Teena Marie is sitting next to me on a couch in her bright purple tour bus. She beckons me closer. She finishes her curried chicken, sips her honeyed tea, then removes her jacket, leans toward me, and looks straight into my eyes. She tells me people just don't realize how shy she is.
She suggests I hang out a while and puts on a short film called Temptation by some New York guy named Daryl McKane (about a disc jockey who dresses like George Clinton, then goes home to his suspiciously normal wife). We're alone, and Teena's behind me, singing a seductive song from the soundtrack.
I won't make too much of it, because she's probably just being a good hostess -- which surprises me, because when I was introduced to her backstage at Baltimore's AFRAM Expo '94 at Camden Yards the same day, she shook my hand like it was a chore, and seemed sullen, pissed, and bored. Teena's cute two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Alia Rose Noelle, was yelling out the window of a mobile home, and Teena was talking to her stage people about fixing the sound. Hands in her pockets, the four-foot-11-inch singer looked muscular and tough -- her 37-year-old, nonwaifish body didn't seem tiny at all.
She wore sunglasses, boots, and a jacket and pants with colorful pictures of herself all over them: images of Teena as a blond, as a redhead, one on the back with Rick James (whom she last spoke to years ago before he entered prison/rehab). "People say I'm a chameleon," she says in the bus. "Sometimes I walk down the street and nobody recognizes me." Her right pants cheek has MAYBE THAT WILL EXPRESS JUST WHAT I'VE BEEN GOING THROUGH written on it.
I can't imagine wearing an outfit with pictures of me all over it, but I don't get the idea that Teena's especially full of herself, except in the sense that she always sings like she's proud of her voice -- volcanically loud and uncontrolled and doing backflips over five octaves and holding vowel notes really long and scatting to imitate guitar parts. She brags about being "the first woman rapper ever" and "one of the only white people who have been completely accepted by the black audience as one of their own." But when I compliment her on her musical accomplishments, she just thanks me or denies that it's any big deal at all.
"Touche ole/My opening line might be a bit passe," she fibs in the opening of her only big pop hit, "1985's "Lovergirl." And in the notes to her 1984 album, Starchild, she concedes that "no one's new or innovative except the Creator." And maybe she believes it. On 1986's Emerald City, Teena topped off salsa rhythms with metal guitars in ways nobody'd pulled off before -- both Lenny Kravitz (Teena says) and I think it's her best album. It was also her poorest seller. "To tell you the truth," she says, "I didn't know what I was doing." She doesn't do Emerald City songs live.
Teena's favorite Teena albums are her new Passion Play (she calls it romantic; I call it pornographic), 1990's Ivory, and 1980s' Irons in the Fire. They are her purest R&B records -- make-out music for her faithful urban audience. "My voice is made for R&B," she says with a smile. "It's my first love."
She now shrugs off her mid-'80s foray into bebop slang, runny-nosed toddler voices, poems about girls named Pity who wish they were green, and escapist journeys to Oz, Shangri-La, and Xanadu, saying, "I was a young kid then." But on her newest album, I miss the self-mocking, English-major/hippie-rocker/Star Trek side of Teena Marie.
Passion Play doesn't even have a poem on its album cover! "I felt like the Shakespeare quote ['Here she comes and her passion ends the play'] covered it this time," she explains -- and besides, she's just finishing writing a book that will be titled The Truth. It's full of poems, prose, raps, and a play about her black godmother from Detroit and a tramp who's sort of like Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream. "I don't look at myself as being eccentric," she swears, her nose ring wiggling. "Sometimes reporters make me look crazy, and then at the end they say I'm a genius, and I know that's the kind of article you're writing, right?" (I say of course not. She asks me if I like Joni Mitchell.)
Part of the insanity people detect in Teena, I tell her, might come from the unguarded way she exposes every emotion in her convoluted bohemian-beachtown-to-Detroit-and-Motown Records life to the whole planet. But she denies it: "I don't tell everything about my life in my songs," she says. "You'd be surprised. I'm saving some things for my daughter."
"After having my baby," Teena continues, "I felt complete in ways I didn't before." She's starting fresh: The new album was released on her own Sarai Records label instead of Epic (Teena says it was a cordial split). Her little girl travels with her on the road, along with the two daughters of a girlfriend Teena lives with, and they're all in bed by 10. Teena would like to portray Janis Joplin someday, onstage or in a movie, but says that unlike Janis, she won't die unhappy for having never found a man who'll return her love. "I don't need a man in my life. I do need my daughter."
No artificial stimulants for her either. "I don't need any cocaine to keep me up; I'm already up." On a now forgotten episode of The Beverly Hillbillies, when Teena was an eight-year-old aspiring TV star, she swallowed a Granny-concocted elixir to calm her down. It didn't work -- on TV or in real life. And I'm glad. I don't want Teena Marie to ever calm down.