Prince & His Revolution: 1958-2016
As I took the last bites of my lunch, I got a text from my brother Scott at 12:47 pm which simply read “Reports Prince is dead”. Scott works as a broadcast journalist and often finds out news minutes before it makes its way around the globe. I announced this to my co-workers with little reaction, so I proceeded to text my musical family. My friend David immediately responded saying “they say someone died at his studio. They don’t know. Hopefully it’s not him :(“. A few minutes later my brother’s message was confirmed and the world got a little smaller. Unfortunately, this time, I was the bearer of bad news to my friends who loved him the most. When I got home from work, I sat down at my drums and played through as much of the Purple Rain album as I could. I proceeded to blast out some of my favourite Prince tunes and then settled into watching Kevin Smith’s Prince story and the documentary Prince in the 1980’s. I also began thinking about what I would write about, but the reality was I hadn’t really dealt with his passing yet. On Friday I started and finished reading the book A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, in which a 13 year old boy is confronted with the reality and acceptance of his mother’s imminent death from cancer. The book, as I was warned, was intense but I was not prepared for what was going to happen moments after finishing it. I got out of bed in a bit of an emotional daze and headed to the living room where my ears caught the lyric “I never meant to cause you any sorrow, I never meant to cause you any pain”. I had been playing through Prince tunes all night and by chance I walked out to Purple Rain. I lost it. I had one the most cathartic cries of my adult life. I sobbed through the 8 minute song, which continued all the way through Let’s Go Crazy. The opening of that song, reminiscent of a eulogy, propelled the tears faster and harder. After the song ended I proceeded to sit down at my drums and play along to whatever came next and the tears still kept flowing. For someone who grew up in a British household, this was as messy as it gets for me. After gaining my composure, I sat down at my laptop and began to write.
I am not the biggest Prince fan in the world. I was either too young, or not even born, during the release of his biggest hits in the 1980’s. I can’t remember the first time that I ever heard a Prince song and I don’t know when I started listening to his albums beyond Purple Rain. But somehow he profoundly impacted my life, which probably began around the time I started to understand the complexities of pop music. I remember getting an issue of Modern Drummer that featured John Blackwell, one of Prince’s great drummers, in which he talked about how Prince was a better drummer than him when he started playing in his group. Wait… What? I still cannot comprehend how talented of a multi-instrumentalist he was. I’ve always hated when people talk to me about their friend who can play multiple instruments because all I can think of is “jack of all trades, master of none”. Prince is probably the most shining exception to this rule that I can think of. He masterfully made love to his guitar, brought the funk on the bass, hooked you in with his keyboard lines, and tastefully worked his way around the drums. It’s not simply him just being a good player who can hold his own on many instruments, he was revolutionary on each. I am still hopeful that videos of Prince drumming in studio will come to light one of these days. I have listened to the tracks he has drummed on for years and I feel as though I have little understanding to how he actually did it (usually it’s fairly easy for me to visualize what a drummer is doing when listening to them). Compositionally, Prince again deserves many accolades. His tracks always had incredible depth, achieved by both the addition of interesting melodies and tambre and the reduction of sound or complexities (ex. the bass in When Doves Cry).
I would argue that many pop groups today have tended towards focusing on the entertainment side of music. It often feels as though we are far more interested in seeing a coordinated dance routine than hearing a well practice band. Prince, however, managed to balance being both an expert musician and a world class entertainer. Every time I see a video of him, I can’t help myself from saying “damnnnn he is so f***ing cool”. Everything about the way he presented himself seemed so natural. He had incredibly elaborate outfits that were worn as effortlessly as I would wear a pair of jeans. He probably woke up every day with his hair and makeup done perfectly. All the while perched atop a pair of heels, which only made him more of, as the song says, a Sexy MF. Much like David Bowie, who we lost earlier this year, Prince constantly challenged gender norms and derived much of his flamboyant look from artists like Gloria Gaynor. His masculinity and sex appeal were the result of his rejection of traditional masculine norms. I mean, his first television performance was done in a bikini and thigh high boots. Frank Ocean put it perfectly by saying, “he made me feel more comfortable with how I identify sexually simply by his display of freedom from and irreverence for obviously archaic ideas like gender conformity etc.“. With so many bands adopting drab attire, making non-fashion and fashion, Prince’s early exit will be felt immensely.
Frida Khalo is one of my favourite visual artists but it took me a while to truly begin understanding her work. She exposed the depths of her thoughts on canvas and changed the world of art forever. On the surface, like Khalo’s paintings, Prince’s lyrics can often be dismissed or overlooked. When you listen closely, what you get are the boiled down profound thoughts of a genius. A single line can make you think for hours. It is no surprise that Prince was such a fan of Joni Mitchell, who is considered one of the greatest lyricists of all time. Although lyrics are interpreted many different ways, the following are observations on some of my favourite Prince lines.
Maybe I’m just too demanding
Maybe I’m just like my father too bold
Maybe you’re just like my mother
She’s never satisfied
No shocker here. When Doves Cry is one of the crowning achievements of Prince for so many reasons. While he asks you to “dig if you will the picture”, the song switches halfway through to a very personal internalized dialogue. As I get older, I realize that people who said “I’ll never be like my parents” are, to their immediate denial, just like their parents. I would wager that many people believe that their mother cannot be satisfied and that much of this song rings true. Simply, these lyrics will always be relevant.
In September, my cousin tried reefer for the very first time
Now he’s doing horse… it’s June.
Sign O’ the Times is one of Prince’s greatest songs that looks outward to the world. The result is essentially a news broadcast that is, for lack of a better phrase, very much a sign of the times. Why I included this song is simply for the pause between “Now he’s doing horse” and “it’s June”. I’m not sure why this particular line has affected me so much but it definitely relates to his ability to use space effectively. That quick space reflects the short time between his cousin smoking reefer and doing “horse”, aka heroin.
Damn Prince! In P-Control, Prince lives up to his line “I wanna hip U all 2 the reason I’m known as the player of the year”. Sometimes you just need to sit back and smile as Prince works his magic. For many, the overt sexuality in his lyrics, before he became a Jahova’s Witness, really opened their eyes. We have been conditioned to shy away from being sexual beings and I am glad Prince ignored this. I am grateful that someone didn’t only write about sexuality by fantasizing some ideal concept of love.
“Mind if I turn on the radio?”
“Oh, my favourite song” she said
And it was Joni singing “Help me I think I’m falling”
The phone rang and she said
“Whoever’s calling can’t be as cute as U”
I can listen to the Ballad of Dorothy Parker over and over. Not many people can get away with singing the line of another musician, let alone singing one of Joni Mitchell’s most famous lyrics. This section not only paints a scene perfectly, which Prince had a talent for, but it is impeccably timed. When Prince references or covers another musician, it is done tastefully with purpose. I often thought that he didn’t just want to sell his music, he wanted to sell music itself.
I never wanted to be your weekend lover
I only wanted to be some kind of friend
The last example of Prince’s brilliant lyricism comes from Purple Rain. The song that put me in tears as I realized my own relationship with Prince had changed forever. However, there is something that resonates deep within me when I hear “I never wanted to be your weekend lover”. Relationships can be very complicated and I’m sure most people have felt as though we weren’t always appreciated, sexual or not, at some time or another. While I would argue this song is about a the complicated relationship with between The Kid and Apollonia in the film, others argue this song is about God, Prince’s feminism in relation to his father or freedom with regards to the control exhibited by the elite class. Somehow Prince managed to walk a fine line between being vague and being painfully obvious. In the end, Prince has given us a lifetime of words that all mean something different to us and that, to me, is why Prince is so great.
Bobby Z inspired look on TV for Purple Rain at the Bloor Cinema
Over the weekend I was talking with my friend Clive and said “why try to and put together the tightest band ever when you are no longer in the shadow of Prince”. Beyond Beyonce’s All-Female Band, what backing tour band is a recognizable force to be reckoned with these days? One thing I haven’t really mentioned were the incredible bands Prince put together and wrote for. Take a look online for a full detailed list of these musicians, I promise it goes well beyond The Revolution and the New Power Generation. In 2011 I had the privilege of seeing Prince live at the Air Canada Centre for his Welcome2Canada tour. Ticketmaster had put up some cheap last minute tickets and to my surprise I was seated in very close the stage. The row of seats was oddly empty, which I dismissed as unsold cheap tickets. Then the concert started with the spotlight coming down on the end of our row and all of a sudden I was, for a brief moment, standing beside Prince. What proceeded was one of the most amazing experiences I ever had. The first five songs he played were Gold, Purple Rain, Let’s Go Crazy, Delirious and 1999. The fact that he dropped these hit songs so early on speaks to the depths of his discography. The show was riddled with covers by Sly & the Family Stone, KC & the Sunshine Band, Tommy James the Shondells, Wild Cherry, Sarah McLuaghlin and Michael Jackson. If you see the setlists from that same tour, he played a wide variety of covers, well beyond the ones I mentioned above. Often times it easy to assume revolutionary musicians create in a bubble and are not consistently taking in new music. However, at the core of Prince’s being was his love of music. It’s amazing that standing beside an individual for 2 seconds is a story. That’s the power of the purple man.
Prince and The Revolution at the 1985 American Music Awards. Wendy <3
As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, I turned to my music family when I heard the sad news. I have never really looked for solace in others when it comes to the deaths of musicians I admire. However, this time is different. Through Prince, I feel as though I am actually revisiting other musicians/heroes whose passing I may not have dealt with fully in the past. This includes Joe Strummer, Michael Jackson and David Bowie. Almost a week has passed and I am finding that I am continually sharing and listening to even more stories with friends. What I have learned is that by sharing our most intimate experiences and understanding, we reinforce the beauty and profound importance of enjoying music with others. I am just one fish in a pond of many people who spend a huge brunt of their free time and money on music. Like many Prince lyrics, my journey has looked externally to focus internally. I want to recognize and thank my friends for helping me celebrate the life of one of the greatest musicians to grace this earth. In particular, thank you to Michael, David, Clive, Anthony, Scott and Sam.
Starfish and coffee
Maple syrup and jam
Butterscotch clouds, a tangerine
And a side order of ham
If you set your mind free, honey
Maybe you’d understand