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Review: The Rise of Prince 1958-1988

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 to review; so, having already plugged the book sight unseen, I wanted to 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 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 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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Prince, 1979

With You

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 album. Not only is it the second consecutive ballad on Prince (after the 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).

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Prince, 1979

I Feel for You

As we discussed last week, Prince responded to his scuppered 1979 tour plans in characteristic fashion: by throwing himself even further into his work. Pepé Willie, his cousin by marriage–and, at the time, his informal manager–recently recounted a story from around this period to Rolling Stone’s Kory Grow. “One night, at around 10:30, I tried to call Prince and I didn’t get an answer,” he said. “So I went over to his house, because he wasn’t far from where I lived, and I see his car parked in front of his house. I rang the bell, knocked on the door and I didn’t get no answer. Then I hear this little tapping sound, and I went around to the side of the house and I peeped through the basement window, and Prince was down in the basement playing drums. I mean, he was wailing away. And this was after 12 hours of rehearsing. It was just unbelievable. So I had to tap the window in-between the drum beats so he could hear me, and then he came to the door and we talked. But after that experience, I had said to myself, ‘Gee, no wonder why he’s so good. This guy practices all the time’” (Grow 2016).

In addition to the non-stop rehearsals, Prince also wasn’t above picking up a session gig or two. In February of 1979, Tony Silvester from soul trio the Main Ingredient (of “Everybody Plays the Fool” fame) contacted Willie with an opportunity: he was producing an album by Pepé’s old employers, Little Anthony and the Imperials, and needed musicians. “I told him, ‘Look, I got two musicians who can play everything,’” Willie recalled (Thorne 2016). So Willie, Prince, and André Cymone left for Music Farm Studios in New York, where they cut a handful of backing tracks in a one-day session. Silvester and the Imperials didn’t end up using them–though two of the songs they recorded, “If You Feel Like Dancin’” and “One Man Jam,” would later show up on the 94 East compilation Minneapolis Genius. Of more historical significance, however, were the personal demos Prince and André squeezed in at the end of the session: including one song, “I Feel for You,” that would become one of Prince’s enduring classics.

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Ephemera, 1977-1978 Lacunae Roundup Posts

Roundup: Ephemera, 1977-1978

I’m not gonna lie, folks: this “chapter” of the blog wasn’t always easy to get through. I’ve mentioned 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 trudge through the parts of his discography I like even less; the other day it sank in that at some point I’m going 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 1976 home recordings, 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: just a couple minutes 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 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. “Nadira” 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

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.

Categories
Lacunae

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

Owen Husney’s dismissal from the Prince camp came at a critical juncture in the artist’s career. Prince spent the summer and fall of 1978 assembling a backing group, in hopes of touring behind For You the following year. It didn’t go entirely to plan; he wouldn’t embark on his first tour until November of 1979, after recording and releasing a much more successful second album. But the musicians he brought together would nevertheless determine his artistic direction for the following decade: providing the nucleus for the Revolution, the band with whom he would eventually conquer the world.