In honor of “17 Days,” the pensive B-side to “When Doves Cry,” I park in front of pillar 17 at the Mohegan Sun. The pink and blue sky—androgynous, I think—reflects in a wing-like section of the glass hotel. The hotel looks like a cubist abstraction of a skyscraper, or make that a block of skyscrapers fused together and exiled. It’s part of an enormous casino and entertainment complex operated by the Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority in Uncasville, Connecticut. Its three incongruously named casinos—Casino of the Earth, Casino of the Sky, Casino of the Wind—contain nearly 6,000 slot machines and more than 300 gaming tables. There are nightclubs, restaurants, a shopping mall, an indoor waterfall, and at least one man yelling into his phone that he’s “tapped out.”
In a wide hallway leading to an arena, the song “Let’s Go Crazy” plays, heralding the opening of Prince’s three-night stand. A group of middle-aged fans sings along sanely in anticipation. Thirty years ago, Purple Rain made Prince a movie star, or at least the star of an irresistibly schlocky semi-autobiographical film about the Kid, a suave but troubled young Minneapolis musician whose talent leads him to triumph over every obstacle laid in his path. Prince’s triumph was even grander. The movie transformed him from a critical favorite and ascending radio and video star into a self-proclaimed messiah, a sales rival for Bruce Springsteen and Madonna, a rebellious foil for Michael Jackson, an arena-ready attraction who doubled as an avant-gardist.
After Purple Rain, Prince was everywhere. Especially if you were a teenager in 1984, you’ll remember a time of thrilling and/or oppressively pervasive blockbusters. The Purple Rain soundtrack was No. 1 from August of 1984 through mid-January of 1985. To avoid him, you needed first to be homeschooled in Wyoming and then to get serious about cutting yourself off.
You would have missed out. Few in pop history have matched Prince at doing so many things so well. Often simultaneously celebratory and reflective, he has songs for your sad dance party and songs for your happy apocalypse. His singing spans several octaves and styles, from new wave archness to gospel expressiveness. Adept on keyboards, guitar, bass, and drums, he can produce perfectly realized records all alone or with the aid of a single engineer willing to work extremely long hours. An iconoclast in black leg warmers and animal-print panties, he has challenged and indeed changed our ideas about race, sexuality, and animal-print panties.
Still, as I wait for the show to start, my excitement is tempered. I’ve spent the last 25 years cherry-picking highlights from albums that could be ranked by the degree to which they disappoint. I like some of what Prince has been doing with his new group, 3rdEyeGirl, but much of it indulges his most tiresome impulses: generically heavy guitar tones and hackneyed lyrics, bombastic arrangements and solos that call to mind Darling Nikki’s hotel-lobby pastime.
Then, the sound of a thunderstorm, somewhere between Cecil B. DeMille and one of those three-dollar nature-sounds CDs. Prince is starting on time tonight, but he makes us wait in the dark for a moment. “He’s such a tease!” yells a woman behind me. “I’m dying!” (No such luck; she talks throughout much of the show.) Finally the lights come on, and there he is, wearing a yellow suit, his customary heels, round sunglasses like the ones he wore in the movie, and an Afro not unlike the one he wore as a prodigious teenager in north Minneapolis.
“The kid wants to be a major national recording star,” wrote The Minnesota Daily’s Lisa Henrickson in 1977, when Prince actually was a kid. Prince Rogers Nelson was born in Minneapolis in 1958 to John L. Nelson and Mattie Shaw. His father worked as a plastic molder for Honeywell and moonlighted as a jazz musician, using the stage name Prince Rogers to lead a trio for which Shaw sang.
John L. Nelson was in his early 40s when Prince was born, and by that time he was apparently resigned to his musical career’s obscurity. “I named my son Prince because I wanted him to do everything I wanted to do,” he said in a 1991 interview on the TV show A Current Affair. Nelson and Shaw separated when Prince was 10, and the rest of Prince’s childhood was peripatetic. He first stayed with his mother, but in a few years he found himself at odds with her strict second husband. He moved in with his father, but that situation was impermanent, too, with Prince either leaving or being expelled from the house (for entertaining a girl, in some accounts).
After bouncing around further, he settled into a neighbor’s basement. His host, Bernadette Anderson, was the mother of Prince’s friend and kindred spirit Andre, who would later perform under the name André Cymone. (After a long hiatus, Cymone is at it again, and he recently delivered a scrappy and assured performance at the 7th St. Entry.)
The details of Prince’s youth are clouded by legend and conflicting reports; in some he’s a castoff, in others a willful free spirit with a support network of the it-takes-a-village type. Either way, the outline has lent itself to psychological readings of his modes and motivations.
Filmmaker and former music manager Craig Rice, who played on the R&B scene during the ’70s and was later the director of Prince’s Paisley Park Enterprises, suspects that the wound of abandonment fed a strong need for public validation. “You’re talking about a kid whose mother didn’t love him enough to keep him, whose father wasn’t around,” Rice says.
Prince started teaching himself to play his father’s piano at age 7, and by 14 he was in a band of north Minneapolis teens called Grand Central, which later morphed into Shampayne (sometimes spelled conventionally). Charles Smith, Prince’s cousin and Grand Central’s original drummer, recalls Prince as extraordinarily driven and an almost magically quick study.
“He was playing keyboards at first with us,” Smith says. “His dad gave him the guitar, a giant Gibson hollow body that was bigger than him. I said, ‘You ain’t gonna be able to play that.’ He said, ‘You watch, I’m gonna be as good as Carlos Santana.’ ” Smith remembers that within days Prince was playing “Soul Sacrifice,” Santana’s instrumental showpiece, “to a tee, with the solo and everything.”
“He was something unique,” Smith tells me later. “Back then he was amazing.” When, about four years later, people from around the country were reaching the same conclusion, some found Prince’s geographical origins as surprising as his precocious dexterity. After Prince and his band pantomimed to “I Wanna Be Your Lover” on American Bandstand, Dick Clark greeted the leader by saying, “This is not the kind of music that comes from Minneapolis, Minnesota.” And it was in some sense improbable, but in another inevitable.
Though the Twin Cities R&B scene of the ’60s and ’70s enjoyed only teasing brushes with national attention, it was rich in talent and stylistically diverse. There was the transplanted Southern soul of Willie Walker. There was Haze, whose “I Do Love My Lady” made it to No. 38 on Billboard’s Hot Soul Singles chart in 1974. And in the ’70s there were many young groups—the Family, Cohesion, Mind & Matter, and Flyte Tyme were a few—that developed local or regional followings but missed out on big breaks.
This history has been recently surveyed by two extensively annotated and well-publicized compilations: 2012’s Twin Cities Funk & Soul: Lost R&B Grooves from Minneapolis/St. Paul 1964-1979, released by Lake Street–based Secret Stash Records, and last year’s Purple Snow: Forecasting the Minneapolis Sound, from Chicago’s Numero Group.
Fame and fortune elude most musicians, but the artists in the R&B scene from which Prince emerged faced particularly long odds. They were dealing not only with the standard provincial problem—remoteness from the hubs of the music business—but doing so in an area with a small African American community. In 1970, there were 31,400 African Americans in the Twin Cities metro area, a figure representing 1.7 percent of the population. By 1980, the number had grown to 48,600—a significant rise, but one that still left the Twin Cities vastly whiter than the large and mid-sized cities—from New York to Detroit to Memphis—that had historically fostered black musical innovation.
One could hope to attract an ethnically diverse audience, and some did, particularly the area’s multiracial groups. But there were obstacles along that path, including racist booking policies that kept bands out of downtown Minneapolis. King Solomon’s Mines, a nightclub on the ground floor of The Foshay Tower, booked R&B acts in the late ’60s, but when a perhaps racially motivated police raid revealed underage patrons, the club’s liquor license was suspended and the club shuttered.
The Holiday Inn Central, at 13th and Nicollet, hosted some R&B blowouts, including a 1976 New Year’s Eve show that had Shampayne opening a three-band bill. But such shows were few and far between. “They didn’t want you downtown; that was obvious,” Craig Rice says, “so you were sort of on the periphery.”
Stephen McClellan ran into indirect calls for continued segregation when, in the Carter era, he began booking Uncle Sam’s, later to be renamed First Avenue. “When I started bringing in black acts,” McClellan says, “I got this real bad vibe from the cops, like, Quit booking this stuff or we’re not gonna be helping you down here.”
There were other obstacles. The press paid only scattered attention to black acts. The independent labels that infrequently put out R&B records lacked the distribution channels and marketing budgets to score breakout hits. And before the arrival of KMOJ, which debuted in 1976 as a neighborhood service and couldn’t be heard widely until 1984, there was just one radio station, KUXL, that regularly played R&B. And it operated part-time. “They used to go off the air when the sun went down, so we were running home from school to hear it,” says Joe Lewis Jr., who played drums with the Family. “You know how short the winter days are in Minnesota. That thing would be signing off at about 5:30.”
There were, however, noncommercial institutions that nurtured the local R&B scene. One was the Way, a north Minneapolis community center led by Harry “Spike” Moss. There, adults and kids, including Prince, gathered for sports, classes, band rehearsals, and concerts. The Family was the main group centered at the Way, and its members, who included future Prince sideman Sonny Thompson, were slightly older mentors to Prince and his cohort. After Prince parted ways with Shampayne, he did some shows and sessions with the Family, including a single that’s featured on the Purple Snow collection.
Joe Lewis Jr. remembers how the era’s young musicians both supported and pushed each other. “We all came up and played together, but it was very competitive,” he says. “We thrived off one another; the competition was healthy.” Tommy Barbarella, who played keyboards with Prince in the ’90s, thinks that competitive spirit—the band as military unit—stuck with Prince: “He would say to me, ‘I want people to come in and just look at our instruments and be scared.’ ”
In mid-February, Ben Petry of the Minnesota History Center gives me and two members of Haze, Paul Johnson and Stephen Balenger, a preview of an upcoming exhibit, Sights, Sounds, and Soul: Twin Cities through the Lens of Charles Chamblis.
A professional photographer from the ’60s through the late ’80s, Chamblis was often on hand at the clubs and community centers where the Minneapolis Sound was incubated. Looking over the photos, Johnson and Balenger pick out familiar faces on cramped stages and sign the record I’ve brought from home, noting wearily that bootlegs of the LP have been going for as much as $500 online.
Drawing on a range of influences that included the Beatles, James Brown, King Crimson, and the Temptations, Haze came up with genre-neutral originals not worlds away from what Prince later explored. The mix didn’t always go over, Johnson says. “My brother, Peter, got a wah-wah pedal, and we played somewhere where the neighborhood kids heard us. Some dug it, but those who didn’t wanted to fight with us—because he played a wah-wah pedal! Our peers saw it as a color thing; if it sounded psychedelic, then you were trying to be white.”
By the early ’70s, though, fusionists like Hendrix, Miles Davis, and others had helped shift thinking on genre and race, and artists like Funkadelic, the Isley Brothers, and Rufus were reaching mixed audiences with funk-rock blends, a composite approach that proved especially popular around here.
Most agree that the Twin Cities’ relative homogeneity encouraged versatility. Prince has attributed his eclecticism in part to the narrowness of local radio; with no R&B on at night, he tuned in KQRS and was shaped by Grand Funk Railroad and Joni Mitchell as well as Sly Stone and the Stylistics. “We used to listen to everything we could get our hands on,” Charles Smith says, “and then learn it.”
In early ’76, Prince struck up a deal with Chris Moon, a sometime lyricist who ran a modest recording studio. Moon offered Prince free studio time and production instruction in exchange for a 50/50 split of whatever resulted from their efforts. Later that year, Moon brought Prince to the attention of Owen Husney, who ran a 25-person advertising agency in Minneapolis and also worked in concert promotion and other areas of the music business.
“Chris Moon called me up and said he had the next biggest thing on earth,” says Husney. “And I’m like, ‘Yeah, I’ve heard this a million times.’ The next day Chris was sitting in the waiting area of the office. I think I let him sit there for three days before I finally said, ‘All right, let’s hear this thing.’ ” Husney remembers the songs being overlong but strikingly vibrant. “I said, ‘Holy shit, this is one talented group!’ And then he divulged that it was one guy writing everything, playing everything, and singing everything.”
Husney became Prince’s first manager and brokered a deal with Warner Bros. Records, known at the time as the most artist-friendly of the big labels. In an unusual show of resolve for an unproven act, Prince insisted on producing himself. He was equally adamant that he not be pigeonholed or marginalized. “One of the main reasons he came to Warner Bros. is he did not want to be labeled as a black artist,” says Marylou Badeaux, who began as a director in the label’s black-music department.
This was partly a reflection of Prince’s eclectic, perhaps typically Minneapolitan tastes, but it may also have been a response to trends in the music industry. It was, on one hand, a time in which a few African American acts and producers were earning handsome deals, as deep-pocketed major labels secured their dominance of a field once led by independents. On the other hand, it was a time of resegregation.
Although executives like Badeaux were deeply committed to their artists, the black-music departments at the major labels were small and often underfunded compared to their pop counterparts. At many labels, crossover was the ideal: music that could first be marketed to black listeners, but whose appeal would be broad enough to break through with whites. Some records achieved this brilliantly and extravagantly, but scores of others failed.
The pop charts tell some of the story. In 1968, 37 of Billboard’s 100 top-selling singles of the year were by nonwhite or multiracial artists, predominantly African Americans; in 1974, the figure was 36. But in 1978, when Prince’s debut album was released, the number had dropped to 27; by 1981, it had sunk to 17, and the chances of an R&B hit scaling the pop chart were slim. Prince’s debut single, “Soft and Wet,” is one example: No. 12 R&B, No. 92 pop.
“I remember being in meeting after meeting where we’d sit down with the pop department and look at records that potentially could cross over,” says Badeaux, “but in the very early days with Prince, the potential wasn’t there.” Alan Leeds, who became Prince’s tour manager in 1983 and was later president of Paisley Park Records, had previously worked with James Brown, and he had seen R&B go through cycles of mainstream popularity and neglect.
“When Prince dropped his first couple albums, the disco backlash was in full effect, and pop radio had gotten very white again,” Leeds says. “That was the environment that he came into, and as a result, he was absolutely determined not to get typecast as a black artist. And the music that he wrote, the bands that he put together, the performances that he staged on tour, all of that was designed to protect him from getting typecast. And, of course, it worked, and Purple Rain was the crowning achievement of that strategy.”
Though Prince’s plans for self-directed crossover were present from the start, they expanded gradually. His first two albums mostly hewed to then-current modes of danceable R&B and candlelit balladry, but with notable variations. For one thing, Prince emphasized the new breed of polyphonic synthesizers, using them for chordal pads, undergirding effects, and to render hooks and harmonies that other R&B acts would have delegated to horns.
There were curveballs and amalgam-ations, too, such as “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?”—a feathery piece of strobe-lit rock that culminates in one of Prince’s warmest guitar solos. And there was his alluring, eyebrow-raising androgyny. In the video for his first Top 40 hit, “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” he dances girlishly in a scoop-neck top, using his falsetto to both purr and growl that he wants to be not only your lover but “your mother and your sister too.”
Prince’s command of multiple instruments was a selling point, but the key was that he had a chess master’s sense of how to bring everything together move by move. “Even if the parts aren’t complex, the arrangements make them relevant,” says Chuck Zwicky, one of Prince’s former engineers. “He’ll be working on a particular part, and you might think, what is that gonna be? Well, three overdubs later, you’ll hear it: Wow, that’s exactly what that part had to be in order to make these parts make sense.”
Prince’s first major reinvention came in 1980, when he released Dirty Mind, an album of “revolutionary rock ’n’ roll” salted with sex narratives akin to the supposedly reader-submitted letters that appear in porno mags. Musically rawer than previous releases as well—there are even a few mistakes!—the album was composed of fully arranged home demos that Prince decided didn’t need to be retracked in a pro studio.
The scope was impressive: “When You Were Mine” had brokenhearted bubblegum sleeping in between a guitar riff as muscular as it was clean. “Uptown” imagined Minneapolis as a transcendently hedonistic Eden. “Sister,” about an incestuous fling with an older sister, seemed like a giddily juvenile shock tactic, but then Prince insisted in an interview that it was as autobiographical as the rest of his material. Weird.
“Some of the execs who didn’t have a broad mind had trouble with it,” Badeaux says. “They didn’t want to release it, but Prince persevered. People were trying to wrap their heads around what he was. And that was the mistake right there, because you can’t categorize somebody like that. The minute you think he’s one thing, he’s gonna flip on you and become something else.”
That was part of the thrill of Prince, that he was protean, indecipherable. His deliberately multiracial, mixed-gender bands recalled Sly & the Family Stone and the collectivism of the ’60s, while his studio methods recalled ’70s insularity. He was an old-fashioned instrumentalist who made some of his coolest sounds by feeding a Linn drum machine into effects pedals. He was antiestablishment (see “Uptown”)—no, a conservative (see the downright McCarthyesque “America”). His grandest gestures could seem shallow, his modest ones bottomless.
Some of this had to do with geography. In the early years of Prince’s career, one could reasonably call Minneapolis a progressive place, a city with a robust gay and lesbian community, a lively arts scene, and a reputation as a friendly spot for interracial couples. It was also a reserved mid-sized city lacking ethnic diversity, and its “Mini-Apple” rhetoric typified a rather embarrassing blend of ambition and insecurity. Like his hometown, Prince was kind of sophisticated, kind of provincial, and his music seemed fittingly removed from the usual hot spots: It reflected (as well as set) the trends of the day, but only after distorting them to great effect from a distance, like a brilliant finish to a game of telephone.
Dirty Mind was an odd breakthrough: a slump in sales from Prince’s million-selling ’79 album, but one that established him as a favorite with critics and hip rock fans. On the album and the two that followed it, Controversy and 1999, Prince continued to display his command of R&B, but he also took on aspects of new wave aesthetics: moderating flashy solos in favor of sneaky minimalism, drawing on the synth tones and automaton postures of Gary Numan, and generally striving to shock and deride the bourgeois.
There was still room for chicken-scratch guitar, slow jams, and drawn-out electro-funk, but not too much room. By 1981, he was funneling most of those leanings into the Time, whose recordings he largely composed, performed, and directed.
To further complicate matters, Prince’s racial identity was somewhat in flux. Like the young Bob Dylan, Prince saw publicity as an arena for subterfuge and self-invention. For instance, though both John L. Nelson and Mattie Shaw identified as black, in early ’80s interviews Prince more than once characterized himself as being of mixed race in the way the term is conventionally understood, telling interviewers that his mother was an Italian American, that his father was mixed, and not correcting the record when reporters kept repeating versions of the story. This understanding was reinforced by Purple Rain, in which the mother of Prince’s character is white.
In an interview with Jon Bream, Prince’s mother, Mattie Shaw, addressed the issue historically: “I think all blacks are racially mixed,” and it was this sort of multiethnic heritage that a more forthright Prince described when he spoke to Neal Karlen for a Rolling Stone cover in 1985. Whatever motivated Prince to take his initial line, the story seemed to offer a ready-made explanation of his music’s hybridity. In The New York Times, Robert Palmer wrote, “Prince himself transcends racial stereotyping because, as he once put it, ‘I never grew up in one particular culture.’ ”
The tweaked biography could be seen as a trickster’s eschewal of restricting rules and a critique of the biological flimsiness of racial categories. It chimed with Prince’s vision of a utopian Uptown in which race and other classifications were both ignored and meaningless.
It was a vision not far from that of Sly Stone, who, as Greil Marcus wrote, “was less interested in crossing racial and musical lines than in tearing them up.” To go further back, it brought to mind the Harlem Renaissance writer Jean Toomer, who defined himself as an “American, neither white nor black,” presaging lines from Prince’s “Controversy”: its unanswered questions, “Am I black or white? Am I straight or gay?” and the rap, “I wish there was no black and white, I wish there were no rules.”
In an influential essay published in 1989, the young writer Trey Ellis included Prince among “the initial shock troops” of what he called the “New Black Aesthetic.” “We no longer need to deny or suppress any part of our complicated and sometimes contradictory cultural baggage to please either white people or black,” Ellis wrote.
Others were less swayed. Nelson George, in his book The Death of Rhythm and Blues, complained that Prince, “like [Michael] Jackson . . . aided those who saw blackness as a hindrance in the commercial marketplace by running from it.”
Whether in response to such criticism or because the strategy had outlived its usefulness, Prince has in the last three decades presented himself differently than he did when he was on the rise. On his inviting 2013 single “Breakfast Can Wait,” for instance, he’s “a black man,” and on “Family Name,” from 2001, he harmonizes skepticism about racial categories with a tough-minded (and perhaps obliquely anti-Semitic) look at the legacy of slavery.
All of that would have provided ample fuel for controversy and publicity, but Prince generated even more attention through his outsize sexuality. He had taken the measure of mainstream culture and found it both hypersexual and antiseptic, so he ratcheted up the bluntness, the strangeness, the ambiguity. He was passive, active, cocky, coy, aloof, needy; to virginal fans such as myself, he made sex sound liberating, funny, and boundless, as well as impossibly fraught. His 1984 B-side “Erotic City,” a sort of secret song that everyone knew about, was, with its incessant bass line and whistling hook, at once irresistible and ominous, precisely what a parental-advisory jam needed to sound like in the early years of AIDS.
He sometimes had his licentiousness wrestling with his faith. More often, though, he took the approach Marvin Gaye often pursued, presenting sex and faith as two sides of the same impulse, a divine gift rather than a way to put us in a state of constant trial and temptation.
The point was underlined by the sensuality of Prince’s music: his seductive singing, his spine-tingling harmonies, his brittle funk, and his soaring refrains. “To be sensual,” James Baldwin wrote, anticipating Prince’s doctrine and evoking his finest music, “. . . is to respect and rejoice in the force of life, of life itself, and to be present in all that one does, from the effort of loving to the breaking of bread.”
Prince had tried to make a movie before—called The Second Coming, no less—but it was only after the success of “Little Red Corvette” that he was able to push the project forward. Besides scoring big on radio, “Corvette” and “1999” broke down MTV, which in its early years made Top 40 seem like a bastion of multiculturalism.
Still, it was a long shot. “You sat there and said, ‘Well, yeah, he’s had two pop hits,’ ” Leeds recalls. “‘But he’s hardly a household name. And oh, by the way, the cast is The Time and Vanity 6.’ It just sounded insane.”
Purple Rain was made for a bit more than $7 million, a budget raised by Prince’s management team with major support from Warner Bros. Records. After getting rough ideas from Prince, TV pro William Blinn wrote the original script, which was overhauled by Albert Magnoli, a young director making his first feature. Leading up to shooting in the fall of 1983, there was an intense period of rehearsals for the newly configured Revolution, in addition to acting and dance lessons for the cast’s amateur faction. Prince pursued the project with characteristic vigor and restlessness.
“Prince had absolutely no patience with the process,” Leeds says, “whether it was rewriting scripts or lighting shots. I will never forget him just pacing around driving everybody nuts every time they’d have to reset and reblock cameras for a new shot.”
The viewer who is not 15 might grow impatient too, yet still be won over. Like a sprinter running for the gold in moon boots, the movie triumphs in the teeth of what ought to be fatal dramaturgical and histrionic deficiencies. Its more hapless performances can seem like sabotage, attempts to punish the movie for its relentless clichés. As great movies go, it’s quite bad.
Autobiographical in a myth-making fashion—an “emotional biography,” as Magnoli put it—the movie stars Prince as the Kid, a tempestuous musician living in a psychedelicized zone of his parents’ basement. In the opening montage, his band, the Revolution, performs while a new-in-town singer, Apollonia, makes her way to the nightclub First Avenue. She quickly commands the caddish attentions of both the Kid and his chief musical competitor, a honey-tongued Lothario named Morris (the Time’s show-stealing Morris Day, playing “himself”).
Added to this rivalry are two other conflicts: the Kid’s condescension toward the Revolution’s female members, Wendy and Lisa, who want to contribute a song to the band’s repertoire, and his struggles with patrimony. His father is a bitterly failed musician who batters the Kid’s mother, a pattern the Kid begins to repeat with Apollonia.
The movie concludes after the Kid’s father has attempted suicide. Shaken but wiser and reformed, the Kid leads the Revolution through a cathartic rendition of “Purple Rain,” attributing the song to Wendy and Lisa, though the lyrics seem to be his own. To cap the band’s victorious encore, he rubs the neck of his guitar, which has been pornographically hot-rodded to effuse water on the crowd. One cries, one laughs, though not always when one is supposed to.
The stage performances, of course, are the highlights. Kevin Cole, at the time a DJ at First Avenue, would roll over from his nearby apartment to watch the morning filming, and he still talks about it with fannish wonder. “The club would be filled with all the glammed-out extras,” he says, “and it was so loud and so rocking and so dynamic—when you watch the film, you can see that—and it was such a weird thing, ’cause they would be playing with that kind of intensity at six in the morning.”
The soundtrack, some of which was recorded at First Avenue at a benefit concert for the Minnesota Dance Theatre, positioned Prince more roundly than before as a guitar hero, and the songs were his rockiest yet, though they didn’t sound like anything else on the radio. “When Doves Cry,” the summer of ’84’s dominant single, was his most emotionally revealing song to date, a distant yet impassioned lament sung over a stark production that famously omitted a bass line.
In some cases, the movie enriched the songs; in others it undercut them. On “The Beautiful Ones,” Prince built from supple falsetto to a screaming testimony to an indecisive lover, but the film’s sloppily developed love triangle sapped the performance of some of its intensity. In contrast, the title song, a gospelization of power-ballad kitsch, earned its calculating power through the film’s melodrama, especially during the song’s long wordless close.
Purple Rain bought Prince many additional freedoms: the freedom to venture into sober psychedelia, the freedom to direct doomed follow-up movies, the freedom to embrace some of the R&B touchstones he had avoided in the past. Starting in 1986, he expanded the Revolution, adding horns, dancers, a third guitarist, and suggestions of an old-school R&B revue.
He has worked on and off in this mode in the years since, and the Mohegan show presents the format at its most expansive. In addition to 3rdEyeGirl and a number of other musicians, there’s an 11-piece horn section playing complex, lattice-like charts and often forming a parenthesis around Prince at the front of the stage.
Before Prince was working with a plus-sized horn section, Miles Davis predicted that Prince could be “the new Duke Ellington of our times.” It was a grand but sane comparison. Ellington, like Prince, was a restless experimentalist who showed that the distinction between music for dancing and music for serious listening was rigidly observed only by snobs and fools. Then again, 40 years after he started recording, Ellington was making some of the most vital and adventuresome music of his career.
Prince has so far given us something closer to the norm for abnormally gifted musicians: a glorious decade, a sharp falling-off, a lot of worthy postscripts. As fans, we look for a correctable problem. The self-containment that enabled so many of his classics, we say, became a bane; he needs forceful collaborators, people who could find tactful ways to say, “Prince, this one sucks.”
Or: He has spent his adult life as the workaholic autocrat of a celebrity la-la land and emerged with a constricted worldview not much helped by Jehovah’s Witness theology.
Or: He seems like a bit of a pill, the sort of guy who smashes borrowed guitars on talk shows, who blocks his old friends in the Time from performing under their original name, who in a recent song revisits the theme of his early rocker “Bambi”—a lesbian or bisexual woman spurns a straight man—but replaces naïve desperation with homophobic disgust. He can seem too rarely willing to challenge his fans yet determined to alienate them.
Most of this amounts to wishing Prince could be someone other than Prince.
At the Mohegan Sun, the Prince who actually exists is fantastic. I have complaints, but, like his debut movie, he wins me over. He’s funny, magnetic, completely engaged. “We’re just gonna jam tonight,” he says, “lookin’ fancy.” He doesn’t disappoint the audience, but neither does he gun for easy applause. He plays B-sides and album tracks and often dramatically rearranges his hits. It’s a nostalgic show, but the nostalgia it trades in isn’t mainly for the ’80s, when Prince was at his peak and most in the audience were young.
Rather, it’s for the late ’60s and early ’70s, when Prince was studying records, woodshedding in basements with Grand Central, switching the channel when KUXL signed off at sundown. Tonight, he and his band play long, hypnotic funk jams. Predictably, they play medleys—that debased form—but even there they get over, nailing the Impressions, Aretha Franklin, and James Brown’s fitting anthem: “I Don’t Want Nobody to Give Me Nothing (Open Up the Door, I’ll Get It Myself).”
We’re all on our feet when a picture of the Minneapolis skyline shows up on the jumbo screen. “This is how we party in Minneapolis,” Prince says. How I party in Minneapolis has more to do with trudging through the snow to buy popcorn and a naanwich, but for a moment I forget that. I raise a fist and scream—it’s more of a yell, I suppose, an anemic yell, but in my head it’s a scream, a scream like the ones from “The Beautiful Ones,” screams that seem to sum up everything about longing and desire and love and life and Minneapolis and music and being a disheartened fan who can’t quite lose faith: “BABY, BABY, BABY, BABY, I WANT YOU!”
Our Ultimate Prince Playlist
1. “Uptown” - Minneapolis, alas, was never quite so transcendently cool (except when this song was playing).
2. “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?” - Satiny rock ’n’ roll for the forlorn drive home from the disco.
3. “Dance On” - With Sheila E. smashing out polyrhythms, this inflamed Lovesexy track is his finest homage to Sly & the Family Stone.
4. “Lady Cab Driver” - The moodiest, sexiest cab ride ever and a prime example of how Prince blended mechanical rhythms with his command of the snare drum.
5. “When Doves Cry” - A late addition to Purple Rain, history’s most danceable therapy session makes room for mannered, aloof drones and subtle keens.
6. “Erotic City” - His greatest B-side, “Erotic City” is at once irresistible and ominous, and it provides a survey of Prince’s natural and tape-manipulated vocal range.
7. “Kiss” - Hilarious funk-blues, it sounds just as great on the 700th listen. Look for the 12-inch version: It’s longer.
8. “If I Was Your Girlfriend” - A strange and beautiful love song about a man who longs—pleads, really—for the intimacy his ex feels with her female friends.
9. “The Beautiful Ones” - Starts out as an elegant three-chord falsetto plea and builds to what must be the most cathartic and musical screams printed to tape.
10. “Starfish and Coffee” - Finally, dessert: an endlessly hummable bit of Day-Glo melodicism, offhand experimentation, and sober whimsy.
Robyne Robinson, arts and culture director at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, former news anchor:
“That was the summer where for me music meant everything. Purple Rain represented a sense of adventure, daring, and cool. It was a time, really, of great conservatism, a time of Ronald Reagan and his era in politics. Personal mores, too, were very conservative, and Prince was just alive and electric. He represented a new sound in music, a new way of thinking that you could be who you wanted to be and do what you wanted to do. You could wear lingerie to a restaurant—I did! And when I told [Prince] I did, he acted like I had told him the worst thing in the world. I couldn’t believe how embarrassed he got. You told us to do it, dude!”
Kevin Cole, senior director of programming at KEXP Seattle, former First Avenue DJ and REV-105 program director:
“The weekend that the movie opened, I was working in the 7th St. Entry. I was loading in some kind of punk-rock band, and a dude pulls up in a Cadillac. The guy had seen the movie in Detroit the night before and had driven straight to Minneapolis. He opens the door, just full of swagger and attitude, and he’s got a cassette tape in his hand. I’m leaning over picking up a drum kit or an amp, and he says, ‘Where’s Billy Sparks? I’m the next Prince.’ And I’m like, ‘There isn’t a Billy Sparks. That was a movie. I can take you to Steve McClellan.’”
Chan Poling, musician, The Suburbs and The New Standards:
“Well, I remember thinking how horribly it was acted and wondering how the hell they got that made. But the music was killer, obviously. That’s one of the classic records of rock history, really, right up there.”
Jenni Olson, filmmaker and vice president at Wolfe Video:
“I don’t remember how we found out about it, but my twin brother and I had just turned 21 and were very excited to have the opportunity to be extras in the film. We spent many hours that day standing around at the corner of Hennepin and Lagoon in front of the Uptown Theater waiting to be given our cue to proceed across Hennepin Avenue as pedestrians after Prince drives by on his motorcycle. My memory is that it was a very cold, long, and tedious day. In the final film that scene is a tiny blip.”
Have an interesting Prince memory? Feel free to share it in the comments section below.
Still hungry for more Prince? Ten years ago this month, Mpls.St.Paul Magazine's now-editorial director Jayne Haugen Olson interviewed him. Here's that story in all its bizarre glory.