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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!)

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Postscript: Dirty Mind 40 Graffiti Bridge 30 Virtual Symposium

DM40GB30 thank-you and recap video by De Angela Duff

I was looking forward to De Angela Duff’s virtual symposium celebrating 40 years of Dirty Mind and 30 years of Graffiti Bridge. But I didn’t know I needed it until I was there. It’s been, I think, a rough year for everyone. Those of us who listen to epidemiologists are about to enter our fourth month of staying home and staying isolated to flatten the curve of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Meanwhile, police brutality is running rampant across the country, with yet another man in Atlanta, Rayshard Brooks, joining the depressingly long list of recent victims of state-sanctioned murder, including George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and David McAtee. Under conditions like these, it’s hard to feel much enthusiasm about anything. Speaking for myself, I’ve been at a low ebb in creativity and motivation for a while, even before everything went to shit.

It’s hard to overstate, then, how energized I felt from the first moments of the symposium last Friday. Seeing familiar “faces” in the chat (Darling Nisi, Harold Pride, Erica Thompson, Arlene Oak, Annie Ward, Chris Aguilar-Garcia, Zack Stiegler, and Jason Breininger, to name just a few), and hearing from others who know me from my work, was a timely reminder that I’m not out here alone; that there is a vibrant, welcoming community that shares my passion. The whole thing felt like a warm hug–something that, in these times of social distancing, is in desperately short supply.

I’d also forgotten how exciting it is to hear new research from others in a shared area of expertise. I’ve been out of the academic game for a while, and my last conference even as an independent scholar was Prince from Minneapolis back in 2018. I didn’t realize how much I missed the intellectual stimulation events like this provide. As this blog attests, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about Dirty Mind, but last weekend’s presentations gave me new ways to think about it: from Christopher A. Daniel’s vital excavation of contemporary discourse by music critics of color; to Steven G. Fullwood’s acute analysis of the ways Prince synthesized punk and disco to carve out liberatory new territory in popular music; to C. Leigh McInnis’ rousing, almost Pentecostal oration on the “street philosophy” of Dirty Mind and the ways it reshaped Black masculinity in the early 1980s.

Even more impressive were the ways presenters found to cast Graffiti Bridge–a project that has never been among my favorites–in a new light. Both Monique W. Morris and Robert Loss applied a richness and rigor of analysis to the film that was, frankly, above and beyond what the script demanded; while Kirsty Fairclough (of Salford Purple Reign conference fame) and Casci Ritchie made solid arguments for the film on the basis of its aesthetics. I don’t think I’ll ever be a Graffiti Bridge convert, but I thought more about the movie last weekend than I’ve thought about it in the past 30 years, and that in itself is an achievement.

DM40GB30 keynote with André Cymone and Jill Jones

What made DM40GB30 especially timely, however, were the ways its hosts, guests, and presenters spoke directly to the current historical context. The keynote by André Cymone and Jill Jones (see above) included lengthy discussions of what it was like for a Black person to grow up (in André’s case), or move to (in Jill’s), Minneapolis: a city that, as we know all too well, has often failed to live up to the “Uptown” mythology Prince helped invent. Journalist Hasit Shah also spoke to this context in his presentation, making the argument that “Uptown” is not the uncritical celebration of multiculturalism which it has become in some sections of the fan community, but “a fucking protest song.” Even the weekend-closing musical set by musician Chris Rob incorporated numerous shout-outs to George Floyd, demonstrating that the music Prince recorded in 1980, 1990, and everywhere in-between has lasting social relevance beyond basic fan nostalgia.

If you were at the symposium and noticed I didn’t mention your favorite presentation, it’s probably because I didn’t catch it. I regrettably missed the majority of both the Dirty Mind roundtable, with BBC Manchester presenter Karen Gabay, musician Nicolay, journalist Keith Murphy, and former Right On! magazine editor Cynthia M. Horner (!); as well as its Graffiti Bridge equivalent, with the recurring panel of De Angela, Zaheer Ali, Anil Dash, Miles Marshall Lewis, and Elliott H. Powell. I plan to rectify this–and rewatch a lot of other presentations that I missed, in full or in part–once the video archive of the symposium is available in July.

Mostly, though, I intend to ride the creative and intellectual high I experienced last weekend for as long as humanly possible. I came out of DM40GB30 feeling renewed, inspired, and ready to throw myself into this and other projects–something I haven’t felt in a good, long while. I would, of course, jump at the chance to participate in next year’s symposium, which will celebrate 40 years of Controversy, 30 years of Diamonds and Pearls, and 20 years of The Rainbow Children. But even if I don’t get that chance, I will definitely be attending. Events like this are much too precious and rare to take for granted.

(Thank you so much to De Angela Duff, who clearly put a lot of blood, sweat, and tears–and a decent amount of her own money–into making this thing happen; and to Arthur Turnbull, who did a great job helping to steer the ship. Also, thanks to everyone who tuned in to my roundtable on the Time’s Pandemonium with KaNisa, Ricky Wyatt, and Ivan Orr on Sunday evening–I hope you had even a fraction of the amount of fun I did!)