Excerpted from Prince: Chaos, Disorder, and Revolution by Jason Draper. Available from Backbeat Books. Copyright © 2011. Reprinted by permission of Backbeat Books. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
“I make music because if I don’t, I’d die. I record because it’s in my blood. I hear sounds all the time. It’s almost a curse: to know you can always make something new.” — Prince
Prince Rogers Nelson first became fascinated with music at the age of six, when he saw his father’s three-piece jazz band perform. Everything about it seemed amazing: the sounds that came out of his father’s piano; the chorus girls that came out dancing at Nelson Sr.’s command; the emotive power the whole thing had over the people in the audience.
Prince: Chaos, Disorder, and Revolution
US: Apr 2011
Prince became obsessed with music as an outlet for his innermost feelings. In the 80s, those feelings seemed to fall perfectly in tune with the zeitgeist. Twenty years after that epochal event in a tiny jazz club in his hometown of Minneapolis, Minnesota, Prince had become a global superstar. The most famous musician on the planet, the author and star of Purple Rain, had only just turned 26. Commercial success is one thing. Being one of the most important and talented artists ever to have graced the earth is quite another. With the April 1978 release of his debut, For You, Prince began a ten-year run of albums on which he continued to push himself and his art further and further. In a decade widely remembered for its selfishness and soullessness, Prince redefined the concept of “soulful” music.
Taking his lead from the flag-bearers of funk — Sly Stone, James Brown, and George Clinton — and artistic pioneers such as Miles Davis and Joni Mitchell, Prince imbued his art with his idiosyncratic view of life, turning out music from the mind of a sex-obsessed deviant (Dirty Mind); a bomb-fearing party-animal (“1999”); a God-fearing man searching for a ways to reconcile the spiritual with the sexual (Lovesexy); and so much more.
When Prince had finished redefining the music, he took his battle for individuality to the record business. During the 90s he waged war against his record label, Warner Bros., changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol, and pronounced himself a slave to the system. He might have faced derision from all corners then but now, a decade into the 21st century, it’s become obvious that Prince’s actions weren’t just crucial for him, but for whole generations of musicians to come.
Many in the music business continue to suffer as a result of their initial failure to embrace the internet, but not Prince. He was the first artist to release a whole album online via his own self-financed record label, and has continued to seek out new ways to release and promote his music, even going so far as to give it away for free. His fight for artists’ rights has shown future generations that they don’t have to adhere to anyone else’s rules, and shown how one man can stay relevant for more than 30 years on the strength of a passion to challenge the status quo and change the way things are done.
It should come as no surprise that an artist who wages war on staying still remains impossible to define. “I’m not a woman, I’m not a man,” he sang on Purple Rain’s “I Would Die 4 U.” “I am something you’ll never understand.” He has remained true to that expression ever since, whether by fusing masculine and feminine concepts, changing his name to an unpronounceable symbol (and back again), turning his back on his raunchy past and becoming a devout Jehovah’s Witness, or breaking new ground on the internet and then seemingly removing himself from it entirely. Throughout it all he remains Prince: indefinable, contradictory, an enigma wholly committed to beating his own path.
This book is not a muckraker, it’s not a gossip, and it’s sure as hell not bent on setting one man up to knock him down. Prince has been ridiculous, Prince has been amusing, Prince has been astounding. He’s been the envy of every musician on the planet. His peers might be stuck in an endless cycle of albums and tours, but Prince doesn’t need to be seen unless he wants you to see him. Prince: Chaos, Disorder, and Revolution will simply tell you what happened and how, leaving it up to you to make your own conclusions about the man who has done it all, and yet continues to look for more ways in which to do it.
I Wasn’t Born Like My Brother: Handsome And Tall
“I went through a lot when I was a boy. They called me sissy, punk, freak, and faggot. See, the girls loved you, but the boys hated you. They called me Princess.” — Prince
“I named my son Prince because I wanted him to do everything I wanted to do,” Prince’s father, John L. Nelson, told A Current Affair in 1991. Even though his son was only 33 at the time, Nelson Sr. boasted: “He’s done all of it.”
Much less could be said for John L., a gifted pianist and leader of The Prince Rogers Trio — a Minneapolis jazz combo that gave Prince Rogers Nelson his name. With both parents musicians (his mother, Mattie Shaw, was a former jazz singer), Prince was surrounded by music from the moment he was taken home. Apart from co-credits on his son’s future compositions, however, John L. Nelson would struggle to break out of the small-time gigging scene. His son would go on to become the first artist since The Beatles to simultaneously land a Number One album, single, and film — all at the age of just 24.
Having struggled in Louisiana, Prince’s parents had moved separately to Minnesota during the early 50s in search of work in a part of America that was known for its liberal race-relations. Prince would later use his parents’ mixed heritage — his father was part Italian, while his mother had African American, Native American, and white roots — to confuse interviewers who refused to focus on his music alone. A much less mixed influence was, undoubtedly, John L.’s career as pianist in the Minneapolis clubs.
Prince was born on June 7, 1958 at Mount Sinai Hospital, Minneapolis, and at the age of five was taken by his mother to see The Prince Rogers Trio play in a downtown Minneapolis club. The group’s mix of jazz standards and original material wasn’t earth-shattering, but the experience seemed nonetheless to change Prince forever. He watched with interest as his father, decked out in the sharpest of suits, led the band through its repertoire and held sway over the crowd. When a line of dancing girls came out — seemingly also under Nelson’s control — Prince had seen all he needed to see to know that the musician’s life was for him.
There are similar echoes in Prince’s recollections of seeing James Brown at the age of ten. “[My] stepdad put me on stage with him,” he told MTV in 1985, “and I danced a bit until the bodyguard took me off.” Like Nelson Sr., Brown would have a lasting effect on the boy. “He inspired me because of the control he had over his band,” Prince later revealed, “and because of the beautiful dancing girls he had. I wanted both.”
There was a piano in the front room of the Nelsons’ house, and whenever he wasn’t at school or at the local Seventh Day Adventist church, the young Prince — nicknamed Skipper by his mom — could be found playing it. The first pieces he learnt to play were the theme tunes to Batman and The Man From U.N.C.L.E.; by the age of seven, he had reportedly written his first song, “Funkmachine.”
The city of Minneapolis itself was similarly influential on Prince’s development. It was one of the few places in America’s Midwest where white and black communities weren’t so strictly divided, which meant that radio was also less segregated. Whereas big cities such as New York and Chicago had stations that played black music all day, KUXL would only broadcast contemporary funk and soul between 10am and 2pm before reverting to rock’n’roll later in the day, when more listeners would be tuned in. “Listening to white radio was a positive thing that gave [Prince] a real, rounded way of finding out what was going on in music,” his first manager, Owen Husney, later recalled, noting that being forced to listen to white pop gave Prince “a real edge.”
Music and the radio became a means of escapism for the young Prince as he sought both a way to communicate his innermost thoughts and also a diversion from the physical abuse he suffered at the hands of his father. He has since downplayed this area of his upbringing, telling Larry King that his father was merely “a very strict disciplinarian,” but the situation appears to have been rather more serious than that. Prince has reportedly shared stories of abuse with a few close confidantes, notably Susan Rogers, his engineer from 1983 to 1988, who worked on his bestselling albums. “Prince told me there was abuse in his childhood,” she later recalled. “He had a weird name, he was small. He was also extremely intelligent and sensitive.” Confirming such claims, Prince addressed family abuse in the semi-autobiographical Purple Rain movie and the song “Papa,” on which he sings: “Don’t abuse children, or else they turn out like me.”
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. We need your help to keep PopMatters strong and growing. Thank you.
"PopMatters (est. 1999) is a respected source for smart long-form reading on a wide range of topics in culture. PopMatters serves as…READ the article