Review: Prince – Before the Rain

Review: Prince – Before the Rain

(Featured Image: Cover art for Prince: Before the Rain by Allen Beaulieu, from Amazon.)

I have, I’ll admit, been lax in covering the Prince photo books released since I launched this blog in mid-2016. This is no reflection on their quality: I’ve heard nothing but good things about Steve Parke’s Picturing Prince: An Intimate Portrait, and I was lucky enough to receive Afshin Shahidi’s (very good) Prince: A Private View for Christmas last year. But while I am no more immune to Prince’s visual appeal than the next heterosexual man, up until now I’ve put my focus on covering new music and books that are directly related to my research. I’m making an exception, however, for Allen Beaulieu’s Prince: Before the Rain.

If you’ve been reading this blog, it should come as no surprise that I am a huge fan of Allen Beaulieu’s work. Beaulieu’s iconic photographs for Dirty MindControversy, and (especially) 1999 were almost as important as the music in shaping my relationship with Prince as an artist, and they remain among the images I associate with him most. So, when Parke’s book came out in 2017, I’ll admit that my first thought was, “When is Beaulieu’s coming out?” And when Before the Rain was finally announced early this year, I preordered it on sight.

Given my predilection for Beaulieu’s photos, it should come as no surprise that I found his book to be entirely worth the wait. Before the Rain includes a wealth of shots from the photographer’s most stunning sessions with Prince: including the album cover photos mentioned above, as well as images originally printed on tour merchandise or in magazines. If there’s a picture of Prince that you love dating from between 1980 and 1983, the chances are very good that it’s in here. But there are also plenty of shots you probably haven’t seen, most of which are equally incredible–and many of which capture a more intimate side of the artist that the previously-released photos only hinted at.

Among the less familiar shots are dozens from the Dirty MindControversy, and 1999 tours, capturing Prince, the band, and opening acts the Time and Vanity 6 both onstage and off. Beaulieu was less confident and skilled as a candid photographer than he was in a more controlled environment, and the comparative quality of the tour photos bears out his self-assessment as a “studio cat.” But what these images lack in polish, they make up for with sheer magnetism; it’s a thrill to see Prince in these formative years, relaxed and often in a playful mood with people like his bandmates, Vanity, and the Time’s Morris Day.

Also worth the price of admission are the book’s surprisingly meaty written sections, which include historical passages by Minneapolis-based journalist Jim Walsh, as well as album reviews by Eloy Lasanta, a.k.a. YouTube personality Prince’s Friend. These sections aren’t completely without flaw: there are a few niggling factual errors–most notably a couple of shots from Prince’s October 5, 1981 date at Sam’s, which are mislabeled as coming from his March 9 date; and one perplexing case where a 1986 photo of the Revolution credits his early ’90s band, the New Power Generation. But the stories in Before the Rain transcend these relatively minor faults, shedding valuable light on the creation of many of Beaulieu’s most enduring images and sharing personal stories about a formative period in Prince’s career.

Again, it should come as no surprise that I loved Before the Rain: more than any other photo book to date, it sits directly in my wheelhouse. But I also can’t imagine it failing to impress anyone currently reading this blog. For fans of Prince, particularly his pre-Purple Rain work, this is as essential a purchase as any of the other books I’ve recommended to date. And if Beaulieu happens to have any material left for a sequel, I’ll be the first in line to buy a copy.

You can provide some modest support to dance / music / sex / romance by using my Amazon affiliate link to purchase Prince: Before the Rain (or anything else in the encroaching holiday season).

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Review: Words of Prince

Review: Words of Prince

(Featured Image: The mysterious Takuya Futaesaku with the second English edition of Words of Prince; photo from Futaesaku’s Instagram.)

I first saw Takuya Futaesaku’s Words of Prince before I knew what it was, cradled in the arms of a fan in the Paisley Park soundstage at Celebration 2018. What caught my eye was the cover art–drawn, I later discovered, by the delightfully-named Japanese pop artist Radical Suzuki–as well as the book’s impressive heft.  It was obviously a fan-created work of some kind, but I couldn’t imagine what it might be. A few weeks later, I was contacted by Leslie Swiantek, a writer who has been helping Futaesaku promote his book in the States, to get in touch with him and maybe record a podcast. I contacted the author for an electronic version of the book to read, and he kindly ordered me a physical copy–the same colorfully-illustrated, hefty tome I’d seen at Paisley back in April.

Incidentally, the Radical Suzuki illustration is no longer on the cover of Words of Prince; it was cut for the book’s second English edition, a victim of the Prince estate’s recent rash of copyright-based takedowns (I patiently await my own C&D letter). Futaesaku’s solution was funny and not a little ingenious: the book now comes with a blank purple cover, serving as both a reference to Prince’s similarly monochrome Black Album and a canvas for each buyer to draw their own cover, copyright restrictions be damned. This DIY touch is, I think, a big part of the book’s appeal. Words of Prince isn’t a conventional biography or critical work; indeed, it doesn’t really fit any of the genres or formats one might expect from a book about Prince. Its structure and approach is as idiosyncratic as its subject–or, more accurately, as any one of our relationships with Prince as fans.

What this means, of course, is that the book isn’t for everyone. Hardcore fans who know it all about Prince’s life and work won’t find much more to glean here; Futaesaku is passionate and knowledgeable, but he’s still (mostly) beholden to the same secondary sources as the rest of us. Sticklers for polish may also find themselves disappointed:  Words of Prince is translated from Futaesaku’s original Japanese, and it shows, with some typos and the occasional odd phrasing, e.g. “Self Produce” for a chapter on Prince’s singular artistic drive (note that, per Swiantek, the book will be retranslated for a forthcoming electronic edition).

Where Words of Prince shines, however, is as a testimonial to the dedication and creativity of Prince’s fan community–and, for American readers especially, a window into the Japanese fandom. Futaesaku makes a convincing case for Prince’s special relationship with Japan: one of the farthest-flung places where he consistently toured. In one of the most memorable chapters, the author interviews another Japanese fan, who recounts a story about Prince playing a surprise version of “Bambi” on request during a Nude tour stop at the Tokyo Dome; the so-called “Bambi Incident” is just one of several nuggets of minor, but compelling information that Western readers are unlikely to know. The book is also amply illustrated with original art from members of the Japanese fan community, including Radical Suzuki, Nobuaki Suzuki, Mizuno Hiroatsu, Satsuki Nakamura, Saiko Sugawara, Yukiko Yoshioka, Hiromi Greer, Yasuhiro Matsushita, Tetsuo Sugiyama, and Mikako Takahashi. These contributions–many of which are quite artistically impressive–have a charming, homemade feel that is perfectly suited to the book. Whatever else it might be, Words of Prince never feels like anything less than a genuine, heartfelt expression of love for Prince and his music.

As a bonus, Words of Prince features an appendix of interviews with former associates including Paul Peterson of the Time and the Family, New Power Generation rapper Tony M, photographer Steve Parke, and others. While hardcore fans are again unlikely to read anything here that they haven’t heard anywhere else, Futaesaku’s questions are thoughtful and empathetic. He also makes room for others from the fan community, interviewing third parties like author Duane Tudahl and Heidi Vader from the charitable organization Purple Playground.

As I noted before, Words of Prince isn’t for everyone; but for anyone with an interest in fan culture, and especially in fan communities beyond the United States and Europe, it’s an easy book to recommend. Its warmth and good nature may even remind you of why you became a Prince fan in the first place.

At the time of this writing, Words of Prince is on sale on Amazon–32% off! Feel free to use my affiliate link to purchase this (or anything else you like) and give d / m / s / r some modest support. Also, please look out for an interview with author Takuya Futaesaku on the podcast this Friday!

Review: Moments… Remembering Prince

Review: Moments… Remembering Prince

(Featured Image: Cover art for Moments… Remembering Prince by Marylou Badeaux.)

One of the best things about the ongoing renaissance in Prince literature is that there’s a little something for everyone. For those who want to be the proverbial fly on the studio wall, there’s Duane Tudahl’s exhaustive chronicle of the sessions that produced Purple RainAround the World in a Day, and a handful of other classic albums. For those with a desire to unshroud some (but not all) of his mystery, there’s the moving and surprisingly tasteful memoir by his first ex-wife, Mayte Garcia. For those more interested in parsing Prince’s cultural significance, there’s the book-length study by author Ben Greenman, as well as the upcoming volumes from the editors of the Journal of African American Studies and the convenors of this year’s interdisciplinary Prince conference at the University of Salford. And that’s not even to mention the (reportedly excellent) photo books by Steve Parke and Afshin Shahidi, for the more visually-inclined.

Moments… Remembering Prince doesn’t fit neatly into any of the above categories, but it is sure to appeal to a substantial audience all the same. Author Marylou Badeaux, former V.P. of Special Projects at Warner Bros. Records, was never anything more than professionally involved with Prince, but was present in his life for longer than most: almost two decades, from his signing in 1978 to his acrimonious departure from the label in 1995. And, while Badeaux wasn’t privy to the actual creation of Prince’s music, she was very much a part of the crucial, underexplored side of selling and promoting it, during a period that saw both his unquestioned commercial peak and a handful of troughs. As the first person from the Warner/Paisley Park camp to chronicle this side of the story in print, Badeaux has a unique and valuable perspective to share.

It’s important, however, to keep in mind what this book is and what it isn’t. In short,  Moments… is just what the title suggests: a series of short, vignette-like memories from Badeaux’s and Prince’s shared careers, tending more toward the prosaic than the earth-shattering. Readers well-versed in Prince lit may even find one or two of Badeaux’s better-known anecdotes absent from this telling: chiefly, the artist’s notorious 1980 appearance at Warner H.Q. in full (/scant) Dirty Mind regalia. But what the book lacks in comprehensiveness, it makes up for in personality. Fans hungry for a glimpse at the “real Prince” will find plenty to savor in Badeaux’s recollections, including some genuinely charming interactions: my favorite involved an attempt to show Marylou some freshly-shot Graffiti Bridge footage on a video playback machine, with the parts he deemed “not ready” covered up by his motorcycle-gloved hand.

As a storyteller, Badeaux is engaging and personable, lending the book a pleasant, conversational tone. At times, I did wish for the presence of a stronger editorial hand; the chapters were a bit too bite-sized for me, with background details on certain places and events relegated to external article links. But I also have to appreciate–as I’m sure Prince would have–the fact that Marylou told her story the way she wanted it told, right down to the cover design. The result has some of the same quirky, homemade charm as the NPG Records releases of the late ’90s and early 2000s. At its best, Moments… is as much a scrapbook as it is a memoir; among the most engaging chapters is one composed entirely of photos of Paisley Park in the 1980s–a precious commodity now that photography has been banned within its hallowed halls.

There’s also a larger reason why Moments… is worth Prince fans’ attention; quite simply, Marylou puts a human face on a business relationship that still gets short shrift in certain parts of the community. In a time when conspiracy theories about W.B. knocking off Prince for his masters remain depressingly common, Badeaux’s clear affection and appreciation for the man and his art should remind us that there were people on both sides of the Warner conflict: people who may or may not have had Prince’s best interests at heart, but people nevertheless. And Marylou, to her credit, does seem to have had Prince’s best interests at heart–even if, like many of her peers, she found those interests increasingly difficult to comprehend. In the end, Badeaux experienced Prince’s death in much the same way as we did; and if Moments… is what it took for her to reckon with that loss, then we’re all lucky to be able to share in her journey.

(Update: The hardcover version of Moments… Remembering Prince is now available on Amazon! You can support d / m / s / r by purchasing it–or anything else–using my affiliate link!)

Review: Prince and the Purple Rain Era Studio Sessions – 1983 and 1984

Review: Prince and the Purple Rain Era Studio Sessions – 1983 and 1984

(Featured Image: Cover art for Prince and the Purple Rain Era Studio Sessions – 1983 and 1984 by Duane Tudahl, from Amazon.)

It is no exaggeration to say that without Duane Tudahl, Prince fandom and Prince scholarship would both look very different. In the 1990s and early 2000s, Tudahl was one of the amateur historians behind Uptown, the venerated fanzine that remains the chief source of what we know about Prince’s work beyond the official studio recordings. If you have a dogeared copy of Per Nilsen’s Dance Music Sex Romance or Alex Hahn’s Possessed on your shelf, if you’ve ever consulted Prince Vault for information on a rare outtake, and yes, if you’re reading this very blog, Tudahl is among the people you have to thank.

But Uptown’s research, for all its significance, is getting a little long in the tooth. The magazine has been defunct for well over a decade, during which time new information on Prince’s recording sessions have continued to emerge unabated; so it was with great excitement that many of us learned Tudahl was preparing an update. Prince and the Purple Rain Era Studio Sessions: 1983 and 1984 is the first of, hopefully, many such updates–and I don’t think I need to tell this particular readership that it is absolutely essential.

As the title suggests, Tudahl takes a long view of the “Purple Rain era,” beginning in the middle of the 1999 tour in January 1983 and ending with the completion of Around the World in a Day in December 1984. Obviously, setting firm chronological boundaries on the work of an artist in perpetual motion will always be arbitrary; Tudahl, however, makes a good case for his selection. The 24 months he chose include Prince’s slow ascension to superstardom, and his first post-crossover left turn; the “official” formation of his most iconic band, the Revolution, and the beginning of their expansion with vital auxiliary musicians such as Eric Leeds; the club show that provided the nucleus for much of the Purple Rain film and album, and the stadium performances with which he promoted them. This is, in other words, an era that provides a fascinating microcosm for the various trends, tensions, and themes that would persist throughout Prince’s career.

1983 and 1984 are also where Prince recorded some of his most popular and accomplished music: not only Purple Rain and Around the World in a Day, but also the Time’s Ice Cream Castle, Sheila E’s The Glamorous Life, the eponymous albums by Apollonia 6 and the Family, and many of his most renowned B-sides: “Irresistible Bitch,” “Erotic City,” “She’s Always in My Hair.” Even the songs written for other artists in this period are household names: “Manic Monday,” “Nothing Compares 2 U,” “Sugar Walls” (well, maybe not “Sugar Walls”). Regardless of one’s personal feelings on the “Purple Rain era,” it’s undeniable that this was one of the artist’s richest and most prolific periods, making it the perfect place to start with what could easily have been a dry, pedantic “for fans only” exercise.

That being said, it still takes a special kind of music geek to read a 550-page book about the recording sessions for (give or take) a single album. This is, by its very nature, not a book for casual fans; but it’s to Tudahl’s credit that it is immensely readable, as much of a page-turner as a chronological studio record can possibly be. The author brings to life the heart of his research–work orders obtained from Sunset Sound, Prince’s base of operations in Los Angeles at the time–with judiciously-selected quotes from former engineers, band members, and other collaborators, as well as some (through archival means) from Prince himself. For writers and researchers like myself, of course, Prince and the Purple Rain Era Studio Sessions will be invaluable as a resource for information about this period (I just hope all of us are considerate about citing our sources). But for readers who just want to learn more about an artist working at the peak of his powers, the insight it provides is just as worthy.

I say this a lot in reviews on this blog, but I mean it especially this time: if you read and enjoy dance / music / sex / romance, you need to buy this book. Not just because it will be of interest to anyone with a desire to dig into Prince’s oeuvre song by song, but because, quite frankly, we owe it to Duane for his decades of hard work, without which I know none of my writing on Prince would exist. Plus, I’m dying to get another one of these for 1985-86. Let’s make it happen!

If you want to support Duane and d / m / s / r in one fell swoop, please feel free to preorder Prince and the Purple Rain Era Studio Sessions using our Amazon affiliate link. The book comes out next Wednesday, November 15.

Review: Got to Be Something Here

Review: Got to Be Something Here

(Featured Image: Cover art for Got to Be Something Here: The Rise of the Minneapolis Sound by Andrea Swensson, from Amazon.)

As readers of this blog are no doubt aware, the last 18 months have seen an explosion in critical and scholarly discourse on Prince: his music, persona, cultural significance, and beyond. It was only a matter of time until the focus would widen to include the “Minneapolis Sound” Prince played a significant role in shaping and delivering to an international audience. Got to Be Something Here, written by former City Pages music editor and current Minnesota Public Radio host Andrea Swensson, is the first major book to discuss the Twin Cities’ unique contributions to African American music; it should go without saying that it comes highly recommended to anyone who reads dance / music / sex / romance.

To be clear, this is not a book about Prince–though he casts a long, purple shadow over the story, lending foreshadowed significance to places like The Way community center, Sound 80, and of course Sam’s Danceteria, later known as First Avenue. Swensson’s history begins in the year of Prince’s birth, 1958, when a Near North doo-wop group called the Big M’s recorded Minnesota’s first R&B single; the narrative path continues through the “chitlin circuit” of early African American R&B venues, the ill-fated integrated dance club King Solomon’s Mines, and finally the grassroots Northside funk community that spawned Flyte Tyme, the Family, and Grand Central. This expanded perspective offers a broader, but ultimately more useful definition for the Minneapolis Sound than the usual “post-disco R&B with synthesizers for horns.” In particular, Swensson convincingly argues that from the 1950s to the 1980s and beyond, music from the Twin Cities was marked by an “aggressive blend of genres” that crossed Minnesota’s de facto but sharply-drawn color lines.

By focusing on the material conditions that necessitated this line-crossing, Swensson offers a valuable, politicized context for Prince and the other Black musicians who put Minneapolis on the map. The most eye-opening part of the book, especially for a non-Minnesotan like myself, is Swensson’s research on the construction of Interstate 94, which displaced St. Paul’s predominantly African American Rondo neighborhood and cut off Minneapolis’ North Side from the rest of the city. The story of the Minneapolis Sound is thus a story of unequal access to resources, and the things Black musicians had to do to get their fair share: chiefly, working twice as hard as their white counterparts, and becoming versatile enough to appeal to audiences outside of the city’s tiny African American enclaves. Pair this socioeconomic backdrop with the emergence of one phenomenally gifted individual, and you have as good an explanation for Prince as any.

If there is a complaint to be had about Got to Be Something Here, it’s that there simply isn’t enough of it: at just over 200 pages, it’s a surprisingly swift read, and it left me, at least, wanting more. While I understand why the book focuses on the Minneapolis scene “Before Prince,” it would have been great to hear more about the Purple One’s immediate peers: not just Jam and Lewis and Morris Day, but also Sue Ann Carwell, to name one perpetually underrepresented figure. I’m also curious to learn more about cross-pollination between the city’s funk and punk scenes: did Minneapolis have its share of Black New Wavers, or were Prince and André Cymone the only outliers? Again, it’s understandable that Swensson would narrow her focus here, as the story of First Avenue, Twin/Tone Records, and so on has been more thoroughly covered elsewhere; it would be fascinating, however, to find the connections between these parallel communities, in the same way that other pop historians have found the connections between punk and disco in late-1970s New York.

But again, these are quibbles: Swensson has made an important contribution to the study of Minneapolis’ musical history, and her passion for both the city and the music is evident on every page. If there are stones left to unturn–and there are–it will be the happy task of future researchers (maybe even Swensson herself!) to continue the work. For now, Got to Be Something Here is a great start: a story that needed telling, carefully and incisively told.

Got to Be Something Here releases tomorrow, October 10, 2017. If you want to support dance / music / sex / romance, you can preorder the book–or buy anything else you want!–using our Amazon affiliate link.