(Featured Image: Prince by Robert Whitman, 1977.)
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.
One of the running themes of this blog so far has been the uncanny level of dedication and drive manifested by Prince, even in his earliest years. Aside from a brief foray into junior varsity basketball–which he dropped after it became evident that he was too small in stature to make the starting lineup–the teenage Prince Rogers Nelson lived and breathed music. Stories abound of him using the music room of Minneapolis’ Central High School as a private rehearsal space during lunch hour, or playing Maria Muldaur’s soft rock hit “Midnight at the Oasis” on his guitar in the hallways after class (Bream 1984). His music teacher at the time, a former pianist for Ray Charles’ touring band named Jim Hamilton, remembered him not so much for his virtuosity as for his intense work ethic: “If he wanted to accomplish something, he would really work at it,” he told biographer Dave Hill. “If there was something he was going to practice, he would sit there for an hour or two hours, and he would not stop until it had been accomplished. I considered that his greatest asset” (Hill 16). That intensity extended to his tenure in Grand Central, which was far more serious than your typical high school band: “We was all too ambitious,” former Grand Central member William Doughty said to Hill. “We devoted everything to it. Half the time we didn’t even stay in school. Half the day in school, half the day in the basement” (20).
If Prince was devoted to music during his school years, however, he became downright monastic after he graduated in early 1976, six months ahead of his scheduled time. This, too, was in service of his craft: “He doubled up on his credits, and took them all at once,” his foster mother Bernadette Anderson recalled to Hill. “You could get them by going to school say from eight till two. Well, he went from seven until four. He wanted to get done, because his entire goal was music” (Hill 69). In the Central High graduation program, Prince’s post-scholastic plans were listed simply as, “Employment–Music” (Bream 1984). And without the responsibilities of schoolwork or a conventional job, he threw himself headlong into his passion.
As was typical of Prince when he spoke about his childhood, his recollection of this period could inspire both awe over his dedication and sadness over his squandered youth. “Once I got out of high school,” he told Barbara Graustark in 1981, “it was interesting for a while because I didn’t have any money, I didn’t have any school, and I didn’t have any dependents, I didn’t have any kids, or girlfriends, or anything. I had cut myself off totally from everything. And that’s when I really started writing. I was writing like three or four songs a day. And they were all really long” (Graustark 115).
“I Spend My Time Loving You,” one of the handful of songs from that era currently in circulation, is certainly “really long”–almost seven and a half minutes of meandering acoustic guitar and that already-arresting falsetto. It also isn’t especially good–or at least, it’s easy to see why Prince never worked on it any further after the initial recording. Structurally, it’s a bit of a muddle: just when the song seems about to latch onto a decent hook, it’s already started to drift away to the next melody; there are also entirely too many repetitions of the song’s refrain (yes, Prince, we get it, you spend your time loving us).
Still, “Spend My Time” isn’t without its charms. It’s actually much more conventionally soulful than many of Prince’s better-known (and just plain better) pieces: you can hear a lot of Chaka Khan in his phrasing, and even some of Minnie Riperton in the wordless, high-register vocal runs near the end of the song (again, it’s noteworthy that Prince’s clearest vocal influences at this stage in his development were women). The opening lyrics, “I used to spend my time / Painting watercolor portraits of a long sunrise,” are so inimitably “Prince” that one wonders whether he somehow decided to nail down self-parody before establishing himself as an artist. As always, though, the potential embodied in the song is incredible. His singing and playing are both breathtakingly gorgeous; he just needed a more substantial vehicle to get them across.
Prince would write much better songs in the near future, some of them within months of “I Spend My Time Loving You.” But first, he had to work out some sexual tension. That’s where we’ll pick up next week.
(Note: Unfortunately I can’t seem to find a version of this song streaming anywhere…if anybody comes across it, let me know in the comments and I’ll throw up a link.)