Morris Day and The Time performing “The Bird,” June 7, at Nathan Phillips Square in Toronto.
Morris Day and The Time are coming to the Minnesota Zoo this Friday as part of one of the group’s irregular reunion tours. While it is almost never a good thing when a band member demands and gets star billing (it was the beginning of the end when Diana Ross reigned supreme among The Supremes on the marquee), there is reason to believe, or at least hope, that Day and his mixture of longtime members and hired guns will stick to the program and deliver the nostalgia without too much freezer burn. When you reach middle age — Day turned 50 in December — and haven’t hit the charts in 18 years, wallet trumps ego, and the task at hand is to reanimate the tried-and-true.
Besides, it is not as though Day and the boys are novices at channeling someone else’s muse. At their peak, The Time was nothing more — or less — than the brightest moon in pop music. Refracting the creative light and sexual heat of Prince like a funhouse mirror, Day was incandescent as a cockamamie lothario, a cartoon cad with a heart of gold-plated aluminum, fronting an immaculately attired purple-funk band that sizzled with lean, staccato riffs.
Ironically, The Time was a chronological grab bag of images and influences. They dressed like zoot-suited lindy-hoppers, indulged in the broad, antic humor of vaudeville, synchronized their stage movements like The Temptations or Four Tops, snatched the clown-fox personae of Little Richard and Cassius Clay, and, like everyone in Prince’s orbit, played delirious, cutting-edge music that distilled the essence of Motown and Sly Stone and then strafed it with curt keyboard wizardry.
1984: a remarkable year
That vintage Time was a quarter-century ago, of course, and crested during a mid-’80s boom that comprised a truly remarkable Golden Era in Minnesota music annals. During a four-month period from July-October, 1984, Husker Du released the anthemic double-disc, “Zen Arcade,” Prince ruled the cinematic and musical world with the movie and soundtrack to “Purple Rain,” and the Replacements put out their masterpiece, “Let It Be.” I can’t think of a comparable three-album parlay of indigenous pop music that had such a disparate and profound influence.
Not only will the Twin Cities music scene never again reverberate with such creative significance, but given the ubiquitous deluge of DIY music projects churning forth on MySpace and various indie Internet sites, it’s become impossible for any one locale to concentrate the attention of musicians and consumers. (And just so we’re clear, in terms of creative influence, dead-end echo chambers like “American Idol” are beside the point.)
The Time released their third record, “Ice Cream Castles,” right in the midst of that HuDu-Glyph-‘Mats trifecta. Not surprisingly, it was their biggest-seller yet. “Purple Rain” was in the theaters, and Day was demonstrating what longtime Time fans already knew; his allure was bound up in his lecherous alter ego and gumby dance moves more than his pipes. Many reviewers thought he stole the film as Prince’s musical and romantic rival.
No cardboard façade
Meanwhile, when it came to the tunes, The Time’s rollicking, funky-fun combo of “Jungle Love” and “The Bird” nearly held their own onscreen against Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy” and the ejaculatory guitar climax of the title track. The performances also diminished the notion that The Time were a cardboard façade, a premise that wasn’t all that far-fetched, given that Prince (as “Jaime Starr”) had conceived and performed nearly all of the band’s studio output up to that point.
Yet, as counterintuitive as it sounds, those interested in inhaling an unadulterated dose of that 1984 vibe should be heartened by The Time’s historical lack of creative control and abridged depth of culturally significant music. Imagine reconvening Husker Du or what’s left of the Replacements for a smack of ’84, or confining Prince to the stuff he concocted in the 20th century. By contrast, would having Jim “Jam” Harris and Terry Lewis on keys and bass significantly alter the groove of “The Bird,” or increase the number of people chanting along with the “O-E-O-E-O” chorus on “Jungle Love”?
If you’re going to the zoo concert (7:30 p.m. Friday, $39), you’re going to hear Day mock-lament that “Gigolos Get Lonely Too,” and you’ll know what to do when the band breaks into “The Walk.” You’re going to identify “Cool” and “Wild and Loose” within the first few seconds, and you’re going to remember that “Jerk Out,” their last stab at relevance, from 1990, was a pretty good tune.
Guitarist-composer Jesse Johnson might be missed on the axe solo of “Jungle Love,” but fans closeted with jungle fever will note that Day has aged well, his hair still surprisingly full, his mustache still rakishly thin, his libido still dancing on the margin — but the right side of — good taste. Jerome the valet will bring out the mirror and Day will ostentatiously check himself out. He’ll look mahvelous. And a purple moon will ascend over the zoo.