Jesse Kornbluth on Holly Gleason’s review of the late rock legend, Prince.
An artist dies, and only then, as we step back, do we start to see him/her whole. So it was with Bowie, so now with Prince. Small as a refugee, he stands culturally as tall as Everest. I was a fan, but not an expert. HOLLY GLEASON— the first friend I made in Nashville, too many years ago to count — knows everybody and everything. As a pop culture critic, her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Oxford American, Rolling Stone, and every music journal of note. It’s an honor to have her words here. And then there’s an insider’s listening suggestion from AMELIA SMITH,my dearest friend in Paris, where she expertly straddles two cultures.
At WPRK, the Rollins College radio station, his poster hung on the wall. A scrawny li’l thing with a few flaccid chest hairs, greaseball hair tumbling down… naked but for a pair of skimpy bikini panties and a cross. He watched you, promises of things that should scare you behind his eyes, pleasures untold still glistening on his lips.
It challenged the norms, the notions, the way we thought boys and ardor and sex should be. Who could turn away? Repulsed or transfixed, you had to look.
I’d found him through roller-skating, had no idea about any of this then. “I Wanna Be Your Lover” was delicious sexual chocolate on a trampoline. But this… this…
I loved him. And almost died the morning a year later at the University of Miami, having just signed on at WVUM, when I saw “1999,” a double album pleasure-fest of unrevealed delight. So new even the music director hadn’t heard it. Virgin vinyl, ALL MINE.
Scanning the titles, I settled on “Let’s Pretend We’re Married.” “And this,” I announced, “is brand new from Prince…” I turned off the mic and blasted it, shrieking and jumping up and down, tossing my head from side to side, spinning and grinding away to the synth-laden, guitar-heavy slice of throbbage.
Suddenly, a flashing red light. The hotline reserved for emergencies, invasions, matters of national crisis. I picked up breathless. “Hello…?”
“What in the HELL are you DOING?” came the angry bark of the GM. “For the love of Christ, ‘I sincerely want to fuck the taste out of your mouth?’ REALLY? Do you give a shit about our license? Didn’t you preview the track?”
“I didn’t. I just knew…”
“It was gonna feel good.”
He hung up.
Prince had always been my own private rebellion. A 90-pound banty rooster, often in a frilly shirt or no clothes, with a band as tight as James Brown’s, he made no bones about pleasure, eroticism or the various forms of coitus and release. I was a nice girl from the suburbs in a plaid skirt, white cotton blouse — I couldn’t get enough. If my school friends knew about Earth, Wind and Fire and Rick James’ “Super Freak,” I knew about something even more out there. Prince was mine, and I liked it that way.
But then “1999” became the omnipresent party anthem. “Little Red Corvette” took a sexual metaphor and roared across suburban Top 40 radio. America was discovering the libertine with the sick beats, the narcotic melodies, those grooves you couldn’t climb out of. My private joy was becoming the James Dean of funk, a tortured artist against the world with the album and film “Purple Rain” that seemingly outsold everything else combined. [To buy the CD of “The Very Best of Prince” from Amazon, click here. For the MP3 download, click here. To buy the DVD of “Purple Rain” or watch the streaming video, click here.]
At the same time, he was launching careers. Vanity 6, Sheila E(scovedo), and the Time, which eventually spawned Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, who’d go on to produce Janet Jackson’s biggest albums. There were contributions to others: Sheena Easton (“Sugar Walls”), the Bangles (“Manic Monday”), Stevie Nicks (“Stand Back”). Sinead O’Connor went mainstream with “Nothing Compares to U.” Chaka Kahn came blazing back with “I Feel 4 You.”
Prince hit Miami like a hurricane, blowing into the 2007 Orange Bowl with gale force. I garnered an invitation to the post-show party at Club X. When Prince showed, somewhere between 2 and 3 AM, it was old school glamour. Tiny like a jockey, wearing a luxurious suit in a pastel so pale it was unidentifiable, his presence consumed the room. Sheila E was with him, laughing into her hand, caramel hair falling in waves, her slit pencil skirt, lace stockings and satiny blouse like a second skin. Rock & roll didn’t look like this. Nothing did.
In 1992, when I’d cashed out my journalism chips to take a job at Sony Nashville, I went to the MTV Music Awards. Even better, to the dress rehearsal. I can’t even remember which song it was. Bass notes rumbled like big trucks on brick roads, fat tires flattening just a bit, drums slapping as hard as an open hand on a wet face. Even in rehearsal, Prince held nothing back from his guitar; he leaned in, hearing things we couldn’t as the synthesizers pushed what we thought were the boundaries. Entangled, thrashing, pressing and seeking, the aural equivalent of sex with an instrument – the closest thing to combustion I’d ever seen at another person’s fingertips.
Years later, driving and listening to a mix tape a Cleveland, Ohio local star made for me, between the expected Buddy Millers, Patty Griffins and Springsteens, came a few unexpected piano notes. Chords fell like tears as the notes ascended — and a papery, whispery falsetto intoned, “I am a lonely painter, I live in a box of paints…” Gentle, soulful, washed in want, regret, love, need — it was Prince, singing “A Case of You,” one of Joni Mitchell’s most sacred songs of love and longing, his voice rising ever higher before settling into the pledge of “I could drink a case of you/ and still be on my feet.” I had to pull over.
I had to pull over again today. Right now I’m sitting in some deep Alabama truck stop, people never touched by this music milling by in search of a hot shower, a little food, some gas or coffee. An editor mentioned the news to me as we were final editing, and I had to start writing. Had to try to remember it all: the way my blood felt like schools of little fish, nibbling my veins when his music was loud, my pulse racing when I glimpsed him at X or my jaw going slack just watching him push that glyph-looking guitar to places I didn’t know existed.
I am not sobbing, but I am audible. People are looking. What can you say? To them, I must look like I’m having a flashback moment, lost on a tide of who I was when I didn’t know any better. They’d be wrong. Prince brought freedom and knowledge. Like the snake in the garden, he gave us an apple that tasted like music… and sex… and love.
Amelia Smith: The best Prince album you may never hear –– and how to listen right now for free
The eclectic, commercial-free French state radio station FIP – so faithful to Prince they’d aired an homage the night before his passing – stopped everything Thursday to run excerpts of One Nite Alone… Live!, a compilation of performances recorded during Prince and the New Power Generation’s 2002 tour of the same name.
Released independently by NPG Records, the original CD box-set is a rarity — used copies on Amazon are as expensive as tickets to “Hamilton. [To buy the set from Amazon for $339 or more, click here.] It’s not available on Tidal, where much of Prince’s post-Warner Brothers music now resides.
FIP’s selections included examples of the artist at his most musically masterful (“Xenophobia”), seductive (“Mellow”; seriously, there must be 13 year-olds walking around who owe their existence to this one), funky (“1+1+1+3”), political (“Family Name”), proselytizing (“Anna Stesia”), playful (“Starfish and Coffee”) and ultimately, self-eulogizing (“Sometimes it Snows in April”). Prince whips his audience into a frenzy with naughty interstitials and the full force of his band, which in this incarnation included drummer John Blackwell Jr. and legendary saxophonist Maceo Parker.
Good news: the station will leave its two-hour tribute up for online streaming until 21 April 2017 (To listen, click Ecouter l’emission). It’s a generous gift to hard-core Prince fans, proof that our bursting into tears or vacating our desks last week had nothing to do with “Purple Rain.” Leaving a Prince concert, spent and satiated, you knew you had seen one of the greatest artists of all time. The shock is absorbing that you’ll never have another chance.
Prince – When Doves Cry (1984) by retrospective1
Mary J. Blige & Prince – Nothing Compares 2 U… by FerrellSouza
This article originally appeared on The Head Butler.
Photo credit: Getty Images