(Featured Image: Playboy, November 1976; photo stolen from the Huffington Post.)
In our last post, I invoked that reliable old standby of pornographic schlock, the Penthouse Forum letter, as a point of comparison for Prince’s early 1976 song “Don’t You Wanna Ride?” Since we’re treading in similar thematic waters today, I guess now is as good a time as any to talk about the roots of the porn aesthetic in Prince’s musical persona.
Cultural critic Touré has written convincingly about how Prince’s rise to infamy coincided with the mainstreaming of pornographic imagery in American society in the 1970s and 1980s (Touré 72). As we’ll see in the weeks and months to come, porn aesthetics figured heavily in Prince’s developing persona, from the Dirty Mindalbum to Vanity 6 to the Purple Rainfilm. But its influence also (allegedly) went back much earlier, to his childhood–the proverbial “origin myth.” There’s a recurring story of a nine- or ten-year-old Prince coming across his mother‘s collection of pornographic literature; in some versions, she left it out deliberately, in a kind of passive-aggressive effort to teach him about the “birds and the bees.” “I think there was some kind of plan to initiate me heavy and quick,” Prince recalled in a 1997 television interview with comedian Chris Rock, “so I was given Playboy magazines, and there was erotic literature laying around that was very easily picked up… it was pretty heavy at the time. I think it really affected my sexuality a great deal” (VH1 1997).
A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned the “deep symbolic significance” of André Anderson’s basement in what we might describe as Prince’s origin myth. At the time, I was referring to its importance as a stable home for Prince in his late teens–the first he’d had since his early childhood–as well as its function as an early incubator of his musicianship and songwriting talent. But the Andersons’ house on Russell Avenue was also important for more prurient reasons: it was there, so the stories go, that Prince began to put into practice the theories of sexual liberation he’d spend the next decade-plus codifying into something between an artistic canon and a secular religion.
The roots of this part of the “origin myth” seem to lie in a 1981 interview with journalist Barbara Graustark that ran in Musician magazine two years later, in September of 1983, after his crossover hit “Little Red Corvette” had introduced him to a larger audience eager to find out what made the little purple-clad libertine from MTV tick. Speaking about his foster mother Bernadette Anderson, Prince claimed that she “would let me do anything I wanted to” as long as he finished school. Graustark gamely asked how much one can do in a basement; “Well, it depends on how many people are there,” came the deliberately eyebrow-raising reply. He then went on to vaguely describe a scenario where Bernadette “came down and saw a lot of us down there, and we weren’t all dressed, and stuff like that. It kind of tripped her out, and we got into a semi-argument, and whatever, but it was… you know…” (Graustark 117). In her introduction to the interview, Graustark added fuel to the fire, referring to Prince’s “sexual excesses in a dank, dark Minneapolis basement with his confidant and companion André Cymone and a host of neighborhood girls” (110).
First, let me just take a moment to say: holy crap, this blog got a lot of views on Wednesday and Thursday. Call it the “Chaka Bump.” So, if you’re new–and you almost certainly are, because up until now the only people reading were a few friends and apparently Chaka Khan–the basic idea here is that I’m going through Prince’s entire recorded oeuvre (what we know of it, anyway) and writing about each track in depth. I’ll be doing this until I reach the end or it literally kills me, whichever comes first. Obviously this is an idea I ripped off wholesale from Chris O’Leary’s long-running chronological David Bowie blog, Pushing Ahead of the Dame; in my defense, though, I’m pretty sure I’ve given myself more to write about than he did, so my tolerance for self-abuse should make up karmically for whatever I lack in originality and/or writing chops.
Anyway, it’s an auspicious time to increase my readership, because today’s post is our first on a bona fide Prince composition: another home recording from 1976 called “I Spend My Time Loving You.” So let’s get to it. But first, let’s talk a little bit about Prince’s high school years.
In his recent cover story for Rolling Stone, reporter Brian Hiatt writes about what would become his final visit to Prince’s Paisley Park complex, in January of 2014. At one point, he describes standing in front of a mural “where a painted image of Prince, arms spread, stands astride images of his influences and artists he, in turn, influenced” (Hiatt 2016). Among the “influences” depicted in the mural are the usual suspects from Prince’s Grand Central days–Sly and the Family Stone, Tower of Power, Grand Funk Railroad–as well as Chaka Khan.
Indeed, Prince and Chaka go way back. In his teen years, he’d been “a fan and a fanatic, too, because I used to run home and see everything she was on,” he told the Philadelphia Daily News in 1998 (Pendleton 1998). According to biographer Jon Bream, the apartment where Prince lived around the time of his signing to Warner Bros. had “45 rpm records nailed to the wall next to a poster of Chaka Khan” (Bream 1984). During the recording of his 1978 debut album For You, he would listen to records by Chaka and her group Rufus to get in the right mood for his vocal sessions; “He absolutely loved that girl,” assistant engineer Steve Fontano recalled to biographer Per Nilsen (Nilsen 1999 37). At one point, Prince even lured Chaka to the Record Plant by pretending to be Sly Stone over the phone. When she showed up, he later remembered, “I was so in awe of her I couldn’t speak, so she listened to me play for a little while, then she left” (Pendleton 1998).
Every once in a while, we’ll interrupt our usual programming on dance / music / sex / romance to repost something relevant from our sister site, Dystopian Dance Party. Today–and in honor of D.D.P.’s most sacred holiday season, Jheri Curl June–it’s a podcast where my cohost Callie and I look at the cottage industry of (very) thinly-veiled side projects introduced by Prince between 1981 and 1987: including the Time, Vanity 6, Sheila E, Apollonia 6, the Family, Mazarati, Jill Jones, and others. If you’re a Prince fan–and, if you’re at this website, I’m going to go out on a limb and guess you are–then some of this stuff is essential listening.
First, though, a word of warning, as I’m afraid there’s a factual error in this one: I was speaking from memory in the section about Sheila E, and incorrectly stated that “Noon Rendezvous” began life as a Revolution outtake. It was actually co-written by Prince and Sheila for the Glamorous Life album; the Revolution just happened to cover it in concert. Oops! Anyway, I left that bit in because I still like the song, so just enjoy the music and try to ignore the fact that I’m blatantly lying to you.
Show notes are here. We’ll be back to the chronological Prince grind starting, I believe, Wednesday; in the meantime, check out Dystopian Dance Party every weekday in June for more ’80s R&B that owes more than a slight debt to His Royal Badness.