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#PrinceTwitterThread: “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man”

As I’ve mentioned on this blog at least once before, this month DJ UMB and Edgar Kruize are curating the latest and largest of their excellent series of “Prince Twitter Threads” on–what else–Sign “O” the Times. As of today, we’re officially three-quarters of the way through, and we’ve seen threads by luminaries including Prince biographer Matt Thorne; friends of D / M / S / R Arthur Turnbull, Erica Thompson, and Jason Breininger; and, this past Tuesday, moi.

As you may imagine, the best way to experience a Prince Twitter Thread is on Twitter, using the #PrinceTwitterThread hashtag; half of the fun of these things is the conversations that come out of them (which remind me more than a bit of Q&A sessions after panels at academic conferences, right down to the occasional question-that-is-actually-more-of-a-comment and the brief, exhilirating moment of panic when you realize you now have to defend a perceived hole in your argument). But I realize that not everyone has room in their life for the uniquely 21st-century purgatory that is the bird site, and of those people I am envious; so I’m embedding my thread below for posterity.

If you are a Twitter person (my condolences), there’s still time to jump on board; Side 4 kicks off tomorrow, after what I am confident will be an enlightening thread by Edgar on the Sign “O” the Times tour today. In the meantime, I hope to be right back here by the end of next week with a post on “Cloreen Bacon Skin.”

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Ice Cream Castle, 1984

Jungle Love

Prince, as was his wont, had already moved on to his next phase by the time the 1999 tour entered its final stretch in March 1983. The centerpiece of his master plan was, of course, the untitled film project that would become Purple Rain; but he also intended to cement his musical dominance with follow-up albums by the 1999-era “Triple Threat” of himself, the Time, and Vanity 6. Much as he had a year before, he focused on the Time first: booking a few days at Sunset Sound in Los Angeles before playing the Universal Amphitheatre and San Diego Sports Arena on March 28 and 29, respectively.

The Time’s first two albums had been cut primarily by Prince and singer/studio drummer Morris Day alone; for the new project, however, Prince allowed the rest of the band to take on a more active role. “They played on a lot of the stuff,” former Sunset Sound engineer Peggy McCreary told sessionographer Duane Tudahl–though Prince remained the unquestioned “leader of what was going on” (Tudahl 2018 64). The Artist Formerly Known as Jamie Starr was even willing to share songwriting duties, basing “Jungle Love” on an instrumental demo by guitarist Jesse Johnson.

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Ephemera, 1983

Katrina’s Paper Dolls

A little over a year after their first meeting in January 1982, Prince and Denise Matthews (better known as Vanity) had cultivated an image as pop music’s sexiest power couple: the royal bride and groom of his imminent purple reign. Early in 1983, the pair posed for fashion photographer Richard Avedon in a shot that would make the cover of Rolling Stone that April. Looking like mirror reflections–or incestuous twins–they fixed the camera with identical, kohl-blackened stares: she embracing him from behind, two fingers tucked suggestively down the front of his jeans. In the coming months, Prince would plan to take their relationship to an even larger venue, slating Vanity to play the leading lady in his forthcoming motion picture debut.

But there was trouble in paradise. The strong-willed couple clashed frequently–not least because Prince insisted on seeing other women at the same time as Matthews, including her Vanity 6 bandmate Susan Moonsie and his backing singer Jill Jones. A song inspired by their relationship from around this time, “Wonderful Ass,” pokes fun at the disconnect between their undeniable sexual chemistry and their equally undeniable emotional incompatibility: “My sensibilities you aggravate,” Prince croons, but “you got a wonderful ass.” Another, “Strange Relationship,” opts for a more trenchant self-critique: “Baby, I Just Can’t Stand 2 See U Happy / More Than That[,] I Hate 2 See U Sad.”

Jones, who shared a dressing room with Vanity 6 during the 1999 tour, recalled Prince giving a cassette tape with both songs on it to Matthews: “She’d play it before the show while me, Susan, and all of us [were] getting dressed,” she told sessionographer Duane Tudahl. “It wasn’t discreet.” Prince and Vanity, she added, actually did have a “Strange Relationship”: “It was really true that he didn’t want to see her happy and he didn’t want to see her sad. Because she started dating other people… and he got pissed. She was like, ‘I’m moving away from him. Fuck him. I’m really famous. People love me.’ So she was getting something and that was the only thing he had to yank her back in” (Tudahl 2018 40).

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Reviews

Review: My Life in the Purple Kingdom

If you’ve spent any time on the Prince-obsessed corners of the Internet lately, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the Super Deluxe Edition of Sign “O” the Times was the only recent release of note. But just three days before that mammoth box set landed with a thud on our doorsteps, the University of Minnesota Press also published a new memoir by Revolution bassist Mark Brown, better known as BrownMark; and, while it understandably hasn’t generated the same level of interest as the late-1986 Vault laid bare, My Life in the Purple Kingdom is still worth a look.

Brown’s book is noteworthy in large part because, even amidst the boom of posthumous Prince publications–with memoirs by early associate Pepé Willie and longtime journalist/confidant Neal Karlen hitting shelves in just the past few weeks–firsthand accounts by former band members are still comparatively rare. Pre-Revolution guitarist Dez Dickerson’s My Time with Prince: Confessions of a Former Revolutionary was self-published in 2003, and is long out of print; Sign “O” the Times/Lovesexy-era drummer Sheila E’s The Beat of My Own Drum came out in 2015, and was marketed more as a Sheila E book than a Prince one. This makes Brown only the third ex-bandmate to share his story in book form–and the first to do so since Prince’s passing almost five years ago.

And, make no mistake, My Life is very much Brown’s own story. Arguably its best chapters come before Prince even shows up, detailing Brown’s South Minneapolis upbringing and his entry into the city’s segregated music scene. Brown’s recounting of the shutdown of downtown R&B club King Solomon’s Mines after months of police harassment will be familiar to readers of Andrea Swensson’s excellent Got to Be Something Here; while his vivid descriptions of encounters with neo-Nazi skinheads and racist cops will be familiar to anyone who’s been following the news in 2020. Full disclosure: I read an early version of this book about a year ago while it was still in the editing process; reading it again now, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, feels markedly different. A passage about the insidiously “subtle” nature of racism in the Midwest–where “White people would smile in your face but call you a [racial slur] behind your back”–felt especially (and unfortunately) relevant.

Ironically, it’s when the ruler (or despot) of the titular “Purple Kingdom” shows up that My Life loses some of its vitality. Readers of other Prince biographies won’t find much here to surprise them: His Royal Badness is seldom warm, often funny, sometimes vindictive, and, as his fame grows, increasingly distant from his bandmates. When Brown’s portrait of his erstwhile colleague is revealing, it’s mostly him and not Prince who is being revealed; his creative conflicts with his first band Phantasy, for example, parallel Prince’s own struggles to “cross over,” and suggest why Prince may have been drawn to recruit the younger musician as a sideman.

Mostly, though, Prince is here to serve as an inciting incident for Brown’s own personal growth. When Prince demands that his new recruit “start playing the bass, or I’ll find somebody who will,” it’s up to Brown to build up his chops. When Prince has a stylist straighten out Brown’s Jheri curl and leaves him with a “dry and bushy” shag, it’s up to Brown to “find [his] mojo” with a new hairstyle. One of the book’s most compelling conflicts barely even involves the frontman, as Brown finds himself confronted with resentful female fans–and his own low self-esteem–after “replacing” the group’s heartthrob original bassist André Cymone.

Indeed, my biggest complaint about My Life is that it doesn’t leave enough space for Brown’s post-Prince experiences; instead, the book comes to a happy, but abrupt ending after he leaves the Revolution and secures a recording contract with Motown. While I understand that the public hasn’t exactly been clamoring for a blow-by-blow account of BrownMark’s solo career, I think most readers would have been interested to hear how he ended up recording Prince’s “Bang Bang” and “Shall We Dance” in 1989. Likewise, I would have expected a new book by a member of the Revolution to include some kind of perspective on the group’s 2016 reunion, let alone Prince’s death that same year. In a recent interview with friend of the blog Erica Thompson, Brown revealed that he wrote My Life about 15 years ago “to vent and let out a lot of frustration”; this certainly squares with the bittersweet note on which he leaves his relationship with Prince, but in the current context there’s a surprising lack of closure.

Whatever its flaws, however, My Life is still recommended reading for fans of the Minneapolis Sound. Brown and co-writer Cynthia M. Uhrich have crafted a narrative that is breezy and consistently entertaining: much like Morris Day’s in his own memoir last year, Brown’s voice comes through loud and clear, from the hilarious passages about his youthful experimentation with a Jheri curl to his idiosyncratic (but consistent!) spelling of the word “cool.” If nothing else, and for reasons I won’t spoil here, I’ll never think about the passage where Brown drives out to Chanhassen for the first time to audition for Prince without laughing out loud.

BrownMark may have been the first ex-band member out the gate with a book after 2016, but I, for one, hope he isn’t the last; my personal position–which may come as heresy to some corners of the Prince fandom–is the more books, the better. Prince, as this blog itself can attest, had as many facets as there were people to observe him; books like this ensure that those many facets, and the people who were there to see them, remain in the public record.

If you’d like to read My Life in the Purple Kingdom, and support D / M / S / R in the process, I earn a small commission from any purchase made using a Bookshop.org affiliate link.

(Thank you, everyone, for your patience as I work on the next proper post; “Katrina’s Paper Dolls” is coming soon. Thanks, also, to Joseph Swafford and Tonya Pendleton, who both joined the Patreon in the past two weeks! I really appreciate your support. While I continue to work on my own stuff, I highly recommend the following Prince-related projects: De Angela Duff’s #SOTTSDC virtual roundtable series, which takes place this Saturday afternoon/evening; and the latest #PrinceTwitterThread series curated by Edgar Kruize and UMB, which will be ongoing through the rest of the month. See you soon!)