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?

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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.

Review: The Most Beautiful

Review: The Most Beautiful

(Featured Image: Cover Art for The Most Beautiful by Mayte Garcia, from Amazon.)

Because I want this blog to be as well-researched as possible–and because I have a reputation to uphold as a leading Prince expert, lol–I’m making an effort to read all of the major books being published about Prince. This month, we started out with a big one–The Most Beautiful: My Life with Prince, an intimate memoir by Prince’s first wife, Mayte Garcia.

To be honest, I’ve been a little surprised by the negative reactions to this book in the Prince fan community–though, as a longtime Yoko Ono apologist, I probably shouldn’t be. The male-dominated music world has never been kind to ex-wives or widows, and Mayte is clearly no exception. There is admittedly a case to be made that because Prince was such a private person, no stories should be told about his personal life; this, however, would be more than a little unfair to Mayte, who lived through the same experiences–and suffered the same grievous losses–as Prince in the 1990s. As she carefully notes in the introduction, this is first and foremost her story, and she has as much a right to tell it as anyone.

In any case, for those who have been on the fence about reading the book, maybe I can help put some concerns to rest. Context is everything, and when read in the proper context–i.e., not a deliberately attention-grabbing excerpt in People magazine–The Most Beautiful is far from a trashy tell-all. Indeed, Mayte seems to be going a little soft on her ex-husband, who she still acknowledges as her soulmate (she even has nice things to say about the Graffiti Bridge movie). There are certainly moments of anger–especially toward the end of their relationship–but she is clearly writing from a place of acceptance, affection, and mourning; the book’s prologue, where she recounts the moment when she heard of Prince’s death, is among the most moving pieces I’ve read about that sad day. I don’t know if Mayte wrote the book 100% on her own–I don’t see a ghost writer credited in the acknowledgments–but her voice is evident throughout, with a charming, personable tone that occasionally turns poetic, even metaphysical.

Reading her side of the story also helps brighten some of the darker corners of her and Prince’s life during this period. On paper, as a few interviewers have recently observed, their relationship didn’t look great: Mayte met Prince when she was 16 years old, and they maintained a friendship and professional interaction that, viewed uncharitably, can look an awful lot like grooming. Mayte, to her credit, leaves the readers to draw our own conclusions: she affirms her consent, and notes that they did not become physical until well after she was of legal age, but otherwise refuses to simplify the nuances of the situation. Frankly, I’ll be surprised if we don’t see a minor social-media backlash over this, similar to the post-death “revelation” that David Bowie had sex with minors; but hearing Mayte’s perspective makes their love affair sound much less sinister, even if it does still test the limits of social acceptability.

Also invaluable is Mayte’s perspective on the tragic loss of her two children with Prince–though it’s unsurprisingly a difficult part of the book to get through. For those of us who weren’t keeping up with the New Power Generation in the ’90s, Mayte was perhaps most memorable for her and her husband’s bizarre 1996 appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show, where they seemed to deny that their infant son had died as a result of a rare genetic disorder. Her book captures this moment in detail, revealing the emotions and humanity behind something that was widely sensationalized and misunderstood at the time. She also sets the record straight on a few things: including the name of their son, Amiir, who has been widely misidentified as “Boy Gregory” due to the paparazzi’s unchallenged misreading of his hospital intake papers.

These corrections of tabloid misinformation are a big part of why The Most Beautiful feels not only justified, but also necessary–and why it’s ironic that the book is being bashed, sight-unseen, as a kind of tabloid in its own right. Mayte’s depiction of her ex-husband is no hagiography, but it is complex and humanizing: she makes “the Artist Formerly Known as Prince,” a figure often depicted as the very definition of inscrutability, into a real person. I hope that in the years to come, we will get more glimpses behind this artist’s self-erected walls, and that they will be as warm and well-considered as this one; I for one would love to see his second wife, Manuela Testolini, write a book–and Susannah Melvoin, and Jill Jones, and Susan Moonsie, and anyone else whose life he touched. Prince probably wouldn’t have approved, it’s true–but then, he wouldn’t have approved of a lot of things (this blog included). And if he really is in the “Afterworld” he clearly believed in, then I have to imagine he has better things to do than read his own posthumous biographies. The bottom line is, you don’t have to read The Most Beautiful, and I certainly respect anyone’s decision not to; but if you’re interested, it comes with my highest recommendation.

You can support dance / music / sex / romance by purchasing The Most Beautiful (or anything else!) using my Amazon affiliate link. We’ll be back with another conventional post later this week.

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!