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.

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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.

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?

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