Review: Prince and Little Weird Black Boy Gods

Review: Prince and Little Weird Black Boy Gods

(Featured Image: Cover art for Prince and Little Weird Black Boy Gods: Prince Essays by Scott Woods.)

Every Prince fan, poet Scott Woods writes in one of the essays in Prince and Little Weird Black Boy Gods, “thinks they are the biggest Prince fan in the world. It is why encounters with fans are sometimes challenging: You can’t tell us anything about Prince, let alone anything that would make us change how we feel about him.” This is both a bitingly funny observation–one of many to be found here–and an accurate assessment of how his book will be received in certain corners of the Princeverse. It’s something of which Woods himself is well aware; as he writes in the book’s introduction, some readers will think his book sucks, “and mostly for the same reasons as most Prince books suck: it won’t tell you anything about Prince that you didn’t know.”

Woods is right; if fresh knowledge is what you’re looking for in a Prince book, then you should probably look elsewhere. But I have to question the philosophy–out of professional self-preservation, if nothing else–that the only reason to read a book about Prince is to learn something “new.” So much of the fandom in the wake of Prince’s passing last April has been about making connections, through shared experiences and shared grief: swapping stories, knowledge, and opinions, not because it’s something we’ve never heard before, but because the act itself brings us closer to one another. A theme that runs through several of Woods’ essays, borrowed from a speech by Wendy Melvoin at Prince’s memorial service, is that making art is a form of communion: “Being creative is how you can talk to [Prince]. If you’re being creative, he will talk to you.” This book, then, is both the long conversation with Prince Woods was never able to have, and one of the most engaging conversations about Prince you’ll ever have with another fan.

And Woods really is a huge fan (perhaps even the biggest in the world). His knowledge of Prince’s oeuvre is deep, and his opinions are as much fun to disagree with as they are the opposite (Seriously, ART OFFICIAL AGE was a “loss?” Controversy was better than Dirty Mind?!). His book, a collection of his online writing about Prince, is clearly meant for other hardcore fans, and it’s at its best when its appeal is narrowest: devoting a whole essay, for example, to the heavily processed Linn LM-1 “sidestick” that is an ineffable signature of Prince’s greatest music (you know it when you hear it). Of course, this means it’s also wildly self-indulgent; probably the longest single essay is a gratuitous (but witty!) beatdown of Kanye West in the wake of L.A. Reid’s ill-fated 2015 comparison of the two artists, which feels even more anachronistic now that Reid’s career is effectively over. But hey–people actually paid money on Kickstarter for Woods to write that one, so clearly there’s something here for everyone.

Whether Little Weird Black Boy Gods is worth its own modest asking price, then, depends on what one expects out of a Prince book. There is no real thesis here–though there are certainly recurring themes–and, again, no new information on the artist (though Woods’ detailed report on his tour of Paisley Park is a different kind of “insider info”). Personally, I’m okay with this, in large part because Woods is honest about his intentions. He’s not trying to make an overarching summation of Prince’s career, as authors like Brian Morton and Ben Greenman have tried (and, arguably, failed) to do; he’s just reflecting on his own experiences as a fan, both before and after Prince’s death. At its best–as in the title essay, one of the most moving tributes to Prince in the wake of his passing that I’ve read–it’s exactly the kind of creative, communal experience Melvoin was talking about in her memorial speech. We’re never going to know everything there is to know about Prince; but books like Woods’ let us know a little more about each other, and by extension about ourselves. In some ways, that’s an even more appealing proposition.

You can support dance / music / sex / romance by purchasing Little Weird Black Boy Gods (or anything else!) using my Amazon affiliate link. See you again soon.

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Review: Purple Rain, Deluxe Expanded Edition

Review: Purple Rain, Deluxe Expanded Edition

(Featured Image: Purple Rain “Deluxe Expanded Edition” cover; © Warner Bros./NPG Records)

I have to admit: it feels a little surreal to be writing about the deluxe edition (or “Deluxe Expanded edition,” as the case may be) of Purple Rain. This is a project I’ve been anticipating, conservatively speaking, since it was first announced over three years ago; more accurately, though, it’s something I’ve dreamed about for decades, since those not-so-distant days when the likelihood of Prince and Warner Bros. coming to an agreement over expanded reissues seemed to fall somewhere between the proverbial flying pigs and the proverbial Hell freezing over. So, I’ll admit, my perspective is biased: for me, the fact that this thing exists is in itself a kind of miracle. Any complaints I might have are colored indelibly by the knowledge that the last official collection of vintage Prince outtakes, 1998’s Crystal Ball, is older than many artists’ full discographies. Bands have formed, made it big, broken up, and reunited between now and the last time we got a peek inside the Vault; I think it’s important not to lose sight of that.

It is, of course, also important to call out the collection for its missteps, something I’ve seen many on social media doing. The most egregious of these, from my perspective, is the failure to credit Jill Jones for her backing vocals on “We Can Fuck”: whether made out of malice or plain sloppiness, it’s a damning omission. There are also the unavoidable track-listing quibbles that emerge any time the boundlessness of fan expectations come into contact with the restraints of physical media. Where, for example, is Prince’s version of “Wednesday,” or “G-Spot”–both songs known to have been considered for the Purple Rain album? Where is that extended version of “17 Days” that allegedly exists? And did anyone really need all of those single edits on Disc 3? If nothing else, the imperfections of the deluxe Purple Rain are a timely reminder that hardcore fans still need a healthy ecosystem of bootlegs beyond what’s made available to the mass market; indeed, as if to underscore that point, a trio of outtakes leaked the same day as the official release, including “Wednesday” and a version of “Our Destiny” with the aforementioned Jones on lead vocals. They’re well worth a listen (though, for what it’s worth, I wouldn’t trade them for any of the tracks currently on the deluxe edition).

As important as bootlegs are, however, we still need official releases, too–and, for all its imperfections, this remains the best official archival release of Prince’s music to date. Leaving aside for a moment the question of what’s not on Disc 2, let’s reflect on what is: a full-length version of “The Dance Electric,” sounding better than on any circulating recording I’ve heard; “Love and Sex,” a storied outtake previously unheard by the vast majority of collectors; the extended “Hallway Speech” version of “Computer Blue,” again sounding better than ever; the studio version of “Electric Intercourse,” which until this year even the most respected Prince experts didn’t know existed. Not every track is an auditory gem: “Our Destiny,” “Roadhouse Garden,” and “Velvet Kitty Cat,” as many have observed, seem to come from the same, slightly hissy sources as the unofficial recordings that leaked last year. But the versions of “Possessed” and “We Can Fuck” here–hell, “We Can Fuck” alone!–are well worth the $25 current asking price on Amazon. Throw in a great-sounding “Wonderful Ass,” the extremely rare “Katrina’s Paper Dolls,” and an extended, almost Vangelis-esque “Father’s Song,” and we have an impressive overview of the scope of Prince’s musical output in 1983 and 1984. It may not be enough to placate the most hardcore fans and collectors, but it comes as close as any mass-market product can be expected to.

And, let’s face it: like Prince 4Ever before it, this package isn’t really for “us.” The people reading this blog, or posting on prince.org or any of the innumerable fan groups on Facebook, don’t need to be sold on Prince’s genius: quite frankly, they don’t need to buy another copy of Purple Rain, the new remaster of which sounds good (particularly on a phone or in the car), but is hardly essential. There is, however, a market for this collection, and I think it’s well-served overall. People who love the album Purple Rain, but haven’t heard any of the outtakes, are poised to have their mind blown by Disc 2; hell, there are some people who haven’t heard the 12″ version of “Erotic City,” and that’s mind-blowing in itself. And while I respect the fact that a lot of paisley heads still covet their VHS copies of Prince and the Revolution: Live!, let’s keep in mind that there are also multiple generations of fans for whom it’s a whole new experience–and, while the video remaster isn’t ideal, it’s still completely watchable, and a great addition to the set.

I’m not trying to be a corporate Pollyanna here–far from it, I’m a realist. And I also remember the first time I heard “Possessed,” and was transformed from a casual Prince fan into the kind of frothing-at-the-mouth lunatic who writes blog posts about all of his circulating recordings. This new edition of Purple Rain is going to cause that transformation in a lot more people (though, hopefully, not all of them will start blogs–I don’t need the competition). And if we want access to more Prince music, an expanded fanbase–one that is both wide and deep–should be important to everyone.

That’s why I recommend anyone reading this post to support, on some level, the release of Purple Rain deluxe. Obviously, no one should spend money on anything they don’t want to. If you don’t care about the single edits–and really, who can blame you?–go for the “regular” deluxe instead of the “Deluxe Expanded.” If you want some of the bonus tracks but not all, download the individual MP3s. Or, hell, stream them via your service of choice–whatever fraction of a penny NPG Records is paid per stream is still better than nothing. But whatever you decide, the sad truth of our capitalist society is that art, especially popular art, can’t exist on merit alone. If you want more of Prince’s catalogue to receive the archival treatment it deserves–even if you’re disappointed by this first attempt–then on some level, you’re going to have to vote with your dollar and support what we have. It’s not perfect, but it’s a great first step.

If you want to support this blog–which, in defiance of our capitalist society, does exist on merit alone–you can buy the Deluxe Expanded edition of Purple Rain (or anything else!) using our Amazon affiliate links.

Review: The Revolution at the Fillmore Silver Spring, April 27, 2017

Review: The Revolution at the Fillmore Silver Spring, April 27, 2017

(Featured Image: Crappy Cell Phone Photo by Yours Truly.)

I have to admit: when I first heard the Revolution were reuniting, I wasn’t sure what to think. The very notion of the Revolution without Prince sounded bizarre, like Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding getting together to tour as the Experience sans Hendrix. But when I read the reports from their first set of shows in Minneapolis last year, suddenly it made sense. This was, in many ways, less a conventional rock reunion than an act of collective mourning. All of us, the majority of whom never met the man in person, felt a profound loss when Prince passed; so how does one even fathom what it meant to the people who shared some of his most successful and creatively fertile years? And if listening to “Sometimes It Snows in April” helps to process our grief, can we really blame Wendy and Lisa–who were, as Wendy recalled last night, actually present and involved in the song’s composition–for singing it to process theirs?

Yet even after I understood the reunion, I still didn’t know what to expect. I was two years old when the Revolution disbanded, so they always seemed frozen in time to me: forever lip-syncing on the First Avenue stage in Purple Rain. Did I really want to see them in their fifties–not to mention without the pint-sized whirling dervish of musical and sexual energy who had always been the group’s unambiguous focal point?

Continue reading “Review: The Revolution at the Fillmore Silver Spring, April 27, 2017”

Review: Dig If You Will the Picture

Review: Dig If You Will the Picture

(Featured Image: Cover art for Dig If You Will the Picture by Ben Greenman, from Amazon.)

The first anniversary of Prince’s passing has been an unsurprisingly busy time for publishers. At the end of February, there was Alex Hahn’s and Laura Tiebert’s authoritative biography on the artist’s first three decades, The Rise of Prince 1958-1988. Then, in the first week of April, we had Mayte Garcia’s touching, intimate memoir of her time with Prince, The Most Beautiful. Finally, coming in just last week–ten days prior to the anniversary itself–was Ben Greenman’s Dig If You Will the Picture: Funk, Sex, God, & Genius in the Music of Prince. Greenman’s book is neither a conventional biography like Hahn’s and Tiebert’s, nor a personal narrative like Mayte’s–though it does contain elements of both of these approaches. In the canon of “Prince literature,” it most closely resembles two other books: Brian Morton’s 2007 Prince: A Thief in the Temple (later reprinted in the wake of Prince’s death last year), and Touré’s 2013 I Would Die 4 U: Why Prince Became an Icon.

Like those earlier books, Dig If You Will attempts to present an overarching analysis of Prince’s body of work, the bulk of which occurs in a middle section of thematically-grouped chapters: “Sex,” “Self,” “Others,” “Virtue and Sin,” “Race and Politics.” But while Touré organized his analysis as a set of extended, interlinked essays–making it, for me, the most successful entry in this “genre” of Prince books–Greenman can’t seem to settle on an argument; he glosses over the surface of these major themes in Prince’s work, moving on to the next subject just when things are starting to get good. Perhaps, as Questlove suggests in the foreword (between this and Duane Tudahl’s recently-announced Prince and the Purple Rain Era Studio Sessions, Quest has had a busy year of foreword-writing), Dig If You Will works best as a kind of frame, laying the groundwork for deeper dives in the future. But if you’re the kind of hardcore fan who would purchase an extended, quasi-scholarly analysis of Prince’s music, it’s sort of questionable that you would need such a frame in the first place.

This is not to say that Dig If You Will isn’t an enjoyable read–it clearly is. Greenman’s writerly credentials are evident: he’s a novelist, a frequent contributor to The New Yorker, and has co-authored books with Questlove, Brian Wilson, and George Clinton. He is, I have little doubt, smarter than I am (he certainly knows more about the oeuvre of William Blake than I do). At its best, his book puts aspects of Prince’s music into fresh perspective, even for someone like me who has also spent the last 12 months fully immersed in the work. His chapter on the “Slave” era is perhaps the clearest explication I’ve read of that thorny period; and the section on Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihályi’s concept of “flow” offers a fascinating and plausible theory for both Prince’s near-supernatural focus and (implicitly) the coping strategies that led to his death. But Prince fans, as Greenman noted in a recent New Yorker essay, can be unforgiving; and, while dwelling on minor factual errors can be nitpicky, I suspect that there are a few such errors that the community will find unforgivable. Particularly unfortunate, in light of Mayte’s book, is the misidentification of Prince’s deceased son Amiir by the tabloid-proliferated moniker “Boy Gregory”:  an avoidable mistake made actively tasteless by the accompanying misreading of the lyrics for “Anna Stesia.”

In the aforementioned New Yorker essay, Greenman described Dig If You Will as both a “passion project” and an “opportunistic” one. Both of these descriptors are accurate. Greenman’s passion for and knowledge of Prince are obvious, and some of the most compelling passages are when he’s writing from a fan’s position: recalling his teenage record-shopping experiences in the 1980s, or providing a discography annotated with brief writeups on his favorite tracks, or describing a writing break in which he watches a flock of birds in the sky and waits for them to form, True Detective-like, into the artist’s “Love Symbol.” But the book’s “opportunism” makes it difficult to recommend: it feels rushed and padded, like it could have used a little more time in the oven or a more demanding editor, but was nevertheless pushed out the door to make that all-important mid-April deadline.

For that reason, it’s for the best that the next major Prince book (Tudahl’s) isn’t scheduled for release until November. Greenman, like many of us, clearly had something to work out in the wake of Prince’s death, and I’m glad he did what he had to do; his contributions are appreciated and well worth checking out, especially in this week of sad memories and ghoulish speculations. But at this point, we need polished, rigorous books more than we need timely ones. There isn’t as much money in the former for the publishing industry, of course, but there’s a lot more potential benefit for Prince’s legacy.

You can support dance / music / sex / romance by purchasing Dig If You Will the Picture (or anything else!) using my Amazon affiliate link. We’ll be back tomorrow with another, more conventional post.