March 22, 2005

Richard Pryor "Evolution/Revolution"

Richard Pryor has always been one of my inspirations. I remember seeing him on Pryor's Place and Superman III, and I fell in love, because the man made me laugh. When I was ten, I sent away for records in the Columbia House Record Club and I ordered Richard Pryor's Greatest Hits. I had no idea that this guy on the screen and my TV was also a foul-mouthed comedian who said the word 'nigger' a lot (a word I was taught not to use) and talked a lot about drugs, the black community and women. I used to listen to that tape secretly; my parents would have killed me had they known I had it. It used to disappear whenever my parents would go into my room to look for things, but I'd always find it again. When my parents bought our first VCR, I would rent his stand-up films or just about any movie that had the name Richard Pryor on it. (Not a good thing to do; he made a LOT of terrible films.) I listened to Greatest Hits so much, I quickly memorized every sketch. So, here I am, an impressionable kid, listening to Richard Pryor, without the benefit of context. To a kid in small-town East Texas, he was a glimpse into a world I had yet to learn about. I had no idea who Richard Pryor was. It wasn't until I was much, much older that I learned about his pre-history. Pryor started his career in the mid 1960s, and when he started out, his comedy wasn't edgy at all. It was merely OK Bill Cosby-styled observational humor, with none of the traits that would make him famous.

Evolution/Revolution serves as a companion piece to Pryor's essential And It's Deep, Too! boxed set. (Indeed, the absence of his classic second album, Craps'--which appears here--is quite noticeable.) There's a long history in the liner notes as to why they didn't appear--a complicated legal battle resulting in a small label being allowed to release archival material without Pryor's consent, which resulted in this tiny label releasing nearly twenty albums of this same, lesser--and often poorly recorded--material. Some of the set is no better than bootleg quality, but it's in the interest of history that this material is saved, but Pryor, who regained rights to this material three years ago, decided to wade through hours and hours of tapes, to give his early days a fair representation, as those years have seemingly been ignored for decades.

As heard on Evolution/Revolution's first disc, "Evolution," it's clear to see why he was toiling in obscurity. While his material was indeed funny, it often came across as too clean, too stiff and ultimately disposable. Don't misunderstand; Pryor could make an audience laugh--there was a reason he was a popular variety show guest--but in light of his later material, his wholesome style simply doesn't captivate. When you get to the tracks "Hippy Dippy" and "Hank's Place," things change. Out comes the "motherfucker" and the Richard Pryor we know and love and hate and detest and think badly of is born. And it's beautiful, too: both sketches are, in essence, autobiographical; the first, about teenagers playing ball and the gang playing head games on another boy to get a fight started, is, despite its pointless violence, a beautiful picture of a young black man growing up.

The second piece, "Hank's Place," is perhaps Pryor's greatest moment. It is essentially a prototype of his famous "After Hours" sketch, which appears on the "Revolution" disk. In it, he relates a tale of a gambling parlor ("a beautiful place with beautiful people") he frequented when he was a teenager, and he highlights characters that, while shady, he makes into beloved figures: Irma, a woman ("she was big and black and beautiful!" Pryor says lovingly) whose favorite thing to say is "Kiss my ass!"; Cold Blood, the pimp who wants to impress a young boy with his wealth, Weasel, the black-market merchant who sells thing from the back of his trunk ("Like Count Basie? I got the whole band out in the car."), Mister Perkins, the old man who wants to fix Hank's crap table for nothing (and 35 dollars and a fish sandwich), and Tarcy, the neighborhood beat cop. He doesn't speak of them in any bad manner--he treats them in a matter-of-fact way that's both disturbing (the middle-age farmers looking to buy sex from fourteen year old girls) and funny (the pimp's reaction to learning that Irma is in the back--"Irma's here? Aw, shit....She cusses me, and it's embarassing, really. She needs to join the NAACP and get herself straight!") His trademark--different voices--is in full force here; each character is distinctive enough that you might think the sketch was a radio play instead of a stand-up routine. Pryor's delivery is impeccable, as only the way a person in love with a memory can be.

"Revolution," the second disk, is unsurprising. The majority of the disk consists of his second album, Craps; a low-budget recording that contains several classic sketches. It's a typical set, with lots of talk about sex and women and drugs and police and racism, and it's the standard that his Seventies-era stand-up routine would follow. It also contains several unreleased pieces, including his monologue from the Wattstax festival, two or three alternate versions of sketches that would make him famous, including two different versions of his famous Wino character. The first, "Street Corner Wino," is a conversation between him and a local street thug. The second is an alternate version of his famous "Wino & Junkie" sketch. Both pieces predict the soon-to-be success of That Nigger's Crazy and Is It Something I Said?. Listening to both, it's clear that he's not making fun of these people, he's simply sharing his memories to a world that both understands quite well (the black community) and a world that had never been exposed to this slice of life--poverty, ghetto style.

Evolution/Revolution is a touching reminder of Pryor's early days. While it's obvious that the man is too sick to ever perform again, his disappearance from the stage due to the painfully slow torture of MS should not allow his memory to be forgotten. While this collection might be better suited for the more dedicated Richard Pryor fan, it's still a beautiful selection of material that's always funny and insightful into one of America's last true comedic geniuses.

--Joseph Kyle

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