1987/2007: the 20th anniversary of Introducing the Hardline According to Terence Trent D’Arby

By Daniel Garrett

Terence Trent D’Arby,
Introducing the Hardline According to Terence Trent D’Arby.
All songs (except Smokey Robinson’s “Who’s Lovin’ You”)
written and arranged by Terence Trent D’Arby.
Production duties: TTD, Martyn Ware, Phil Legg, and Howard Grey.
Columbia Records, 1987.

The most important event in American culture in 1987 was probably the publication of Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved, a book about the lingering effects of the past on a woman, her family, friends, and community; a book about slavery and its destructions; a book about ghosts. It is a work of beauty, wisdom, and horror. 1987. 2007. Twenty years between them. In 1987, the other books getting attention were Mary Helen Washington’s Invented Lives: Narratives of Black Women, 1860-1960, William Julius Wilson’s The Truly Disadvantaged, Simon Schama’s The Embarrassment of Riches, Robert Hughes’s The Fatal Shore, Richard Rhodes’s The Making of the Atom Bomb, Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities, Philip Roth’s The Counterlife, and Saul Bellow’s More Die of Heartbreak. Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind and Martin Bernal’s Black Athena were two of the most controversial and talked-about books: the first was about the perceived decline in American intellectual life, especially in universities and regarding the study of the humanities; and the second was about the African influence—specifically Egyptian and Semitic—on ancient Greek culture and philosophy. In 1987, the films in theaters included Au Revoir Les Enfants, Barfly, The Big Easy, Cry Freedom, The Dead, Empire of the Sun, Fatal Attraction, Full Metal Jacket, The Last Emperor, Lethal Weapon, The Lost Boys, Matewan, Maurice, Moonstruck, Nuts, Prick Up Your Ears, Raising Arizona, Roxanne, The Untouchables, Wall Street, and The Witches of Eastwick. Culture was part of a livable world; and politics was becoming narrow, even strangling. In 1987, Ronald Reagan was still president in the United States, and Margaret Thatcher had been re-elected as prime minister in England: a conservative retrenchment was occurring, a reaction to the liberalism of decades before, of the 1960s and 1970s. In 1987, the judge Robert Bork was nominated to the United States Supreme Court, a nomination that failed. In 1987, Gary Hart’s dalliance with Donna Rice sunk his own hopes for high office. In 1987, the marriage of England’s Prince Charles and Princess Diana unraveled (fairy tales may come true, but they do not stay true). In 1987, the American stock market crashed. Brother, can you spare a dime? Were there songs for the new depression? In 1987, the music groups Husker Du and the Smiths disbanded, and R.E.M. came out with Document and the Replacements with Pleased to Meet Me, and the songs many of us listened to included Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody Who Loves Me,” Bruce Hornsby’s “The Way It Is,” U2’s “With or Without You,” George Michael’s “I Want Your Sex,” Janet Jackson’s “Control,” Suzanne Vega’s “Luka,” Michael Jackson’s “Bad,” Prince’s “Sign of the Times,” and Smokey Robinson’s “Just to See Her.” The music that excited me most was probably Terence Trent D’Arby’s album, Introducing the Hardline According to Terence Trent D’Arby.

I had entered the age of Terence Trent D’Arby. He might have come sooner, but he had not come too late. I was in love with literature, informed by scholarship, and entertained by film and music, and I was trying—with difficulty, in anger and agony—to figure how to reconcile myself to the limitations I was finding in the world—at work, and in the communities in which I had hoped to explore issues of identity, creativity, and politics. In relation to forms of culture, I found pleasure; and in relation to people, I found pain. I still remember walking into a downtown music store, and seeing for the first time a video of Terence Trent D’Arby on the monitor: large eyes, fine cheekbones, with a head topped with braided hair, and a lithe body, elegant, brown—distinct, charismatic. He moved with grace. He was beautiful. I took the recording Introducing the Hardline According to Terence Trent D’Arby home, and I loved it. Terence Trent D’Arby had tremendous energy, and he seemed able to explore various genres of music with ease. The usual limitations—the limitations of other people—were not his. He refused to limit himself to one kind of music, to one kind of feeling. He was gentle and swaggering. He sang bluesy soul and delicate ballads. He refused to be simple. He refused to be anyone but himself—and that is the great refusal. I expected great things from Terence Trent D’Arby—and so did he: he made no secret of his ambition. He expected the world to reward his talent—with admiration, fame, money, and even love. Like Michael Jackson and Prince, he expected to be adored. I recall telling a friend that I did not think that there had been a generation of African-American men before who had expected that—expected to be free, to be accepted as free, loved and respected as free, free to achieve the complete American bounty, access to all the human treasures. Terence and others—like me—believed (or merely hoped) that the world had changed enough for that to be possible. Had it? I wanted it to be true, but I was meeting people who had refused to change and refused to recognize change or even the need for change. They wanted things and people to be simple. Some called themselves conservatives, and some called themselves progressive (the worst were insistently ignorant ideologues of ethnicity, gender and sexuality); and what they, self-anointed conservatives and progressives, had in common was a hatred for freedom. There was hardly anything they disliked more than individuality. Had the wider world changed? I do not think that we can look at the careers of Michael Jackson and Prince, even with their success, and say that it has. Michael Jackson and Prince, despite their eccentricity and millions, have remained haunted by the personal insecurity and confusions, and the industry fickleness and public suspicion, that have often trailed or trapped African-American artists. (I remember seeing the recordings of an African American woman singer I liked placed in the “popular” music section of record stores for a very long time: and sometime in the last decade or so, her work, selling much less, was moved to the “rhythm and blues” or “soul” section, those terms being code for black.) I liked Terence Trent D’Arby as much as I liked Michael Jackson or Prince: and sometimes I think I liked Terence more. Terence Trent D’Arby, a man of talent, has not become the beloved icon his admirers expected. With the anniversary of his debut upon us, it is worth returning to the music and the early promise.

Terence Trent D’Arby was born in New York in 1962. His reverend father played guitar, and liked rock and roll (Elvis, Little Richard), and his mother sang gospel. Terence Trent D’Arby studied journalism in college. Rather unbelievably, Terence Trent D’Arby is reported to have been in Germany as an American army soldier, before he left for London and began recording. His album was released in England before appearing in the United States. Introducing the Hardline According to Terence Trent D’Arby was given to the world by D’Arby and Columbia Records in 1987, and included the songs “If You All Get to Heaven,” “If You Let Me Stay,” “Wishing Well,” “I’ll Never Turn My Back On You (Father’s Words),” “Dance Little Sister,” “Seven More Days,” “Let’s Go Forward,” “Rain,” “Sign Your Name,” “As Yet Untitled,” and “Who’s Lovin’ You.” I was lucky to find Terence Trent D’Arby; and I was lucky to find that year and in the next few years a friendly and intelligent group of democratic socialists; and a writing workshop that focused on African-American modernism and postmodernism; and books such as Albert Murray’s The Omni-Americans; and people with whom I was inspired to begin a Cultural Politics Discussion Group, open to the aesthetics and philosophies of the world. The age of Terence Trent D’Arby is an age of ambition, beauty, fun, soul, and thought.

“If you all get to heaven, say a prayer for my mother,/ say a prayer for my father,/ say a prayer for my brother,/ but most of all say a prayer for me” begins the first song, which is full of poetic lines that summon religious scripture, psychedelia, and political manifestoes. D’Arby’s voice is forceful, and throaty, then boyishly high on the verses, and the chorus is a dense masculine echo. “A soul is astral traveling/ watching human motion/ wasting thy seed upon the ground” is one line. Another is “The last moody summer was autumn in covers,/ bespeaks of dogs in the dark,/ a perfect reunion of bloody communion.” It all sounds quite dramatic, which may be all that’s necessary. However, the most consistent theme seems to be war, and D’Arby says, “Young men must die to keep the old ones alive and to prove they’re studs once again.”

“If You Let Me Stay” offers regrets and promises to change—it’s a lover man song: D’Arby wrote, and sings, “If you let me stay, I’ll say what I should’ve said” and “How can I compensate for my indiscretions dear?” before giving up in a rage with “Your pretensions aim for gullible fools and who needs you anyway?” His vocal performance harkens back to men such as Wilson Pickett and Joe Tex. His voice, nearly harsh here, is combined with light choruses, a nice contrast. The song inspires dancing.

“Kissing like a bandit, stealing time, underneath the sycamore tree” begins “Wishing Well,” for which D’Arby wrote the words and co-wrote the music with Sean Oliver. D’Arby calls “Wishing Well” a tone poem and certainly it is full of sharp if not always sensible images, as he sings of a wishing well of butterfly tears and one of crocodile cheers, but it is his vocal tone—brash, deep, seductive—and the bluesy music that make the song irresistible. (There is also a flute-like sound that adds a cheery accent.) The song has a sultry sensuality—sex is in the grooves.

In “I’ll Never Turn My Back on You,” there are rowdy uptempo guitar rhythms, and a father’s words are those of support after a son’s personal failure; and in “Dance Little Sister” the narrator, presumably a son and a brother, offers those supportive words to another person, a young woman: and in these two songs is an evocation of family, of how recognition of life’s difficulty is articulated and encouragement is shared. (D’Arby introduces “Dance Little Sister” by shouting, “Get out of your rocking chair grandma,” then quietly asking, “Or rather, would you care to dance grandmother?” That—which is funny—indicates his awareness of different language styles and social attitudes.) By allowing us to hear these songs, D’Arby extends family to the listeners. He roots his work in something—that is ideally, though not actually always—lasting and natural. Dance becomes a symbol of life activity. One of D’Arby’s shouts (“Good God”) in “Dance Little Sister” recalls James Brown, but D’Arby’s propulsive vocal fits both soul and rock music.

“Grown men wither and they dry away, their lives compromised./ I’ve gotta hold on, struggle through another day/ to see the fire in my baby’s eyes,” D’Arby sings in “Seven More Days.” He seems to be singing from jail: “society’s debts have been more than paid,” he says, as he looks forward to reuniting with a faithful woman he loves. The chorus in the song is similar to that in “If You Let Me Stay,” and it’s a choral sound as unique as anything in the work of Aretha Franklin, Luther Vandross, and Anita Baker—and that is to say, that it cannot be bettered in popular music. The chorus becomes a sign and expression of collective beauty.

In “Let’s Go Forward,” which commences the second half of Introducing the Hardline According to Terence Trent D’Arby, D’Arby sweetly advances belief in love despite hesitation and doubt. The tender verse singing and the calm, confident, deeper-voiced chorus singing suggests his emotional and technical range. His resources encourage faith in his character and his talent—and when he adds growly testimony near the song’s end, it suggests spontaneous passion. Terence Trent D’Arby turns this and other songs into a tour of force.

Is “Rain” about history and legacy? “Step out of your cool suit, and snap on your wet boots” the narrator advises. “China glass and a chocolate bar/ I’m leaving behind,/ so my children’s children children’s children will see what’s left of me,” he sings. Of course, the changeability of the weather reminds one of the vulnerability of human life.

“I’d rather be in hell with you baby/ than in cool heaven,” D’Arby sings in “Sign Your Name,” a love song. Terence Trent D’Arby, who plays keyboards and drums on some of the songs, offers himself as a lover and an object of love, as a poet, a singer, and a musician. (Would these roles lose their appeal with time, or simply take new forms, new meanings? Other roles, other images, including the moping nerd and the slacker in rock, and the pimp and the thug in rap, would be seen on public stages.)

Terence Trent D’Arby’s ambition—and also his sensitivity—could be seen in his fearless exploration of a dire situation. In an acappella piece (“As Yet Untitled”) that seems about Africa, mentioning a shanty, dust, a river, weeping flowers, and more thorns than petals on roses, D’Arby sings (with anguish, with force), “I tried to bend my knees/ but my knees were already bent./ I haven’t stood like a man for such a long time now./ I called on my god but he was sleeping on that day./ I guess I’ll just have to depend on me.”

Terence Trent D’Arby’s intelligence is transparent. Was he too intelligent for American audiences? Was it his lack of humility that alienated, or his intelligence? (Many people prefer artists to pretend as if their mastery is accidental, rather than a focus of ambition, consciousness, and will.) Was D’Arby’s elastic sense of identity alienating? Or was the experimental and inconsistent work that followed his impressive first solo recording? The age of Terence Trent D’Arby is an age of disappointment and frustration; it is an age of complexity, of difficulty. Social vision and individual perspective—that was rare and significant in 1987 and it is significant now. 1987. I said that in 1987 Toni Morrison’s Beloved was the most important American cultural event—but something of importance, something irreconcilable, happened in 1987: the Harlem-born writer James Baldwin died of stomach cancer in France near the end of the year. I was in Harlem when I heard the news—I think I was in the Liberation bookstore there. Baldwin’s essays brought together contemporary experience, political conscience, timeless wisdom, and literary eloquence. His novels articulated individual possibility and social conflict in their presentation of dynamic situations, situations that might be seen as personal and philosophical problems. Baldwin reminded me that the promise of human excellence and fulfillment lived in each of us, despite social prejudice, despite those who would have us believe that all meaning is to be located in age, class, gender, sexual preference, politics, and religion. (I do not love or respect anyone because of their class, skin color, or sexual preference—I love and respect people because of their character, energy, intelligence, passion, talent, and values—because of how we relate and respond to each other and renew together our sense of being alive.) James Baldwin’s work was made of an effort to pursue a truth greater than the ones being sold to us by various establishments. The news of James Baldwin’s death was a great blow. I met Baldwin three times: once, following the screening of the film Go Tell It On the Mountain at the Museum of Modern Art, when and where I thanked him for his work; the second time, at his funeral at St. John’s cathedral in upper Manhattan; and the third time in a dream. I miss him—I miss his language, his vision, and his commentary on American life.

1987. 2007. What is the status quo, as I write these words now? What does the contemporary artist and thinker face? The contemporary artist and thinker must work within and against the status quo. I would define the status quo now as containing not only the ordinary struggles for survival and prosperity, but also: dishonest, exploitive, and punishing government practices; rock, rap, television, and sports; materialism; observance of religious rhetoric and ritual; belief in stringent social categories; a culture of gossip, slander, and wild speculation; the power and prevalence of resentment, which is not directed at authority or government but rather distinct individuals (scapegoats); pervasive sexuality; vulgar, imprecise language; intolerance of free speech when it involves systematic social or political criticism; ignorance of the complexities of history; lack of regard for long-established cultural traditions as embodied in art and philosophy; aggression, cruelty, rudeness; an insistence on hearing words of gratitude for insignificant things from individuals who have no reason to be sincerely grateful; a lack of respect for any individuality of depth…What hope is there but individual effort? And that each of us—who are or try to become awake, believing, intelligent, sensitive—make the effort, remembering others have gone before us, even if we feel very much alone.

I live in a cosmopolitan city in which official reports say that up to fifty to sixty percent of African-American men are unemployed: black men, who have historical reasons for being disloyal to civilization, are considered disposable. Their gifts are often ignored, if not rudely exploited; and their lives are starved. It is even more difficult to be an artist: to want to produce not entertainment but serious work—independent, intelligent, inventive—of craft and meaning; and to pursue not merely belief and rhetoric but philosophy: informed, logical, rigorous, and speculative thought. What becomes of a dream deferred? It is hard not to survey the world and feel one’s self in a contradiction: a misanthropic humanist; a humanist misanthrope. The city can seem nothing more than a number of interlocked villages, tribal, and given to different kinds of violence—both of flesh and of mind. One can live by one’s intelligence, values, and wit, in pride; and in sorrow, one can be betrayed by them too. (The age of Terence Trent D’Arby is an age of self-sabotage.) I think not only of good intentions that have gone unsupported, of friendships offered that went unaccepted, of love trivialized, of work done with dedication, intelligence, passion, and rigor that went unrewarded. I think of dull tasks done carelessly out of anger and boredom. I think of cruel, decadent, and stupid people ignored out of contempt and distaste. I think of friendships burdened by expectation; and of unrecognized loves. I think of the disappointment and disapproval and the rage and resentment of others, some of them with punishing power.

Yet, there are exemplary people in every age: some of them are well-known and some of them are obscure. Each of us has his or her heroes. I find hope, now, in people such as scholars and intellectuals Leonard Harris, Keith Clark, Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, Howard Zinn, Barbara Ehrenreich, Henry Louis Gates, Cornel West, Playthell Benjamin, and Elizabeth Alexander; politicians Barack Obama, Harold Ford, and John Edwards; media moguls Oprah Winfrey and Tavis Smiley; writers James Purdy, Toni Morrison, Percival Everett, Caryl Phillips, and Arundhati Roy; poets Adrienne Rich and John Koethe; film directors Andre Techine, Patrice Chereau, Charles Burnett, Julie Dash, Kasi Lemmons, Euzhan Palcy, Michael Winterbottom, and Michel Gondry; actors Denzel Washington, Jeffrey Wright, Clive Owen, Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, Sophie Okonedo, Don Cheadle, Terrence Howard, Adam Beach, and Jake Gyllenhaal; musicians Wynton Marsalis, Cassandra Wilson, Annie Lennox, Sinead O’Connor, Morrissey, Lizz Wright, and Leela James; and athletes Tiger Woods and Derek Jeter.

The age of Terence Trent D’Arby is an age of public efforts, some accepted, some rejected, and also of private consolations. Following “As Yet Untitled,” with its elemental sorrow and conviction, Terence Trent D’Arby announces (“Meanwhile on the other side of the world…”) and closes the album Introducing the Hardline According to Terence Trent D’Arby with William “Smokey” Robinson’s “Who’s Lovin’ You,” an affirmation of popular American music tradition and pleasure, even as the words recognize pain.

After Introducing the Hardline According to Terence Trent D’Arby, Terence Trent D’Arby produced the albums Neither Fish Nor Flesh (1989), Symphony or Damn (1993), Vibrator (1995) , andWildcard (2001) . A Greatest Hits recording was available from Sony International in 2002 (with a similar package coming from Sony in early 2006 entitled The Very Best of Terence Trent D’Arby). Terence Trent D’Arby has taken the name Sananda Maitreya, and I have read that he lives in Italy now.

About the reviewer: Daniel Garrett has written about music for AllAboutJazz.com, Hyphen, IdentityTheory.com, Option, and PopMatters.com, including commentary on Sade, the Afghan Whigs, Tupac Shakur, Kitchens of Distinction, Matthew Sweet, and Annie Lennox; and his commentaries on Luther Vandross, Lizz Wright, Leela James, Skye, Morrissey, Sinead O’Connor, B.B. King, Frank Sinatra, Diana Ross, and Al Green have appeared on the web pages of The Compulsive Reader. Daniel Garrett has also written about art, books, business, film, and politics, and his work has appeared in The African, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Cinetext.Philo, Film International, Offscreen, Rain Taxi, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and World Literature Today.