Register Wednesday | May 25 | 2022

Thirteen Ways of Looking at Prince

When Doves Make Lists

Like few other artists, Prince reminds a writer that all writing about music strains for its modest effects, intellectualizing an art that strongly resists intellectualism. The brain is needed, still—it is the third stage in a formula attributed to James Brown, one of the greatest and least articulate musicians to ever live. A beat starts in the ass, the melody moves up to the heart, and the lyrics connect in the head. The first two stages require a loss of control, and naturally the brain resists such a thing. Certain musicians are gifted with the ability to abandon control and make a sphere of juxtapositions, colour, chance effects—the lights of surrealism.


A man and a woman
are one.
A man and a woman and a blackbird
are one.

Wallace Stevens, poet of Sunday morning, ice cream, twenty snowy mountains and tigers in red weather—these are musical notes, marks on a score, things a surrealist musician would understand. Those four lines? One of thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird? It’s not hard to imagine Prince having written them.

AN EVENING WITH PRINCE MUSICOLOGY TOUR SAVVIS CENTER 7:30 PM NO OPENING ACT $77.00. Tonight’s star, Prince, little white-clad sexy Prince, he who started recording at fifteen, he who wrote “Dirty Mind” at nineteen, does not age. Those who pay to watch him perform, however, do. Everyone waiting in the belly of the Savvis Center, a massive hockey arena, looked over thirty but somehow eager to hide it by dressing up. Purple hats, purple halter tops, purple hair, purple eyeshadow. A six-foot-six black man wore a grape zoot suit and talked into a cell phone while he waited to pee. Several women walked past pulling up purple tube tops, their eyes on the concrete floor, negotiating a straight path in heels. Purple Rain T-shirts, jean jackets, leather pants, shades—it was a high school reunion for the class of 1985. No self-consciousness. In a few minutes, every one of them would be dancing like their parents. The assembled crowd, men and women alike, had been saving these outfits for just such an occasion, perhaps having worn them last when Prince had songs on the radio and fans who were young and thin. The night was warm for spring. My shirt was lilac. Much later in the evening, after the show, I took off my shirt and told a female companion, “I danced.” I am very white. She made a face. “You what?”

Alicia Keys introduced him on a prerecorded video. Ladies and gentlemen . . . his name was drowned in screaming. His band sounded huge and they didn’t stop for an hour. He ceded control to the band. The band was all about The One. James Brown invented The One, as it’s known. Instead of a normal four-four time where the kick drum and bass pound each beat—BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM—you get pounded on the one, the first beat, and that’s it. BOOM tick tick tick, BOOM tick tick tick. Inside the ticking is where the band gets down. It’s where the crowd gets down, dancers and non-dancers alike. Free and clear. No one will judge you, dancing there, in the open space. Because everyone, when it comes around again, can hit The One.

A single Prince lyric has stuck in my head since Under The Cherry Moon: “Sometimes it snows / in April.” Recall that in 1985 Tipper Gore and Susan Baker founded the Parents Music Resource Center to help raise parental awareness of the music American children could buy in a record store. There were congressional testimonies from anti-censorship lobbies and recording artists. Frank Zappa testified. Dee Snider of Twisted Sister testified. Their testimony was muted before a congressional committee that read aloud lyrics from popular albums, lyrics mostly having to do with sex. The lyrics were often ambiguous (Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire” was flagged, for example). One lyricist’s work was not ambiguous. I met her in a hotel lobby masturbating with a magazine. The lyricist in question was short, black and odd-looking. He wore frills and an expression that suggested he’d just had group sex. His back catalogue included titles like “Pussy Control” and a song with the lyrics She had a pocket full of horses / Trojans, and some of them used. Record labels acceded to a new PARENTAL ADVISORY sticker. Thereafter kids eight to eighteen looked for the sticker, and bought albums accordingly. Prince was never bigger than the year kids in lonely basements gathered and listened to a surreal love song called “Darling Nikki” and tried to picture how, exactly, she had used the magazine.

The One ended with a bang, the stage went dark, the crowd’s attention moved from centre stage to one of twenty smaller theatrical flourishes: confetti, mirrors, lights creating a sea-water pattern downstage. He disappeared. After the piano and saxophone took solos, he re-emerged wearing a polka-dot shirt, holding a white acoustic guitar, and seated himself on a chrome stool. Two chords into “Little Red Corvette” and he had to stop the show, just to hear himself. Women who had become new parents in 1985 stood in their purple halter tops and screamed. He drank in the adoration and patted his breast, his little heart.

The acoustic segment lengthened into acoustic blues. He seemed to be making up lyrics on the spot. There’s somethin’ funky in the room, bay-bay . . . is that your breath, or mine? This was so goddamned funny to me at the time that I didn’t notice he had removed from his repertoire nearly all of his songs with offending sexual lyrics. He did not play “I Wanna Be Your Lover” or “Pussy Control” or “Darling Nikki.” After this realization sunk in (subconsciously), the crowd seemed to slow down, sensing some kind of end approaching. Prince climbing aboard a train and receding into the past.

Mmm-ba-na-ba-da-banap! Bap! Bap! “Shut up, already / Damn!” (Woman to my left, not in purple—) AAAAAAH! OHMIGOD! (Woman to my right, in purple, holding a Budweiser, returning from the bathroom—) DID HE PLAY RED CORVETTE YET? HE WHAT? YOU’RE SERIOUS? “All seven and we’ll watch them fall / they stand in the way of love and we will smoke them all / with their intellect and their savoir faire.” WHAT IS HE TALKING ABOUT? HA HA. “I am yours now and / you are mine and / together we’ll . . .” (Someone else—) LOOK AT THAT BLACK WOMAN, OHMIGOD HER BOOBS ARE FALLING OUT. “What is the answer? / To the question of you?” (Woman on right again—) THIS IS PRETTY. I’M SITTING DOWN. YOU MISSED IT THAT WOMAN WAS POPPING OUT OF HER TOP. (Piano solo number two.) THIS IS MAKING ME SAD. HA HA I’M SAD AT PRINCE. (Reflective quiet for several minutes, a faraway look, a slow perusal of her own outfit, a sad small brushing of her arms, in purple silk, a smile at her friend who had stood up to dance when no one else was dancing, another faraway look perhaps considering her life at this moment or the fact that it’s a Wednesday night and she has to get up for work at six tomorrow morning, and then a slow getting to her feet—) WHOO (—with a handclap, a happy dance and an appreciative if not envious smile in the direction of the woman who had, in fact, briefly spilled out of her top).

I once drove to the First Avenue club in Minneapolis, in winter, which in Minnesota is far from ambivalent. I had my picture taken outside the club. The picture is silly. I am smoking. It is neither afternoon nor evening. I stand before a wall of fat white stars, with a band/artist name inside each star. My trip here is a pilgrimage to the place where my then favourite band, the Replacements, began. I am twenty and believe this pilgrimage to be genuine. I marvel at Minneapolis/St. Paul because of the Replacements, but also because of Morris Day and the Time and Paisley Park Studios and Prince, strange surreal Prince, hooded and oracular, living somewhere outside this two-part city on the tundra. The fact that the most versatile and unconventional musician in the Midwestern US was black upset a certain balance in the types of young people in the Midwest who would, in the coming years, start playing and writing music themselves. Funk crept into garage rock. Rap and metal mixed much more easily than imagined. White kids became less “white” in their orthodoxy, their vocal tics, their stated influences. Many cited Prince, a man who experimented with sense enough to make a separate sphere where everyone, black or white, could make their own kind of sense, be themselves. This influence will be felt for some time, in my opinion. In the picture, I am outside First Avenue wearing the stupidest jacket I’ve ever owned, an electric blue parka with green accents and a drawstring waist. My eyes, gazing at the wall of stars, are filled with intent. I stare at James Brown’s star. At Prince’s star. I seem to understand this is a pilgrimage. I feel like a student of the Beats, come to City Lights to quote poetry in the same air as his forebears. He is twenty and these are the limits of his expression. As he is on a pilgrimage, he is hoping the words, like the stars, will lead him someplace, create a sort of new language he can use. The language makes little sense but speaks volumes.

It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.

“That band, bro. That’s gotta be one of the best I’ve seen, and I’ve been going to shows a long time. He was just bringin’ it, you know? You know what I’m saying? That last one, with the horns, just . . . awesome, bro.” This was a white man my age, in a blended silk shirt (collar, tail out, cuffs unbuttoned) over jeans (washed out, faded, Gap-ish), the combo a kind of uniform among men with gelled hair and goatees, both of which this man had. (And a bit of bronze.) He was chewing gum beside a woman very much like him, bronze and gelled. His voice, his particular inflection, was that of a man named Randy or Chad or Brian who grew up in central Illinois listening to pop-metal and Top 40 and the like, whose first transgression against his parents was to buy a dirty album by Prince, listening to it alone and memorizing most of it and taking it with him in the tape deck of his Camaro when he went off to college, a man who got exposed to college music and decided it wasn’t for him, kept up with R&B, once answered in his Afro-American Studies class that his favorite musician was probably Prince, who moved with the trends, who bought more hip hop, understood some of it, learned the lingo, once said the word “nigga” out loud while rapping along with several friends of mixed ethnicity, got (back) into country music in his mid-twenties, and who now listens at age thirty to that hit station on the far right side of the radio dial, who goes for musical professionalism and skill, who goes dancing on occasion with his bronzed lady companion, who has his likes and dislikes, and who deep in his person feels that white and black are not that far apart, not to him, because he feels comfortable with the lingo, the inflections, the “just bringin’ it, you know?”, and the settled sensation that he has soul, has it right now, has had it for years, and feels that it might have begun with a seven-dollar purchase of a cassette tape whose cover art—a black man in frills, riding a purple cycle, a sexy woman waiting in a doorway—opened up the person he was to become, standing here, popping his gum, wearing this outfit, feeling mature but not old, standing with his sexy date who finds him sexy, who will have sex with him later, after seeing PRINCE, how perfect, of all people. This man raised his cup. “A toast,” he said. “To Apollonia,” I said. He laughed, richly. “Exactly,” he said. “Awesome.” We, perfect strangers, knocked plastic cups.

Sometimes it snows / in April. I hummed this on the train. Everyone was seated and worn out. The outfits looked like deflated balloons. Everyone held a free copy of the new CD. The cover art was a bunch of white haze, purple lines and MUSICOLOGY—no other words. It did not show the parental advisory sticker. It did not show the strange unisex symbol that was Prince’s name for so long. No one knew what that was all about, anyway. It was the kind of thing he would do. Outside the train, streetlights blurred. The train weaved on the tracks, here a boom, here a tick-tick, the effects of the entire show settling, like phantom snow, over a dark, dark landscape.

Paul Winner unfurls the Score every second Monday.