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The New Yorker Prince Story

Prince. Photo by: Nancy Bundt.
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I haven’t read about this anywhere else.

I saw it first on “The New Yorker”‘s Today app. If you’re a subscriber, it’s extra info, to get you through the week, the viewpoint of intellectuals in a dumbed-down world. Of course, of course, “The New Yorker” is stuffy, self-important, self-congratulatory and written in a singular style, but it’s great to read something intelligent by someone who can write, as opposed to what is published in most magazines and on most websites. In the information age, one can see the difference between one who has talent and one who does not. And believe me, most people writing have no talent. It’s only about the facts. Oftentimes, you quit reading because the writing’s so bad, and the article is so heavily edited by the publication that it’s got no soul. That’s one thing for artists, if they’ve truly got it, you’ve got to get out of their way. Used to be that way in the seventies in music, the label had no input into the content or releasability of the album. You delivered it, they had to put it out. Labels did this because of the increased income from music in the late sixties. Warner Brothers Records built the Warner cable system, there was just that much cash. Because records are relatively cheap to make and market, compared to TV and film, and when they hit, the cost of manufacturing more is de minimis, so you can make tons of bucks, they call this scale.

Not that the music business gets any respect.

Conventional wisdom is the music business is fly by night. Crooked. For young people. But the truth is it’s much harder to make a great record than a great movie. Then again, today’s hit records are made like movies, done in collaboration, everybody having input, so you end up with an homogenized product targeted for a specific audience, as opposed to the genius of one. The music business story this summer has been Taylor Swift’s “Lover,” and the discussion has been more about marketing and profit than content. Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood” started out as a business story. His first film after the Weinstein empire imploded, “Once Upon a Time” was paid for and released by Sony at a pretty penny, scuttlebutt was there was no way the company could get its money back, certainly not in a Marvel world where indie/adult pictures have cratered. The budget for “Once Upon a Time” was $90 million. So far, the gross is $286,219,865. And “Once Upon A Time” has been the cultural event of the summer.

We never talk about records anymore. I mean really discuss them. We might mention them in passing, but our opinions tend to be of the thumbs-up or thumbs-down nature, not extended riffs on content. Sure you can read reviews by puffed-up blowhards, but they usually go ignored. But now, everybody with a brain is talking about “Once Upon A Time…in Hollywood.”

I haven’t seen it. I was invited to a pre-release screening at the Cinerama Dome, but screenings never start on time and they’re full and I was traveling shortly thereafter and I didn’t go. That was a mistake, because I can’t be part of the discussion. At dinner last night, Lisa and Mary Kay were waxing rhapsodic. I felt completely out of it. Like I might have back in the early aughts when we still went to the movie theatre, when you had to go to be part of the discussion, before we all looked at each other and said the flicks were worthless.

Of course, after “Once Upon a Time,” we discussed television. There was some commonality there, and then everybody testified as to their personal favorite we had to see, it was like record recommendation culture before the internet made everything available and overwhelmed us, back when music drove the culture. Back when we talked about Prince.

Now Prince’s first album was a stiff. He didn’t live up to the hype. They lied about his age, not that he was not young enough, but there was not a hit and it was sold to the rock audience when it appealed more to the black audience and nothing happened.

The second LP skewed black, and had a hit on black radio, “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” but it did not cross over. Oh, don’t quote me “Billboard” numbers, where it went #11 Pop, first and foremost it’s about the Top Ten, and the radio charts and “Billboard”‘s don’t always align, and if the track had truly been that big amongst white folks Prince wouldn’t have been booed opening for the Rolling Stones, he wouldn’t have been a new discovery with “Purple Rain.”

Actually, Prince didn’t break through to white audiences until “Controversy,” his fourth LP, even though it was not nearly as good as what came before, “Dirty Mind.” Which was disco and sex-laden and infiltrated the white rock critic cognoscenti when that fraternity still had a hold on the minds of listeners. Now this was when you had to buy it to hear it. Unlike its predecessor, the eponymous “Prince,” “Dirty Mind” had no hits, but if you did take the leap and dropped the needle you were overwhelmed, even if you were a notorious wallflower, you had to dance, the music instantly penetrated you, and there was a cheesily rocking song that infected you, that you knew was a hit even though it wasn’t, entitled “When You Were Mine,” ultimately covered by Mitch Ryder and Cyndi Lauper. And of course, “Dirty Mind” contained the legendary “Head,” which Prince wanted to give, white acts were not pushing this envelope, this was a revelation. And the second side opened with “Uptown.” Prince made other Minneapolis references, but you had to go there to get them, kinda like how records come alive when you finally get to L.A., “Uptown” is the hip area of the Mini-Apple, it’s not just a generic, theoretical place.

But timing is everything. And by time Prince came back to the marketplace in 1982, after “Controversy,” MTV was in full swing, it was hotter than the acts it featured, but those acts benefited from the exposure, and Prince didn’t need no story video, he didn’t stand static, he did his full act on film and beamed into so many houses in America, he finally entered the consciousness of those paying attention, the rest came along with “Purple Rain.” We were implored to party like it was “1999,” and that track became the anthem of the millennium, and its opening flourish was made for the masses, to get them to pay attention, like the king’s trumpeters flourishing from the top of the walls of the castle. And then came “Little Red Corvette.” A killer record, the video was the icing on the cake, the cherry on top, you could not watch it and not be overwhelmed. Who was this black guy who rocked and came from Minneapolis and was hotter than all the classic acts he blew away?

And after “Purple Rain,” Prince was an institution, he never left the scene, he always had a presence in our minds, he was as big as they get.

And then he died.

Oh, before that he was legendary for extravagance. Rumor was he was going broke. But Prince was not MC Hammer. But he did know that living large was part of the image, and he knew that image was part of the marketing, and if you followed it with great music you triumphed, continuously.

Now it turns out Prince was collaborating on a book before his death. I might have read about it in passing, but then every rocker is writing a book, almost all of them bad, but they have an audience nonetheless, kinda like all these music documentaries that are being released today. And his cowriter was a guy named Dan Piepenbring, whom I’d never heard of, but he’s a “New Yorker” writer and a bigwig at “The Paris Review,” talk about insular, and he was suggested to Prince and they ended up working together, for a time.

Not that there was any agreement. The greats don’t need any, at least between the creators. You follow the creativity, you jump on the bus, you drive into the unknown, otherwise you’re left behind. Piepenbring jumped on the bus. But first he journeyed to Chanhassen.

Piepenbring had written a requested essay, “about our relationship to his music and why we thought we could do the job.” Piepenbring immediately wrote and sent his composition, harnessing the inspiration, and he heard back from the Prince camp at 2:23 AM, six hours after the submission.

Now there’s a lot to unpack here. Suits, non-creative people, have the notion that creative work, especially writing, is a long, tortuous process wherein you drink coffee, stay up all night, create, make revisions and then finally submit past deadline. Sure, there are a lot of people who do it that way, especially those who went to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, but most great art is based on inspiration, you’ve got to grab the spirit before it dissipates, you’ve got to channel the gods, you’ve got to lay it down, and if you change it, you ruin it. And its this essence, the passion, the bleeding from the heart, that resonates with the audience, which is why Prince contacted Piepenbring immediately. You see work like this is rare. As for the late evening/early morning response, the music business is 24/7, if you’re not willing to work on the weekends don’t even bother to show up on the weekdays. But you do it because you love it.

Prince immediately challenges Piepenbring’s screed. Tells him his over-analytical critical words don’t fit him. Prince is not “breaking the law,” he’s about “harmony.” He says Led Zeppelin broke the law, not him. And Prince went on, he hated critics’ use of the word “alchemy.” Even worse was “magical.” Prince was about funk. “Funk is the opposite of magic. Funk is about rules.”

If you’ve been paying attention to the internet blowback, you’re aware that Lana Del Rey responded to Ann Powers’s NPR review of her new album. Powers called Lana Del Rey’s lyrics “uncooked.” Huh? What exactly does that mean? That’s a writer trying to describe what she does not understand. Especially with Lana Del Rey, where the words are meaningful. This is why Zappa called rock journalism “People who can’t write, doing interviews with people who can’t think, in order to prepare articles for people who can’t read.” First and foremost you should try to get into the head of the artist, where he or she is coming from, perspective is everything, but how the music makes you feel is most important. But that’s today’s world. That’s why music interviews are so unreadable. You might learn some facts, but you won’t get any meaningful analysis. The musicians of yore had viewpoints we looked up to, what does a 17 year old pop queen have to say anyway?

We learn a lot about Prince. “I thought I would never be able to play like my dad, and he never missed an opportunity to remind me of that…” The drive comes from somewhere. If you grew up in a happy home, if your upbringing was peaches and cream, chances are you’re not changing the world, because that motivation comes from having something to prove, all the greats come from the same place.

But the most interesting parts of the article have to do with racism.

At this point we see racism as inner city or crackertown. We think it’s not us. We think Minnesota is all white, but it’s not. And Prince testifies as to the slights he endured growing up. But he goes on and on how Piepenbring doesn’t understand his viewpoint. Then he starts talking about Black Wall Street in Tulsa. More than 100 black-owned businesses. And then whitey burned it all down. Huh? I’d never heard about this. Illustrating the racial divide. We don’t learn black history, but blacks know it. And speaking of being black…African-Americans have been screwed since they came to this country, so Prince asks Piepenbring whether he’s been paid, getting paid is important, it’s not only the cash, but the respect, and Prince believes artists should be paid, they should get respect.

Furthermore, Prince wants to write his own contract. To have the ability to remove the book from the shelves if he no longer agrees with its tenets. Sure, he’ll have to pay for this, but it’s worth it.

So you see the world from Prince’s perspective. And no one has ever said he’s an uneducated, non-thinking nincompoop. You respect his opinion, you’re interested in his take, from an era when recognition came from the work, when you couldn’t sell it online to the point where the marketing eclipses the art.

“There’s a lot of people who say you gotta learn to walk before you learn to run. That’s slave talk to me. That’s something slaves would say.”

In other words, if you’ve got it, you can play. Like that amateur who threw the ball 96 MPH and was immediately signed by the Athletics. And everybody pays dues, they call it life, we all have a perspective, not that we’re able to articulate it. Even worse is when someone has it and is kept down by the industry, because they’re too young, too inexperienced, they have to be taught a lesson.

And the revelation of this “New Yorker” article is the humanization of Prince. No, he is not like you and me, but he is no longer opaque and manipulative, there’s a real person there, in 3-D.

But he’s dead. And what he stood for, his perspective, does not dominate today. Today it’s about marketing and money. Hell, your music is only a license for your brand expansion into tchotchkes or clothing. Isn’t the music enough? In an age where only art can honestly speak truth to power?

So, if you’re a Prince fan at all, you should read this article. You’ll feel like you’re living in a bygone era, when artists were exalted for their content as opposed to their reach, when we worshipped their work as opposed to their antics, when one person could dig deep down and deliver.

More like this please.

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