Sign O the times

This was shocking news yesterday for those around my age, from the Minneapolis Star Tribune:

Legendary Minnesota pop musician Prince was found dead Thursday morning at his Paisley Park recording studio complex in Chanhassen, the Associated Press has confirmed from his publicist. He was 57.

Immediately upon hearing the news, mourners began lining up with flowers and stuffed animals outside the studio on Audubon Road, some sobbing and embracing. Shocked condolences flooded social media. Lawmakers paused for a moment of silence at a state legislative hearing.

Fans touched a star bearing his name painted on the First Avenue music club in downtown Minneapolis, the “Purple Rain” site where he played often early in his career.

“Our hearts are broken,” First Avenue said on Facebook. “Prince was the Patron Saint of First Avenue. He grew up on this stage, and then commanded it, and he united our city. It is difficult to put into words the impact his death will have on the entire music community, and the world. As the tragic news sinks in, our thoughts are with Prince’s family, friends, and fans.”

Former KMSP anchor Robyne Robinson, who interviewed Prince several times and maintained a personal relationship, said she was working with University of Minnesota to give Prince an honorary music degree in June and Prince had tentatively agreed.

“He was a genius,” she said, tearfully. “He was an amazingly generous man to this community and to his people. There’s no one that will match his brilliance. His genorisity was really endless … I’ll be a fan until the day I die.”

Prince’s childhood friend and early bandmate André Cymone said he traded messages with him from Los Angeles last weekend after the reports of his illness on a plane flight.

“He said he was doing OK and we’d try to hook up next time he was in LA,” said Cymone, whose mother took Prince into her home in his midteens when his relationship with his parents got too strained. “I’m just devastated now. I’m in utter disbelief. It’s such a tragedy.” …

The news of his death came less than a week after Prince’s private plane made an emergency landing early Friday morning in Illinois as he was returning to the Twin Cities from two shows in Atlanta on Thursday.

Afterward, a source close to Prince told the Star Tribune that the singer was dehydrated on the flight home. Prince himself wanted to clarify the situation on Saturday, saying, “Wait a few days before you waste any prayers.”

Prince was inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll of Fame in 2004. Standing just 5 feet, 2 inches tall, he seemed to summon the most original and compelling sounds at will, whether playing guitar in a flamboyant style that openly drew upon Jimi Hendrix, switching his vocals from a nasally scream to an erotic falsetto or turning out album after album of stunningly original material. Among his other notable releases: “Sign O’ the Times,” “Graffiti Bridge” and “The Black Album.”

He was also fiercely protective of his independence, battling his record company over control of his material and even his name. Prince once wrote “slave” on his face in protest of not owning his work and famously battled and then departed his label, Warner Bros., before returning a few years ago.

Prince’s protectiveness of his independence extended to the ability of anyone to hear his work online without paying for it. I wasn’t able to find much online beyond the NFL Films account of Prince’s Super Bowl XLI performance in, yes, rain. Those of my age will recall when for a few years he was called “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince,” with an unpronounceable symbol, in said dispute with said record company.

On Milwaukee details the meeting with a Wisconsin rock group and what could have been:

Shortly after Prince’s sudden and tragic death early this afternoon, OnMilwaukee happened to meet up with Milwaukee musician (and OnMilwaukee contributor) Victor DeLorenzo, who had a fun story and a few thoughts to share about the late musical icon.

OnMilwaukee: Do you have any Prince stories?

Victor DeLorenzo: Well, the one incredible Prince story I have to relay is the time when the Violent Femmes were in Los Angeles, and we were working on a record that eventually became “Why Do Birds Sing?” We were working on some of the recording with Prince’s engineer, Susan Rogers, and we had a great time with Susan. We were doing final mixes over at a studio called Larrabee, and this was a studio complex – we were in one studio, and in the studio next to us, Prince was in the studio.

So jokingly we said to Susan one afternoon when we were working, “Hey, why don’t you go next door and ask Prince if he’s got a song for us?” After doing this a number of times, she finally said, “OK, alright, I’ll go bother him!” So she goes over there.

She’s gone about ten minutes, and we’re thinking, “Wow, what’s going to happen? What if he wants to come over and meet us? Or if he has a song?” Suddenly, she comes back into the studio we’re working in, and she says, “Prince has a song for you. He’s sending someone over to his archive, and they’ll get a cassette over to you later this afternoon.”

So this cassette arrives, and it’s a song called “You’ve Got A Beautiful Ass.” And I think it did come out on one of his collections or compilations or outtakes or what have you. We had this cassette, and we listen to it, and I can remember the chorus: “You’ve got a wonderful ass; you’ve got a beautiful ass.” Or something to that effect. I think Gordon still probably has the cassette. But another mistake in a long line of many made by Violent Femmes, we never recorded it.

Did you guys consider it?

We did consider it! But at that time, we were thinking, “Wow, if we record something like this, is it going to be able to really get out there – even if we say it’s a Prince song – because of the subject matter and that?” Even though we’d had songs like “Girl Trouble” (sic) and “Add It Up” (sic) and all this other stuff, we still kind of thought, “Is that the right thing for us right now when we’re trying to get something really on the radio?”

Did you think at the time that he was messing with you?


You thought that was a song that he really thought would be great for you guys.

Yeah, and I wish I had the cassette, because the song was really cool! I really liked the song.

So he actually did put some thought into that.

Yeah! It was like what I was just reading today; he’s got an archive of I don’t know how many thousands of songs that are just finished that are just sitting there. And that’s what Susan Rogers told us too. He would come in there to the studio and just record all the time. He would be there every day, just working on stuff.

She would set up mics on the drum set; he would go out and play the drums first. Then he’d come in and play the bass to the drums. Then he’d do the guitars and do some keyboards. And then he’d say, “OK, Sue, it’s time for me to do my thing.” And then she would set up a mic behind the console, and she would leave for an hour or so. And he would sit there, and he would do all his vocals by himself.

Would it have made a difference if the interaction had happened sooner? You were saying you were mixing the record by then, so basically the record was done. Would it have mattered if it could’ve been an album track?

I like to think that anything could’ve happened the moment that cassette got into our hands. But, as you said, yes, the record was in the final stages of being mixed – even though we did take that whole record and remix it here in Milwaukee with Dave Vartanian. We didn’t track anything brand new; the record itself was finished.

But who knows? If things would’ve gone another way, maybe we would’ve made time to do just a recording of that track and release it just as a single.

In a more overarching way, what does Prince leave us with? I mean, this was not your average, ordinary musician; this is a guy who made a major contribution.

I think what I most appreciate about Prince and his music is the mystery that was involved. I liked the fact that he infused so many different styles of music into his own and that he, much like a ’30s or ’40s Hollywood movie star, really banked on that persona of his, and the sexuality and the mystery surrounding it. So he was being sexy, but not in an overtly masculine or feminine way, which was very progressive at that time. Long before Madonna did her sex book or anything like that, this was something middle America had to confront.

And being from Minneapolis! How amazing that you have these two cultural icons – Bob Dylan and Prince – coming out of Minnesota.

And both craftsmen.

Right! And prolific! Both so prolific.

Nick Gillespie defines Prince’s role in the ’80s, including the overheating over song lyrics:

Prince is dead and we look to see who might replace him and see no one on the horizon. As Brian Doherty so aptly puts it, “he was a bold rebel in terms of image and message, playing with still-prevalent social confines of propriety in behavior, dress, and comportment, mixing sex and religion like they were his own personal possession he was generous enough to share with us, destroying color lines in pop music and its fandom.”

More than Michael Jackson and arguably even more than Madonna—to name two other ’80s icons who challenged all forms of social convention in a pop-music setting—Prince took us all to a strange new place that was better than the one we came from. (In this, his legacy recalls that of David Bowie.)

In the wake of the social progress of the past several decades, it’s hard to recapture how threatening the Paisley One once seemed, this gender-bender guy who shredded guitar solos that put Jimi Hendrix or Eric Clapton to shame while prancing around onstage in skivvies and high heels. He was funkier than pre-criminality Rick James and minced around with less shame and self-consciousness than Liberace. Madonna broke sexual taboos by being sluttish, which was no small thing, but as a fey black man who surrounded himself with hotter-than-the-sun lady musicians, he was simultaneously the embodiment of campy Little Richard and that hoariest of White America boogeymen, the hypersexualized black man.

No wonder he scared the living shit out of ultra-squares such as Al and Tipper Gore. In 1985, the future vice president and planet-saver and his wife were, as Tipper’s 1987 best-selling anti-rock, anti-Satanism, anti-sex manifesto put it,Raising PG Kids in an X-Rated Society. Tipper headed up the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), whose sacred document was a list of songs it called “The Filthy Fifteen.” These were songs that glorified sex, drugs, Satan, and masturbation and could pervert your kid—or even lead them to commit suicide. At number one on the list was Prince’s “Darling Nikki,” from his massive soundtrack record to Purple Rain (jeezus, wasn’t that movie a revelation? Of what exactly, I can’t remember, but finally, it seemed, a rock star had truly delivered on the genius we all wanted to see emerge from pop music into film). …

In 1985, the Senate wasted its time and our money by holding a hearing on the dread menace of dirty lyrics and the whole bang-the-gong medley of backward masking, rock-induced suicide, and sexual promiscuity. Just a few years later, Al and Tipper would reinvent themselves as diehard Grateful Dead fans, the better to look hip while campaigning with Bill and Hillary Clinton (another couple of revanchist baby boomers who burned a hell of a lot time in the 1990s attacking broadcast TV and basic cable asimpossibily violent and desperately in need of regulation).

But before pretending to grok the Dead, Al would showboat at “the first session on contents of music and the lyrics of records,” where he appeared as a witness in favor of the PMRC’s record-labeling system. Strangely enough, Al stressed—in front of a Senate subcommittee, mind you—that the government need not be involved.

The two most important things I have learned which have changed my initial attitude to this whole concern are, No. 1, the proposals made by those concerned about this problem do not involve a Government role of any kind whatsoever. They are not asking for any form of censorship or regulation of speech in any manner, shape, or form.

What they are asking for is whether or not the music industry can show some self-restraint and working together in a manner similar to that used by the movie industry, whether or not they can come up with a voluntary guide system for parents who wish to exercise what they believe to be their responsibilities to their children, to try to prevent their children from being exposed to material that is not appropriate for them.

The second thing I have learned over the past several months is that the kind of material in question is really very different from the kind of material which has caused similar controversies in past generations. It really is very different, and I think those who have not become familiar with this material will realize that fact when they see some of the examples that involve extremely popular groups that get an awful lot of play, some of the most popular groups around now. …

Tipper devoted an entire chapter of her book to “Playing With Fire: Heavy Metal Satanism” and called attention to the threat of…Dungeons and Dragons. “Many kids,” she wrote, “experiment with the deadly satanic game, and get hooked.”

If all of this seems so, so, so long ago—and it does, thank god—we owe a huge debt to Prince and the people like him who soldiered on, expressing themselves as they saw fit, in free and unfettered ways. In fact, Prince did it not just with the content of his art, as he also experimented with new, direct ways of distribution, too, while (stupidly, IMO) eschewing the shift to digital and taking on what was at the time the most-powerful music label in the business. Depending on who you are, you might hate all or some of his music, or think his creative streak dried up somewhere around the time he became The Artist Formerly Known as Prince or started scrawling “SLAVE” on his cheeks…

Yeah, sure, maybe.

But there’s no denying that those of us who actually believe in free expression are standing on the tiny shoulders of Prince as surely as we are on the broad shoulders of Thomas Jefferson or George Mason. And upon Prince’s death, we owe it ourselves not only to praise his artistry and risk-taking but to shame the Al and Tipper Gores of the world, who tried so hard and so pathetically to force their narrow vision of what is right and proper upon this world of tears that beautiful, weird, and even dirty music makes slightly more bearable for a few minutes.

(See? Conservatives knew Al Gore was an idiot well before Earth in the Balance.)

Prince was described online yesterday as my generation’s Elvis. That’s a hard comparison to make, though his music appealed over more than one genre (had he done just rock he could certainly have stood up with any ’80s guitarist), he wrote songs for other acts, he made movies, and he sold bazillions of records. He was also a performer whose concerts (none of which I saw) were worth whatever you had to pay to see them.

There was no one else like Prince.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s