March 15, 2017
People really need to stop covering "Purple Rain."
That seems to be the song of choice for tributes, and it's easy to understand why. The chords are simple. The words are easy to remember. The crowd can sing along ("woo woo oo oo") while they swing their arms in the air. And the cover band's guitarist gets a chance to do a monster solo.
Unfortunately, most of those solos suck. Mightily. And they inadvertently make it easier to understand what is missing because Prince isn't around to get it right.
"Purple Rain," the song, has to be among the most overrated in Prince's entire catalog. If it's your absolute favorite, I apologize in advance for what I'm about to say, but that song is really Prince-for-dummies.
It seems to be at the very top of so many top ten lists that you'd think it must be some sort of masterpiece. Well, it's not. It's a spontaneously improvised melody over a clunky chord progression, with lyrics that crumble upon even the slightest consideration. (I'm assuming that you have heard the extra verse from the original live performance which he edited out. By virtue of being roughly incoherent, it all but confirms that the song was meant as a throwaway.)
But even saying that, I understand why people glommed onto the song. It has a distinctive opening with a distinctive chord and guitar sound (ironically, played by Wendy Melvoin, not Prince). The lousy lyric is incredibly simple, and contains enough memorable snippets to make it live on in memory ("I never wanted to be your weekend lover." Please.) And the recording builds quite convincingly -- as if the song actually means something and is going somewhere (which it does not).
Then it has the very long playout featuring a repetitive chant that anyone can sing, is sort of fun to sing, and goes nicely with a guitar solo. In this way, it apes "Hey Jude" in its purely tribal effect.
Additionally, it anchors the movie -- that terrible, unwatchable, laughably bad movie. If not for the closing concert sequence, Purple Rain The Movie would be appearing only on MST3K reruns. The last 20 minutes save it (sort of), and "Purple Rain The Song" is a big part of that because it gives the whiff of some sort of narrative closure.
Make no mistake, it does not actually provide narrative closure, but it gets close enough to make you think that it does. For the record, in the movie the song was written by Wendy and Lisa, presented to The Kid on a cassette tape which he may or may not have listened to (for all they know), and he plays it only as a backwards sort of grudging acknowledgement that, yes, girls can be part of the band, too, while also supposedly tying things up with Apollonia. It's the song that does everything! -- despite not actually being written by The Kid.
Maybe this is the right point to note that Prince himself wished this song would go away. He knew that it wasn't his best work, and chafed at the idea that so many people latched onto it. Before returning to it in recent years, there were many tours where he either didn't play it at all, or played only a snippet in some sort of medley. To him, the popularity of this song was confirmation that the audience cannot be trusted to decide which portions of his work had any value. The only person he could or would ever trust about his work was himself (OK, that's not quite true, and we have to admit that trusting himself wasn't always a good thing).
Now, I can admit that the performance from the film, played over and over on MTV, stripped of its lame context from the movie, caught the public's attention in a way that put Prince over the top in terms of fame. I think it's fair to credit that song (plus a couple of others) with firmly establishing who Prince was and what he was about to the whole world. But even giving it such credit does not turn it into a good song. It's just not.
And for the deep fans, who know of its provenance (First Avenue show for friends, filmed by the movie crew, unfinished lyrics and music, long jam to work it all out, studio augmentation and editing, string overdubs, etc.), it became a symbol for what Prince was capable of. But even giving it credit for that doesn't turn it into a good song. It's just not.
It seems, however, that we're stuck with this lousy song serving as shorthand for Prince in pop culture. Every band has a version, every star has a take, every tribute must include it as a feature element.
The irony is palpable. Prince basically came to terms with it as the years rolled by. He would probably roll his eyes at how popular it has become, but he would not be surprised.
But let's be clear: "Purple Rain The Song" doesn't even crack the top 100 list of his truly great songs or tracks. It was candy for the masses and provided an entry point for many people. But let's leave it at that.
And, please, please, PLEASE stop doing terrible covers of it! I can't stand it.
July 1, 2016
I started this web site in order to grieve. I remember saying to a friend that I woke up each day with a new paragraph in my mind about Prince, and felt that I simply needed to write them down in order to process the loss. And the act of writing them down seemed to require them being read in order to be complete.
On the one hand, it's a lot like journaling, in which the intended audience is just the author. But being a Prince fan has always been something of a community thing. In the 80s, I had a number of friends who were just as into Prince as I was -- probably to the point of reinforcing each other's obsessions.
By the time I stopped following him, that little community had basically broken up and moved on. I know that some of those friends still followed Prince until the very end. One such friend, because he lives in the area, was among the first to arrive at Paisley Park after the news broke. He was also one of the first to place an item on the fence, in what has become a unbreakable act of collective mourning.
The difficulty in grieving Prince by listening to his records is that he seems so darned alive in everything he did. It becomes difficult to place a finger on what was lost. It's too big.
Unlike the death of a personal acquaintance, there is no discernible direct loss, as in the gathering at which you might have bumped into, and had a conversation with, the person. There are no family gatherings at which a seat is glaringly empty.
And given the fact that his music hadn't been a significant component of my life for 20 years, there's not even the nagging loss at the sense that the next release -- the next new persona or era -- will never come.
But there is loss, and it's real, and I feel it. And though it's tempting to say that all I lost was a connection to one of my former selves, it's not only that.
My kids are 10 and 7. They listen to pop music on the radio in the car (at least when I'm driving; their mother is not willing to put up with that musical chatter; sometimes I wish I felt the same). They will make their own connections with music of various kinds (both are singers, and one already takes piano). I don't lament that.
But I do find myself lamenting the fact that there is no longer the possibility that they will discover a living Prince, making the kind of music no one else is making, and setting an example -- and laying out a challenge -- for an entire industry. If they know Prince at all, it will be in the way that I met the Beatles, as the investigation of nostalgia.
I'm also sad because there is now no chance that his next persona would be the one to draw me back in, to reignite all those fires I once had for every new record. In that way, I guess it is about the loss of youth, or maybe better put as the loss of the potential to regain youth.
It was always gone, but Prince's death just makes that fact all the more easy to see.
My wife is a pastor, and she knows very well that funerals are for the living, not for the deceased. Grieving is about processing an external event within ourselves.
It's hard for me to accept that Prince is gone. But that isn't about being sad for him. It's about what that takes away from me, and my children, and the world. What we lost was quite obviously significant on a scale we will only understand with time.
But quantifying that starts with digging into what it did to me, why I am sad, and seeking out that which will never be the same again.
June 30, 2016
One complicating factor in feeling my way through Prince's later work (and sometimes even the earlier work) is that vast variety of project types, and release methods.
When I started following him in 1981, there were albums and singles. Maxi-singles were becoming more widely used. There were vinyl, cassette, and shortly, CD releases.
But there was a hard dividing line between "released" and "unreleased." In other words, when Prince released something, whether under his own name or someone else's, it became available for purchase -- at least somewhere.
But then came limited releases, non-releases (The Black Album), and releases that could only be described as "obscure" (the video version of "4 the Tears in Your Eyes" as an example).
In returning to Prince now after his death, I'm finding categories of release that are truly bizarre. For example, is it even a "release" if he emailed an MP3 to a radio station and they played it once? If someone captures it, or the radio station decides to post it, it can then be heard again, but does it count as a "release?" Does it count as a release if it's sent out as a bonus disc with something else (for a very limited audience) or sold only at shows?
This is really just part of the condition following the breakdown of the popular music industry (good riddance). But it complicates putting Prince's work in the proper context.
Likewise, how are we to understand music that was written and recorded many years earlier, such as during his "golden period" between 1984 and 1988? Much of the material on Crystal Ball was leftovers, intentionally stripped by Prince of their original context in the very act of collecting them.
Bootlegs are a separate issue. By definition they are without whatever context Prince might have given them. Collections of bootleg tracks often span different eras, and rarely offer liner notes of when the track or song might have originated. YouTube, the current preferred source of all things Prince, further complicates things because songs get mislabeled, or misattributed, or otherwise mangled.
Defying categorization no doubt pleased Prince. And the confounding process of sorting through it all actually adds to the intrigue that his catalog already has down in spades.
June 29, 2016
I made an off-hand comment to a friend who is a great Prince fan that I thought Lovesexy was Prince's best album (which actually understates a bit how I feel about that particular work of art). His non-response prompted me to ask which he would name as his favorite.
He paused, likely more out of a sense of decorum than a need to come up with an answer, and then named Purple Rain. "Top to bottom, it's just so solid," was his very reasonable justification.
For the record, I think that ranking Prince's work is probably a fool's errand. Above a certain point, it all has to go into a category beyond such foolishness. But saying that suggests that there is a line beneath which some of his work fell -- the not-quite-great line, if you will.
So our conversation continued, and I asked him if he had listened to any of the later albums. He said he had, but crinkled up his nose a bit when I asked him what he thought of them. (The question was not some sort of provocation. I genuinely want to hear what true fans think of the later material because I know so little about it. Beneath my question lay another: "Should I spend time listening to it?")
He admitted that they didn't do much for him, and may have even spoken the word, "Meh."
Truth be told, this has been my initial reaction as well. I've listened all the way through 3121 and 20Ten a couple of times each. I've listened to most of The Truth and Art Official Age. And I've re-listened to Musicology, which was released after I stopped following Prince, but I bought (and listened to) when it was released because it made such a stir and brought Prince's name back into popular consciousness for a time.
I really want to love these records, and embrace them, and add them to the Prince vault in my mind, but it's been tough.
The musicianship is uniformly excellent. The ideas, while familiar, are never retreads. He sounds like he still has something to say, and an artful way of saying it, using just about the best chops on the planet. But I can't quite seem to get a hold on these and get them to crack that art-brain barrier.
He's not without his old edge. He's not without his imagination. He's not without new ideas.
The truth probably is: It's me. Something changed in my brain and I lost the ability to go to those places where Prince once took me. That it happened when I was 33 years old in 1996 is probably the only clue I need.
So I'm tempted to conclude that the fact that I cannot appreciate the later work is irrelevant to evaluating it. But it may mean that I'll never be able to. Listening to Prince's later work comes to me as an intellectual exercise, versus the emotional and primal one it was when I was in my twenties.
If it says anything at all about Prince, it says that those who appreciate him may do so on a primal/emotional level first, and only then recognize the intellect behind it all.
This is arm-chair psychology, of course, and highly anecdotal (because it relies exclusively on interpreting the reaction of one fan: me). But it might set the stage for further wondering about Prince's ultimate place in art history.
June 28, 2016
I listened to Batman recently because, of the albums released when I was following Prince closely, it was the one I remembered the least about.
Immediately, the minimalist hook of "The Future" drew me into what Prince always did best. He could take the smallest ideas, distill them to the point of being almost nonexistent, and then turn them into amazing pieces of art.
Writing great riffs and hooks is something of a dying art. As I listen to current popular music, I'm often astounded by records that get this close to a great hook, but just can't turn the corner. They will get lost in something too complicated, or wallow in variations which nibble around the edges of the great idea just sitting there waiting to be exploited. (What these songs lack in songwriting skill is often offset by pure bombast in the arrangement. That's how it works these days.)
But Prince wrote hook after hook, and tossed them off like he'd never run out (and he never did). My all-time favorite of his was essentially thrown away on a B-side: "Hello."
But "The Future" isn't just a great hook. It's also the perfect piece of music to set the stage and the mood for what he wants to do with the record. It's an opener, which is its own class of song, and also completely self-contained -- it could probably have worked just as well in some other context.
His vocal is restrained but intense. His guitar sounds distinctively familiar and yet not like anything else.
I'm tempted to go song-by-song through the album -- and maybe I will -- but as I listened to this track, the whole mood of the project floated back. And as I continued listening, there is a wholeness to the collection of songs that was distinctively Prince.
He was a master at putting together the puzzles of his own ideas. And this is a common characteristic of the great artists throughout history.
June 27, 2016
One of the things I admire most about Prince is the way in which he continuously pushed himself. He always tried for something new, something that he had never done before. He refused to rest on his laurels -- even when there might have been some sense in taking some time off to let the rest of the world catch up to him.
But I think I have detected a pattern in his work where, after pushing his music especially hard into something new, and having it go misunderstood or disliked, he would retreat temporarily into a sort of palette-cleansing mode. There are several clusters of work that include rapid advances followed by a sort of station-keeping.
Prince's version of "station-keeping" still involved sounds that we'd never heard before, but they seemed a little more palatable because they built more subtly on the work that had gone before.
One such album was Batman, which Prince recorded while reeling from the cold reception that his masterwork, Lovesexy, had received.
Where Lovesexy breaks new ground with almost every corner of every song, Batman does not. It shows Prince creating set pieces like "Electric Chair" which show off his virtuosity, while being nothing like anything he's ever done before, yet not pushing the envelope quite as hard. He's working, but using the molds he has forged rather than breaking them.
There's more to be said about Batman, which was viewed as a come-down by many fans, but has aged incredibly well. While he would wait a bit before describing himself as "punching in the rock-and-roll clock," (on another station-keeping album) moments like this one in his career show not just his professionalism and impeccable craftsmanship, but because they do not challenge the ear quite as much, make the case for his raw abilities separate from the visionary work which would change the industry.
June 26, 2016
Prince wrote a great many lyrics, but one in particular remains among his most quotable:
Am I black or white? Am I straight or gay? Controversy.
Pretty much anyone who has ever even heard of Prince can probably quote, or at least paraphrase, this line. Yesterday I mentioned Prince's "ignition point" and I'm convinced that it happened the moment this lyric entered the public consciousness.
Anyone who subsequently followed Prince to any degree probably knows the actual answers to these questions. Prince was black (both of his parents, and all of his siblings are black), and straight. And not just a little bit straight, or somewhere in the middle. From my first-hand experience with him, it was obvious in an instant that he was 100% straight. He didn't show the least bit of interest in men. (Trans? Hmm. Maybe. Different subject for a different day.)
You may want to argue that he hid other things, so there's no way to know if he was actively hiding even more. That is true. But in a private setting, on more than one occasion, I observed him interacting with small groups, and the women got all of his attention. And there are no reports from people within his camp that he was having romantic relationships, secret or otherwise, with men. He competed with men, aggressively, actively, but he did not appear to have any interest in being romantically involved with them.
I point this out only to hold up the power of his own myth-making. Later on Controversy, Prince actually answers the gay/straight question himself. When asked "Are you gay?" he responds with, "No. Are you?"
And yet the simple act of asking the right two questions is all it took. He didn't declare himself white and gay, he merely raised the possibility for his audience's consideration. And consider it they did; it was the single most quoted lyric in the days after his death, appearing in almost every obituary I read.
But I have to admit that I always thought it was one of his cheaper moves. It looks a little like shooting fish in a barrel. People took one look at the guy, heard the lyric, and concluded that he was interesting and provocative. (It wasn't the only lyric that brought this about, of course, but it was among the first to reach a larger audience.)
This is not to fault him. It had exactly the desired effect, and opened doors for him to experiment freely in his art for the rest of his life. In that regard, that one lyric might very well have made a huge difference in threading the needle at the start of his career -- that tiny opening he made it through to get to megastardom. Without that one, somewhat cheeky, lyric, along with a hundred other similarly tiny things, it might very well not have happened.
So, despite thinking it was kind of cheap, I'm very glad it did what it did!
June 25, 2016
Just how seriously should we take Prince? As an artist, I mean.
So much of what he did was about fun -- whether that be through sex or love or freedom or just plain play. There are so many adjectives to describe his art, but "serious" is a lot farther down the list than "playful."
I am now re-reading Matt Thorne's Prince: The Man and His Music. (I just finished reading it for the first time last week, but it's so compelling that I can't resist the urge to read it again.) For the most part, Thorne finds the right balance between surface analysis and something deeper. Occasionally, he seems to float into pop psychology, and occasionally he floats into artistic waters just a little too deep for his swimming ability.
But the sum of this marvelous book is to wonder just how to process Prince's massive body of work. Beyond that, it raises questions of how posterity will view it.
My own instinct is that this work will withstand a great deal of scrutiny, but then I'm biased. I started following Prince at just about the moment that his career hit its big ignition point in 1981. I was 18 years old, and so Prince's art is hopelessly intertwined with that period of my life when I became a functioning adult. It is the soundtrack for my young adult life in just about every way. (My record collection also includes a lot of Stephen Sondheim, and tons of Beatles, separate and together, among many other artists and genres, but the Prince section dwarfs it all.)
I try to put on a critical hat, and I begin to wonder if Prince might eventually be seen as the life of the party, but without much of significance to say. There's no denying that his forays into politics, though generally enjoyable on a surface level, did not contain what could be called deep thoughts.
And the lyrical content, though highly provocative, may not resonate as well with a different generation.
I want to build the case for the longevity of this amazing work, but I think it's going to take a bit of nuance to draw out the greatness. Prince has always been hard to quantify in this regard. Either the listener gets it, or does not. You can't really convert people.
But my instinct tells me there will always be an audience that will get it, though I'm still at a loss to explain why, or even exactly what that means.
June 24, 2016
Over Memorial Day weekend, my neighbors, a black family, had a barbecue which featured a joy-filled and very loud soundtrack. I heard Jackson Five, and numerous other Motown artists, played on a loop which, I think, was about two or three hours long. (I ended up hearing the same sequence of songs twice during the day, though I admit to not hearing the whole loop while coming and going in my yard.)
But I heard no music by Prince, which was puzzling.
On the one hand, most of the music I heard was vintage late-60s and early to mid-70s, matching roughly the age of the party hosts. On the other hand, Prince music was all over on that weekend, and seemed like a natural thing to hear as part of such a playlist, regardless of the age or ethnicity of the group -- especially here in Minneapolis.
Race relations being what they are, it's hard for me, a white man, to add much of anything to the debate. But I do think about it. And in this case I wondered whether Prince was genuinely embraced by the black community, at least to the degree he was embraced by the white community.
Many of my (white) friends were Prince fans during the 80s and 90s, but my memory is that the black community was more interested in the birth of rap and hip hop, and music with a harder, more angry edge. This could just be a misperception, or a misremembering.
But on a weekend when my own playlist was made up almost exclusively of Prince music, the utter lack of it at my neighbors' barbecue felt bigger than just an incidental omission.
If Elvis was a white man who sang like a black man (Col. Tom Parker's assessment, along with many others), was Prince a black man who sang for white people, and without scaring them? Sometimes I think he was marketed to, and mostly embraced by, a white audience. But I just don't know for sure. (And here I'm making a distinction between being amenable to something versus embracing it.) Did the black audience consider him in some way to have been a sell-out?
As Prince's career progressed, he embraced his own black roots to varying degrees -- at least musically. Being a melting pot of influences, he was certainly foundationally influenced by black artists. But he was the first to describe influences all across the racial spectrum.
I'm not ready to make this claim, but it's something I wonder about because it feels important to understanding why I became a fan of this artist whose life story was so fundamentally different from my own. Why did he resonate with me, a white kid who was born and raised in small town Minnesota? And did he do so at the expense of resonating more fully with people whose life experiences were closer to his?
Not everything has to do with race, of course. And yet, to a degree, everything does have to do with race. Prince confounded those lines . . . or did he?
June 23, 2016
From the name of this site I'm sure you have gathered that I've now familiarized myself with 20Ten, Prince's last album before a four-year drought, or exile, or sabbatical, or whatever you want to call it.
I like some of the album, but feel largely the same about it that I did about Musicology, the last time I had tentatively reconnected with Prince's career. It had exceptional musicianship, imaginative songwriting, and some fun moments, but was lacking something I can't quite put my finger on.
For one thing, he was repeating himself thematically (if not really in any other way). I've always marveled that there were so many angles on sex, and that he never seemed to run out of them -- in a way very similar to his endless supply of musical variety.
And while sex is a subject every person can relate to, eventually it gets a little old. I'm not sure what I wanted Prince to sing about, but the only other subject he seemed as committed to was religion. And, despite being a Christian myself, I got pretty tired of the proselytizing, and especially all of the eschatology. (It's discouraging to learn that Prince was something of a conspiracy guy as well.)
I've now heard parts of Art Official Age, and feel like he'd turned a corner during those four years, and that later album has an intensity which the earlier release did not.
Weirdly, I know that I'm just getting started making sense of it all as part of the grieving process.
June 22, 2016
I stopped obsessively following Prince in 1996, and one of the reasons was that I simply could no longer keep up with the amount of music he was releasing, and the amount of money it was costing me.
It's a sad thing to realize, but his death actually makes it a little easier to fathom just how much work he produced, and to consider the possibility of eventually hearing it all. OK, that doesn't really sound possible, given the size of the vault. Even hearing all of the officially released material seems like a daunting goal.
Beyond quantity, I found it harder and harder to get into the place where Prince was when he made the music, because there were so many "places" that his music came from.
When I got Emancipation home, I was fatigued by just looking at the track list. To truly appreciate it, I would have to listen to each track several times, and the amount of time would be really unrealistic. Perhaps if I did nothing else in my life I might have had enough time to actually appreciate the work. This was a tough position to be in.
There's no question that one of the reasons I dropped out was that I could no longer devote the time necessary to truly appreciate the work, and didn't want Prince music to ever be something which occupied only the background of my listening, like Muzak.
Ironically, it was out of love for Prince's art that I realized I had to stop. It was a clean break, without really any regrets.
But now I have a lot of catching up to do.
June 21, 2016
Prince didn't do a lot of acting in the traditional sense. He essentially played himself, or a stylized/fictionalized version of himself, in everything he did. (Some say that he only played himself in real life, too.)
But he appeared on screen a lot, with as much natural charisma as any movie star. And it seems like he was also a naturally good actor, though that's only suggested by his body of work.
It's easy to imagine Prince in a dramatic role, playing a character other than himself. But he would have had to give up a little control to make that happen. It's a shame that he didn't. I always thought he would eventually get some sort of supporting role in a big movie and win another Oscar. It totally seemed within his abilities.
But he seems to have made the classic mistake of not learning the craft before trying to master the medium. As soon as he saw what a director did, he wanted to do it -- and who wouldn't? That's the person on the set with all of the control.
But in the same way he sometimes played guitar for other musicians without taking the spotlight, it seems like he would have eventually found a way to let a great director direct him. That's a collaboration we can only dream about now, but in my imagination, it yields something pretty special.
June 20, 2016
At some point after I stopped following him closely, Prince decided to start smiling.
Until sometime in the mid-90s, Prince had projected something of a sourpuss image. He mostly shunned the media, and in the odd moment when he didn't, acted like they were to be held largely in contempt.
So it was very weird to see him on talk shows, sitting on couches, smiling, laughing, answering questions, and generally acting like a normal celebrity. Frankly, I never understood what changed, and felt like some of the mystique was lost as a result.
But it sure was fun to see him getting pranked by Jay Leno, or taming butterflies on a sitcom. (Of course Prince has domesticated his butterflies. It makes perfect sense.) Even though he had opened up a bit, the performances lost none of their intensity, which made it easy to forgive the loss of mystique.
I never met Prince, but people say he was pretty smiley in person. I couldn't tell whether he had gotten over a few things or just decided to put on a "happy guy" act. It doesn't really matter, but it was a striking change at what turned out to be roughly the halfway point in his career.
June 19, 2016
Talking about my kids reminds me that, in the aftermath of Prince's death, I wanted to introduce them to his music. But that presented something of an obvious problem: much of it is not suitable for the young, or even adults with sensitive sensibilities.
So what, right?
Well, while discovering this doesn't change my regard for the greatness of the work, it does temper how I think of it somewhat. All of my years obsessed with Prince were in my post-adolescent but pre-parenting days. As such, hearing and loving lines like "We can fuck until the dawn..." didn't give me a second thought. Prince sang about adult issues in an adult way, and that mostly felt refreshing.
But my own willingness to set aside the puritanical instincts of childhood is no match for my instincts as a parent to avoid dropping inappropriate material into the minds of my children. They'll get there, and I have no intention to stand in their way, but they are just too young right now.
So I've been challenged in describing to them what Prince meant to me, and why his death was so saddening. Mostly, it comes down to the fact that I considered him a very fine artist, and the disappointment that they will only ever know him in the past tense, rather than discovering him, as so many successive waves of fans have, as a living and breathing musician.
What music would he have been making when they get to their college years? I don't know, of course, but I'm sure that it would have been exceptional, provocative, and every bit as engaging as the best of his work.
I'm sad that I can't play much of Prince's music for my kids yet, but also that he won't be making new music when they are ready to hear it.
All artists, and especially pop artists, age beyond relevance. But I always thought that Prince would be able to do so gracefully, and I looked forward to what he might be saying in song in his 60s, 70s, and 80s. It's hard to imagine, and sad beyond words that it will never come to be.
June 18, 2016
Having mentioned the potential difficulty in adapting Prince's work, let me offer my own quick experience.
My sons sing in a boy choir, and the director is open to music from many sources. So I resolved, as a tribute, to create a choral arrangement of some Prince song that would be appropriate for such a group (which consists of boys from the age of 7 to 13).
But the immediate question almost completely stumped me: Which song? "Purple Rain" wouldn't work, of course, ("I never wanted to be your weekend lover...") nor would just about anything from that period of greatest popularity ("Dig, if you will, the picture, of you and I engaged in a kiss..."). The catalog before that contains a few pieces of pop confection ("Falling, falling, falling, in love...") but don't really represent Prince's best work.
I landed on "Starfish and Coffee," the same song Prince adapted for use with the Muppets. That arrangement is currently pending.
But it's a very real problem for the estate. The music will need to be loosed from the iron grip of the Prince persona -- which would be hard for many fans to accept because that's what drew us to it in the first place. But it's a real, and terribly sad, necessity for the longevity of the music.
But I think my point is that the catalog now must be mined for such opportunities because they have to be there. Prince wrote some great jams, but also some very fine structured melodies. He wrote many lyrics that would make a stripper blush, but also some of great nuance and universality.
To save Prince's catalog from the dustbin of history, these must be drawn out and given new voice, even as we revel in discovering more music from the vault which thrills because it's in Prince's own voice.
June 17, 2016
Sometimes I worry about Prince's catalog. Not because of its quality, of course, but more because of its potential longevity.
The most important thing for the longevity of a composer's work is its adaptability to a variety of uses. Musicians of the future must be able to perform his compositions, whether on record, in concert, or in adaptations for media and art forms not yet considered.
One of the reasons Bach's back catalog (if you will) is so popular 250 years after his death is that it covers a wide range of instruments, styles, and occasions. You can pull out some Bach for just about anything, and many, many artists do every single day. The same is true for Mozart, Beethoven, and others.
But there are cautionary tales out there like Irving Berlin, who wrote hundreds of songs, only a minority of which are still widely known and regularly performed ("White Christmas" and "God Bless America" topping the list). Much of his catalog, though certainly not lost, is known only by people with a very direct interest in his work.
When I look at Prince's catalog, I see potential obstacles to artists being able to cover these songs in the future. Part of this is just because covers are so much less popular now than ever (it's been a long slide). Not much can be done about that. The popularity of covers will wax and wane all on its own.
But another part of this problem is that he wrote so much for his own voice and out of his own personal mythology. Even when he was writing for other artists, much of it didn't translate very well. They just couldn't sing his songs as well as he could. There are exceptions, and artists will find ways to cover songs that they like, to a degree.
Matt Fink already has a band which plays only Prince covers, but it does so with a Prince impersonator as the lead singer. There is a very real risk that Prince could go the way of Elvis, as people adopt his image and attitude in order to cover his songs. That would be a shame.
But I think there's a real risk that much of his catalog will simply revert into the niche of superfans only (where much of it already resides) because A) it's not on paper, B) it's not particularly versatile, and C) it seems to rely largely on Prince's own persona to make it work. (I don't think this is actually true, but the artistic barrier could be a tough one to cross.)
I raise this as a challenge for the estate. In addition to keeping his recordings in front of people, they will need to make sure that any songs which could be performed by others make that leap. They will need to encourage covers, adaptations, and other uses for the music (with commensurate royalties, of course) to make sure it does not simply disappear.
I mentioned Charlie Chaplin in an earlier post, and it's instructive to note that most people have never seen a Chaplin film. They know the name, and the image, but the work has all but vanished. His genius has been reduced to a cultural meme in the scant 80 years since his final film appearance as The Little Tramp in Modern Times. The loss of his great art to the wider culture is very unfortunate.
Is Prince doomed to the same fate? I think there's a risk of that, and only some creative and sensitive work by the estate can prevent it.
June 16, 2016
I do not forgive Sinead O'Connor for editing Prince's lyrics, melody and chord structure for "Nothing Compares 2 U." I love that song, but completely hate that particular version. I really, truly do.
Artists certainly have the right to edit the source material when creating cover versions. It happens all the time. Sometimes, it improves the song, or at the very least shows it in a different light. One of my favorite cover versions of any song ever is Earth, Wind and Fire's version of Paul McCartney's "Got to Get You Into My Life" which extends the song in just about the best possible direction while sounding exactly nothing like the original.
The best cover versions mine the source material for opportunities to celebrate and extend it by utilizing the unique qualities that the performer can bring to the table. Whether by adding or removing things, the cover artist's job is to distill the original in some way and then extend it in a new and unexpected direction.
But every change that O'Connor made diminishes the song. The resulting version, which many who do not know better consider to be definitive, has power despite the changes and not because of them. It's just that good of a song. Her version could have been so much better, but comes off as sort of a paint-by-numbers effort where the colors aren't exactly right.
Credit for the success of O'Connor's version largely belongs to the video, which uses a gimmick (the unblinking camera) to provide the power that the arrangement and track just don't have. Some would point to O'Connor's acting, but I think that gives her too much credit. I'm more inclined to credit the director, costumer, lighting designer, and hair stylist.
I'm tempted to call out every little change she made to the song, because they are uniformly terrible, but only one is enough to demonstrate how artistically thin her changes were.
"It's been seven hours and thirteen days since you took your love away..."
"It's been seven hours and fifteen days since you took your love away..."
That's only one word changed, but the entire tone of the verse is modified and undercut. And because it's the very first lyric, the entire context for the song's remaining lyrics is modified maliciously.
Without ascribing any great poetic intentions to Prince (who, though generally compelling as a lyricist, hardly ever wrote anything which could be called poetry), the numbers "seven" and "thirteen" very clearly suggest "good luck" and "bad luck." The choice of those particular numbers, in addition to being related to one another, suggests the ambiguous feelings which are present in the song, whose underlying message is "I'm devastated that you're gone, but it's mainly because I was so lucky to have you in the first place." It also connects directly to the song's penultimate lyric, "...but I'm willing to give it another try." (O'Connor should have left this line out if she wanted to stay consistent with her tone.)
"Seven" and "fifteen" have no connection to one another, and no meaning whatsoever. Even "seven" and "fourteen" would have been better, one being a multiple of the other, and together forming a random reference to Bastille Day which would have been confusing but probably provocative.
There's just no reason for that change. Nothing is gained and something is quite obviously lost. The difference is between a lyricist who at least knew how to write a nice phrase, and another who clearly did not. O'Connor's abilities as a provocateur are without question, but her artistic abilities have always been a bit sketchy, and this is a good example.
For me, because I knew the song in its original form long before O'Connor's recording emerged, I felt like her changes amounted to graffiti on a pretty nice piece of work. I think that song, in its pure form (which even the songwriter had some trouble wrangling in his live shows), is an example of what Prince was very good at, and what others, even if they are fans of his work, often don't quite comprehend about the subtleties which made him great.
June 15, 2016
I don't like to think about Prince's death. It was, perhaps, the saddest possible end to the epic, and largely tragic, story of his life.
Despite great triumphs as an artist, and the likelihood that his work will be remembered for a very long time, he lived an isolated existence, and died an incredibly lonely death in the throes of a disease that no one around him had the agency to confront him about. (This was discussed recently in an article on MinnPost.)
It's tempting to chalk this up to his own actions, as some, who don't know much about the story tend to do. To a degree, that's appropriate. But the reality is that his adult life was largely a reaction to his childhood, and he took perhaps the worst possible path for himself.
Here is my reaction, posted as a comment to the above linked article:
Prince was painfully shy as a child, and lived his entire life in a form of isolation due to the very unfortunate circumstances of his upbringing. That isolation continued throughout his life, and fame only made it worse. It's very clear from the stories which circulate that he simply could not establish the types of "normal" human relationships that most people do quite naturally.
Think about that for a moment.
It was because of this that he had no support network to step in when he really needed it, which is the point of Matesa's (somewhat cold) comments. But the fault for that must be spread pretty widely, and include the absent and abusive parents, the fawning staff, the awed collaborators, and even the adoring fans. You can blame Prince if you want, but he was clearly the victim here, albeit of circumstances which he either couldn't avoid, or actively cultivated in the empty hope of resolving issues that went back (literally) to his birth.
From an early age, fame seduced him as a possible way to right the wrongs he'd been born into, but it did the opposite, compounding them beyond the point that he could ever hope to recover. Prince's body died of a fentanyl overdose, but because no one was there to help him get the help he couldn't get for himself, he actually lost his life to the deep isolation of fame.
June 14, 2016
Recently I read some biographical material on Ernest Hemingway in advance of a trip to Key West, Florida. I learned what you probably already know: that his life ended with a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Much is made of the history of depression and suicide in his family tree, but the more I read, the more I thought I detected something much more significant.
It was clear that, in his final years, Hemingway suffered from chronic pain. His injuries were many and varied, and he self-medicated with alcohol. But it's clear from some of his writing that the pain was constant, and often beyond the point that he could tolerate.
I couldn't help but think that if modern opioids had been available to him, he would have gladly taken them, even with the possibility of addiction.
I don't suffer from chronic pain, but I do have two specific, long-lasting, and ever-present conditions which are similarly significant. In some ways they are unbearable, but since there is no treatment available for either (at least no palatable treatment), I am left with simply making the best of it. I have never contemplated suicide, nor have I been addicted to any medication.
And I'm not here to suggest that Prince's death was suicide. But I am going to suggest that his pain was such that any treatment at all, even if it might lead to addiction and/or death, might have been preferred to living with the relentless pain.
You've probably seen the clip of Kevin Smith discussing his time with Prince back in 2002. At one point, when he tries to convince Prince to come and meet with fans, Prince tells him he can't because he's got a show to prepare for and "his leg hurts." (Smith goes on the suggest different shoes.)
My takeaway: It's 2002 and Prince's leg hurts. Yes, it could have been some specific injury. But it could also be evidence that his chronic pain was at least that old.
Sometimes I get angry that Prince didn't get the treatment he needed. Sometimes I'm angry at him for not allowing the people around him to help until it was too late. But if his pain was that severe, and that long-lived, and even if it wasn't, I'm reminded that it's wrong to judge someone's actions (or inactions) without walking in their shoes.
June 13, 2016
Prince's vault is quite a problem.
When I think about what must happen, a couple of very clear things come to mind.
First, the vault must be curated. These are, after all, the finished works and sketches of a significant modern artist (regardless of what anyone thinks of their quality). Their primary value may be in understanding the work we already know about.
Curating means assessing, cataloging, preserving, and interpreting. When the works are heard and seen (the vault contains a very large amount of video), they will need to be interpreted, and the best way to do this is to hire a staff of curators who can provide context.
That makes the vault sound a little bit like a museum or library, but it is at least both of those things.
Second, the vault must be monetized. This may sound crass, but the estate will have expenses, and there are probably going to be plenty of people that need to be paid (Warner Brothers probably had some sort of deal on royalties before they gave control back to Prince).
This may be by releasing new albums of old material, but it may not. It's impossible to know how Prince would have arranged these tracks, and what he might have done to them in a final round of production before release. That effectively means that we can't package them the way Prince would have, and that may just be a dead end.
But I can easily imagine letting the Cirque de Soleil people into the vault to create a show which celebrates both some hits and some unreleased (or under-released) materials. Can you imagine what they might do with "Crystal Ball" -- which, though available commercially (sort of), is essentially an unknown masterpiece to most of the world?
You could probably find someone to turn a few hits and a few unknown tracks into a Broadway musical. That's potentially a very profitable way to go, and it keeps the body of work in the public eye.
And that's the third thing: Both curating and monetizing are about keeping Prince in the public eye so that his work is remembered and appreciated. Screw this up, and people 100 years from now will know him only as a curiosity, or historical artifact.
The scale of his catalog is still an unknown, but very soon we will know much more. And it's very likely that plenty of masterworks will emerge, along with a few that aren't quite so memorable.
The estate must now be in the business of protecting and burnishing the Prince aura, of making sure that he is remembered and appreciated. It will be delicate work, but it is not to be done by amateurs.
Perhaps the greatest requirement for handling the archive will be artistic sensibility. Even in a curator, the ability to make sound artistic decisions with the material is essential. It will be a tall order to find the right person or team, but that is what must happen.
June 12, 2016
Listening to the vast corners of Prince's catalog is a little like playing "Concentration." You know you've heard that riff before, but where? That lyric sounds like a paraphrase or extension of something he said a long time ago, but which song was it?
I think it would be fun to create such a game -- a unique type of trivia in which "dog and cat" matches "La, La, La, Hee, Hee, Hee."
Some people take this a bit too far, assuming that all such connections are intentional. I'm convinced that they are not. Prince's musical memory appears to have been encyclopedic, especially when it came to his own catalog, but some things that seem like quotes may be nothing more than him reusing a building block he had used in the past.
It reminds me of the biographies of Charlie Chaplin, who was to the early movie era almost exactly what Prince was to the 1980s. One such connection is Chaplin's insistence that the cameras always be rolling so that no good idea would ever slip away unrecorded. He literally rehearsed on film, often cutting those rehearsals into finished scenes.
This describes pretty accurately what Prince did in the studio. As the many bootlegs show, he recorded everything, then picked and chose portions of jams to be molded into songs. (This is only one way he wrote, but it was a significant one.)
Chaplin famously recorded a goof with a giant inflated sphere at a party, and then later turned it into the famous scene of the dictator Hynkel (his satirized version of Hitler) playing identically with an inflatable globe. This is only one example.
Chaplin saw every idea as a potential starting point for something else, and as a building block which could be repurposed by placing it in a different context.
I'm convinced that Prince worked the very same way. And when old ideas cropped up in new contexts, it was just him pulling an old building block out and using it to build something new.
I write this as a response to a comment which jumped out at me while reading Matt Thorne's wonderful book Prince: The Man and His Music. He writes, in the chapter on Diamonds and Pearls, "I've never forgiven Prince for cannibalizing one of his greatest ever songs, 'Rebirth of the Flesh', for one of his most forgettable, 'Walk Don't Walk', but at least now 'Rebirth' has received an official, albeit limited release."
Though Thorne was likely being somewhat tongue-in-cheek, I had to check this out. Sure enough, in its break, 'Walk' contains the same riff as 'Rebirth' with the nonsense words from the latter replaced in the former with an embarrassing sequence of car horns.
I had never noticed this before, despite having known 'Rebirth' from bootlegs for about 25 years.
My point is that Prince may have used the same riff, and he may have even done so intentionally, without meaning to connect those two songs in any way, and without meaning to disrespect one by cribbing from it. That riff was more likely just a building block lodged in the back of Prince's mind which came out in another place.
I'm now going to try and forget this connection altogether, because I agree with his assessment of the two songs and don't want this little connection to become permanent.
But I've also been thinking about Chaplin because his life was the model I always assumed Prince's would follow. After having been among the most prolific and innovative and popular moviemakers in history, he eventually settled down and reinvented his craft, his later work bearing little resemblance to his classic work, but nonetheless being "classic" in a very different way.
After doing all of this, he got married and had a gigantic family in retirement, living to the ripe old age of 88.
I imagined Prince doing the same, and I looked forward to seeing that progression, and hearing the other ways in which he would reinvent himself and harness anew his genius.
That's a big part of where my deep sadness over his death comes from.
June 11, 2016
When I heard that Prince's plane had made an emergency landing about a week before his death, it hit me like so many other celebrity stories. I immediately thought that maybe he had a new album coming out and needed a little love from the press.
Prince was not above such chicanery, and I don't think that suggesting such a thing is necessarily a negative.
But as the story developed, it began to sound more like a genuine health emergency, and thoughts about his mortality flitted superficially through my mind.
The party he later hosted here in Minneapolis to prove that he was alright was big in the local headlines, as was his quote to fans: "Wait a few days before you waste any prayers."
The choice of words grabbed me instantly, and I wondered if there was, as has often been the case with Prince, a double meaning. The ambiguity was compelling to anyone who had watched him for any amount of time.
On the surface he sounded like he was warning us against reacting too swiftly to any "news" about him. But I immediately recognized that he could be telling us that he thought he had only a few days to live.
My rational mind dismissed it, and as the (regrettably few) days passed I began to think I'd just made the whole thing up in my head. Prince would be fine, I reasoned. It was just the flu, and he's bulletproof anyway.
I'm not inclined to ascribe any sort of psychic capabilities to Prince. Nor do I think he had some sort of closer contact with God or anything like that. But I do think that our bodies tell us things if we are willing to listen, and it makes sense to me that he might have recognized that he was in dire territory. It makes sense that he could have seen where his addiction was heading.
It would be just like him to author a phrase that could be read two different ways depending on what was about to transpire, a final act of genius.
He may have been warning us, and he may have been warning himself.
June 10, 2016
When you get a chance, go back and listen to Chaos and Disorder again.
Most people hated it, and dismissed it as a contractually obligatory snoozefest. Nothing could be further from the truth.
I suspect that very few people (especially reviewers) even listened to it a second time. And if there's one lesson which every Prince fan knows, it's about how repeated listenings are absolutely required if you hope to gauge the value of the material.
While it's true that some of his songs grow threadbare after a couple of listenings, that is just not the case on Chaos and Disorder. As a whole, I find it to be among his most satisfying -- from the sound of the band, to the spontaneous songwriting, to the very raw emotional content. (Is any Prince track more raw than "Had U"?)
It's true that I'm a Lovesexy guy, and I'll always consider that to be his masterpiece. But when I've needed a shot of Prince in the years since I stopped following him obsessively, I've always turned to Chaos and Disorder, and I've never been disappointed.
I'm listening to more recent stuff now, and trying to get a feel for the later catalog, but I have yet to hear anything quite as compelling.
One of the most awesome things about Prince's work is that it truly does reward repeated listenings, and sometimes they are required in order to understand the scope of his achievement.
Even then, sometimes I think I still can't fully appreciate it. I wonder: Do we even know yet what we've lost?
June 9, 2016
I stopped following Prince in 1996 for reasons that I fully intend to explore here.
When he died, I discovered that there was a full 20 years worth of music that I'd never heard. I'd missed fully half of his career. That's a lot of catching up!
I've started listening but it's pretty intimidating...
June 8, 2016
Prince forced everyone to raise their game. This is an immensely valuable quality.
I listen to pop radio with my kids, and most of it sounds, well, boring. It tends to be repetitive, unimaginative, yet also tediously overwrought. Every production seems over-the-top, and modern "songwriting" consists of mostly just slight jams with words (often dreadful ones).
Prince wrote this way, to be sure, but he never stopped refining until a jam had been turned into an actual structured song. He also wrote structured songs from scratch.
Recently, Haley Reinhart covered the classic "Can't Help Falling in Love." When it appears on the radio, it's as if the skies part and an actual song -- a foreign entity -- appears.
At first, in the 80s, that's what it was like when a Prince song came on the radio: the skies cleared. But eventually, everybody wanted in on that game, and songwriting became important again. He ushered in a late surge in the craft of songwriting, which now has dissipated again.
When Prince died, local radio stations played nothing but his music for days. Even his slightest records ran circles around today's top hits. And, no, this isn't about music being better in some bygone era. It's about the crafting of songs from good ideas rather than just the creation of a salable product. Prince did both, but there are precious few people doing that in pop music today. What is really needed in pop music is someone that is pushing the craft of creativity and forcing everyone else to raise their games.
Without that, his absence is all the more keenly felt as a result.
June 7, 2016
Prince often made me laugh.
He wrote funny lyrics. He wrote funny songs. He made records like "Scarlet Pussy" which contain aural jokes right next to his lyrical ones. Sometimes he sang serious things in a funny voice, or funny things in a serious voice. Sometimes it was hard to tell which was which.
But my laughing was about so much more than that. Sometimes I laughed in pure delight at hearing some amazing musical or lyrical idea, or just a musical turn done incredibly perfectly, or at something which surprised me. In truth, when this happened, which was frequently, I didn't so much laugh as giggle -- uncontrollably.
When artists die, it's easy to become too serious or reverential about their work. I get that. But in the days after Prince died, as I started listening to some of his later work that I'd never heard before, those old giggles came back. What a great feeling.
And when I first heard "Laydown" (the "hidden" track at the end of 20Ten), I did a double-take. Did he really just sing what I think he sang? Did he just call himself the Purple Yoda?
Yes, he did. It fits. And it's silly. And cool. I laughed. And giggled. And couldn't stop. And I cried at the same time.
Prince was so much, and the loss is immeasurable. And since April 21 I've found myself having random -- mostly happy -- thoughts about him and his art. I'm going to jot them down here. Welcome.
May 4, 2016
This site will open on June 7, 2016 to honor Prince through the discussion of his music and his place in our culture.
"It's been seven hours and thirteen days since you took your love away..."