Prince pretty much generated his own cottage industry of Minnesota-bred funk acts. New artists and groups spun from his orbit on what seemed like a daily basis (at the Purple One’s peak): Sheila E., Vanity 6, Apollonia, Wendy & Lisa, The Revolution, The NPG, Tevin Campbell, Ingrid Chavez, Andre Cymone, Carmen Electra, Candy Dulfer, Rosie Gaines, on and on. Arguably, one of the most legendary names is Morris Day and The Time – in great part to having launched the producing careers of band members Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis (the master architects of Janet Jackson’s sound, among others).
In fact, Prince assembled The Time out of thin air, deciding in his whimsy (and expert marketing) that a “rival band” would make for a good narrative. (Think World Wrestling Federation, Jem & The Holograms vs. The Misfits, or any one-off episode of The Monkees.) Lead singer Morris Day was a real-life childhood friend of Prince’s so he was “cast” as Prince’s musical nemesis on the charts and, then quite literally, in the film Purple Rain. Prince was nothing if not clever at creating a deafening buzz, one that sometimes overshadowed his musical gifts.
Day always played his role to the hilt – a vain and petulant Cab Calloway to Prince’s relatively serene Duke Ellington – and The Time’s naughty novelty hits reflected that character: “The Bird,” “Jungle Love,” “Jerk Out,” “Cool,” “Ice Cream Castles,” “Chocolate.”
I always got a kick out of the dynamic, so I was excited that a partially reunited Time (at least Day and drummer Jellybean Johnson) would be performing at Detroit’s Motor City Casino Sound Board venue.
Well, as Thomas Wolfe observed, “You can’t go home again.”
The show was entertaining but on the balance disappointing. Day seemed to be going through the motions, with a new “Jerome” following him around with mirror and trench coat and Day looking pretty bored with it all. (One of Day’s trademark “bits” has been to have a footman – “Jerome” – follow him around holding a mirror up whenever Day wanted to gaze lovingly at his own face or to help Day change in and out of any number of day-glo zoot suits and swing coats.)
Day still has his ear-splitting squawk, and the band he has assembled can replicate the Prince-ified magic of yesteryear, but the whole enterprise now comes off like an oldies band performing at a state fair. The energy was down; the sound mix was muddy; and most of the time (no pun intended) I had a hard time discerning one song from the next.
There also was an unfortunate sequence during “Ice Cream Castles” wherein Day invited a number of female audience members on stage so that he could ogle and comment on their physical appearances. That’s never ok, but now in this historical moment it was particularly nauseating.
All of that said, Day is still a showman and even a worn out carnival barker has his moments. The 90 minute show zipped by, and the audience of 40-plus somethings helped him maintain a party atmosphere, reliving the bygone days of dancing in their parents’ rec rooms, basements, and garages to The Time’s loopy grooves. It’s just a shame Day has found himself locked in amber.
One of his more interesting asides during the concert was when Day posited that Grammy-winner Bruno Mars owed his flamboyant style, cheekiness, and success to the path carved first by Day. It was a telling moment, devoid of irony – a kind of Sunset Boulevard “I am big; it’s the pictures that got small” bit of snark – that revealed Day’s bitter humanity in a way none of his onstage preening ever could. And, it is true that Mars has made a pretty damn fine career mining and reinventing the best of his R&B forebears’ work, but the key difference between Mars and Day is Bruno’s heart and whimsy and light touch. Something Day never really had. Enough with the ginned up rivalries, Mr. Day. Ain’t nobody got time for that.
Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital).
In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.
My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.