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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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Uncategorized

Press Rewind: “Strange Relationship”

Last week, I made my long-awaited (by somebody, I’m assuming) return to Jason Breininger’s Press Rewind podcast to talk about one of my favorite songs, “Strange Relationship.” Turns out it was actually the 100th episode, so I’m honored to have been able to participate in this milestone. Check it out below–and, if you haven’t been keeping up with Jason’s podcast, check out the other episodes, too. Every Sign “O” the Times episode I’ve listened to so far has been great.

Press Rewind: “Strange Relationship”

Now, here’s the part where I give a general update of where I am with my own stuff. The next post, on “Computer Blue,” is still coming along, but probably won’t be ready this week. In the meantime, I just recorded a podcast with Jack Riedy, author of a really cool new collection of writing about Prince. That will be available (to patrons, anyway) by the end of the week. See you then!

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Reviews

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

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 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 simply 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 d / m / s / r, 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.

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Podcast

Podcast: I Know That the Lord is Coming Soon – Erica Thompson on the Salford Purple Reign Conference

It’s been just under two months since I started interviewing presenters from this spring’s interdisciplinary Prince conference at the University of Salford, and I’ve been absolutely thrilled with the results. But all good things must come to an end, so I had planned to make this chat with writer Erica Thompson the last of my post-conference podcasts. It would have been a great choice, too; Erica’s presentation was the result of many years of research for a book project on Prince’s spiritual journey, so our conversation was less about the conference in particular and more about her findings more generally: a nice segue into future, less Manchester-centric episodes.

But just when I think I’m out, they keep pulling me back in. Contrary to my own statements in this episode, I have already set up another interview with a few presenters from one of the conference’s gender and sexuality panels. So basically, expect me to keep interviewing scholars from the Purple Reign conference until the next milestone in Prince scholarship comes along. And in the meantime, please enjoy my and Erica’s conversation about the importance–and, sometimes, difficulty–of understanding Prince’s religious faith in relationship with his art.

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Reviews

Review: Dig If You Will the Picture

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.

(This review was revised and expanded for publication in the Journal of African American Studies. You can access that much better version here.)