(Photo by Mark Weiss/www.weissguygallery.com)
I do not want to write this shit.
Not now. Not ever.
This is personal.
But it’s either this or continue sitting around enduring this sick feeling of inertia on the edge of a loathsome face-off with mortality.
During the most prolific musical period of my life, my early twenties, when I wrote and played music for a living, more or less, there was only one artist that mattered: Prince Rogers Nelson.
This was a dark time of transition for me from the late ‘70s Punk movement into New Wave and then a lot of stuff I did not relate to on any level beyond a strange imbalance of apathy and abhorrence. There was U2, the Violent Femmes, a little later, Jane’s Addiction, REM, the Beastie Boys and Public Enemy, but mostly, I was lost. But one thing that could always be counted on was a new Prince album that would snap me back into coherence and make me love new music again, as I did when I was a kid and wore out all my 1960s to early 1970s stuff.
From 1980 to about 1998, Prince was a motherfucker. He wrote, produced and played on more songs than any living human. Period. In a time when major artists put out an album every three to four years, Prince dropped one, and in some cases, two annually. He once released The Black Album, pulled it, and replaced with another one (Lovesexy) in two months, then leaked the former on bootleg. He bootlegged himself! The 1996 album, Emancipation, had thirty-six (36!!) really good, really interesting songs on it. In ’98, Crystal Ball had fifty-one incredibly disparate and engaging tracks. On the bulk of these seemingly endless and brilliantly devised discs, the majority of which were huge hits with even bigger hit singles on them, he played every instrument, frighteningly well, and sang all of the parts; some five-part harmonies worthy of the Temptations meets Brian Wilson on a funk jag.
Prince lived in the studio. Literally. He built the damn thing where he lived. Turns out, he died in it. He did not drink. He did not use drugs. He did not attend gala industry parties. He rarely did any interviews or appearances. Hell, he barely ate or slept. He wrote, played and recorded music. When he left the studio to tour the world, he would jam with locals and members of his band in clubs in every city. He played the bass, drums, guitar, piano, and sang back-up and lead, or whatever was needed. He played every kind of music expertly. He listened to and absorbed every kind of music copiously. He was a sponge and he was a spigot that poured forth inspiration.
Those who sessioned for him swore he would force the best from musicians, because he was better than any of them. For a mind-numbing spurt in the mid-to-late ’80s, Prince wrote, performed, and produced major hits for many artists; The Time, Sheena Easton, Chaka Kahn, TLC, The Bangles, Sheila E., Stevie Nicks, to name a very few. He started “mask” bands like The Time, The Family, Mazarati, Vanity 6, so he could put out four or five albums a year. Two years running he put out jazz albums under the name Madhouse and created characters to sing and produce other works, Camille and Jamie Starr to name just two. Later he changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol just so he could record anywhere and everywhere to escape the confines of a music business that could not handle him.
Every single he released during this time came with an adjoining twelve-inch extended version with completely fresh B-sides that were often superior to some of the tracks on the albums. Time and space precludes me from making a very strong argument that “Erotic City” is the best side of anything anyone put out in the 1980s, and it was the B-Side to “Let’s Go Crazy”, which is the fifth best song on his monster album/film, Purple Rain. And Purple Rain, which won Prince an Oscar, Grammys, et al, and has sold a stunning 22 million copies worldwide to date, is not nearly as good as 1987’s Sign ‘O’ The Times, which I still believe is by far the finest, most diverse and experimental pop record of the decade.
Here’s one for you; I maintain that the best song Prince ever wrote is one he never even recorded as Prince or the symbol-thing, “Nothing Compares 2 U”, which Sinead O’Connor’s gorgeously heartrending version turned into a smash hit. I first heard it performed by one of his aforementioned “mask” bands, The Family on its only album in 1985; no doubt with a backing-track played entirely by the composer. If there is a more painfully framed slice of love-loss than “All the flowers that you planted, mama, in the backyard…all died when you went away”, I’m waiting to hear it. The thing floors me every time. Every time.
Prince songs are genre-less. It was Prince—everyone else. There was rock, funk, punk, pop, jazz, fusion, reggae, ska, rap, classical and a collection of aural oddities that brought a dynamic charge to each successive listen; songs about sex and love and race and sex and God and loss and sex and power and dreams and sex and pain and joy and…yeah, sex. Sex was Prince’s gateway to the spiritual (orgasm as transmogrification), the political (seduction as liberation), the revolutionary (transgender identification), with all those substitute word/symbols thrown in to give it all a literary spark. Listening to Prince back then was a lesson; sit up, take notice, learn the craft, be the music, dig the vibe. It was the experience you looked forward to, because you would not be disappointed.
Maybe it’s because he controlled everything; his image, his fashion, and of course his music. It led to the outstanding and the outlandish. No one was there to say no to Prince, from the first album when he was barely 20 years old and somehow convinced Warner Bros. to allow him to produce his own records. There was no Quincy Jones or George Martin for Prince Rogers Nelson. He was the one who decided to pull the bass out of “When Doves Cry” or create an entire alternative-concept album around a Batman movie or direct a black-and-white French film that bombed so badly it is hard to believe he wasn’t ruined (for the record I like Under a Cherry Moon better than Purple Rain, so there), and certainly no one counseled him to demand everyone stop calling him Prince and release instrumental jazz-rock fusion records after multi-artist compilations and then shun the entire record industry altogether. Nope. It was all Prince, for good or ill. That kind of freedom is power and it led him, and us, to some pretty cool places.
My favorite Prince musical memories, beyond the dozen or so times I saw him play live with some of the best musicians I have ever heard/seen anywhere, is all that wonderful first-time stuff. You know, first time I heard “Purple Rain” at three in the morning driving home from some gig; letting the opening chords and the first verse sink in, then turn it up a little for the second, and by the third, where he shreds his vocal chords and the goddamn fret board, let it blast away. The first time I cracked open the shipping box for Around The World In A Day, still sort of my favorite Prince album, two days before it was to be put on the shelf (I was working at Record World in Westchester at the time), and running home to play it; the weird Indian raga and the screeching wail of a guitar into vocal, then all that stuff afterwards that runs into “Raspberry Beret” and “Pop Life”, and that weird shit at the end where he is fucking and talking to God or whatever the hell is going on there. Hearing “Kiss” for the first time; the bare, stark, air-sucking naked compression of everything that thump-kicks you in the face and the gut and the balls; ushering in that pinch-chirping falsetto; “You don’t hafta be beautiful…” My first listen to Sign ‘O’ The Times; his masterpiece; his Exile on Main St., his White Album, his Blonde on Blonde—Fuck it; go listen to Sign … right now…do it!
I remember the friends and lovers too. We were the special ones, the ones who dug Prince before he was the shit and after he stopped being the shit when the shit came down on him. You know who you are, but I have a special place in my soul for my dear friend and drummer, Anthony Misuraca. Shit, Anthony and I would listen to Prince everywhere; the car, the house, the studio, the roof, the basement, the street; morning, noon, night. We’d pick out chords and riffs and lilts in his voice; You hear that? No? Listen to this…man! We drove from Raleigh, North Carolina, to Madison Square Garden on August 2, 1986 to see The Revolution ply its trade. I remember it because it’s my brother’s birthday, and because we did it. It was my first Prince gig. I chased down Prince concerts after that; every single one better than the next—although for my money the Lovesexy Tour 1988 beats all-hell; in the round, a tour de force. I caught it three times.
That was the thing about Prince; it was personal for those of us who dug him. We got our copy of Uptown magazine every month at Revolver Records on West 8th Street and argued about the alternative mixes and studio outtake/live bootlegs and after-hour show tapes and how each song referenced the other song and it coalesced into this other thing entirely. It was a ’70s kid thing for a lot of us, who grew up, like Prince, on imagination, amalgamation, and organic clout in our music. We understood when Prince released a B-Side at 45 rpm, but if you slowed it down to 33 rpm it is a tribute to the third track on the fourth Sly and the Family Stone album. We knew when he referenced James Brown in “Get Off”; “Some like ‘em fat…” or rolled into Joni Mitchell’s “Help Me” in the bridge of “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker” or that odd Stones riff he hides in “Ronnie Talk To Russia” or the Hendrix feed-drenched guitar-screams in “All The Critics Love You In New York” or the Black Sabbath-esque foreboding intro to “1999”, or the blatantly obvious Marvin Gaye homage suite in “Do Me Baby”. We got it, man. We loved it. He understood what made us tick. He gave us a soundtrack to our soundtrack.
For the longest time, there was a Prince album and Woody Allen film every year. Like clockwork. And they were always challenging and engaging and inspiring. This was what I counted on. Like Christmas or birthdays for others. The other day I thought about a time when the 80-year-old Allen would no longer be able to tell his celluloid stories. This I get. It’s going to suck, but I get that. But Prince? He is 57. I am 53. We hail from the same post-Boomer/pre-X generation that produced a shitload of really cynical, wise-ass jerk-offs, who cannot believe there are still illogical, racist, sexually-repressed assholes running around using the same tired bullshit to tell us what we can listen to or eat or fuck or wear; that we thought we had somehow changed things by merely living on and making it to the future; it is what Prince meant when he wrote in the liner notes of every record, “May U Live To See The Dawn”.
Suddenly you wake up and the future is the past and your present is the dumb shit your parents and their parents had to deal with. You sleepwalked through all this proposed revolution. You expected something new and vibrant, because you imagined it. Maybe it was all just marketing. But you come to accept it. It’s fine. It’s life. And then with no warning and no reason Prince up and dies and dredges it all up. A wild, eccentric crazy man, whose art was life, is gone—who wore nothing but garters, silk-stockings and panties on stage and ass-less pants on Arsenio Hall and stuck the Lord’s Prayer in the middle of a funk song about interracial homosexuality and turned songs about Armageddon into a party-pop hit you could roll out on MTV with his interracial, cross-gender rock/funk/pop band, conflating images of Jesus, smack, slavery and cunninlingus into a song about flowers.
I was reminded today of that little nugget from Toure’s 2013 treatise on Prince, I Would Die For You—Why Prince Became An Icon, which I reviewed for this paper and truth be told, inspired my own foray into such an investigation on KISS in my last book, Shout It Out Loud—The Story of KISS’s Destroyer and the Making of an American Icon. Toure writes of “emerging adulthood” this way: “Sociologists say people fifteen to twenty-five are in active identity formulation mode, as opposed to thirty-somethings…part of why we like certain artists is that we like the other people who like them, we enjoy being associated with or attached to those people, we want to be in a tribe with them. After thirty that social transaction is less valuable.”
Today, as I write this, those words ring true. I already knew all this, it’s obvious, but when that touchstone, the focal point of a tribe long gone dies, it can unsettle the odd illusion. I have to admit, it triggered something deeper in me than mere fandom. My friend, Anthony, must have felt it too. I had not heard from him in about five or six years, yet he emailed me within minutes of the news of Prince dying. He just wrote, “Wow.” Yeah, wow. Moments before I heard the news, not from the Internet or the radio, but from my sister-in-law, Shannon, who every time we get together we get loaded and listen to Prince and just smile. We did it just a few months ago. She must feel it too. It is, I think, a real sense of something else dying; the youthful exuberance of discovery and a revolutionary spirit that always seems to be fading.
But that’s the nut. You see, Prince stopped becoming that interesting to me by the turn of the century. There were moments when I was pulled back by a random album or single, and I caught most of his tours through here, although I sadly missed the last one. It’s as though, over this past decade and a half, I’d been already mourning his passing as an influential artist in my life, but really that passing was that of time, this period of life when music could shift my entire being for more than an afternoon or evening, where it took me places, redefined me, set another course, a more dangerous one. It fueled me. It scared me. It soothed me.
Ahhh, but once that’s awakened in you, then you look for it everywhere. It’s a curse. And I think what became glaringly apparent with the passing of Prince is the curse can’t be lifted. Nope. It’s there. Always. And because Prince was visual and theatrical and worked on many thematic levels and played with perceptions and got Tipper Gore all hot and heavy over Darling Nikki “masturbating with a magazine”, it reminded me of it. It’s humor. It’s sedition. It’s exuberance to test parameters unseen. It reminded me that it makes all the rest of it worthwhile. I need to be reminded. We need to be reminded.
“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life…”
Preach it, brutha.
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James Campion is the Managing Editor of The Reality Check News & Information Desk and the author of “Deep Tank Jersey”, “Fear No Art”, “Trailing Jesus”, “Midnight For Cinderella” and “Y”. and his new book, “Shout It Out Loud—The Story of KISS’s Destroyer and the Making of an American Icon”.