I Am Something That You’ll Never Comprehend: Remembering Prince

There was a backdrop of funk and soul (Sly and the Family Stone, for one), a smattering of rock heroism (Little Richard, Jimi Hendrix), but he was his own creation. Despite the efforts of his rival Michael Jackson, no one was made for music television like Prince, with his slithery dancer’s body, outré confidence, and absolute genius for showmanship. Nothing was ever the same. For much of my generation, blossoming into maturity in the age of Prince meant making a choice. All three books show that the man behind the music was — no huge surprises here — maddeningly complex. There’s Ben Greenman’s Dig If You Will the Picture (a brilliant title, if only they hadn’t continued with the grandiose anticlimax: Funk, Sex, God, and Genius in the Music of Prince), Prince’s ex-wife Mayte Garcia’s The Most Beautiful: My Life with Prince, and, from the end of 2014, Alan Light’s Let’s Go Crazy: Prince and the Making of Purple Rain. They weren’t talking about the Stones, though, but about someone named Prince, who had opened the show. Much has been made of his gender fluidity, but maybe not enough: he redefined acceptable sexuality for an entire generation. In places, Greenman blends his deadpan analysis with Prince’s off-the-wall straight talk, and the results are hilarious. (The fact that dozens of newspapers and magazines received a copy of the symbol as a floppy disc hardly makes it seem like a toss-off, but who knows? She has written about books, culture, and information literacy for Salon.com and the Los Angeles Times. Often, his battles against power structures, especially against Warner Bros., turned off the press and his fans. creatives (mostly female), music industry strongmen, and Minneapolis soul and funk players — who helped to define him. He did it, in part, through MTV. There’s plenty to chew on, from the description of Prince sitting alone with his spaghetti and orange juice, to him forcing his band to do the Jane Fonda workout, to his refusal to show up for “We Are the World” because he thought the song stank. At least one during me.”
Garcia is too close. More than anything, we get a sense of what life was like for a talented ingenue who got stuck at the powerless end of a power couple. And talk about brave. The essential book on Prince has yet to be written, but these three volumes, each in its way, let us go back to when a diminutive man unleashed a galaxy of funk and knocked our world off its axis. It was one of the most spectacular celebrity backfires of the past 50 years. A number of recent books try to get at the essence of the man — his music, his personal life, his creative ambition. “At the time, I just thought the place was very cool,” she writes. The Prince who appears in these pages is demanding, jealous, and at times as irrational and determinedly loopy as Harry Potter’s Professor Trelawney. Garcia is a winning narrator — she is kind and critical when she has to be — but her tale is heartbreakingly private. He was a creator and a conductor, a manipulative and brilliant bandleader, a general master of everything that happened at his concerts. Prince had seemed such a fact, hardwired into my soul. We all know the man was naughty, but Greenman demonstrates just how completely unmoored he was from any standards of propriety or acceptability, and the effect that had on our culture. It is reportage, and it answers some questions about what Prince’s life would have been like before, during, and right after the explosion of the Purple Rain album, film, and tour. Greenman tees it up perfectly, uncovering the beauty of the artist’s work from the years that his fans often dismiss. Harold Bloom has argued that Shakespeare made us, creating the modern mind. In describing “Joint 2 Joint,” a song about a one-night stand from the 1996 album Emancipation, Greenman flexes his muscles as a serious music critic. I saw a lot of shows as a rock critic in the ’90s — sometimes three or four a week — but I never saw anyone work a crowd like Prince. Greenman’s Dig If You Will, written in the wake of Prince’s death, is often wonderful. His mass debut included the line “Trojans and some of them used” — what? ¤
Sara Scribner is a Los Angeles­–based librarian and writer. When he decided to turn himself into a symbol, the press had a field day, each magazine and newspaper competing for the most dismissive moniker — now that they couldn’t use words to name him, they used them to mock him. At the end is the punch line: “Prince goes downstairs for breakfast, accompanied by sound effects of cereal crunching and a reflection on both that cereal (he recommends using soy milk) and his one-night stand.” There is something glorious about Prince’s everyday approach to sweltering sexuality. How did that even happen on television? It doesn’t aim to capture the glory of the music or the creativity of the artist. Garcia shows Prince at his most vulnerable and tyrannical, but she doesn’t kiss and tell, except for one scene that reads like a transcript of a ’50s make-out session after a homecoming dance. Even during his lulls in the ’90s, when his output was disappointing or just confusing, the audience was his instrument. I know what it did to me, though: I hauled ass over to the local record store to purchase Controversy, took it home, and unpacked it, literally and figuratively. When he hit MTV with “Little Red Corvette,” he was Elvis on The Ed Sullivan Show, shocking and seductive. Prickly, unfettered, and brilliant, Prince essentially conjured himself out of thin air. Get too close and the magic is gone. He was going to control it like a snake charmer. I never cry when celebrities die, but it was hard not to shed tears on April 21, 2016. The book is especially insightful on the question of Prince’s sexual explicitness. Prince was the kind of figure who might move mountains on a whim.)
If fans buy this book to learn what Prince was actually like in bed, they will be sorely disappointed. I’m not sure exactly what that reception did to Prince, though it appears he was still steamed about it years later. But who really knows what went on in Prince’s mind or soul? As free as he was with sexuality (in his songs, at least), themes of power and control were always central to his work, and to his life. Greenman’s digressions can sometimes steer far from their course, as when he spends a very long and academic-feeling paragraph comparing Prince to William Blake in his chapter on the concept of self, but his book is a must for anyone who wants to get at what the contradictory, exhilarating, and subversive artist was all about. This “freak” had worn fishnet stockings and not much more — and was greeted with a rain of garbage from the crowd before being booed off stage. You were either with Prince or against him. Mayte Garcia asserts that Prince’s switch to ankh was a throwaway, barely thought about, and hardly an orchestrated celebrity power move. But I’d go further. Alan Light’s Let’s Go Crazy, by contrast, is neither close analysis nor memoir. There are some revelations about this period in The Most Beautiful: My Life with Prince, a wistful book by his ex-wife. OCTOBER 6, 2017
ONE DAY, when the ’80s were in their infancy, I overheard some junior high classmates discussing a Rolling Stones concert they’d just seen, a few miles away, at the Los Angeles Coliseum. Both a fan and a critic, Greenman, a New Yorker contributor who co-wrote Questlove’s memoir, has full Prince bona fides: he hung on through the star’s valleys as well as his peaks. An illustrative moment occurs when she takes a tour of Prince’s early studio, which had been converted into apartments. He worked the crowd into a unified funk frenzy. Perhaps the booing at that sad Stones show inspired Prince’s determination never to lose his grip on a crowd. He looks at Prince’s take on God and spirituality, on women and fans, and on the music industry’s power structure, teasing out deeper meanings by taking a magnifying glass to the stories within the songs. “It didn’t occur to me until much later that he’d had a lot of women in that house before me. Her work has also appeared in Mojo Magazine, Rolling Stone, GQ, Might Magazine, and the LA Weekly. And after me. As much as Sinatra defined the GI Generation and the Beatles defined the Boomers, Prince made us Xers. The analysis is long — the song is even longer — and wonderfully incisive. Perhaps most glorious are the glimpses of the artist at work in the wee hours, in whatever makeshift studio he could rig up, because he was burning with inspiration. And as Prince often told his fans, drivers, et cetera, you don’t want to look into his eyes. Well, unless you were denied access to pop culture altogether, Prince made you, whether you’d joined the party or not, even whether you know it or not. It discusses the important people — a motley crew of L.A.