By Amy Linden
Dig if you will this picture. It's 1984, I'm bartending at The Baby Doll, a strip club in lower Manhattan, and along with slinging drinks I have assigned myself the duty of picking out the 45s for the jukebox. One of those 45s: Prince's "When Doves Cry." Despite the fact that the song doesn't scream out stripper moves, "When Doves Cry" goes into heavy rotation as a revolving door of Mistys, Autumns and Ambers gyrate to its insistent, syncopated grooves: Animals strike curious poses, for sure.
"When Doves Cry" wasn't my first taste of Prince. I'd listened to For You and was a fan of his third album Dirty Mind, so much so that I sent my then boyfriend to—as it turns out, unsuccessfully—buy us tickets to his show with The Time at NYC's The Ritz. I don't even want to think about how dope that concert must have been. It's not difficult to understand why I fell under Prince's spell. He deftly combined influences and rhythms that were in varying degrees nasty, sweaty, smart, finely crafted, gloriously chaotic, anthemic, hushed, sexy and sweet. He seduced like a late-night soul man and bended strings like a full-out guitar hero.
Prince had the brashness of youth—he was no more than in his mid-twenties when "When Doves Cry" came out—and the seasoned chops of some cat that had seen a few things. And he was hot. I had taped a photograph of him (bare chested, resplendent in bikini underwear; leopard print I believe, trench coat) up on my kitchen cabinet door. Every morning, when I'd go grab a cup out of the cupboard, there would be Prince, leering, smiling and making an outfit that on anyone else would just be comical look like it was the most natural thing in the world. Which clearly for Prince, it was.
"When Doves Cry" was the first single from his forthcoming release Purple Rain, an album that became his undeniable commercial breakthrough and secured his place firmly in the pop pantheon. To this day, despite dozens of albums and multitudes of hits, my hunch is that when you say "Prince," the first association is Purple Rain, if for no other reason than the accompanying film (more on that later) and the introduction of Prince's signature color. To say that I was feening to hear Purple Rain is an understatement. On the day it was released I was in the East Village with a boyfriend. He had to go to the doctor but rather than being a supportive girlfriend, I opted to walk over to Sounds on St. Marks Place and buy Purple Rain. Considering how the relationship panned out I believe I did the right thing. It is such a cliché to say that I ran home and played the record, but that is pretty much what I did. Upon listen after listen it grew abundantly clear that Prince, without saying that it was his intention, had created something along the lines of a concept album, a over the top memoir if you will, articulated by lyrics that were salacious ("Darling Nikki") anguished, ("I Would Die 4 U," "The Beautiful Ones" ) and triumphant (the title track).
Purple Rain's autobiographical nature became all that more evident with the movie of the same name. Although to label Purple Rain a biopic is also to buy into what a backstory that has always had a healthy hint of self-created mythology and doubling down on Prince's "weirdness," which, of course, is a perception that he himself helped to cultivate. Naturally, I saw "Purple Rain" shortly after it hit the theaters and it did and continues to blow me away. Is the story hackneyed and borderline cliché? Of course; how many-tortured troubled artist working out their daddy issues flicks can one person see, but damn if "Purple Rain" doesn’t breath life into every damn one of those tired plot lines. And, it goes without saying that the musical performances are mesmerizing and feature the best band that Prince ever had, namely The Revolution. The Revolution included the divine Wendy & Lisa, whose highly acclaimed post-Prince albums added credence to the rumors that they may have played a bigger role in shaping that period of Prince's music than Prince or his star-making machinery might have led one to believe. Which is not to even suggest that Prince didn't write every and all of those songs, but Wendy & Lisa are certainly part of the equation. That much is born out by Prince, in the guise of his cinematic alter ego "The Kid" acknowledging the contributions of the fictional Wendy & Lisa. Whether or not Prince ever did so in real life is unknown.
Prince kept expanding his sound and reference points, which grew to include politics. The title track for the double album Sign o' the Times speaks on the growing AIDS epidemic, the cover of Controversy shows him in front of fake newspaper headlines and includes a track called "Ronnie (as in then President Reagan) Talk to Russia." It bears mentioning that as recently as last year Prince performed a benefit concert in Baltimore in support of Freddie Gray, the young Black man allegedly killed by police malfeasance. Yet thematically the constant was always sex; sex as pleasure, as redemption, as a religious experience, as an act of love. In fact up until his conversion, (facilitated by ex Sly & the Family Stone bassist Larry Graham) in the early aughts, Prince was still letting his black, white, Puerto Rican, everybody just a freaking flag fly. It speaks volumes as to how much Prince equaled sex that when later in his career he demurred from singing songs such as "Darling Nikki"—whose ode to masturbation single-handedly helped bring about the advent of the Parental Advisory sticker—many fans felt cheated. As if Prince couldn't possibly be Prince unless he was going on about getting head. They were sort of right; it was a drag that he had stepped away from that muse, but his catalogue and subject matter was so deep and complex that he never missed a beat and up until his death was, by all accounts, putting on live shows that defied all expectations and time constraints.
I saw Prince perform several times. The first was during the Diamonds and Pearl Tour in the mid-90s. The show lasted about two hours, which by Prince standards qualified as a snippet. A few years later I attended an invite-only show at Roseland, hosted by Chris Rock. Specific particulars elude me, but what I can tell you is that at some point I was struck by his guitar playing. Yes, I was already aware of his proficiency, but had never been close enough to the stage to actually see what his hands were doing and the effortless ease with which he played. The swirl of his hips, the way his hands gripped the fret, so lightly but assuredly and then the cocky grin, almost a smirk, as the notes hit the air. The way Prince played guitar was as sexy, if not more so, than anything that he sang about. I used to think that as great a guitarist as Jimi Hendrix was that he would have been almost just as great if he had only sang. With Prince, it was the reverse; if he never opened his mouth, penned a lyric, Prince easily could have made his bones simply as an axe man. Look at the video of his 2004 induction in to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Without even coming close to the mic he lets loose on George Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" and blows band mates Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne and Steve Winwood off the stage. Not to mention Prince rocks a red fedora that gives you all kinds of Mack Daddy.
In 1996 I was in Minneapolis as part of a press junket to promote Prince's three-CD set, Emancipation, and the record label organized an ad hoc press conference, mainly for the benefit of the journalists that had been flown in from Europe. Us lowly American writers were clearly an afterthought. The night before Prince had played a set at Paisley Park. The show, which came in just under an hour, remarkably brief for an artist known for marathon sets, was hampered by crappy sound and unspoken personal issues that we would later find out was the health of Prince's late son with then wife Mayte Garcia. The idea of seeing Prince on his home turf was exciting and so it was disappointing that the performance had been less than expected. Luckily having the opportunity to be in the same room with him took away some of the sting. Nothing of any great importance was discussed. In his defense most of the questions posed by the foreign press were insipid and fawning at best, but I was mesmerized by what Prince sounded like. His speaking voice was soft, but friendly, his intonations as crystal clear as one of those 10,000 Lakes of his native Minnesota. He didn't sound cool, or weird or creative. He just sounded basic. Regular. Like, mow the lawn, take the kids to school, make sure to get your dental check up regular and it struck me that underneath it all, or maybe right there on the surface, Prince was not some freakishly talented hyper sexualized alien. He was a freakishly talented, hyper sexualized alien next door who just happened to change the mother-loving world.
I'd be lying if I told you I was checking for 2015's PLECTRUMELECTRUM LP the way I did for Purple Rain. Which is not to cast dispersions on the former CD—it's good, but these days waiting for the next fill-in-the blanks album isn't what it used to be. Maybe years in the biz has made me a bit jaded. Maybe I'm tired, or maybe I'm old. Hell, maybe I'm just like my mother; she's never satisfied. But then again, neither was Prince. Which is why he kept making such a glorious funky noise. Because he knew (he had to, right?) that the next album could be the one that made you ditch your boyfriend at the doctor and head over to the record shop, or Amazon, or iTunes and put that album on heavy rotation.
Amy Linden is a music journalist living in New York City.