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Ephemera, 1983

Father’s Song

Director Albert Magnoli liked to call Purple Rain an “emotional biography” of Prince: An impressionistic mélange of the star’s pet themes, anxieties, and obsessions, true to its subject in spirit if not in every detail. And of all the themes, anxieties, and obsessions Prince brought to the film, none loomed larger than his father, John L. Nelson.

John Lewis Nelson was born on June 29, 1916 in Cotton Valley, Webster Parish, Louisiana, the youngest child of farmers Clarence Allen and Carrie Nelson (née Jenkins). Not long after his birth, John’s parents divorced; the reason, according to biographers Alex Hahn and Laura Tiebert, was because Clarence had become involved with another woman (Hahn 2017 50). By the 1920 census, writes historian Kristen Zschomler, Carrie was remarried to a man named Charles Ikner and living in Webster Parish with three-year-old John and his siblings: James (born 1915), Ruby (born 1908), Olivia (born 1904), and Gertrude (born 1903) (Zschomler 9). By 1930, she was widowed, and had traveled north with Gertrude, Ruby, and their husbands and children to a rented home in Southside Minneapolis, near where Olivia had settled with her husband, Edward Mason Lewis. The now-teenaged John likely followed between 1930 and 1935 (10).

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Controversy, 1981

Controversy, Part 1: Am I Black or White?

By the time Prince began work on his fourth album in mid-1981, he already had a few classics under his belt. “I Wanna Be Your Lover” was a perfect first hit and calling card: a concise, if airbrushed introduction to the artist’s multi-instrumental chops, knack for catchy hooks, and flirtatious sex appeal. “Uptown,” though less commercially successful, demonstrated his burgeoning ambition and the sociopolitical undercurrents of his multi-racial, gender-fluid funk. But it was the aforementioned fourth album’s title track that would truly capture the essence of Prince. “Controversy” was his artistic DNA, pressed onto wax and played back at 331revolutions per minute.

To summarize any artist with a single song is no small feat. To do so for an artist like Prince, who reveled in his ambiguities and contradictions, is even more impressive. The brilliance of “Controversy” is the way it places these ambiguities and contradictions at the center of Prince’s artistic persona: his indeterminacy becomes his defining characteristic. Philosopher Nancy J. Holland writes that Prince’s destabilized persona makes him “perhaps the best example in contemporary popular culture of how the postmodern moves beyond the mere reversal of hierarchical oppositions (God/man, good/evil, male/female, man/nature, mind/body, etc.) that have governed the dominant discourse in the European tradition for at least two millennia… By deconstructing, undermining, and redefining these binaries, Prince opened the possibility of a new culture” (Holland 2018 322).

In many ways, “Controversy” is ground zero for this postmodern Prince and the “new culture” he promised. It thus feels appropriate to take an in-depth look at the song through three of the particular binaries he would spend the next 35 years “deconstructing, undermining, and redefining”: racial, sexual, and spiritual. And yes, I do mean “in-depth”; I’m giving each of these three binaries its own, full-length post. So let’s get to it.

Categories
Lacunae

Funk Machine: Prehistory, 1963-1968

The earliest known Prince song has no title…or lyrics, or a melody. It was just a rhythm, supposedly banged out on a pair of rocks by five-year-old Prince Rogers Nelson–or “Skipper,” as he was more commonly known–soon after he saw his father’s band perform in 1963. Just as few details are remembered about the second earliest known Prince song–except for the fact that it involved larger rocks (Ro 4). Even the third earliest known Prince song has been lost to memory. All we know is that Prince was seven when he wrote it on the family piano, and that it was called “Funk Machine”–though even that much is questionable, as the likely earliest musical reference to “funk,” Wilson Pickett’s “Funky Broadway,” was released in 1967, two years after “Funk Machine” was supposedly written.

All of these stories may well be apocryphal; knowing Prince, who often played fast and loose with the facts of his life in recounting them to the media, they probably are. At the very least, it’s likely that these earliest compositions stretched the definition of what one might reasonably consider a “song” (though, who knows–maybe “Rock Jam #2” would later be resurrected as the drum machine pattern from “1999”). The point of such tales, however, is to establish a more fundamental fact: that Prince, more or less from his first memories, was saturated in the act of music-making. “Music is made out of necessity,” he wrote in 1992. “It’s a fact of life. Just like breathing” (Prince 1992).