This article originally appeared in the July 1986 issue of SPIN.
It wouldn’t be fair to say that Prince didn’t exist before “I Wanna Be Your Love,” but it might be right. A song from his second album, “Lover” is a hit on all the black radio stations, and in 1979 that means it’s beneath existence, not evident enough to bother ignoring. And that wasn’t what Prince had in mind, not at all.
“I Wanna Be Your Lover” is a sketchy, edgy, cocksure set of unrehearsed pick-up lines, nervous and confessional, bold and full of brag. He ain’t got no money, he ain’t like those other guys you hang around, and his sound is so stripped and skinny and spare you can’t help but believe it.
He wants to be your lover. He wants to turn you on, turn you out—a pimp’s phrase—all night long, make you shout, he wants to be the only one who makes you come (just a slight pause) running. He wants a lot. Delirious, in love with his own love, he slips it to you that he’s so in love he wants to be your mother and your sister, too. He wants all of you.
He sings the song in the simple falsetto of the single-minded, chastely swaying girl groups like the Cookies, the Dixie Cups, the Orleans, and the Chiffons. In a few years, when he’s gathered the momentum of celebrity, Prince’ll spin off unchaste girl groups, funk bands, solo careers, new wave crossover packages, vanity acts that will splash and succeed with tunes he tosses off in his spare time. But in 1979, the world hardly knows he’s alive and cares even less. Lacking a girl group he sings the song himself, makes it a Prince record.
Pitching his voice high and keeping it there, Prince uses passion’s peak as “Lover’s” bottom line. It’s a hit, but a segregated one and—the real bottom line—it identifies him in the pop marketplace of 1979 as black. A bad move.
Male or female, that falsetto is indubitably black, the drums are funky, the bass is big, the stuttering guitar swings: ergo, disco. No matter how fine a song it is, no matter how it rocks, it’s a strategic error, a tactical mistake. Prince retreats. It happens that Dirty Mind is a terrific album. It happens that it flops (Prince: “The record’s not doing phenomenally well sales-wise, and airplay is pretty minimal…”). It also happens that it doesn’t produce anything like a follow-up R&B-chart smash. It almost seems intentional.
“See,” says Prince, “this album, it was all supposed to be demo tapes, that’s why they started out to be.” Dirty Mind sounds like nothing so much as a one-man Sun Sessions—what could make a rock critic any happier?—with Prince playing Elvis, Sam Phillips, and every other role. It wasn’t like rockabilly except in spirit; it was a new thing, a hybrid, a deliberate act of miscegenation—musical race-mixing at a time when anything that resembled a contemporary black influence was being quietly escorted out of “rock,” when a white disc jockey inspired a riot of support by burning “disco” records on a major league baseball field.
Dirty Mind wasn’t so much funk as it was funkish; funk was fitted in and around the springy stiff rhythms of the newly minted new wave. “So they were demos,” Prince said, “and I brought them out to the coast and played them for the management and the record company. They said, ‘The sound of it is find. The songs we ain’t so sure about. We can’t get this on the radio. It’s not like your last album at all.’ And I’m going, ‘But it’s like me.'”
The me that Dirty Mind is like a typically over-sexed teenager (though he’s 21), a true romantic, an uncontainable talent, a guitar hero, a studio whiz, a kid who believes the letters section of Penthouse with all his heart and soul, a very singular case, an exception. He’s a mulatto, born and bred in Minneapolis, the northern-most cosmopolitan center of the Mississippi River, a place that manages to be a river city and a prayer junction simultaneously. Light enough to pass for white but not quite. Black enough to be widely ignored.
The black and white cover of Dirty Mind shows him stripped down to a bikini and a bandana, his back against a bedspring. The making of the album had been an exclusive affair, a party in the privacy of his own imagination. It revealed that Prince considered himself a rebel, a sexual politician, a utopian visionary, a pundit. But there was also a photo of a band that made it clear that Prince had every intention of extending fantasies into the real world.
Like the record, his band was black and white, male and female, and they were pushing the new wavey two-tone motif of the checkerboard to its most obvious, most dangerous conclusion. The Minneapolis of Prince’s mind had one small section, “Uptown,” where someone—maybe anyone—could live in simple defiance of society’s expectations. Uptown was the kind of place where Prince would not only fit in but be the center of attention. Uptown was dancing, music, romance.
“Soon as we got there,” he sang, “good times were rollin’; white, black Puerto Rican, everybody just a-freakin’…” And freakin’ was, of course, street slang for sex. Like more men than would ever admit it, Prince has an abiding faith in his dick as a divinely inspiration dousing rod.
It points him past pleasure toward passion, and past passion toward epiphany. And after epiphany comes an instant of relaxation, a brief moment for reality to resume, and for revulsion to set in. Beyond all else in Prince’s work can be seen a strategy that he creates to control and contain, a defensiveness. His band and the bands that come under his rule dress just the way he wishes them to, slutish Barbies and Kens, strutting through the purple satin fantasies of a single very inventive adolescent.
His own adolescents was likely a lonely one, and the first Uptown he ever encountered was undoubtedly the one in his dreams, peopled by porn images and set in the milky mist of fantasy. With a boyhood spent behind closed doors, practicing and preening, playing a guitar and jacking off are exactly the same gesture to him.
* * *
“Hybridism is heinous. Impurity of races is against the law of nature. Mulattoes are monsters…”
–Treatise on Sociology, Henry Hughs, 1860
A passion play in the classic rock critical mode looms loftily in the clouds: The Rolling Stones play Los Angeles in October 1981. The opening acts are the J. Geils Band, George Thorogood and the Destroyers, and at the bottom of the bill, Prince. The Stones, J.Geils, and Thorogood are all reasonably good examples of the rewards available to white musicians playing black American music. All three draw deep from the well of blues and soul, all three point proudly in the direction of their R&B roots.
The addition of Prince to the show, therefore, seems a gracious gesture on the part of the headliners (somebody must have cut a deal), a well-intended symbolic acknowledgment of a young black rocker hailing from the same neck of the woods as Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Stevie Wonder, and Little Richard, a 22-year-old phenom who writes fantastic songs, produces and plays every note on his albums, has as much juice as Jimi Hendrix, as many moves as James Brown, and more jizz than either one.
It is an acknowledgment that Prince is an inheritor. It is also a disastrous misunderstanding of a contemporary rock audience’s tastes and prejudices. Prince is pelted with abuse and booed from the stage. What he has inherited, a stadium full of Stones fans don’t want.
He sang his own songs, posed heroically with his guitar, stalked and strode on the stage. He wore black bikini underwear, not a black leather jacket. He danced brilliantly at a time when dancing was disco and disco was an obscenity.
* * *
“The two-caste system in the Old South drove the mulattoes into the arms of the blacks, no matter how hard some of them tried to build a make-believe third world for themselves.”
–Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World The Slaves Made, by Eugene D. Genovese, 1974.
After the L.A. disaster, Prince again retreats, maybe truly intimidated for the first time. Uptown was a smaller kingdom than he’d figured; fantasies were thrilled, but reality was an ass kicker. Still, for someone as young and resourceful and ambitious as Prince, a disastrous defeat points to challenging new possibilities for a decorative triumph.
Controversy came out a few months later. He couldn’t believe, he sang in the title tune, all the controversy that had developed over whether or not he was black or white, straight or gay. He loved every word of it. He’d started it with the time-honored device of refusing all interviews, turned up the flame by inserting in Controversy the Lord’s Prayer and a reductionist manifesto nursery rhyme: “People call me rude/I wish we all were nude/I wish there was no black and white/I wish there were no rules…”
Uptown, and his dream of what it was going to be like, disappeared. A new world was what he offered this time, the Second (absolutely no slight pause) Coming. His tone was positively messianic. Sexuality, he insisted, is all we ever need. No money, he was certain, and especially no clothes.
Moreover, he’d located the cause of our problems and secured its solution, too. “We live in a world overrun by tourists…inventors of the Accu-Jac…they teach the kids that love is bad.” The solution? “We need a new breed/Leaders, stand up and organize…” By the time the song ended, he’d stripped its words down to the singular. “Sexuality is all I’ll ever need…” He was talking, as he almost always did with his own needs in mind. And presenting himself as the new leader.
The odd thing about it was the degree to which his uncomplicated philosophies went forth into the world of complexities and fulfilled themselves. A single Prince tune played in a new wave dance club could improve the atmosphere—and the dancing—for an hour at a time. And finding the bedroom of female new wave clubsters decorated with the dripping-wet Prince poster that came with Controversy ceased to be a surprise and became a certainty.
Prince was carving out a constituency that was black far more often than white, female far more often than male, young far more often than not. It was the kind of constituency that gets a poop voice little respect and a lot of condescension.
And there was no telling if his constituency would stick. If his earlier club dates at the time of Dirty Mind had been attended by audiences that were said to be a startling mix of race, gender, class, and style, Controversy hadn’t been getting any white airplay so that by the time Prince’s tour played the San Francisco Civic on Valentine’s Day 1982, the attending faithful were almost absolutely not white.
The opening act was The Time, with their first hit single, “Cool,” under their belt, from their debut album that was produced by someone named “Jamie Starr.” Everybody involved strenuously insisted that Starr was most definitely not Prince behind those Foster-Grants. “Cool” had been all over black radio for months. It was easily the biggest, freshest funk hit of the season, and it meant that the biggest hit Prince had ever had was under another name than his own.
After the Rolling Stones debacle, he’d subdivided himself, disincorporated, sliced his persona into sections that could meet head-on a segregated marketplace’s sets of assumptions. The Time did some of what Prince might have been doing if the rigid rules of rock had allowed him a little latitude. They mixed funk and new wave pop and a lot of R&B; onstage, they came off like Little Richard fronting the Specials, but maintained glacial gangster cool at all times. “Ain’t nobody bad like me!” Morris Day would crow while a dapper roadie-valet held a lit mirror in place for him to primp his pomp. Their backdrop was a sketch of steps and stoops on a city street and their version of Uptown was anywhere an attitude is the first article of clothing you put on in the morning. And they showed up dressed to kill.
Unlike a rock band, where all involved studiously avoid dancing lest they be suspected of being frivolous, The Time danced like demons, in slick unison steps and with loose individual inspiration. Some of their shtick came straight out of an older tradition of black show business, stuff that could have played the black vaudeville circuit 50 years earlier, but in the same instant they seemed to be inventing it.
Prince’s own show was a rock act on a hockey-rink-to-stadium scale, and if it had the dance audience standing still often, no one walked. The parts of the persona that he showed off played in clanking rock tempos more often than not. He played left-field Hendrix licks and gave himself and the guitar mutual orgasms. He did a version of Dirty Mind’s “When You Were Mine” that was exactly the sort of thing that makes rock critics crank all the way up to “majestic,” “redeeming,” and “tragic” when they’re describing their most recent Bruce Springsteen experience. He was demonstrating the simple fact, whether white folks were around to see him do it or not, that his absolute mastery of a vast vocabulary of style—not only R&B/funk/black but any “rock” style he took a shine to as well—was complete and captivating.
* * *
“(He) was hotter and sexier and more explicit than Jim Morrison, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Mae West, and a battalion of strippers. And though there had been some pretty acrobatic bumping and grinding along the rhythm and blues route and up at Harlem’s Apollo, this was not one of your come-back-to-Africa performances in shiny suit and processed hair. This was the Wild Man of Borneo, all right, but crossed with all the languid, silken, jeweled elegance of a Carnaby Street fop. It was a very erotic combination, and no doubt a shrewdly calculated one. First layer: noble savage. Second layer: San Francisco acid freak. Third layer: swinging London dandy. How could he lose?”
–Roxon’s Rock Encyclopedia by Lillian Roxon, 1969, describing Jimi Hendrix (deceased 1970)
When Prince played Oakland the next year on his 1999 tour, he used as a stage set an arrangement of fire poles and ladders and stainless steel catwalks and chrome venetian blinds crowned by a brass bed. It was an R-und-R center for the master race’s Olympic qualifiers as designed by Leni Riefenstahl, the Nazi Busby Berkley. It made a perfect perverse playground for Prince.
But there was also the contained frustration of the hamster cage to it, and there were signs that this time around Prince was admitting to himself that he was reaching the same black audience he’d had with him from the beginning. The only white faces in attendance belonged either to the record business free-riders or concert promoter Bill Graham. He did a solo spot on electric piano midway through the show, beginning with a lace-edged high-art glissando up the keys—following it with a full smirk—and came back down toward the gospel according to Ray Charles. That smirk told the crowd which one he really through mattered.
* * *
“Honey, we can’t last Without a shot of new spunk (laughs) Honey, forget your past You got to try my new funk…”
–”New Position,” Prince
And then with Purple Rain—the album, the movie, the extended video, the event—he succeeds like success. It’s the fate he’d always predicted for himself, and if “When Doves Cry” hadn’t kicked it all off with such fresh invention, it might have seemed an anti-climax. It was a push-pulling piece of product, Purple Rain, the most “rock” of any of his records, and every piece of it embellished by his R&B chops.
The movie itself was a rock-video version of The Benny Goodman Story, the trite-on-trite tale of a misunderstood genius who wins everyone’s love in the end. It was only the music that made it work, the soundtrack to Prince’s own desire, his need, his need to get over and get across, his need to be loved and to love, his need to punish and be admitted and his need to be noticed. It worked; he won.
But it turned out to be less of a victory than it might have been. His celebrity peaked in the shape of a plateau and then, as Brice Springsteen learned to dance and make videos while draped in the flag, it dropped like a bluff. Prince was too peculiar, too unpredictable, too much of a prick; celebrity of the largest sort demands a more stable product, a likelier subject, an emptier image more likely to contain the fantasies of a whole nation’s fans. The Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance shuttle of all-swallowing censurability that raced from Michael Jackson to Prince to Bruce was as ferocious as a brushfire and as predictable as the ties.
If Prince’s next album, Around the World in a Day, was a retreat from his celebrity, it was a stunning success of tactics. Purple Rain was a tough act to follow, and the winds of popularity had shifted. Whether it was the artist’s urge to change, the businessman’s need to diversity, or the marketing expert’s rush not to glut the consumer with a single image, Prince went psychedelic.
Rock critics raced to be the first of the thousandth to compare it to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by the Beatles, one of the central documents of rock literacy, a large bronzed milestone along the long and winding road of the mythic ’60s. It had a cover with puzzling figures posed on it that cried out for interpretation. It must be like Sgt. Pepper’s!
It was instead, a far more cynical sort of thing—it was a black psychedelic record, like Hendrix’s Axis: Bold As Love, like Sly’s first couple of albums, like the Temptations’ “Psychedelic Shack” or even the Chamber Brothers’ “Time (Has Come Today)”—but it would have been hoping for far too much to expect rock critics to recognize that. It was music inspired by a time when black musicians had been messing with a style that sprinkled paisley over their rooted traditions, that sought, in a time of eclipse, to keep those traditions intact beneath disguises.
The self-made man. The idiot-savant. The autodidact. The genius. Each one brilliant and at times a crashing bore, each of fascinating to others and fascinated mainly by himself. As an excellent example of the enterprising individual making his way in the free market, a small businessman done good, it seems surprising that Esquire hasn’t gotten around to producing some “celebration” of Prince as one of the bold new breed, the best of a new generation, one of the Men And Women Under Forty Who Are Changing America Again This Time, another of the new venturous capital visionaries. Surely he must meet all the specifications; surely the fact that he didn’t have any songs on the soundtrack of The Big Chill can’t have disqualified him entirely or else why would those other artist business visionaries David Byrne and Laurie Anderson have rated?
Because Prince has, after all, generated entire industries of Prince imitators, his own brand and off-brand, with each new single he spins out, and the vast majority of the results have been some of the best pop music of our time. When he took over Shiela E.’s encore in Los Angeles last spring, he was looking to get a little revenge on the heretical Morris Day, who’d stolen his movie moments in Purple Rain and then proceeded on a solo career out from under Prince’s protective umbrella.
“What’s that dance they do out here?” Prince asked. “The Oak Tree?” It was the name of Morris’s first solo dance-single, and Prince was grinning a wicked grin. He seemed, for the first time in memory, to be showing a sense of humor. “Well,” he declared, “we’re gonna have to chop that down and make a wooden leg out of it!” and he and his new expanded soul-revue-sized band preceded to do just that, with Prince stiff-legging and stumping around on the whittled toothpick of his former protege’s solo aspirations.
He was just back from making his second movie, Under the Cherry Moon, in France—not the first black American to go there and come back changed—and he seemed looser, more relaxed, and more genuinely confidant that he’d ever been before. He was playing his new funk in a fresh white French-cut suit and he looked like he hadn’t found any ladder in the sky, just a new position.
The successive success of Purple Rain—the album and the movie—had opened a world of possibilities for Prince. Around the World made it plain that he felt free to pick any one—or all—he pleased. He went to France. There’s a tradition of Americans, generation after generation, sailing off to discover France, a place as sexy and romantic and drenched in class as their real home could never be.
There’s also a distinct tradition, different, but not entirely so, of generation after generation of talented black Americans sailing off for the haven of security France provides them (in both cases, a corollary effect is that there stock back home goes skyrocketing with glamorous bursts of French cachet). Ready to make his second movie and his next move, too big to stay big by staying in America, susceptible to the most romantic parts of both traditions, Prince sails.
The demands of France on its black American talent are similar to those of America, but ever so much more rewarding. From the days of Josephine Baker to the days of Grace Jones, those demands have stayed consistent. You’re still considered a primitive, but at least you get to be a noble savage. The role required may feel familiar, but it’s larger, more vivid, more fun. If you’re something like an adorable beast, you are at least encouraged.
So Prince’s trip to France has found him, refashioning the framework of his music once again, coming up with a fresh new way to funk. For the sophisticated few, granted a vivid American imagination and a tourist’s tendency to finesse the details, France could seem like a dreamland of special freedom. And if you wanted it very badly—and Prince does—it could seem like a fresh new vision of Uptown.