Wednesday, April 27, 2016
There is something more than a little unseemly about stout, middle-aged white men proclaiming their grief over Prince’s death. After the musician’s untimely demise was reported on April 21, 2016, TV news broadcasts were rife with stately anchorman types, bland and self-serving and as pretty in their way as Prince was in his, who, when called upon for a response to Prince’s death, and, presumably, not knowing what to say, indulged themselves in weird displays of mourning. It was odd to see Joe Scarborough and Brian Williams, for example, apparently prostrate with grief. The manifest insincerity of many of these expressions of grief grates – it is like fingernails on a blackboard or an unexpected charred taste in something that you expect to have quite another flavor.
Although I have owned my fair share of Prince records, and although I can hum "Purple Rain" and "Raspberry Beret," I will not pretend to possess any great share in the death of this pop star. It does Prince and his memory a disservice to not acknowledge that his persona was weird, that his public appearances were, often, unsettling, and that the unruly libidinous currents in his best work were (and remain) dangerous in various kinds of ways. Navigating Prince’s music was always an exercise in sorting through various alternative sexual and religious perspectives, most of them kinky or off-center and, despite the accessability of much of his music, there was always an arcane center to his art just beyond reach. Unambiguously pop songs like "Manic Monday," Prince gave to his admirers and colleagues. At the heart of his own best work there was always a sense of mystery that made admiring him a minority taste – even though, apparently, everyone in the world shared this taste. Performing at the Super Bowl is a measure of something – but in Prince’s case, I don’t think, it was a measure of any kind of ease that audiences had in assimilating his work to their own imaginations.
Here is my Prince confession: Prince is like the proverbial grizzly bear in the forest. You don’t really want to encounter the bear that often and, when you do see the beast, you must keep your distance. For most of your life, the bear will be completely irrelevant to you. But, nonetheless, it is a comfort to know that the bear remains in a remote and perilous wilderness, that the bear flourishes in his splendid isolation, and that bear continues to do those things that both fascinate and appall us. When we learn that the last grizzly bear has been exterminated, then, the wilderness will be forever bereft – one of its central meanings will have vanished and, indeed, it will no longer be wilderness. Similarly, I didn’t think of Prince very often in the last twenty years of my life – but Minnesota without Prince working like a mad scientist in his sonic laboratory in Chanhassen is now a greatly diminished place, something less than the Minnesota.
Of course, those of us who live in Minnesota claim Prince as one of our own. Everyone has an anecdote, generally inconsequential, about an encounter with Prince. These tales cement in people a feeling that they have participated in some way in the musician’s career and fame. Such sentiments are mostly without merit, but everyone has them. In this way, Prince differs from Minnesota’s other transcendent super star, Bob Dylan. Dylan left the Iron Range and, then, Minneapolis with scarcely a look backward in his rear view mirror and, for fifty years, the singer’s natural habitat has been some ghostly combination of Malibu and Greenwich Village. By contrast, Prince remained rooted in Minneapolis and, indeed, in a very particular part of the city.
Although admirers outside of Minnesota don’t grasp this fact, Prince was, most fundamentally, a citizen of the far west suburbs. His graffiti bridge was an actual place, an eccentric underpass on a railroad right-of-way in Eden Prairie, a location close to where I was raised and well-known to me. When Prince takes Apollonia on a motorcycle ride in Purple Rain, they seem to travel through the autumnal landscape of Minnetonka and west Hopkins, the stony hills with their dairy farms and vineyards of staked raspberries – the lake where the couple stops looks like one of those deep shady bodies of water occupying glacial potholes in the hilly country west of Minneapolis. (I assume that the scenes of the motorcycle ride were shot somewhere in Los Angeles but this doesn’t detract from my point – the landscapes shown in the film are places that seem familiar to anyone raised in the bluffs and swamps of west Hennepin county.) Chanhassen is adjacent to Eden Prairie and, of course, these suburbs were famous for the headquarters of the Vikings football team and the big field-house where the athletes practiced during the cold season – the purple color of the Vikings’ jerseys is ubiquitous in that part of the Twin Cities. And, of course, there is the depraved yacht culture of Lake Minnetonka, the expensive and elite saloons with piers extending into the lake so that cocktail boats can moor there, the ancient mansions hidden in the bays and hollows of that great, cold body of water, the rotting amusement park at Excelsior, the expensive malls on old Highway 12 with their aura of pseudo-sophistication and luxury. Along the highway running from the airport to Chanhassen, small to mid-sized businesses operate factories, one after another along the road. Among those factories, you will see the silo-like tower and bland offices of Paisley Park, Prince’s home and recording studio – it looks exactly like the other corporate headquarters ranged along the highway, each in their own park-like preserve with woods and green lawns and water features, headquarters for a 50 to 100 million dollar a year enterprise, a prosperous high-tech business protected by an almost friendly looking cyclone fence. In the interlocking looped wire of that fence, people have now woven purple ribbons and roses, teddy bears, and masses of purple balloons like swollen, ungainly grapes.
My wife, who is one of the most beautiful women in the State, was invited once to attend one of Prince’s parties. This was in the mid-eighties when Prince was operating from a smaller, but still impressive, recording studio in Eden Prairie. My wife garnered the invitation from one of the decadent rich kids, one of the innumerable gin-soaked admirals of the armada of booze boats cruising summery Lake Minnetonka. The rich kid was a friend of Julie’s cousin, Jill, a beautiful woman also and wired into the drugs and sex scene on the lake. At some level, Prince’s sybaritic apostles associated with First Avenue downtown intersected with the trust-fund hedonists plying the waters of Lake Minnetonka – how exactly that intersection was constituted was (and is) unknown to me, but suffice it to say that my girlfriend, now my wife, was invited to party with Prince as a result of that connection. Of course, this invitation sent an icy chill up my spine – who knows what sorts of things occurred at his orgies? Although I encouraged Julie to attend, she declined the offer. What might have happened had she gone to that party? To this day, she regrets the path not taken and Julie has told all of my children, in a rueful even indignant tone of voice, that she turned down Prince’s offer in my favor – an account of things that is, maybe, even half true in light of her fantastic beauty for there is no doubt that the superstar would have been drawn to her.
Certainly, I had only a vague concept as to what Prince’s parties were like. In those days, I knew a number of women who performed with the Xenon Dance Company. Whenever Prince hosted a big party, he canvassed the city for professional dancers. These women were paid to attend his affair and simply dance all night to encourage the other party-goers The girls were also apparently paid for to maintain confidentiality. Although I sometimes asked them what they had seen or done at these parties, these dancers maintained an aura of impenetrable mystery about the proceedings in which they had participated. After attending one of those gatherings, the girls had something of the tight-lipped demeanor of professional athletes who had just completed a difficult game – the whole thing had been some kind of ordeal, but pleasurable enough in its way, hazards of one sort or another overcome in the line of duty. In the renovated warehouse where the women rehearsed, they spread their lissome bodies out on the floor and stretched languorously – their feet were bare; the dancers in the Xenon company performed with bare feet so that you could hear their soles slapping down on the smooth wood floor on the stage. A few boyfriends and would-be boyfriends hovered around the rehearsal. The male dancers were all gay and they congregated in another room to gossip and sniff cocaine. Sooner or later, someone would ask: "Prince is gay, isn’t he?" The dancers stretching on the floor seemed imperturbable – with Mona Lisa smiles, they refused to either affirm or deny.
Out in the west suburbs, where Vikings half-backs and offensive guards lived on golf courses, and the millionaire children of grain traders spent drowsy afternoons on white sail-boats cruising the bays of Orono and Excelsior, people sometimes saw Prince. It was said that he rode a bicycle on the country roads or that, on occasion, he went door-to-door with Jehovah’s Witness tracts. People observed him in bars and, generally, left him alone. In Minneapolis, whenever you see a long stretch limousine, everyone naturally assumes that Prince is riding in that vehicle in almost unimaginable splendor – this is now a fantasy in which we can no longer indulge.
I saw Prince once myself. I was waiting for a bus on Hennepin, a couple blocks from First Avenue. I needed change and so I went into a news stand called Schinder’s. The place sold magazines, pornography, and, also, records and cassettes. It was a summer evening and the air was humid and I recall the air between the tall buildings as bluish and heavy with the stink of diesel. The news stand was on a corner, recently moved from another location down the street, and the clerks behind the cash registers and at the counters seemed to be half asleep, drowsing in the warmth. The side-streets were vacant and the alleyways empty and the panhandlers and the bums and whores and hustlers had all gone away for the evening, perhaps, to rest on the grass beneath the lake-side trees in one of the parks. I was young and full of energy, a law student, I think, or, perhaps, even a young lawyer returned to the city for some kind of business. The evening was young and the white mid-summer night stretched out far ahead, a pale pathway among hills and lakes in the gloaming, and, of course, I wondered what adventures might befall me on that trail under the glaze of the sunset and the rising of the stars.
When you are young, you have a radar attuned to desire: the presence of sex tingles in your spine and throat. There is a buzz in the air, something tremulous, indecisive, and inviting. Under the clinical and white florescent lights of the news stand, I sensed something. Standing a dozen feet from me, I saw the most beautiful girl in the world. She was dressed in black leather and had skin like the finest milk chocolate and her hair fell in silky tendrils around her winsome face. The young woman was surveying a stack of records, a pyramidal display of Prince’s latest album, perhaps, Controversy or, even, Purple Rain. I thought this seemed significant: the girl had an alluring affinity to the kinds of things that Prince displayed in his music and so I looked at her more closely.
The girl was appraising the ziggurat of records with a practiced eye. A burly black man who looked like he once might have been a defensive tackle on a High School football team stood next to the girl. She muttered a few words to him. I thought that she was the most glamorous and enticing harlot that I had ever seen – there was something supernatural, even unearthly about her beauty.
Of course, the girl was Prince. It took me a moment to recognize this and, indeed, I had cross-check the girl’s features with the image on the record’s cover. Then, I moved to the edge of the room so that I could watch the great musician covertly. People came and went. Prince seemed to be counting the records in the stacked display. I trembled with a sense of discovery – I had made this observation and stood, now, privileged to survey the star as he contemplated his own fame, lips moving slightly with the count that he was making of the records. He was mine, all mine.
Either I left or he did. The night was vibrating like a tuning fork.
In one of de Sade’s books, a rape is imagined as a "loathsome reptile defiling a rose." This figure can be applied to the recording industry. In that business, predatory accountants and executives murder the aspirations of young people, many of them poor and ill-educated, often the children of the slums or the ghetto. The deal is rigged – artists sign exploitive contracts of adhesion that systematically siphon the fruits of their inspiration to the recording companies. Where a young artist sees enthusiasm, the money-men impose "marketing." Converting art to cash is always a nasty business and the music industry is uniquely squalid.
Prince’s longstanding feud with the recording industry is legendary. His enterprises have employed squads of lawyer to police his copyrights. This vigilance was characteristic of an important element of Prince’s personality – the need to impose rigid control on what might otherwise be a chaotic maelstrom of fantasy and desire. Prince’s best songs somehow combine Dionysian abandon with the most regulated and intricate control: his music synthesizes the phallus with the metronome.
Everyone knows that Prince could play expertly 27 or more instruments. More importantly, he was a maestro with respect to the most complex of all instruments, the fully equipped, digital recording studio. Of course, the reason Prince mastered an orchestra of musical instruments and the art of recording was so that he could exercise total control over his product. Prince plays all instruments and operates all the dials in his studio because he is not willing to surrender even the slightest control over the end-product to someone else. It’s no surprise that the film Purple Rain is an allegory of this process – the artist’s unwillingness to cede even the slightest control to even his closest collaborators is the central theme of the movie. (And, although the climax of Purple Rain suggests that surrendering some control over the process to others might be beneficial, even redemptive, I would submit that, in real life, this was a message that Prince refused to learn.) Therefore, it is also no surprise that Prince denied control over his product to the recording industry executives, resulting in a highly publicized dispute that lasted the better part of two decades.
All of this is central to the artist’s governing esthetic – that is, to present the most frenzied and ecstatic content within a tightly ordered and classically organized form.
Many years ago, I hosted an annual event that I called my "lawn ornament party." My guests were supposed to bring lawn ornaments to display around my house.
The party took place during the summer, around the time that Purple Rain was released. In those days, I still had many friends who were artists and writers in the Twin Cities and members of Xenon Dance Company came to Austin to perform at the party.
We set up speakers in the shrubbery in my backyard and the dancers stretched and preened on the grass, waiting for sunset when the show was to begin. The western sky bled down as red as could be and the mosquitos rose from the sod and the neighborhood children pressed as close as they could to the fences on both sides of my back yard so that they could to watch the spectacle. The music began: a rumble of ecclesiastical organ and, then, a man’s voice intoning: "Dearly beloved, we are here to celebrate this thing called life." The dancers struck statuesque poses and, then, the music began – Prince’s "Let’s go Crazy".
The dancers lunged and whirled. People raised toasts with their glasses of beer. A fine, brittle mood of abandon seized my guests. Some of them danced also and the music echoed down the long streets of the little city, most people gone to their summer cabins up north or on the river so that the intersections were deserted and the sidewalks empty except for hop-scotch games chalked on the concrete in pastel colors. The performance lasted for fifteen minutes, a medley of Prince songs, but I can’t recall much about it. Of course, when we tried to reprise the performance a quarter to midnight, the cops arrived.
This was thirty years ago, before the great Strike in Austin. It is painful to admit but much of what we mourn when a great artist dies is our own youth. And I suppose even stout, white, middle-aged men have lost youth to mourn.
Garrison Keillor is another son of Minnesota. I suppose most people would imagine him to represent everything that Prince was not. However, I have always sensed hidden affinities between Prince and the Old Scout, Garrison Keillor. Indeed, both artists dramatize one of the misfortunes of human life, the fact that our desire is incommensurate with our capability for pleasure – our desires always exceed our grasp in an uncanny way. Both men are rooted in mildly eccentric and demanding religious traditions – Prince became a committed Jehovah’s Witness and the Old Scout has never quite escaped from the austere traditions of the Christian Brotherhood in which he was raised. These religious tendencies are, perhaps, a recognition that the desire that animates us as young people, and that can never be satisfied, is ultimately spiritual in origin. Both Prince and Garrison Keillor, in their hearts, believe that sexual love is not merely a metaphor for our relationship with the divine, but, indeed, the pathway that leads upward to that communion. Both men remained loyal to Minnesota while triumphing throughout the rest of the country (and in Prince’s case, throughout the world.) Both artists, like Bob Dylan as well, have cleaved to a typically obsessive Midwestern and Protestant work ethic – they have been perpetually busy all their lives, continuously on-tour, always creating new art. There are probably a host of other similarities on which I could comment.
Like Prince, you might sometimes see Mr. Keillor about town. He operates a bookstore in St. Paul and attends the State Fair – you can see him there with a public radio personality at MPR’s kiosk and, then, perhaps, you might dog his steps as he tours the livestock barns and inspects the butter-sculptures at the dairy pavilion. Once, I saw him at the Minnesota Opera – it was a Saturday night and, apparently, on that evening, he was not performing ten blocks away at the Fitzgerald Theater. Keillor’s wife, Jenny Lind, played violin in the Opera orchestra and, presumably, the Old Scout had come to deliver something to her – he looked old and harried and was disheveled, his shirt untucked and a tennis shoe untied, as he hustled across the lobby toward a stage door known only to him. On another occasion, I was in New York City, with my wife and step-daughter on Broadway in Times’ Square – the shows had just released their audiences onto the street and the sidewalks were packed and, then, there was a flash of lightning and rain began to fall in torrents. Buses splashed by and people stood under the awnings of marquees and the rain sprayed down in black jets from the sky. In this blur of wet neon scattering prismatically across the puddles sloshing against the curbs, I saw Garrison Keillor. He was tall and regal, carrying a vast outspread umbrella under which his slender wife and young daughter were sheltered. Moving with serene confidence, Keillor found a subway entrance and descended. I was lost and my wife was crying because of the rain soaking her and her feet hurt as well and, of course, I wasn’t carrying an umbrella. Taking my wife by the hand, I followed the Old Scout to the subway entrance, a pit half-concealed in the roaring center of Times Square. In the cistern of the stairwell, water was running like a cascade over the steps. Keillor approached the spinning cage authorizing entry only one at a time to the tunnel. Deftly, he swiped his subway card, then, spun open the gate so that his wife could enter. He swiped he card again and gently nudged his daughter through the opening. Then, he swiped his card again and followed them. Sirens were howling above. I groped for my magnetized subway card and, impressed by the ease with which Garrison had navigated this tight spot, determined to follow his example. I swiped my card and urged my wife through the gate. Then, I swiped again and my step-daughter slipped into the tunnel. I swiped my card a third time and discovered that I had no more credit on the ticket. The gate slammed shut against me. Beyond the metal bars, I saw my wife weeping and swaying to and fro on her bloody high heels.
At his show in Austin, Texas on Saturday, April 23, 2016, Keillor made a few comments about Prince. With his musicians, Keillor sang "I’ll fly away" and, then, made a medley from a few bars of "Let it be" and "While my guitar gently weeps", a tribute I suppose to Prince’s famous version of the Beatle’s song that he performed at his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The medley ended with a short, but scorching version, of "Purple Rain," considerably more reverb and distortion than ordinarily heard on "A Prairie Home Companion."
Garrison Keillor prefaced this performance with words delivered in his avuncular, "aw-shucks" style that some people find insufferably contrived. Keillor’s stage personae doesn’t bother me because I can sense the pitch-black darkness concealed beneath his corn-pone delivery. And some of what the Old Scout said is worth repeating.
Keillor observed that older people in Minnesota were skeptical about Prince because of the way that he dressed. This is a wise observation. Prince, often, dressed like a fool and it is difficult to attend seriously to the music made by a wiry little man dressed in a trenchcoat and black thong bikini – difficult, at least, until he began to play his guitar in earnest. Considering this subject, Keillor said that Prince understood a truth about entertainment that can’t be disregarded: "He knew that you have to be noticed to be heard." Then, Garrison Keillor reprised the well-known anecdote about Prince’s spectacular performance at the half-time show of the Super Bowl in 2007. As the artist prepared to take the stage at the center of the vast colloseum, it began to rain. Some of the techicians were concerned about the effect of the rain on the equipment and whether the stage on which Prince was going to perform would be unduly (and dangerously) slippery. "You know that’s it’s raining out there," someone said to Prince. Prince is supposed to have responded: "Can you make it rain harder?" Keillor paused and said: "With those words, Prince showed that he was a true Minnesotan."
This is what you must understand: It is the part of the artist to stand in the open, to be radically unsheltered and accept the contingencies that life imposes on us, to endure the elements, and, not to yield, but remain true to one’s self.
In the preceding, I noted that Prince often dressed like a fool. It’s unlikely that any real Prince fans read this blog. But, if they do, I suppose someone will take umbrage at that statement. And, I admit, it would have been incongruous for Prince to perform songs like "Head" or "Pope" or, for that matter, "Sexy MF," wearing a flannel shirt and khaki dockers. I recall that when I first saw Purple Rain, I was puzzled that all the characters in the film dressed in bondage gear – what was that all about?
So as you will see, to think seriously about Prince is to start an argument in your mind.
Yesterday, the news was nationally reported that Prince had apparently died intestate. His sister, Tyka, and some other heirs, half-siblings, were before the Court requesting that an administrator be appointed to operate Prince’s business.
When I walked my dog, the air was crisp and cool, a reversion to early Spring. But among the dandelions, I saw a scattering of bright purple clover, delicate tiny flowers with four petals. Some of the purple flowers were dead. I noticed that the dead clover blossoms did not fade as they wilted, but instead became a darker, more saturated purple color.