Categories
Ephemera, 1983

Father’s Song

Director Albert Magnoli liked to call Purple Rain an “emotional biography” of Prince: An impressionistic mélange of the star’s pet themes, anxieties, and obsessions, true to its subject in spirit if not in every detail. And of all the themes, anxieties, and obsessions Prince brought to the film, none loomed larger than his father, John L. Nelson.

John Lewis Nelson was born on June 29, 1916 in Cotton Valley, Webster Parish, Louisiana, the youngest child of farmers Clarence Allen and Carrie Nelson (née Jenkins). Not long after his birth, John’s parents divorced; the reason, according to biographers Alex Hahn and Laura Tiebert, was because Clarence had become involved with another woman (Hahn 2017 50). By the 1920 census, writes historian Kristen Zschomler, Carrie was remarried to a man named Charles Ikner and living in Webster Parish with three-year-old John and his siblings: James (born 1915), Ruby (born 1908), Olivia (born 1904), and Gertrude (born 1903) (Zschomler 9). By 1930, she was widowed, and had traveled north with Gertrude, Ruby, and their husbands and children to a rented home in Southside Minneapolis, near where Olivia had settled with her husband, Edward Mason Lewis. The now-teenaged John likely followed between 1930 and 1935 (10).

Categories
Dirty Mind, 1980 Podcast

Podcast: 40 Years of Dirty Mind

Way back in February of 2020, I asked Darling Nisi and Harold Pride to record a third episode in our series of in-depth retrospectives on Prince’s albums, this one for the 40th anniversary of 1980’s Dirty Mind. The podcast was intended to predate De Angela Duff’s DM40GB30 symposium, which in those simpler times was still scheduled to be held in-person at New York University.

Well, you know what happened next: DM40GB30 was delayed, then went virtual, while I slipped into a pandemic-related depression fog that only lifted, appropriately enough, after I participated in the virtual symposium back in June. Meanwhile, the podcast continued to lavish in the D / M / S / R Vault (a.k.a. the “Documents” folder on my computer) until the end of last month, when I was promptly reminded of just how laborious a task editing a three-hour podcast recording can be.

Now, the wait is finally over: the D / M / S / R podcast is back, in all its wildly self-indulgent glory. I want to thank everyone for their patience, and assure you that there won’t be a two-year wait before the next episode; in fact, I’d recommend you go ahead and use one of the links above to subscribe on your podcast service of choice using one of the links above, because I’m aiming to put out one of these bad boys (i.e., podcasts, not necessarily review episodes) per month. As always, let me know what you think, and feel free to leave a review on your podcast provider if you’re so inclined.

Categories
Patreon Exclusives Reviews

Post-Vacation Update: Patreon-Exclusive Originals Review, plus “Sister” on Press Rewind

It’s a well-known fact that when Prince gave songs to other artists, he would cut his own recordings with guide vocals–not “demos” in the traditional sense so much as complete alternate takes, with production values in many cases equal to the versions that saw release. Almost as well-known, at least among bootleg enthusiasts, is the fact that Prince’s versions of these songs tended to be better than the “covers.” That makes the latest posthumous release by Warner Bros. Records and the Prince Estate, Originals, something of a no-brainer: here are 15 songs we already know and (mostly) love, preserved as they might have been had Prince decided to keep them for himself.

Categories
Dirty Mind, 1980

Sister

“I write everything from experience,” Prince claimed during an interview with Chris Salewicz of New Musical Express. “Dirty Mind was written totally from experience.” Salewicz asked Prince if he’d experienced incest, as discussed on the album’s penultimate track “Sister.” “How come you ask twice?” Prince shot back (Salewicz 1981).

“Sister” is a song that defies critical analysis–mostly because Prince wanted it to. At the time of its release, rock critics assumed he was being deliberately provocative; Prince, however, vigorously and repeatedly denied this was the case. “I don’t try to do anything to shock people or to make money,” he told Melody Maker’s Steve Sutherland. “That would make me a hooker” (Sutherland 1981). Whether the interview subject was wearing thigh-high nylons at the time was, regrettably, left to the imagination.

By insisting on the veracity of his lyrics in 1981, Prince created an interesting bind for potential scholars of his work. Shrug a song like “Sister” off as a joke, and one risks trivializing a serious trauma; take it at face value, and one can appear credulous–not to mention potentially libelous. The wisest approach, in my estimation, is the one taken by cultural critic Touré in his 2012 book about Prince: “‘Sister,’” he writes, “is key to understanding Prince, whether it’s true or not[;] he wants it to be a central part of his past, or part of the mythology that he’s creating, and thus a seminal part of what he wants you to think about him” (Touré 89). Touré compares “Sister” to “the creation myth for a superhero: My hypersexual older sister seduced me and taught me all about wild sex as she made love to me and dominated me and all of that turned me into what I am today” (90). Its position near the end of Dirty Mind–right after “Head”–is thus significant. Having given us six songs indulging, to various degrees, his erotomania, now Prince takes us back to the Freudian root of his “dirty mind”: the “reason for my, uh, sexuality.” It’s only fitting that at that root is something that reads like the filthiest Penthouse Forum letter ever written.

Categories
Ephemera, 1977-1978

Make It Through the Storm

When last we left our intrepid hero, he was in New York City, shopping the demo he’d recorded at Moonsound over the summer. But Prince turned out to be a harder sell than he’d expected. “He thought the first person who heard him would sign him,” his then-collaborator Chris Moon told biographer Matt Thorne. “And it didn’t happen, and neither did the second guy or the third guy” (Thorne 2016).

Eventually, Prince came to Moon once again for help. “He called me up and said, ‘Oh, man. I called up all these record companies and they won’t have anything to do with me. I can’t even get in to see them,’” Moon told another biographer, Dave Hill. “He says, ‘I need your help. I want you to get me an appointment with one.’ I hung up and thought, ‘Jesus Christ’” (Hill 32). A few unsuccessful cold calls later, the legend goes, Moon hit upon a ballsy gambit: he told the secretary for Atlantic Records that he was representing Stevie Wonder. “Two minutes later, the boss is talking to me on the phone,” Moon recalled to Per Nilsen of Uptown magazine. “I said, ‘This is Chris Moon and I’m representing Prince. If you like Stevie Wonder, you’re gonna love my artist. He’s only 18, he plays all instruments, and he’s not blind!’” (Nilsen 1999 29)

Moon’s subterfuge got Prince in the door at Atlantic, but to no avail: “the next Stevie Wonder”’s sound was cryptically deemed “too Midwestern” by the label’s representatives (Hendricksson 1977). So in a way it’s fitting that the most important connection Prince made in the fall of 1976 was located back in the Midwest: all the way home in Minneapolis.