Dystopian Listening Party Podcast: Prince, 1958-2016

Dystopian Listening Party Podcast: Prince, 1958-2016

(Featured Image: Prince tribute outside First Avenue; photo by Jeff Wheeler, stolen from the Minneapolis Star Tribune.)

Yesterday, I spent an unbelievably self-indulgent six hours on Skype with Jane Clare Jones, preparing and recording a podcast to mark the first anniversary of Prince’s death (because of our unbelievable self-indulgence, it will actually be several podcasts). The first installment of our conversation should be ready to post by Friday; but in the meantime, here’s another conversation from last year with my sister Callie, which ran on our blog Dystopian Dance Party just over a week after we heard the terrible news. In case you’re concerned–I know emotions are raw this week–it’s mostly a joyous discussion, focusing on Prince and what he means to us rather than the tragic conditions of his end. I thought now was as good a time as any to share it with a wider audience. Show notes are here, and I’ll be back tomorrow with a review of another recent addition to the canon of Prince literature.

 

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Loring Park Sessions

Loring Park Sessions

(Featured Image: Prince in his first press kit, 1977; photo stolen from Nate D. Sanders Auctions.)

Last time, we talked about some of the ways in which Prince’s new management, “American Artists, Inc.” (a.k.a., Owen Husney and Gary Levinson), helped to foster his artistic growth in late 1976 and early 1977. Another one of those ways was to set up a makeshift rehearsal space in the company’s Loring Park offices: a kind of surrogate for Prince’s former home in the Andersons’ basement, giving him the space to write and demo new songs outside of the formal studio environment.

The majority of the songs recorded at the Loring Park space are not, to my knowledge, currently in circulation; as with the uncirculating Moonsound demos, however, we know at least some of the basic information. There was the aforementioned “I Like What You’re Doing,” as well as a sister song of sorts, “Hello, My Love,” written for an attractive secretary who worked in Husney’s office. According to Per Nilsen’s The Vault, Prince left a cassette of the song on her desk after completing it, but “she didn’t seem overly impressed” (Nilsen 2004 16); Prince, it seems, needed to work on his game in 1977. There was also another, presumably more experimental track, the promisingly-titled “Neurotic Lover’s Baby’s Bedroom,” which Prince wrote after Husney and Levinson bought him his first drum machine. Interestingly, despite this early dabbling, he would continue to use primarily live drums in his music until the release of Controversy in 1981.

Today, the Loring Park sessions are known mostly for, well, the “Loring Park Sessions”: a series of eight jazz-funk instrumentals recorded by Prince, André Anderson (remember him?), and Bobby “Z.” Rivkin sometime in early 1977. These songs, if indeed we can call them that, weren’t really intended for release; they aren’t even named in the circulating bootlegs, just numbered. But they offer a compelling glimpse at Prince’s musicianship and versatility in the months leading up to the his first album–not to mention the musicianship and versatility of two notable future sidemen.

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Soft and Wet

Soft and Wet

(Featured Image: Prince by Robert Whitman, 1977.)

Prince and Chris Moon recorded 14 tracks together at Moonsound, not counting “Farnborough” or the untitled “piano intro.” Eight of them still aren’t in circulation, so all we really know are their titles: “Aces,” “Diamond Eyes,” “Don’t Forget,” “Don’t Hold Back” (Prince was really into giving orders in 1976, apparently),  “Fantasy,” “Since We’ve Been Together,” and “Surprise.” One, “Leaving for New York,” is in circulation, but only in its earlier incarnation as a home recording (more on that next week). Another, “Make It Through the Storm,” was demoed with Minneapolis singer Sue Ann Carwell in 1978 and eventually released (without Prince’s involvement) in 1981. A few others made it all the way to his debut album, 1978’s For You: including “Baby,” “I’m Yours,” “Jelly Jam” (as the instrumental coda of “Just as Long as We’re Together”), and “My Love is Forever” (originally recorded as “Love is Forever”). But the best-known and most important track to come out of the Moon-Nelson partnership was the song that would ultimately become Prince’s debut single: “Soft and Wet.”

Like most great works of popular music, “Soft and Wet” came into being through a combination of sexual and chemical indulgence and cynical commercial calculus. Moon, who started out writing the lyrics for most of his and Prince’s collaborations, recalled the song’s inspiration thusly: “I had Sundays off, and that particular Sunday I had a fortunate experience with more than one girl. It was a late-night party, and these girls had come back to my studio,” he told biographer Matt Thorne. “And I think I’d drunk a little too much rum because the next morning I felt like hell and had to go to work.” Moon locked the door of his office at Minneapolis marketing firm Campbell Mithun (now part of McCann Worldgroup), “recovering from this wild night before and…replaying in my mind some of the highlights” (Thorne 2016). Ever the adman, he’d been toying with a “marketing theme” to help sell his new protegé to an audience of teenage girls, which he famously summarized as “implied naughty sexuality” (Nilsen 1999 28). At that moment, sitting in an office building at ten in the morning, “tired, a little bit hungover,” Moon wrote the “anchor tune that would summarize this marketing concept” (Thorne 2016).

Moon’s story is, to be frank,more than a little self-aggrandizing. For one thing, he’s effectively claiming to have invented the concept of double entendre in popular music: an assertion with which I’d imagine scads of earlier artists, from Robert Johnson to Julia Lee to the Ohio Players, would take issue. But he is right in considering “Soft and Wet” to be one of the fundamental keys to Prince’s musical persona; it’s just that it took Prince a few tries–and, it’s worth noting, a lyrical overhaul–to get it right.

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