Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Prince and Me and Death

I got into Prince just as everyone else was exiting the Prince train.

It was 1990, Graffiti Bridge was in theaters, where it was crashing and burning like no one’s business, despite the fact that it was a sequel to the very, very successful Purple Rain.

My world had changed a little bit since Purple Rain.  I mean, it came out when I was eight.  I knew the song When Doves Cry because even if I didn’t consume much in the way of pop culture, it was hard to miss.  And also my older, female cousins were obsessed with the song.  I spent a long summer afternoon watching them listen to it over and over at a family reunion, trying to choreograph some kind of dance routine to it.

Except neither of them had taken any kind of dance lessons.  Or had a natural gift for choreography.   As I recall they came up with about three moves they thought were cool, and repeated them pretty much endlessly.

The song didn’t really register with me that much.  My parents rarely listened to the radio, and I didn’t have one of my own.  My music was whatever they were listening to.

Then in 1988, I turned 12, and my dad thought it was time I had a stereo receiver.  I had wanted LEGO, but really, that was because I was between ages.  When you’re 12, you can’t figure out if it’s still okay to Trick or Treat.  You are beginning to get the concept of being attracted to people but the idea of dating, or being in a relationship is still tangled up with the idea of being in elementary school and playing house, or dress-up, or imagination games where you run around with a plastic gun and pretend you’re Han Solo.

In 1989 Batman happened.

I really loved Batman, though I couldn’t tell you why.  I wasn’t really a superhero kind of kid.  I didn’t read that many comics or watch a lot of superhero TV shows.  I had liked Superman when I was younger, because I liked the movie, but for some reason, I just had to see Batman.

Every kid did, I think.

I loved it.  I needed a Batman T-shirt.  I needed to own it on video.  And I needed the Batman Soundtracks.  Both of them.  The one by Danny Elfman, which had amazing theme music I fell in love with and then started collecting Elfman film music, and then the music by Oingo Boingo, the band he wrote all the songs for.

And I needed… well, I needed Batdance, I guess.  I mean, I guess I could pretend I needed Partyman, but really, Batdance was the huge hit song/noise compilation, and I needed that.

The thing is, I liked that record.  People try to put it down as a non-Prince Prince record, but that’s unfair. 

Ultimately, Prince put out 39 records.  I’m willing to wager that zero people love all of them.  They may like most of them, they may dig a song or two off each, but there’s literally no way they love every one of those records, back to front.  If that person exists, I have not met them.

But I’ll come back to that.

I was trying to get back to Graffiti Bridge, which is where I started.  By then I had a radio I listened to much of the time.  I had Batman, my first Prince record, but the thing of it was, I liked Batman.  Not Prince.

At the time I had a sense that Prince was, you know, not really for kids.  Or maybe I just didn’t really feel compelled to pick up his records at the library, as they often featured Prince in, like, his underwear. Or less than his underwear.

I mean, don’t get me wrong.  I would have skipped over most records featuring ANYONE in their underwear at that point.  Because I was 12.  (Or 13.  You understand.)  Carrying around a picture of someone in their underwear in a public place was not an easy thing to do.

Then Thieves in the Temple came out.

 Sometimes a song just hits you.  That one hit me.  I’m not sure why.  I wasn’t in the middle of a bad breakup or anything.  I just loved it, because it was a great groove, and had a million fiddly bits (all those background vocals!) and… I don’t know.  I just loved it.

I got it from the library, and listened to it over and over and over.  Not just the song, the record.

And then… something sunk in.  I needed more.  I love Graffiti Bridge.  There are people who hate songs on it, like the title track, but they are wrong and bad.  It’s a great record.  All of it.

It was the record that made me want more.  I went back to the library and got Purple Rain, which is, of course, a perfect record that everyone can agree on.  There’s not a note out of place.

And I immediately discovered I was a Prince fan unstuck in time.

People liked Thieves in the Temple, but they didn’t love it.  Not like I did.  Graffiti Bridge was not a touchstone for pop culture.  It was an odds-and-sods collection of Prince songs, recorded by a bunch of different people, from a movie that not only failed, but was roundly considered a joke.

And no one wanted to talk about Purple Rain, either.  That time had come and gone, and I had been eight and no one cared anymore.

Diamonds and Pearls came out.  I was in high school.  The singles did well, and the album wasn’t bad.  I was learning about being a music critic.  But even then, I knew I didn’t understand the context into which Prince was emerging.  I loved Graffiti Bridge and Purple Rain, but my local library was missing most of Prince’s other records.

Prince had a new band, but I barely understood his old one.  How they kind of came together on 1999.  How they fell apart later.

I had a job by then, though, so I scrounged the money together to buy Diamonds and Pearls.  I wanted to love it, and didn’t, and put Bridge and Rain back into my semi-permanent musical rotation.  Diamonds sat.

The Love Symbol record came out, and things got… really weird.  Let down by Diamonds, I didn’t buy it right away.  A friend of mine at work, an older guy who seemed to have all the money in the world, who bought records every week… he loaned it to me.  I listened to it twice.

It was, and is, a mess.  Many great songs, which were supposed to be a cohesive whole, but aren’t, really.  Parts of the connective tissue, the narrative “stuff” was removed to add in other songs, and so the story doesn’t really make sense.

My friend didn’t dig the record, and sold it to me for ten bucks.  I kept listening.  I felt like there was something there I was missing.

I eventually realized that, yeah, the narrative was missing, but what I was listening for was a series of great pop songs, and instead I got… some other stuff.  A Lounge Lizard style track.  Odd religious songs that weren’t quite church ready and weren’t quite pop radio ready.

It was a song where the big hit single was about Revelation.  Kind of.  Maybe.

It was the first case, I think, where I learned to love a Prince record, instead of just loving it right away.  And for just a second, when 7 was, like, a thing, I was allowed to be excited about Prince again. 

But I soon learned that, well, I could be excited about 7, but that was about it. 

Prince changed his name to a symbol.  People didn’t want to talk about the record.  They wanted to talk about that.

When I met a Prince fan, which was almost never, they were not a Prince fan.  They were a Purple Rain fan.

The Hits/The B Sides came out.  I was getting to be a better critic (for a high school kid, anyway), but I claimed that the hits were less important than the B sides, and failed to back that up as well as I could have in print. 

Today I can back it up, I think, because The Hits mostly featured the shortened, “single” versions of the hit songs.  Some of them are… not improvements, but they turn epic funk tunes into pop singles, and in some ways that’s good.

But it also took When Doves Cry and chopped it off just as the song is about to build to a literally perfect climax.  It’s a genuine shame.

The B sides, on the other hand, are mostly almost-lost gems.  I remain angry today that they haven’t been remixed and remastered, because most of them sound terrible.  These are songs that Prince almost threw away, and many of them could easily be massive hits.  I have no idea how Another Lonely Christmas hasn’t managed to slither its way into the occasional Christmas playlist.

That collection was, sadly, the last time Prince really felt relevant.  The last time you could walk into a crowd of music lovers and ask if they’d heard the new Prince.

That was more than 20 years ago.

I need to pause here.

I don’t get to be a hipster very often.  Almost never, really.  For the most part, I find it ridiculous when someone gets upset at first because no one knows about their obscure indie band, and then they get even more angry when that little band suddenly gains some pop culture traction.

But it reminded me, a bit, of how I felt at that family reunion I was talking about earlier.  I was too young to hang with the adults.  The girl cousins were just a little too old to be able to relate to me.  The boy cousins were a little too young.

So I watched from the sidelines.

As high school was drawing to a close, I was coming to see Prince as a musical artist that was, perhaps, just for me.

And then the Internet happened.

Or rather, America On Line. 

My dad had some small number of minutes every month, and he let me use some of them, under my own screen name.  And here, finally, were the Prince fans who weren’t near me.

But they weren’t talking about his most recent records, either.  They were making (to me) obscure references to his 1970s work.  They were comparing concerts they had been to.

They were talking about bootlegs.

Which I guess brings me to the vault, and to the hipster factor.

When Prince died, there were two things that seemed to happen.  There was the outpouring of sadness from casual fans, which all seemed to start and stop at Purple Rain – a record and film that was 32 years old.

And why not?  It’s a Prince touchstone.  An inarguable classic of a record.  (The film itself is… well, let’s say it has its flaws.  I finally saw it in college, removed from years of hype.  Prince onstage was electric.  The concert footage may have been staged, but it still “got” Prince.  But a lot of the movie featured non-actors acting, and while they weren’t MST3K level bad, there’s a reason most them haven’t gone on to storied acting careers.)

And then there was the cry – people wondering just what, exactly, was going to come out of the famed Prince vault.

And that’s where I kind of lost it.

I don’t think I went full hipster, but I could feel it rising.

Because… well, mostly just because, but really because so much had already come out of the vault, and people roundly chose to ignore it.

In 1992 and 1993, I was trying to follow along in the bootleg conversations, and so, to some extent, was Prince. 

He got out of his label contract and released a 3 CD collection – all new Prince music, and lots of it!  And it sold well, but mostly it “sold” two million copies because a 3 CD set is considered three records. 

This means he probably sold a little over 500,000 records – or rather, he tumbled over the “Gold” line, not the double platinum line.

Then the vault cracked open.

He finally released The Black Album, one of the most bootlegged records of all time.  I had a copy, because I was a fan trying to fit in, and I bought a “real” copy just to same.  But all of the real fans didn’t, and it sank and vanished.

He put out Crystal Ball, a 5(!) CD set of lost vault material.  It sank like a stone.

Later he put out Old Friends 4 Sale, a collection of even more vault material.  Sank like a boulder.

Chaos and Disorder was a tossed-off record consisting of songs he wouldn’t have otherwise released, just to get out of his contract.

Sank like a brick.  It didn’t help that, at least to my ears, there wasn’t much to recommend it.

And in the middle of all that vault material?  The Gold Experience.

What a stellar record, and I mean that with all my heart.  Catchy, funky, fun, a little saucy, a little feminist. 

I dug his “real” record before that, Come, but it was honestly a little too out there to make it on mainstream radio.  If what I’ve read is correct, all the things that could have been hits ended up on The Gold Experience.

It felt like it.

I suspect that Gold didn’t do better because it was delayed a bunch of times.  The biggest hit off the record was The Most Beautiful Girl in the World, which was in equal measure a lovely song and a piece of processed cheese.  If The Gold Experience had followed it up a month or two later, perhaps it would have shot to the top of the charts.

Instead, Gold came out two YEARS later.  And instead of Now or Endorphinmachine, two fun, funky, smash hits in the making… they tossed out a ballad as a single.

I still love that record.

I used to convert friends to fandom with it.  I’d loan it to them, and they’d stare at me in awe… it was like they had forgotten Prince had ever existed, and here he was with a totally stunningly fun record.  In 1995?  Who knew?

And then?

Then it got weird.

Then Prince created the NPG music club, promising to send fans records if they’d just give him money every month.

I was a broke college student.  And I knew that Prince didn’t always follow through on his projects.  And at the time, I had decided I refused to have a credit card on my person, as it seemed to lead to trouble for every single college student I knew.

So I missed some records.  And I bought some oddball records he put out other ways.  Like The Rainbow Children, was supposed to be about how he was a Jehovah’s Witness now, or something.  There was some good stuff on it, but I couldn’t love it like Gold.

And then… then records kept coming out.

And critics were weird about it.

There’s a great old VH1 special about Weird Al Yankovic, where he opines that even though he put out a record every two years at the time, people always seemed a little amazed he was still around, as if it had been decades.

That’s what was going on with Prince.  He would release a record, and critics would go crazy trying to convince themselves that Prince was back, baby!  This was the one with the hits, the one that would get his name out there again, would put him back and the charts.

And sometimes they did.  When you could buy them.

More often, they didn’t.  Or you couldn’t get a copy.

Or… well, let’s look at the releases, year over year:

Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic – has a couple of great possible singles (and a hilarious coda of a song) but to me, it felt like it was trying too hard, pulling songs and artists from the current mainstream and sticking them on the record.  Prince was not leading the charge on this one, he was following, and I felt it keenly.  He had decided to prove himself and the whole thing felt forced.

The Rainbow Children – This was the Jehovah’s Witness record, a collection of songs beloved by some and, in my case, mostly just forgotten.  Little of it registered with me.  Maybe I’d like it more today.

I’ve since read he didn’t even want to publicize that this record was out.  Given its sales, that choice seems to be not great.

One Nite Alone...  – Finally we get a full live recording… and it’s mostly stuff from The Rainbow Children.  I couldn’t justify the cost of an expensive box set.

Xpectation – Released only to people in his record club.  I still haven’t heard it.

N.E.W.S – Four instrumental tracks, I was amazed to find this one in an actual record store and bought it on sight.  I listened to it once and almost forgot it existed.  There was nothing there to cling to, musically.

Musicology – Prince attempts another comeback.  This was where I was ready to check out.  I wasn’t going to bother picking up a copy, but some of them contained a so-called Golden Ticket to see Prince’s house and studio, Paisley Park.

I did not get a ticket.

The Chocolate Invasion – People putting money into his bank accounts every year got this.  Never heard it.

The Slaughterhouse – Yet another almost unknown release.  How many people own a copy of this, I wonder?  Is it in the six digits?

3121 – Prince attempts a comeback record… again.  The critics were crazy for this one.  This one, they swore, was Prince back doing what he did best.  I listened to it at the time and didn’t hear it.  After his death, I pulled it out again.

Prince records live and die by their singles, I think, and 3121 contained a lot of good material and a few songs that whiffed.  The single was a whiff.

I can’t prove that another song might have saved the record, but that one did it no favors.  Beautiful, Loved, and Blessed is gorgeous, though.  It’s worth a listen just for that track.

Planet Earth – released for free in the UK.  Barely released in the states.  I listened to it twice.  The record is a mystery to me today.  I can recall the opening lick of the opening song, and nothing else.

Lotusflow3r / MPLSound (released as a 3-CD set together with Elixer by Bria Valente) - In which Prince offers three records for the price of one.  A couple of critics I read on a regular basis talked about the return of the Prince sound.

Inasmuch as he pulled out his old drum machines, they were right.  Inasmuch as he created memorable songs, they were wrong.

I really enjoyed this one for about two weeks after it came out, but I came to like it less and less the more I listened to it.

20Ten – released for free in the UK, and never in the US.  After being burned again and again by releases I had paid 10-15 bucks for, I couldn’t justify coughing up thirty or forty for what was sure to be a disappointment.

Things got quiet for a while.  Prince stopped releasing records for four years, and in a lot of ways it felt like a relief to me.

The open question was, in a way, did I want more Prince music?   For that matter, did the world NEED more Prince music?  Just perusing the list above, I can find five records I didn’t own and wasn’t willing to spend the time scouring the earth for.  When Prince died, no one dug one of them up and declared them a lost classic.

Even the record I could have gotten my hands on easily, by shipping $40 off to the UK to acquire something someone got there for free in a newspaper… I couldn’t be bothered.  I just doubted there was $40 worth of happiness to be heard.

For that matter, he still had some early so-called classic records I’d never bothered to buy.  Why would I blow hundreds of dollars on a live record with mostly songs I didn’t find that interesting in the first place, when I had never even heard most of his early output, and could get it for five or ten bucks?

At that point, Prince had spent decades cranking out material, sometimes looking to craft hits, sometimes seemingly just putting out records just to put them out. 

On a more pragmatic level, it was hard to miss the guy because he never seemed to go away.

So yeah.  Four years.  No records. 

I’ve talked about how Prince seemed to stage a comeback every few years.  How the critics would get amped all over again, ready to talk about a return to form.

Even Prince seemed to want to come back in a big way, releasing two records on the same day – the kind of thing not usually an option for a guy whose sales had slacked off so significantly.

But those four years did build a little excitement.  He had a new band, made up entirely of women who absolutely knew how to play.  He got out there and did interviews.  The headline was supposed to be that Prince was back.

And from that, we got:

Plectrumelectrum – a record Prince didn’t even put his name on, just that of his new band.  It was… it was a group of really talented musicians playing songs I could barely remember just after listening to it.

I won’t argue that Prince put his B material on this record, and his A material on the other.  I’d be more inclined to say that Prince just plain produced less A material by then.

Art Official Age – That same A material issue is here as well.  I can at least hum a couple of songs off of the record, but to have a real comeback I think Prince needed a flat-out killer single, and Prince didn’t create one for this record.

He instead created a strange little concept album, similar to some of his past concept albums.  The record hangs together, and got a lot more listens from me than the other record he released the same day.

That said, it was not a comeback record.

A year went by, and then, big news, Prince decided to throw some more material out and see what sticks… and that helped, in a way.

HITnRUN Phase One – This one still had a bit of heat on it.  Prince actually brought in another producer for the first time in long time, and tried to make a record with modern sounds on it.

I mean, he tried.  But the modern sounds angle didn’t really work.  He instead ended up with an odd little stripped-down thing that often sounded like un-fleshed out demos.

That said, it was the first Prince record in a long time that I really, truly, enjoyed. 

More than any other record in recent memory, I could actually RECALL the songs.  My kid would sing along.  I would sing along.

And with a touch of trimming, I totally think 1000 X's & O's could have been a hit single.  Maybe not a huge one, but it certainly could have wandered the R and B charts for a while, and that would have been nice.

HITnRUN Phase Two – This one was released right on the heels of part 1, but wasn’t put out in a physical edition for months, which made me insane.

In fact, the actual physical version came out the week he died, and no one was carrying it, because, who knew?  So I had to order it from Amazon instead of my local record store.

And in a lot of ways, it was a fitting cap on the story of Prince.  In particular, it dragged a long-lost classic (Xtraloveable) into the light and finally put it out for all to hear.

And since I was on Amazon, I coughed up a bunch of money and filled in all the Prince gaps I could in my collection.  There were a LOT of them, and some still remain.  A few because there’s no real way to get my hands on them.  A few because now out-of-print records were suddenly worth much, much, much more money.

And I couldn’t justify buying a couple of records I didn’t like that much in the first place.

I started this essay months ago now, opening it, updating it, forgetting about it.  Writing huge chunks and then tucking the essay away again for weeks at a time.  When I started, I thought I knew where I was going.

But I don’t.

I listened to those early records when they arrived.  I had wanted to spread them out, maybe listen to one a week.  But instead, I’d listen to each one for a day or two, then move on to the next.  Always restless.  Always wondering what else I missed, or was missing.

That’s the issue, I guess. 

The most common number of records I heard associated with Prince with 39.  That did not include all the lost songs tucked into various singles.  It did not include the dozens (hundreds?) of songs he gave to other artists.

It doesn’t include lost cover versions, concerts, or the hundreds of songs left in the vault.

I would argue that I kept buying Prince records because, even if I didn’t love what came out, I had to know what else was there. 

When you’re a kid, you pull pop culture in on yourself.  Those songs are about you.  You love them harder than you’re ever able to love them as an adult.  They speak to you.  Sometimes, they speak FOR you.

I came out of my teen years with three major musical loves and influences: Frank Zappa, Oingo Boingo/Danny Elfman, and Prince.

Prince was the one who survived.

Frank Zappa was dead by the time I was out of high school.  I had to dig into his music, to hunt, to search, to find more, but in the end, the music out there was more or less finite.  Yes, his family kept releasing records, but they weren’t Frank records anymore.  Not really.  They were expansions and odds and sods.  They were no longer musical statements, and while they interested me to a certain extent, I knew I could never justify buying them because I couldn’t really love them.

Oingo Boingo disbanded when I was in college, recording their last few shows and releasing a double live album that I just loved.  I literally own everything they put out, including weird little rare things that are impossible to find.

But the band is gone now.

And Danny Elfman, who I loved and collected for a long time, well… I don’t know, really.  He used to create amazing themes that I could listen to forever.  But as he got older, and got “better” at his job, his scores became less memorable to me, and more auditory wallpaper.  To this day, I can sing large chunks of the music to the early Pee-Wee Herman movies. 

But I remember listening to The Hulk and remembering nothing at all.  I think the last score of his I got was Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, because I really liked the songs.  (Apparently, I was the only one.)

Prince was still out there, though.  Still slugging away.

While I didn’t have a ton of love for his new records after a while, there was great stuff there sometimes. 

He gave me hope.

2016 was a rough year, with a lot of artists I enjoyed taking their final bow.  Prince died a few months before I turned 40, and the records he was going to release, the way he wanted to, came to a sudden halt with his death.

Honestly, I was even more saddened to learn that he had started writing his memoirs.  I’m sure he had 100 stories, sharpened to a fine point from telling and retelling them, and now those stories are gone, along with the man.

As I type this, I’m realizing only a handful of artists I’ve really loved are still putting out records on anything resembling a regular basis.  I mean, I may enjoy Adele, but I’m not waiting for the next thing, cash in hand.

At this point, it’s down to Ben Folds and Aimee Mann, both of whom are still out and working, but who seem less and less interested in creating their next record. 

I suppose that’s the other thing.  So few artists ever create a career that really lasts.  When you think about an Elton John (almost fifty years) or a Prince (almost 40), and then think about the musical artists of today, can you actually see them releasing something new thirty years from now?

Or twenty? 

Or ten?

Prince is gone. The last band/artist I carried from my teenage days is no longer a musical force.  He sold a lot of records after his death, but he still didn’t manage the comeback that he clearly wanted.  He isn’t going to climb to the top one last time.

Bowie ended his career on his own terms, with a record that was well-reviewed both before and after his death.  Prince’s last record was barely reviewed at all, and his old label spit out a fresh best-of with one lost track just in time for the Christmas season.

Even that was hard to look at, the last major single rolling all the way back to my high school days.

Zappa knew he was almost done, and put out a couple of records that nicely capped his career.

Oingo Boingo did a few more shows and put out a final live album just for the fans.

But Prince didn’t know the end was coming.  His final record, in some ways, felt like a cap, but it wasn’t one.  Prince didn’t go out on his own terms.

That’s what’s going to haunt me in the coming years.  We’re never really promised tomorrow.

We do not always get to write our own ending.

Sometimes we just go, and the shock never erodes.