Prince, Part 1

At the Cow Palace outside San Francisco for one of the nights of the Purple Rain tour. It's either February 28 or March 1, 1985. The movie had been out for the better part of the previous year, so at this point in the promotional cycle Prince is in victory-lap phase. Unbeknownst to us he would drop another album (Around the World In a Day) in about six weeks, but for all intents and purposes we just think we're closing the books on the Purple Rain phenomenon. The P.A. launched the evening with a Prince song I hadn't heard before, which I'd later learn is called "17 Days," the B-side to "When Doves Cry." The refrain went "Let the rain come down."

The arena darkens and absolutely every living soul within a 30-mile radius, even those not actually in attendance, knows the first thing we're going to hear: the opening recitation ("Dearly beloved") to "Let's Go Crazy." The predictability of this sequence disappoints no one. Prince comes out and the audience's orchestrated release, for a one-time thing, feels oddly ritualistic. He delivers on his party anthem (quietly complicated as it is: the song's protagonist just caught his friend-with-benefits with another man on the phone). He struts, jerks, extends his hand, writhes, shouts and murmurs. He's a vibration, a manifest soundwave.

The song reaches its climax and Prince breaks into the defining, final guitar solo - a sound originally as unexpected a moment as we'd ever heard on a funk-inspired album, matched only by Eddie Hazel's wailing on Funkadelic's "Maggot Brain." Prince seems like he's trying to fit the entire legacy of post-Hendrix guitar solos into this one, 15-to-20-second phrase, a manic descent down the blues scale, resolved in the end by a synthesizer effect that sounds like a UFO in a 1950's B-movie. In that quarter of a minute, with that one instrument, he's gone from the not-that-distant past into some unspecified point in the future, and the crowd is close to pandemonium, still with nearly a whole show left to go.

Then Prince's guitar ejaculates.

Literally. It spouts water out from a rigging in the head.

Very few artists follow the edges of their art as a matter of uncheckable impulse. Of those who do, few become superstars in their field. Before he recorded a single note for Warner Brothers Records, Prince had already bucked the odds, rejected the label's tenure track and insisted upon defining himself wholly on his own terms. It was his trip, and if he didn't know where it would take him, then for damn sure he wouldn't let anyone else map it out.

Prince was around 17 when he started getting courted by labels. One thought they might be able to get Maurice White of Earth, Wind & Fire to produce his debut album. His representative at the time found himself in the unenviable position of telling a well-intentioned A&R guy that Prince was going to produce his own material, with no label-imposed conditions. Imagine a kid in his late teens trying to do that 40 years ago. Hell, try to imagine it happening today.

Somehow Prince walked out of the negotiations with a deal with Warner, including a clause that gave him complete artistic control for his first three albums. (Keep that number in mind.) Perhaps the risk was acceptable to Warner, because it sounded like Prince would be able to keep the recording conflict-free by using the oldest trick in the book - singing all the vocals and playing all the instruments himself. Including handclaps.

The first album was called For You and it came out in 1978. The kid executes well: The album's just as acceptable as much of the veteran R&B being turned in at the time, using maybe slightly more juvenile telescopes into sex and love, because the kid's not even 20 yet. His vocal multi-tracking is on point. It's a decent start. The second album, self-titled, comes out in 1979. Stray commercial headwinds converge around one single, "I Wanna Be Your Lover." It doesn't mess with the prevailing groove of the time. It's something the Brothers Johnson could have come up with if they were feeling spunky. The song's catchy. Prince's falsetto is able to express a neat range of intimacy and ecstasy within its thin tones.

No doubt Prince had something that could develop, and depending on how he did with his third album, the last contracted one under his complete artistic control, maybe they could shuttle him into an accredited artist development program and get him to turn out a couple of dependable hit albums. Maybe one of them might even go platinum. Then maybe a soundtrack to a Chevy Chase movie or something.

That third album was called Dirty Mind and holy mother of freaking Jesus did it fuck up everyone's plans. Except, probably, Prince's.

Dirty Mind is barely a half-hour long, but the shock of its evolution is so strong and jarring that it's hard to conceive it being any longer. The impact would be too much. The sound's the first noticeable shift. Prince tweaked his synthesizers to present a more nervy, new-wave sound; the funk and soul balladry sat side-by-side with straight-up rock ("When You Were Mine") and, in tempo and impudence, punk ("Sister").

But Dirty Mind's subject matter was what sucked the floor from underneath whoever had been watching Prince closely, especially critics. Prince jumped from youthful sensuousness, clearly sexual but still clinging to a romantic ambition, to outright carnality for its own sake. The title track rang with nervy synths, embedded under a plea for a quick burst of sex in the subject's daddy's car. It's something that Rick James might have turned in six months later on Street Songs, with less directness and more cynicism.

"When You Were Mine" operates from a standpoint of youthful heartbreak, but only after the singer's let himself stick around in a one-sided relationship long enough to participate in a threesome with her and his successor. "Head" is about what it fucking looks like it's about as Prince, to quote Robert Christgau, "stops a wedding by gamahuching the bride on her way to church." (Christgau's closing statement in his review of Dirty Mind: "Mick Jagger should fold up his penis and go home.") "Sister" was a 91-second burst about incest. After 35 years it's still impossible to decisively determine whether it was fact or fiction (but I think it's the latter). Technically the song doesn't even seem to oppose incest. The hell? Where's the moral comeuppance we're supposed to wrap this kind of song up with? You think John Denver would just leave that dangling?

The dirt on Dirty Mind seems a little quaint now as the limits for lyrical content in rock music no longer exist. But in 1980, when even the most erotic mainstream music could only speak of sexual congress in metaphor or description, Prince's decision to chuck the cuteness out the boudoir window and get unambiguous issued a dare that most artists didn't accept until at least a half-decade later.

Dirty Mind played the same role Tropic of Cancer served for literature, that Last Tango in Paris did for cinema: Its moments of sexual frankness, spun with the rumination that comes with it, made up a whole new vocabulary for the form. Dirty Mind's character was shaking with lust, excited by impetuousness, and too young to know about - or trust - the stance of compromise most adults used to filter their sexuality, perhaps to avoid certain consequences Prince was only too ready to explore.

And yet Dirty Mind ends with a curious, seemingly acontextual sentiment in "Partyup." On its face it's merely a really good funk jam, in which Prince basically explains his plans for the evening are to continue partying, presumably with more funk jams ("We don't give a damn/We just wanna jam/Partyup"). But in between, apropos of nothing he'd really addressed to date, he disparages the notion of armed conflict: "Fightin' war/Is such a fuckin' bore/Partyup"... "How you gonna make me kill somebody I don't even know?" The end of the song is an a cappella chant in which Prince - I believe for the first time ever, on record - drops his falsetto voice and sings in his natural, lower range: "You're gonna have to fight your own damn war/'Cause we don't wanna fight no more".

Another youthful statement, the counsel of a kid who has no idea what war's like or why wars are fought. But also a key to unlock yet another door. There's something else.

Part 2

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