In the mock rock documentary “Spinal Tap”, fictive lead guitarist Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest), tells an interviewer that he modified his amplifier so that instead of it going to “10”, (maximum volume), it now goes to “11”. Tufnel has not fundamentally altered how the amp works, but he has convinced himself that now that it “goes to 11” it plays louder. When the film came out in 1984, that little vignette was read as pure silliness; an indicator of Nigel Tufnel’s stupidity. In the context of this article in 2017, I propose that it is a sly commentary on the arrogance and intransigence of White male privilege in the world of rock music.
In 1982-83, Prince broke through the racial guardrails on American radio with his double album masterpiece, “1999”. Released in the fall of 1982, Top 40 radio stations put the title track in heavy rotation. It was a #1 hit. Prince followed that with the single “Little Red Corvette”, a perfect pop song, which also went to #1. By the end of 1983, Prince was a bona fide star in American popular music, but he was not yet a rock star.
Prince faced little resistance from marginalized audiences–African-Americans, male and female–women in general, gays, and club-goers who loved to dance. But he had not penetrated the psyche of the White American male by 1984; he had not won them over to his side because of his musical oeuvre, and his blatantly transgressive image. To most White men, Prince was a “fruit”, a “queer”, and a you-know-what, besides. His toying with androgyny, and his interracial band, only inflamed the imaginations of biased, heterosexual, White men.
“Let’s Go Crazy” obliterated the cultural resistance that was left. It was the rock anthem of 1984. It was played endlessly in almost any venue: sporting events, clubs, fraternity parties, malls, and at other concerts.
I know, because I lived through it, and faced a fair amount of ridicule and derision within my own fraternity for liking Prince. For just liking him, not because I was his acolyte, his apostle, and proselytizer, which I was. Liking Prince in my fraternity, which was all-White, meant I was a queer, or could be one. It might mean that I was a radical “‘N’ lover”.
I even taunted my brothers by wearing makeup at a few parties in 1984. Some girls I liked knew I was a Prince fanatic, and they came up with the idea that I should put on some eyeliner, mascara, and lipstick. I looked fantastic, I could not deny it. Walking around in the house was like parting the Red Sea: the guys were repelled and shooed themselves away from the freak, while the women came running toward me in droves. I never did so well with women as I did when I wore makeup two times on a Saturday night.
I talked to a Black woman my age yesterday, who is a Prince aficionado, about “Let’s Go Crazy”. I asked her how she received it. She said, “When I think of ‘Purple Rain’ songs, I think of them as operatic compositions in totality. I really don’t break them down outside the context of the film.”
She makes a great point. She reminded me how the film flowed so organically. “Let’s Go Crazy” was the big setup for what was to come next. That ties into my point as well: What could be a better song to start a concert with?
The song begins with a held electronic keyboard note that reminds one of a church organ. Prince announces, “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to talk about this little thing called life…” The beat starts, guitars crunch, and legions of synthesizers throw into motion. The synthesizers ping their notes back and forth, answering each other, in a sort of circus wheeze. The sensation is one of being on a carnival ride. The song is sexy, riotous, fresh, careening, urgent, banging, galvanic, authoritative, exciting, and expertly executed, finished with a lead guitar solo passage. One message is sent, and it is clear: it announces the arrival of a superstar.
I challenge you to listen to “Let’s Go Crazy” and not marvel at its inherent greatness, and timelessness. Its sound, and message, will never be dated.
This superstar was not negotiating any sociopolitical or commercial deals. He was not consciously attempting to get acceptance from the White rock crowd. He was not wheedling radio stations that played different formats to start playing his songs. He was not saying to himself, “Oh, I need to ‘cross over’, and get White people to like me, or I won’t be validated.” Prince did not compromise to break through to mass popularity. He did not worry about how he would be received. Sure, he understood the risks of his career path, he was not stupid, far from it, but “Let’s Go Crazy” said, “This is what I do. This is who I am. I have control and mastery of this idiom, and I will blow you away, whoever you are, any way I want to.” That is what “Let’s Go Crazy” meant.
I saw Prince and the Revolution in late December, 1984, at the old Checkerdome. (Ralston Purina, with the checkerboard logo, long subsumed by Nestlé Foods, was the big sponsor at the Arena, which is what we used to call it). Prince opened with, what else?: “Let’s Go Crazy”. There were rays of light going every which way. A ton of purple and white confetti came down from the rafters. The sound was syncopated cacophony. I remember seeing women dancing in the aisles. People were pumping their fists, and taking photos. I could not move. I was transfixed. I was in awe. This was Church. I think I spent those seven or eight minutes alternately nodding my head to the beat, and shaking my head at the complete command he had of that audience; the perfect spectacle of it all.
This was the realization of the German concept called “Gesamtkunstwerk”: it is “totalizing art”, “an ideal work of art”, “universal artwork”, a “synthesis of the arts”, or “an all-embracing art form”. “Let’s Go Crazy”, at the opening of the 1984 Prince concert, was an all-encompassing sensory experience unlike anything I have witnessed in my life. It was as intense as a very prolonged, good, orgasm. I am not kidding.
I stood at the concert thinking there must be a huge difference between being 20, and 24, which was our respective ages, at the time. I had high expectations for myself back then. I thought I was capable of something like this, if I only had the guts, and the maturity, and the work ethic. Nope. There simply was a huge difference between Prince, and everybody else. I cannot fathom his presence and virtuoso talents in those days. The guy was barely an adult.
Back at the fraternity, my “pledge father” had been ribbing me mercilessly for my Prince discography and affectations. He was an unreconstructed White guy from West St. Louis County, who had gone to an all-boys, almost all-White Catholic high school. He was a very macho hockey player, who listened only to K-SHE 95 FM, the “Classic Rock” station, which he would tell you if you went into his room. “Do not fiddle with my stereo,” he would say.
Jimmy, who I will only identify by his first name, had a thing for Stevie Nicks, and her 1983 hit, “Stand Back”. I played it in my room. I had to inform Jimmy that Prince wrote “Stand Back”, and gave it to Stevie. Jimmy then said, “Every time you play that, you gotta come get me. That’s the rule.” So, I tried to do that, but Jimmy and I were on the outs half the time, because of our political and cultural differences.
By the time the Prince concert loomed, I got hints that Jimmy was sniffing around for tickets. I’d had mine for a couple months. I knew who I was going with, and what I was going to wear: a white Oxford shirt, thin black tie, Members Only jacket, and white, cut-off gloves. Jesus Christ. I was 20. Limited budget. Stop laughing.
As the concert progressed, we “rushed the stage”, or, at least, tried to get closer to it. We had good seats, at the back of the floor. As we piled ahead, a man about 6’1″ came into view straight ahead of me. He was pumping his fist wildly. He had a look of perpetual glee on his face. It was Jimmy, my fraternity brother, who had raked me over the coals for liking Prince. He seemed to be having a very good time.
That was how it was in 1984 if you were a young White man of privilege. It was perfectly OK to consume a Black cultural production in the anonymity of the jostling crowd, in the dark, but once the light of day set in, it was time to put the mask back on, and resume life as a proper bigot. Apparently, it did not engender conflict within him; there was no conflict between enjoying Prince, and pretending to be outraged by your friend, who openly declared his love for Prince.
There were so many Jimmy’s in those days. There still are.
Prince, with “Let’s Go Crazy”, said, “Get on board, because the train is leaving the station.” He challenged you to accept him as he was, on his own journey. I was on board, and looking forward to the trip.
Jimmy sat 10 rows in front of me. This concert, that song, were better than 10’s. They really did go to 11.
(I took a photo of the “Purple Rain” album cover for the featured image. I took a photo of one of the inner jackets from the “1999” album for the inset photo.)