The earliest known Prince song has no title…or lyrics, or a melody. It was just a rhythm, supposedly banged out on a pair of rocks by five-year-old Prince Rogers Nelson–or “Skipper,” as he was more commonly known–soon after he saw his father’s band perform in 1963. Just as few details are remembered about the second earliest known Prince song–except for the fact that it involved larger rocks (Ro 4). Even the third earliest known Prince song has been lost to memory. All we know is that Prince was seven when he wrote it on the family piano, and that it was called “Funk Machine”–though even that much is questionable, as the likely earliest musical reference to “funk,” Wilson Pickett’s “Funky Broadway,” was released in 1967, two years after “Funk Machine” was supposedly written.
All of these stories may well be apocryphal; knowing Prince, who often played fast and loose with the facts of his life in recounting them to the media, they probably are. At the very least, it’s likely that these earliest compositions stretched the definition of what one might reasonably consider a “song” (though, who knows–maybe “Rock Jam #2” would later be resurrected as the drum machine pattern from “1999”). The point of such tales, however, is to establish a more fundamental fact: that Prince, more or less from his first memories, was saturated in the act of music-making. “Music is made out of necessity,” he wrote in 1992. “It’s a fact of life. Just like breathing” (Prince 1992).
The “necessity” of Prince’s creative impulses can be traced back to his family history. His father, John L. Nelson, was a pianist and composer who performed in nightclubs, small theatres, and strip joints around Minneapolis’ Seven Corners neighborhood from the mid-1940s until the 1960s, but never managed to make a living from his art. Nelson’s stage name during this period was “Prince Rogers.” Prince, then, was a “junior”–not to the man himself, like his older half-brother John R. Nelson, but to his father’s unsatisfied musical ambitions. “I named my son Prince because I wanted him to do everything I wanted to,” Nelson told the television newsmagazine A Current Affair in 1991 (Hahn 14). Prince, speaking to journalist Barbara Graustark ten years earlier, was more cynical: “I think it was mainly because of my [mother], who disliked the idea that he was a musician, and it really broke up their life. I think that’s why he probably named me what he named me, it was like a blow to her–‘He’s gonna grow up the same way, so don’t even worry about him.’ And that’s exactly what I did” (Graustark 113-114).
What that story leaves out is that his mother, Mattie Shaw, was also something of a frustrated musician. An aspiring jazz vocalist, she knew Nelson from attending dances at the Phyllis Wheatley settlement house in north Minneapolis. She even sang for a time with Nelson’s Prince Rogers Trio, but permanently retired from the stage after the couple married in 1956. And if she resented her husband over his squandered musical ambitions, then the feeling was apparently mutual: Prince told Newsday in 1981 that his father “felt hurt that he never got his break…because of having the wife and kids and stuff. [Mattie] knew that and there were constant fights. She could see a lot of that coming out in me and used to say that to me a lot” (Touré 23). Prince, for his part, tended to talk about his parents as two halves of a single persona: his. “My mom’s the wild side of me; she’s like that all the time,” he told Rolling Stone in 1985. “My dad’s real serene; it takes the music to get him going. My father and me, we’re one and the same” (Karlen 1985).
The musical and emotional legacy Prince inherited from his parents was bolstered by a pair of formative experiences that crop up repeatedly in narratives of his early life. First, there was the aforementioned Prince Rogers show he saw at a local venue in 1963, which many of the retellings have invested with the deep psychosexual significance of a Freudian primal scene. “We were supposed to stay in the car, but I snuck out and went into the bar,” Prince told a Los Angeles Times reporter in 1983. “He was up on stage and it was amazing. I remembered thinking, ‘These people think my dad is great.’ I wanted to be part of that” (LA Times 1983). The erotic undertones of this story–trespassing into forbidden, adult territory to catch his father symbolically in flagrante–are enhanced by the presence, in some versions, of a line of “chorus girls that came out dancing at Nelson Sr.’s command” (Draper 1).
Second, at a James Brown concert about five years later, legend has it that the 10-year-old “Skipper” snuck on stage and danced until he was removed by a security guard. “On my way out,” he later recalled, “I saw some of the finest dancing girls I ever seen in my life. And I think, in that respect, he influenced me by his control over his group” (Shore 1985). Music and transgression, sex and control: for Prince, these things were always intimately linked.
The only remaining piece of the puzzle was isolation. According to his mother, Prince showed signs of musical prodigy as early as three or four years old: she told biographer Jon Bream, “we’d go to the department store and he’d jump on the radio, the organ, any type of instrument there was. Mostly the piano and organ. And I’d have to hunt for him, and that’s where he’d be—in the music department” (Bream 1984). His father, too, recalled how at five Prince “would copy me” on the piano, “but he could also do things I couldn’t do” (Nilsen 1999 16). Yet it wasn’t until Nelson moved out in 1965, leaving his piano behind, that Prince really began to explore the instrument. “He didn’t like me to play as a kid,” he told Robert Crampton of The Times in 1998. “He was a musician, he didn’t want that racket on the piano. Then he split and I played all the time. The music sort of filled the void” (Crampton 1998).
I don’t know if Prince was ever able to fill the “void” left by his father–or, for that matter, his mother, who was also absent for much of his childhood. What I do know is that he spent the majority of the next 50 years in a near-perpetual state of creation: writing, recording, and performing often for days on end, with only a few hours of sleep in-between. “I do my music to excess. Music, music, music–it’s like a curse that way,” he confessed in the Times interview (Crampton 1998). I am, of course, not privy to the effects of this “curse” on Prince Rogers Nelson, the man–though more than a few of his associates have suggested that it had a deeply negative impact on his personal life and relationships. For the listening public, however, the result was one of the most astonishingly rich and prolific bodies of work in the history of music, “popular” or otherwise. When he died unexpectedly this April, he left a void of his own: one that I think we, too, will find impossible to fill.
This blog will be my humble attempt to fill the void left by Prince in my life. I’ve been listening to his music since birth–since before birth, actually, since I have it on good authority that 1999 and Vanity 6 were in heavy rotation in my parents’ apartment while I was in the womb. But there are still some unexamined corners of his discography for me; so this is my excuse to explore them, while at the same time indulging in my own obsessive need to write about popular culture. I’ll be writing about every known Prince song, roughly in chronological order, probably two times a week or so, from now until I’m done. My goal is partly selfish: again, I wanted an excuse to immerse myself in Prince’s music for an extended period of time, and to sharpen my craft as a writer. But I also think that a project like this has the potential to fill an important gap in the discourse around Prince.
There is, of course, no shortage of writing about Prince, and we know an incredible amount about his body of work–both officially released and otherwise–thanks to decades’ worth of valiant efforts by a fan community whose obsession (a word I mean in the best possible way) comes second to none. But what I haven’t seen to date is a sustained, deep, historical and textual analysis that addresses everything, from beginning to end, about Prince’s music. It’s a big, self-indulgent project, and I don’t know if I can pull it off. But I’m gonna try. So happy Prince day, and I hope to see you again for the next post later this week.
(Thanks to The Rise of Prince 1958-1988, the excellent new biography by Alex Hahn and Laura Tiebert, for setting the historical record straight on Prince’s childhood; new factual information from the book is now reflected above, though I continue to discuss some of the “myths” due to their significance in Prince’s artistic life.)