I was introduced to Prince by Rolling Stone‘s gushing lead review of Dirty Mind in February 1981.
I immediately bought the album and could not stop playing it. As Ken Tucker observed, “At its best, Dirty Mind is positively filthy.” Perhaps more important, though, “Dirty Mind jolts with the unsettling tension that arises from rubbing complex erotic wordplay against clean, simple melodies.”
Even the most blatant of that era’s R&B songs about making looooove, songs that are now cherished as classic “smooth jams” (AKA “baby making music”), focused far more on seduction, getting a woman into bed, than on what happened in that bed. And they all made sex seem so serious. Prince made sex fun again, good, dirty fun. Just like the 1950s R&B songs whose “leer-ics” Variety decried in a 1955 editorial.*
That album, along with other music by Prince, was instrumental in my becoming interested in funk. His party jams, along with Talking Heads’ contemporary rhythmic excursions, led me to collect P-Funk, its many offshoots and many other funk bands that seriously expanded my musical mind. (Prince followed the P-Funk model in terms of offshoots, supplying music for The Time, Vanity 6, Sheila E., The Family, etc., even Carmen Electra, along with writing hits for others, like The Bangles “Manic Monday,” Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U,” Sheena Easton’s “Sugar Walls” and Chaka Khan’s “I Feel for You,” among others.)
However, Prince always kept at least one foot in rock, as was abundantly clear when I first saw him live on his Controversy tour at the Warner Theatre in late 1981. Somehow Prince was able to make what were already cliché guitar hero poses, like standing on a stack of guitar amps while shredding the guitar he held erect from his crotch, totally convincing. Several years before the Black Rock Coalition was founded, Prince’s funk reclaimed rock’s deep black roots, just as Jimi Hendrix had been doing with the Band of Gypsys when he died just over a decade earlier. Hendrix was always a major influence on Prince, who adopted elements of the Starchild’s style, music, psychedelic vision and androgynous fashion sense when creating his own unique art.
I continued to follow Prince’s music as he expanded his vision, the party funk of 1999, the mainstream breakthrough of Purple Rain . . .
. . . (and attendant controversy as the nascent Parents Music Resource Center used him, particularly the song “”Darling Nikki,” in their campaign to clean up popular music — more in a future post), the trippy Around the World in a Day and the socially engaged Sign o’ the Times where he raised Marvin Gaye’s perennial question “What’s Going On?”
In late 1987 I launched an expedition through New York city record stores in search of a bootleg copy of The Black Album (which would not be officially released for another seven years). I saw both nights of his November 1988 stand at the Capitol Centre in Largo, MD, which briefly pulled me out of my deep depression while going through a divorce. And just like everyone else, I played “1999” to usher in the new millennium.
I cheered Prince on in his fight for artists’ rights,** but I must admit that I listened to less and less new music by “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince.” I did keep listening to the old music, though, glorious songs like “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” “Uptown,” “Little Red Corvette,” “I Would Die 4 U,” “Kiss,” “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” “U Got the Look” and “Erotic City,” all on The Hits/The B-Sides, which I’m listening to as I write this.
Party over, oops, out of time.
* I often imagined Prince covering Billy Ward and the Dominoes’ “60 Minute Man”:
** I usually post YouTube videos of songs by the artists I write about, but as this article explains, Prince was very protective of his music, which is quite understandable from someone who lost the use of his own legal name, Prince, to his record company, replacing it with a glyph that became the source of unending ridicule.