Friday, April 22, 2016

A Prince Lived

Prince definitely wasn't a member of the gun culture. He was a progressive whenever anything remotely political came up. So most readers here may not have liked him that much.

I was a musician. I played a lot of Prince's stuff over the years, from his more popular tunes like Purple Rain or When Doves Cry to more obscure pieces, such as Starfish and Coffee to Sometimes It Snows In April (generally regarded by many as the saddest song in the world). In my professional opinion he was one of the most talented songwriters to date. Genius in fact would not be an exaggeration of his ability. Not all of his songs were likeable; some were better than others, but his ability to craft sounds into emotions was incredible.

I usually try to keep the writing here PG-13'ish, but there's simply no way to talk about Prince without some cussing, so you've been warned.

On the road with this 10 piece do-wop band back in the 90's (that'd be 1990's, ya whippersnappers!) we had a lot of time to shoot the breeze. This one older fellow, a sax player by the name of Don, said two things about Prince (on different trips) that always stuck with me. Don was in his late 50's or early 60's at the time, a stocky, barrel chested sax player/drummer with a deep raspy voice that added gravity to him simply saying "pass the salt". Another preface to this is that musicians have their own language, perhaps vaguely related to English but it'd damn near serve as a nigh unbreakable code to most folks. Each band had its own dialect, and most had a deep affinity for profanity. That being said:

Someone mentioned that Prince was going to be in town soon, to which Don expounded, "He is? Well shit. don't none of y'all try to go to any strip joints that night" When prompted for an explanation he said, "cause ere'body damn well knows strippers love 'em some Prince. All them dancers gonna call in sick and go see they freak-in-chief. And I mean ALL of 'em. From Columbia to Greensboro. Maybe Raleigh too. You wanna see some titties that night, fuck the clubs - go see Prince! I know that's where Imma be".

Some different occasion someone mentioned that Prince had a song that was moving up the charts, after not being heard from in a while. Don explained, "See that's the thing about that little purple muthafucker. He write a tune that's all on the one and shit and ere'one loves it, then he'll chill; just shut the fuck up for a while. While he's doing that the style kindly drifts away from him, the people start listening to somethin' else. But then he gets bored and writes another tune, puts it out and the style comes right muthafuckin' back to him. Shit, in a hundred years they gonna find some tune he wrote and recorded and just sat on (you know how he do, he probably got enough songs in the can right now to put out albums for the next 50 years without lifitin' a got-damn little purple finger) and when it hits ere'one'll be tripping cause it's in style then too!"

I went to see Prince twice, once in Charlotte, NC and once in Denver, Co (the first during his Hit n Run tour, the second during his Musicology Live 2004ever). Don was right; all of the strippers I knew in Charlotte (and some from as far away as Myrtle Beach,SC) were at the first show. At the 2nd I didn't know as many local dancers, but I assume that at least 10% of the ladies there that dressed like dancers weren't merely guessing, so I imagine pickin's were slim at the Front Range strip joints that night as well.

He put on damned good shows, partially because he had great musicians touring with him, and partly because he was just a great performer. At the 2nd show he did an acoustic medley of some of his songs. Just him and a guitar. By himself he was every bit as entertaining as with a full band. That's not easy to do, but he did it effortlessly.

He wasn't perfect in my estimation; I was never crazy about the way he played guitar. He had some good ideas but I wasn't happy with the way he presented them on that instrument. As a drummer he was good, not a virtuoso but good (though he did some innovative stuff). Where I think he shined was on piano and vocals. The way he composed though - his errors were better than most people's successes when he decided to write something.

He made 3 films. Purple Rain, Under the Cherry Moon, and Graffiti Bridge. Purple Rain doesn't connect with everybody. As a movie I'm not inclined to say it's all that great. But if you look at it as a feature length, or very extended feature length music video, then it's terrific. It makes sense. It's downright artistic. Graffiti Bridge I just can't justify. It was too out there for my tastes. But what I think was his best film, and a really good film in its own right, was Under the Cherry Moon. It was panned by critics (as was Harlem Nights, which I also thought was a real good movie) but I'm arguing that this was undeserved. The soundtrack album, called Parade didn't suffer from bad reviews at all. It had a #1 hit with Kiss and a song called Mountains that charted well. For me the highlights of the album were in two songs that didn't make the charts. One I mentioned earlier called Sometimes It Snows In April and the other was an instrumental piece called Venus De Milo. The latter shows what Prince is capable of as a composer; it's a soft piece for piano and horns that's less than 2 minutes long and one of the most delicate and thoughtful themes I could imagine.

But as Prince notoriously threatened to sue over a toddler dancing to one of his tunes, you can imagine that finding Prince tunes online is next to impossible. In July of 2015 he yanked his catalog from Spotify, and I think Tidal is the only way to listen to his music online at present. As I mentioned up top, Prince was a progressive with a rather unusual notion of property Rights and copyright.

I had an acquaintance that knew Prince. He was a drummer that I knew through being good pals with the bass player he was working with at the time. He related that he was at a party with Prince around the time that Larry Graham and Chaka Khan were touring with him. The source of the conflict was unknown to him but at some point things got messy with Chaka storming from the room yelling "Fuck you, ya tiny little purple motherfucker!" They made up some time later, but it's been common talk amongst musicians that Prince was sometimes tricky to work with and a bit eccentric, even for musicians.

If you have the time, Kevin Smith talks about his experiences working with Prince in this vid. It's funny and informative imnsho:

Charlie Murphy did a skit on Dave Chappelle's show about the time he hung out with Prince back in the 80's. You can find that vid here. Aside from being funny as hell (as is any story involving basketball and pancakes) it does establish that Prince had an unusual perspective on life.

Artists of all types are, to use the scientific term, strange. Prince was no exception and it's debatable whether it was his talent or success that increased the tendency towards unusual lifestyles. But that never detracted from the music he produced - at least to myself and the musicians I knew.

In fact, I've heard from 2 friends so far, one a guitarist and the other a singer/pianist. They were terribly upset when they heard the news and we reminisced about some of his tunes and what they meant. Both friends are around my age and they're ladies, so they leaned heavily on memories of Prince's tunes when they came out in the 80's. One of them crushed on Prince for years and even ended up becoming friends with The Time so I knew she'd take it badly. The other was more into metal (she liked Yngwie cause she could identify with how he played) so it surprised me a little that she was affected so much, but then again maybe it doesn't surprise me now that I think on it. Seems silly, being distraught over the absence of a person you never knew? That's the thing - through his music we did know him in a way, just as in a way he did know us.

Especially in his early decades of writing he didn't shy away from being a bit bawdy, kinda like the Atlantic tends to be a bit damp. (Hell, some of his songs were so dirty, after listening folks would reach for a cigarette and an antiseptic...) Songs like Sexy MF, Head, Horny Toad, Jack U Off, Gett Off, Pussy Control and Scarlet Pussy come to mind, but there were also his ballads - I Love U In Me and who can forget that tender love song Eye Hate U. Bear in mind, that's just going by the titles. It was a song of his called Darling Nikki that shocked Tipper Gore so much in the mid-80's she put together a group to end run that pesky 1rst amendment. At the same time he composed a tune called Starfish and Coffee that was not only kid friendly, but that he performed on The Muppets Tonight.

What always surprised people were the tunes Prince wrote that other people had hits with. Chaka Khan did I Feel For You, Sinead O'Connor did Nothing Compares 2 U, Madonna did Love Song (co-wrote), Sheila E did The Glamorous Life, Celine Dion did With This Tear, Sheena Easton did Sugar Walls, Stevie Nick did Stand Back (co-wrote), Kenny Rogers did You're My Love, Tevin Campbell did Shhh, and the first few albums from The Time are reportedly all written and performed (with the exception of the lead vocals) by Prince. That'd include Jungle Love and The Bird (as well as the sensitive ballad Gigolos Get Lonely Too).

His work affected a lot of people, sometimes in ways that would appear unlikely.

In the early 90's there was this little redneck joint near where I lived at the time. I got to be pals with the houseband there and on my nights off I would sit in with them for a tune or three. They played mostly country and southern rock and some metal, but I pushed them as much as I could to expand their playlist. Keep in mind, these is rednecks I'm talking about, with accents as country as you can imagine. So I finally got them to do some dance tunes. One of them was Purple Rain. I'm not sure I can do it justice in print, but just try to imagine a 3 piece band (guitar, bass and drums) doing Purple Rain with the singer having an accent that'd make Travis Tritt think "damn that's twangy!". Written out, I think it'd go something like this, "I nev'r meant to cause you naw sorrah, nev'r meant to cause you naw paiaiaiaiaian..." I was all proud (and hysterically amused) when I walked in one night and they were playing it without me, as I had a chance to take in the intense irony of the scene. (Which reminds me, I simply must tell the story one day of the light jazz band I was in that had to do Freebird at this one gig...)

I could go on for ages. Prince and the bands he influenced were a pervasive part of the life of any musician. But words don't ever do a good enough job of conveying what music is or means, as music in its most pure sense is nothing more than emotions. memories, feelings; all sorts of intangible things that are different for each of us. So I'll try to post what vids I can or give y'all some links. If you never really had a chance, some of his stuff is worth listening to. Most will be other people covering his work, cause finding Prince vids on the internetz is harder than teaching a democrat budget committee to use a calculator.

Nothing Compares 2 U performed by Sinead O'Connor

The Glamorous Life performed by Sheila E.

I Feel For You performed by Chaka Khan.

Adore performed by the Indiana University Soul Revue

Jerk Out performed by Morris Day and the Time.

Call My Name performed by Morgan James

How Come You Don't Call Me Anymore? performed by Maruja Retana

Kiss performed by two ladies and some random guy on a subway

When Doves Cry performed by Stan Van Samang

Darling Nikki with choreography by Jese.

Cool and Let's Work from a show in Charlotte, NC back in '11.

Joy In Repetition and We Do This from 2002 with Larry Graham, Maceo Parker, Candy Dulfer and George Clinton. Listen to it while you can. The first tune is perhaps the most lyrical deep song extent, with phrases that any beat poet would have given his beret for ("...the song's a year long and had been playing for months when he walked into the place, no one seem to care, an introverted 'this is it?' look on most of their faces..." and contains an existential theme that explains, among other things, why artists try to create. Here are the lyrics so you may judge for yourself.

Purple Rain

Finally, the 3rd saddest tune in existence (by my estimation) is The Platter's Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, tied with Brooke Benton's Rainy Night In Georgia. The 2nd saddest tune in existence is Queen's Who Wants To Live Forever. This is the most sad:

Sometimes It Snows In April

1 comment:

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