February 17: Prince

As a kid I loved guitar driven music. I remember trying and failing to recreate the complex polyrhythms of the Thriller album on my beat up pawn shop guitar. The music director at our church showed me the bass line, but I wanted to create the full sound.

Prince’s 1984 Purple Rain album was a revelation: guitar driven music that crossed and combined genres. I bought the LP with my paper route money. I remember (being 11 at the time, and self conscious how I dressed) being unsure about the bold purple title and Prince’s custom purple suit. Wasn’t purple a girls color? I had a picture book with a night in a purple robe and a description of purple as the color of royalty, so I went with it. It was a royal color for a royal guitarist.

I couldn’t believe something so cool could come out of the Midwest. Having been born in New York, I considered sophistication and creative innovation to come only from major metropolis like New York or LA. I hated the interzone of the Midwest, always interested in new things from elsewhere, but never seeming to generate anything but corn sweetener and soy products. Prince broke the mold. Purple Rain was the first time I saw bold and daring as something the Midwest could do.

In my little world Prince also diversified my young perception of race. There were the Bobsy Twins books my mother had brought from Birmingham, which she read my brother and I, along with discussions about the way they reinforced inequality. There was Michael Jackson, constantly pushing forward electronic and synthesized music into pop, and there were kids in the neighborhood, who were like the white kids – playing at the park, going to school.

In my little world, guitar music was Sammy Hagar with big blond hair and screaming leads, parachuting in with his VOA album, released the same year as Purple Rain. “She knocked Dick in the dirt/ He jumped up and then she kissed him where it hurt.” Crass lyrics and needle sharp definition of each note.

Purple Rain was guitar, but it was fuller. Richer. Grittier. The lyrics were classy. “Raspberry beret, I think I love her.”

Prince continued to push innovation and creativity, changing his name to a symbol. That fact swept through my MTV informed college to various responses: he’s doing it, it’s a gimmick, he’s playing with identity. He was engaging identity as an artist, as a concept.

In graduate school I became known as “Toadboy” for a character I wrote into my poetry, and in post modern referentiallism began to refer to myself as “The Author Formerly Known As Toadboy.”

In protest of stipulations in his contract that gave ownership rights of his master recordings to Warner Brothers, in the early 1990’s Prince began appearing with the word “Slave” written on his face. I intellectually supported his act, seeing it as a bold statement about business and race.

Prince is in fact more than guitarist and singer. He is a multi instrumentalist, playing most of the instruments on his recordings without a band. Check out this clip from Prince’s Welcome 2 America tour.

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