On Prince’s “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker”

Prince died a week ago. I’m really bummed about it. I’ve had some really good friends rave about how life-changing his shows are, and I kept convincing myself that I’d actually go to one. That can’t happen anymore, and it reminds me to take advantage of what exists in the now as much as I can.

What I have now is his entire discography, pulled together from various sources since I started listening to Prince regularly in my adult life.[^1] This past week I’ve been listening almost exclusively to all the Prince music I’ve collected, while also occasionally reading the reflective writing that has been published about the Artist. Much of that writing has been focused around his early-era, groundbreaking synth pop work: Purple Rain, working with The Revolution, the song “1999”. An occasional word about his tenuous relationship Warner Bros. Records. This great piece about the underrated & sometimes bizarre 1981 release Controversy.

I want to talk about one Prince song in particular that fundamentally changed how I think about recorded music: “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker.”

I didn’t like Purple Rain the first time I heard it in full. That was back in 2009 or so.[^2] It was so 80s. So many synth sounds. It didn’t really hit me that “When Doves Cry” had no bassline, and what that meant for music at the time, until I read about it in some retrospective a year or two later.

The album that sucked me into the Artist’s oeuvre was instead Sign O’ The Times, which a close friend of mine recommended in 2010 or so. It’s also considered one of his classics, but it’s a weird one: it’s a double album, and while all of Prince’s albums meld all sorts of genres together, this one frequently put wildly contrasting material against itself, back-to-back, almost forcing the listener to fundamentally change listening habits every few minutes. Take “Slow Love” and “Hot Thing,” both on disc 1 – the former is a great albeit typical sexy Prince slow jam, the latter almost a new standard for extreme pop minimalism. The entire first two minutes of “Hot Thing” pretty much center around F# and a drum machine and don’t change until a bizarre (for Prince) sax solo and frenetic scat-like vocals dominate the mix.

“The Ballad of Dorothy Parker” sits at the end of the first side of disc 1 of Sign O’ The Times, as sort of an ominous closer to a side full of likely hits. The title track was an actual hit; “Play In The Sunshine” is one of the most uplifting and energetic songs released in the 80s; “Housequake” is, despite its strange pitch-shifted lead vocal, an undeniably funky party jam. “Dorothy Parker” almost serves as the hangover after the housequake – it’s barely a ballad, with its frenetic beats and brisk tempo, but it paints a hazy, bleak picture of Prince’s after-party vulnerability.

Susan Rogers, Prince’s sound engineer during this period, recalled in a wonderfully detailed interview that a new recording console at Paisley Park (Prince’s recording studio complex) was not wired up properly when he impulsively decided to begin recording “Dorothy Parker”, and noticed that everything he recorded was coming out dull – no high end, no typical sheen. Prince noticed instantly, but decided he loved it given the fact that he conceived the whole song in a dream, and the dull sound complemented that dream-like quality of the lyrics he wrote.

How does the dream begin? Fuzzy and abruptly, as many do. “Dorothy Parker,” the recording, kicks off instantly with a sped-up drum fill, then silence, then an ambiguous 7th chord that takes a few seconds to resolve to E minor. In fact, every section of the song begins in suspension – when it’s not pivoting to a different tonal space entirely, Prince relies on A7s and F9s to leave you needing resolution, which doe

What I love about the “Dorothy Parker” recording is how dirty it sounds throughout. Not dirty in the typically-sexy way that Prince usually injects into all his work – but tarnished, ugly, weak in repair. The 3 drum machine rhythms that drive the song forward constantly interrupt each other; the bass is hard to identify as synthesized or performed; the chords performed through a weak-sounding tremolo. Every element of the music sounds like it’s falling apart, pushing up against each other, fucking up left and right, and Prince is trying to corral all the pieces together via his story to tell.

The story, by the way, is also brilliantly ugly in its detail: Dorothy was a waitress on the promenade, working the night shift for a lotta tips. She hooks up with Prince in the form of a shared bath after ordering a fruit cocktail (who does that?) because he ain’t too hungry. There are numerous references to clothes being wet (which is uncomfortable for anyone), keeping his pants on (almost a first for Prince), a violent room. In the climax Dorothy comforts the Artist with Joni Mitchell so he can return to said room. It’s a song about vulnerability in every respect: being uncomfortable, revealing yourself, letting someone in. That’s all a stumbling mess most of the time in reality – not unlike this song’s rhythm section – it takes a lot to say “cool” to a new face, and it’s weirdly specific to ask to keep your pants on in a presumably sexual encounter. Perhaps this was Prince telling us that he wasn’t this perfect sexual being he portrayed in the rest of his material. Who knows.

Prince apparently didn’t know at the time he wrote “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker” that she was also a writer; to me, that discrepancy only adds to the confusing dream the song puts forth. Are these the same women? Is Dorothy a waitress who moonlights as a writer? Does she become a writer after being inspired by the Artist’s violent room experience? Who is this girl, really? In the way that Breaking Bad fans clamored to learn more about the ugly, tragic story of Walter White, I get wrapped up in the story of Prince and Dorothy every time I play this track. If this song taught me anything, it’s that a song does not need to sound polished in order to be great.[^3]

The production value (or lack thereof?) gives the song its identity, no doubt. Of course, however, it’s not as easy to replicate that sound in a live setting – while I hadn’t seen Prince perform live during his life, I’ve seen only one video of him performing “Dorothy Parker” with his band. I think it was on the Arsenio Hall show. In the live setting, the song transforms into a Latin-infused mid-tempo R&B jam; a salsa-esque saxophone hook brings a sense of direction more than anything in the recording. As great as this live performance is, the emotional center of the song is fundamentally different than its recorded counterpart. Dorothy is still a waitress, but Prince talks to her with a more confident strut.

Perhaps my own social awkwardness is why I identify with the recorded “Dorothy Parker” so much; I would never approach someone with that confidence in public. The bleakness of the recording resembles the murky reality of meeting new people: everyone has their baggage, and it’s really uncomfortable and sometimes requires a vulnerability you’re not used to bearing. That vulnerability is lost in most popular music; some artists might explore it in their lyrics, but there are few examples where the music and its production take the listener to a place beyond the words themselves. Few examples in pop this ugly.

Let’s hope for more songs like “Dorothy Parker.”

[^1]: Hopefully his estate will start to release more archived material and live footage so the world can experience more of his purple majesty, but considering he apparently never had a will, who knows what will happen.

[^2]: Yeah, I’m late to the game. Sorry, super fans.

[^3]: This is probably the same underlying reason for my affinity for punk music, which I think lines up with my love for Prince.

Peak live music, or no more surprises

What do you do when you stop caring about something you used to love?

I moved to Salem, MA and basically stopped actively seeking live music. I still see live music – say, when my girlfriend and I go out to brunch and a jazz band happens to be performing there, or when a once-in-a-lifetime performance in the city happens – but for years I would spend hundreds of dollars almost every month trying to see as many bands as possible. There were so many possibilities, even in “our music scene is dying” Boston – I would frequent Great Scott and Harper’s Ferry/Brighton Music Hall and The Middle East and (begrudgingly) TT the Bear’s (just kidding, RIP).

I don’t think it’s because I’m getting older. I don’t think it’s even because bands aren’t impressing me anymore. I still listen to recorded music constantly and find new bands via blogs and Apple Music and friends’ posts.

I do think saturation has something to do with it. Software is eating the world and the Internet is eating media, and both of these things are eating our ability to be surprised. The barrier to entry for anyone to become a musician is virtually gone, and it’s really easy for anyone with a slight ego to fight for your attention. The barrier to entry to start a blog or generate commentary on said music is also gone, so with every million bands that form, there are 100 million people ready to comment on said bands.

So you have tons of musicians out there, striving to outdo each other with better performances and more inventive production in order to satisfy the even more so-called critics. The caliber of the average musician is so much higher as a result – and every musician is looking to surprise you, the listener-critic, constantly. Every night holds hundreds of amazing shows competing for your time & attention – secret exclusive shows, bizarre live rigs, intense theatrics, warm acoustic sets – all of which are constantly trying to compete for your interest. It’s all amazing…until it’s all the same to you.

And so I’ve become desensitized to the ability to be surprised by live music.

I’ve been meaning to write about being a musician on the North Shore of MA and how live performance here is different than, say, Brooklyn or Cambridge or other major cities with credible music scenes. I wanted to write about the fact that there is a small but lively group of musicians hopping up and down the shore, playing long & extremely entertaining sets in front of small, passionate North Shore crowds at quaint restaurants and bars. I wanted to write about the scene being smaller, thus allowing me to have a shot of regularly performing with a tight-knit group of collaborators.

None of that has actually happened, and that’s on me. But when you struggle to be surprised by anyone else performing, how can you expect to be inspired to surprise others with your own performance?

Goal: by April, have a live acoustic/looper set prepared and book a show. Try it out.

In Defense of Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz

Music that challenged me in 2015, part one

I haven’t written a “favorite albums” list in a few years, mostly because I realized that mine were virtually identical to most of those my friends would write up. That’s one of the unfortunate downsides of having friends in the music industry: if a band gets enough hype to be in a Top 10 list, everyone’s talking about that band.

2015 was one of the first years in a while, though, in which a lot of the buzzed-about music was downright ambitious: while there was plenty of crap for the masses to party/drone to, there were also plenty of musicians who stopped giving a fuck about playing nice and made cool, interesting, challenging music. Cases in point: Kendrick Lamar, Bjork’s Vulnicura, “Hotline Bling” and Titus Andronicus’ 90-minute manic depression rock opera, just to start.

I felt inspired by all this and had one of the more prolific years of writing music I’ve ever had. Some of the music I found most challenging and inspiring, though, was reviled, dismissed, or missed entirely by mainstream music journalism. I’d like to spend some time reflecting on the hidden genius of those songs and albums.

Let’s start with a doozy: Miley Cyrus and her Dead Petz, released via SoundCloud & VMA surprise in August.

I don’t dance much, but two songs this year made me start dancing more than any other: “King Kunta,” for obvious reasons, and Miley Cyrus’ “Slab of Butter (Scorpion).”

Don’t ask me why. I can’t explain it. But that damn bouncy synth texture paired with a fuzz bass made for my downtempo jam of 2015, and I’m not mad about it. I’m only mad when it ends, and then after 45 seconds of Miley talking about how drunk she is, the beat comes back in the form of a fun diss track called “I Forgive Yiew” (sic, but who cares? Miley sure doesn’t). The slow bounce continues for another 3 minutes, and it’s kind of glorious.

The next song, “I Get So Scared,” haunted the shit out of me when I first heard it. It still does, which is a weird thing to digest given that this is BASICALLY HANNAH MONTANA telling me that “they say love grows / but I’ve only seen it die.” After that happens, I find mellow euphoria in “Lighter,” a highly underrated 80s throwback.

People HATED this album. I don’t. It’s weird and sprawling and usually inappropriate, but every time I come back to it, I find another nugget of something charming, dark or downright beautiful. “I Get So Scared” is one of those nuggets.

Sure, it starts with the silly “Dooo It!”, but immediately after you get 2 solid ballads in “Karen Don’t Be Sad” and “The Floyd Song.” For every stupid track on this album, you get multiple gems. Sure, “Milky Milky Milk” is probably a song about lactating, but it has one of the coolest beats of the year. Sure, Miley cries when singing about Pablow her dead blowfish, but you can’t fault her for expressing some real emotion in a song. The 6-song run of “Cyrus Skies” to “Lighter” is pretty fantastic, and could make for an excellent psych-pop EP in itself.

I do think Miley brought some of the bad rap and flat-out dismissal upon herself – the “complete, full-metal DGAF” approach to album structure and focus, plus the fact that she made this album outside of her recording contract, lends the album to be taken both less seriously and more like it’s trying be taken seriously. Most of the negative or apathetic critical reaction has been based on the assumption that this album should be interpreted as higher-concept than it probably should be. And to those critics, it disappoints as a high-concept pet project.

But why should we treat Dead Petz as anything beyond what it is at face value? It’s a long, sprawling collection of songs covering several topics, some of which are very silly. Nobody gave Prince any flack about that when 1999 came out and contained a song about vinegar strokes and another one with 2 uncomfortable minutes of orgasm sounds. Why should Miley Cyrus be dismissed for calling a song “Bang Me Box” when Nicki Minaj can release a song glorifying her own ass, or a song about a girl who makes crack cocaine became one of the top hits of the year? (Oh and remember when a song about shooting up a school became a pop hit? Great job, music industry.) Dead Petz doesn’t need to be anything more than it is, and critics shouldn’t dismiss it because it doesn’t reach their impossibly high standards of long, ambitious works that break political or spiritual ground. It’s as if critics are no longer willing to let their subjects just unwind and not be taken too seriously.

If anything, this album disappoints me because it makes me wonder how it would have been accepted if a few throwaway tracks were removed and it was a bit more polished. If “Fuckin’ Fucked Up” (which should not be treated as anything more than an interlude) was removed from the track listing and was attached to “BB Talk” as a prelude, would people use it as an excuse to dismiss the album? “Something About Space Dude” is effectively a coda to “The Floyd Song” – what if Miley positioned these two separate tracks as a single 8-minute space rock epic, like what JT did with some of his solo material?

For those who want to give this album a second chance but can’t deal with the full 23 tracks, I propose a revised Dead Petz track listing, which is only an hour long:

  1. Dooo It! <— only because nothing else really works as an opener
  2. Karen, Don’t Be Sad
  3. The Floyd Song (Sunrise) w/ optional coda: Something About Space Dude
  4. Space Boots
  5. BB Talk
  6. Milky Milky Milk
  7. Cyrus Skies
  8. Slab of Butter (Scorpion) w/ optional coda: I’m So Drunk
  9. Lighter
  10. I Get So Scared
  11. I Forgive Yiew
  12. 1 Sun
  13. Pablow The Blowfish
  14. Miley Tibetan Bowlzzz (bonus track)

It’s really hard to take Miley Cyrus seriously, and that’s okay. Bizarrely enough, the thing that convinced me to have respect for her is the album in which she takes herself the least seriously. You should give this album a chance if you didn’t yet this year.

—-

Oh, and lastly, I put out an EP too, but it’s probably not on anyone’s best-of lists because I barely promoted it. Check it out, though! It’s fun.

Many voices, but only me in the room

There’s an interview with Annie Clark and David Byrne in which they describe their working relationship for Love This Giant:

DB: This was a more intertwined collaboration than most I’ve done. In many ways it was more democratic — we were constantly bouncing what we were doing off one another. Which is creatively great, but also slow — democracy is slow. [laughs]

AC: The tech-y stuff was a headache, honestly. We’d send files back and forth in [music program] Logic, and because I had an older version of the software, I would have to reassign a bunch of David’s tracks that he had painstakingly assigned, and then send it back to him with an apology….One of the earliest songs we worked on was called “The Forest Awakes” and it started as this 6/8, hockety horn thing that I sent to David. I had been kicking that idea around for a while, but I could never figure out how to sing over it. What melody would even fit over this that wouldn’t feel like a distraction? David sent it back with a melody, and I was like, “Yes! Thank god!” It was a puzzle I couldn’t finish, and he put the right piece in.

DB: Most of the excitement for me is when I could see things getting to a point where I’d go, “This is nothing like anything I would’ve come up with alone.” It’s the whole point of collaboration.

This challenge has stayed with me for some reason. Making music with others is incredibly satisfying, but not only is it hard by default — it’s even harder trying to wrangle people who aren’t nearby. When we moved to Salem, I knew this was going to be a challenge — I had made a bunch of friends & connections down in New York but only knew a few people on the quiet North Shore of MA that played music. You can obviously connect with these people, but I wanted to maintain creative relationships with people I knew I could work well with:

James, a sound engineer and friend from high school who has been mixing/mastering Sophomores tracks with me for the past two years; and

Mary, a singer I met in 2014 at a house music showcase and I’ve been writing dark bluesy rock music with for a few months

One lives in Bushwick Brooklyn, the other lives in Astoria Queens. It was convenient to play and record with them in NYC, but the new distance presented its challenges. Mary and I had discussed traveling to record and perform but that requires weeks of notice and planning. So, I had to figure out my own working system for remote collaboration.

Managing the work

Since I’m a project management nut, this was naturally the first thing that I worried about. Fortunately, I had already found a love in Trello that led to project planning issues being resolved quickly.

I created a Sophomores organization in Trello that contains all my projects. Each project (an album, EP or collaborative project) gets its own board — for instance, I have a board for sessions with Mary, another for my current album in progress, and another collecting ideas for a music video I’ll eventually have made.

For a given project, each song has 3 cards representing it (songwriting, my own mix, James’ mix). There are also supplementary cards for other related tasks — transition notes, metadata, file structure, etc.

All official progress updates are made as comments via Trello. Whenever James has a new mix of one of my songs, he posts the URL to listen on his S3 server, and we can easily do rudimentary version tracking via the comments on a particular card.

We use checklists to collect and respond to feedback. Sometimes James and I will get a little carried away and add silly comments here and there, but it’s for fun.

Making the music

Now to the actual music making. I’ve been using Logic Pro X and Reason primarily to make music for a while now with some great results; James works on a PC and Mary doesn’t have a recording rig at all. So we needed a way to easily send each other ideas, bounced mixes and sometimes full sessions.

Amazon S3 largely solves James’ and my issues for file sharing. I can upload an entire Reason file and bounced tracks in a few minutes, and he can pull this into his own rig easily. We both use Presonus’ Studio One for mastering and metadata, and sharing full sessions via an S3 bucket is easy. On the list: start versioning these things.

Sending audio to/from Mary is a bit trickier since she doesn’t have a recording rig of her own. Thanks to iOS and GarageBand, however, this is starting to become easier. I can record basic guitar, piano and scratch vocal tracks via my iPad and Apogee Duet, and send them to her to review — she can even do the same on her phone. Then I can import these into Logic for more nuanced work. Vocals are a bit tricky still — I have a decent space for recording (to be detailed in a future blog post) but Mary and I are working to figure out a working setup for her to record her own vocals. Fortunately, Mary’s got a voice that sounds great via even a basic dynamic mic — so an SM58 should work fine for her.

This is all a work in progress, but I’ve enjoyed being able to make music in such a modular manner while still collaborating with some of my close friends. I’ll continue to post updates on my recording projects both here and on my own site — those who are interested, please share your own ideas on this stuff.

I should post more.

So the marathon tragedy thing happened. I don’t usually get emotional about things like this but having it happen so close and with so much uncertainty was especially unsettling this time. (Relying on Twitter and local news for updates clearly didn’t help, either.) I can’t anything more emotionally valid or witty or powerful than what’s already been said, so I won’t bother.

I spent Monday evening working on an arrangement of a song that a friend of mine wrote over a year ago which seemed oddly appropriate for the day – given the unexpectedness of everything. I’m still not sure whether or not I’d release it as a sphmrs track or something, but once finished I was really happy with the end result: imperfect, but naturally complete and capturing the feelings of the moment.

this is one hell of a place
interface
set up to let the bomb drop
killer in a bed of lace
little taste of the power then you don’t stop

eating from the deepest sea blissfully
tell your friends that they should try it
while his only energy comes to be
from a saltwater diet

getting all your nutrients from innocence
tell me, does she fill your hunger?
oh my god, in his defense at present tense
i’m not healthier or stronger

i don’t wanna suffer