Saturday, April 23, 2016

My Back Pages: A Look at Guitar Player Magazine Back Issues #3--R.I.P. Prince

In what is becoming an all-too common refrain in 2016, another amazing musician has died. Prince, a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, was only 57 years old when he was found dead in an elevator at his Paisley Park studio on April 21. A few months ago after the death of David Bowie, I wrote"I can't say that I loved (or even appreciated) all of [his] music--in fact, it would take a person with very wide tastes indeed to say that. But I've... definitely appreciated him in several guises.". 

In some ways, I could say the same about Prince: I never bought one of his records (though I listened to him regularly until he pulled his music from Spotify last year) or saw him in concert, and there is no doubt that a lot of his incomprehensibly massive discography left me puzzled. Having said that, I always admired him as a musician (and as a performer and a producer and a songwriter) as a fearless trailblazer for alternative approaches to binary views of sexuality and as a courageous campaigner against the exploitative framework we accept as "the music business". 

Prince was a musical prodigy who played all of the instruments on several of his records. He was an outstanding guitarist, keyboardist, drummer and bassist as well as a great vocalist. He mastered the emerging technologies of music at an early age, and used sampling and digital technologies so proficiently that most listeners probably didn't even notice; for instance, in many cases his "guitar" on record was a sample of his axe played on a keyboard. 

Prince's cultural impact is almost incalculable. His unexpected death hit the world like a shock wave--his Wikipedia page was viewed over 800 times per second for over 10 million hits in the first day. He had a particularly inspirational effect on people whose sexuality did not fit the standard prescription, and a Google search for "Prince black queer" yields over 1 million results. Prince was different in one particular way from Michael Jackson, the other androgynous music superstar-genius of the 1980's with whom he was often conflated: while Jackson seemed to try to minimize (erase?) his blackness, Prince proudly embraced it, publicly participating in the #BlackLivesMatter movement in ways expected (such as releasing the song "Baltimore" after the death of Freddie Gray), and less so (inspiring the creation of #YesWeCode to teach low income youth to program computers). As writer Laur M. Jackson wrote in Fader, "Prince was black as fuck"

Prince was also a supporter of, and fan of, women musicians. From the songs he wrote for Sheena Easton, Sheila E, Vanity 6, the Bangles and Sinead O'Connor (among others), to giving women musicians, such as Sheila E, Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman, and 3rdeyegirl prominent spots in his bands Prince respected women as equal collaborators in ways that are frankly impossible to imagine from nearly any other similarly famous bandleader. He always made sure to give praise to women artists who inspired him, from Joni Mitchell to Janelle Monae, and he never made it seem patronizing.

Prince was particularly famous (and ridiculed) for the time period when he changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol (and became "The Artist Formerly Known as Prince"). While people seemed to focus on "outrageous" aspects such as the symbol, or when he wrote "Slave" on his face, not enough people realized that he was standing up for his rights as an artist and creator of valuable and personally meaningful works. It boiled down to Prince wanting to own (and wanting all musicians to own) the full rights to the fruits of their creative endeavors. As he famously said of his pursuit of the recordings from which records, CDs and digital downloads are sourced "if you don't own your masters, your masters own you". Powerful words from a musician, and even more deep from an African-American.

As I've noted previously, I have every Guitar Player magazine from 1986-2010, and I often reread the back issues. Prince did not appear as often as I would have liked in the pages of the magazine, and his two cover articles by Art Thompson (January 2000 and July 2004) are rather sparse on actual content from the musician. Ironically, the deepest article about Prince came in the August 1993 issue in a feature about New Power Generation guitarist Levi Seacer, Jr.  What follows are some excerpts from the three articles:

January 2000 :
Do you conceive songs and arrangements in their entirety or do you play around with the music and lyrics until you get what you want? 
Prince: I always know what the whole thing is going to sound like. It's all in here [taps his head], but it's in here too [points at the console]. 
Recording hardware is part of the songwriting process? 
Prince: I use punch-ins and spot-erasing as a compositional style--that's how I build and edit arrangements and performances. I'm quick enough with the record button that I can shave a letter off a word. But that's because I've been doing it for 20 years.
How do you create rhythm tracks?
Prince: I generally build my tracks one at a time, but sometimes I use the band to get the rhythm down. In a way, it's more fun to get it out of people. You know, an idea is still yours even if you give it to someone.
Is it easier for you to play all the instruments?
Prince: It's not easier, but when I play all the instruments I'm not as greedy. I'm more greedy when we play live [laughs]. 

July 2004 :

Thompson asked Prince about his then current system of giving concert goers a copy of his latest album Musicology (which was not available in stores):

"The CD is included in the ticket price, and we’re giving out approximately 50,000 copies each week in order to keep increasing the exposure to the new album. Right now, we’re only playing a few songs from Musicology in the show, but that will change as people become more familiar with it.” 
Although the massive giveaway seemed like an expensive way to promote an album, Prince disagreed. “It costs nothing to make the CDs,” he says. “And the benefit of having your artistic freedom is that there won’t be anyone forcing you to do a remix or anything else you don’t want to do. I don’t believe in remixing songs that are in the key of life. When the record people get in there and say, ‘Why don’t you do it like this?’ Well, that’s their prerogative if they own the contract. But bands break-up over contracts—just talk to the Eagles about that. I’ve asked record execs why they aren’t under contract with each other, and all I get is, ‘That’s a very funny idea, Prince.’ See, the fight for me has always been about freedom and ownership. It’s simply preposterous to me that someone is going to own your work in perpetuity.”

Later in the article, Prince bemoaned the current crop of young rock musicians and their lack of musical depth:

“I like the audience to be as sophisticated as my music is,” says Prince, “and, sometimes, I’ve had more fun doing challenging things in after-show concerts than playing the hits at the main show. The best players used to play rock and roll. The first time you heard Boston, it was this huge, amazing sound with all that guitar doubling. Same with Brian May—nobody sounded like him. I still think of Return to Forever as a rock band. Those guys could really play, but there ain’t nobody doing that in rock these days.”

He finished the piece by talking about the role his influences played in his creative process:

With only minutes to spare before showtime, Prince concluded the interview by saying, “When I changed my name back to Prince, I went into intense study of the bible with my friend Larry Graham. It gave me a sense of the world that I didn’t have before. For a long time, I was into living life to its fullest in every way possible—including spending as much time in the studio as I could. And while I still spend so much time in the studio that people say I should be in a 12-step program, at least now I know where I’m headed. Any musician who learns everything about their instrument will only know who they are if they spend the time to know God. That’s why I don’t like to talk about gear. People will go out and buy that stuff thinking it’s going to make them sound like me, and that’s not where it’s at. Go get your own stuff and come up with your own sounds. If you need a path to follow, a good place to start is by listening to Ike Turner—he was as tight as they come—or James Brown, who is all about rhythm. Put any colors you’ve learned from Joni Mitchell on top of that, and then you’ve got something!”  

The 1993 article about Levi Seacer, Jr. was written by Chris Gill, and to me it captured Prince as a musician better than either of the cover stories from the following decade. The following are some lengthy quotes that helped the 23 year-old version of me come to more fully appreciate Prince as a musician and bandleader:

With all due respect to James Brown, Prince is the hardest working man in show business. Over his 15-year career he has completed 15 albums (including the unreleased Black Album), made three movies, toured the world several times, and produced dozens of artists. When Prince announced his retirement from studio recording last April, he revealed that he had 500 completed songs in the can. That's enough material to allow him to release a new album every year until 2025.

"The funk thing has always been heavy with Prince," says Levi. "Every night [the band] try to out-funk each other. We know where the breaks  are going to be, but after the break hits we play whatever we want. Each of us is thinking 'What can I do to get Prince to make the funk face?' You know, when you play something funky and you make that face where it looks like something's stinkin'. Every night we try to come up with something new. When he makes that face we go 'Okay. Got it.'

More than anything, Prince's long-overdue U.S. tour has reminded the public of the magnitude of the man's talent. Few artists of his stature are as talented in one area as Prince is in many. Levi comments: "People don't realize that he can do all that stuff. Even when he's playing they don't realize it. I think it takes a couple days to sink in. They'll go home and go 'Wow. He went from singing to playing the guitar to the piano and dancing. He did all of that.' But when they're there he does it so good that I don't think they realize that he's super talented. They take it for granted."

The one positive to come out of this week is that it has become evident that there were countless people who did not take Prince for granted.  So take some time to dig into your record collection (or log into Tidal) and give an American genius some of your time. You'll be better off for having done so.