I’ve been trying to squeeze in at least one guest spot per album on Darren Husted’s Prince: Track by Track podcast, and for The Black Album I couldn’t resist taking on what is arguably its goofiest track, “Dead on It.” Listen to Darren and I dissect Prince’s skills on the mic here:
Every Prince fan, Scott Woods writes in one of the essays in Prince and Little Weird Black Boy Gods, “thinks they are the biggest Prince fan in the world. It is why encounters with fans are sometimes challenging: You can’t tell us anything about Prince, let alone anything that would make us change how we feel about him.” This is both a bitingly funny observation–one of many to be found here–and an accurate assessment of how his book will be received in certain corners of the Princeverse. It’s something of which Woods himself is well aware; as he writes in the book’s introduction, some readers will think his book sucks, “and mostly for the same reasons as most Prince books suck: it won’t tell you anything about Prince that you didn’t know.”
Woods is right; if fresh knowledge is what you’re looking for in a Prince book, then you should probably look elsewhere. But I have to question the philosophy–out of professional self-preservation, if nothing else–that the only reason to read a book about Prince is to learn something “new.” So much of the fandom in the wake of Prince’s passing last April has been about making connections, through shared experiences and shared grief: swapping stories, knowledge, and opinions, not because it’s something we’ve never heard before, but because the act itself brings us closer to one another. A theme that runs through several of Woods’ essays, borrowed from a speech by Wendy Melvoin at Prince’s memorial service, is that making art is a form of communion: “Being creative is how you can talk to [Prince]. If you’re being creative, he will talk to you.” This book, then, is both the long conversation with Prince Woods was never able to have, and one of the most engaging conversations about Prince you’ll ever have with another fan.
And Woods really is a huge fan (perhaps even the biggest in the world). His knowledge of Prince’s oeuvre is deep, and his opinions are as much fun to disagree with as they are the opposite (Seriously, ART OFFICIAL AGE was a “loss?” Controversy was better than Dirty Mind?!). His book, a collection of his online writing about Prince, is clearly meant for other hardcore fans, and it’s at its best when its appeal is narrowest: devoting a whole essay, for example, to the heavily processed Linn LM-1 “sidestick” that is an ineffable signature of Prince’s greatest music (you know it when you hear it). Of course, this means it’s also wildly self-indulgent; probably the longest single essay is a gratuitous (but witty!) beatdown of Kanye West in the wake of L.A. Reid’s ill-fated 2015 comparison of the two artists, which feels even more anachronistic now that Reid’s career is effectively over. But hey–people actually paid money on Kickstarter for Woods to write that one, so clearly there’s something here for everyone.
Whether Little Weird Black Boy Gods is worth its own modest asking price, then, depends on what one expects out of a Prince book. There is no real thesis here–though there are certainly recurring themes–and, again, no new information on the artist (though Woods’ detailed report on his tour of Paisley Park is a different kind of “insider info”). Personally, I’m okay with this, in large part because Woods is honest about his intentions. He’s not trying to make an overarching summation of Prince’s career, as authors like Brian Morton and Ben Greenman have tried (and, arguably, failed) to do; he’s just reflecting on his own experiences as a fan, both before and after Prince’s death. At its best–as in the title essay, one of the most moving tributes to Prince in the wake of his passing that I’ve read–it’s exactly the kind of creative, communal experience Melvoin was talking about in her memorial speech. We’re never going to know everything there is to know about Prince; but books like Woods’ let us know a little more about each other, and by extension about ourselves. In some ways, that’s an even more appealing proposition.
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Note: This post was written “out of sequence” to commemorate the release of the studio version of “Electric Intercourse” on 2017’s deluxe expanded edition of Purple Rain; it has since been superseded by an “official” blog post written when I reached the song in my chronology. The original post is preserved here for historical interest.
It’s been a long five months since the release of 4Ever, the first posthumous compilation of Prince’s work, and “Moonbeam Levels,” the first “new” track to be officially released since his death last April. Many of us, I think, were expecting Paisley Park’s “Celebration,” a four-day event marking the first anniversary of his passing, to be the end of this drought. With the long-promised Purple Rain reissue looming in the future, the time felt ripe for some concrete information, if not an actual release.
In fact, we did get new music that week–but not from the Prince Estate, nor from the Purple Rain era. Instead, former engineer Ian Boxill surprise-released an EP of six previously unheard 2006 recordings–including the gorgeous, gospel-flavored “Deliverance”–implying that he had the Estate’s blessing to do so. As it turned out, he didn’t: within hours of the announcement, the Estate filed suit, and a United States District Court Judge granted a temporary restraining order to halt the sale of the EP. Meanwhile, the Celebration came and went with no official mention of the Purple Rain set. Even after a fan group leaked what turned out to be an accurate track list, both Warner Bros. and NPG Records remained mum–until the following Friday, that is, when the announcement we’d been expecting finally came through, along with the second “official” posthumous track, “Electric Intercourse.”
I recount all of this, in part, to note that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Prince may no longer be with us physically, but his spirit clearly lives on in the capricious, contested, and scattershot handling of his music. In a weird way, this is also the most relevant Prince has been to the contemporary recording industry in decades: a drama-filled album launch, botched in part by the vagaries of online music services, puts him in the rarefied (albeit, in this case, dubious) company of 21st century pop titans like Rihanna and Kanye West.
But all facetiousness aside, I also want to explain why I’m writing about “Electric Intercourse” right now, and not about “Deliverance.” It isn’t necessarily that I disapprove of the EP’s release: I’m glad Boxill leaked it, just as I’m glad that more anonymous sources have leaked the hundreds of other non-sanctioned songs I continue to enjoy. But I broke my chronology with “Moonbeam Levels” last fall because it was an official and easily accessible release; and, while “Deliverance” as of this writing is still available for purchase on the iTunes store, the legal grappling around its parent EP doesn’t give me much confidence for the future. Besides that, I remain skeptical of Boxill’s claims that the majority of the proceeds for the song/EP will go to Prince’s estate: I’m no lawyer, but I can’t think of many cases where an individual successfully paid royalties to a group in the process of pursuing legal action against him. So, basically, I’m treating “Deliverance” like a bootleg: I’ll write about it, of course, but not until I reach the proper point in the chronology–so, at my current pace, our grandchildren should be able to enjoy it, provided we all survive the impending Third World War.
Last Sunday, I spoke with writer, philosopher, and fellow Prince obsessive Jane Clare Jones about…well, a lot of things, which is why we ended up having to break our podcast up into four episodes. For this first installment, we talk about our stories as Prince fans and articulate some of the reasons why his music–and, to a not-insignificant extent, the man himself–continues to mean so much to us. In the weeks to come, I’ll post the later installments, where we discuss the two recent books by Ben Greenman and Mayte Garcia, and try to unpack some of our thoughts around Prince’s death last April. I hope you enjoy it.
According to engineer Bob Mockler, “Our competition on [Prince] was Michael Jackson and Kool and the Gang, and I think we looked them right in the eye” (Brown 2010). Indeed, they did: the album went Platinum, peaking at Number 22 on the Billboard 200–just nine spaces below Kool & The Gang’s Ladies’ Night (though it fell significantly short of Jackson’s blockbuster reinvention as a solo artist, Off the Wall). As noted before, debut single “I Wanna Be Your Lover” was also a hit, topping the R&B charts and reaching Number 11 on the Hot 100. After that, Prince lost its momentum: second single “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?” reached Number 13 on Hot R&B Singles, but missed the Hot 100 entirely; “Still Waiting,” released in March of 1980, did even worse, peaking at only Number 65 on the R&B chart. But the album remained an unqualified success; in many ways, it was the bold opening statement For You should have been. And it introduced several of Prince’s most enduring songs: not just “I Wanna Be Your Lover” and “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?”, but also “I Feel for You,” even “Sexy Dancer.”
Looking back, however, the most pleasurable moments of Prince, for me at least, are among its least celebrated. As I discussed last week, “Still Waiting” is an overlooked gem; “Bambi,” while backwards in its sexual politics, is among Prince’s finest rockers; and “When We’re Dancing Close and Slow” is another potent early sign that the kid was more than just a raunchier Stones to M.J.’s pop-funk Beatles. But maybe my favorite of them all is the song’s closing track, the majestic “It’s Gonna Be Lonely.”