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Reviews

Review: My Life in the Purple Kingdom

If you’ve spent any time on the Prince-obsessed corners of the Internet lately, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the Super Deluxe Edition of Sign “O” the Times was the only recent release of note. But just three days before that mammoth box set landed with a thud on our doorsteps, the University of Minnesota Press also published a new memoir by Revolution bassist Mark Brown, better known as BrownMark; and, while it understandably hasn’t generated the same level of interest as the late-1986 Vault laid bare, My Life in the Purple Kingdom is still worth a look.

Brown’s book is noteworthy in large part because, even amidst the boom of posthumous Prince publications–with memoirs by early associate Pepé Willie and longtime journalist/confidant Neal Karlen hitting shelves in just the past few weeks–firsthand accounts by former band members are still comparatively rare. Pre-Revolution guitarist Dez Dickerson’s My Time with Prince: Confessions of a Former Revolutionary was self-published in 2003, and is long out of print; Sign “O” the Times/Lovesexy-era drummer Sheila E’s The Beat of My Own Drum came out in 2015, and was marketed more as a Sheila E book than a Prince one. This makes Brown only the third ex-bandmate to share his story in book form–and the first to do so since Prince’s passing almost five years ago.

And, make no mistake, My Life is very much Brown’s own story. Arguably its best chapters come before Prince even shows up, detailing Brown’s South Minneapolis upbringing and his entry into the city’s segregated music scene. Brown’s recounting of the shutdown of downtown R&B club King Solomon’s Mines after months of police harassment will be familiar to readers of Andrea Swensson’s excellent Got to Be Something Here; while his vivid descriptions of encounters with neo-Nazi skinheads and racist cops will be familiar to anyone who’s been following the news in 2020. Full disclosure: I read an early version of this book about a year ago while it was still in the editing process; reading it again now, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, feels markedly different. A passage about the insidiously “subtle” nature of racism in the Midwest–where “White people would smile in your face but call you a [racial slur] behind your back”–felt especially (and unfortunately) relevant.

Ironically, it’s when the ruler (or despot) of the titular “Purple Kingdom” shows up that My Life loses some of its vitality. Readers of other Prince biographies won’t find much here to surprise them: His Royal Badness is seldom warm, often funny, sometimes vindictive, and, as his fame grows, increasingly distant from his bandmates. When Brown’s portrait of his erstwhile colleague is revealing, it’s mostly him and not Prince who is being revealed; his creative conflicts with his first band Phantasy, for example, parallel Prince’s own struggles to “cross over,” and suggest why Prince may have been drawn to recruit the younger musician as a sideman.

Mostly, though, Prince is here to serve as an inciting incident for Brown’s own personal growth. When Prince demands that his new recruit “start playing the bass, or I’ll find somebody who will,” it’s up to Brown to build up his chops. When Prince has a stylist straighten out Brown’s Jheri curl and leaves him with a “dry and bushy” shag, it’s up to Brown to “find [his] mojo” with a new hairstyle. One of the book’s most compelling conflicts barely even involves the frontman, as Brown finds himself confronted with resentful female fans–and his own low self-esteem–after “replacing” the group’s heartthrob original bassist André Cymone.

Indeed, my biggest complaint about My Life is that it doesn’t leave enough space for Brown’s post-Prince experiences; instead, the book comes to a happy, but abrupt ending after he leaves the Revolution and secures a recording contract with Motown. While I understand that the public hasn’t exactly been clamoring for a blow-by-blow account of BrownMark’s solo career, I think most readers would have been interested to hear how he ended up recording Prince’s “Bang Bang” and “Shall We Dance” in 1989. Likewise, I would have expected a new book by a member of the Revolution to include some kind of perspective on the group’s 2016 reunion, let alone Prince’s death that same year. In a recent interview with friend of the blog Erica Thompson, Brown revealed that he wrote My Life about 15 years ago “to vent and let out a lot of frustration”; this certainly squares with the bittersweet note on which he leaves his relationship with Prince, but in the current context there’s a surprising lack of closure.

Whatever its flaws, however, My Life is still recommended reading for fans of the Minneapolis Sound. Brown and co-writer Cynthia M. Uhrich have crafted a narrative that is breezy and consistently entertaining: much like Morris Day’s in his own memoir last year, Brown’s voice comes through loud and clear, from the hilarious passages about his youthful experimentation with a Jheri curl to his idiosyncratic (but consistent!) spelling of the word “cool.” If nothing else, and for reasons I won’t spoil here, I’ll never think about the passage where Brown drives out to Chanhassen for the first time to audition for Prince without laughing out loud.

BrownMark may have been the first ex-band member out the gate with a book after 2016, but I, for one, hope he isn’t the last; my personal position–which may come as heresy to some corners of the Prince fandom–is the more books, the better. Prince, as this blog itself can attest, had as many facets as there were people to observe him; books like this ensure that those many facets, and the people who were there to see them, remain in the public record.

If you’d like to read My Life in the Purple Kingdom, and support D / M / S / R in the process, I earn a small commission from any purchase made using a Bookshop.org affiliate link.

(Thank you, everyone, for your patience as I work on the next proper post; “Katrina’s Paper Dolls” is coming soon. Thanks, also, to Joseph Swafford and Tonya Pendleton, who both joined the Patreon in the past two weeks! I really appreciate your support. While I continue to work on my own stuff, I highly recommend the following Prince-related projects: De Angela Duff’s #SOTTSDC virtual roundtable series, which takes place this Saturday afternoon/evening; and the latest #PrinceTwitterThread series curated by Edgar Kruize and UMB, which will be ongoing through the rest of the month. See you soon!)

Categories
Dirty Mind, 1980 Podcast

Podcast: 40 Years of Dirty Mind

Way back in February of 2020, I asked Darling Nisi and Harold Pride to record a third episode in our series of in-depth retrospectives on Prince’s albums, this one for the 40th anniversary of 1980’s Dirty Mind. The podcast was intended to predate De Angela Duff’s DM40GB30 symposium, which in those simpler times was still scheduled to be held in-person at New York University.

Well, you know what happened next: DM40GB30 was delayed, then went virtual, while I slipped into a pandemic-related depression fog that only lifted, appropriately enough, after I participated in the virtual symposium back in June. Meanwhile, the podcast continued to lavish in the D / M / S / R Vault (a.k.a. the “Documents” folder on my computer) until the end of last month, when I was promptly reminded of just how laborious a task editing a three-hour podcast recording can be.

Now, the wait is finally over: the D / M / S / R podcast is back, in all its wildly self-indulgent glory. I want to thank everyone for their patience, and assure you that there won’t be a two-year wait before the next episode; in fact, I’d recommend you go ahead and use one of the links above to subscribe on your podcast service of choice using one of the links above, because I’m aiming to put out one of these bad boys (i.e., podcasts, not necessarily review episodes) per month. As always, let me know what you think, and feel free to leave a review on your podcast provider if you’re so inclined.

Categories
Ephemera, 1981-1982 Patreon Exclusives

Patreon Exclusive Bonus Track: You’re All I Want

Like many of the Vault tracks that ended up on 1999 Super Deluxe, “You’re All I Want” was known to collectors by name and reputation long before it was widely circulating. Former Sunset Sound engineer Peggy McCreary likes to tell the story behind the song’s recording on January 11, 1982–her birthday, as she recalled with some consternation to Pitchfork’s Sam Sodowsky: “I was like, God, couldn’t he give me my birthday off? Shit!” When Prince arrived at the studio that morning, McCreary said, “he was dressed totally different than I had ever seen him: black leather boots, jeans—which he never wore—white t-shirt, and a black leather jacket” (Sodowsky 2019). Perhaps inspired by his wardrobe, the track he worked on that day was a rockabilly song–a genre he’d been toying with in earnest since he caught a show by retro-rock revivalists the Stray Cats in London the previous spring.

Prince kept McCreary working through the day and into the night: the session ended around “11 or 12,” she recalled to Andrea Swensson for Minnesota Public Radio’s The Story of 1999 podcast, “and we had started early. And I thought, ‘OK, well now there’s [no] birthday for me today.’ So anyway, he starts to leave, and I always made him a cassette of the mix, and I handed him the cassette and I was just cleaning up and doing some patches and stuff like that… he walks to the door and he looks over at me and he smiles, and he tosses this cassette over his shoulder, and he says, ‘Happy birthday,’ and he walked out. And I just stood there with my mouth open. He didn’t even wait for a response, a thank you or anything. It was just that was my happy birthday song, so it’s coming out, and Warner Bros. is releasing it, so I can’t say I have an unreleased Prince song anymore. Bummer.”

Categories
1999, 1982

1999

By mid-July of 1982, Prince had completed work on the album that would become 1999, with just one significant exception: “1999,” the song, was nowhere to be seen. When Prince played a rough mix of the album for his manager Bob Cavallo that month, he got a cooler reception than he anticipated.

“‘This is a great album, but we don’t have a first single,’” Cavallo recalled telling Prince. “‘We have singles that’ll be hits, but we don’t have a thematic, important thing that can be embraced by everybody, different countries, et cetera.’” In response, Prince “cursed me, and he went away–but he didn’t force me to put it out. Two weeks later, he came back and he played ‘1999,’ and that became the title of the album” (Light 43).

Categories
1999, 1982

Lady Cab Driver (Rearrange)

Of the 11 songs that would eventually make their way onto Prince’s fifth album, “Lady Cab Driver” appears to have had the longest gestation period. The song was completed at Sunset Sound on July 7, 1982, the day after “Moonbeam Levels”; but, as the recent Super Deluxe Edition of 1999 revealed, its seeds had been planted during a break in the Controversy tour over half a year earlier on December 8, 1981, in the form of a different song called “Rearrange.”

According to an interview with sessionographer Duane Tudahl for the Minnesota Public Radio podcast The Story of 1999, “Rearrange” was long known to researchers by its title alone: “it was one of those songs that we’d heard existed, but I didn’t think it was actually a song,” Tudahl told host Andrea Swensson. “I thought it was just some shuffling of his stuff”–a studio note indicating a literal rearrangement of tapes. As it turned out, of course, it was real–though it was also little more than an admittedly funky sketch: a stark, mid-paced groove with a slick rhythm guitar hook similar to the Time track “The Stick.”

Given this similarity–not to mention Prince’s guitar solo, which plays neatly to Jesse Johnson’s combustive style–it seems likely that “Rearrange” was at least provisionally mooted for that group. But this is just speculation; ultimately, says Tudahl, we “don’t know whether it was intended for 1999, whether he was searching for a voice for 1999, or whether he was saying, ‘I gotta record another Time album soon.’ But either way it was something that was not planned. He just thought, ‘I’m in the studio, I gotta record… This is what I’m gonna do’” (Swensson 2019 Episode 2).