here are 10 songs that defined 2016 for me. Most of them are old, a few are new, some are offered in tribute to the departed, and all of them have taken on new meaning or been a comfort through the post-election gloom.

1. “Lazarus,” David Bowie. I’m sure you’ve seen the meme about everything falling apart this year because David Bowie was holding together the fabric of the universe. His death on January 10 hit like an earthquake, and 2016 never stopped shaking. Two days before he died, Bowie released Blackstar, which in hindsight, reveals itself (like the clues embedded in the cover of the album) as an urgent, feverish and brave farewell. “Look up here, I’m in heaven,” sings the Starman on “Lazarus”; his battered voice flickers with mischief and a daring sort of relief (“This way or no way/I’ll be free/Just like that bluebird/Oh, I’ll be free”) throughout the song, until it’s replaced in the long fadeout by a somber, lowing sax riff. In the eerie accompanying video, Bowie is in the middle of writing a sentence, creating until the last moment of his existence, when he is pulled away and shut up in a coffin-like closet. Of all the gifts Bowie gave us and all the frontiers he journeyed, pulling us (and the entirety of pop culture) along with him, his final act might have been his most generous. It was death-defying in every sense but the literal. Then again … maybe that too.

2. “Blowin’ in the Wind,” Stevie Wonder and Clarence Paul. During the string of police shootings of African American men earlier this year, when half the country lost its mind over the assertion that black lives matter TOO, I was driving around one day with the radio on and heard Stevie Wonder’s 1966 cover of “Blowin’ in the Wind.” This was a Top 10 hit for Wonder, but I had only dim memories of it from my childhood. But there it was, playing on Sirius XM’s Soul Town channel, which is devoted to R&B and soul hits of the ’60s and ’70s.  Arranged in a country-gospel crossover mode (like his soon-to-be bigger hit, “A Place in the Sun”), this version lives and breathes the injustices counted in Dylan’s lyrics. It reminds you that this song is a protest for civil rights: “How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man?,” “How many years can a man exist before he’s allowed to be free?”

Hearing the infuriating relevance of those questions in 2016, fifty years after Wonder and Paul recorded them, reminded me that the greatest, and most widely disseminated, protest music of the ’60s and ’70s was recorded by black artists, including Sly and the Family Stone, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions and Gil Scott-Heron. Edwin Starr’s ferocious anti-Vietnam song “War” went to number one on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1970; Freda Payne’s “Bring the Boys Home” was number 12 in 1971. “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud,” one of James Brown’s empowerment anthems, reached number six in 1968. Volumes could be written on the powerful statement made by Aretha Franklin’s Afro back in the day. And somehow, I had never heard Lamont Dozier’s 1974 single “Fish Ain’t Bitin’,” with its imprecation, “Tricky Dick, stop this shit,” but Soul Town remedied that. This music was created by and for people fighting for their lives and legitimacy in America. White liberals who are only now discovering what it feels like to be strangers in their own country are advised to listen and learn.

3. “Uptown,” Prince. I’ve listened to Prince every day since April 21. Some days, I need the cathartic “Purple Rain,” a modern hymn, to combat the heartache that has yet to fade. Other days, it’s the unrepentant dance funk of “Housequake” or “Sexy M-F.” But of late, when I hear “Uptown” from Dirty Mind (1980), I’m cast back to what it felt like in those days when “disco sucks” was code for white people (guys, mostly) to indulge in racism and homophobia — it didn’t all start with MAGA. Just one year after the idiotic “Disco Demolition” riot of 1979, Prince released his electro-funk-new wave tune about a dance utopia where “white, black Puerto Rican, everybody just a-freakin’,” and proved that disco was on the right side of history.

I first saw Prince in a rock club in Boston, the city itself only a few years removed from the turmoil surrounding desegregation of the public schools. With a cheeky punk swagger, the diminutive singer packed both the showmanship of James Brown and the guitar-god sexual mojo of Jimi Hendrix; the predominantly white audience didn’t know what hit them (that goes for me, too). In Prince’s world, all were welcome; his racially-diverse band included two out lesbians. And Prince’s persona itself — the falsetto, the female aliases, the eyeliner and furry jockstrap — blurred boundaries of sexual orientation and gender (although he exhibited troubling homophobia later in his career). “Uptown” was a joyful place where society’s marginalized and demonized could be free. I refuse to believe it was an illusion.

4. “Daddy Lessons,” Beyonce. Beyonce was the cultural figure of the year. Like Luther, President Obama’s Anger Translator from the Key & Peele show, Beyonce was Michelle Obama’s off-duty secret self — check out FLOTUS grooving to “Single Ladies” and rapping along with Missy Elliott’s “Get Ur Freak On” during this much-shared installment of James Corden’s “Carpool Karaoke.” Just like the first lady, Beyonce became a lightning rod for bigots who smeared her as an Angry Black Woman and cast her in vile racist memes, but she kept on singing, angrier and blacker, as the year went on. The Black Panthers fashion nod at the Super Bowl. The sinking police car and Black Lives Matter imagery in the “Formation” video. The “I like my Negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils” line. The baseball bat and I-ain’t-sorry.

A few days before the election,  Beyonce teamed up with the Dixie Chicks at the Country Music Awards for a rowdy, unrepentant performance of “Daddy Lessons” from Lemonade. With the country polarized by the open racism (excuse me, “economic anxiety”) embraced by the supporters of the bad-daddy authoritarian in the cut-rate trucker’s hat, the CMA Awards moment took on an electrifying subtext. Here were the second most powerful African American woman in the land and the liberal country music pariah Natalie Maines (both Hillary Clinton supporters) celebrating the common roots shared by black blues and white country. Of course, there was outrage from the usual suspects. But Beyonce and the Dixie Chicks are not sorry.

5. “Under Pressure,” Queen and David Bowie. A song that encapsulated the Cold War nuclear fears of the Reagan Era comes back to haunt us. I put “Under Pressure” on a Bowie playlist, to which I’ve often escaped, post-coup. Most days, my mood pinballs between “It’s the terror of knowing what this world is about” and “Can’t we give love one more chance?” And Bowie and Freddie Mercury’s operatic swirl of compassion bittersweetly marks the challenge we face. Love’s such an old-fashioned word, but so what?  This is our last dance, this is ourselves, under pressure.

6. “Livin’ in the Future,” Bruce Springsteen. Springsteen’s underrated 2007 album Magic, which largely concerned itself with the smoke and mirrors of the Bush II Administration, contained brutally clear songs warning about what happens when abuses of power become the norm. In the bleary morning hours after election night, lines from “Livin’ in the Future’ popped into my head — which was strange because this was the one song from Magic that I never cared for. I thought its apocalyptic visions were too overheated and its illogical chorus too tricky (“we’re livin’ in the future, none of this has happened yet”). Yet, every day since November 9, Springsteen’s lyrics become more chillingly true: “My ship Liberty sailed away on a bloody red horizon/ The groundskeeper opened the gates and let the wild dogs run.” That weird chorus wasn’t a trick after all. It was precognition.

7. “The End of the Innocence,” Don Henley. Another song that is stuck in my head, for better or worse. Henley wrote it about the Reagan years (see a pattern here?), another autocratic presidency claiming to Make America Great Again (for Rich White Men) and the hell with everyone else: “Oh beautiful for spacious skies, but now those skies are threatening/They’re beating plowshares into swords for this tired old man that we elected king/Armchair warriors often fail/And we’ve been poisoned by these fairytales/The lawyers clean up all details/Since daddy had to lie.” How many times can you lose your innocence as an American? More than I thought possible.

8. “All American Made,” Margo Price. Price’s debut Midwest Farmer’s Daughter was one of the best albums of 2016, but this song is as yet unrecorded. Price sang it on an NPR Tiny Desk Concert on the morning of November 9, looking the way so many of us felt: Stunned, weary, heartsick. “All American Made” is about the bamboozlement of working people by deceitful politicians wrapped in the flag and carrying a bible: “1987 and I didn’t know it then/Reagan was selling weapons to the leaders of Iran/But it won’t be the first time, baby, and it won’t be the end/They were all American made.”

This is the kind of finely etched, honest sociopolitical narrative that Johnny Cash used to write, that Springsteen is still writing. It’s the kind of truth-to-power bluntness that will not endear Price to country radio, but that doesn’t seem to bother her. The set’s last song, “About to Find Out” from Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, was transformed from a rollicking takedown of a self-centered hipster to an acid-dripped direct hit on our new “leader”. And she didn’t even have to change a word: “You have many people fooled about your motivation/But I don’t believe your lies/You blow so much smoke it’s bound to make you choke/I see the snakes in both of your eyes/But you wouldn’t know class if it bit you in the ass/And you’re standing much too tall/You may have come so easy and happened so fast/But the harder they come, they fall.” At the end of the song, Price opened her blouse to reveal a T shirt reading “Icky Trump,” and wiped the tears from her eyes.

9. “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story,” Hamilton soundtrack. Hamilton has become a constant companion. It will be remembered as the Camelot of the Obama presidency. For cultural moment of the year, consider the Broadway cast of Hamilton making an eloquent curtain address to audience member Vice President-Elect Mike Pence (author of homophobic “electrocute the gay away” legislation, among other far-right lunacies), asking him to respect all Americans, whatever their race, gender, sexual orientation, political affiliation or religion. The speech drew the pathetic wrath of the Twitter Troll in Chief, but then, what doesn’t? “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story” is the final song of Hamilton, in which creator Lin-Manuel Miranda refutes the saying “history is written by the winners.” Alexander Hamilton lost the duel, but in death, his legacy outshines “the fool who shot him.” However, in one of the more fitting ironies 2016 bestowed upon us, one of those legacies is — the Electoral College. Still, it’s the duty of anyone who loves democracy to call bullshit, loud and long, on whatever fact-free, fringe madness come from this already-chaotic new White House. We need to be the ones still standing to tell the story.

10. “My Girl ,” The Temptations. Another Soul Town epiphany from within a fog of post-election grief. “I’ve got sunshine on a cloudy day/And when it’s cold outside, I’ve got the month of May.” I’ve played this song countless times since I first heard it on the radio as a girl. But now, I’m hearing something new. “I don’t need no money, fortune or fame/ I’ve got all the riches, baby, one man can claim.” “My Girl,” written by Smokey Robinson and Ronald White, was released in December, 1964. The Vietnam War and protests against it were escalating. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 had been passed, but the Selma-to-Montgomery Marches were still three months away. African Americans in the South were still obstructed from voting. The Watts riots in Los Angeles were on the horizon. These were hard, desperate times. But here was a song that offered listeners a refuge from the pain and turmoil around them. It wasn’t about refusing to acknowledge the struggle; the narrator of “My Girl” sees the clouds and feels the cold and knows that money is short. But in his heart and soul, hope blooms and he is free. “My Girl” is a song about love remaking the lover’s world. Today, we have to remember that we still have the power to look at ugliness and imagine better things, to keep faith in sunshine on a cloudy day.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2016

 

 

Bruce Springsteen turns 67 … and 30

 

What's New - Nov. 1979 (Springsteen photo by Andrea Laubach)
What’s New – Nov. 1979
(Springsteen photo by Andrea Laubach)

Bruce Springsteen turns 67 today, and he’s celebrating with a new autobiography Born to Run,  to be released Sept. 27. But as we all age along with Bruce, I’m thinking back to a landmark birthday he shared with an arena full of us in 1979. It was Madison Square Garden, Sept. 22, the first night of Springsteen and the E Street Band’s two-night appearance on the bill of the all-star MUSE concerts against nuclear energy. At midnight, as September 23 dawned and Bruce turned 30, he stopped the music to say, “Well, I’m over the fucking hill. I can’t trust myself anymore,”* and then threw a chocolate birthday cake into the seats down front.

Luckily, I was up in the rafters on my own dime, a baby rock critic covering the show for a free Boston music rag called What’s New. It was a wild night. The Boss was in a bit of a mood, and he was exorcising it all on stage. But this show was unforgettable for more than Bruce’s birthday, or the gigantic charity rock show vibe. This was the night Springsteen debuted “The River” from an album that wouldn’t be released for more than a year. He sang this new ballad at a deliberate pace, with immediacy and fierce passion, with no guitar in hand, no barrier, between himself and the audience. The performance was hypnotic and heartbreaking, and watching him, it was as if the thousands of souls around me slipped away; there was only the sweeping, piano-driven melody and the open-ended story of young lovers beset by accidental pregnancy and harsh economic realities.

One part of the song, in particular, grabbed me. It was the moment the narrator slips into a memory of the river as Eden, the lovers “tanned and wet down at the reservoir,” only to dissolve it in the next frame with a vision of the lovers visiting a dry riverbed: “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse …” Did Springsteen become a poet that night, or was my 22-year-old self finally alive to the poetry that was there all along?

With the 2016 River anniversary tour just wrapped up, it seems like the right time to share this clipping from the vault and remember the night that journey started. Happy Birthday, Bruce Springsteen. Long may the river run.

cci22092016_3

*He’s quoting a saying we had back in the ’60s and 70s: “Don’t trust anybody over 30”.

(P.S. – I know it looks like the review says “his 11 hour set,” but, sadly, that was a typo. I think it was supposed to say “1 1/2-hour”. And love to my friend Holly Cara Price, who made this adventure happen.)

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2016

Here’s “The River” from the movie of those MUSE concerts.

Tales from the bargain bin: An embarrassing obsession

91dmVIki9jL._SL1500_

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

 

 

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.

Jennifer Hudson slays it at the 2016 BET Awards tribute to Prince.

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

prince

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.

Scan

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).

CeZnMn3WwAAwBoM

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