This is scary stuff

People, it's a new week and I'm still in love with last week's woman, she who made "freak" the central category of funk. If you'll recall your Rick James: a freak is "a very kinky girl / The kind you don't take home to mother." Betty's kinky all right, but not in the somnolent manner of a porn star, rotating obligingly through positions for the convenience of the home viewer. When Betty gets her freak on, everybody sweats. No false nonchalance. No one-way glass. She gives all to get all -- every sweaty, smelly, ugly, nasty bit of you.

As I'm reminded every time I find myself staring down at that discouraging deer-in-the-headlights look. Back in the day, folks weren't quite up to the Betty challenge. Her records were cult favorites, but she never hit it big. She made three killer records in the mid-70s, but had disappeared altogether by the end of the decade. According to James Maycock, the only guy to interview her in the last 20 years or so, she's now living the quiet life somewhere around Pittsburgh, eking out a living and watching the soaps. Very scary stuff.

He Was a Big Frea

The rumor about this tune is that it's about Hendrix, one of Betty's pals and her alleged lover (ex-husband Miles Davis being the alleger). Betty says she never slept with Jimi, but I hope she's lying. Rhythmically, this song is like the Arthur Murray of fucking: Forget the diagrams, just kick up the subwoofers and channel the bass through your hips.

when I was his housecat

I'd scrub him, I'd love him, I'd cook his meals

when I was his geisha

I got down, I'd hug his heels

when I was his flower

I'd answer to the name of Rosy Mae

he was a big freak

I used to say all kinds of dirty things

Notice there's a whole lot of objectifying going on here, but this is no subjugation narrative. She gets him off for the payoff.

I used to tie him up

he couldn't get enough

he'd be on the floor

beggin me for more

Sweet emotion! The whole song is a performance of her power over him. And when I say her, I don't mean Betty, but the Betty persona. As Maycock points out, the Betty back story is so good, it's tempting to read all of her songs as thinly veiled autobiography. I find Betty's own account of her songs impossibly anodyne, about as convincing as Tina Turner's assertion that she never liked those nasty songs Ike made her sing. But Tina's a great argument for strict separation of artist and persona and so I endorse Maycock's point. (BTW, you can find his article in the Rock's Backpages library, here.)

"I was hanging out with people who had a lot of class, but Betty wasn't comfortable around those kinds of people."

-- Miles: The Autobiography

Check those sick guitar vamps, like gonad adrenalin. This is seriously sinister funk. And forget what I was saying about the fallacy of memoir in Betty's songs -- doesn't she sound pissed? Miles published the autobiography in 1990, 15 years after "Nasty Gal." Yet I kept hearing the song as her response to his Iceberg-Slim-style narrative of their breakup:

After that, my relationship with Betty just went downhill. . . . I asked her for a divorce--I told her I was getting a divorce. She said, "Naw, you ain't either, fine as I am, you know you don't want to give up this good thing!"

"Oh yeah? Well, bitch, I'm divorcing you. . . ."

In the song, when Betty says, "I ain't nothing but a nasty gal," there's a double entendre. Yes, the woman has appetite (and since when is that a crime, anyway?)

I used to love it

when you did it to me real good

you know you did it to me so good

you dragged my name in the mud

all over town, I'm going to tell em why

you said I didn't treat you, I didn't know you, I didn't love you well

but you know you lied, yes you did

I used to leave you hanging in the bed by your fingernails