Sunday 28 June 2015

MADONNA: Like A Prayer

(#383: 1 April 1989, 2 weeks)

Track listing: Like A Prayer/Express Yourself/Love Song/Till Death Do Us Part/Promise To Try/Cherish/Dear Jessie/Oh Father/Keep It Together/Spanish Eyes/Act Of Contrition

Dear Miss Ciccone,

This is an open letter which I am virtually certain you will never read or even know about. I’m comfortable about that since this is the only way I can find to write about your album. I also take this risk because you (or your people) very briefly followed me on Twitter, and then all of a sudden you stopped following anybody. Maybe you’d seen that we hadn’t been that crazy about your previous records, or less crazy about them than we were thirty or so years ago, and decided against this “following” business. That’s fine; a lot of the time I wouldn’t even follow myself.

If I say that Like A Prayer was the astonishing leap forward which I had been awaiting, it would be no less true now than it was twenty-six years ago, and I hope that I can demonstrate why my reasons for liking it are subtly different from those of most critics. I loved this record when it came out; it was springtime, the patchouli oil scenting was spot on and I played the cassette – the very same one to which I have now listened again – endlessly on my Walkman as I journeyed around what was a much better London.

But I am keen not to fall into the misogynistic critical trap which claims that music by women can only be loved if accompanied by a degree of suffering. Personally I’d much rather listen to the funny, zestful and genuinely rebellious Billie Holiday of her thirties and forties days with Lester Young and Co. rather than the fifties waiting-for-death stuff. No, I’m not going to go there. But for me Like A Prayer works because it is what I regard as honest art, you singing about the people and things who mean or meant most to you,, and because, for a variety of reasons, its songs touch me very directly.

To illustrate what I mean, here are some words I wrote about the title song some eight years ago, when I knew substantially less than I do now. But I think they still stand:

Maybe the idolators understand the magic of pop better than anybody else, even, or especially, the idols they worship; since where the idols can get rattled, depressed, uncertain, pig out on drugs, turn up four hours late for a concert, become negligent with regard to their duties to the Inland Revenue, make crappy records, or die, the idolators will happily accept and embrace all of it; because they are dizzy with unquestionable and unquestioned love for those they choose to idolise, whatever their idols may do, and however painfully they might hurt them. If the new album’s substandard, it’s because we aren’t quite worthy of it, we’re not advanced or close enough to appreciate what drove the artist to extract ten-year-old rejects from their bottom drawers and pass it off as new music. As with football teams, or parents, we stand by them, regardless. Not for idolators the exhaustive, exhausting schemata of the open to and sceptical of everything “critics,” those who can securely classify the differing degrees of their love for different aspects of the same anatomy, the people who just know that the Verve lost something vital when they gained that auxiliary definite article, who are fully aware that Morrissey or Björk are career variables whom the rational would only approach every five years or so. But then, what truck has pop ever had with rationalism, especially when it comes to adding up the total bill for territories gained or souls lost? After all, we idolise idols precisely because of their superhuman status; they can do things we can’t, or won’t. They are never like us; even with the alleged democratisation of punk it quickly became clear that only John Lydon could ever hope to be John Lydon.
From her name upwards, Madonna knew that she had to be worshipped if she were to mean anything, and that another couple of years of “La Isla Bonita”s would lower her perspective to a curious over-shoulder gaze from newly disinterested consumers. So she had to come back with a blockbuster, something that Debbie or Gloria or even Belinda couldn’t have achieved, for all their individual and substantial merits. When the single of “Like A Prayer” came out it seemed to stop the rest of pop, momentarily but vitally; as with “Two Tribes,” it made everyone else in the Top 40 at the time seem like trespassers on newly privatised land.

The perspective of Madonna aspiring to God(dess)hood on “Like A Prayer” – she gives a barely perceptible whisper of “God” at the beginning of the track before the backwards guitars flood in and immediately slam, smashed, into a decisive wall of steel in order to suggest that all “rock” had been leading to this – has to be considered in balance with the rest of the Like A Prayer album, which focuses, at times very sorely, on the fallacies of the values of memory applied to lost loved ones (“Promise To Try”), fathers (“Oh Father”), errant husbands (“’Till Death Do Us Part”) and Prince (“Love Song”). Along with Erotica it is Madonna’s most palpably human record.

From the introduction onwards – and I believe that the guitarist here is indeed Prince, as it is at the album’s opposite end – it is also hard to imagine “Like A Prayer” without the immense precedent of Prince to inspire it; here is the dayglo Dadaism familiar from Sign ‘’ The Times, mixed with peculiar logic into that brew of unquenchable spiritual faith (“The Cross”), although the influence of the Pet Shop Boys (especially “It’s A Sin”) can hardly be discounted. “Like A Prayer” is perhaps the only pop single of the late eighties which could use a gospel choir and get away with it; Andrae Crouch and his Disciples are an indispensable part of the song’s architecture, rather than a tacky addendum. The use of the church organ is as unarguable and definitive as, say, Scott Walker’s “Manhattan” or Arcade Fire’s “Intervention.”

The song itself is all about worship, and Madonna seems intent on arguing passionately against the opening proposal of “Life is a mystery, everyone must stand alone” since she goes on to demonstrate how impossible it is to live a life of any description on one’s own. As the video depicted the tableau of the black saint and the sinner lady, so does Madonna blend spiritual and carnal with a recklessness comparable with the Stanley Spencer of Cookham; thus the line “When you call my name, it’s like a little prayer” could have been sung by the Ronettes or the Shangri-Las a generation earlier, but then we get the more explicit “In the midnight hour, I can feel your power” – and the question here is: who is worshipping, and who is asking to be worshipped? Note that it’s the “you” who is calling Madonna’s name but this is enough to get her “down on my knees.” And later, there’s the ambiguous “You’re in control, just like a child/Now I’m dancing” – so again the idol here could be parent as well as, or instead of, lover or God; and really the three (the Holy Trinity!) all merge into one (“Just like a dream, you are not what you seem”).

The record really takes off immediately after the second verse, when the dual basses of Randy Jackson and Guy Pratt make their dramatic entrance underneath the church organ and the intensity of the “Life is a mystery” couplet is doubled; eventually it resolves into an epic call-and-response between Madonna and choir and absolution, or orgasm, is reached – but then recall the end of the video, after the burning crosses and the stigmata, when the black Christ figure is revealed merely to be a prisoner in a police cell; the curtains draw and reopen as Madonna and her cast take a bow (another clue to the future there). Illusion, a six-minute diversion – or can it be mistaken for transcendence?

Despite the hopped-up controversy of the video and Pepsi’s precipitous cold feet, all that Madonna really does with “Like A Prayer” is amplify the age-old conflict between spiritual and carnal in art and attempt to resolve it by sheer force of will and personality. Of course, throughout the record we are kept aware that this worship is “like a prayer” rather than a prayer in itself, rather than, say, “My Prayer” by the Platters – a song and group whose roots both go back deep into an unreachable church. Finally, “Like A Prayer” must take a seat next to “Running Up That Hill,” if only because, where “Like A Prayer” compares to God (passive), Ms Bush (and we’ll be hearing from her again before this year is out) is intent on making a deal with God (active). The song drops the mask, just as Madonna drops the blonde in the video, and reveals its singer as someone who feels, breathes, cries and shits just like the people who idolise her. Pop was obliged to take a breath, and count again.

Are you still reading, or have you long since metaphorically crumpled up the note and tossed it into the bin? Who’s this sad old British blogging jerk? Well, I can only act as my heart’s ventriloquist. And then the record briefly turns into another “Madonna album”; “Express Yourself” has all the zesty pop drive of old, but its zest is borne of experience, as Helen Reddy didn’t quite sing, and its message appears to be doublefold; don’t surrender to materialism (but then, isn’t that really what “Material Girl” was truly all about?) and don’t settle for second-best compromise, since it always pays to be fussy and go for the best. From direct experience I can only concur with this philosophy.

Prince again, on “Love Song” – was it just the cold of Minneapolis that kept you two from coming together so long? – and it’s a nervous, circumferential eyeing-up and sizing-up of gifts and desires; the song frequently folds back on its own tropes like a series of Russian dolls being wrapped up in reverse, as three-dimensional as any de Chirico painting or Gil Evans orchestration, and again and again in the background, a motif from the aforementioned John Lydon; “this is not a love song.” But, as the song’s ending makes clear, it doesn’t end there – “This is not a love song that I want to sing,” and there are other odd and foreboding reference points in the song (“God strike me dead if I did you wrong,” “Mean what you say or baby I am gone,” “Don’t try to tell me what your enemies taught you”) which suggest that you might actually be singing about the subject of the next song.

“Till Death Do Us Part.” As I said (and so did Chrissie Hynde), don’t get me wrong. It gives me no joy to derive pleasure from music borne of suffering. I would rather you hadn’t made this album and not have had all these things that you describe within it happen to you. Listening to it now, I am afraid that it is clear why an awful lot of people still have serious problems about the man who is this song’s subject, despite what he has done since (does it all count as penance? Not being a doxologist, I’ve no idea). The music is nightmare power pop which stops once to allow the sound of breaking glass and then it starts up again towards a morbid fade. The things I could tell you about my parents, but this is neither the place nor the time; instead I wonder whether this is the other end of the benign “Anything For You” emotional seesaw.

It’s possible that at this moment “Promise To Try” cuts me deepest, and I hear how close you are to tears while singing it, and I wish there were an easy answer to this but there isn’t.  Looking back, it’s remarkable how close one repeatedly gets to what Gil Scott-Heron called selective amnesia; remembering the good times and cancelling out all the rest. And you have to think, from a distance in time which is now equal to that between when this album came out and now, that maybe memory is indeed an elaborate façade which won’t bring your loved one back. In my case it’s not quite fourteen years, and it wasn’t my mother, who I’m happy to say is still with us, and, well...if you want to know how I tried to live up to my own promise, the history’s easily found here. You take what is good in someone and do your best to make sure it survives and thrives in you, the things you do and the way you do things, which in my case includes writing. Then you either kiss the past goodbye, as you sing, or look at it in a different way which is relevant to the way you live now. I’ve never been in any doubt that that is what she would have wanted.

Then you go back to the sixties – this whole album really is far more late eighties psychedelia than even your Spacemen 3 or Dukes of Stratosfear – for pop; “Cherish,” which references everything, especially Romeo And Juliet and The Association, in a cheery and uplifting manner, and the re-photographed 1967 of “Dear Jessie,” which I understand relates to the daughter of your writing and producing colleague for much of this record, Patrick Leonard – yes, its “pink elephants and lemonade” make me think immediately of Prince, but its tricks with tempo and trumpets are sufficiently un-Prince-like to count as “authentic” (yes I know, it’s just one of those words, but I do try to make them mean something again).

As well you know, neither of these songs fully prepare the listener for “O Father.” I’ve read about the problems you had with your father and have no idea whether what has been written about them bears any relation to what or how they actually were. Like “Promise To Try,” this is a song which struggles to escape from a parent, but here the escape is sadly triumphant (“You can’t make me cry; you once had the power”) and is echoed against an immense, blue Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy soundscape (the golden sunset which attracts me towards probably far too many albums). And yet you find it in you to offer some empathy: “You didn’t mean to be cruel/Somebody hurt you too.” Perhaps, but it doesn’t make the existence of it any less painful. My father’s been gone almost thirty-four years now and he taught me most of what I still know but...but...the other’s no help to you but I can’t talk about it now. Not here, not yet.

Getting towards the end now, and it was nice to see somebody still using the DC Go-Go beat in 1989: “Keep It Together” is a warning about staying close to your family, particularly your brothers and sisters (if, unlike me, you’re lucky to have any), where you are, as you sing, loved for what you are and not what they want to see, unlike people who try to get close to you and are bitterly, and angrily, disappointed because they’re not with “Madonna.” That’s my uneducated guess, anyway. But you’re right; whatever one’s family situation, one has to try to keep it going and keep it strong. I mean – this is what journalists call “full disclosure” – I myself am a widower, was widowed very young and started writing in public because I could see no other way of getting myself up off the floor (Bill Fay, “Strange Stairway”). By doing that I managed to kiss the past goodbye, or at least to come to terms with it, and I created a new life for myself. But I could never have done it without the help of family – and that includes the woman I happily married some years ago - and friends close enough to be considered family. There not to see through each other, as the proverb goes, but to see each other through.

As for “Spanish Eyes,” I know this was about a friend of yours who died of a big disease with a little name – the “AIDS IS NO PARTY!” summary, white print on black background, remains prominent in the album design – and there is another meticulous, huge musical backdrop which puts me in mind of what George Michael would go on to do, and for not dissimilar reasons, in the nineties. If I knew no better I’d say that here you sounded like a mind at the end of its tether.

But there’s always a way out, and you have to come to terms with yourself on this most Catholic of pop albums. In “Till Death Do Us Part” you sing “You’re not in love with someone else/You don’t even love yourself” – and how the hell can somebody expect to be loved if they don’t love themselves, or at least have nodding respect towards themselves? Different people respond to the self-awareness issue in different ways; me, I tend to be quiet, reserved and rather diffident in a social setting. This is connected with the qualities I don’t have – especially easy, natural, non-arrogant self-confidence – which could have helped me to reach somewhat “higher” in life than I have done, i.e. I would be a published and respected author rather than the writer of blogs which no one reads because all that musical theory gives them a headache. A lot of that was, shall I say, beaten out of me at an age when I might still have been able to do something about it. So I have rely on the strength of my written word to connect with people.

Not ideal, but then you turn this album upon its head, spin the “Prayer” semi-backwards, say your atonement and then wait, and falter, then gather slowly mounting and dreadful confidence. “I have a reservation.” You know something’s about to boil over.

All of a sudden you scream “WHADDYA MEAN IT’S NOT IN THE COMPUTER?” and it knocked me off my chair back in 1989 and still makes me jump now. But I think I know the moral; just making the right noises for repentance isn’t going to automatically get you into heaven, as though you were booking a hotel suite. A good afterlife isn’t an entitlement; it’s something for which you have to prove your eligibility by the way you live your life.

But this is amateurish layman droning and nobody, least of all you, needs yet more pseudo-psychology. This is just to say that I thought your album connected with me in ways that others from this or other periods don’t. I haven’t put any links into this letter either as an abject gimmick to persuade you to read the rest of this blog; people who know what I’m talking about also know where to find it. Anyway, I’ll shut up and get on with the rest of the story now. It was good to talk, even if the conversation was almost certainly one-sided. To end - and with the subject of "Spanish Eyes" specifically in mind - I should tell you how proud I am of what happened in your country two days ago, with the great step forward taken on behalf of a nation which even the day before resembled a civilisation at the end of its tether. One step at a time, admittedly, but even that is better than finding any excuse to take no steps.

M A Carlin