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POP MUSIC : An Enigma Called Terence Trent D’Arby

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Terence Trent D’Arby’s ground rules for the meeting with the reporter were non-negotiable.

D’Arby--widely hailed as the most exciting newcomer in pop since Prince and Madonna--agreed to sit and chat for a few minutes.

The word was that he might even stick around as long as a half-hour if he felt comfortable. But everything had to be strictly off the record. He was in no mood for formal interviews.

That attitude might suggest arrogance--a word that’s not unfamiliar to D’Arby, 26, an American expatriate whose intoxicating musical promise and bold, enigmatic presence have already made him a superstar in England.

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On stage, D’Arby sings with a sweet soul voice reminiscent of the late Sam Cooke, and he moves with a sensuality and flash that recall James Brown.

D’Arby, however, has made just as much of a stir off stage in Britain.

In an unusually provocative series of interviews last year, he was quoted as declaring himself a genius and asserting that his debut album was better than the Beatles’ historic “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

Now D’Arby has set his sights on the United States--and things are heating up. His critically acclaimed debut album, “Introducing the Hardline According to Terence Trent D’Arby,” is racing up the charts. He’s been seen on TV: performing on the Grammy Awards show, David Letterman and “Saturday Night Live.” And all the right magazines are requesting interviews--from trend-conscious fashion magazines to the usual rock journals.

But D’Arby--like so many other celebrated pop enigmas, from Bob Dylan and David Bowie to Michael Jackson and Prince--is a man whose only allegiance appears to be to his art.

Like these other sometimes puzzling pop forces (see box, next page), D’Arby appears obsessed with nurturing and protecting what he believes is a unique creative vision--even if that means playing the role of the calculating pop star, then moving in conflicting and complex ways that mystify even people around him. After all the interviews in Britain, he had decided he had done enough talking.

About her first meeting with D’Arby last summer, Columbia Records publicity chief Marilyn Laverty said, “Usually a new act will come into the office and say, ‘Hi, I’m here to do whatever you want me to do.’ But Terence made it clear from the beginning that he was someone who would never just say, ‘I’ll do what you want.’

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“I eventually realized that he wasn’t just being stubborn, but that he had a vision for himself, and I started to understand that in his case it was important for me to listen to that vision.”

“Please don’t get the wrong idea about Terence,” a D’Arby intermediary told the reporter in the lobby of the West Hollywood hotel. “It’s not that Terence wants to be difficult. It’s just that he’s been under a lot of pressure and, well, he has his own way of doing things.”

But, the intermediary said assuringly, “He read your review of his album and he’s looking forward to meeting you.”

D’Arby, however, didn’t look forward to meeting the reporter enough to avoid being 30 minutes late.

In fact, D’Arby almost canceled the interview. He was thinking about backing out when he accidentally ran into his European publicist and the reporter in a hotel hallway.

D’Arby smiled gamely at the reporter and shook hands, but his body language was anxious, the sign of a man temporarily trapped. He followed the pair to a table on the patio and listened as they engaged in small talk.

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Yes, he answered when asked about his influences, he liked Sam Cooke and Al Green records when he was growing up. But, he said softly, he also liked the Rolling Stones and, especially, the Jackson 5.

Rather than arrogant, D’Arby seemed shy, almost fragile. His handsome, smooth facial features contrasted with the macho shadings of his trademark black leather jacket and motorcycle boots. He also tended to look at the floor when talking, even though his eyes were already shaded from view by his dark lenses.

It was quite a contrast with the image of the brash young man whose photo and words were splashed all over the pop papers back in Britain.

What about that D’Arby?

“You’ve got to realize that I said a lot of (outrageous) things in England,” he said, opening up slowly.

“A lot of it was what I truly believed, but a lot of it was exaggerated to make a point. You have to hit people over the head to make them notice, and I did it. I know how to play the game.

“But now I’m worried that a lot of people in America think I am some kind of hype because of all that has been written in England--and I’m very serious about my music and my career. I don’t want to be just the latest curiosity.”

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The publicist had excused herself by now--and D’Arby had placed his dark glasses on the table. He had loosened up considerably, sticking around for more than two hours, eventually agreeing to permit his remarks to go on the record.

For a while in London, the outrageousness of the stories no doubt seemed fun, part of what he has described as the “bluff” of pop stardom. Besides, D’Arby had hungered for attention for so long that he was simply thrilled to be getting any notice. He spoke his mind boldly, enjoying the occasional overstatement.

Eventually, however, he said, the one-dimensional nature of the articles began troubling him. The outspokenness was genuine, but it wasn’t tempered by the humor, self-doubt, sensitivity and seriousness that he exhibited during the West Hollywood meeting. As he prepared for his first U.S. tour, he wondered if he should try to get across a more complete picture.

Staring across the table, he said pointedly, “The thing is, you get an image--as I have in England--and people get to where they can only see the image. That’s what made me not want to do any more interviews. People miss the nuances--like the genius thing. I was joking. I was making fun of the image I had built up . . . the whole arrogance thing. . . .”

D’Arby paused.

“But I have to sympathize with writers sometimes,” he said, smiling slightly. “I was a journalist once and I don’t know what I would say about myself. It would depend on what day I was writing. I change a lot. It’s not easy to size me up. There are a lot of conflicts inside.”

Hundreds of singers and musicians pass through the pop scene each year, most of them attracting attention for the requisite 15 minutes and then fading into anonymity.

A few artists make deeper and more lasting impressions. They not only touch audiences with their music, but captivate fans with their elusive images and radical personalities.

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Artists like Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, Jim Morrison, David Bowie, Sly Stone, Elvis Costello, Michael Jackson and Prince have worked hard at creating colorful images. But the images in most cases were the outgrowth of the complexities and contradictions in the artists themselves.

D’Arby fits this tradition. He is immensely talented, fiercely independent, slyly mysterious.

Suggested a record-industry veteran who has worked with pop enigmas, “I think these unique stars (like Jackson and Prince) have a vision of themselves not only as an artist but also as a star. They generally want to take control of their careers rather than respond to pressures of outside people. They take their sweet time and stake out their own trails. At times, it’s almost as if they are people from another planet.”

D’Arby didn’t seem shy when he started doing interviews last year in Britain.

Reporters loved him from the beginning. For one thing, he seemed like a genuine talent, rather than another passing pop fancy. Plus, he had the kind of colorful background that was perfect for journalists.

Here is how Britain’s Q magazine summarized D’Arby’s background--an account that largely duplicates the information in D’Arby’s British press biography.

“Raised in a severe Pentecostal church family, son of a preacher man and a gospel singing mother . . . (D’Arby) moved from Manhattan to Florida to Chicago and finally to New Jersey. (He) attended a school for gifted children, studied journalism, wrote for a Florida newspaper, boxed (in the) Golden Gloves and joined the Army.

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“(He) got sent to Germany with Elvis Presley’s old regiment, went AWOL to sing with local bands, quit the Army, acquired a German manager and ended up in London where--tricked out in the finest of London street fashion and signed to CBS . . . he becomes the London rock scene’s favorite adopted black American son since Jimi Hendrix. . . .”

Some journalists in Britain and the United States have already asked if the history isn’t just a little too perfect, wondering whether he, like Bob Dylan, perhaps invented a few elements to make his story more intriguing.

D’Arby’s European publicist Claudine Martinet insists the information in the British bio is true. But when the question of his history was brought up during the West Hollywood meeting, D’Arby himself said his past didn’t matter.

“Say anything you want about me,” he said. “The only thing that really matters is what’s in the music. Most of the things I read about people are just snapshots anyway. You’d have to spend weeks with me to really understand me and you wouldn’t have the space to print it anyway, so just take what you like from what you’ve heard.”

The main thing missing from most of the British articles is D’Arby’s often self-deprecating sense of humor--which is one reason he prefers doing TV interviews over print interviews. He feels it is easier for his nuances and humor to get across on the screen.

And sure enough, D’Arby got a chance to display some of that humor during a recent seven-minute segment on the “Today” show.

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Asked how he was able to generate more interest before his arrival on U.S. shores than any other British act in recent memory, D’Arby looked teasingly into the camera and replied: “Having a big mouth helps.”

D’Arby’s mouth was in action last year in Britain.

He talked at length about feeling that he never fit in as a youngster in the United States because, as a light-skinned black, he wasn’t accepted by the black kids or the white. He said one of his goals was to be famous before his 10th high school reunion so that he could show his old schoolmates that he was somebody after all.

But he made the most fireworks when he spoke about his career.

The articles were filled with lines like this one from New Musical Express: “It’s the most brilliant debut album from any artist this decade. If it isn’t massive it will be one of the great injustices of our time.”

And there were the “genius” quotes (“I think I’m a genius . . . ,” he told New Musical Express; “I do have some very strange thoughts. . . . Still, all geniuses are mad aren’t they?” he said in No. 1).

Thanks to the media attention and his classy advance singles, there was enough interest in D’Arby by the time his album came out in England last summer for it to enter the British charts at No. 1. But D’Arby laughed at the notion that his success in Britain was overnight.

The only note of bitterness that surfaced during the West Hollywood interview was when he spoke about the way he was repeatedly rejected by British record companies.

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“They couldn’t see past the obvious,” he said. “They looked at me and said, ‘Oh, here is another Michael Jackson or Prince. Who needs that?’

“They couldn’t get past the surface similarities and see that there was something else there.”

The colorful British interviews may have made D’Arby the toast of the isles, but they worried a lot of people at Columbia Records in the United States. They saw a potential backlash growing out of the “genius” and “Sgt. Pepper” quotes.

“Yes, I saw the stories as a problem, something I wished I could eradicate,” said publicity head Marilyn Laverty. “I thought it would set the press up here to be gunning for him, and I have run into some resentment.

“When I saw Terence at the Roxy (in West Hollywood), people (in the industry) came up to me and said, ‘Gee, I think it was a good show, but who the hell does he think he is . . . all this genius stuff?’ ”

Reviewers here, however, turned out to be generally thrilled with D’Arby. Rolling Stone gave his U.S. concert debut at the Roxy a glowing review--suggesting he may be one of the people--like Prince and Bruce Springsteen--who make a difference in pop. His album ended up making the Top 10 in many year-end critics’ lists.

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The LP is such a striking vocal showcase that D’Arby’s singing tends to overshadow his songwriting. “If You Let Me Stay” is a rather conventional love plea in an early Sam Cooke style, but tunes like “Seven More Days” and “Rain” are engaging exercises in modernizing the blues.

The highlight is “As Yet Untitled,” a socially conscious song apparently inspired by the apartheid situation in South Africa. The gospel-tinged tale of struggle and resolve recalls the simple honesty and power of Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.”

“If You Let Me Stay” was released here last fall as a single, but it got caught up in the rush of year-end superstar product and failed to crack the Top 40 pop charts.

A disappointed Columbia Records quickly rushed out a second single, “Wishing Well,” and it caught on. The single, a snappy look at romantic innocence that is far more distinctive than “Stay,” is on its way to becoming a hit. It’s No. 17 this week on the Billboard magazine’s sales charts, while the album, which is No. 23, has just gone gold.

D’Arby also picked up a Grammy nomination for best new artist of 1987, but lost this month in the finals to Jody Watley--yet another decision that the Grammy voters may some day regret.

Is D’Arby a sensitive artist or merely an opportunist?

One thing is for sure: D’Arby may be controversial, but he’s not self-destructive. Like a savvy politician, he knows the value of tailoring his remarks to a particular audience.

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During an interview last year in Britain, he made some blistering charges about how racism in America forces most black singers to downplay their masculinity.

At one point, a reporter asked D’Arby if he’ll be as outspoken in his charges of racism in the United States as he was in Britain.

Replied D’Arby: “I’m no fool. I obviously wouldn’t say on nationwide TV that I thought America was racist, sexist, homophobic and violent if they asked me why I left (the country and moved to Britain). I would just say America wasn’t a culture I felt comfortable in, too many things wrong, and I’d rather be in a place where I could feel comfortable with who I am, but anybody with any brain would understand what I’m trying to say.”

Sure enough, when asked recently on a national TV show here why he left the United States, D’Arby said politely, “I left because I didn’t feel as comfortable here as I thought I could feel. . . . Sort of (like) being a square peg that was being constantly pushed into round holes.”

D’Arby was not defensive when later asked about the deliberate “mellowing” of his views for the U.S. audience. “You don’t shoot yourself in the foot before you run a marathon,” he said. “Once you get to the point of like, Springsteen or someone, and people are endeared with you, they’ll be more open to what you say. I’ll eventually elaborate.”

D’Arby seemed to be weary of the controversy surrounding him as he sat on the West Hollywood hotel patio.

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That’s why, he said, he had called a temporary halt to interviews. He had only agreed to meet a few reporters off-the-record after considerable cajoling by his record company.

Looking across the table, he told the reporter, “I even had someone look up the interview you did with Prince. I wanted to see if you tried to look at him as a real person or just as another pop star.”

He said he’d like to meet Prince and Michael Jackson, both of whom he called “geniuses”--a word he simply applies to someone with special talent.

“You can’t believe what those (Jackson 5) records meant to me. I had been singing in church and there was something about singing that made me know it was what I was meant to do.

“But I kept thinking, even as a child, that there was something else, besides gospel, to sing and then I heard the Jackson 5 and it was like a whole new world opening up for me. It was like I had found my own world.”

D’Arby was still talking about Jackson when an aide interrupted him. It was almost time to leave for the airport and D’Arby had to pack.

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As he stood and put the dark glasses back on, D’Arby asked if the reporter could wait a few minutes . . . . There was something D’Arby wanted to give him. The assistant soon returned with a five-page article that D’Arby had written for a British pop magazine about Michael Jackson.

The article was passionate and revealing, an essay on the influence of Jackson and a sort of personal letter to Jackson, who D’Arby sees as possibly the “only person (other than Elvis) to feel the full pain and isolation of the outer limits of fame.”

In the article, D’Arby urged Jackson to become more involved with everyday matters and relationships, to “forget . . . about the Elephant Man and the oxygen tank.”

Then, he employed in the article the word that caused such a stir in Britain-- g e nius .

“Prince is not the only genius,” D’Arby wrote, addressing Jackson. “You are just as brilliant. Humility may be good for the soul, but (someone once wrote) that ‘Humility is to genius as an extinguisher is to a candle.’ ”

Six months ago, D’Arby would have issued the defense of the “genius” remark himself, not simply put it in an article about Michael Jackson. But that was then and this was now.

The title of D’Arby’s first album--”The Hardline According to Terence Trent D’Arby”--underscores the combativeness and drive of someone who felt he was up against great odds. The arrogance of demanding attention has been tempered by the humility that resulted when he found people were willing to accept him.

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In a phone conversation last week, D’Arby was asked about the Jackson article and the quote about humility and genius.

“In my opinion, Michael Jackson is my generation’s Fred Astaire if Fred Astaire wasn’t a genius, I don’t know what word you would apply to him,” D’Arby said.

But what about himself and the genius tag?

“Any any pose I’ve ever adopted, even if it is exaggerated, it still has a root in who I am as a person . . . all that brashness was a matter of making sure that my babies--my songs, my albums--were going to get heard.

“But I did my job . . . the album was heard. I don’t have to keep doing it now. I can assure you, however, that once my next album comes out, that Terence Trent D’Arby will surface again. I’ll get on the merry-go-round again.”

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