“You’re jealous of God!” That’s what the voice inside his head told him to say to me. Of course its a lie. Why would I be jealous of a sick man who is not God but is constantly being told that he is by the demons that hang out in his mind? Exactly. However the tormented still need to be fed. I made rice so that we would at least agree on something. He had two helpings of boiled hope on a plate. It doesn’t matter if my brother remembers that it was made by me. What does matter is that he survived today’s attempt on his life. If he was God i’d blame him for his insanity but that is not the case. Madness doesn’t need a disclaimer. Nor does pain. Nor does love. Nor does charity. Nor does mercy. We do what we can and sometimes what we must. And in between we eat what is cooked. Unceremoniously. Circumstance usually stays for dinner. God has a plate too.
An old friend of mine now runs the so called urban division of Island records which was once a formidable home to artists such as Bob Marley and Grace Jones. In the 90s they acquired the greatest British music talent to have come along is a generation. It seems nobody knew how to sell him to the fickle market place of shifting trends.
On the other side of the Atlantic, Columbia were faced with a similar challenge in the slow burning guise of a comet called Jeff Buckley. Though both would not go on to become household names, any musician of note, regardless of personal taste, would be remiss not to acknowledge the supreme gifts that they were endowed with. Sadly before maturation of potential, Jeff’s body tragically passed under the waters of the mississippi river to be discovered lifeless in Beale street and yet his music would be life affirming for those who found him later, like yours truly.
Lewis didn’t ‘die’ in quite the same way. Perhaps his tale of a prematurely ended career is a far kinder death of sorts because we can reassure ourselves with the hope that he might endeavour to create new music that escapes into the world again. Another North Londoner, Amy, would enjoy the commercial fruit of capitalist success that Lewis didn’t taste and the poison of that bitter fruit would enrapture her. Though thats an oversimplification. The hard facts don’t tell even half of the whole. I wonder if my old friend would have known what to do which such a gift in his tenure.
20 years ago we privileged fans of North London’s finest football club were fortunate to acquire the gifted feet and artistry of Thierry Henry. He was the revolution incarnate for the premier league. Such grace. Such power. Such beauty he brought to the field of play. This image was captured after his famous goal against Real Madrid’s galacticos (Zidane, R9….) at the Bernabeu. Watching it in real time in 2006 was such a thrilling experience. We had a young team. Fabregas was the prodigy. Our defence was really our attacking style of play though we didn’t conceed goals as cheaply as we have done in the last decade. But we were still the underdogs on route to a first Champions league final. Real Madrid on paper were Goliath but we had our David in the form of Henry. Our giant slayer.
This was the pivotal year of the Wenger era. A chance to fulfill the promise that 2004’s invincible season teased. We would lose the last piece in the core of a great team with Henry’s departure to Barcelona in the following year. We should have won it all between 2004-06. It wasn’t to be. But the solitary goal at the Bernabeu and Henry’s celebration is still a memory to cherish. It was a shot in the arm that we and our national phyche needed. On that night Arsenal became the first English club to beat Real Madrid at their home ground. It reaffirmed the idea that greatness can prevail against the odds. In the final we faced another great team. The Barcelona of Ronaldinho and Eto’o. Our team competed valiantly and tasted an inglorious defeat. Henrik Larsson was the surprising game changer, coming off the bench. That was a hard one to swallow. I suspect Henry’s decision to leave was partially the result of that defeat. He would go on to greater accomplishments along side Messi and Eto’o. It was the right decision to leave. We would sadly regress and are still in rebuild mould in 2019. But at least for a while we had the poetry of Henry.
Oh but Confucius was wrong. Life is not simple and we did not make it complicated. We as in the debtors of this world and the situation we found ourselves in on arrival. Almost everything is chance and timing. An unearned providence. The will of the free is the slave of choice. A long hope is the length of a day times the width of perspective. Some will wait untill the mouth of reason yearns to feed that stretched out and guilty hand of reality. And breathe out the future we rolled the dice to inherit, when their nose of indifference has swallowed up the fragrance of time to drown out the noise of our silent tears stretched across the canvas of our fate. Such violence was born of light returned to sender and unclaimed. Crown your eyes with the love of priceless things and count the cost backwards.
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.
A tower on fire burning lung after the flames were put out and the blood cries out. No Cain at the site of the murder. No justice. Just us. Souls taken up higher than the smoke, fly down to watch the mourners arise to a new day with their heads held up by rage and despair, and hearts bowed down and bowled over by the agony and incredulity of what happened. What really did happen?
We who knew the dead watched the conversation turn to the custody of the truth and the enquiry about the meaning of an event that forever changed the world of those who were loved and unloved in life, death and the afterlife. An afterthought in the aftermath, is the price of life that is haggled in the courtroom. Payment for the life of the dead, is a future for the children of Grenfell. But is it money? Or is it the mercy of confession? A courtroom of lies still engulfs the air, we share breathing space in the now. Two years dead and burried, yet the living have not the forecast of rest. And God be judge of the classified red ink on white papers.
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.