Sunday, May 1, 2016

My Purple Life, Part 2

In Part 1 of "My Purple Life," I talked about receiving the news of Prince's death and reflected on times in my own life when his music was heavily involved. You can check it out by clicking here. For this edition, I wanted to get to the bottom of why I was so drawn to his music. I've been listening to him ever since I was about nine years old. Let's just say I've multiplied those nine years a few times over and I'm still a fan. But why? Nostalgia plays a role, I'm sure. Like most of us, the music of my formative years will always be what I consider the best. By formative, I mean those years from about twelve to twenty-five. For me, that period of time coincides with Prince's peak, beginning with the album 1999 and ending with his last "big" album Diamonds and Pearls. Truthfully, Emancipation was the last album of that stretch of time, and a good one, but Diamonds and Pearls was the last album to produce a string of huge hits. I'm a thoughtful guy, however, so I hope that the reason he has been the artist I've most revered throughout my life is deeper than the fact he was hot when I was a teenager. I started thinking about it and came up with a few other reasons.

The easiest place to start is with his physical gifts as a musician. As the legend goes, he taught himself to play the theme song from the old Adam West Batman TV show on the piano when he was five years old. As his love for music grew he devoured musical instruments, teaching himself to play dozens without even knowing how to read music. Whether he learned to read it later in life, I don't know, but really it's irrelevant. Forget about selling even one album, to just accomplish that is simply amazing. Here I am, a grown man who at several points in my life tried to take up playing an instrument, just one, and failed miserably every time. Meanwhile, this dude can make I don't know how many sound absolutely beautiful. This brings me to the most astounding Prince fact of them all. On his first two albums, For You and Prince, he wrote, produced, and performed every song completely alone. By perform, I do indeed mean he played every single instrument himself. Imagine writing lyrics, recording a track one instrument at a time (real instruments not computer programs), laying down the vocals (lead and background, when needed), then putting that all together into a cohesive song. It's a mind-blowing feat, almost incomprehensible to do for even one song. He did it for two whole albums? Really he did it for five albums, because his next three, Dirty Mind, Controversy, and 1999, only featured a handful of contributions in total on a song or two on each. It wasn't until his fifth album, Purple Rain, that he began using other musicians for more than a track, here or there. So yeah, I will forever be in awe of his talent and how he developed it. Hell, just let this video play while you read the rest of this and make sure you pay attention during Prince's solo.

Prince's versatility as an artist is also a big plus in his favor. Just think about the hit songs. They have encompassed more genres than any artist that I can think of. He's given us funk, classic rock, rhythm and blues, synth pop, straight pop, metal, power ballads, and even rap. Dig into his albums and you'll also find indie rock, religious, alternative, jazz, and more. No matter what style he's playing, none of it sounds forced. He was always able to take whatever genre he was dabbling in and make it his. As a huge hip hop fan, I can be quickly dismissive of people who aren't rappers trying to rap, even if I like them. When Prince did Sexy M.F. I had nothing to say. It was a rap song that only he could have made. Everything about it screamed 'Prince,' not 'Prince trying to rap.' The other things he did opened me up to stuff I wasn't normally exposed to. Let's Go Crazy primed me for Guns N' Roses, Metallica, and the like. Songs like I Wanna Be Your Lover, Controversy, and Little Red Corvette prepared me for Madonna. Many other Prince songs made it easier for me to appreciate many other artists, too. Of course, he inspired many artists who populated the sound waves in his wake. Therefore, I heard his influence in music that wasn't directly his. Anytime I listen to Lenny Kravitz, D'Angelo, or Maxwell, for instance, I can practically hear Prince in their ear telling them "do it this way."

All of the things I've told you are great, but for me, it always comes back to the writing. Even as a teen, I flocked to artists who's songs featured lyrics that I could dig into, dissect, and find something beneath the surface. If what's being said can be related to my life on a personal level, that's even better. That love has only intensified as I've grown older. Prince left us a rich catalog of insightful, heartfelt, fun, and deeply personal poetry. Within it, he gives us some great metaphors, and ridiculously salacious double entendre. His writing has looked at just about every aspect of life on both a public level and a private one. Some themes are recurring while others only appear once or twice. By the end of his life, it's formed a gigantic puzzle that, if stitched together, tell us everything we ever wanted to know about Prince.

When most are looking for a few words to describe Prince's music, they often come up with sexy, innovative, and synonyms for both. However, what often gets overlooked is that he was capable of taking a long look at the world outside of his bedroom and speak on it. Like the best poetry, he didn't necessarily have answers, but observed it. In Sign O' the Times, he writes "In France a skinny man died of a big disease with a little name/By chance his girlfriend came across a needle and soon she did the same." These are  the first two lines of the song. Right away we know this isn't some party song or declaration of love. We have to sit up and pay attention. The song continues in this vein, looking at what's going on around the world and it's really a rather bleak and hopeless picture. Years before, 1999 did much the same. The difference between the two being that 1999 is such an upbeat track what it's saying gets lost in all the excitement. The chorus plays into the collective angst we once had that the world would end once we got to the year 2000. If you know the world is about to end and you can't do anything about it, why not have a big party? Prince mourns a lost friend in Sometimes It Snows in April, makes up for past sins in The Holy River, scoffs at the speculation on his personal life in Controversy, and even takes a stance against Communism in a rare moment of overt patriotism on America.

Occasionally, Prince's writing can be a bit cryptic. I love this because it's open to interpretation. Two of the songs that perplexed me the most happened to appear in pretty close proximity on the Sign O' the Times album. First was The Ballad of Dorothy Parker. It's one of my favorite songs of all time, period. It was never released as a single so you're forgiven if you've never heard of it, let alone hearing it. It concerns a young man in the midst of a rocky relationship meeting a girl who works at the local diner. By the end of the song he's telling us about taking a bubble path with his pants on. Did he leave his old girl to get with Dorothy? Did his conversation with Dorothy give him the impetus to patch things up with his girl? Neither? Both? Two songs later, we have Starfish and Coffee. Here, the speaker is reminiscing about a girl he went to school with named Cynthia Rose. At the end of the first verse he tells us what the girl eats for breakfast every day. At the end of the second, he and another classmate sneak a peek in Cynthia's lunchbox and finds the exact same thing. He doesn't analyze it any further other than to tell her to keep doing her thing. What's in the lunchbox, you ask? "Starfish and coffee, maple syrup and jam/Butterscotch clouds, a tangerine, a side order of ham." Huh? Love the song, but I'm still scratching my head over that one.

It may seem that a little earlier I dismissed the notion of Prince's music as being sexy. That's not at all what I meant to do because the part of his writing that resonates with me most are the songs that explore relationships through sexuality. Yes, he's made some raunchy songs that would fit right in with today's sexed up R&B climate. However, there's a major difference between what he did and what's going on now. Back in the 90s, R. Kelly arrived on the scene, took the depth and spirituality out of Prince's ballads and gave us just the sex. He also made it much more macho. Don't get me wrong, Kelly has made some great "baby-making" songs, but his style is akin to porn. It's all about how great he is at fucking. In the twenty or so years since Kelly's debut, ballads by male singers have simply followed suit. They only differentiate themselves by making increasingly outrageous claims. We eventually get to Trey Songz telling us he is so good you'll think he invented sex. It's basically been one long drill session for two, going on three decades presided over by an endless succession of guys who keep the entirety of their manhood in their pants. And they're proud of it.

Prince represents a halfway point between this current crop of crooners and the balladeers of the Motown Era who sang of love, but kept it largely sexless until Marvin Gaye's Let's Get it On. There is plenty of sex in Prince songs, but there is also plenty of love. On top of that, it's rarely about how great he is, but more about how the person he's with makes him feel. Insatiable is one of the sexiest songs ever. In it, Prince does indeed tell his woman what he will do to her, but it's because of how great she is in bed. He's not afraid to admit she has him hooked, not the other way around when he says "Insatiable is my name when it comes to you." In Adore, again we see a man so in love with a woman he can't stand to be away from her. Not even divine intervention could stop him from loving her, or as he puts it, "If God one day struck me blind, your beauty I'd still see." Again, sex is not just a physical act, but a spiritual one. God would never strike him blind because of how much they mean to one another. "When we be makin' love/I only hear the sounds/Heavenly angels cryin' up above/Tears of joy pourin' down (on us)." On Scandalous, it's again about what his partner wants, Anything you've ever dreamed of, I'm willing to be. All of this strikes a chord with me because I've always been a romantic who places the interests of the person I'm with above my own. Sure, I like to get mine, as some say, but it's more important to me that you get yours. I fully buy in to the idea that I will please me by pleasing you and I want to please you because you've already pleased me in ways that have nothing to do with what happens in the bedroom.

The writing is even more impressive when Prince is speaking of a relationship in trouble. Most famously, there's Darling Nikki. It's perhaps the greatest jilted lover song of all-time. Nearly as famous, and good is The Beautiful Ones. Both songs dissolve into him literally screaming at the one he's singing about in a way that tells us he fell real hard for this person. Thieves in the Temple is more restrained than either of those, but still lets us know that he's not really okay now that he's been left. In Eye Hate U he's breaking up with his woman, but still wants some angry sex on the way out the door. After Darling Nikki this is probably Prince at his most bitter.

However, my favorite of Prince's rocky relationship tunes is actually a song about a relationship he's trying desperately to save, If I Was Your Girlfriend. It's pretty obvious that communication has broken down between he and his girl. She won't tell him what's on her mind so they can move beyond whatever they're going through. So he asks would she talk to him if he were one of her female friends. The first lines are "If I was your girlfriend/would you remember/to tell me all the things you forgot when I was your man?" When I was young, it was just a creative way to look at things. I was amazed at how he could think of such a thing. As I got older, I figured it out. If you've been in a serious relationship you've probably been there. You know that day when you asked your significant other what the hell was bothering them and they told you 'nothing,' or didn't say anything at all. This pissed you off. You get even more pissed when you then found out he/she has told someone else what the problem is, and bad-mouthed you the entire time. Prince captures that so perfectly by begging for his woman to talk to him all the way through the song, but in a way that only he could do it, because it's still a damn sexy song.

I've pontificated long enough on Prince's music. I hope this is coherent enough for someone besides me to understand why I'm such a fan of his. I also hope I didn't bore you in the process. It's one of those things where I meant to only write a few words, but it kept getting bigger. Prince has that effect on me. There's just no other artist quite like him.

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  1. This is fucking beautiful. There will never be another Prince. Not in terms of virtuosity but also in excitement. You're so fucking about his approach to sexuality in music and the way things are. In fact, I find R. Kelly's idea of sex in songs to be kind of laughable for some of the wrong reasons. Especially in that song "Booty" where he's singing that in the video as it came off as hilarious. It has that "I'm a guy" mentality and "I'm gonna fuck you so bad honey". Prince wasn't like that at all. I don't think he would've stood by towards the sense of misogyny that is around in some of today's music. Songs like "Adore" and "Insatiable" are the right examples of everything you said about his approach to love. He makes man and woman be equals and also he would take a peg or two on himself and make the woman be even more awesome in a song like "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World". I love "If I Was Your Girlfriend" as he's got that perfect falsetto.

    Then of course there's Prince the guitar god. Shit, I bet he, Jimi Hendrix, Mick Ronson, Stevie Ray Vaughn, George Harrison, B.B. King, and Buddy Holly right now are probably creating the world's loudest guitar jam and Prince and Hendrix are in a guitar duel. I love his solos and one of my personal favorite solos of his is the one in "Batdance". I know there's probably some that don't really like the song but when I was 8 years old and that song was on MTV and radio. I thought it was the fucking coolest thing I heard and then came that fuckin' solo. HOLY MOTHERFUCKIN' SHIT!!! The way he plays it on the video was like "FUCK YEAH!" and I still get high to that shit as I'm doing air guitar with that and the making the faces. That is what a good fuckin' rock song should be. Nickelturd can suck it!

    1. Thanks! Excellent point about how he makes man and woman equals. That's the perfect way to describe. And he's always willing to take himself down a notch.

      He was most certainly a killer on the guitar. I hope you watched that video above with him, Clapton, Petty, and co. His solo there is amazing.

    2. I've seen that video a bunch of times as they added his solo at the Rock N' Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony TV presentation last night on HBO to close the special as it was filmed before he died. BTW, that's not Eric Clapton. That was Jeff Lynne playing with Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers w/ Dhani Harrison. Yet, I keep hearing how much Clapton praised Prince. Clapton was called God but I do love his response when someone asked him in being the greatest guitar player. "I don't know, ask Prince". And he credits Prince for making him realize there is still hope in music after he had seen Purple Rain. He fucking knocked it out of the park with that solo. No pedals, no tremolo/whammy bars, no effects. Just skill and skill alone. Though some of my favorite guitar players like Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine is known for using pedals and tremolo bars for noisy effects to create something new. Prince was just too cool for that.

    3. I should've reread the roster before I said it was Clapton. Oops. Points well taken, though.