Tuesday, September 20, 2011
I Used to Leave You Hangin' in the Bed by Your Fingernails, Screamin': Betty Davis- Nasty Gal (1975)
The other day I spun Nasty Gal for the first time. I've been on a fiendish funk-hunt, searching high and low for funk, black rock, psychedelic soul, and black art music that falls on the side of the Funkadelic, rather than Parliament. I adore the experimental, groove-and-texture based, stoned-ghost swamp-gospel of Funkadelic's first three records-- whereas I generally sort of loathe Parliament's funk-funk-FUNK-afunk-FUNK-FUNK bullshit. I know it's all the same dudes for the most part, but there's a gulf between the extremes of their intent, depending which name they're operating under. Anyway, I'm always searching for stuff that can stand up next to those first three Funkadelic records, and in the course of that trippy funk safari I found a huge, pleasant surprise-- one that had been hidden conspicuously in plain sight.
I don't know why I'd never given Betty Davis a shot before. She's obviously awesome (and being a Durham, NC girl, you know she's legit), but I guess I assumed she was like a Rick James Disco P-Funk type. And I suppose that in a way she is, at that, but she's so much more than that. Nasty Gal is fucking amazing. It's so heavy, so nasty, so hot and hard and relentless... in an all-out battle for sexual aggression in soul, funk, and rock music, I don't think anyone could take the Betty Davis of Nasty Gal, no man nor woman. She scarcely sings a word on this record-- her voice emerges raw like a demon from a lustful place at the edge of holy rage. It's beyond a growl, or a scream. No Tibetan fire demon or tiger monster could look as ferocious as she sounds here. It's awe-inspiring. It's terrifying. When she comes in at the beginning of "F.U.N.K." and snarls from the depths, "EFF... U... ENNN... K-- Help me nigga now HELP ME!", you'd be forgiven if, instead of dancing, you simply froze up in a kind of fear.
Now, you might be thinking, all this sounds like the kind of P-Funk in-your-face funkaship stuff I'm claiming to drastically dislike. The thing is, Ms. Davis and her insanely awesome band, Funk House, manage to achieve maximum aggressive, hardcore funkiness without losing sight of the essential swampiness, the Hendrix-inspired, experimental black-rock ethos; that something that's hard and mean but still wild and trippy. I mean, on top of these kind of grooves, she could easily be singing about how it's nothing but a party, y'all, but she isn't. She's singing such startling, sexually aggressive lyrics that it's not only too alarming to be labeled simply, "fun"-- it also becomes such a strident, potent, and unapologetic statement of empowered female sexuality that it demands to be taken seriously and considered significant.
It's not what she's saying, so much as how she's saying it, of course. She's way past the relatively restrained sex-machinisms of James Brown, somewhere deep in territory on the other side of Iggy Pop, circa Fun House-- feral and howlingly orgasmic, but far more nuanced and pointed. Betty Davis isn't just cumming and screaming all over the place, motherfucker, she's taking you to school. This is surgery. It is a warzone for which you were not prepared. Throughout the record, she presents the concept of her total sexual willingness and submission in such a way that turns the tables completely on the male listener. She'll do anything-- in fact, she basically demands to do everything-- and she's amused by her partner's resulting discomfort, insecurity, and terror. "You said I turn you on I turned you inside out... You said I love you every way but your way and my way was too dirty for you now."
There's not a bad track on this record. The aforementioned "F.U.N.K." is a highlight, paying tribute as it does to her ancestors in heaviness and soul, and the title track is hair-raising-- a total takedown of a guy who's been smack-talking her as a slut when the truth is he couldn't handle her power (the track also couches some amusingly phrased allusions to her perhaps pegging her partner). "Shut Off The Light" is similarly incendiary-- her guttural, threatening come-ons (almost mocking, predatory, yet righteous) and the band's thick, nasty-as-fuck groove represent an apex of the record's sublime extremeness.
There are a few breaks from the pummeling onslaught (an onslaught which never becomes simply tiring, as some heavy records do-- it's a thrill from beginning to end). The most dramatic exception is the nakedly honest ballad, "You and I", written with her ex-husband (who, I trust, need not be named) with contributions from Gil Evans. Other (slight) exceptions to the Funk House massacre are the smoldering smoke-cloud grooves "Gettin' Kicked Off, Havin' Fun" and "The Lone Ranger". The first is somewhat along the lines of Funkadelic's "Music for My Mother" or "What is Soul?" As it grooves along in a very menacing way, as Ms. Davis coos loaded inquiries as to how street-tuff you are ("Do you like to get high? Do you try to be cool?"), only occasionally launching into harrowing vocal interjections, demanding: "Tell me now!" "Lone Ranger" is the closer to the record, and it's one of the best tracks. Super-slow and swampy, it glides along like a crocodile in the water, going out on a two-minute cosmic orchestral coda that will likely induce goosebumps.
Here is a masterpiece that hasn't lost a bit of its edge or impact. Scary as hell and more fun than anything that's "fun." It's something you probably aren't ready for, something you'll never get used to, something that hurts as much as it feels good-- but you gotta start sometime. Betty doesn't wait forever.
N A S T Y G A L (VBR- props to the source)