"Hybridism is heinous. Impurity of races is against the law of nature. Mulattos are monsters…"—Treatise on Sociology, Henry Hughes, 1860
A passion play in the classic rock critical mode looms loftily in the clouds:
The Rolling Stones play Los Angeles in October 1981. The opening acts are the J. Geils Band, George Thorogood and the Destroyers, and at the bottom of the bill, Prince. The Stones, J. Geils, and Thorogood are all reasonably good examples of the rewards available to white musicians playing black American music. All three draw deep from the well of blues and soul, all three point proudly in the direction of their R&B roots. The addition of Prince to the show, therefore, seems a gracious gesture on the part of the headliners (somebody must have cut a deal), a well-intended symbolic acknowledgment of a young black rocker hailing from the same neck of the woods as Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Steve Wonder, and Little Richard, a 22-year-old Phenom who writes fantastic songs, produces and plays every note on his albums, has as much juice as Jimi Hendrix, as many moves as James Brown, and more jazz than either one. It is an acknowledgment that Prince is an inheritor. It is also a disastrous misunderstanding of a contemporary rock audience’s tastes and prejudices. Prince is pelted with abuse and booed from the stage. What he has inherited, a stadium full of Stones fans don’t want.
He sang his own songs, posed heroically with his guitar, stalked and strode the stage. He wore black bikini underwear, not a black leather jacket. He danced brilliantly at a time when dancing was disco and disco was an obscenity.
Rock had developed a history, sculpted by white boys (the reason rock critics liked Elvis Costello so much, David Lee Roth said with dead-on accuracy, was that rock critics look like Elvis Costello).
"The two-caste system in the Old South drove the mulattoes into the arms of the blacks, no matter how hard some of them tried to build a make- believe third world for themselves." —Roll, Jordan, Roll; The World The Slaves Made, by Eugene D. Genovese, 1974
After the L.A. disaster, Prince again retreats, maybe truly intimidated for the first time. Uptown was a smaller kingdom than he’d figured; fantasies were thrilling, but reality was an ass kicker. Still, for someone as young and resourceful and ambitious as Prince, a disastrous defeat points to challenging new possibilities for a decorative triumph.
Controversy came out a few months later. He couldn’t believe, he sang in the title tune, all the controversy that had developed over whether or not he was black or white, straight or gay. He loved every word of it. He’d started it with the time-honored device of refusing all interviews, turned up the flame by inserting into Controversy the Lord’s Prayer and a reductionist manifesto nursery rhyme: “People call me rude/ I wish we all were nude/ I wish there was no black and white/ I wish there were no rules…”
Uptown, and his dream of what it was going to be like, disappeared. A new world was what he offered this time, the Second (absolutely no slight pause) Coming. His tone was positively messianic. Sexuality, he insisted, is all we ever need. No money, he was certain, and especially no clothes. Moreover, he’d located the cause of our problems and secured its solution, too. “We live in a world overrun by tourists…inventors of the Accu-Jac…they teach the kids that love is bad.” The solution? “”We need a new breed/ Leaders, stand up and organize…” He was talking, as he almost always did, with his own needs in mind. And presenting himself as the new leader.
The odd thing about it was the degree to which his uncomplicated philosophies went forth into the world of complexities and fulfilled themselves. A single Prince tune played in a new wave dance club could improve the atmosphere—and the dancing—for an hour at a time. And finding the bedroom of female new wave clubsters decorated with the dripping-wet Prince poster that came with Controversy ceased to be a surprise and became a certainty. Prince was carving out a constituency that was black far more often than white, female far more often than male, young far more often than not. It was the kind of constituency that gets a pop voice little respect and a lot of condescension.
And there was no telling if his constituency would stick. If his earlier club dates at the time of Dirty Mind had been attended by audiences that were said to be a startling mix of race, gender, class, and style, Controversy hadn’t been getting any white airplay so that by the time Prince’s tour played the San Francisco Civic on Valentines’ Day 1982, the attending faithful were almost absolutely not white.
The opening act was The Time, with their first hit single, “Cool,” under their belt, from their debut album that was produced by someone named “Jamie Starr.” Everybody involved strenuously insisted that Starr was most definitely not Prince behind those Foster-Grants. “Cool” had been all over black radio for months. It was easily the biggest, freshest funk hit of the season, and it meant that the biggest hit Prince had ever had was under another name than his own.
After the Rolling Stones debacle, he’d subdivided himself, disincorporated, sliced his persona into sections that could meet head-on a segregated marketplace’s sets of assumptions. The Time did some of what Prince might have been doing if the rigid rules of rock had allowed him a little latitude. They mixed funk and new wave pop and a lot of R&B; onstage, they came off like Little Richard fronting the Specials, but maintained glacial gangster cool at all times. “Ain’t nobody bad like me!” Morris Day would crow while a dapper roadie-valet held a gilt mirror in place for him to primp his pomp. Their backdrop was a sketch of steps and stoops on a city street and their version of Uptown was anywhere an attitude is the first article of clothing you put on in the morning. And they showed up dressed to kill.
Unlike a rock band, where all involved studiously avoid dancing lest they be suspected of being frivolous, The Time danced like demons, in slick unison steps and with loose individual inspiration. Some of their shtick came straight out of an older tradition of black show business, stuff that could have played the black vaudeville circuit 50 years earlier, but in the same instant they seemed to be inventing it.
Prince’s own show was a rock act on a hockey-rink-to-stadium scale, and if it had the dance audience standing still often, no one walked. The parts of the persona that he showed off played in clanking rock tempos more often than not. He played left-field Hendrix licks and gave himself and the guitar mutual orgasms. He did a version of Dirty Mind’s “When You Were Mine” that was exactly the sort of thing that makes rock critics crank all the way up to “majestic,” “redeeming,” and “tragic” when they’re describing their most recent Bruce Springsteen experience. He was demonstrating the simple fact, whether white folks were around to see him do it or not, that his absolute mastery of a vast vocabulary of style—not only R&B/funk/black but any “rock” style he took a shine to as well—was complete and captivating.