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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!)

Categories
Ephemera, 1983

Electric Intercourse (The New Master)

Note: I first wrote about “Electric Intercourse” in 2017, when the previously-unheard studio version was released in advance of the deluxe expanded edition of Purple Rain. That original post has been preserved for posterity, but this is now the official D / M / S / R entry on the song.

Much as he had the previous year during the Controversy tour, Prince spent part of his “downtime” between the two legs of the 1999 tour at Sunset Sound in Los Angeles. Over the course of a single week, from January 7-14, 1983, he completed overdubs and mixing for the 12″ versions of his own “Little Red Corvette” and “Drive Me Wild” by Vanity 6, plus edits for the single release of the Time’s “Gigolos Get Lonely Too.” Finally, on the last night of the sessions, he recorded a new song: the aching, piano-led ballad “Electric Intercourse.”

Categories
Controversy, 1981

Do Me, Baby

Around the same time that Prince was co-opting Flyte Tyme for his project with Morris Day, he was also falling out with another of his oldest comrades: the co-founder of Grand Central and his closest musical partner, André Cymone.

André’s and Prince’s musical fates had been linked since the moment they first locked eyes in the Bryant Junior High gymnasium. Both were budding multi-instrumentalists, the children of talented jazz musicians: André’s father, Fred Anderson, used to play bass with Prince’s father, John L. Nelson. Both, too, possessed a preternatural drive far beyond the norms of their age and circumstance. “There was a sixth sense between the two of us,” Cymone told Billboard in 2016. “It’s something that doesn’t happen, I don’t think, very often where you find two people come together who are really passionate about what they do at a time when they’re both growing and learning” (Cymone 2016).

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Dirty Mind, 1980 Roundup Posts

Roundup: Dirty Mind, 1980

It’s been a long six months since my last roundup post, but this time I’m not going to make any promises about picking up the pace: my inherent slothfulness aside, Dirty Mind also marks the beginning of my personal favorite era for Prince, and I want to do it justice. Hopefully, with this latest batch of posts, I’m off to a good start; as always, I’m looking forward to the rest!

Here’s my ranking of the songs from Dirty Mind:

8. “Do It All Night” First, let me be clear: I consider Dirty Mind to be Prince’s first set of wall-to-wall classics, so when I say “Do It All Night” is my least favorite track, it’s barely a criticism. It’s just that on an album that introduced a bolder, rawer Prince, this was one of the few tracks that sounded like it could have been held over from his previous record. It’s still a jam, though–and, as I noted in the post, it really came to life in concert.

7. “Sister” Again, no disrespect intended to what remains Prince’s most literal interpretation of the punk aesthetic. It’s just that “Sister” is less a great song than it is a great segue: doubling down on “Head”’s gleeful vulgarity, before getting political with “Partyup.” I never really listen to “Sister” on its own, but I can’t imagine the album without it.

6. “Gotta Broken Heart Again” I’ve already confessed my love for Prince’s early, simple R&B ballads, and this is one of the simplest and purest of the bunch. Sometimes I think I might even like it more than “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore?” (don’t tell anyone I said that, though).

5. “UptownThis might be blasphemy, but for me this song is significant mostly for what it represents: the first of Prince’s grand utopian visions, an idealized multicultural Minneapolis invented out of sheer willpower, and an early example of the intersectional identity-fucking he’d perfect in the years to come. As a song, it doesn’t do much for me that “Controversy” wouldn’t improve upon later; but that doesn’t stop me from singing along when it comes on in the car.

4. “Dirty Mind” Like “Do It All Night,” this isn’t breaking as much new ground as you might expect, subject matter-wise; but in this case, the sound is pure throbbing future erotica, pointing the way to even deeper New Wave and electronic indulgences to come.

3. “When You Were Mine” Prince’s best pop song to date, and one of his catchiest ever; plus, it’s the one track on Dirty Mind I can (somewhat) comfortably listen to with my five-year-old, so that scores it a few bonus points.

2. “Head” Yeah, it’s “just” a funky song about blowjobs, but it’s hard to overstate the importance of this song to Prince’s oeuvre. So much of the rest of his 1980s, from the literal and musical miscegenation to the “Filthy Fifteen” explicit lyrics, can be traced directly back to “Head.” In its own way, this is Prince’s “Brown Sugar”: an unfiltered, borderline obscene id dump that nevertheless says something deeply significant about rock and roll.

1. “Partyup” My favorite track on Dirty Mind is possibly the least “dirty”; in my opinion, though, this sudden album-closing pivot toward conventional politics gives the other songs an even more liberatory charge. On his next album, of course, Prince would deal even more explicitly with current events, but not with anywhere near this level of ease, concision, or panache.

In case anyone had any doubts, this was also the longest series of posts I’ve done so far: 1,653 words on average, vs. 1,383 for Prince and 1,379 for For You.

I’m hoping to jump into the brave new post-Dirty Mind world next week; first, though, I need to deliver that podcast episode that was supposed to come out today. New ETA is Monday. In the meantime, here’s the Spotify playlist!

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Uncategorized

Jheri Curl June Special: Jesse Johnson

Well, another week has come and gone, and I still haven’t finished my next post. Fortunately, I have this piece I wrote about off-and-on Prince associate Jesse Johnson for my other blog, Dystopian Dance Party, to kick off our annual celebration of early-to-mid-’80s R&B, Jheri Curl June:

Jheri Curl June Special: Jesse Johnson

Next week, I’m going to have to cough something up, it being Prince Day and all–for now, hope everyone is enjoying their weekends!