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He's Still Got 'It' -- Whatever 'It' Is

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Another questionable tale involves the song “Kiss”.  While Prince was working on Parade, he helped Revolution bassist Mark Brown (a.k.a. “Brown Mark”) and David Rivkin (a.k.a. “David Z.”) with their band Mazarati by giving them a couple of songs. One was “100 MPH”, a catchy joint with a clever little staccato delivery.  That one ended up on Mazarati’s self-titled album. The other was the demo for “Kiss”.  After letting the guys puzzle over it, spending the whole night working it, Prince changed his mind and reclaimed the song, saying, “It’s too good for you guys.”  Then, although he promised to list Rivkin as the song’s co-producer, he ended up being listed only as the “arranger”.  Draper further reports that the “main elements of the song originated from Rivkin and Brown’s version.”


In case you didn’t know, Prince fans never agree on anything anyway, except perhaps that Prince shouldn’t have tried to incorporate as much rap as he has or that the Graffiti Bridge movie is pretty bad.  Everything else—favorite songs, greatest albums, most interesting hairstyle, tightest band—is hotly contested.

The story reads a bit differently in Alan Leeds’s account of it for The Hits/The B-Sides.  There, Leeds quotes David Z. as recalling the “Kiss” demo as “just voice and acoustic guitar” and as not having “any real indication of a groove yet.” It was “just the raw idea”. David Z. and company “started a rhythm track and put on some background vocals” but thought the song was too much of an oddball to finish. Leeds goes on to say, “Once Prince was able to gauge Mazarati’s lack of interest in ‘Kiss’, he simply reclaimed it and finished it.” Draper too notes that Prince’s final version involved “stripping away a lot of the detail Rivkin and Brown had added” to give “Kiss” a “minimalist” feel.  Weird story. Even weirder song.


On the personal side of things, the book allows talk of Prince’s relationships with Vanity, Susan Moonsie, Jill Jones, Kim Basinger, Mayte, Manuela Testolini, and of course Prince’s major inspiration, Susannah Melvoin. Yet, all of this is quite tame and, what’s more, it’s public knowledge so it’s not like the book has unearthed any shocking secrets. In fact, Draper probably could have said more on the subject, since he didn’t mention Prince’s crush on vocalist, composer, and pianist Patrice Rushen, which inspired the song “I Feel For You” as Alan Leeds did in The Hits/The B-Sides liner notes. In fact, the more shocking revelation for some might be the people he was NOT dating, like Purple Rain co-star Patricia “Apollonia” Kotero. Draper relays Apollonia’s assertion that Prince wanted her to keep it a secret that she was married “so that fans might believe [she and Prince] were romantically involved.”


In keeping with Draper’s general factual approach, the chart positions of songs and albums figure prominently in Draper’s discussion, as does his information about the logistics and aesthetics of Prince’s tours. Going on tour has, after all, been a financial benefit to musicians, so that the challenges of working under a recording contract might well be offset by a successfully promoted live show. For Prince, enjoying a stellar reputation as a showman has translated into a lucrative source of revenue as well as a significant outlet for showcasing his talent.


Apparently, there are people in this world who don’t realize Prince has still got “it”, whatever “it” is, and he’s taken some momentous occasions to put everyone on notice. Draper covers them all—the Purple Rain tour, the 1990 Nude tour, his spirited 2004 performances at the Grammys with Beyonce and during his induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and at the 2007 Super Bowl. Better still, Prince performed a whopping “21 night stand” at London’s O2 Arena.  The irony is that all of this, and more, was accomplished by a man who was once a shy performer and who, in the early ‘80s, performed as a supporting act for the Rolling Stones with the infamously disastrous result of the crowd booing him off stage the first concert and throwing “fruit, vegetables, Jack Daniels, and even a bag of rotting chicken” the second. From the standpoint of comprehensiveness, Draper’s willingness to couple Prince’s album releases with his dramatic performances of the recorded material creates a relatively balanced presentation of Prince’s overall work.


The issue of balance becomes looms large in any discussion of Prince’s most recent output. From 1978 up to the ‘90s, Prince recorded an album a year for Warner Brothers Records, not to mention penning and oftentimes playing the music on a slew of associated artist and band releases. In the ‘90s, however, Prince ended his longtime relationship with Warner Brothers following a period of acrimony at least partly concerning his insistence on releasing music at a pace far exceeding a label’s timetable for methodical and measured market promotion. And, then, you know, Prince wouldn’t always help promote the music. He’d move on to his next project instead.  Prince also wrote the word “Slave” on his face to protest his relationship with the company. “If you don’t own your [master tapes],” he told Rolling Stone, “your master owns you.”  He went further and changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol, usually typed as O{+>. This symbol was the title of his 1992 album, whose aforementioned first track is ironically called “My Name is Prince”. As you might guess, it’s a bad sign for a business relationship when an artist refuses to use his name, particularly one that has been backed by large budgets, tons of promotion, and heavy branding.


Draper establishes these facts and makes the case that Prince is a pioneered the exploration of alternative business models, including Internet distribution and using concerts to score album sales.  His battle with Warner Brothers demonstrates his stance onartist’s rights and creative freedom.  No one’s really arguing those points. When it comes to the music, though, his biggest and most recognizable hits occurred under his Warner Brothers contract and, quite frankly, most of Prince’s hardcore fans prefer Prince’s Warner Brothers catalogue over anything in the post-Warner era.


And it’s really difficult to argue that they’re wrong. The songs that make Prince the stuff of legend are exclusively situated during his time with Warner Brothers: “I Wanna Be Your Lover”, “Sexy Dancer”, “Head”, “Controversy”, “Do Me Baby”, “1999”, “Little Red Corvette”, the entire Purple Rain album, “Raspberry Beret”, “Pop Life”, “Kiss”, “Sign ‘O’ the Times”, “Alphabet St.”, “Thieves in the Temple”, “Batdance”, “Cream”, “Gett Off”, “Diamonds & Pearls”, “Sexy MF”. Since his split from Warners, Prince has gone independent and, although he releases a steady stream of music from which he seems to reap a heftier financial reward, his newer music doesn’t have the immediate recognition of his older tunes.


I don’t hear a lot of people citing “Te Amo Corazon” or “Chocolate Box” as their favorite Prince jams of all time. That doesn’t mean Prince isn’t cranking out good tunes on albums such as Come (1994), Emancipation (1996), The Rainbow Children (2001), Musicology (2004), 3121 (2006), Planet Earth (2007), LotusFlow3r/MPLSound (2009), and 20Ten (2010). I happen to think he is, actually, for whatever that’s worth. The point is that the newer material hasn’t ingratiated itself into the public consciousness the way songs like “1999”, “When Doves Cry”, and “Kiss” have.


Nonetheless, Jason Draper does an admirable job of tackling this newer material, including albums released under contractual obligation by Warner Brothers.  In doing so, Draper updates those readers who thought Prince’s career ended after Purple Rain or Sign ‘O’ the Times or Diamonds & Pearls or The Gold Experience or whichever album people consider to be his last “good” one.  Chaos, Disorder, and Revolution‘s main accomplishment, then, is that it gets everyone who’s interested in Prince on the same basic page. Informing us takes precedent over entertaining us, and that’s probably because there’s just so much to cover.  For anyone courting the notion that prince’s career ought to be dominated by the legacy of the almighty Purple Rain movie and soundtrack, Draper dispatches this by page 57.  That’s out of about 230 pages, mind you, not counting the index, the endnotes, and so forth. By that point, Draper has already discussed Purple Rain and its preceding albums (For You (1978), Prince (1979), Dirty Mind (1980), Controversy, and 1999) and goes on to talk about the aftermath of Prince’s commercial breakthrough and beyond.


Diehard fans will probably know everything, and I mean everything, contained in this book. Most, if not all of us, have read Prince biographies such as Jason Draper’s Prince: Life & Times (2008), Matthew Carcieri’s Prince: A Life in Music (2004), Per Nilsen’s Dance Music Sex Romance (2003), Alex Hahn’s Possessed: The Rise & Fall of Prince (2003), and Liz Jones’s Purple Reign (1999) and Slave to the Rhythm (1998). It’s nevertheless an interesting read, given its information about Prince’s side projects and unreleased music, although not for the purpose of collecting such material but rather to place them into an overall context. 


I also enjoyed Draper’s thoughts on Prince’s albums, even when, and sometimes especially when, I disagreed. In case you didn’t know, Prince fans never agree on anything anyway, except perhaps that Prince shouldn’t have tried to incorporate as much rap as he has or that the Graffiti Bridge movie is pretty bad.  Everything else—favorite songs, greatest albums, most interesting hairstyle, tightest band—is hotly contested.  Really, the best way to get into an argument with a Prince fan is to voice an opinion about his music.  Tell a Prince fan you think the “Wedding Feast” track from The Rainbow Children (2001) is Prince’s crowning achievement and watch the outrage begin.  But, in the end, that’s what it all comes down to with us. We really don’t care who he’s dating or what car he’s driving or whatever. With Prince, it’s really all about the music.  Jason Draper’s Chaos, Disorder, and Revolution does well to stay focused on that fact.

Quentin Huff is an attorney, writer, visual artist, and professional tennis player who lives and works in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. In addition to serving as an adjunct professor at Wake Forest University School of Law, he enjoys practicing entertainment law. When he's not busy suing people or giving other people advice on how to sue people, he writes novels, short stories, poetry, screenplays, diary entries, and essays. Quentin's writing appears, or is forthcoming, in: Casa Poema, Pemmican Press, Switched-On Gutenberg, Defenestration, Poems Niederngasse, and The Ringing Ear, Cave Canem's anthology of contemporary African American poetry rooted in the South. His family owns and operates Huff Art Studio, an art gallery specializing in fine art, printing, and graphic design. Quentin loves Final Fantasy videogames, Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible, his mother Earnestine, PopMatters, and all things Prince.


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