Ways of Not Seeing + Prince Rogers Nelson + David Lee Roth
This Ian Penman piece on Prince in the LRB—of the “hang a life’s thinking on two new books” genre—is enjoyable and bonkers and insanely wrong when it’s wrong. Parade is not better than Sign o’ The Times in any sensible reading. Sign is perfect because it shows that Prince can do anything and that Anything was his genre. The fruit salad overload of “Hot Thing” and “I Could Never Take The Place of Your Man” and “Housequake” and “If I Was Your Girlfriend” and “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker”—Jesus, even writing the titles makes me dizzy. Penman thinks the album closing—“The Cross” followed by “It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night”—is a failure, but it’s an important segue. Prince was constantly at war with The Rock Canon and that sequencing was his reminder that the funk was going to win, and it did. Climactic guitar anthems are not necessarily important enough to be climaxes.
Now let’s look at footnote number two in Penman’s piece:
Penman doesn’t specify a song, though he likely means the title track, “Dirty Mind.” Here is Prince playing an extended version of “Dirty Mind,” one day shy of my fifteenth birthday, in Passaic. (The keyboard part is clearer on the studio version, but who cares. You want to watch Prince looking like he just quit his catering job and sprinted all the way to Jersey.) On a quick listen, it does seem as if Eddie Van Halen ripped off “Dirty Mind” for “Jump,” a proposition that feels like a bullet hole in my mind. How did I listen to both of these recordings dozens of times and never think of this? It must be true. It sounds so true.
This Prince forum tells us it’s complicated. Eddie could very well have lifted the chords for “Jump” from “Dirty Mind,” but apparently the source was “Kiss On My List,” by Hall and Oates. This is the story that Darry Hall, the god, tells Mix magazine.
So maybe this is the truth: “Jump” is the chords from “Kiss On My List” played on the Oberheim OB-X, which both Prince and Eddie Van Halen used. (Eddie played the OB-Xa on “Jump,” to be specific.) The notes seem to be from Hall and Oates but the sound and vibe is all Prince. Or, to use karaoke terms, “Kiss On My List Played In The Style of Dirty Mind.”
That is not the weirdest gap. This is.
Below is the video for “Jump,” one of the most omnipresent singles of the eighties. I saw this clip on Friday Night Videos and MTV and every other broadcast TV show that played videos for a few months and then folded. My friends, what is missing here?
We do not see Eddie Van Halen playing the OB-Xa until two minutes and thirty seconds in. If you say to someone, “Hey, how does ‘Jump’ go?,” they will not sing the vocals. They will not sing the guitar solo. They will sing the keyboard part. And yet, Van Halen suggests, in this naturalist film, that the band plays “Jump” mostly without a keyboard player. A dodgy live clip from 1984 makes clear that Eddie played keyboards on “Jump,” and the band did not hide this fact from their live audience.
So what is the anxiety that led to this video? That a rock band had gone ahead and made a delicious and fruity dance pop song, which quickly became its biggest single? Video Eddie implies, “Nope, we just play this ostinato right here, me and Michael, and that is the heart of “Jump,” this bass and this guitar, buried in this mix.” He knows full well that the bass and the guitar are not the heart of “Jump.” How could you make a video and deny that you had created such a part and that it had worked so devilishly well?
Go into a Guitar Center and watch a prodigy trying out a Triton or some other multi-purpose keyboard that sounds like a dozen expensive vintage synths—eventually, she will play “Jump,” the way kids used to play “Smoke On The Water” when they picked up your guitar. And yet, no, says this video. The keyboard part in “Jump” seems to have happened to Van Halen, the video suggests, as if it was something that drifted into the room, a thing they had to ignore and then work around.
The fact of its success is a nod to what rock would have to grapple with, in Prince, and in the world—guitar rock moving from the center to the edge, away from the light and closer to the water.