The Wire

In Writing

Prince 1958–2016: Epiphanies

April 2016

In the last in a series of articles on Prince, The Wire's Deputy Editor Joseph Stannard recalls five instances of Prince-related intensity

When an influential artist dies, the impulse to contextualise takes hold. Their importance is calculated, weighed up and eventually filed away alongside other data. This is all well and good, of course. But it's part, not all, of the story. For the fan whose life has resonated to an artist's work in ways that are not always suited to a linear perception of time, their worth is divined in scattered moments, shards of significance, points of light. The intersection between my own consciousness and the kaleidoscopic creative entity known as Prince has bestowed a life’s worth of epiphanies; moments of explosive recognition, mirrors to the soul.

The reverse sleeve of 1999 (Warner Bros 7", 1984)

I came across (hmm) the sleeve for the 1999 7" at my uncle Barrie’s house. I must have been about 14 or 15. On the reverse, Prince is stretched over his mattress, canvas before him, box of paints at his side. He’s naked, save for some sheets that obscure some of his rear end from view. His lower back curves down to his behind… I found this image interesting and confusing.

Lovesexy Live broadcast (Channel 4, 1988)

This live broadcast from Dortmund, Germany, screened on Channel 4 in 1988, was later issued as the double VHS tape Lovesexy Live. Watching it with my mum (who was and is, like my uncle, very cool), I’d never experienced live music performed with such playfulness. The show didn’t look like work, even though it undoubtedly was, and the supporting cast – drummer Sheila E, dancer Cat, guitarist Levi Seacer Jr, saxophonist Eric Leeds, keyboard player Matt Fink, trumpet player Atlanta Bliss and bassist Miko Weaver – was immaculate. With this tour Prince reconfigured the concept of live entertainment and theatricality in pop, not simply because the production was consummately staged, drilled and choreographed, but because it was invested with singular vision and soulfulness. Connecting to the gospel tradition, which he then tailored to his own specifications, Prince was sincerely testifying. Check his facial contortions during “The Cross” – his exhortations to follow “the man above” were absolutely heartfelt. I believed.

Lovesexy (Paisley Park/Warner Bros 1988)

I’d previously heard and liked the singles “Girls And Boys”, “I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man” and “U Got The Look”. But when I heard Lovesexy blasting out of my brother’s bedroom in 1988, it sounded utterly alien, the product of an unfathomably complex and advanced musical intellect. The ludicrously intricate arrangements of “Eye No”, “Glam Slam”, “Alphabet Street” and the title track contained enough detail to keep me listening closely for decades. Its layers still seem inexhaustible. It’s bewildering that Sign O’ The Times is more often seen as Prince’s magnum opus. The 1987 double album is an inspired patchwork of styles, all of which he managed to make his own, but no other record in the history of popular music sounds like Lovesexy. Synthetic strings fill in where Clare Fischer’s orchestrations would normally be, but this only enhances the textural novelty. I could describe it as Sly Stone, Duke Ellington, Stevie Wonder and Ornette Coleman circa Skies Of America entwined in polytonal avant R&B union, but even that would be selling it short. Prince recorded this album in seven weeks following his decision to shelve The Black Album. Let that sink in for a moment. Seven. Weeks.

“Here” (from MPLSound, NPG 2009)

The romantic aspect of Prince’s musical personality is often overlooked or ignored, perhaps because for some it sits awkwardly with the graphic sexuality that defines much of his most memorable output (though the two often meet, as on swoonsome B sides “Girl” and “I Love U In Me”). The backing track is woozy, dizzy, saturated, but the masterful simplicity of the lyric is what strikes me, along with the vocal performance. For the first three quarters of the song, Prince takes great pains to inform his lover that she is flawless, before claiming that this very flawlessness makes her presence intolerable. It’s only with the final chorus and its accompanying ad lib that he confesses his true desire, which pushes him over the edge of denial into an painfully orgasmic eruption of glossolalia: “Don’t listen to me, no/I just NEED YOU HERE… AAAGHHHHHEEEYYYYOWWW!!!”.

“Way Back Home” (from Art Official Age, NPG 2014)

“So many in this world/Were born dead/But I was born alive”. The lyric of “Way Back Home” from Art Official Age (2014) strikes me as a seriously problematic and potentially dangerous blend of elitism, sentimentality and arrogance. Nevertheless, I find the song almost unbearably moving, especially now. Prince could be difficult to love at times – he tested his fans’ patience time after time – but he was never impossible to love. And now love, along with the music, are all that are left.

Comments

Yes. Lovesexy is an amazing slice of genius, from beginning to end. As frustrating as the CD can sometimes be, (with the entire album on a single track) it forces me to listen to the work in its' entirety, and in so doing, I'm always blown away. When it first came out, I was about to go on a cross country drive, so I bought it on cassette and listened over and over in the car. On the first nights sleep after a 16 hour drive, I awoke from a sort of dream, with the most incredible sounds I've ever heard playing in my head. It was a hyper complex, harsh, and mechanical sound, most like Dance On, but different. It was like he was in my head playing with my sense of everything. The memory of that sound still lingers, a powerful aftershock even nearly 30 years later. Of course it's too elusive to capture or recreate, but listening to Lovesexy is the only way to reconnect to that feeling. Thank you

Leave a comment

Pseudonyms welcome.

Used to link to you.