Richard Pryor Tom Carson

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Tom Carson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Bill Cosby may rent his smile to Ford while Dick Gregory retreats into sanctimonious oblivion, but Pryor is still a defiant, freakily incorrigible survivor—someone who's far too strung out on his own funky, rage-filled wavelength to even consider going respectable. His new, live double [album], Wanted (a reference to the legal and personal hassles that practically put him out of action last year), shows him to be top banana.

Though Pryor's raps are as unstructured as Steve Martin's, his high-flying, cheerfully scabrous style keeps the listener moving too fast to notice. Some introductory remarks to the audience segue into a routine on white obscenity versus black obscenity—Pryor's impersonations of white voices are deadly accurate, absolutely hilarious—that then turns into a skit about Andrew Young walking into the Oval Office with his cock in his hand ("'Scuse me, Mrs. Carter…." "Oh, that's all right."). This comic speeds almost effortlessly from sports to sex to life in the ghetto, his fast-paced spiel the only link between topics. In Richard Pryor's world, animals, inanimate objects and even the various parts of his body all have their own voices, which are locked in constant argument—each of them both threatening and scared to death at the same time.

Pryor's bias toward his black fans (which comes through more clearly here than on his studio LPs) is hardly something one can complain about, but I do think it sometimes limits him: a bit on Muhammad Ali, for instance, evolves into another Us versus Them confrontation instead of assaulting the white-liberal infatuation with Ali that this white reviewer sees as its natural, more telling target. Wanted's humor, however, is political for the same reason that the rock & roll of the Clash is political—not out of dogma, but as an inevitable reflection of the circumstances of the artist's life. Pryor's blunt, no-bullshit manner keeps his anger from ever turning into mere counterculture piety, and he's often so good he transcends the boundaries of his own satire. A routine about being beaten by his grandmother climaxes with a line that could have come from Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man: "Don't you run from me, don't you ever run from me—as long as you're black, don't you run from me."

As fine as it is, this record has a few problems. Some of the comedy (especially toward the end) is lost because it depends too heavily on visual impact. And even ideas as excellent as Pryor's, stretched over four sides, get somewhat repetitive. But these are minor flaws. Wanted is a first-rate document and one of the real finds of any year. At a time when everyone else is struggling to be accepted, it's heartening to note that Richard Pryor is still alive—and running too fast to ever be in or out of fashion. (p. 89)

Tom Carson, "Peeling the Top Bananas," in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. © 1979; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Issue 285, February 22, 1979, pp. 87-9.∗