The Ballad of Dorothy Parker
This submissions was part of the #PurpleReigns: A Tribute to Prince event hosted at the New School, Friday, September 23rd.
Thanks to Aly and especially Pam Tillis. I want to thank Pam. We did a David Bowie event here at the New School in February which was very moving and a lot of fun and there are so many parallels between Bowie and Prince. I think of Prince doing what he did in the 1980s is something similar, at the level of song writing and sheer presentation, to Bowie in the 1970s and it is tragic that we’ve lost them both this year.
I grew up in England. I was a dirty little punk and obviously a white boy, but still a punk. A lot of us over there grew up listening to soul and to funk and to R&B: Otis Redding, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Sly and the Family Stone, James Brown, Parliament/Funkadelic, George Clinton, Bootsy Collins, The Isley Bros, Earth, Wind and Fire, The Ohio Players, Chic, Sister Sledge. So, Prince entered my ear drums as a new and radical expression of that tradition. I listened early on to Dirty Mind, Controversy, and 1999, which I loved, but the album that really hit me hardest and which I listened to most was, Sign o the Times in 1987. It was this period when he was often working on his own in the studio without a band that I most love: albums like Lovesexy and especially The Black Album (this was a long time before Jay Z) it was also known as ‘The Funk Bible’. It was so funky and it was withdrawn a week before its release and still hasn’t been released. (I had a bootleg.) If you don’t know it, please listen to The Black Album, which was originally intended to be the follow up to Sign o the times. Please listen to “Le grind,” “superfunkycalifragisexy,” and the really troubling track “Bob George.”
Was Prince sexy? Prince was so sexy. Lovesexy the glam of them all. But what kind of sexy was he? Frank Ocean says the following:
There was always something queer about Prince’s heterosexuality, that made him more pansexual. There was something tender about the way Prince depicted women, which is still all too rare, especially in hip hop and R&B. There is something empathetic, something admiring about the way Prince chose to write about women and about sex, love and desire. Thinking again of Frank Ocean, I hear this in a track like ‘Pyramids’. Prince’s sexuality was not masterful, it wasn’t about domination and subjugation and it wasn’t judgmental. It much more vulnerable than that, much more open.
Anyhow, I didn’t know what track to pick. I thought about “Gett Off” and “Money don’t matter 2 night,” but then it came to me a couple of days ago, a track which you might or might not know. It’s a really simple track, with a keyboard and the drum machine that Prince used in really radical ways (no one had used drum machines like that before). It’s called “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker.” Is it a remembered dream (Prince sometimes dreamt songs) or an actual incident that happened to Prince? Who is Dorothy Parker and why does she have the same name as the New York writer, poet and activist who bequeathed her estate to Martin Luther King Jr in 1967? We don’t know.
Also, buried in the song is an allusion to Joni Mitchell, “Help me.”
It’s a really strange and beautiful song. “Dorothy was a waitress on the promenade / she worked the night shift / dishwater blonde, tall and fine / she got a lot of tips,” and then Prince talks about coming in from a violet room, fighting with lovers past, he walks into this diner. Is this a dream? Did something like that happen? It’s not clear. And he orders a fruit cocktail. Can you imagine Prince ordering a fruit cocktail? And she says, “Sounds like you’re a real man to me,” right? “Sounds like a real man to me. Do you want to take a bath?” Do you want to take a bath? So again, she’s in the dominant position and then he says, “I’m leaving my pants on cuz’ I’m tryin’ to go with someone new,” and she says again, “Sounds like a real man to me. Do you mind if I turn on the radio? My favorite song is playing, Joni’s singing ‘Help me, I think I’m going’ brrrriiing,” and he goes on.
And it’s a beautiful, tender, admirative, empathetic depiction of a sexual scenario. His pants come off at a certain point but the moral of the story: where is this all leading, you might ask? Where is this all going? I’ve got absolutely no idea. But my recommendation to you tomorrow would be: if you have access to a bubble bath, take a bubble bath and leave your pants on and listen to Prince and see what happens and maybe, maybe… I believe in ghosts. I believe they’re out there. Maybe he’ll pop up. And maybe something interesting will happen. You’ll finally get your moment with Prince. Walk in the sunshine, as it were.Wouldn’t that be nice?