JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

“What kind of bad?”
Curtis Mayfield and The Deuce

by Matthew Tchepikova-Treon

Late in episode five of The Deuce: A prostitute named Ruby offers an underage girl new to the city advice on how to handle her johns and survive her pimp. “Make sure you get the money up front,” Ruby says. “Rodney ain’t as bad as the others, but you gotta bring your piece. You keep getting took, shit gets bad.” Sixteen-year-old Bernice asks, “What kind of bad?” Apart from Bernice’s most direct meaning—What will Rodney do to me?—her question could stand as the tagline for the entire show.

Every character navigating The Deuce’s hardscrabble world of a rapidly changing sex industry in 1970s New York City must constantly ask: What kind of bad will happen to me? What kind of bad am I willing to do? And what kind of bad is necessary? Beyond pure self-preservation, they ask: What kind of bad will I tolerate? Some also want to know: What kind of bad do I desire? And what kind of bad benefits me?

The question itself calls forth a world predicated on ruthless competition and hierarchical oppression devoid of refuge, where, despite best intentions, everyone plays a role and someone always gets paid. Some characters remain oblivious to these truths, yet others embrace or only half-deny them, while still more rationalize their overall inconvenience. Or, as Vincent Martino—the show’s mustachioed linchpin—puts it after his girlfriend, Abby, silently rebukes him for his matter-of-fact response to Ruby’s eventual murder just outside his bar:

“You got me wrong. I love women. But it’s the Deuce.”

Throughout the first season of The Deuce, co-created by David Simon and George Pelecanos, we find a broadreaching story of New York City in the early 1970s that deals as much with city hall corruption as it does with pimps and prostitutes. It is as much about harbingers of gentrification as about the golden age of pornography’s materialization in Times Square. Consequently, we find Simon continuing his “methodical deglamorization of American cities and institutions,” as Alison Herman describes the series.[1][open endnotes in new window] Yet, we also find a well-crafted period piece that deftly blends its grimy realist aesthetic with a sense of electric glamour that are part and parcel of the space and historical moment the show critically represents. Further still, as is common to the work of both Simon and Pelecanos, we also find empathetically drawn characters viewed in light of the painstakingly detailed capitalist systems that keep them all on the grind. But, in an audiovisual world populated by wolfish politicians, mob-financed massage parlors, insatiable police corruption, progenitors of mainstream porn production, and the capitalist rezoning of New York City’s red-light district, what we do not find is an easy answer to Bernice’s question, no matter who asks it.

From the beginning, however, The Deuce does let us know one thing: whether one regards it with puritanism or prurience, no one escapes the most damning impulses and incentives available in modern U.S. cities. Like Curtis Mayfield attests to in the show’s opening credits, “If there’s a hell below, we’re all gonna go.” We hear Mayfield sing this titular line near the start of every episode of The Deuce, and always as a prescient statement on things to come. What kind of bad? The question resonates at the heart of Mayfield’s song, which itself is heard throughout the show’s first season.

What follows here is a close analysis of the song’s sociological critique of inner-city life in 1970s United States as it pertains directly to The Deuce, highlighting the many ways it lends itself to the show—aesthetically and narratively—while also bringing the song’s sound and ideas to bear on the show’s central themes, utilizing Bernice’s question as a recurring motif. Further still, by considering how The Deuce critically addresses the very culture industry it represents, I also historically outline Mayfield’s own musical relation to the production of exploitation films popular in Times Square theaters during the 1970s in order to demonstrate the ways popular music participated in shaping the social space and cultural imaginary from which The Deuce takes its name.

Opening credits

Released in 1970, just months after his departure from the Chicago pop-soul band The Impressions, Mayfield’s debut solo album, Curtis, marked a seismic shift in his music, career, and social influence. With the album’s opening track and lead single, “(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go,” Mayfield stormed the gates of the Seventies with his own new funk-infused, politically-minded, psychedelic-soul sound. Held down by a thick fuzz-bass line, Mayfield and his band play a constant blitz of low brass swells, high horn hits, and burning string arrangements over a drumbeat punctuated by congas and a scratchy wah-wah guitar. Rhythmic rather than chordal movement drives the song from start to finish, and Mayfield’s urgent voice tears through the mix. Lyrically and sonically, the song is an eight-minute tour of Cold War United Sates’ most damaging contradictions sustained by the country’s most precarious self-deceptions. As a result, the song is not your usual melancholic lament. Instead, Mayfield’s upbeat jeremiad performs a direct social critique that is equal parts comedy, tragedy, and funk-soul tirade.

In its full-length version,[2] the song opens with the sound of a young woman professing salvation for all if people would just “read the book of Revelation.” Mayfield is unconvinced. His  “(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go”—eschatological in tone, yet meaningfully devoid of faith—proceeds to radically invert the musical tradition of black spirituals invoked by the woman’s proclamation. If anything, Mayfield’s Testamental tone performs a kind of secular deliverance. The year prior to the song’s recording, during his first inaugural address, Richard Nixon had stood framed by a world on fire, calling for calm and restrained discourse. He said then,

“When we listen to the better angels of our nature we find that they celebrate the simple things, the basic things—such as goodness, decency, love, kindness. Greatness comes in simple trappings… To lower our voices would be a simple thing.”

But Curtis Mayfield heard no angels in Nixon’s United States. He saw only an illusive spectacle of violence and greed. So when we hear him sing, “There can be no show / And if there’s hell below / We’re all gonna go,” during the opening credits of The Deuce, the song sounds made for this televised world.

Click here to play opening credits.

The title sequence for The Deuce stands as an artistic microcosm in its own right.[3] It is a carnival ride through Times Square that highlights the materiality of 70s-era film technologies, the maelstrom of people moving through the city, and the Deuce’s luminescent sea of nighttime theater marquees. All the while, the show’s theme song lays out its initial claim: “Everyone here is on the hook for something.” Mayfield’s roll call includes “sisters / brothers and the whiteys / blacks and the crackers / police and their backers,” “…all political actors,” “people running from their worries / …the judge and his juries,” students, pimps, dealers, educators, lawmakers, cat callers, war mongers and free lovers. Amidst the chaos, Mayfield’s most direct and damning invocation comes when he repeatedly sings, “And Nixon talking ‘bout, ‘Don’t worry.’”

Underscoring the sardonic tone of this line, Nixon’s words echo via an analog delay effect applied to Mayfield’s voice. Evidence of an avant-garde impulse often relegated to the periphery of his music, here the foregrounded tape manipulation technique creates a peculiar haunting effect. Repetition contributes to the overall feeling of paranoia that rings throughout the song, with Nixon’s doublespeak rippling out mantra-like, lingering in the mouths of others, producing an aural sensation of techno-indoctrination. Moreover, the timing of each echo, set roughly a quarter note apart, is slightly off so that after about two measures, each fading word begins to slip off the beat just enough to sound a touch more menacing, adding to the song’s paranoiac uncanniness. Further still, in most instances the echo effect cuts off the initial attack of “don’t,” such that, after its first full utterance, the word “worry” alone distortedly loops like a siren. In this moment we hear Mayfield’s foreboding alarm cut through the song’s apocalyptic reproach. It is perhaps a sound of warning to resist the nihilistic tendencies that nonetheless inform the song elsewhere.

This moment of alarm envelops The Deuce’s opening credits as the show’s title/logo first appears, followed by eight key visual moments in quick succession, all slightly obfuscated by the superimposition of flashing lights and degraded film stock running in multiple directions:

A window-framed hallway inside the hotel where the prostitutes working the Deuce take their johns (foreshadowing both the sex parlors and the season’s final shot). A pair of male hands counting cash. The physical exchange of cash is constantly seen throughout the show.
A stilettoed pair of legs running through the rain at night, which cuts to ... ... a quick shot of a woman’s hand holding her high heels by morning.
The logo made to simulate film being pulled through a projector. Then we see a bare foot step into a puddle in the street.
The water now reflects a distorted blue sky above. And the presence of film stock again draws our attention to the significance of pornographic cinema’s material form and aesthetic.

With the opening sequence’s final shot, the diegetic world of The Deuce opens up sonically and we hear the woman’s foot stepping in water, accompanied by the final sounds of Mayfield’s song, just when the music, as if crossing some lethal sound barrier, suddenly gives way to a rumbling explosive sound of electric feedback. In the show’s pilot episode, this sonic shockwave lingers, then fades out as the screen goes black and we hear: “Nah, man, that’s some bullshit.”

The early technology and materiality of 1970s exploitation film production features heavily throughout the show’s opening credits. Scratched film further works to highlight its own materiality, while it also aestheticizes the show’s sense of historicity.
Shot of Times Square lit by theater marquees and seemingly endless signs and advertisements. Another example of archival images from the Deuce used throughout the opening credits.

In the scene that follows, we watch two pimps—Reggie Love and C.C.—in New York Port Authority, prey on young women while carrying on a conversation in which they analogize Richard Nixon’s threat to drop a nuclear bomb on Vietnam with their own coercive tactics for controlling prostitutes, or what we can imagine them boastfully referring to as the Sun Tzu-styled “art of pimping.” Not so much a cipher for the show as a deep dive into the question of incentive, this conversation comparing the psyche of Richard Nixon to that of the street hustler poses the classic two-part question: What motivates the prostitute? What motivates the pimp?

A prostitute working the Deuce. Clientele cruising the street.
Archival image of suggested local denizens. Police sirens and lights represent a regular part of the Deuce’s/The Deuce’s audiovisual landscape.
Storefront for a sex shop where early porn loops where covertly sold For the prostitutes working the street, before the emergence of the sex parlors, the show often visually emphasizes the difficult labor of street-walking.
The stairs of a hotel where prostitutes work. The show’s logo, embellished with a slight bit of film scratch.

If Mayfield’s theme song in part functions like a casting call for a show ready to interrogate methodically every name on the list, which I argue it does, then The Deuce responds by transforming these social types into human beings on screen,[4] beginning with this scene in Port Authority. So, before returning to Curtis Mayfield’s music, it is worth momentarily exploring this particular dialectic for the ways it helps demonstrate how the “What kind of bad?” motif, encapsulated in The Deuce’s theme song, permeates the show as an organizing principle for the characters who populate its world.

President Nixon pimping

Pimps Reggie Love and C.C. scouting new women in New York Port Authority. In this scene, both pimps portray a certain sense of predation and critical perception central to their characters

After the explosive sound that ends Mayfield’s opening song fades into general crowd noise inside New York Port Authority, we hear a veteran pimp named Reggie Love, speaking in a manner of pomp and pontification, size up President Nixon:

“Man, every move that man make, he already got it mapped out. No, he ain’t being crazy at all. He’s acting like a motherfucking fox… You can see right where the man coming from. Shit makes perfect sense to me.”

Reggie then tells C.C. that, when dealing with the Vietnam War, Nixon’s “carrot” comes in the form of peace talks, while his “stick” is him acting “crazy enough to do all kind of shit—bomb the shit out of Vietnam, take over Cambodia, whatever the fuck.” Slightly empathizing with Nixon’s diplomatic quandary, Reggie adds,

“If I was him I’d be flashing nuclear weapons and shit… I’m not saying I would use that shit. I’m saying I’d be like, ‘Do not fuck with President Reggie Love.”

Then he draws his comparison, telling C.C. that, even though a pimp “don’t want to have to cut a bitch,” it is in his best interest if she thinks you might. To this point C.C. says,

“So, Nixon pimping? Well, shit yeah. That makes good sense to me.”

We soon meet Lori, in from Minnesota,[5] whom C.C. sweet talks into his Cadillac Eldorado and escorts into the city where she immediately begins working for him. The previously cited “What kind of bad?” scene between Ruby and Bernice represents the flip side of Reggie Love and C.C.’s conversation, but from the prostitutes’ perspective, in notably more practical (i.e., survivalist) and less philosophical terms. Unlike Lori, who finds a sense of glamor and perhaps even agency in streetwalking, Bernice only finds herself on the other end of Rodney’s proverbial stick.

Contrary to several reviews of the show, The Deuce is no simple allegory for capitalism,[6] and the complex dynamic I am gesturing at by comparing Reggie Love and C.C.’s conversation with that of Ruby and Bernice demonstrates precisely why. In these moments, especially when juxtaposed, we see the show’s dialectical approach to understanding relations between personal experience and society, or what C. Wright Mills named the sociological imagination. Through its characters, The Deuce explicitly strives to perform that particular “quality of mind” that Mills argues “enables its possessor to understand the larger historical scene in terms of its meaning for the inner life and external career of a variety of individuals” that emerges from shifting perspectives.[7]

In the world of the show, the prostitutes who work the Deuce, the parlors, and the porn sets are both object lessons for an oppressive system and human actors within that system—even if, for these women, demanding to be seen as human might prove fatal, as the tragic irony of Ruby’s advice to Bernice ultimately confirms. Likewise, in depicting the pimps, The Deuce methodically explores—through the lens of self as much as system—the particular complex of corrupt social, political, and economic incentives that inform their exploitative drive to accumulate both profit and power from these women.

For another pointed example concerning this question of incentive, consider Gentle Richie, The Deuce’s white hustler with a heart of gold who represents 1970’s-era hipsterism à la Norman Mailer (and Mayfield’s “whitey”). Everyone working the Deuce knows Richie as a one-woman pimp whose minimal amount of peacocking comes in the form of style and cool manner more than violence. In other words, to utilize Reggie Love’s opening analogy, Gentle Richie is more carrot than stick. In the third episode, this demeanor leads Larry, a far more provocative pimp, to interrogate Richie while drinking at the Hi-Hat: “So, you a communist or some shit, right?” Then, in one of the show’s most deeply humorous moments, Richie, speaking in his smooth, full-bodied falsetto, replies, “I don’t know nothing about that, but I don’t dig hierarchical oppression, man. I just don’t.” He then speaks in genuinely loving terms about Rochelle, his one and only prostitute whom he refers to as his “everything, man.” Larry tries to remind him that “she your ho, Richie.” To which Gentle Richie comes back in half-baked Marxist terms with, “Yeah, but she controls the means of production, dig?” And even though the camera moves down the bar so that Richie delivers this line off-screen, his homespun rebuttal is no throwaway joke.

Sure, Larry admonishing Richie for being a bad capitalist could occasion a worthwhile Marxist critique of political economy and the sex industry in The Deuce well beyond the scope of my writing here. After all, Marx did in fact see prostitution as exemplary of alienated social relations in capitalism, analogously identifying the pimp as capitalist, the prostitute as worker-commodity, and the client as consumer in a holy trinity that reveals the forces of production charged by the sexual fantasies of the bourgeoisie.[8] But, again, though centrally concerned with the relations of production in a modern capitalist society vis-à-vis the double commodification of women’s bodies as both worker and ware in the sex industry—be it prostitution or pornography[9]—as well as control over the spaces in which they labor, generating profits for almost everyone but themselves (and especially white men), The Deuce is no simple allegory for capitalism.

Richie’s almost endearing egalitarian belief that Rochelle somehow operates outside of this economic structure, and thus counter to the oppressive relations manifest therein—which we know from Candy’s story is a fiction—slyly satirizes the misapprehension of leftist idealism that undoubtedly generates a trite sense of subcultural capital for guys like Richie (i.e., countercultural types for whom the status quo is not all that bad). In contrast, for Larry, Richie’s feminized “communist” tendencies insult Larry’s own hardened belief that, for the pimp, power is everything.[10]

The racial dynamics in this joke are equally telling, and even more central to my study here. By the end of its first season, The Deuce shows us a transformed world of sex work where white men, whether running parlors, taking payments for protection, or producing pornographic material, take over the prostitution business, so to speak, and begin systematically pushing black pimps out of the so-called game. Though still getting paid, the pimps’ profits now seem somehow abstracted from any sense of purpose. Attributing to pimps such a sense of purpose is a perverse interpretation, to say the least, but one that gets at how seriously The Deuce considers the subjective and the systematic as dialectically integrated and mutually constitutive.

During another of the show’s moments of unexpected humor, three pimps—Larry, Rodney, and C.C., their women now working in the parlors instead of out on the streets—sit in a cafe and commiserate about their new found surplus of leisure time. C.C., speaking in existential tones, complains how “the other night, I didn’t know what to do with my damn self. I went to a movie,” and tells them he saw Fantasia. Rodney laughs before avowing that he really likes the film’s dancing hippos. The irony in this joke runs deep—not least of which because it makes a clever nod to the future Disneyfication of Times Square in cinematic terms—by gesturing toward two things: (1) the inevitable gentrification of 42nd Street, of which this story plays a major role, and (2) a future where this classic pimp figure—who was represented in so many 1970s films that ran in Times Square theaters, and thus became so influentially bound up in that historical space’s cultural imaginary—will have no place in the Deuce. As C.C. puts it, they “have become extraneous in this whole situation.”