Strange Way of Saying I Love You

Strange Way of Saying I Love You

(Featured Image: Prince, Lisa, and friends in a 1980 poster from the Dirty Mind tour; photo by Allen Beaulieu, stolen from Lansure’s Music Paraphernalia.)

Over the last several months, we’ve covered most of the extant material Prince recorded during a much shorter period in 1981: two full albums–one for himself, one for the Time–and the beginnings of a third project for the Hookers. Most artists would consider this more than enough to rest on their laurels for at least a year; but Prince created music as much for recreation and communication as he did for a vocation. One of the most famous stories from his early career is about the origins of “Strange Way of Saying I Love You”: a song he recorded, for all intents and purposes, as an apology to keyboardist Lisa Coleman.

Lisa, as we’ve noted, was the first non-local to join Prince’s band: she’d relocated from Los Angeles to prepare for the Dirty Mind tour in mid-1980. When the second leg of the tour ended the following year, she was still without a fixed abode of her own, so she moved in with Prince in Chanhassen. The arrangement worked for a while: during the recording of The Time, Lisa came in handy as Prince’s live-in session musician and part-time engineer. But at some point that year, she told Vulture, “he started talking to me about getting my own place and having my own life in Minneapolis. Like, Now you’re here, Lisa, so what are you gonna do? He was giving me a talking to about moving out, but I didn’t quite understand that was what the conversation was about. It just felt tense” (Marchese 2017).

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Jack U Off

Jack U Off

(Featured Image: Prince and Dez Dickerson face an unruly crowd opening for the Rolling Stones, October 1981; photo by Allen Beaulieu, from his forthcoming book Prince: Before the Rain.)

In January 1981, after the first leg of the Dirty Mind tour, Prince’s publicist Howard Bloom sent an exuberant memo to his manager, Steve Fargnoli: “The verdict from the press is clear,” Bloom wrote. “Prince is a rock and roll artist! In fact, the press is saying clearly that Prince is the first black artist with the potential to become a major white audience superstar since Jimi Hendrix” (Hill 82). Nine months later, with his fourth album, Controversy, days away from release, Prince faced the biggest test of his crossover potential to date: two shows opening for the Rolling Stones at the massive, 94,000-capacity Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

The booking was a major coup for Prince, who had made it his mission to break rock music’s de facto color line and even, according to guitarist Dez Dickerson, described his early vision for his band as a kind of “multiracial Rolling Stones” (Dickerson 95). “The one thing he talked to me about a number of times in the early going was he wanted he and I to be the Black version of the Glimmer Twins,” Dez elaborated to cultural critic Touré. “To have that Keith and Mick thing and have a rock ‘n’ roll vibe fronting this new kind of band. That’s what he wanted” (Touré 15). As keyboardist Lisa Coleman recalled to biographer Matt Thorne, “We were so excited, we’d rehearsed our little booties off, our funky black asses. This is it, we’re gonna make the big time” (Thorne 2016). But like so many of Prince’s earlier potential big breaks, things did not go according to plan.

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Controversy, Part 1: Am I Black or White?

Controversy, Part 1: Am I Black or White?

(Featured Image: Prince embodies his contradictions in the poster from Controversy, 1981; photo by Allen Beaulieu, © Warner Bros.)

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, albeit airbrushed introduction to the artist’s multi-instrumental chops, knack for catchy pop 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.

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Mary Don’t You Weep

Mary Don’t You Weep

(Featured Image: Cover art for the forthcoming Piano & A Microphone 1983. Photo by Allen Beaulieu, © the Prince Estate.)

Since the official release of “Moonbeam Levels” in November 2016, the Prince fan community has been clamoring for more unreleased music. The results to date, however, have been more of a trickle than the flood many would prefer. Last June’s deluxe Purple Rain reissue got mixed reviews from the hardcore for its track selection and 2016-ized mix (just for the record, I liked it). Since then, there have been rumors of a remastered edition of Prince and the Revolution’s August 1983 First Avenue debut, an expanded version of 1999, and an official release of Prince’s final “Piano & A Microphone” shows at Paisley Park–none of which have come to fruition. It was only with the single release of “Nothing Compares 2 U” this April that the drought showed any real signs of ending. Shortly thereafter, representatives of the Prince Estate (whatever that means at this point) announced two full-length projects featuring unreleased material: one from the Warner Bros. years and coming this September, the other of more recent vintage and premiering, at least initially, on TIDAL in 2019.

While the latter project remains a mystery, today–the 60th anniversary of Prince’s birth–Warner and the estate finally revealed what to expect from the former: a long-circulating collection of 1983 piano rehearsals, cleverly retitled Piano & A Microphone 1983. For better or worse, it’s on brand with the posthumous releases we’ve seen to date: tasteful, collector-approved, and dating from the 198285 zenith of Prince’s primacy in the pop market. It’s so on brand, in fact, that for the first time in the last 18 months of Prince releases, I actually caught myself feeling a slight tinge of disappointment. The Vault has been open for almost two years; isn’t it about time we got something that hasn’t already leaked?

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Roundup: The Time, 1981

Roundup: The Time, 1981

(Featured Image: Cover art for The Time, 1981; photo by Allen Beaulieu, © Warner Bros.)

Folks, it’s been a whole-ass seven months since the last roundup post on Dirty Mind–where has the time gone? Dunno, but here at least is where the Time has gone (sorry): five posts on the first album by Prince’s first and arguably most accomplished protégé act. My ranking this time is decidedly anti-climactic, since I basically organized them in ascending order of preference as I wrote. And yes, the fact that I didn’t even devote a full post to “After Hi School” should give you an idea of where it would have ranked if I had. Anyway, here goes:

5. “Girl” Only the second song I’ve written about so far (after “With You”) that I’ve actively disliked–but my dislike is really, really active. Apologies to the track’s defenders, but I don’t know which is more grating to me: Morris’ whiny lead vocal or Prince’s dog-howling-at-the-moon harmonies. I would have gladly taken an extra five and a half minutes of “Get It Up” over this.

4. “Oh, Baby” The best ballad on The Time purely by default. I actually barely remember this song even after having written 600 words on it. But I guess no memory beats bad memories, so Number 4 it is.

3. “Get It Up” Now we’re talking. The Time is the definition of an uneven debut album, with half of its songs among the worst things they ever recorded and the other half among the best; “Get It Up” definitely belongs to the latter half. The only reason it isn’t ranked higher is because it’s still missing the spark of unique personality that the remaining two songs manage to achieve; but if there’s a version with just Prince’s vocals locked away in the Vault, I need it yesterday.

2. “The Stick” Maybe the best song about dicks ever to be co-written by a lesbian? I dunno, don’t quote me on that, but a great song regardless, and a tongue-in-cheek preview of the auto-erotic innuendos Prince would take to the next level with “Little Red Corvette.” Plus, any opportunity for me to reference Kenneth Anger’s Kustom Kar Kommandos has earned a special place in my heart.

1. “Cool” Maybe the definitive Time song–and certainly, as we explored, the one with the longest history in Prince’s career. Without “Cool,” Jerome would have never brought Morris that mirror–truly, an alternate timeline too terrifying to contemplate.

dirtymind-tagcloudtimeroundup

Another roundup post also gives us the opportunity to take another look at the ol’ tag cloud. The main change to note here is the debut of Kiowa Trail and Chanhassen, cementing (along with France Avenue/Edina) Prince’s lifelong presence in the Minneapolis suburbs. Also, Gayle Chapman is no longer among the top tags, having been replaced here as in Prince’s band by Lisa Coleman. Sorry, Gayle…but hey, if you ever wanna come on the podcast for an interview, we can try to get you back on the board. Oh, and if you’re wondering what the average length for these Time posts was, it was my lowest ever: a paltry 833 words, barely over half of the average post length for Dirty Mind. I make no promises that I’ll be as brief in the future.

Next week is the third anniversary of d / m / s / r (where has that time gone?), so I’ll hold off on the state-of-the-blog stuff until then. In the meantime, rest assured that I’ll keep plugging away, probably until we’re all dead. Onward to (the rest of) Controversy!