This morning, I submitted an application for a highly-desirable remote music journalist gig at a high-paying tech company. I won’t get it because these roles are always filled from within, but at least the hiring editor made the chore thought provoking.
Instead of requesting the usual information about the history of my writing career, he just asked one question that required an answer in essay form. A refreshing change of pace compared to the usual solicitations of old music-related writing samples. My recent terse review of The Dandy Warhols’ latest effort isn’t my best foot forward.
I never thought to figure out the day it happened, but I was able to Google it down to Sunday afternoon, August 18th, 1981. I know it was a Sunday because this occasion involved my father, and by that time, I only saw him on Sundays, as per divorce court orders.
On that Sunday, my father persuaded me to wash his car with a long con that made Tom Sawyer look like a piker when he hustled Ben into whitewashing the picket fence.
“You know, this car will be yours when you start college,” he’d casually say in passing whenever we’d happen to be in its hallowed presence.”
“This car” was his pride and joy -- a cherry red 1977 Porsche 911 Targa. He bought it between marriages when Saturday Night Fever fever spread across America like a Biblical plague. The car, the coke, and the gold-braided necklace were the accoutrements of the rebirth of a single man in his late twenties.
While I washed the car (which included a vacuum job, a vigorous shammy rub down, and the administration of an Armorall sheen all over its leather interior), he popped Prince’s Controversy into the car’s Blaupunkt cassette player, and the title track started pulsing.
The music was different. It was punk, electronic, disco, soul, and rock. I couldn’t tell if it was a protest song, a song about sex, or something attempting to will itself into a queer dance anthem. It was hot and cold at the same time.
It also sounded a little desperate, but in a dangerous way -- like the singer knew some fucked up shit was on its way, and he was here to prepare us for what was to come. I think I came up with that theory from the part where Prince chants the Lord’s Prayer at the three-and-a-half-minute mark.
The cover art on the J-card didn’t help me understand what I was listening to either. The person on the cover looked like Little Richard’s nephew wearing a studded lavender trench coat with a Rude Boy badge on its lapel -- a grab bag of pop iconography. And he was standing behind a bunch of mock newspapers with Apocalyptic headlines inspired by God. It was a lot to take in for someone who’s first and only album they owned up until that point was a ‘50s rock & roll sampler curated by Henry Winkler as The Fonz.
It might have been an inappropriate selection to play in front of your 11-year-old child, but he still had a curious artist’s spirit at the time.
“I asked the guy behind the counter what was playing over the speakers,” my father said. “He handed me this tape off the display on the counter and said, ‘Everyone’s gonna be talking about this guy in a year.”
My father bought the tape, and the clerk was right – 1999 was released about a year later. It would take me two more years to discover Dirty Mind and find the root of his incalculable spurt of genius from 1980 to 1987.
That’s all it took for me to realize that music could be more than novelty songs and lightweight dance music, which is the only thing Los Angeles disc jockeys played at the time.
But this moment might not have been cemented in my mind if it wasn’t for my step-mother. She appeared out of nowhere while “Controversy” was playing and yelled, to no one in particular: “What are you listening to? Is that the Lord’s Prayer? That’s Satanic! That’s evil. Turn this off. Now.”
In 1980, America was going through one of its recurring spells of Satanic Panic. Many people escaped undamaged, but children with Born Again Christian parents in their lives weren’t so lucky. Every Sunday, I was one of those affected children.
(One year later, I would be forced to follow step-mother around their house, from bathroom to bathroom. While stopping at the three bathrooms, my step-mother would grab the tube of toothpaste out of the medicine cabinets, and when we ended up by the kitchen trash can, she dumped two of the tubes in the aluminum cylinder.
“Did you know Crest is made by Procter & Gamble?” she asked me as if I kept abreast of which conglomerates manufactured the toiletries I didn’t even purchase in the first place.
As she waved the third tube in the air like a ceptor, she said, “Procter & Gamble, and the people who run the company support the Church of Satan!”
And with that, she presented the back of the third tube to me, and pointed at a small logo of a crescent moon surrounded by stars -- 13 stars, I’d later find out. Apparently she saw something on television that accused Procter & Gamble of being a Satanic company. I’m almost positive she saw a segment about Satanism on the famously irresponsible Phil Donahue Show.)
When my step-mother associated Prince with Satan, that sold me on him. This was confirmation that he was as dangerous as I thought he was, and there was something appealing about that. I was no Satan worshiper, but I was raised Catholic and all those masses and catechism classes embed the fear and intrigue of God and Satan in my conscience.
All that happened in the five or six minutes of the first time I heard “Controversy.” I wasn’t even able to listen to the entire song. My father acquiesced, and popped the cassette out of the tape deck. It would be one of the many early times he buckled and placated her. By 1985, he too became a Born Again Christian, and eschewed any last artistic attribute that made him unique.
With no older siblings’ influential record collection, I was about nine years too young to discover punk, but that was the song that made me really obsess over pop music as an art form. Eventually, I’d discover the important bands that inspired Controversy, but that day was my flashpoint. Rest assured, the hiring music editor only got about 5 percent of this unedited answer.
The Porsche, you ask? My father sold it to my step-mother’s daughter’s boyfriend for $6,000 in 1987, the year before I was to start college. (No, the $6K didn’t go to my college tuition.) The boyfriend didn’t realize that Porsche with over 50,000 miles on them are famous for dribbling about a thimble full of oil every day. This dumb kid who was all of maybe 25 at the time never kept tabs on the 911’s primitive dashboard gagues. The engine caught on fire within two weeks, and what was to be my heirloom was sold as scrap for $400.
Alarcon co-founded outsideleft with lamontpaul in 2004. His work for o/l has attracted the attention of hundreds of thousands of readers, oh and probably the fbi too.