Podcast: I Know That the Lord is Coming Soon – Erica Thompson on the Salford Purple Reign Conference

Podcast: I Know That the Lord is Coming Soon – Erica Thompson on the Salford Purple Reign Conference

(Featured Image: Purple Rain Tour Shirt, 1984; photo stolen from the Current.)

It’s been just under two months since I started interviewing presenters from this spring’s interdisciplinary Prince conference at the University of Salford, and I’ve been absolutely thrilled with the results. But all good things must come to an end, so I had planned to make this chat with writer Erica Thompson the last of my post-conference podcasts. It would have been a great choice, too; Erica’s presentation was the result of many years of research for a book project on Prince’s spiritual journey, so our conversation was less about the conference in particular and more about her findings more generally: a nice segue into future, less Manchester-centric episodes.

But just when I think I’m out, they keep pulling me back in. Contrary to my own statements in this episode, I have already set up another interview with a few presenters from one of the conference’s gender and sexuality panels. So basically, expect me to keep interviewing scholars from the Purple Reign conference until the next milestone in Prince scholarship comes along. And in the meantime, please enjoy my and Erica’s conversation about the importance–and, sometimes, difficulty–of understanding Prince’s religious faith in relationship with his art.

As usual, I invite you to subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, or Google Play for mobile listening; you can also stream episodes on Mixcloud. And keep listening, because there’s good stuff–Purple Reign-related and otherwise–coming up in the near future!

Continue reading “Podcast: I Know That the Lord is Coming Soon – Erica Thompson on the Salford Purple Reign Conference”

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Podcast: Everybody Shut Up, Listen to the Band – Felicia Holman and Harold Pride on the Salford Purple Reign Conference

Podcast: Everybody Shut Up, Listen to the Band – Felicia Holman and Harold Pride on the Salford Purple Reign Conference

(Featured Image: “The Band with No Name”; from the Sign “O” the Times tour book, 1987.)

Settle in, folks, because today we’ve got not one, but two presenters from this spring’s Prince conference at the University of Salford: interdisciplinary artist/activist Felicia Holman and independent scholar/activist Harold Pride. Both were part of the organic community of Black artists and academics who came together in Manchester and, each in their own way, helped to reclaim Prince’s legacy as a specifically African American artist. The three of us talk about that, as well as their specific papers–Harold’s on the underrated, short-lived “Band with No Name” from 19871988; Felicia’s on Prince’s autodidacticism and its connection to traditions of Black self-determination–and, as usual, a lot of other things along the way. It’s a great conversation that could have easily been twice as long; I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

I still have a handful of these interviews lined up, and will be posting them at least through Labor Day. If you want to hear them, you can follow the podcast on any of the major services (iTunes, Stitcher, or Google Play). Appearances to the contrary, I’m also still writing: I’ll be back to the ol’ grind next week. See you then!

Continue reading “Podcast: Everybody Shut Up, Listen to the Band – Felicia Holman and Harold Pride on the Salford Purple Reign Conference”

Review: Dig If You Will the Picture

Review: Dig If You Will the Picture

(Featured Image: Cover art for Dig If You Will the Picture by Ben Greenman, from Amazon.)

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.

(Note: This review was revised and expanded for publication in the Journal of African American Studies. You can access that much better version here.)

Review: The Rise of Prince 1958-1988

Review: The Rise of Prince 1958-1988

(Featured Image: Cover art for The Rise of Prince 1958-1988 by Alex Hahn and Laura Tiebert, from Amazon.)

A month ago today, I wrote about an upcoming biography co-written by Alex Hahn, the author of the excellent 2003 book Possessed: The Rise and Fall of Prince. Over the weekend, Alex was kind enough to send me a pre-release digital copy of the book to review; so, having already plugged the book sight unseen, I wanted to also share my thoughts after reading it (very quickly, in three sittings between Saturday night and this morning–apparently those four years of humanities graduate school were good for something after all). I should disclose up-front that I’m not necessarily an impartial source: I was a fan of Alex’s first book before I ever spoke to him, and I did a very modest amount of consulting early in his writing process for The Rise of Prince (I’m thanked for this in the acknowledgements). That being said, while I “Internet-know” Alex, I don’t know either him or co-writer Laura Tiebert personally, nor am I being compensated for this review in any way (even the free book–I already preordered my “real” copy!). I’m simply trying to help out another independently-released Prince project–one that, I am happy to say, is of high quality, and well worth the attention of anyone reading this.

As I wrote in my post last month, Possessed was my first Prince biography, and it was until recently my first choice for the “Prince book to read if you only read one Prince book.” Dave Hill’s Prince: A Pop Life from 1989 was quite well-written, but lacked a strong perspective on the artist due to its early publication date; Per Nilsen’s Dance, Music, Sex, Romance remains near-definitive in its level of detail, particularly about recording processes and unreleased material, but is arguably too dry and “in the weeds” for more casual fans. Possessed, in my opinion, struck the perfect balance. It combined a gripping but unshowy writing style with Nilsen’s deep, journalistic research acumen, while also presenting a fascinating enough narrative arc for even non-obsessives to enjoy the glimpse at the man behind the music. It was juicy, but not tawdry; even the negative bits (which, it must be said, remain controversial in some segments of the Prince fan community) felt justified, not to mention backed up by multiple sources. If Possessed was still in print and The Rise of Prince didn’t exist, I’d still heartily recommend it.

But Possessed is no longer in print, and The Rise of Prince does exist; this alone would make it an easy recommendation, as the former book is fetching absurd used prices on Amazon and eBay, while the latter book can be had for as little as $8.99 on Kindle. More importantly, however, the new version is an improvement in almost every way. Though I recognized brief passages of Possessed in The Rise of Prince, the book as a whole has been thoroughly overhauled: this is not just a quick cash-in reissue. Of particular note are the early chapters on Prince’s family background and youth, which to my knowledge represent the first significant original research conducted in this area since the 1990s. If nothing else, these should be required reading for anyone with ambitions to write about Prince in the future: Hahn and Tiebert are perhaps the first biographers to approach Prince’s family history as journalists and historians rather than rock critics, and they have done much to winnow out the facts from decades’ worth of myth created, in no small part, by Prince himself. I know that I will be taking a look at a few of my own early posts to correct any factual inaccuracies I might have reproduced; I strongly recommend that any other aspiring Prince experts out there do the same.

The other, less tangible advantage for The Rise of Prince is, quite simply, perspective. I’ve seen much being made on social media about the book’s title, which excises the “…and Fall” half of Possessed’s subtitle in favor of a more optimistic tone. But I would caution fans from assuming this means the book is entirely positive–or, for that matter, that it should be. The Rise of Prince ends in late 1988: arguably an artistic high point for Prince, but inarguably a commercial and personal low point. It is, at first glance, an odd way to revise a biography that went on for some fifteen additional years in its original editon; and yet, it makes sense when read in tandem with the book’s lengthy prologue, to date the most definitive recounting of Prince’s final year. All of the things Prince was grappling with in late 1988–his conflicts between the spiritual and the carnal, his clashing, oft-frustrated desires for both commercial success and artistic respect, and most importantly, his inability to connect intimately with others–would continue to define his life until his tragic death early last year: alone in Paisley Park, the vast recording facility and living space where his ashes are now permanently enshrined, like a pharaoh in a pyramid of his own design. Reading these later chapters, knowing how the story ends, was a poignant and deeply moving experience. And while I would have gladly read another 300 pages covering 1989-2016, I can’t fault Hahn and Tiebert for ending the story where they did. For better or worse, Prince’s emotional arc was complete.

So, yes, The Rise of Prince is now my official recommendation for the “Prince book to read if you only read one Prince book.” It might not always be that way: the latter decades of Prince’s life are an important part of the story, and one yet to be fully captured in writing. But for now, less than a year after the artist’s untimely passing, it’s hard to imagine a much better book to explain who Prince was–the good and the bad–and why, for almost a decade, he mattered more than any other singer, songwriter, musician, or producer on the planet. Again, like I said last month: there will be a lot of books published about Prince in the weeks, months, and years to come. Let’s hope more are as carefully considered and lovingly crafted as The Rise of Prince than are not.

You can purchase The Rise of Prince on Amazon, as either a Kindle e-book or a physical paperback. If you like this blog and want to support it, please consider purchasing the book through my affiliate links, either in this paragraph or on the “Now Playing” part of the sidebar. I’ll be back with another post soon, hopefully before the end of the week. Thanks for reading!