Dig If You Will The Picture: Funk, Sex and God In The Music of Prince

DON’T worry, he won’t hurt you; he only wanted us to have some fun. We’re afraid of clowns because we don’t know whether the smile conceals malign intent. Prince was the great clown of popular music. His latest biographer acknowledges a sense of humour, but doesn’t run with the idea, which is a pity, because it’s probably the best clue to the “real” man. Like everyone who’s tried to write about Prince, before or after his death, Ben Greenman, an experienced “ghost” writer of musical autobiographies, accepts that there is a hard barrier to understanding his huge body of music: we never knew quite what Prince was thinking, and he wasn’t telling. When he spoke at all, his words were gnomic, contradictory, tricksterish. He used to claim that his mother was Italian (she was played by a Greek actress in the quasi-autobiographical Purple Rain movie) when both parents were African-American. He and his wife Mayte went on television after the death of their newborn son Gregory (a wholly unexpected concession from a microphone-shy artist) and then spoke about the boy as if he was still alive. Prince preached sex but he also preached God; practised libertinism but knocked on doors as a Jehovah’s Witness; he shocked Tipper Gore enough to make her design a Parental Advisory sticker for CDs that was meant to warn grown-ups but proved to be positive catnip to kiddies; he was male and female; he was Camille and he was Spooky Electric (aka the Devil); and for a long time, he didn’t have a name, just a squiggly symbol. He didn’t want to hurt us; he only wanted us to have some fun: but he said it, at the start of the breakout 1999 album in a deep, processed voice that was either cod-scary, or properly scary; the kind of voice that comes on the phone in a teen slasher movie.

Greenman’s title also comes from a song line. It’s the opening lyric from “When Doves Cry”, the song that most easily represents Prince’s bold departure from the basic principles of black funk, which usually relies on a full back line, or at least a thudding bass. Prince straddled (sometimes literally) funk, white rock and r’n’b. He showed a marked sensitivity to jazz and the blues, having grown up (unhappily) as the son of a jazz piano player who named the boy after his group, the Prince Rogers Trio. That seemingly casual gesture positioned Prince in a long line of Sirs, Counts, Dukes and Kings in African-American music and provides a useful reminder of how close his creative strategies were to some of those great predecessors. Though early Prince albums were put out with a credit that told us the music was “Conceived, composed, arranged, performed and produced by Prince” (he also played all 27 instruments on his debut album For You) he was in essence a collaborator, who simply borrowed or stole from his compeers, claiming most or all of the credit in the process. In this, he is little different from Duke Ellington, whose compositions were often patchworks of solos created spontaneously and without credit or copyright by his hand-picked sidemen. And he is strikingly similar to Miles Davis, with whom he flirted unproductively for several years before the trumpeter’s death; Miles’s “New Directions in Music” were usually the ideas of his latest group members, bundled up and claimed by the leader as his own.

Greenman is smart enough to recognise all this and to recognise that no chronological account of Prince and his supposed “contradictions” leads us even approximately to the truth. He has the advantage, poignant as it is, of writing posthumously, which means that Prince’s promise to write a song a day for the rest of his life is arrested, albeit leaving a vast archive of finished and in-progress material that will doubtless be argued over, in the courts and in public, for years to come. So, sensibly, he approaches the subject thematically, always with his own engagement with Prince’s life, and his death in April 2016, clearly in view. We hear about Prince and religion, perhaps the knottiest theme of all; his particularly close collaborations with women, notably Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman, but also the Bangles, Sinead O’Connor and wur own Sheena Easton, for whom he either wrote songs or handed them over; there was an attempt to record something with Kim Basinger, which notoriously involved getting honey all over the mixing desk, or so the tabloids had it. There is a particularly interesting section on Prince’s shaky but not atypical upbringing, and an illuminating account of Prince’s deeply ambivalent and sometimes small-minded attitude to the internet and to the new file-sharing culture. Like many black artists before him, his deepest fear was being ripped off, which is why he changed his name and wrote “SLAVE” on his face in eyebrow pencil.

There had been one-man-band acts in pop before: Prince owed a particular debt to white rock star Todd Rundgren, who went as far as giving solo shows to backing tapes; Stevie Wonder to a certain degree; even the almost forgotten Jimmy Castor, but there has never been a pop auteur quite like Prince. He belongs in the same enigmatic company as Duke Ellington and Miles Davis, but also Little Richard and, even less probably, Joni Mitchell. The work’s out there. The man isn’t. Nothing can hurt his reputation or the serious fun his music gives.

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