Purple Reign: A Few Words From A Non-Fan About Prince’s Mercurial Music, Image, and Legacy

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The first time I ever saw Prince it was on a January 26, 1980 broadcast of American Bandstand. In fact, it might have been the first time I’d even heard of this artist. Since this occurred long ago, I can’t recall why I was watching ABS in the first place. I didn’t really care for the show or most of the music. Yet, whatever the reason, my fortuitous channel surfing enabled me to see something that would become a television event.

More specifically, on that particular Saturday morning I saw this strange little man with a thin moustache and a “woman’s hairdo” prance around to a tune called “I Wanna Be Your Lover.” When Dick Clark introduced Prince, he sat amongst his youthful guests, holding up a copy of For You (1978), which was released the same year as The Ramones’ Road to Ruin and The Talking Heads’ More Songs About Buildings and Food. It was a time, as well, when Bruce Springsteen was “the future of Rock and Roll” and Disco was being pushed out by Punk and New Wave. I can’t recall, however, what came out in ’78 that was of significance in the genres of Soul and Funk, since at this time in my life, I refused to listen to “that kind of music.”  To see what I saw, follow the link below:

http://theroottv.theroot.com/video/Prince-on-American-Bandstand-19?wpisrc=burger

So, how did I react to Prince? Quite frankly, I was little weirded out. Back then I was a fifteen year old kid who didn’t like much of anything that wasn’t metal or punk, let alone something like this. As a product of my unenlightened age, historical epoch, society, and household, I was bothered by the flagrant gender-bending that occurred before my eyes. What was also a factor was going to a high school, probably like many high schools, in which cliques were divided along race and musical taste. As an American Indian and Mexican kid, my peers expected me to listen to Donna Summer, Tower of Power, and Earth, Wind & Fire. Yet, because I favored Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, and Black Sabbath, I was considered to be one of the “Surfers,” a “white boy,” in spite of my very non-Caucasian identity. (As a side note, I obviously grew up in Southern California.) In any case, music defined your social status, which in the immature dynamics of teenage society meant that the kids who liked Funk and Soul didn’t like me, even bullying me for my musical tastes. In light of which, there was no way in Hell I was going to let myself like Prince!

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What I didn’t stop to think about amidst my teenage confusion was the rebellion that Prince asserted against the oppressively binary sexual roles in which my generation was raised to believe were our only options. I also didn’t stop about how Prince’s androgynous stage persona had historical precedent, such as David Bowie during his Ziggy Stardust phase, The New York Dolls under the influence of David Johansen, not to mention Little Richard. Even though I knew a great deal about music history, even at fifteen, I willfully ignored my own knowledge and simply decided that I didn’t like what I saw or heard. However, as the aforementioned high school experience became a thing of the past, and my horizons began to expand with college, a little money in my pocket, along with lots of reading and trips to the record store, my recognition of Prince’s talent began to expand as well. Although still limited by certain biases, namely my preference for guitar-driven music (as opposed to a beat you can dance to), I did find myself admitting that I liked the riffs I was hearing during the 80s as Prince released 1999 (1982) and Purple Rain (1984). In fact, as the video for “When Doves Cry” entered constant rotation on MTV, I remember wishing that Prince would do more music like this! But then the mediocrity of Around the World in a Day (1985) appeared and, “Raspberry Beret” notwithstanding, I began losing interest. Indeed, the only time Prince caught my attention in the intervening years was when he battled the exploitation of Warner Bros, changed his name to that symbol, and deliberately avoided the new media, namely iTunes, YouTube, Spotify, and the like. As for his music, despite regularly releasing a plethora of new music, Prince for me was forever sexily coming out of that bathtub in his iconic video.

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So, as Prince became more of an historical figure than a symbol of my teenage discontent, did my attitude toward Prince change as I also got older and supposedly wiser? Somewhat. Although I’m able to listen to a lot of music today that I genuinely couldn’t stand throughout high school and college, it doesn’t mean that I’ve forgotten how I felt when I first heard particular artists and their music. At this point I should confess that in spite of my sincere shock at Prince’s sudden death this past week, my shock was mostly at the level of realizing that a major cultural icon had died. I liked some of his songs, some of them very much, namely “1999,” “Little Red Corvette,” “When Doves Cry,” “Purple Rain,” “I Would Die 4 U,” and “Raspberry Beret.” Nonetheless, he was never really a part of the soundtrack of my life. Yet, what I couldn’t deny and did grow to admire was that he was probably the best R&B/Rock guitarist since Hendrix, who possessed a brilliant capacity for reinventing himself at each stage of his musical career. In other words, I knew that he would be an Icon for the Ages, even if he wasn’t exactly iconic for me. I did, of course, really dig his half-time performance at Super Bowl XLI. In fact, like many, I was blown away. It’s just hard to believe that it’s been nine years now since that happened.

 

ΑΕπ: Life and Loathing in the Ocean State

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Easily the most obnoxious case of racism I ever faced was at Alpha Epsilon Pi (“the Jewish Fraternity”), which was located on the University of Rhode Island campus, where I was a border 1986-1988. I remember there were eleven of us named “David,” which led to the custom of calling each other, even the non-Davids, by our last names. One of these Davids, who would be the source of my discontent, was from New London, CT: David Keating, who obviously was double-majoring in Business and Weightlifting, complete with a minor in being an Asshole. Actually, it would more accurate to say he was a triple major.

Anyway, Keating was the kind of guy who would ask me, the only American Indian in the house, if I’m “proud to be civilized” or if I used “wooden plates and utensils” and washed my clothes “on a rock by the river.” Naturally, there were also rain dance and scalping “jokes” thrown into the mix, along with the occasional war whoop with a shout of “Indians!” as I was exiting the house to go to class. I should point out that Keating, along with several members of this small, not to mention small-minded, community, was often equally offensive to other People of Color, which somehow was less vile than their attitude toward women. As for the attitudes against minorities that I witnessed, I can vividly recall one of the frat brothers ranting, almost shouting his hatred for the Portuguese community.  Then, there was the time I watched as the lone Japanese-American resident was humiliated for how his eyes looked whenever he laughed.  At this point I should point out in the spirit of fairness–though certainly not forgiveness–that not all of the guys in this frat treated me this way.  If nothing else, the AEPi guys were less despicable than the Neanderthals next door at the ZBT house.

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As for why I was so special to Keating, other than my uniqueness as the only American Indian he ever met, I think two things bothered him the most. For starters, I never showed him any fear. I don’t intimidate easily to begin with, so if he wanted to see me tremble, he was out of luck. Also, I could dish back on the trash talk when needed. For another, I was by far more academically capable than he. In fact, I got the highest grades of anyone in that whole house. Plus, I think Keating saw me as befriending girls more easily than him. The only girls I ever saw him with were usually drunk as hell! In fact, whenever he spoke of females it was clear that they were more sex toy than equal to his dysfunctional mind.

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In the end, I defeated Keating using my brain. This happened sometime during my senior year, after I’d been hired as an undergraduate teaching assistant by the Philosophy Department. One day after whispering the threat of “I’ll kick your ass”—without looking me in the eye, of course—as he passed by me one day, I told a friend about Keating’s behavior. Not the kind of friend who does your fighting for you, on the contrary, I didn’t need that kind of favor. Instead, I told my friend that if Keating threatens me again, I’ll have him suspended, and if he takes a swing at me, I’ll have him thrown out of school altogether! Of course, I honestly had no idea if my status as a TA meant anything to anyone, let alone when it came to pursuing disciplinary measures against another student.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to find out. By the time I saw Keating the next day his tone had completely changed. All of a sudden he was friendly, albeit in his boorish, lug headed way, and conspicuously far less belligerent. Obviously, word of my power as Philosophy TA made its way to him and he took it seriously. Ha! It was only after this that I realized that one major advantage I had over this dimwit was being able to effortlessly fool him into believing I had more clout than I actually did. In other words, I manipulated his foolishness to my benefit. Awesome. Martínez 1—Keating 0!

The Story of Tom, Auto Worker and Philosopher

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When I was a philosophy tutor at Mt San Antonio College I had a student, Tom Swope, see me about some arguments for the existence of God he was having trouble understanding. You know, Anselm, Descartes, that kind of stuff.

Tom, by the way, was one of these cool old dudes with a wry sense of humor. He carried around all his class notes in a binder he labeled “THESONOFABITCHFROMTHEFRONTOFFICE,” which was apparently a reference to his days as an auto worker for Chrysler.

Anyway, Tom and I are talking about God stuff when he lays his own unique argument for the existence of God. More specifically, he claimed that it was impossible to be a true atheist, therefore God must exist.

“What do you mean, Tom?” I asked.

“Well, take for example, when a so-called atheist says ‘Goddamn’ or ‘Goddamnit!”

“Yeah,” I said patiently.

“Well, if an atheist says there’s no God, then who is he asking to damn something?”

“I don’t know, Tom. Good question.”

Anyway, Tom somehow passed his philosophy exam with an A-, for which I’m willing to take some of the credit.

“Dance For Me, I’ll Keep You Employed”: The Secret and Unenlightened World of Young Men’s Desires

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It may shock some of you–or maybe not–that I was once eighteen years old and that when I was that age I actually thought that seeing scantily clad women was an adventure. Such was the impudence of my teenage mind. Nevertheless, my cousin Irwin and I rode in my 1979 Toyota Corolla to Sunset Blvd, where West Hollywood begins to merge into Beverly Hills. Our destination was The Body Shop, a location that would one day be featured in Mötley Crüe’s “Girls, Girls, Girls” video. Given its location, The Body Shop also had a reputation for having the “hottest” girls around. As far as this type of place goes their boasting was true, mostly because The Body Shop was where countless struggling actresses went to work when their dreams of Hollywood stardom turned to dust.

As for me, I got the idea to go to this place from one of my high school buddies, Tim Torres. Tim told me all about the girls, some of whom he said he even spoke with—wow!—and how to get there. Since I frequently went to the nearby Tower Records, finding this club was no problem. At the same time, I didn’t want to enter a joint like this alone, so I enlisted my cousin’s company, whose arm, by the way, I didn’t have to twist very hard. All it took was saying that I’d drive us and pay for our drinks. Consequently, on an autumnal Friday night after work, we set off from Pomona to Hollywood.

We parked in the back, showed our ID at the door, paid the cover, then ordered our two drink minimum (both of us had cokes). Sitting up front at the edge of the stage, I remember feeling nervous, as if it were obvious that I’d never done this before, which was for good reason, because I hadn’t! In any case, the announcer introduced the next dancer, whose name I no longer recall. I think it was a stage name, anyway. However, what I do remember vividly is that she was from Virginia and that she was an “Indian princess.” Whoa! At that time, I was by far more tantalized than offended by the degrading “Indian princess” moniker. My cousin and I looked at each other, feeling haltingly amused by the promise of a bogus Indian act.

As a song started bumping out of the house system, which was some random dance music of the times, the “Indian princess” sauntered out on stage. She was a fair-skinned brunette, who gave my cousin and I a wink. I didn’t think she looked Indian—certainly not compared to the Indian girls I knew personally—but I certainly thought she was beautiful. I was mesmerized! Beyond that, I don’t remember much else, not even the other girls we saw that night. Needless to say, I didn’t have the courage to talk with this girl. All I left with that night is what I have to this day, a mere memory of this “Indian princess” who danced her way into my boyish heart, then left just as easily.

For an awkward teen with a minimum-wage job, an uncool car, and no girlfriend having a pretty girl smile at me as she took off her clothes was just what I needed, or so I thought at time. Obviously, there was much about women as people, as opposed to merely objects of my still adolescent lust, that I needed to learn. Still, from my eighteen-year-old perspective, that “Indian princess” was an antidote to the rejection I often encountered during this period of my life as I navigated the difficult terrain between high school student and adult, in particular one that had loftier aspirations than what the dead end world of working like a dog in which I was trapped had to offer. Even though I don’t need such places today, nor have I for a very longtime, I’ll never forget that salacious night when fantasy became flesh.

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The Agony and the Ecstasy: My Life With a Philosophy PhD

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The secret to my success? I have no secret. At least, that’s what I realized recently when I was asked to recount the pathway to the stable and rewarding career I now enjoy as a university professor. Interestingly, I don’t think anyone has been interested enough in my life to bother asking me such a question until about a week or so ago. Actually, this person wasn’t so much interested in me per se as he was about my struggle to find a job with a PhD in philosophy, one of those humanities degrees that’s more effective at amassing student loan debt than it is at landing you a lucrative tenure-track job anywhere, let alone at a prestigious university.

Doctoral students in a variety of disciplines have long had a tough time in a very tough job market.  In the case of my fellow philosophy students at Stony Brook, where I got my PhD in 1997, the struggle has been quite real, to say the least.  And judging by articles I’ve seen in The Chronicle and The New York Times over the past couple of years or so, things have not gotten any better. In fact, the arduous fight for adjunct teaching rights, complete with a bevy of heartbreaking stories, indicates that things have become worse.

As for being an American Indian with a philosophy PhD, well, that’s a whole category of strangeness altogether!  When I was on the job market back in the late 90s I learned three things.  One, trying to leave academia was impossible, at least for me, because potential employers kept pigeonholing me as an “academic,” and so would never take me seriously as a possible colleague.  Everyone who interviewed me kept asking why I didn’t “want to teach,” then told me that they couldn’t hire me because I’ll probably land some impressive academic job and leave them after three months.  Second, when I did turn to the philosophy job market I learned the hard way just how ethnocentric philosophy departments were across the US and Canada.  In spite of the generous support I received from my philosophy professors in my effort at developing American Indian philosophy as my area of concentration, the rest of the Philosophy World couldn’t care less!  I did get an interview with UNC-Asheville, which went very well at the American Philosophical Association meeting, however didn’t lead to an on-site interview.  Otherwise, the numerous CVs I sent to virtually every philosophy department with a job opening responded with a terse “thanks, but no thanks” letter.  Some of them, of course, didn’t respond at all.

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Actual photo of me prepping for my two courses at Central Arizona College, summer of 1992

So, then, how did I find employment?  The third thing I learned from the above job market experience was the importance of friends, as opposed to networking.  When I got into my philosophy doctoral program I got in part because one of the grad students already there, David Abram (author of ‘The Spell of the Sensuous’) strongly advocated for my admission.  Then, when I got my first adjunct job in 1992 at Central Arizona College teaching Intro to Philosophy and World Religions, it was because my mentor at the University of Arizona, Ofelia Zepeda, introduced me to people she knew at CAC.  (At this point, I didn’t have my PhD yet but I did have a master’s in American Indian Studies.)

In turn, the chair of the philosophy department at CAC, Ek Buys, introduced me to Ann Mahoney, the chair of the philosophy department at Mesa Community College, where I got some much-needed adjunct work to carry me through 1992-1993 until I could return to my philosophy doctoral program to finish my degree at Stony Brook.  As I was finishing my dissertation, though, I got it into my head that I wanted to leave academia. So, I spent countless days and weeks looking for work in the government and private sector. Moreover, since this was the 90s I thought for sure that I could move to the Bay Area and find work in the booming tech industry. All I got for my trouble was disappointment, not to mention impoverished and overwhelmingly in-debt.

Eventually, I found my way back into teaching when I landed a job at Verde Valley School, a private college prep school in Sedona, teaching American Indian philosophies. When I was compelled to leave that job due to the political turmoil that the school was undergoing, I was lucky to reconnect with Ann Mahoney, who saved me from descending back into the doldrums and poverty of adjunct life by offering me a full-time one-year-only appointment as a philosophy instructor. Of course, since this was a one-year-only gig, at the same time I was adjusting to teaching five sections with about 200 students enrolled altogether—which I’d repeat the following spring semester—I also had to start looking for work for the following academic year.

During that dreadful time when I was applying to all those philosophy jobs, I applied for two and only two jobs in American Indian Studies: one at the University of Michigan and the other at the University of Minnesota.  Michigan never even sent me the customary “thanks, but no thanks” letter.  However, Minnesota called, and they called in large part because another of my old professors at the University of Arizona, David Wilkins, was there.  Finally, after going through the indignity of tenure-denial at the U of M, I did, fortunately, have a friend in James Riding In at Arizona State University, where I’m at today, who was very helpful when once again my future was uncertain. James was my editor when I published my first peer-reviewed article in the ‘Wicazo Sa Review’.

In the end, my career as a university professor, which has sustained me for the past fifteen years—not counting my community college, high school, and unemployed days—seems to be the result of perseverance and incredible instances of good fortune. I didn’t go to a lot of conferences, and when I did I wasn’t very good at networking. Nor was I publishing much, at least not at the beginning of my university career in 2000. I only had a non-peer reviewed article and a book review to speak of at that point. Naturally, I did have the support of people who believed in me—my wife Sharon, above all others. And, in spite of the disappointments and hardship, I guess I must have believed in myself just enough to go on. What else could I do?

Consequently, when graduate students, including the ones I advise, ask me about how to navigate the job market, all I can tell them is my story and that relationships are everything. Networking is nothing more than brown-nosing and an exchange of contact info, complete with empty promises to get in touch. Relationships, like kinship, is the product of making an emotional connection with someone, which isn’t easy to achieve, but they can be the difference between the life and death. At the same time, you won’t know who your “relatives” are until they unexpectedly show up just when you need someone the most. Unfortunately, there isn’t a how-to manual or a workshop to show you how to deliberately acquire the kind of relationships that helped me. Like life itself, this kind of organic bonding occurs spontaneously and mysteriously.

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‘Chariots of Fire’: Hugh Hudson, Anglophilia and the Olympic Stage

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Image credit: Hugh Hudson

I’m not sure why Hugh Hudson’s 1981 film Chariots of Fire has meant so much to me, but it has. Curiously, I didn’t notice its initial release, even though I regularly went to the cinema virtually every weekend. However, it was because of my enthusiasm for film that I happened to be watching the Golden Globes during its January 1982 broadcast. On that night, as the nominees for the best foreign picture were announced, I heard the audience cheer as the now iconic scene on screen. A group of men, all dressed in the same white uniform, ran majestically in all their youth and vigor down the English seaside as a synthetic anthem played, evoking Olympian glory. I was immediately captivated by what I saw!

As soon as I could I went to see Chariots of Fire at the Montclair Plaza Theaters, which had expanded from a triplex to a multiplex that included a theater dedicated to foreign films. I loved the movie so much I wound up seeing it six times in a matter of a few short weeks. Moreover, I watched Ben Cross and Ian Charleson portray “Harold Abrahams” and “Eric Liddell” several more times on pay tv, as well as renting and eventually owning the movie on VHS, DVD, and Blu-Ray. I watched it again tonight.

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Image credit: Hugh Hudson

At this point in my life, Chariots of Fire has a lot of nostalgia value. It appeared at a time when I was striving to find an identity for myself, which was at time in one’s growth—16, going on 17—when finding the right identity is everything. With that in mind, Hudson’s image of 1920s England and its idyllic depiction of Oxford University was just what I needed. I was a burgeoning intellectual who was yearning for a more sophisticated sense of self, complete with the broadened horizons that were lacking in my so-called life. Chariots of Fire instantly became a part of my peculiar form of Anglophilia, which included watching British television dramas such as Testament of Youth, which starred Cheryl Campbell (who plays “Jennie Liddell” in Chariots), and The Flame Trees of Thika, starring Ben Cross. Then, of course, there was Brideshead Revisited, which itself became a unique obsession. Speaking of which, I shouldn’t neglect mention my discovery of Evelyn Waugh, Richard Adams, and W Somerset Maugham. Furthermore, it was also a time when, among other things, I was discovering music by Ultravox, Spandau Ballet, and Simple Minds.

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Image credit: Hugh Hudson

In the end, Hugh Hudson’s film about British Olympic hopefuls makes me feel good. I identify with the main characters, each of whom is marginal to English society—Abrahams, a Jew, and Liddell, a Scot—in a way that gave me insight into my own marginality to mainstream American society. Although my Anglophilia never took me to the UK, except for a few days in Wales and another people marginal to English society, what mattered more was the story and images. I have no idea of the film’s historical accuracies vis-à-vis the actual 1924 Olympics. Probably several liberties were taken for the sake of dramatic effect. Nevertheless, the film bears an emotional truth about gifted individuals struggling the find themselves at the same time they are dealing with the limits of those gifts. What the combination of that cinematography and Vangelis soundtrack made me realize is that it is one’s willingness to engage in that struggle, replete with the risk of failure, that is the difference between running the race only to win as opposed to running the race because you know you have to in order to find what’s at the end of the track.

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Image credit: Hugh Hudson

The Angel of History: An Unexpected Encounter In the Middle of Long Island

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“Over the Town,” Marc Chagall (1918).  Oil on canvas, 17.8 X 22 inches.  Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia.

Once upon a time my wife Sharon and I were having pizza at a small but crowded restaurant, which sat between King Kullen and a Genovese Drug Store near our home in Miller Place, NY. The name of the pizzeria has long since faded from memory. However, I remember it was a sunny spring afternoon when we decided to drop in for a slice before picking up groceries and sundries. In a word, it was a pretty normal day.

As for the pizzeria, it was bustling like usual. Families and couples abounded, placing their orders and folding their slices, as everyone enjoyed their food and one another’s company. Despite the crowd, Sharon and I secured a booth in the middle of the premises, which were no more than a hold-in-the-wall. As we began to indulge ourselves a tiny woman with gentle eyes and an East European accent asked if she could sit with us. “May I join you?” she asked plaintively. Seeing that there was no place else for her we said “Oh, sure,” gesturing for her to sit as Sharon slid over a little to make room for our unexpected guest.

The woman was pleasant and asked us both about our backgrounds. She really liked the couple that Sharon and I made, she said. However, what peaked her interest was finding out that I was in the philosophy doctoral program at Stony Brook. “What are you studying? Are you working on your dissertation?” she asked with obvious interest. I said “Yes” and gave her a summary of my work on the “poetic experience,” in particular my phenomenological analysis of poetry as an integral part of the human experience. “Who are you reading?” she asked further. “Oh, you know,” I said, trying not to sound too pompous or boring, “Merleau-Ponty, Heidegger, Dufrenne, people like that.”

“You know, I studied philosophy once,” she said as I noticed that her toes barely touched the floor. “I was a student in Germany a longtime ago.” She then told me this remarkable story of having been one of Karl Jasper’s students during the 1930s at Heidelberg University. At the time, the author of The Origin and Goal of History was being driven out by Heidegger, “a Nazi sympathizer,” whom the woman at our table also said she knew as she took a small bite of her regular slice. She then recounted her professor’s “last lecture,” when the students were aware that their revered teacher was being forced out of the university and into exile because of his “Jewish wife.” “All of us were stomping our feet at the end of his lecture,” she recalled with a mix of nostalgia and lingering outrage at what Heidegger “did to his friend.”

At this point I don’t remember what the tiny woman with the East European accent said about the author of Being and Time, but I do recollect that it was less than flattering and that she wanted me to “forget about him” and instead find a place for Jaspers in my work. I listened sympathetically. Unfortunately, at the same time I was committing myself to reading more Jaspers, I knew that he never wrote about poetry or art, as did his disloyal colleague.

In the end, I could only feel genuine amazement at what I heard from our unexpected guest on this beautiful spring day in 1996. For a philosophy student, Jaspers and Heidegger were mythic figures. So, to meet someone who actually knew them both and attended their lectures was nothing short of astounding! As for who this woman was who shared our table for a slice of pizza, she said her name was “Vera Dunham” and that before her retirement she “taught Russian literature.”

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Karl JASPERS, German psychologist and philosopher, at home with his wife.  SWITZERLAND. Basel. 1968.  Photographer: Thomas Hoepker