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Review: Moments… Remembering Prince

One of the best things about the ongoing renaissance in Prince literature is that there’s a little something for everyone. For those who want to be the proverbial fly on the studio wall, there’s Duane Tudahl’s exhaustive chronicle of the sessions that produced Purple RainAround the World in a Day, and a handful of other classic albums. For those with a desire to unshroud some (but not all) of his mystery, there’s the moving and surprisingly tasteful memoir by his first ex-wife, Mayte Garcia. For those more interested in parsing Prince’s cultural significance, there’s the book-length study by author Ben Greenman, as well as the upcoming volumes from the editors of the Journal of African American Studies and the convenors of this year’s interdisciplinary Prince conference at the University of Salford. And that’s not even to mention the (reportedly excellent) photo books by Steve Parke and Afshin Shahidi, for the more visually-inclined.

Moments… Remembering Prince doesn’t fit neatly into any of the above categories, but it is sure to appeal to a substantial audience all the same. Author Marylou Badeaux, former V.P. of Special Projects at Warner Bros. Records, was never anything more than professionally involved with Prince, but was present in his life for longer than most: almost two decades, from his signing in 1978 to his acrimonious departure from the label in 1995. And, while Badeaux wasn’t privy to the actual creation of Prince’s music, she was very much a part of the crucial, underexplored side of selling and promoting it, during a period that saw both his unquestioned commercial peak and a handful of troughs. As the first person from the Warner/Paisley Park camp to chronicle this side of the story in print, Badeaux has a unique and valuable perspective to share.

It’s important, though, to keep in mind what this book is and what it isn’t. In short, Moments… is what the title suggests: a series of short, vignette-like memories from Badeaux’s and Prince’s shared careers, tending more toward the prosaic than the earth-shattering. Readers well-versed in Prince lit may even find one or two of Badeaux’s better-known anecdotes absent from this telling: e.g., his notorious 1980 appearance at Warner H.Q. in full (/scant) Dirty Mind regalia. But what the book lacks in comprehensiveness, it makes up for in personality. Fans hungry for a glimpse at the “real Prince” will find plenty to savor in Badeaux’s recollections, including some genuinely charming interactions: my favorite involved an attempt to show Marylou some freshly-shot Graffiti Bridge footage on a video playback machine, with the parts he deemed “not ready” covered up by his motorcycle-gloved hand.

As a storyteller, Badeaux is engaging and personable, lending the book a pleasant, conversational tone. At times, I did wish for the presence of a stronger editorial hand; the chapters were a bit too bite-sized for me, with background details on certain places and events relegated to external article links. But I also have to appreciate–as I’m sure Prince would have–the fact that Marylou told her story the way she wanted it told, right down to the cover design. The result has some of the same quirky, homemade charm as the NPG Records releases of the late ’90s and early 2000s. At its best, Moments… is as much a scrapbook as it is a memoir; among the most engaging chapters is one composed entirely of photos of Paisley Park in the 1980s–a precious commodity now that photography has been banned within its hallowed halls.

There’s also a larger reason why Moments… is worth Prince fans’ attention; quite simply, Marylou puts a human face on a business relationship that still gets short shrift in certain parts of the community. In a time when conspiracy theories about W.B. knocking off Prince for his masters remain depressingly common, Badeaux’s clear affection and appreciation for the man and his art should remind us that there were people on both sides of the Warner conflict: people who may or may not have had Prince’s best interests at heart, but people nevertheless. And Marylou, to her credit, does seem to have had Prince’s best interests at heart–even if, like many of her peers, she found those interests increasingly difficult to comprehend. In the end, Badeaux experienced Prince’s death in much the same way as we did; and if Moments… is what it took for her to reckon with that loss, then we’re all lucky to be able to share in her journey.

(The hardcover version of Moments… Remembering Prince is now available on Amazon! You can support d / m / s / r by purchasing it–or anything else–using my affiliate link.)

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Podcast

Podcast: Am I Straight or Gay – A Conversation with Snax

This episode, I’m taking a little break from the University of Salford Purple Reign conference to talk to musician Paul Bonomo, a.k.a. Snax. We discuss Prince’s professional and personal impact on Paul, of course, but we also speak more broadly to the two-way flow of influence between Prince and gay culture–an area that’s been vastly underexplored in the popular discourse around the artist. I’m excited to see the extended conversation that comes out of this frank and at times provocative discussion.

Next episode, we’re returning to both Manchester and queerness with two presenters from one of the Purple Reign conference’s Gender and Sexuality panels: independent scholars Chris Aguilar-Garcia and Natalie Clifford. In the meantime, remember that you can subscribe to the d / m / s / r podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, or Google Play; you can also stream individual episodes on Mixcloud. If you like what you’ve heard of Snax, you can also follow him on Facebook and check out his new album, Shady Lights, when it releases on October 27.

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Podcast

Podcast: Welcome to the New Story – Jane Clare Jones Reports Back from the Salford Purple Reign Conference

It’s been a long gestation period, but at last, the d / m / s / r podcast has returned with our “roving reporter,” philosopher and budding Princeologist Jane Clare Jones. She’s here to talk about the University of Salford’s interdisciplinary conference on Prince, which she attended back in May, but we also (of course) cover a lot of other territory: including the connections between Prince’s much-discussed messianism and his much-less-discussed radical political consciousness. If you’re interested in hearing what’s going on in the rapidly-growing field of Prince scholarship, this will be an interesting listen.

And, as the man himself was wont to say, it ain’t over: having missed the opportunity to attend the Salford Purple Reign conference, I’m now bringing the conference to me (and you!). For the next several weeks, I’ll be lining up more conversations with attendees of the conference, to discuss their work and their ideas about Prince. If you presented at Salford and are interested in recording a podcast, hit me up! I’d love to hear from as many of you as I can. The conference may have happened two months ago, but from the looks of things, scholarly interest in Prince has just begun. Let’s keep it going!

As always, you can subscribe to the d / m / s / r podcast using any of the major services: iTunes, Stitcher, or Google Play (I’d recommend Stitcher over Google for Android users). You can also stream episodes on Mixcloud.  If you like what you hear, leave a review on your service of choice–this will help to make us more visible! Thanks for listening, and see you again soon.

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Podcast

Podcast: Dig If U Will – Part 2 of a Conversation with Jane Clare Jones

A week and a half ago, I recorded what was supposed to be a single, one-to-two-hour podcast with writer, philosopher, and fellow Prince obsessive Jane Clare Jones; needless to say, we ended up talking for almost six hours, which necessitated us splitting the conversation into parts. In this second installment, we begin with a discussion of Ben Greenman’s new book, Dig If You Will the Picture: Funk, Sex, God, & Genius in the Music of Prince; but that discussion quickly branches out into more interesting conversations about Prince’s supernatural ability to enter “flow,” his unparalleled understanding of women’s desire, and his complicated relationship with spirituality and religion.

Next week, we’ll dig into another recent book about Prince–the memoir of his ex-wife, Mayte Garcia–and begin to take full stock of our feelings in the wake of his passing last April. If you missed the first episode, you may want to check it out before listening; also, I’m happy to announce that dance / music / sex / romance is now on all the major podcast aggregators (iTunes, Stitcher, and Google Play), and available for streaming on Mixcloud. If you like what we’re doing, please do subscribe and leave a review on your service of choice; this will help increase our visibility on the respective platforms. As always, thanks for listening!

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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.)