Saturday, April 23, 2016

Live At The Roxy '86: What's A Solo Career Without A Superfluous Concert Video?

(He says in his best Troy McClure voice): Who among us can ever forget classic straight-to-video Go-Go's concert films such as Totally Go-Go's and Wild At The Greek? I know I can't. But if Belinda ever wanted to be taken seriously as a legitimate solo artist, she needed a straight-to-video concert film of her own. I am speaking, of course, about Live At The Roxy '86.

Now, being a solo artist in a comfy L.A. studio is all well and good; actually standing up on a stage in front of people who have paid to see you, and only you, is when shit gets real. This daunting task presented itself to Belinda as she finished her debut album. From Lips Unsealed:
Three and a half weeks later, I was onstage in a small San Diego club, and I wouldn't have blamed anyone watching my performance if they closed their eyes for a moment and thought they had stumbled into a surprise Go-Go's show. It happened to me. After all, my voice still had the trademark let's-get-this-party-going timber of the group's three previous gold albums, and as I pranced around barefoot in a simple print dress, I radiated the same sun-kissed, surfer-girl looks under the spotlight. But some key elements were different or missing, starting with three out of the four other Go-Go's.
Two things: 1) Only a few pages prior, hadn't she readily admitted that her looks had undergone a dramatic transformation? And 2) Talk Show didn't actually go gold, but whatever.
When I looked to my right, I still saw Charlotte on guitar and keyboards. Otherwise I was out there by myself. I was also singing brand-new material from my eponymous album, Belinda. I didn't have any proven hits to fall back on and get the crowd going. The only song people might have heard before was the first single, "Mad About You," which had been released days earlier.

No wonder before the show I was a bundle of raw nerves, knowing that I could no longer divide the responsibility up four other ways. The whole thing was on my shoulders. Once that spotlight hit me, there was no denying this next phase of my career. I was starting over.
Yup. No more coasting on the backs of Jane, Kathy, Gina, and Charlotte. Now she simply had to buckle down and coast on the back of .... Charlotte? Oh yes, and her ever-upbeat husband:
Morgan supplied the confidence I lacked. He sent roses to that warm-up gig and channeled positive energy to me a few nights later when I headlined three sold-out dates at the Roxy. I had played there with the Go-Go's. It represented a lot of good times. But seeing my name centered by itself on the marquee felt more frightening. It was one thing to affect a different image in a photo session and quite another to step out onstage and embody it.

The Roxy's audience was full of industry types and characters from the old scene, including Exene and some of her cohorts, who, I was told, came just to cackle. She was in the minority. The hometown crowd roared their approval.
Take that Exene! Belinda doesn't need your artistic credibility; the people have spoken. I mean, we should always side with the majority, right?

The video begins with a raw, feedback-heavy, audience-free sound check, as Belinda and her dream team of random mullet-sporting L.A. session players do a run-through of "I Never Wanted A Rich Man." This is our glimpse into the nuts and bolts of a Belinda concert, the hidden pressures, the secret agonies - like "Should I wear these earrings, or those earrings?" The oversized white tee is adorable, by the way. In an ever-articulate interview segment, she expands upon her artistic goals:
"When I started thinking about ... the solo album, I knew that I had to make some ... uh ... changes, musically, not just, you know, personally - that's fine, but ... professionally I felt it was important to ... uh ... go beyond the Go-Go's and really ... um ... really sort of think about what kind of growth was needed on the album."
"Personally"? Nobody was asking you about the "changes" you needed to make "personally," Belinda. Why did you assume we were suspicious about your personal issues? We weren't even thinking about that - honest!

Suddenly, fifty seconds into the second song, "Gotta Get To You," the video cuts from rehearsal footage to the full-blown concert, with Belinda clearly in the heat of battle, sporting the flower-print summer dress and lack of footwear as described (what if she'd stepped on a nail?), wiping the sweat from her immaculate forehead, clapping her hands over her head and generally working that stage like nobody's business. See how all that hard work and preparation paid off!

Of course, Belinda had one advantage the other former Go-Go's did not: she had the ability to convincingly perform any song from the Go-Go's catalog, because ... wait a minute ... she had originally sung them! And at this stage, since no one in the audience had even heard her new solo stuff, those old hits sure came in handy. For the Roxy shows, she picked "We Got The Beat," "Lust To Love," and "Head Over Heels." But just because she could perform them didn't mean she could out-do them; while her new back-up band emits a strong level of competence, they can't quite summon the necessary chaotic desperation and reckless abandon to the material (I miss Gina's jittery thunder in particular). And Charlotte, who is one person, ends up singing all the harmony lines that had originally been sung by Charlotte, Jane, and Kathy, who were three people. Instead we get things like surprise (but not such a surprise) guest Andy Taylor doing his best Eddie van Halen at the end of "Head Over Heels."

During the "We Got The Beat" video segment, the boys in the band take the time to share some of their thoughts. One of the musicians declares with pride, "This is the first album that she has out on her own, so this is very important to her and we all want it to be right." I hate to burst the guy's bubble, but it might have been more important to him than it was to Belinda. Still, I admire his code of honor. He adds, "This is actually what I've always wanted to do, is be the hired gun, on the road with a ... with a major star." Is it just me, or do I detect a slight pause before he uses the phrase "major star"? He had to stop and think for a moment. "Hmmm ... is she really a 'major' star? Just how much of a star is she? Well, she's kind of a star. I passed up a Streisand tour for this shit!"

I hung on Morgan afterward, grateful he was there and more grateful that he had stuck with me through some very tough times. I almost believed him when he said that I had given a performance that surpassed everyone's expectations but his.
So was Morgan her new magic feather? Close. It looks like Belinda had found a new magic feather even more reliable than Morgan: yuppie booze.
I was also open about the challenges I faced offstage. I told Los Angeles Times critic Robert Hilburn, as well as other reporters, that I had been on the road to physical ruin and needed serious help getting my act together. Though I stopped short of admitting my cocaine addiction, I did say that I attended twelve-step meetings. It was a good story, and I wasn't lying when I said that I probably would have been "broke, alone and desperate" if I didn't change my ways.

However, deep down I knew that I wasn't being entirely truthful with them or, more important, with myself. Prior to the Roxy shows, I had a glass of wine in my dressing room. What was one glass of wine? Most of the time I didn't even finish a whole glass. I drank only enough to take the edge off the jitters I always had before going onstage.

It was like there were two versions of me. There was the insecure Belinda who couldn't believe people would pay money to see her. Then there was the Belinda who drank a glass of wine and turned into a singer. At that point, anything was possible.
And I mean anything.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

"Nasty": And The Winner For "Best Anti-Sexual Assault Song Of The '80s" Goes To ...

For years I missed the point of Janet Jackson's "Nasty." This is an error I'm blaming entirely on Janet's peers. See, I thought that, in the universe of '80s pop, "nasty" was a good thing. Didn't Prince write, in Vanity 6's "Nasty Girls," "Tonight, don't you wanna come with me/Do you think I'm a nasty girl?" "Nasty girl" being a desirable trait, yes? And in the same exact year as Janet's song, didn't Gloria Estefan declare, "Bad, bad, bad, bad boys/You make me feel so good"? So was Janet saying she liked nasty boys? I was all mixed up. Were these Terminator time travel rules, or Back To The Future time travel rules?

It turns out Janet meant "nasty" as in "unpleasant," "mean," "hostile." It was not a compliment. According to Wikipedia, she was walking around Minneapolis during the recording of Control when she came across an undesired element:
The danger hit home when a couple of guys started stalking me on the street. They were emotionally abusive. Sexually threatening. Instead of running to Jimmy or Terry for protection, I took a stand. I backed them down. That's how songs like "Nasty" and "What Have You Done for Me Lately" were born, out of a sense of self-defense. Control meant not only taking care of myself but living in a much less protected world. And doing that meant growing a tough skin. Getting attitude.
Or maybe getting some ... mace? I heard brass knuckles are good too. The message is slightly ironic considering Janet's eventual slide into the kind of sexual explicitness that would make even Madonna reach for her cone bra. Then again, Janet isn't saying she doesn't have a raunchy side: "I'm not a prude, I just want some respect/So close the door if you want me to respond." I dig it, I dig it. There's a time an a place for it, guys. Then she whips out the most brutal retort since "I know you are but what am I":
'Cause "privacy" is my middle name
My last name is "control"
No my first name ain't "baby," it's "Janet"
Miss Jackson if ya nasty!
Here is what I love about this put-down: it establishes separate tiers to her dismissiveness! If you're good, you can call her "Janet," but if you're extra-special bad, you're relegated to the painfully formal "Miss Jackson." By the way, just to clear things up, my blogger first name isn't "Dude," it's "Little" - "Mr. Earl" if you're nasty.

The song itself sounds like a pinball machine that came to life and started playing dance-funk. The keyboard has been programmed to this heavily processed "horn blast" effect, and it shouldn't be the main riff of anything, but according to Jimmy Jam, that was the appeal:
It [had] a factory sound that was in there... more of a sound-effect type of sound ... I've always been - probably from being around Prince - interested in using unorthodox types of things to get melodies and sounds. That was a very unmelodic type of sound, but we found a way to build a melody around it.
And the end result is a backing track that feels a bit ... what's the word? Dirty? Grungy? Grimy? Help me out here, Janet: "The only nasty thing I like is a nasty groove." A-ha! See? Even Janet herself is a culprit in my semantic confusion.

Fittingly, the video for "Nasty" is a nasty piece of work. I am no expert in the art of body movement, but "Nasty" has to feature some of the finest dancing ever seen in an '80s music video, Jackson or otherwise. Of course, the choreographer and former Laker Girl responsible for these moves can be spotted sitting next to Janet in the movie theater, but it's one thing to be given imaginative choreography, and it's another thing to get out there and do it (but is that really Janet doing the back flip at 0:10?). Also, conveniently, all the quasi-rapey street scum in the world of this video are capable of matching Janet move for move - even the liquor store clerk in the spandex top! Now that is one nasty outfit. And I don't mean the good kind of nasty.