Memoir

60. I Wondered If I Had Enough Class

Fortunately at the height of Jacko Mania there existed an Anti-Michael who countered the King Of Pop’s lack of funk with a mass appeal mash-up of James Brown, George Clinton, Jimi Hendrix, Little Richard, gospel, and the over-produced synth-heavy sound of the period.  Yeah, you know whom I’m talking about.

If Prince did nothing after 1979’s “I Wanna Be Your Lover” we’d probably still be talking about him. I mean, if Alicia Bridges’ “I Love the Nightlife” can survive almost 35 years surely there would be a place for a one-hit wonder Prince. Fortunately I’ll never have to defend this theory, as Prince has been a prolific artist from the beginning.  Between 1978 and 1982 he released five albums, each one upping the Prince-attude.  Listening to those first five in order is to hear an artist finding his voice.

The fifth album was 1999, and it was a monster.  The singles were in heavy radio rotation, the cassette blared from the Sparkomatics in the primer-gray Camaros, and every white girl in my high school wore her concert tee from the Greenville Memorial Auditorium show that I was too snooty to attend (“Prince?  I don’t like that poppy shit.”).  Not that I was too much of a snob to hush Matt in his own basement when it was just the two of us, though, and it was time for Prince to shred the “Little Red Corvette” solo.

Every morning my rattletrap MG and I puttered over to Sherri’s house.  I sat among the stuffed animals on her bed like some sort of horny E.T. watching her run around in her underwear, getting ready for school — hair, makeup, five shirt changes.  Tacked net to her Rick Springfield poster was the Controversy freebie: Prince in a thong and gold belly chain, standing in a shower decorated with a crucifix.

I saw the same poster maybe a year earlier in another girl’s room, and now all those Untouchables at school in Prince tees.  Now keep in mind that I’m talking about Upstate South Carolina circa 1982-1983.  We weren’t even a full generation removed from segregation.  My middle school was the former black high school; the Klan still paraded down Main Street now and then, though admittedly few took them seriously anymore.  Racial tension still lingered in the loblolly pines, and yet cute little white girls in Candie’s and add-a-beads fantasized about Prince in his thong and his belly chain.

I can’t say the same for Rick James, Zapp’s Roger Troutman, or Charlie Wilson from The Gap Band.  I never met a girl with Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Sly Stone, or Jim Hendrix on her wall, either.  All of the above preceded Prince and all were successful in the rock world, but at least in my little town Prince was the one to smash through the last remaining color barrier.  He was the Rosa Parks of middle-class white girls’ panties.  (I’m not proud of that line.)  (Yes I am.)

Anyway, every morning I’d sit on Sherri’s bed and watch her get ready for school and without fail every morning at 7:30 a.m. the DJ spun Prince’s latest single:  “1999,” “Little Red Corvette,” “Delirious.”  Every afternoon we played Atari with her little brother and listened to Prince some more.

Nobody bothered to tell me how expensive having a car and a girlfriend was.  My under the table job scooping ice cream and fielding solicitations for any number of felonies just wasn’t cutting it.  Fortunately my sister’s boyfriend worked for the parent company of the Hardee’s burger chain — a regional version of McDonald’s, only with actual food.  Hardee’s claims to fame were charcoal grills and biscuits made from scratch every morning.

“How much you making at that ice cream place, Jim?”

“Twenty-five a week.  Something like that.”

“You a hard worker?”

“Yeah, I’m a hard worker.”

“Don’t tell me you are if you aren’t.  This is my reputation we’re talking about.”

“I work hard.”

“I know the manager of the Hardee’s over by the bowling alley.  She wants me, but I don’t want anything to do with that but she don’t know that.  You mention my name and she’ll hire you on the spot.  You’ll be making four times what you make now.”

“Cool, thanks.”

My first job interview.  I didn’t own anything but jeans, tee shirts, and Nikes and that wasn’t going to cut it.  It’s all about that first impression, right?  The places to go for cool dress clothes in Spartanburg were Tanny’s and Fox’s in the heart of the long-dead downtown:  pants with impossibly long pleats and pocket chains; dark shirts with white collars and tie bolts; Playboy shoes and Sergio Valente accessories.  That’s right:  My idea of interview attire at age fifteen was a cross between pimp and zoot suit.

I showed up at my first interview dressed like an extra in a Billy Dee Williams malt liquor commercial.  I carefully filled out my job application and parked my pleated ass in a bright orange molded fiberglass seat at the back of the dining room.   A few minutes passed, and then the largest woman I’d ever seen emerged from the kitchen.  The sheer yardage of her brown polyester uniform was impressive.  She shoved herself into a pair of molded seats and picked up my application.

“You been to Europe?”

“No, why?”

“You put that little line through your sevens.”

“Oh, no.  I just think it looks nice.”

Silence.

“So this is your first job?”

“No, I worked at an ice cream place and I used to do yard work.”

“Did you pay taxes?”

“No.”

“Then this is your first job.  You know anything about cooking?”

“I make dinner at home.”

“Are there 150 people in your family?”

“No.”

“You eighteen?”

“No.”

“Have to be eighteen to use the roast beef slicer, state law.  A cook that can’t use the slicer doesn’t do me much good.”  She propped her beefy paw on the table and pushed herself up.

“Rob sent me.”

“Rob who?”

“Johnson.”

She settled back into her seats.  “Rob from the main office?  You related?”

“He’s a family friend.”

“Rob’s a good man.  Hard worker.”

“That’s what my father says.”

“Look, my outside guy just quit.  You’ll be cutting grass, raking the playground, taking out the garbage, stuff like that.  You can start Monday.”

“Cool, thanks.”

“How many sick days you have left from school?”

“Five, I think.”

“Save them.  I’m going to need them for inspection days.”

“Thanks, Carol.”

“Miss Dumpfey.  You don’t call your boss by her first name.”

Sherri and I celebrated that night with Atari, Prince, and making out.  Let’s pretend we’re married / Go all night…  I was going to be a tax paying working man.

***

Related “Why It Matters” Pieces:

The other appearance of the Prince Controversy poster (and the girl who loved it):  14. What Time Is It?

My time working at a bizarre ice cream shop: 52. Devil’s In the House of the Rising Sundae

 

20 replies »

  1. My adolescent crew were undiscovered rockstars, experts at determining faults in popular music.

    Jimi Hendrix, certainly an idol to Prince, was inscrutable and beyond reproach… musically and stylistically. Jimi was a Royal Jester, an astral-travelling minstral. Costume was daring, echoing the meanderings of his blues-on-acid.

    Prince seemed like one of us… Jimi’s know-it-all little brother, apt to prove the mistakes of his elder, quick to raid Jimi’s wardrobe, his mother’s closet, and the dining-room drapes. Prince was a living caricature… even his guitars were symbolic.

    Prince’s guitar work lent acceptability to adolescent boys… tight-and-right. Honestly, I was laughing to learn of his sex-symbol status with girls… we were sure Prince was doing hair and nails with the gorgeous women around him. (Told you we were experts)

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    • “Little brother” is a funny and apt analogy. He did sort of come off like the obnoxious little brat who was better at everything and spoiled rotten. I remember resenting him ripping off Jimi’s look, which of course Jimi ripped off from somebody who ripped it off from somebody. (Shows you how much of an expert I was, too.)

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  2. Great post. The first album I bought on tape was 1999. I had heard a song by Prince on the radio and gone into town with a friend to buy something by that guy. The song was on Purple Rain but I bought that the following week. I couldn’t get enough. Approaching 30 years later my iPod is full of his songs. I don’t go a day without listening to at least a couple and they never get old.

    I agree about “I Wanna Be Your Lover” that whole album is fantastic. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing him live 4 times over here and they are the best concerts.

    Thanks for the trip down memory lane. 🙂

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  3. Prince was (is?) both overtly sexual…and rather feminine. Perfect for young women who are still a little unsure of exactly how much they’d be willing to do! Not to deny him his sexy funk. Just, you know, he’s kind of safe in some ways and girls like that.

    Congrats on getting that job at Carl’s Jr South! Big pimpin’!

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    • That half explains the Bieber Fever phenomenon, doesn’t it? It certainly explains ’80s androgyny and the hair metal bands.

      As for Carl’s Jr South? How dare you, ma’am. This was long before Carl Karcher stuck his Western Bacon Snout into a storied Southern franchise.

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  4. FAVORITE LINE! “Racial tension still lingered in the loblolly pines, and yet cute little white girls in Candie’s and add-a-beads fantasized about Prince in his thong and his belly chain.”

    I was late to the Prince party, but I think he exerts a lot more influence than is even known.

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  5. Always liked Prince though mainly his known hits rather than albums. 1999 is still a classic and Red Corvette was my favourite. He’s almost got too much talent to get it all out.
    Great post about your/our past. Must get back over here more, I’m tending to spend more time on my writing blog now and must get back to the music one.

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  6. I am never going to have any friends, so I might as well ‘fess. up. I never really cared for Prince. I didn’t dislike him, he was just….in the background. A lot. I lived in Minneapolis for a year and a half, and was asked out on a date to see him, with the promise of how rocking the show would be in his hometown. I liked the guy, I suppose, but not enough to brave the sub-zero temperature to see an artist that I was all shruggy about.
    The guy never asked me out again, and it took me a long time to figure out that I had possibly insulted him, or he just wrote me off as a half-wit West Coast asshole that didn’t own a coat. Oh well. There is my Prince story, all one hundred-ish words of it.

    “He was the Rosa Parks of middle-class white girls’ panties.” – Best. Line. Ever. Pour yourself two fingers on that one, bud.

    Did you work for Miss Dumpfey long enough to be able to drive the roast beef slicer? You typin’ with nine fingers there, boy?

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    • I have to admit (I guess I already have) that I was a reluctant Prince believer. I’m a horrible joiner — a pop culture phenomenon that big pushes my “I hate that on principle” button. But inevitably I had to cop to the fact that I love the funk and I love the guitar and Prince tears both up. Doesn’t mean that I’m a blind follower — I don’t care for the “Diamonds and Pearls” stuff, for example, but when he’s good he’s really good.

      This clip always stuns me. All that star power onstage and Prince cuts their heads off, as they used to say on the chitlin’ circuit. He schools those boys. I love the look on Dani Harrison’s face — that “Oh my God! This is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen” boyish delight.

      Watch and become one of the faithful: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x_2tSGxGnJQ

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      • And BOOM! “Raspberry Beret” is immediately forgiven, as are all of his other pop sins. This rocked it beyond the limits of one listen – I have not jacked up a guitar solo and hit replay so many times since…….Dire Straits Live “Sultans of Swing.”

        Arigatou gozaimashita, Master Stafford. My fixed sensibilities on the subject have become a game of 52 pickup.

        Time to go Prince hinting. Toss me an arrow whenever the mood strikes you.

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  7. Okay you two, settle down with the Prince-y bit here. Yea, great guitarist bla bla bla. (Actually had a friend who second engineered for him. He said beyond beyond beyond.)

    My only push back on the man – being okay/allowing/even thinking of letting whathernamebandthing sing/play/slaughter that peppy bright little ditti – Manic Monday – shame on him.

    By the by….. the good that came from Prince = one thing for me, Wendy & Lisa. So there. Ha.

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