Full circle.

There is a sense of completeness, when you listen to ‘Hit’n’Run Phase Two’.  Here is a warm, earthy, funk fuelled, ballad laden album with a single rock track as a stand out.  It was the pattern of Prince’s first two albums – before he went on stage in his underwear, in fact.  There are also the same themes, love, loss, sex, salvation, with the oddment of ‘Baltimore’; a curious tune, a seemingly throwaway, seemingly authentic address to the subject of America and guns – the institutionalised racism appears to have dropped off the radar.  (Of course, this fascination with weaponry is all the more alarming with the current situation – perhaps The Revolution could rehash a tune from Controversy and release ‘Donnie, Talk to Kim-Jong’?  It may be a prudent move….goodness knows he’s spoken to Russia often enough for that version to be well obsolete!)

‘Baltimore’ is a light song and could easily be dismissed; musically, once past the verses, it is quite interesting but perhaps the song is more interesting for two succinct statements in the lyrics.  “Peace is more than the absence of war.”  Once again, Prince manages to convey a complex message in a simple way.  George Orwell would be beaming if he could have heard such a lyric: don’t use complicated words to obscure meaning.  Prince joins many social and political commentators of the past and present in recognising the duality of our times.  Many historians will point to the fact that we now live lives rarely touched by non-natural causes of death, they would argue we live in better health, better wealth and with better education than at any point in history.  And there is truth in what they say, of course there is.  There is, however, still no peace, as the lyric recognises.  From the big picture of the ongoing war on a verb to the small picture of America’s unwillingness to bring proper controls/limitations to their gun laws and the institutionalised racism mentioned above.  There is no peace.  It was Gore Vidal who wrote perpetual war for perpetual peace; Orwell had got there before, of course, with his “War is Peace” slogan from ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’, and this is all there in the weary delivery of Prince’s song.  There is a melancholic acceptance in the tone of Prince’s voice, completely at odds with the other apocalyptic songs in Prince’s catalog.  ‘1999’, ‘Let’s Go Crazy’, even ‘Dance On’ have an element of hope, an element of defiance in each of them; even ‘Sign O The Times’ ends with marriage and a baby.  This song has more in common with ‘Cinnamon Girl’, another endgame song devoid of true hope.  ‘Baltimore’ sees Prince take a differing view of the world.  This is an ongoing situation, one without an end in sight; and this is emphasised by the second of the two lyrical statements.  At the end of the song a newscaster’s voice comes on an announces a breaking news story of an ongoing situation in Los Angeles.  I’ve read otherwhere that some people consider this may be a throwback to the Rodney King incident from 1991.  It may well be, but it is also a throw-forward.  Listen to the delivery again.  There is a small pause between the words “in” and “Los Angeles”; the “in” is drawn out, there is a pause before naming the location and in that pause there is the realisation that the location about to be named could be any city in the United States and no one would flinch.  That’s clever on Prince’s part, and alarming for us.

Prince wrote amazing story songs; ‘When You Were Mine’, ‘Darling Nikki’, ‘I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man’.  ‘Rock and Rock Love Affair’, almost fits into this category – but there is cleverness in it nonetheless.  Like a lot of ‘Hit’n’Run Phase Two’, it nearly does it but just doesn’t quite cross the line (the addition of the horns is a treat).  There is the lovely, clever allusion to ‘Take Me With U’, a song about going along for the ride, and it fits beautifully with the thematic of ‘Rock and Rock Love Affair’.  It’s certainly cleverer than the clumsy use of ‘Kiss’ and ‘Sexy Dancer’ in ‘Stare’.  These references land leaden at the listeners’ feet.  Thankfully, the clever nods to other Prince tracks – even cuts like ‘The Return of the Bump Squad’ hidden inside ‘Big City’ permeate this album in much more subtle ways.  It’s this “almost there” aspect to ‘Hit’n’Run Phase Two’ that further reminds me of the first couple of Prince’s albums.  They were albums on which Prince started to try and find out who he was and how he wanted to present himself to the record buying public.  There were sonic clashes and curious choices of instrumentation, the boastful listing of the number of instruments played on ‘For You’ – including clapping hands and clicking fingers…hmmm? – and then there was the growing assuredness, one year later, with the maturing Prince’s studio sound.  This is replayed throughout this last album.  Ideas and sounds that start off, go one way, go another and stop.  ‘Look At Me, Look At You’ is a prime example.  It flows, it stops.  It has enough jazz-flute on it to make Ron Burgundy reconsider his position on Love Panda.  But it feels like an idea in search of fulfilment.  The same with songs like ‘Groovy Potential’; a genuflection toward the 94-East recordings, loads of mini-ideas that run together and go nowhere.

‘Screwdriver’ is yet another example.  Playing the part of ‘I’m Yours’ and ‘Bambi’, it is a song that fails to take off – and yet we know that it can.  We’ve seen the live evolutions of this song and, given that this was one the half a dozen songs released in the years before 2015 and the release of ‘Hit’n’Run Phase Two’, an evolved version of this track would have been welcome.  And then along comes ‘Black Muse’ and truly revolutionary song is revealed.  It’s here that you can see into the future.  A Wonder-esque reach back into the compositions that graced ‘The Rainbow Children’ (arguably one of the most underrated of all Prince’s albums).  This is what ‘Baltimore’ is trying to be; a politically nuanced song with a gloriously retro-forward-looking funk rhythm.  A truly remarkable song.  A complete idea.  ‘Revelation’ – again with the references to The Pharaoh – appears to have its feet in ‘The Rainbow Children’ era and sounds like its from that time, too…inasmuch as it fades away like a half-idea in search of a segue into something else.  Stevie is once again eulogised on ‘Big City’ too.  There are so many ideas on this album, so much creation but still a jigsaw piece or two missing.  This is the annoyance of the album.  And, of course, the annoyance of what happened next.

‘Art Official Age’, ‘Plectrum Electrum’, ‘Hit’n’Run Phase One’ and ‘Hit’n’Run Phase Two’ showed a musician evolving.  A musician, possibly, having gone full circle and about to start another revolution.  The Live Out Loud/Hit and Run and The Piano & A Microphone Tours further demonstrate the continuing development of Prince as a musician, a thinker and performer.  The promise of ‘Black is the New Black’ may never be realised but the tracks that exist again show a man building into a new phase of his career.  But, that was that.  ‘Hit’n’Run Phase Two’ is a pleasing album.  There is some glorious musicianship on the collection and Prince’s ever-evolving appreciation of horns as an augmentation to his Minneapolis sound was a delight to hear, it gives it life.  A full circle may have been turned but now we have no more revolutions to go.  In the words of the man himself, “That’s it.”

 

*

A final thought.  Prince’s legacy will, I suppose, be threefold: the music, the altruism and, lastly, the number of musicians who continue to ply their trade in the industry having worked with him.  On his last album over 31 musicians played on the 12 songs.  Throughout his career Prince worked with some of the finest musicians in the world, and, in fact, introduced the world to some its finest musicians.  One year on, his inspiration is timeless and significant.

“That’s it.”

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Resurrection

Back to the beginning, again.

It seems appropriate to write about this on Good Friday.

In retrospect, Lovesexy’s theme is quite a clichéd one – salvation through sex.  The album itself is an unbridled, joyful marriage of adoration and erotica.  The live show was a bible-thumping, sledgehammer, tour-de-force of proselytising and playfulness.  We were all invited to join the cult of Prince.  The ecstasy on the faces of the Dortmund crowd – an awe-struck look I know I mirrored, sat in the my parents’ front-room watching the show on TV, admits as much.  The whole triple hit of Sign O The Times, The Black Album and Lovesexy allowed converts to look through paisley coloured spectacles and fall under the spell of our wonderful leader.  Dark tales, dark nights of the souls, looking good if he’d smile a little more, SpookyElectric, “Don’t buy the Black Album, I’m sorry”, Hundalasiliah!  It’s a fucking good story.  At its heart is a seemingly Damascus-like epiphany, one played out each night in concert.  Anna Stesia.  “Save me, Jesus, I’ve been a fool.  How could I forget that you are the rule?”  Anna Stesia, a play on ‘anastasis’, the Greek word for resurrection.  Prince was reborn.  God was Love.  The girls and boys in the moment, in the ecstatic moment, believed in the God above.  And I fell for it.

The Catholic church  is a funny organisation.  I’m sure I’ve written all this before – excuse me.  I find it hard to marry the message of the Jesus of the New Testament with the power hungry, money hungry, insatiable lust of the church.  The truism of Catholic Guilt has a strong core cause.  When Lovesexy came out, I was struggling with my faith.  At the time, to me, it boiled down to trying to justify the image of a Jesus being basically a “god” who asked us to nice to one another and a church created in his name that prosecuted and vilified aspects of life, that grabbed gold and mismanaged.  It felt out of touch with me.  It didn’t have the answers to the questions I was asking of it.  So I left it.

I was caught in a cycle of doubt and, I now understand, beginning to evolve the atheistic belief structure that I hold today.  It was in its infancy when I heard Eye No and the other eight songs on Prince’s 10th studio album.  I was caught by the journey Prince appeared to be on.  I was quite taken in by this, “He’s inside all of us, he just want’s to come out a play” philosophy.  It seemed to make sense.  In retrospect, of course, it does makes sense.  Lovesexy is an album that preaches the idea of humanitarianism at the expense of religion – from a certain point of view.  Prince would probably argue that he’s speaking about the influence of God.  On listening to the album now, the belief appears to stem from internal belief of self, not of divine providence.  Again, from a certain point of view.  A sense of hwyl or mana, maybe.  Perhaps, 29 years later, it is where now Prince and I differ.  The most disappointing aspect of all this, I suppose, is the fact the we both found different answers.  The hedonistic, epicurean, cynical world-weariness of Prince’s work led me to believe that, ultimately, atheism would be his conclusion too.  Prince’s answer was the Jehovah’s Witnesses.  (CONJECTURE ALERT – an answer that may have ultimately led to his early death.)

But.  The music.  Lovesexy is quite the outstanding album.  Much, quite rightly, is being made of Sign O The Times, in its 30th anniversary year, being Prince’s masterpiece.  I would add the words “one of” and put an “s” on the end of one of the words in that phrase.  I still consider Lovesexy a masterpiece.  It may, of course, be all to do with timing – the when and the why I heard the album.  There was a piece in Slate, recently, about how we are nostalgic for the music of our teens.  I will admit that there is a certain truth in this with regards Lovesexy.  Sign O The Times is a eclectic amalgam of a period of Prince’s recording history.  Lovesexy is a focused demonstration of a musician’s creative ability.

The album was recorded over the Christmas/New year period of ’87 to ’88, excepting When 2 R In Love.  And you can hear the intensity in the density of the music.  Eye No is ten songs all being played at once.  The whole album carries an off-key, “harmonised” dischordance that plays beautifully on the ear.  Eye No, in particular, is a glorious example of this.  At the culmination of the song, for instance, as the “yes!” calls come to their climax, the music builds to a crescendo and then a climbing scale of trumpet and saxophone carries the song to it’s end.  Atlanta Bliss’ trumpet, at that point is off the scale.  And then the album jumps into the blues-coda, pop-bop of Alphabet St. and as the song gets to the climax, here come those horns again, slightly off-key and building in volume.  Why does Ingrid Chavez not say “g” in the alphabet?  G-spot?  God?

Glam Slam, another song seemingly built on conventional lines, holds so much noise in its mix.  If you go back to Annie Christian, on Controversy, you can hear Prince’s guitar throughout this song, deep in the mix, a blindingly brilliant punk-rock solo hiding in the depths.  Prince does this again on Glam Slam.  It is quite astonishing – especially as there are some wonderful histrionics up high in the mix to mask.  He does the same in  Anna Stesia, too…and Lovesexy.  And, of course, we have the melodramatic organ end to the tune.  Proper theatre.  Drawing us toward the centrepiece of the album.

Knowing how religion panned out for Prince, it’s quite difficult to listen to Anna Stesia now with the ears you heard it with the first time.  The sincerity of the quest and the questioning of self and creator is one of the things that took me by the collar and shook me up.  It’s such a shame.  It’s such a great song.  Again, the dischords keep coming.  They are a chorus in this album.  Highlighting the uncertainty of the man?  Maybe, perhaps illustrating his appreciation that his love and lust mix will not to be everyone’s taste.  Whatever caused Prince to do this, though, adds a qualitative difference to his music on Lovesexy.  Rhythm and melody are one thing.  Well constructed lyrics, etc.  But the recurring use of jarring noise is a fundamentally important aspect to this record.  Just as is the shifting patterns in the drumming.  This is a masterclass in programming.  The shift beats, half beats, missed beats on this album are beautifully wrought.  Listen to Dance On and tell me it isn’t.  The sound of Lovesexy is unique in Prince’s music.  Eric Leeds and Atlanta Bliss’s horns provide an organic, human counterpoint to the electronic rhythms and drum patterns.  The mix is layered, as mentioned, to the point that some of the best guitar of Prince’s life is buried and requires focus, and decent headphones, for you to hear.  It’s like a dismissal of the guitar as an instrument.  It’s bold and it works.  There is a drive and determination, an identity about the sound of this album, much like the way Dirty Mind change Prince’s sound, back in 1980.

There is a curious juxtaposition of this sacred and profane in the sequencing of Lovesexy, When 2 R In Love and I Wish U Heaven.  The shock, pacify punch and counter-punch is odd.  Lovesexy is a seeming paean to God.  It is a paean to fucking.  So is When 2 R In Love.  I Wish U Heaven has a bizarre naivety at the heart of its lyrics that are so at odds it the previous two songs, it can only be Prince fucking with us.  Except, of course, by the time this song makes an appearance in the live show, there is a genuine gospel-induced tinge to the delivery and intent of the song.  The simplicity of the message of the song is lovely, but the humour of its appearance after two songs so explicitly focused on the art of making one drip on the floor was lost.

And then we finish with Prince returning to type, the eschatological prophet splashing paint on an apocalyptic canvas, wending his way through man’s many follies.  And the programming and the dischordance and the guitar drive the song to its end.  And the album ends.  The waters wash over us.  Water – a baptism metaphor that runs heavy through the album…spoiled in the end that the sound effect of the rushing water that cleanses us and leaves us ready to carry Prince’s message to world was used on Dave Lee Roth’s Skyscraper album too.  You see?  Prince was of this world.

I loved Lovesexy, back in 1988.  I still do.  It is a testimony to how driven Prince could be.  It is a fine example of the musicianship of Prince and of those around him.  It is a showcase for his creativity.

It is the album that put me on the path I’m walking now.

I think I’m over with the beginning though.  It might just be time to move on.

Back to the Beginning

before anything – the pity of Prince’s death is enormous.  rattling around in the Paisley Park compound, alone, disorientated, clothes on back to front/inside out.  the delirium of the pain coursing through his body, seeking solace in capsules that had serve him well thus far.  punching a higher floor as the elevator brought him down.  it’s scary to think of a human so alone, so close to death and to have no one.  no one to hear his “rosebud”, no one to hear him claim to have had fun.  it’s so desperately sad that there sat an army of thousands and a company of the few who would have held his hand but none were permitted.  it’s an agony to see that his last public statement had been to save our prayers for a couple of days…it’s an agony to know that his last public appearance had been to hold up a guitar and say he couldn’t play it, he had other plans.  it is such a personal tragedy.  such a shame.  such a loss.

Back to the beginning.

It is difficult to write about this man without losing me to my teenage self.  As soon as I begin to try to engage with this subject my perspective becomes horribly skewed.  I seem to only be able to see through the eyes of a 16 year old Welsh teenage boy from a backwater of Welsh working class vapidity, labour and toil.  I’m robbed of vocabulary and distance.  There is nothing but bias.  Now we’ve got that out of the way…

Back to the beginning.

He had the answers.  It was as simple as that.  Going through the turmoil of adolescence and the mass of confusions, he appeared and was able to marry the sacred and the profane.  I was never a fast developer.  I was the baby of the family and the baby in so many ways.  I can remember visiting a “girlfriend” when I was fifteen years old.  I was only going up to see her at her house.  I turned out in my Sunday best, dressed in the most formal, smartest clothes I owned.  I was encouraged too.  I thought it was the right thing to do.  It was fucking stupid.  Charming in a cockless, insipid, “nice” way but wholly inappropriate and out of place.  An attitude from a different era.  I looked foolish.

A year or so later, I was dating in an accepted fashion and aspects of sex were beginning to raised their ugly head (did I do a pun there?).  It was a fumblingly, frustrating time.  Massively confusing.  Completely at odds with what I felt I should be feeling and doing.

And along he came.  1988.  Lovesexy.  There it was, in glorious flouro-colour, the combination of the sacred and the profane which had narrated Prince’s work right from the start.  I simply hadn’t been listening up until then.  In retrospect, it is easy to see that Lovesexy was a clichéd fight between the moral and immoral self that I had alighted on.  At the time, it felt vital, euphoric, real.  It was a drug that coursed through my veins.  It gave my heart permission to pump.  And it was an adventure, one carried out with 20/20 hindsight; look, Lovesexy was the climax…the rest of the 80s had been the journey, the struggle towards realisation.  It was all there on the 9th September 1988, when Channel Four carried the broadcast of the Livesexy show, from Dortmund.  The retrospective, the new album, the hits package.  In that one show Prince defined his career and appeared to be saying to the world that he had found an answer.  This Welsh boy agreed with him.  I thought he had too.

He hadn’t. And I haven’t.  I’m still the confused laborious vapid Welsh boy.  I suppose that’s what’s made this last year so difficult.  I always hoped that Prince would turn a corner.  He threatened to so so very often.  The massive irony is that it appears he was on the verge of something quite innovative.  The Piano and Microphone Tour and the new recordings hint at a revival of his creativity.  Not that that had gone too far away, whenever a new Prince album came out, there was always something… but then again, after him deciding that he’d found answers complacency was always going to kick in and consistency in his output suffered.  I meander away from the point.

21st April 2016 killed joy.  Brought to an abrupt end a pathway I was walking along.  I reacted so poorly.  It’s taken one year and the collapse of life to make me see.  Stop hanging on and waiting, start being.  Stop investing your emotional self vicariously in another, be a person.  Take responsibility.

I’ve had that thrust upon me and I’m trying to cope.  It’s not led to a Bob George moment yet.

Is that the sun?

I can feel the words coming back.

Coherence rather than screams.  Sounds formed as thoughts not just guttural reaction.

This last year has been a dark place.

Perhaps I have lived to see the dawn.