Rock and Roll Book Club: Morris Day is 'On Time'

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Jay Gabler with Morris Day's 'On Time.'
Jay Gabler with Morris Day's 'On Time.' (Anna Weggel/MPR)

Many times over the years — most famously on the 1999 Tour, with Vanity 6 — the Time opened for Prince. Although Prince invented the Time, they always made him a little nervous. "You'd created a monster that suddenly had a chance of being bigger than you," Time frontman Morris Day writes to Prince in Day's new memoir On Time (written with David Ritz).

Wait, writes to Prince? Yep, exactly. Three years after Prince's death, Day has published a memoir that does exactly what his music did four decades ago: threatens to upstage Prince himself, whose unfinished memoir will be published on Oct. 29.

If you know who Morris Day is, that's because of Prince, and no one knows that better than Morris Day. Prince wrote, produced, and even largely performed many of the Time's best-known songs, and encouraged Day to take on the ultra-confident character who can still be seen to this day strutting across stages around the world.

Yet, Morris Day is an actual person; that's even his real name. He's a childhood friend and bandmate of Prince's, a talented musician who also had a strong hand in much of his own music even when he was closely collaborating with Prince. That's the man who wrote On Time, but in a daring and fascinating move, he also makes room in the book for Prince's voice — and for the voice of his own onstage character, who he calls "MD."

That may sound like a gimmick, but from the first page of On Time, it's clear that channeling Prince is in a sense the most honest way that Day could tell his own story. That's a voice he's been hearing in his head for half a century, and the list of people who know that voice better is very, very short indeed. As Day's interlocutor, Prince is prideful but also proud — of Day, one of his earliest musical collaborators and a lifelong foil. He calls Day out on his faults, from abusing substances to making his own book drag (it doesn't), but he also pushes Day to the heights Prince knows the Time singer can climb.

Day's story doesn't start in Minneapolis: it begins in Springfield, Illinois, where he was born in 1956. His dad wasn't in the picture, and when Day was seven, his mom fled an abusive relationship and headed to Minneapolis, where her cousin lived. Morris was developing a strong interest in music — particularly drums — and Prince's nascent band, Grand Central, was one of the hottest teen groups in town. Finding Prince remote, Day befriended André Cymone, who invited Morris to audition to replace Prince's cousin Chazz Smith on drums.

While On Time isn't as detailed as some fans might hope, Day does share some poignant memories of those Grand Central years. He remembers Prince's dad calling the boy "Skippa," and remembers how businesslike Prince was about moving to André’s basement, which in Day's view was "recreated" for the Kid's residence in Purple Rain. "Maybe he was angry and furious," muses Day, "but I never heard him say a word except, 'Let's rehearse an extra two hours tonight.'"

When Prince went off to record his major-label debut, Day — by then a young father — went off on his own journey, which took him to both coasts before he returned to Minneapolis, sensing there might be a place for him in Prince's expanding universe.

There was indeed, and one of the book's revelations is that Day's second job working with Prince — after being drummer in Grand Central — was serving as VHS videographer on Prince's tours. That included the formative 1979-80 tour opening for Rick James, and for the two 1981 performances opening for the Rolling Stones, when fans' aggressively intolerant behavior inspired Prince to make a record (the soon-to-be-reissued 1999) that would teach the mass music audience to appreciate his talents.

The poignant core of On Time is how the Time were created as a collaborative project between Prince and Day, who wrote and recorded the band's 1981 debut holed up in Prince's Kiowa Trail home studio, but then became increasingly a Prince-dominated unit until they dissolved for Day to launch a bumpy solo career.

(Day even dares to ask the virtual Prince about a decision that's always been a mystery to fans: why he bulldozed that historic house in the early 21st century, after his dad, who had been living there, died. "U don't have 2 understand," says Prince. "I was clearing ground.")

Prince recruited members of Flyte Tyme — a Minneapolis band, including Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, who were once rivals to Grand Central — to play "the Time" onstage (and to play for Vanity 6, from behind a curtain), and taught Day to become "so cool that you could laugh at my coolness," writes Day, who says that he was "a narcissist trained by a master narcissist teaching me all the tricks of the trade." When Jerome Benton spontaneously grabbed an ornate mirror off the wall of a rehearsal space for Day to preen himself in, the Time's classic bit was born.

Day's description of the Prince-Time rivalry is vivid: it even extended, he writes, to after-show parties. The Time would host parties full of "Drinking. Smoking. Coking. Couples moaning and boning without caring who be watching." Prince would come down from his more sedate affairs, and would be put off when "none of the party people acknowledged his grandeur."

That drinking, smoking, and coking had firmly taken hold of Day by the time Purple Rain was made; the tension between himself and Prince was very real, even as Day became more remote from the Time's recording career. (He admits that he didn't even know the title of their 1984 album Ice Cream Castle was a Joni Mitchell reference until very recently.) Day thinks the drugs helped fuel his character, who stood in stark contrast to Prince's ultra-serious Kid. The movie, along with hits "Jungle Love" and "The Bird," firmly established the Time as stars in their own right, but its two onscreen rivals came out of the project trapped in a cycle of mutual admiration and resentment: Day, for example, was annoyed that the Time's songs didn't land on the blockbuster soundtrack.

Day's life since Purple Rain rounds a lot of rock-star bases: the uneven solo releases, the rehab, the rocky relationships, the reunion. His life and career kept intersecting with Prince's, though, and his accounts of those intersections never fail to fascinate.

There's Day's first visit to Paisley Park, which impressed him as "a maze that reflected the mystique of the maestro," where Kim Basinger became "the First Lady" after Batman. Filmed at Paisley, Graffiti Bridge had its moments, but Day doesn't disagree with the critical consensus that its Prince-versus-Morris plot was a pale rehash of Purple Rain.

Prince summoned Day and the Time back to Paisley for a show in late 1999, but gave them a stern talking-to about religion. (Day finds it ironic that Prince came, as an adult, to embrace a religion "his archrival Michael Jackson" had been raised in.) There were the Musicology Tour shows where the Time played (not enough of them, thinks Day), and the parties at Prince's L.A. house where Day would go and not be sure until he walked in whether he was hearing a Stevie Wonder record or Stevie Wonder playing live.

The longest rupture between Day and Prince came in 2007, when Prince asked the Time to be part of his 7/7/7 shows in Minneapolis...but then canceled on the band at the last minute, giving no explanation and only grudgingly compensating Day for the $5,000 he'd already spent to fly the band in.

Day's recollection of his conversation with "Prince's man" is priceless.

"Prince doesn't want you on the show."
"Why?"
"Don't know."
"We at least deserve to know why."
"Call Prince."
"I don't have his phone number."
"He doesn't have a phone."

When Prince invited the Time back to play Paisley Park in 2016, Day made sure to get paid in full up front. "Old-school R&B chitlin circuit style," as "Prince" puts it in On Time.

Day describes a scene that's so perfectly wrought, you'd think it was invented if it wasn't also perfectly Prince. That night, after the show, Day found himself sitting alone with Prince in a booth in "that little diner" at Paisley Park. Judith Hill and her parents were sitting in another booth.

"We started talking shit the way we'd always talked shit," Day writes. "Good shit. Deep shit. Back-in-the-day shit. Shit that made me feel that the wounds were healed." They said "I love you" to each other for the first time in their lives...and the last. Weeks later, Prince died in an elevator just a few steps away from where he and Day had been sitting that night.

That's one of the scenes from On Time that will stick with you forever, but it's not the only one. There was an earlier, stranger, more ambiguous moment from the Dirty Mind Tour. "You asked me to apply makeup to your back," Day tells Prince. "All this was happening when I had not yet been granted my position as as musician. I was still your videographer. Still a gofer. I didn't see myself refusing any reasonable requests. Was this request reasonable?"

"Don't make it seem like something it wasn't," snaps "Prince."

"I didn't know what to make of it," continues Day. "Still don't. All I can say is that it gave me the creeps. I didn't know whether I was being teased, tempted, or tortured. We never discussed it."

It's moments like that that make On Time so fascinating: honest, raw, ambiguous feelings put out there on the page for readers to make of what they will. "MD" may have been an artificial creation, but in this absorbing memoir, Morris Day is very real indeed.

Morris Day will be signing copies of On Time this Friday, Oct. 11 at Mall of America.

The Current's On Time giveaway

Use this form to enter The Current's On Time giveaway between 7:45 a.m. Central on Wednesday, October 9, 2019 and 11:59 p.m. Central on Tuesday, October 15, 2019.

One (1) winner will receive one (1) hardcover copy of Morris Day's book On time. Three (3) back up names will be drawn.

Prize retail value: $27.00

Winners will be notified via e-mail on Wednesday, October 16, 2019. Winner must accept by 10 a.m. Central on Thursday, October 17, 2019.

This giveaway is subject to Minnesota Public Radio's 2019 Official Giveaway Rules.

You must be 13 or older to submit any information to American Public Media. The personally identifying information you provide will not be sold, shared, or used for purposes other than to communicate with you about American Public Media programs. See Minnesota Public Radio Terms of Use and Privacy policy.

Upcoming Rock and Roll Book Club picks

Tune in to The Current at 8:30 a.m. (Central) every Wednesday morning to hear Jay Gabler and Jill Riley talk about a new book. Also, find Jay's reviews online.

Oct. 16: Me by Elton John

Oct. 23: Year of the Monkey by Patti Smith

Oct. 30: The Beautiful Ones by Prince

Nov. 6: Jack and the Ghost by Chan Poling, illustrated by Lucy Michell

...and mark your calendar for The Current Rock and Roll Book Club Essential Reads Reveal at Number 12 Cider from 4:00 to 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 13! The Current Rock and Roll Book Club Essential Reads is presented with support from AARP Minnesota.

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