Wednesday, January 30, 2013

 

Starfish and Coffee

"If you set your mind free, baby, maybe you'd understand."--Prince, "Starfish and Coffee"

I always liked Prince's "Starfish and Coffee" but only recently did I learn the full meaning behind this catchy and deceptively simple song. The song's Cynthia Rose character is based on a childhood friend of Susannah Melvoin's; Melvoin was not only a member of Prince's band Revolution but at one time she was engaged to Prince and she also reportedly inspired him to write the song "Nothing Compares to U" (which became a number one hit for Sinead O'Connor but never sounded better than when it was performed by Prince and Rosie Gaines). Prince and Melvoin co-wrote the "Starfish and Coffee" lyrics describing a girl who "always stood at the back of the line/A smile beneath her nose." Cynthia Rose had a favorite number (20), she wore different-colored socks and if you asked her what she had for breakfast she would reply, "Starfish and coffee/Maple syrup and jam/Butterscotch clouds, a tangerine/And a side order of ham." Most people know at least one person like Cynthia Rose, someone who proudly and unashamedly marches to the beat of a different drummer. The song lyrics encourage Cynthia Rose to be herself and not try to conform: "Go on, Cynthia, keep singin.’"

Prince videos can be difficult to find on the internet due to copyright restrictions but here is Prince performing a version of "Starfish and Coffee" on the Muppet Show in 1997:

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Monday, January 7, 2013

 

"Earth Maze" Depicts "Unknown Potentialities Within Self and Nature"

After I played in the Second Annual Michigan Chess Festival, my friend Erika Klotz took a picture of me standing next to Derek Wernher's "Earth Maze" sculpture. I assumed that the inscription on the plaque next to the statue would be legible in the photo but later realized that this was not the case. However, after doing some research I found the complete text:

"EARTH MAZE"

The sculpture incorporates the circle or sphere as the symbol of unity of self as well as union between man and nature. The interior or maze portion of the sculpture is a network of interconnecting passages and spaces representative of unknown potentialities within self and nature. The opposing of smooth and rough surfaces, spherical and angular forms in the piece, are different ways of blending contradicting elements to express wholeness. "Earth Maze," which is eight feet in diameter and weighs over two tons, was created by Derek Wernher of Metamora, Michigan for the Northfield Hilton Inn.

Here is the photo of me standing in front of "Earth Maze":


Erika also took a closeup shot of the interior details of "Earth Maze":


I spent the rest of that day touring Troy, Michigan with Erika, a fun conclusion to my birthday weekend trip--a trip that represented a milestone in my ongoing efforts to change my Perspective about life.

The evocative phrase "unknown potentialities within self and nature" can be interpreted and perceived in many ways. It reminds me of, among other things, the main title sequence for the Incredible Hulk TV show:




The voice-over describes Dr. David Banner's quest to tap into "the hidden strengths that all humans have."  While the show emphasized physical strength, the greatest strength that all humans have is the strength of the human spirit--the capacity to know right from wrong, good from evil and then act on this knowledge even at the risk of suffering personal harm. After Dr. Banner's scientific experiment went awry, his physiology became permanently transformed and whenever he became "angry or outraged" he acquired the necessary physical strength to confront whatever evil or torments afflicted him. The capability to "hulk out" and wreak havoc against wrongdoers is an alluring fantasy but the show wisely depicted the downside as well: Dr. Banner had no memory of or control over his "hulk outs" and he was extremely concerned that he would harm innocent people (even though the show's viewers realized that the Incredible Hulk, though apparently simple-minded, possessed Dr. Banner's inherent goodness and gentleness). Dr. Banner futilely sought to cure himself and/or to remove himself from any situation that might cause him to "hulk out." A child might look at the Incredible Hulk and merely see someone who uses great physical strength to control his surroundings but Dr. Banner perceived the Incredible Hulk as an entity that lacked self-control, the most important kind of control; a passage in the Bhagavad Gita--quoted at the beginning of Jerzy Kosinski's National Book Award winning novel Steps--states, "For the uncontrolled there is no wisdom, nor for the uncontrolled is there the power of concentration; and for him without concentration there is no peace. And for the unpeaceful, how can there be happiness?" The control in question has nothing to do with manipulating others through the application of force (physical, verbal or otherwise) but rather controlling oneself--one's thoughts, emotions and actions. Dr. Banner lacked peace and happiness because he could not find a way to control the "raging spirit that dwells within him," a very apt metaphor for human existence on both the individual and societal levels because "raging spirit" can be observed in both mundane circumstances (a road rager's extended middle finger) and extreme circumstances (mass murder).

Dr. Banner's quest was poignantly captured by the haunting "Lonely Man Theme," played during the closing credits of each episode of the Incredible Hulk:



Bill Bixby, the actor who portrayed Dr. Banner, died of cancer a couple months before his 60th birthday. In his final interview, he displayed both the strong will and gentle spirit that he had in common with Dr. Banner, declaring that some people cease battling as soon as they hear the dreaded "C word" but that his attitude was, "You come and get me and you drag me away. But I'm not going to contribute to my own death." Bixby concluded with these touching words: "Be good to yourselves, because if you're good to yourself, then you'll be kind to everybody else. I'd sure like to see that before I die."




Being good to ourselves as a prelude to being kind to everybody else is an excellent way to express the "unity of self as well as union between man and nature" that Wernher depicted in "Earth Maze." In the concluding episode of Cosmos (titled "Who Speaks for Earth?"), Carl Sagan declares, "The civilization now in jeopardy is all humanity. As the ancient myth makers knew, we are children equally of the earth and sky. In our tenure of this planet, we have accumulated dangerous, evolutionary baggage--propensities for aggression and ritual, submission to leaders, hostility to outsiders, all of which puts our survival in some doubt. We have also acquired compassion for others, love for our children, a desire to learn from history and experience, and a great, soaring passionate intelligence--the clear tools for our continued survival and prosperity."

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Thursday, January 3, 2013

 

Prince's First Appearance on American Bandstand

The two hour Dick Clark tribute show that aired on New Year's Eve counted down the top 30 moments/clips from his career, an eclectic selection of highlights that showcased Clark's versatility, ad-libbing skills and peerless ability to connect with artists (and fans) from several different generations. Choosing such a list is inherently subjective because Clark's multi-decade career cannot be summarized in just two hours--or, to be more precise, his career could be summarized in several different ways if only two hours are available to do so.

One clip that did not make the cut is Prince's American Bandstand debut, a performance that became as infamous for Prince's brief answers when being interviewed by Clark as it did for Prince's precocity; Prince's debut album, "For You," contained this soon to be famous declaration on the cover: "Produced, Arranged, Composed & Performed by Prince." Clark explained that Prince turned down several record deals until he obtained the right to make that declaration not just a dream or a boast but a reality. Although Prince was in fact 21--not 19, as he told Clark--when he appeared on American Bandstand, he was just a teenager when he put together "For You."

Here is the complete version of Prince's January 26, 1980 American Bandstand appearance:




Creative and financial control over all aspects of his work has always been critically important to Prince, which has led to some wonderful results and some bizarre moments; the highlight of Prince's career happened just four years after his appearance on American Bandstand when Prince became the first person to simultaneously have the number one movie, album and song in the United States (the Beatles previously pulled this off as a group): "Purple Rain" was both the number one movie and number one album and--even though the title track stalled at the number two spot--two "Purple Rain" singles reached the top of the Billboard charts ("When Doves Cry" and "Let's Go Crazy"). Prince's determination to control every aspect of his career later resulted in him changing his name to an unpronounceable symbol because he wanted to release his music on his own time frame but as Prince he was still under contract to Warner Brothers, a company that felt that he was diluting the market with too much product. Prince told the New York Times' Jon Pareles, "The music, for me, doesn't come on a schedule. I don't know when it's going to come, and when it does, I want it out. Music was created to uplift the soul and to help people make the best of a bad situation. When you sit down to write something, there should be no guidelines. The main idea is not supposed to be, 'How many different ways can we sell it?' That's so far away from the true spirit of what music is. Music starts free, with just a spark of inspiration. When limits are set by another party that walks into the ball game afterward, that's fighting inspiration." Prince has never been afraid to confound record company executives, so-called experts, the carping critics and even his adoring fans while he remains true to his vision of how his art should be created, performed and distributed.

Theater director Peter Sellars--who staged a critically acclaimed series of Mozart's operas--compared Prince's creativity to Mozart's and many other highly respected musical artists speak of Prince in the most reverent tones. Prince explained to Pareles that new songs are constantly flowing fully formed through his mind: "You hear it done. You see the dancing; you hear the singing. When you hear it, you either argue with that voice or you don't. That's when you seek God. Sometimes ideas are coming so fast that I have to stop doing one song to get another. But I don't forget the first one. If it works, it will always be there. It's like the truth: it will find you and lift you up. And if it ain't right, it will dissolve like sand on the beach.''

It would have been fitting for Prince to be included alongside Michael Jackson, Madonna, Elvis Presley and the other 20th century musical icons featured in the New Year's Eve tribute to Dick Clark.

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