TO PARAPHRASE THE NAME of a classic Eighties band, in 2006 pop was still continually eating itself. Forty-somethings listened to the music blaring out of their daughters’ and sons’ PCs (or hissing out of the earbuds of their iPods), and felt strangely at home. The dance music sounded like synthpop; the rock music sounded like late post-punk. Rap and R’n’B stars were still sampling old soul riffs, bragging and warbling over the top of them: had anything really changed, artistically, since Eric B and Rakim got ‘paid in full’ in 1987?
Yet before the ennui of Gen-X’ers finally settled into cynicism, with children vowing never to talk to their ranting parents about music ever again, someone made a small but perfectly formed re-entry into last year’s mainstream – simply to remind you that some pop artists (as Brian Morton puts it with typical eloquence in Prince: Thief In The Temple, are just sui generis. These particular popsters don’t eat themselves; they provide endless food for the rest of pop to get fat on.
The man was Prince, and his single was ‘Black Sweat’. Not a great hit, numerically speaking, but it didn’t need to be. All we needed to see was that tiny, feline man, throwing shapes and squealing falsettos in his video as Amazonian women crowded round him, to a song that was like some scrambled re-transmission from space of the last fifty years of rhythm ’n’ blues. In a sound-scape dominated by beery boys and svengalified moppets, by sub-Whitneys (never mind sub-Arethas) and ersatz-Jaggers, it was literally an act of sanity to see and hear Prince again. How cool is that; how funky is that? Praise the Lord, and pass the diminution.
Yet as Morton notes, it is Prince’s sheer profligacy of talent – an endless, compulsive stream of music-making, the opposite of rock-star indolence, only occasionally surfacing in records or tours – which has been his undoing, both commercially and critically. ‘Black Sweat’ was like mountain dew in the desert because we hadn’t heard from him in a while. But there was a period in the mid-to-late Nineties where the man once described by Miles Davis as “the next Duke Ellington” (neither reference, of course, cutting much mustard with your average radio programmer) couldn’t get arrested, no matter how much work he pumped out. Worse, Prince seemed to have descended into cliché and repetition, as his self-established distance from the major record industry (appearing at awards ceremonies with the words ‘slave’ written on his cheek) stretched ever greater.
Unsurprisingly, given its polymathic author, Thief in the Temple gives a brilliant synthesizing account of the fundamental continuities of Prince’s art – whether a young doe-eyed jazz-funker in the doldrums of Minneapolis, or a world-straddling eroticised megastar, or the misunderstood genius seeking the limelight only on his terms. Morton convincingly explains the root of what always compelled me, as a musician and songwriter, to track Prince’s every move – his wilful yet awesomely skilled eclecticism. How was it that the classic Prince records – Purple Rain, Parade, Sign O’ The Times, Diamonds and Pearls – stretched so confidently across soul-funk and early rock ’n’ roll, plaintive balladry and electronic experimentalism? In my own music career, I’ve played or recorded at least five Prince songs – and to inhabit each is to
get a history lesson in popular music.
One strong determination seems to be familial: a largely absent father, John Nelson, who nevertheless – as a jazz composer in his own right – exerted a powerful force on young Prince Rogers Nelson (who was even named after his father’s jazz combo). Morton traces through Prince’s three thinly-veiled autobiographical movies, and sees (particularly in Purple Rain much anxiety of influence. Yet the complexity of Prince will out. Rather than use him as a defining polarity, Morton notes that the son collaborates with the father in what to my mind is the greatest Prince album, Parade, and unleashes an out-and-out jazziness in the rest of his records which confirms the stack-heeled one’s own estimation of his worth: “I can do what anyone does, but I got more music than they do.”.
Yet no great musician is an onlie begetter entirely: and Morton has been assiduous in mapping the various tribes and communities of musicians (apart from the symbolic father) who Prince has either marshalled in service, rivalled in virtuosity or (in the best Eliotian sense, of course) heartily stolen from. Strangely, there seem to be no major resentments, no significant lawsuits waiting to pull the purple rug from under the genius.
The wonder of YouTube, the now infamous video-clip sharing service, is that you can type in ‘Prince Live’, and see in only a few seconds what an incandescent talent he is. (The one where he’s sharing the stage with a stalking, be-wigged Miles Davis would put years onto your life, it’s so drop-dead cool). Any riff that Prince might adapt from any of your work would be mutated and funkified into something glorious that you’d only want to be a part of, not demarcate as your own property. As Morton puts it, he is a ‘thief in the temple’ of American popular music – and you couldn’t hope to be on the job with a more discriminating felon.
But part of Prince’s challenge, at least in his difficult later Nineties, was that he was never merely about music. Nelson George, the black music critic, has written often about the gap between the ‘soul’ generation, and the ‘hip-hop’ generation – the former organic, collective, shaped by the civil-rights movement and the gospel legacy, feeling itself part of a counter-culture that might build a new future; the latter fragmented, discontented, seeking to survive in the hostile environment of Reagan/Bushonomics (with Clinton only a faint respite) through criminality, macho sexism and stolen beats.
It’s so easy to see Prince as moving fluidly between these two eras of collective black consciousness. As Morton notes in a useful historical note, Minneapolis/St.Paul was one of the most racially quiescent conurbations in post-war America – few race riots, much sharing of social space between black and white. Prince’s instinct from the very beginning, even in the heart of his funkiness, was to employ on the basis of talent, not colour: “biracial” as Morton puts it. Yet Prince is still one of the most politicized of all black pop musicians – calling his bands ‘New Power Generation’ and his albums Emancipation or Sign O’ The Times. But it’s clear he’d rather attempt to create his social utopia through the crowded, multiracial, multisexual jamborees of his music and videos, than necessarily stand under any particular banner. (Although if you can find a more moving or direct anti-blood-for-oil song than 1991’s ‘Money Don’t Matter Tonight’, I’ll eat your purple shorts).
So on that side, he’s a soul man, through and through. However, from the Dirty Mind album onwards, Prince has also been open to the compensatory priapism that defines much black male popular culture – a response, as many black historians and sociologists have noted, to the conditions of discrimination and incarceration that still define far too much of the contemporary experience of African-Americans.
Yet even here, where he can be as pornographically-specific as any bechained gangsta rapper (and as Morton notes, he put much more time into his pneumatic girl group projects like Vanity 6 than he did with any other collaborators), Prince has always happily strayed into the ambiguous side of things. There’s still no more daringly strange piece of music than Sign O’ The Times’ ‘If I Was Your Girlfriend’, where a strangely helium-voiced Prince imagines the intimacies he’d share with his partner, if only he was her (we presume) lesbian lover. Prince’s most obvious current inspirees – Pharrell Williams and Out-kast – allow musical boundaries to blur like the master, but never sexual boundaries.
For all that Prince’s baroque sexuality eventually put him beyond the pale of most uptight rock critics (though now, as a Jehovah’s Witness, he seems well-behaved enough to be holding down a season at Vegas), I can’t help but see it as a sign of his authentic, open-souled genius. For some reason, I keep channelling William and Catherine Blake, practising voluntary nudism in a friend’s garden, when I look at his notorious Lovesexy album cover: a nude, airbrushed, elfin-bodied Prince, assailed by curving, helmeted stamens, resting on giant violet petals. Preposterous, vainglorious, surely vacuous dandyism – till you remember that the best cut from that album, ‘Alphabet Street’, is the most freewheeling, skid-starting piece of pop magic you’d ever hope to hear.
As a long-standing appreciator of the titans of the jazz canon – and a man who instinctively knows the truth of the Pharaoh Sanders’ axiom, “If jazz is the teacher, then funk is the preacher” – Morton is a relaxed but authoritative guide to the Prince aesthetic. Which is, more precisely, the Prince process. Because he raves un2 the joy fantastic. (And yes, didn’t u know he invented txt language 2?) If Prince stops, then we’re all in trouble.
PRINCE: THIEF IN THE TEMPLE