Review: The Rise of Prince 1958-1988

Review: The Rise of Prince 1958-1988

(Featured Image: Cover art for The Rise of Prince 1958-1988 by Alex Hahn and Laura Tiebert, from Amazon.)

A month ago today, I wrote about an upcoming biography co-written by Alex Hahn, the author of the excellent 2003 book Possessed: The Rise and Fall of Prince. Over the weekend, Alex was kind enough to send me a pre-release digital copy of the book to review; so, having already plugged the book sight unseen, I wanted to also share my thoughts after reading it (very quickly, in three sittings between Saturday night and this morning–apparently those four years of humanities graduate school were good for something after all). I should disclose up-front that I’m not necessarily an impartial source: I was a fan of Alex’s first book before I ever spoke to him, and I did a very modest amount of consulting early in his writing process for The Rise of Prince (I’m thanked for this in the acknowledgements). That being said, while I “Internet-know” Alex, I don’t know either him or co-writer Laura Tiebert personally, nor am I being compensated for this review in any way (even the free book–I already preordered my “real” copy!). I’m simply trying to help out another independently-released Prince project–one that, I am happy to say, is of high quality, and well worth the attention of anyone reading this.

As I wrote in my post last month, Possessed was my first Prince biography, and it was until recently my first choice for the “Prince book to read if you only read one Prince book.” Dave Hill’s Prince: A Pop Life from 1989 was quite well-written, but lacked a strong perspective on the artist due to its early publication date; Per Nilsen’s Dance, Music, Sex, Romance remains near-definitive in its level of detail, particularly about recording processes and unreleased material, but is arguably too dry and “in the weeds” for more casual fans. Possessed, in my opinion, struck the perfect balance. It combined a gripping but unshowy writing style with Nilsen’s deep, journalistic research acumen, while also presenting a fascinating enough narrative arc for even non-obsessives to enjoy the glimpse at the man behind the music. It was juicy, but not tawdry; even the negative bits (which, it must be said, remain controversial in some segments of the Prince fan community) felt justified, not to mention backed up by multiple sources. If Possessed was still in print and The Rise of Prince didn’t exist, I’d still heartily recommend it.

But Possessed is no longer in print, and The Rise of Prince does exist; this alone would make it an easy recommendation, as the former book is fetching absurd used prices on Amazon and eBay, while the latter book can be had for as little as $8.99 on Kindle. More importantly, however, the new version is an improvement in almost every way. Though I recognized brief passages of Possessed in The Rise of Prince, the book as a whole has been thoroughly overhauled: this is not just a quick cash-in reissue. Of particular note are the early chapters on Prince’s family background and youth, which to my knowledge represent the first significant original research conducted in this area since the 1990s. If nothing else, these should be required reading for anyone with ambitions to write about Prince in the future: Hahn and Tiebert are perhaps the first biographers to approach Prince’s family history as journalists and historians rather than rock critics, and they have done much to winnow out the facts from decades’ worth of myth created, in no small part, by Prince himself. I know that I will be taking a look at a few of my own early posts to correct any factual inaccuracies I might have reproduced; I strongly recommend that any other aspiring Prince experts out there do the same.

The other, less tangible advantage for The Rise of Prince is, quite simply, perspective. I’ve seen much being made on social media about the book’s title, which excises the “…and Fall” half of Possessed’s subtitle in favor of a more optimistic tone. But I would caution fans from assuming this means the book is entirely positive–or, for that matter, that it should be. The Rise of Prince ends in late 1988: arguably an artistic high point for Prince, but inarguably a commercial and personal low point. It is, at first glance, an odd way to revise a biography that went on for some fifteen additional years in its original editon; and yet, it makes sense when read in tandem with the book’s lengthy prologue, to date the most definitive recounting of Prince’s final year. All of the things Prince was grappling with in late 1988–his conflicts between the spiritual and the carnal, his clashing, oft-frustrated desires for both commercial success and artistic respect, and most importantly, his inability to connect intimately with others–would continue to define his life until his tragic death early last year: alone in Paisley Park, the vast recording facility and living space where his ashes are now permanently enshrined, like a pharaoh in a pyramid of his own design. Reading these later chapters, knowing how the story ends, was a poignant and deeply moving experience. And while I would have gladly read another 300 pages covering 1989-2016, I can’t fault Hahn and Tiebert for ending the story where they did. For better or worse, Prince’s emotional arc was complete.

So, yes, The Rise of Prince is now my official recommendation for the “Prince book to read if you only read one Prince book.” It might not always be that way: the latter decades of Prince’s life are an important part of the story, and one yet to be fully captured in writing. But for now, less than a year after the artist’s untimely passing, it’s hard to imagine a much better book to explain who Prince was–the good and the bad–and why, for almost a decade, he mattered more than any other singer, songwriter, musician, or producer on the planet. Again, like I said last month: there will be a lot of books published about Prince in the weeks, months, and years to come. Let’s hope more are as carefully considered and lovingly crafted as The Rise of Prince than are not.

You can purchase The Rise of Prince on Amazon, as either a Kindle e-book or a physical paperback. If you like this blog and want to support it, please consider purchasing the book through my affiliate links, either in this paragraph or on the “Now Playing” part of the sidebar. I’ll be back with another post soon, hopefully before the end of the week. Thanks for reading!

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With You

With You

(Featured Image: Found photo from Atlanta high school prom, circa 1970s; stolen from Found Photo Atlanta.)

Along with “If You Feel Like Dancin’,” “One Man Jam,” and “I Feel for You,” Prince, André Cymone, and Pepé Willie demoed a handful of other tracks at New York’s Music Farm Studios on February 17, 1979. André recorded an early version of his song “Thrill You or Kill You,” as well as a slow jam that would later emerge credited to Prince alone: “Do Me, Baby” (more on that later, obviously). And Prince took the opportunity to lay down an early take of another song that would end up on his second album, the downbeat ballad “With You.”

I’m gonna level with you guys: I don’t like this song. I’ve written about some songs for this blog that I like less than others, but this is the first one I’ve genuinely disliked; the one I either skip or zone out for when I’m listening to the album, then promptly forget about after it’s finished. Obviously, “With You” won’t be the last song we cover that I don’t like–again, Carmen Electra–but it will be the last for a while. And I suppose that, in itself, is remarkable.

The other remarkable thing about “With You” is its placement on the Prince album. Not only is it the second consecutive ballad on the record (after the far superior “When We’re Dancing Close and Slow”), but it’s also the Side B opener–a truly baffling choice. It takes the following track, “Bambi,” to finally kick the record back into gear. “With You” is the slow dance at homecoming no one asked for–particularly since it’s following a song that is literally about slow dancing (and, um, ejaculating, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves).

Continue reading “With You”

Good News/Bad News: d / m / s / r is on Spotify…and no longer on TIDAL

Hey everybody: as I’m sure many of you are aware, yesterday the stars aligned and Prince’s Warner Bros. catalogue became available on the half-dozen or so music streaming services that are not called TIDAL. That means two things: first and most importantly, I’m now able to have an accompanying playlist for the blog on Spotify, just like the one I had on Jay-Z’s elaborate tax shelter streaming service. You can find it here right here, and on every roundup post going forward:

dance / music / sex / romance on Spotify

Now, for the second, less exciting thing. Because the only actual reason I was paying for a TIDAL subscription was to access Prince’s catalogue, and because A Bitch is Broke, I will no longer be updating the TIDAL playlist. It also may disappear after my account lapses in March; I’m honestly not sure how these things work. But if you’re interested in following the blog on a streaming service, Spotify is now your one and only choice. Sorry! But also, you’re welcome!

I’ll have a real post on the site (and the Spotify playlist!) tomorrow. See you then!

Roundup: Ephemera, 1977-1978

Roundup: Ephemera, 1977-1978

(Featured Image: Prince by Robert Whitman, 1977.)

I’m not gonna lie, folks: this “chapter” of the blog wasn’t always easy to get through. I mentioned before that For You is my least favorite album of Prince’s “classic period,” and his outtakes from that time are, well, outtakes. If nothing else, however, this was valuable training for when I have to trudge through the parts of his discography I like even less; the other day I realized that at some point I’m going to need to spend a couple of months on Carmen Electra’s album, and I promptly broke into a cold sweat.

So, in addition to my usual “thank-yous” for reading, I’d like to also thank my readers for being so patient in the five months (!) between this and the last roundup post. I’m sure this won’t be the last time I feel some burnout on a project that, I’m well aware, will be a part of my life for the next several years. All I can do is continue to do my best and try to do the material justice, even when it doesn’t especially excite me.

And hey, in case you were wondering what songs excited me least, here’s the ranking:

11. 1978 Instrumentals No surprise here: like his home recordings of 1976, Prince’s France Avenue instrumentals are For Devotees Only. But man, what a treat that we get to hear them at all.

10. “Baby, Baby, Baby” Another one for the Devotees Only list: basically just a couple minutes’ worth of Prince strumming and scatting, and yet here I am writing about it 40 years later like it’s the Holy Fucking Grail. If this was just some guy in a coffee shop, it would be unbearable; but it’s Prince, and somehow that makes all the difference.

9. “Donna” A cute, if clearly unfinished little ditty. Also gave me an excuse to share a pretty dope photo of Donna Summer.

8. “Down a Long Lonely Road” The fact that this is ranked so high is proof that I’m being as subjective as possible: it’s barely a song, but what can I say, I like the pure and simple gospel feel. Would have loved to hear this develop into something more.

7. “Make It Through the Storm” I know this is a popular outtake, but it’s not my favorite. Still, an interesting reminder that even in the For You era, Prince didn’t sound quite like anyone else: this is the exception that proves the rule.

6. “Nadeara” I bet he writes songs like this for all the girls.

5. “Miss You” My favorite of the post-For You demos by default: it’s the only one that really holds up as a complete song. Well, with one exception…

4. “Wouldn’t You Love to Love Me?” This is low-key one of Prince’s best early pop cuts, and it dates back all the way to 1976. Would love to hear the Sue Ann Carwell version one of these days.

3. Loring Park Sessions Would I care about this if it wasn’t by Prince? Probably not; like I said in the original post, it’s perfectly good jazz-funk in the Herbie Hancock vein, but nothing earth-shattering on its own merits. The fact that it is by Prince, though–recorded before his first album!–makes it a fascinating listen. I also feel like I’ve seen someone on the Internet share a link to Prince’s “mind-blowing early jazz sessions” at least once a week since last April, so if nothing else these should be easy to track down.

2. “Just Another Sucker” I never really bothered digging into 94 East before I wrote this blog, so “Just Another Sucker” is one of my favorite new discoveries. It’s no masterpiece, but it would have fit Prince’s self-titled second album like a glove.

1. “We Can Work It Out” As a blogger used to toiling in obscurity, I can appreciate an idea like this: a superbly-crafted disco-funk-pop-rock opus only meant to be heard by a handful of people; an elaborate private joke that could have been a legitimate hit. Oh, and check out the handwritten lyrics! These were acquired late last year by the Minnesota Historical Society; I hope they don’t mind me sharing the image below. I’ve also added it to the original post for posterity’s sake. Gotta love that racy doodle.

I Hope We Work It Out, 1977.
Photo stolen from the Minnesota Historical Society

In case you missed it, I also just wrote a rather lengthy post discussing Prince’s first band and his live debut as a solo artist:

I am You: Capri Theatre, January 5-6, 1979

Finally, here’s a song without a home for the time being. I wanted to write about “Moonbeam Levels,” the first officially-released outtake since Prince’s passing, while it was still relevant. I’m sure I will revise this post by the time we get to 1982 in our official chronology, but here it is for now:

Moonbeam Levels

And of course, it wouldn’t be a roundup post without a snapshot of the ol’ tag cloud:

1978-tagcloud

Next week, we’re finally making the leap into 1979 with a post on one of Prince’s early classics: “I Feel for You.” I’m looking forward to it! In the meantime, remember that you can always see the full chronological index of songs right here.