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.”
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?”
“You put that little line through your sevens.”
“Oh, no. I just think it looks nice.”
“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?”
“Then this is your first job. You know anything about cooking?”
“I make dinner at home.”
“Are there 150 people in your family?”
“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.”
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.”
“How many sick days you have left from school?”
“Five, I think.”
“Save them. I’m going to need them for inspection days.”
“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