This Roman city has been my stomping ground for all my life, and like a woman, it remains a mystery to me. A beautiful and sometimes infuriating mystery. And with all its challenges and failings, it has a beating heart that dares you to embrace it. Its old architecture and industry built from the profits of the slave trade, colonialism and the far reaches of the British Empire are part of London’s legacy. As a post colonial descendant, I am able to harness the history of London as both a symbol and witness of the city’s possibilities. The immigrant blood that upholds the NHS and that has permeated its way into the life and culture of Londoners is only one of many ways in which the history contends with the present. I try to see the beauty, resilience and hope that escapes into the polluted London air. I see the London of the Arts. I think of the fact that London can claim Mozart, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley and Marvin Gaye as former residents. Its been the city of visionaries like William Blake. It gave the world the genius pathos of Charlie Chaplin. Its the city of Shakespeare and boasts the world’s greatest theatre scene and tradition. Charles Dickens did not hide the ugliness and brutality of London. Neither did Dizzee Rascal. As reflected in the Grime and Drill music, London has a screw face too. Knives and young lives have not been kind to eachother. But I’ll always be grateful to London because its where I found the great love of my life. She knows who she is. I hope that we will enjoy this city together again someday. A man can dream. I love London.
Clementine kisses you on the nose. Rose button drowned in your eyes. I drank your milk of kindness through my lies. Red wine and coke, you must play through the madness. Best thing you ever heard in your blindness. Muted tongue on pause bites the lip that feeds you. I remember what mama told me. And I remember you. Oh so tall in stature till they bent you over the bullsweat. They have teeth to match your fangs. And tongues of fire to heat up your secular soul. It burns just as hot on the outside of the inn. Keep it. She’s a keeper said nobody but your gentrifried mind. The flame dies but twice. Let it burn like the bushes of vanity, skin deep and heart swept feet off the ground, you put the foot in the mouth but forgot to bite down on it. Deep dead on it. Liver for the thrill. Killer of sheep you ran through the mill on a goose chase for the ages. Bronzed behaviour patterns after laughter and the clock is tocking.
It dawned on me this week that its been 20 years since I’ve been writing songs. Over that time I’d like to think that I’ve learnt a few things about music composition and myself. I’ve always loved creating and over the years I’ve enjoyed painting, sculpture, and various genres of writing, but nothing has been as rewarding as seeing the germ of an idea travel through the universe of my heart, mind and soul into a song. It is a thing of wonder. At one point in time I was meticulous in keeping records of my work. Dates and places. Not so meticulous about equipment. I’ve worked with a variety of keyboards on the low bracket and three guitars. I’ve worked closely with one songwriting partner for a period but mostly alone. The gift and the curse is that an idea can take over your life. You persue it, in or out of pocket, whether its affordable to dream it into reality or not. You dream about what a song can be when given its wings. I’ve studied the work of many songwriters, famous and obscure, but when I create, its from the blood of my soul. This year I had the pleasure to complete the recording of a song that meant a lot to me at this stage in my life. I had to wait almost two years to get the artist I wanted to breathe more beauty into what was already the apple of my eye. I still can’t say I’m done with it but the journey is its own reward. I feel fortunate to have written it and the hundreds of others. I am also grateful for the people who have helped me in collaboration. Musicians and engineers. Friends and hired hands. The inspiration has come from every conceivable thought, memory, feeling,…all corners of the human experience. I thank God for my inner ears and the organs that work together with the spirit in me. Curtis Mayfield is one of my many teachers, and I know I wouldn’t have become the songwriter I am without the lessons I learnt from the craftsmanship of masters like him.
When watching Prince in concert, I was always struck by how seemingly perfect his execution of the vocal characters and characteristics of his songs were. He would travel up in the highest part of his register with embellishments but always centred, and then on the one he might let out a blood curdling shriek or rhapsodic squeal to another number in which he might swoop down low and seamlessly into a full bodied baritone. He morphed spectacularly and with ease through difficult terrain for the mortal larynx and diaphragm. More than most performers, Prince understood the theatre of the human voice. And more unusually, the female voice. Many of the songs on this posthumous release were writen for or with women in mind, and on his originals he displayed an innate and learned knowledge of the nuances of timbre. The tonal wisdom is a characteristic of his body of work which has yet to receive the telescopic attention to detail it deserves. Prince, from his earliest adventures in sound, had a keen interest in vocal harmony and an unerring ear for the framing of the voice. His first two albums ‘For You’ and the self-titled follow up, released in the late 70s, attest to this fact. His singing was often ambiguous by default if not by intention, and that was part of its appeal. It was distinctively his. Having absorbed the great tradition of R&B vocal groups, he turned down the production assist of Earth, Wind & Fire’s founder and front man, Maurice White, and opted to travel through alley ways where Smokey Robinson’s soft crooning falsetto and poetry wouldn’t dare to venture. The risks Prince took was the risqué we were unaccustomed to. He wrote and sung for women as if he knew them intimately like the voice inside their collective head. As if he was the ear to their concerns, fears and desires. He pulled from Gospel as much as folk traditions. From Chaka Khan and Joni Mitchell. And much more. Every genre was within his grasp and assimilated like a Chameleon stuck in a jukebox that ease dropped on the heart and mind of an even more complex species.
It’s wasn’t all on the surface. Prince had more layers than an Onion. Imperceptibly he just seemed to know women better than most who have ever written songs and sung about them from different points of view. He learnt all the tricks of the trade whilst inventing some of his own. His Camille voice, circa 1987, is neither male or female but something entirely of its own Frankenstein curiosity. Bob George was at the other end of the gender and personality spectrum. A marriage of black humour and pitch changing technology during the infancy of an emerging Rap music scene with affliations to the street life, when it was still a dangerous notion that served notice of a threat to the established order and social norms. The voice of Prince the seductress shared living space with the voice of Prince the antagonist and a legion of others. Let’s not forget that he had a side gig on record with his conception and production of early albums by the Minneapolis New Wave Funk band, The Time, who were an alpha male, chauvinistic caricature of himself, fronted by his friend and Grand Central bandmate, Morris Day. But the list of women who were presented with songs from within the mysterious walls of his intuition, is long and wide in variety.
Is there a Prince type on record? Perhaps there is multiple. One type is Ingrid Chavez, who inspired some of the more overtly devoutional and esoteric songs. Martika would fit into that type by the inference of the songs he gave her. She was given the honour of introducing the world to his poignant and tender composition, ‘Love Thy Will Be Done’. This song is not gender specific but its vulnerability is best rendered by a woman, if not by Prince because it yearns in a way that is not commonly expressed by men in a public platform like a major label album release. It also defies a lazy stereotype about Prince’s cartoonish, two dimensional depiction of women during phases of his career, which do not stand up to three dimensional scrutiny when examined. But there was that side of him in his work, which may have been one of the characters on the grand stage of his imagination. In a lot of his songs, Prince is the victim of the wiley ways of women. Ensnared, betrayed and left broken hearted. It’s a fascinating pathology. Sinead O’Conner made a successful meal of a song he gave to The Family for their debut album, but neither she nor her celebrated rendition of ‘Nothing Compares To You’ received his official seal of performative approval. He took it back not long after her version became a chart smash and spiced it up with another Prince type of woman in the guise of the mighty voiced NPG Queen, Rosie Gaines. But it’s his original solo recording that is the most revealing for how naked he is in his vocal delivery. The song is a masterpiece of the songwriting craft. Great artistry sown in the soil of substance.
The songs on Originals are ones that hardcore fans like myself are familiar with thanks to the infamous bootlegging of his recordings in the 80s, long before the Internet was in our vocabulary of common words. This is only the feintist scratch on the surface of the several lifetime’s worth of studio, rehearsals, and live performance recordings and footage he left behind but we now have some sonic clarity in place of tape hiss, and suprisingly some of the mixes are different from the ones that have circulated in the purple underground for many frustrating and simultaneously exciting years of hunting for material which lay dormant in his fabled Paisley Park vault.
There’s quite a few fan favorites gathered for this fellowship of orphaned songs. Its nice to have the gorgeous ‘Noon Rendezvous’ in good sound quality. It is sheer beauty. Prince’s original recording of ‘Jungle Love’ is also great to have on this album because as I’ve alluded to, it’s long been established that Morris Day and The Time were at the very least an extension of Prince. One of several shape shifts of his enigmatic persona. Vanity/Apollonia 6 was another and is represented here in the opening track, Sex Shooter, which is a song that was featured in a transitional scene from Purple Rain. Just like the many sides in the room of our identity, Prince always had a voice and a suave style to match.
This collection of songs is playful and less cynical than one might expect for a project not helmed by its creator. It pays tribute to his range as a writer, composer, producer, musician in the strictist of definitions. And it celebrates the virility of his ideas and concepts across genres in a period when as popular as he was, he openly embraced the avant gard and pushed the cutting edge beyond the frontiers of the mainstream. There were no limits to his creativity. At the beginning of the 70s Miles Davis didn’t get to work with Hendrix as he had planned to before tragedy struck, but in the mid to late 80s he put the voice of his muted Trumpet to the service of Prince the composer, and recorded for posterity, tunes which will inevitably see the light of day in due time. Miles went beyond the border of expectations and left a lot of purists behind him, who couldn’the escape the 50s. He likened Prince to Hendrix, James Brown, Charlie Chaplin and Marvin Gaye and even the successor to Duke Ellington. I won’t dispute the opinion of Miles but even after all the years of listening to and watching Prince, I find no equal. Nobody past or present comes even remotely close to the totality of Prince the Artist on stage or on record.
Its the year 2005. I’m in Hamburg, Germany. I’m staying with my uncle. He has a spare room in his apartment which is the epitome of simplicity. In this little room there is a bed and not much else. There is a modestly priced keyboard that most likely belongs to one of my cousins. Its crucial in that moment of my discovery of it that it is not a high end keyboard. Its functional. Thats gold enough. I am alone. I have played something and recorded it to tape. I am in a different environment but there is a feeling of comfort from two chords which find me through this instrument. And a third. Yes chords do the finding and hands make the leap of faith which ultimately funds belief. Hands are not much different than hearts when it comes to loss. To be found is the price and the prize. And chords know us better than we know us worse. Seeing chords in colour is a luxurious vantage point, and what one lacks in sophistication is not necessarily lost in translation. So it was to be that I would be found by the melody of ‘The Pulse Of Life’, which would travel with me, faithfully, through years of iterations. Its been a patient process of reclamation.
Curtis’s hands were important. Not more than his heart. When he recorded his last album he had only the use of his neck and the head attached to it which housed his genius mind to do the work of breathing out hope into a world that had tasted too many losses to inhale the optimism extolled through music. His heart still functioned effectively and the evidence of soul and spirit was still audible. Lying on his back he recorded one short phrase at a time. Phrase by phrase, a word became a line of lyric. Phrase by phrase, a line of lyric became a verse. And then a chorus. And then a bridge. Curtis’s hands remained still and silent through this process. The eyes watched and waited for something that the hands knew would never happen again. Curtis could not find feeling in the physical form of hands that had mastered a style of guitar playing that was unique to himself. Hands that shaped sounds for Hendrix and Marley to study. Hands dramatically and unwillingly put to rest. And this is why those hands are a great teacher. In their absence of use he martialed the figurative hands that survived the destruction of his body, from the neck that shouldered the weight of his head, with a voice which expressed his deepest feelings in song. A lifetime’s worth of wisdom and openess to the mysteries of life. I remember listening to New World Order and being humbled by Curtis’s generosity of spirit, and in awe of what he accomplished in terms of sonic life affirmations in such desperate circumstances. The testament of the spirit when it intersects with the divine is all one can hope for when one puts in the work of exhalation. Curtis Mayfield’s musical soul holds the hands that raise up the weary hearted head of hurts. Unbowed.
Today is a wedding ceremony. A marriage of possibilities. My cousin has exchanged vows and time will study and tell what it has seen, heard and known under God. Black life like black bodies have long been a surrealistic feast for the voyeuristic eyes of fetishists and fantasists. Joseph Conrad could not open his eyes even behind the safety of his pen, to straddle his imaginative reconstructions of the monolithic burden bearers in the heart of darkness situated in the continent of his mind’s perception.
Baldwin generously invested the deformed and fragmented faces of exotica with the unusual idea that they were worthy of being depicted as fully human, even in a foreign land. The continent is not a country. And a country in this context is not a geographical destination. The poetry of Baldwin is not merely the words sentenced to a page but rather the lives affirmed by his words dancing to the tune past the margins of hate and redeemed by love. In his writings love is the great pacifier even when it sets fire to our expectations and challenges our notions of who is worthy of grace, and the horrors that transgress the invisible inhabitants who are generational custodians of a manifested multifaceted curse with wings.
Barry Jenkins painted the poetry of James Baldwin beautifully in ‘If Beale Street Cold Talk’. Next week lovers around the world will serenade each other with cards, gifts and kisses flavoured with wine and chocolates. Babies will be conceived. Lies will be ever more creative. Truths with be earnest and unsparing. Death will still be in business. Card or no card. Life will go on. Love in its bittersweetness covers the multitude and will endure the fall out. A torn page is the pity that a chapter can afford to lose.
“Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word “love” here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace – not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.”
– James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time
Wettest eye watering skinned brother on the inside, arachnid crawling out, side eyed, hunger bites the heart of fear, and the killer, mother knows best, knows not the fright that drives him to stomp small creatures and their secrets, like vaporous confessions that rise up with death.
Smoke city. A body burns, like nations, like bodies burning nations. Iraq hid in flames of refutation.
Web swinger, entrapped in the ganda, hung to dry on the rope that pulled him up to the measure of Spider men, climbed into company love of misery and a tail wagged for the milk of magnesia and human kindness, as mythical as the love that murders with good intentions to broadcast.
Charity. Just spare me the charity of words like the vain in life who speak of the ignoble dead, fishing in blood rivers. Dead as purpose of Pompey. Restless in peace.
Patriots are foreigners too. Like poets. Dead ones seem to outlive the living. Their words are the ideas that dreamers cling on to for a fictive future.
The living are dreamers at dawn. Walking on corn toes. Curved. Running the zig zag. They are pragmatic with crayons. And they laugh loud and unclear like the noise they speak.
Home is where the heart is heavy. If you cut through the chatter and chit it’s all bullsweat. Now if you knew where to bury the living, I’d hand you a shovel. No words. No songs. No honour to purchase.
They’ve got that one day exclusive on offer. Get your love at half the pain. All foreign currencies accepted. Faces are guilty but eyes are blameless.
Black bodies. Gold plated hope behind second skin. Black holes for weeping bullets, scream behind screens, unheard trauma scares dreams into a silence so loud that it hurts to hear. No fears to trace, to find the trail of tears that triggers the trigger of cowards and all that we choose not to see. All the cows we milk as they moo. Not yet found like Mother’s love. Away from home. Cold meat on a warm climate. Touch it. Pull. Tear it apart. A human lives behind it. Gold for skin, not cuddled, so dark as to be unseen. So much of night lives in you. Lights up your days. A paradox of mourning. You have known all your life how bright invisibility is. So shiny you didn’t need virtue to polish the skin that hides your identity. When is a human a being? In the womb of contemplation is a seed travelling the possibilities of being alive in a world not yet born.