Every couple of years some former fan-turned-journalist comes along to rattle the fame cage of singer/songwriter/producer Sananda Francesco Maitreya, the man who used to be called Terence Trent D’Arby. In 2007, writer Miles Marshall Lewis rapped with the shadowy superstar for lit-journal The Believer and two weeks ago the New Statesman sent Kate Mossman to Italy to dig through Maitreya’s cobwebbed covered memories of his ‘80s pop past. In the story, Maitreya comes across as cool, kooky, philosophical and paranoid as he’s always been. Part of the reason for their sit down was to promote his latest sonic opus The Rise of the Zugebrian Time Lords, a title that reminds me of a bugged-out Roger Zelazny fantasy novel from the seventies.
Mossman describes the project as “a retro-futuristic concept album spread over two discs of bipolar excess.” The writer took the time to talk to Maitreya about his current obsession with former Sesame Street music director/composer Joe Raposo (“It’s Not Easy Being Green”) who inspired the first single “Giraffe.” But it is obvious that Mossman’s real mission is to take both her subject and readers for a Black to Future joyride back to 1987, the year that the budding genius released his outstanding debut Introducing the Hardline According to Terence Trent D’Arby.
Back then, D’Arby was the talk of London town and the British music press couldn’t get enough of the cocky soul man. Featured in the New Musical Express (NME), Melody Maker and The Face, he was hyped for months prior to his first singles “If You Let Me Stay” and “Wishing Well” coming out. The media played up D’Arby’s narrative as an ex-Army man who adopted England as his home and was a complete musical genius (as though Al Green and Willie Mitchell became one person) who took himself quite seriously.
Meanwhile, across the ocean in New York City, I was an aspiring music critic who journeyed every Friday afternoon to a newsstand in Times Square that sold U.K. music publications. Like Maitreya, I had “an intellectual crush” on those cultural scribes who were smarter, more creative, and better writers than their American counterparts. While Maitreya cited Brit-critics Nick Kent, Charles Shaar Murray and Julie Burchill as his favorites, my own textual style and literary sensibilities were shaped by pop philosophers/new journalists Frank Owen, Simon Reynolds and The Stud Brothers. Mixing Foucault with their funk and post-structuralism with their Smiths, they wrote sprawling, sexy and often poetic stories and critiques about all forms of pop music. Part gonzo wild children of the revolution, part overread intellectual nerds, these salaried Situationists could make musical careers, break spirits and incite violence (or tears) with just one of their mini-manifestos.
Luckily for Terence Trent D’Arby, the press not only loved what they heard and saw, but proclaimed him a genius while comparing him to Prince and Michael Jackson as well as old school kings Sam Cooke and Otis Redding. Whereas British plastic soul boys Boy George, George Michael, The Blow Monkeys and Spandau Ballet were still sitting on the dock of the Thames studying the Motown songbook, D’Arby was a natural soul brother who could show the posers how it was done. By the time Introducing the Hardline was released in the states in the fall of 1987, the press had already convinced me to be prepared for the second coming. Buying the disc on the first day, I played the album’s retro-nuevo sounding tracks continuously in my Harlem flat as the horny heavy funk of “Dance Little Sister” and the silky sensual blue light sex of “Sign Your Name” became the soundtrack to my life.
A few months later, the prodigal Sugar Hill son who fled Harlem many years before returned to his hometown a star performer whose ready-made reputation already rivaled Apollo legends. Below 14th Street, standing in the sardine-squashed audience at The Ritz (now Webster Hall), I stared at the cluttered stage as D’Arby wailed and danced as though he was James Brown’s braided baby boy. I felt as though I was witnessing the unveiling of pure genius fully formed. Hell, it had even taken Prince a few years to get his musical persona and stage cool together, but D’Arby busted out the pop gate kickin’ like an untamed black stallion.
On record and stage, D’Arby sang in a falsetto that was sweet and smooth as Smokey, but also possessed the ability to shriek soulfully as though screaming in tongues while simultaneously paying homage to every soul man who came before him. “I have one foot in R&B’s past and the other in pop’s future,” he said. While I believed every word the young master uttered, to some folks D’Arby was nothing more than a big mouth that got on their nerves with his proclamations of greatness. Although it has always been my opinion that egotists make the best pop stars, ego isn’t an exact science and anything could happen. D’Arby’s mouth got him into trouble as he bragged about being the brown Brian Wilson and having the nerve to say aloud that his album was better than The Beatles’ masterpiece Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It didn’t take long for D’Arby to fall out of music scribe favor across the globe while also pissing off his label Columbia Records in the process. “His was the super-confident mouth that roared,” Miles Marshall Lewis has contended.
Released two years later, Neither Fish Nor Flesh (A Soundtrack of Love, Faith, Hope & Destruction) suffered not so much from a sophomore slump, as from sophomore sabotage. Chicago Tribute critic Chris Heim was just one of many writers who acted as though D’Arby had kicked his dog and boned his girl. Heim called D’Arby an “arrogant, abrasive snot” who made “tepid music and muddled declarations.” Seriously, though, in the broader context of an era when New York City rappers were constantly dwelling upon how dope they were and west coast rocker Axl Rose was swinging from chandeliers and basically telling the world to suck his cock, it made no sense that D’Arby was kicked to the curb for being too brash, too mouthy, and much too full of himself to be taken seriously.
Truth and nothing but be told, Neither Fish Nor Flesh is actually a very good album that is as ambitious as anything that Kate Bush might have cooked up if she had been born a soul sista and raised in the Pentecostal church. Think Hounds of Love with hot sauce on it. Neither Fish Nor Flesh is a headphone masterpiece that embraces various influences and background sounds that range from the psychedelic Pink Floydisms of the opening title track to the amen Harlem corner storefront church gospel wail of “I’ll Be Alright” and “I Don’t Want to Bring Your Gods Down” to the dose of Princely rhythms on “Attracted to You” and the yacht rock appeal of “To Know Someone Deeply Is to Know Someone Softly.”
Although D’Arby originally balked at releasing a single from Neither Fish Nor Flesh, he eventually buckled and put out the wall of sound big beat of “This Side of Love.” But it was too late to save the project from its doomed destiny. What should have been a celebration of D’Arby’s studio prowess, musical experimentations (dig the crazy kazoo fused with funk of “You’ll Pay Tomorrow,” the Arabic flavor of “This Side of Love,” the strange sci-fi new jack swing of “Roly Poly” ) and poetic power (as heard beautifully on “Billy Don’t Fall), was branded a failure. What should have been hailed as an era-defining avant-pop record instead became the laughingstock of the decade. Neither Fish Nor Flesh was pop music’s Heaven’s Gate.
Lesser talents might’ve faded away from the sonic landscape never to be heard from again, but D’Arby had too much talent and ego to be silenced completely. Putting out two more unevenly excellent albums on Columbia (Symphony or Damn and Vibrator, as well as the bomb singles “Do You Love Me Like You Say?” and “Supermodel Sandwich”), he never got over being betrayed by the people he thought loved him the most. In 1995, after a series of bizarre slumberland dreams, D’Arby changed his name and never looked back at Terence Trent’s magnificent perceived failure.