Though he has been gone for over a month, I have been unable to mourn until now, writing this piece as we approach what would have been his 58th birthday, June 7. Last fall, I had begun a drawing series of him as a way back into portraiture. Of course, there was no way to anticipate the sudden grief around that project. But I feel like this has been the best way, with words rather than perfect pictures, though I will probably try to do that too, as both were important in everything he did.
I am guessing that my initial lack of emotion is a consequence of celebrity death in the internet age, especially as a citizen of social media. Online, I witness every permutation of post-mortem praise that makes it all too apparent that there is no private joy. Like collective fandom--which, sadly has made me reluctant to attend many live shows in recent years--collective mourning is an uncomfortable, disturbing phenomenon. It reminds me that the artist I cherish is not mine alone. And while I knowingly appreciate and hope that everyone in the world recognizes how special the artist is, the snob in me doesn't want to see it. Doesn't want it rubbed in my face. And definitely doesn't want to hear about all the popular shit. It's selfishly possessive to feel that I can tell people why they are right, but with reasons only I can bring to their attention. Of course what I mostly want is for them to know and appreciate that my fandom is sincere. That it is not a trend or agreeable groupthink but a longstanding, investigative relationship, just as reverent as it is critical.
I know that Prince is not mine, nor are the depths of my affection for his work unique to me. Yet my reaction was at first a classic emotional progression through disbelief, anger, and despair: Is this true? This is bullshit! What am I going to do? This resolved finally in an anxious self-reflection about expressing those emotions: How can I let everyone know I am hurting...without looking competitive? Because that's what this is ultimately. The warped desire attached to celebrity always involves a kind of egocentric loop. Of course it's about the celebrity figure themselves, but it's really about our love for them. The most I have been affected by a celebrity death was when Jay Dee (J Dilla) passed away. I say significant because until then I have never understood the mourning of someone you do not actually know. I didn't know Prince. And there are much more intense fans of his than myself. It is through these fans that I became the fan I am. The one closest to me is my cousin EJ, who gifted me with the literary, audio, and visual material that provided a deep and complex understanding of Prince's process, relationships, personality, and exhaustive productivity. EJ was the first person I thought of when I heard the news:
April 21, 12:37: "Cuzzin..." my message read. I waited almost an hour for his reply: "Man." "What now?" I asked. April 21, 13:29: "Open the Vault." April 21, 13:31, I texted back: "I don't think we're ready."
My parents had me at 19 and from what I can assume about their youth, in holding on to their coolness, I was experiencing things as they were. There wasn't this rift between their music and mine (that came much later). The popular music I heard through them was actually on point. It wasn't a matter of rediscovering something my generation didn't understand but appreciating culturally influential material in real time. Prince was a large part of this. I was often reminded of an incident that took place few years before I was born. A story of my father, his own legend inspired by the legendary, his lip syncing the song "Do It All Night" (Dirty Mind, 1980) at his high school talent show. He and two of his friends, posing at Dez Dickerson and Andre Cymone, appeared with mock instruments that my father had crafted from plywood. At the start of the first verse, to show that he had completed Prince's look from the album cover, he dropped his trench coat to reveal nothing but underwear and stockings and a handkerchief around his neck. The administration was so outraged they attempted to call the group off of the stage, but the crowd was rocking so hard that all protest was drowned out and the boys were able to finish the set. This was New Orleans in 1980.
I can't say which were the first songs I heard. I remember hearing the Sign o' the Times cassette on road trips and being haunted by the content. It was a shift in being affected by music on a level beyond entertainment or the expected quiet-storm soul singles that were commonly associated with artists of color at the time. Hearing about "dying of a big disease with a little name" and being told what "horse" was code for freaked me out. Hearing a man speak of being a girlfriend as a means to express unyielding devotion was revelatory. And that's only two songs into the album. I suppose you could say that at four-years old, Prince's writing was my first lasting lesson in metaphor; he raised my suspicion that there could always be something lurking behind what was most immediately given. He had a way of embracing the dark and light, or rather, an understanding of bringing the dark into light.
Admittedly, I am not completely exempt from rediscovery. I hadn't realized how watermarked on my brain every song on Dirty Mind was (obviously), or how the complexity of Controversy (1982) and the second half of 1999 (1983) faded from memory. I had to teach myself that there was so much more to Around the World in a Day (1985), than the circus organs in "Paisley Park" that I loved so much. And despite what anyone tells you, Batman (1989) is a really good album. Aside from the literal surreality of hearing Prince in a comic book film, the concept of the soundtrack--shifting from character to character for each song--is just brilliant, and "Electric Chair" has one of the best written chorus I can think of. Clearly, Sign o' the Times isn't the only sentimental album for me, but it is among his releases that garner the fuzziest feelings and through which I can most clearly recall a particular time. It is also perfect. When I decided to give a deep listen to the entire Warner catalog during my first year of college, my appreciation moved from sentimental to more objective. Sign o' the Times isn't perfect in the sense that it's the album of all albums, just that its internal logic is so damn resolved. There is not a song that is out of step or extraneous in its contribution to the pace or sequence of the ride. It is an album where each song successfully plays a role and seems to have a sonic or narrative purpose within the overall dynamic. It is not my favorite Prince album, but it is perfect. Explaining why these two things don't line up for me would require more space than I have been given.
I write this in conjunction with gorging on the wealth of material that has been trickling out of the Vault since his passing. What I am enjoying most is the concert footage from the early 80s. In fact, I find that I am focusing more on live performances than studio stuff, probably as some sort of desperate resuscitation to keep him alive. I am still realizing how technically mature he was even then. Perhaps the true consideration of him as a great guitarist was delayed amidst the wardrobe and all the other wild shit he had going on. I can't help but think of how wild it would have been to be there. What it meant to see a young man of color thriving, seemingly without care. Seeming to be completely free. With Dirty Mind, he took a punk-inspired departure from disco, and while the album consists of short and neat pop songs, the stage allowed him to let loose with this instrument. Like Eddie Hazel before him and contemporaries like Jesse Johnson, he reminded everyone that the rock genre does not own the gesture of shameless guitar solos. He did however, stage a kind of black reclamation of musical virtuosity in the context of post-Hendrix rock, while subverting the genre altogether.
I can speak similarly about the early 20th century visual artist Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937), who dealt with religious painting in a socially constructive manner. Recognizing his adeptness as a figurative painter, he also challenged audiences with an entanglement of faith-based and secular realism, representing Biblical figures of Middle Eastern likeness instead of the Eurocentric standard. That relationship between spirituality and (sexual) secularity occupied much of Prince's writing, seemingly paradoxically so, surely just as absurdly as the presence of brown folks in Tanner's religious compositions at the time.
In watching an early performance from the Dirty Mind tour, I find myself wondering what genre of music would I suppose I were listening to. What would I think I was looking at? How are these blues chords performed in a manner outside of themselves? How long would it take to realize that it is not so much about the displacement of a sound as much as it is a disregard for distinct definitions of sound. It's as if he dresses genre in drag, showing both identities at once. Not a complete transformation, but hovering sweetly somewhere in between, like a cronut. He tore through stereotype, disrupting every expectation of how race corresponds to sound, how sound corresponds to action, or how each of these things are unsutured to a gendered body.
Given that I share his affinity for narrative imagery, my testimony would be quite incomplete without some mention of film. And the significance of Prince in the cinematic context is complex in a way that has expanded my understanding of the person and the music. He has been the star of three feature-length studio productions (a trilogy, I will soon argue), and has produced a series of concept albums that double as soundtracks (deepening the ficto-factual narrative that is his life). Recognizing Prince's relationship to narrative is super important, as it was applied to his life, the content of his writing, and ways in which the two swirl together. Which leads me to a perhaps not so radical, potentially absurd, but undoubtedly fun proposition: a theory that Under The Cherry Moon (1986) can be viewed as an unconscious sequel to Purple Rain (1984), positioning it as The Kid's feature-length cinematic dream sequence that follows the climactic resolve of the "Purple Rain" performance, and precedes the mature sage he embodies in Graffiti Bridge (1992).
A few things have led me to this line of thinking. The film is shot in black and white, which when done deliberately, usually signals a kind of alternate reality that is out of time. It is set abroad, though still in proximity to the sea, transporting our protagonist (and us) from Lake Minnetonka to the French Riviera. It is as if The Kid's unconscious is envisioning an existence outside of his hometown, othered, and severed from the familiar expectations of him as an eccentric artist. Much like dreams in which you are confusingly intimate with those you detest, Jerome resurfaces as his brother Tricky. After all, would there be any other context in which his ally would be his nemesis's sidekick? Finally, Christopher Tracy is an amalgamation of the Kid and Morris, embracing both the sly, coy, manipulative romanticism of The Kid, and the cool, overtly masculine bravado of Morris.
The actual Prince and Morris were good friends, and judging from recorded outtakes of jam sessions, they had similar approaches to humor and a similar way of putting-it-on when it came to character. Though Prince's position allowed him to cast Morris as the less ambiguous, fixed identity that he couldn't be. In turn, Prince and the Revolution exercised a kind of boundlessness not found in Morris Day & the Time, which allowed the former to access an open and roaming sensibility of sound versus clear categorization. Cinematically, it would seem that the Kid/Morris binary was a bit too limiting for Prince's projection of self. With the care placed in his image, the rarity of interviews, and the already confusing signals he exhibited, the public understanding of Prince was primarily through his music, videos, and live performances. With the close alignment of the film to what we were given in real life, Purple Rain had the effect of a true biopic, and I would imagine that the comedic trickster in him felt stifled by the reserved cool of The Kid.
Christopher Tracy becomes a strident example of American black plurality--able to exhibit a queer masculinity while at the same time carrying the conditions of urban American blackness that results in a very rare, yet desirably nuanced representation. He is everything that Prince (and an unconscious Kid) hoped to embody--a charming and talented outsider navigating a world that neither understands nor expects much of him. A black man with a fluid sense of dress, equally capable of classical piano serenades as he is misogynist hood antics.
Ironically, in light of this proposition, Purple Rain and, by proxy, Graffiti Bridge are the fantasy narratives, as they are primarily films about artists working through their creativity. There is not much questioning of class, race, or gender in the gloriously progressive Minneapolis we see on screen. Exceptions to these rules are the norm. The freaks run the show. The self-titled characters are mostly dramatizations of the artists themselves with a Gaussian blur between fact and fiction, underlined by the unmentioned visualization of Prince's biracial myth. The infamous White Cloud guitar is a virtual Excalibur, cutting through the time and space of the film, breaking the fourth wall into our lived reality.
Flanked on either side by musicals--one that doesn't feel like a musical and another that very much does--Under the Cherry Moon is ultimately a love story in which all of these issues of social and cultural hierarchy get addressed head on. Regardless of how much fun Christopher and Tricky have, no matter how much agency they exercise on foreign soil, they (and we) are frequently reminded of their race, complexion, nationality, class, and weird clothes. Now, you could be saying, "Nahhh Lyn, Prince was just doing his Bela Lugosi-slapstick-Casablanca-French New Wave thing only with black folks. . . " (which it is) but I would argue that in these meta-representations of himself, in two very different narrative contexts, Prince offers two sides of utopian coin that his whole program operates on: both a state of being that is free in spite of opposition and the construction of a world in which opposition to freedom does not exist.
It is worth mentioning that his Camille recording persona emerges around the time between Parade (1986) and Sign o' the Times. Prince himself credited Camille with the production of the initially unreleased Black Album (1987), which makes sense given the snarky lyrical content of songs featuring this voice. Singing some of the more complex commentaries on romance and relationships, the helium-pitched alter-ego of Camille can be heard in many iconic hits and peripheral classics ("Housequake," "If I Was Your Girlfriend," "Crystal Ball," "Rock Hard in a Funky Place," and many others) and is meant to be a vocal register embodying yet another androgynous symbolic representation. It adds to his ideology of radical inclusivity, eventually summed up in the inaudible symbol, not just as the marriage of male and female in the traditional sense, but the existence of a hybrid unit that creates space for identity to be assumed in a myriad of ways.
I continue to descend down the rabbit hole, courtesy of a purple pill. Delving into the side projects, outtakes, rehearsals, in attempts to get closer. It is during these moments of depth and exclusivity of all things Prince that I begin to feel a part of it. Like I could wear heels with my chest out and a chain around my waist. I forget for very brief moments that this is unlicensed behavior in the spaces I navigate. I am reminded that I contend with self-consciousness and, ultimately, fear. Prince contributed so much in the way of a liberated yet constructed (and inherited) black identity that I fail to understand why so many oppressive stereotypes have held firm. Why there is a cognitive dissonance in certain communities of thought, where collective praise for Prince from hardcore rappers (Tupac Shakur among them) rubs shoulders with a homophobia and a rampant fear of black male "feminization."
Nina Simone described freedom as having no fear. Does such a condition actually exist? Is the possibility within sight? And how much does it cost? As a child, I played with the plywood Telecaster that my father made for that three minutes of freedom on stage that day. When I look at photos of Prince, his bandmates, the sets they created, and when I watch them work, it appears that they have accessed this space. When in his world, they lived in it. A kind of utopic isolation that has to either ruin you or prepare you for anything. Prince has gone from being free in life to being free of life. Showing us that if we are willing, we can be free in the world until we are free of the world. Free to change our minds. Free to go almost anywhere, anytime. I am glad to have all that we got from him. I am glad that he is free.
To see more images of Prince altered by Mr. Barrois using the CMYK printing techniques similar to those he uses in his current CAM exhibit 'On Color,' click the image below. To read a recent interview with Lyndon by Seth Lewis, click here.
Jessica Lea Mayfield has been enduring hard times on the road from the age of eight, when she lived out of a tour bus helping her parents busk bluegrass for a living. Even as a teen--when she found success as a solo artist opening for The Avett Brothers, The Black Keys, and Cake--hardship followed her in the forms of domestic violence, depression and suicidal thoughts. She survived, in part by capturing those demons in dark, glamorous music filled with fuzzed-out guitars and sinister-sweet vocals. Kyle Kapper checked in with Ms. Mayfield, who talked about the need to speak out against domestic violence, Hank Williams' influence on her songwriting, and how she knows what you say about her.
KK: You earned your stripes as a punky rebel, but now you have your own fan base and play venues like the Roxy and Bonnaroo. In the immortal words of Neil Young, "Is it the same when so many love you?"
JLM: It's easier for me to play at shows when there's an audience full of people that like me. It's a lot harder when I have to win over a room full of drunk assholes, and I get that a lot. When I walk into a room, I get misread by people immediately. They harass me or heckle me or screw with me. I think a lot of my hard-ass stage exterior came with being a little bit shy and angry and just wanting to do my thing without there being presumptions about who I am based on what I look like.
KK: Is that why you seem to play with audiences like a cat playing with a mouse?
JLM: Definitely. It's easy for me to read the vibe of a room. I think that's part of why I'm a writer. It's funny. People think you can't hear them, so one of my favorite things to do is when someone thinks I can't hear them talking to someone about me, I'll repeat what they said over the microphone: "Do you see her shoes?...She's got interesting eye makeup." I used to be more naïve of how much people were mocking me and now that I'm older, I see it and I hear it.
KK: You must enjoy some aspect of performing to have stayed at it for so long.
JLM: I've been touring since I was eight years old, and my solo career started when I was 15, so most of my career took place during my childhood. I'm not even qualified to do anything else. I was partially home-schooled, half street-schooled. People will come up and ask, "What's your major?" I don't know. Knife-throwing? Self-defense in an alley?
KK: Your music does tend to have a knife-throwing quality to it, but you did sneak an upbeat song, "Standing in the Sun," onto your latest solo album [Make My Head Sing].
JLM: It's interesting that you point out that song. It's actually written from the perspective of a friend of mine, so I wrote it as if this friend was talking to me. It comes across as someone else telling me to get out of the house: Don't be a vampire. Take care of yourself. Don't be depressed. So it's a light-hearted song about a friend who doesn't want me to kill myself.
KK: Your visual art appears to exude similar themes, especially the "Bruise Selfie" and "Brain Xplosion" paintings you have available on your website.
JLM: The two paintings you're referencing are domestic violence-related paintings. It's that thing of when people hurt women, it has to be kept a secret for some reason because it makes everyone uncomfortable. It makes me want to make these violent portrayals because it's so common -- so super-common -- but it's still something that everyone ignores. It's therapy for me. I want to make something pretty and bright and fun, but I'm sitting there with glitter-blood. It makes it more noticeable, makes something glamorous for people who try to pretend it doesn't even exist.
KK: I'm sorry you've been through those types of experiences but admire you for speaking out.
JLM: Thanks. It's been hard for me to talk about it. It's a really vulnerable thing, but it's important for me to talk about these things now. I'm almost 30 and I've had an entire life around horrible and great people, but I've experienced a lot of bullshit. I feel like I'm finally at a place where I can say, Hey, that isn't normal -- that wasn't cool. And now I get to have this normal happy, healthy life. My husband and I moved into the middle of the woods, like on a mountain in the woods, and it's been nice to kind of have my own nature, my own spot where I can do what I want.
KK: Has your newfound peace inspired any new music?
JLM: I've got all the songs written for the next album. I'm still working on when and where I'm going to record it, but I'm playing quite a few unreleased songs live on this upcoming run. I've been writing a lot of folk-inspired songs, structurally, but they've been coming across still heavier. I'm a huge Hank Williams fan. I think however much I don't realize it -- especially when I don't realize it -- I'm being inspired by him, the way that I put a song together, the form of it. I'll have some weird folk song structure where it's 30 verses and no chorus, but then it sounds really heavy.
KK: A big part of the folk tradition is reflecting on hard lessons learned. If you could give any advice to your younger self, what might you say?
JLM: Don't expect other people to do things for you. I'd tell her that especially when you're young, you trust people to help you with things. I was even thinking about this today: don't let other people's advice confuse you. Listen to the voice within. Tell everyone else to go screw themselves and stick to who you are and what you want to do.
"These three are probably not used to playing before such a quiet crowd," Buzz Wall whispered to me. He was referring to the unwritten policy at Joe's that the audience politely listen to the music, not chat or text. Of course, consumption of wine is accepted and encouraged.
The River Kittens consist of Allie Vogler on vocals, guitar and banjo, Martha Mehring on vocals and guitar, and Mattie Schell on vocals and mandolin. For the performance at Joe's, the Kittens began by featuring each member soloing.
Schell got things rolling by covering Bob Dylan's "Simple Twist Of Fate." That seemed somewhat fitting, since rumor and urban legend suggests that Dylan himself will appear at Joe's in five years to celebrate his 80th birthday. My neighbor Colleen gave me this intel, with the disclaimer that it's a secret.
Each Kitten followed with a favorite song, including Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come," Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Long As I Can See The Light," and Billy Joel's "I Can't Tell You Why."
The Kittens harmony style and simple string accompaniment worked well on every piece, including the Beach Boy's "Don't Worry Baby," and their first set finale, "Somewhere Over The Rainbow."
Photos by Bill Motchan.
The 90° heat Saturday evening at the edge of Soulard was not optimal for dancing. At the stage outside the Old Rock House, one lone soul bobbed, weaved, twisted and dipped.
A gentleman standing next to me leaned over and said, "Man, that guy in the black sports jacket must really be hot."
The comment marked the observer as an out-of-towner. The dancer in the dark suit was Beatle Bob. I suppose his presence qualified the event as a happening, even without Ivan Neville's Dumpstaphunk for the first time in the three-year history of Summer Gras.
This year's Summer Gras had its usual New Orleans flavor (including boiled crawfish and hurricanes), but it leaned heavily on local artists. The Provels started things off while the sun was still beating down. They played the outdoor stage where the pavement was hot enough to melt cheese.
After the Provels finished their set, things moved indoors for a bit and the crunch-funk specialists Hazard To Ya Booty took the stage. Frontman Ryan Stewart handily led the group through a number of soul, funk and R&B classics like the Average White Band's "Pick Up The Pieces."
Inside the Old Rock House for Hazard To Ya Booty, far more audience members danced. I saw old hippies, Millennial South City hipsters, and Beatle Bob, who stuck around for the entire set before venturing out into the night.
Photos by Bill Motchan
M. Ward is considered by some to be one of the icons of the Portland music scene. As one-half of She & Him (alongside actress Zooey Deschanel) -- along with his side work in Monsters of Folk with Conor Oberst and Jim James -- he is known for a diverse catalog of inspired folk and indie pop songs that breathe new life into the genre. And now he's back on the touring schedule, performing this Saturday night, June 11, at The Duck Room with opener Big Thief. Ward's latest album, More Rain, is his best since A Wasteland Companion and takes the listener on a musical trek across his vast landscape of influences. We caught up with Ward, who chatted about his various approaches to songwriting, growing old with Louis Armstrong and finally playing on the same stage as Chuck Berry.
KK: Loving the new album -- where did the title come from?
MW: The title has a few different meanings but one of them I've been talking about lately is a bit of an inside joke for people who tend to think my music is really depressing.
KK: And you disagree with that?
MW: I've never really found my music to be depressing. I think that this album has a pretty good balance of shadows and light. And for me, if songs lean one way too much, on one side or the other, they don't normally have any effect on me. If the song is completely devoid of hope and light then it can be too dark and too depressing, but on the flip side if the song is too bright and doesn't recognize the full range of emotions that everyone has then it can come off as pathetic or false. The trick is to find that balance no matter what you're doing, whether you're writing songs or books or making movies or writing articles for a newspaper.
KK: Let's talk about that range for a second. I tend to think of you as a jazz guy who masquerades as a singer-songwriter.
MW: I take that as a compliment. I have difficulty having perspective on the music that I make, to be honest. I'm inspired by a lot of different things and I'm very happy to do them. To put it in a context that works for them, I'm completely open to what anyone has to say about the music that I make. And I'd probably agree with some of it.
KK: Why do you think you have trouble having perspective on your own music?
MW: I'm so inside of it. I can't listen to it objectively. The records that I have in my collection -- jazz, punk, R&B, soul, rock 'n' roll or pop music -- they all sort of blend into this one river of music. As simplistic as that sounds, I'm only listening to music that I think is either good or interesting -- a lot of it goes by the wayside but I get my inspiration from this enormous catalog of music that's always changing and it just never ends
KK: Listening to you records, you definitely get a sense of catalog. On the new record, you can hear country, folk, rock, pop influences -- there's a song with a Spanish-style trumpet solo that just comes out of nowhere.
MW: The song "Confession" has a heroic trumpet solo at the end. Trumpet to me will always be connected to Louis Armstrong. I grew up with his music because that was around the house when I was a kid, so his influence on my has never faltered. I still listen to him often. I discovered him when I was in elementary school and he has one of those catalogs that you can grow old with and I will probably be listening to him when I'm an old guy and can barely hear.
KK: You do a lot of collaborations with other musicians. How does that alter your creative process?
MW: I've learned that the people who are in my line of work get most of their inspiration working with the equipment in the studio. New guitars and mics, things like that. I get most of my inspiration from playing with other people and I'm not really that interested in the latest gear or how vintage your piano is. It's just the way that I learned a long time ago -- the way to have pleasant surprises on your album is to invite other people to your studio and see what happens.
KK: Do you prefer collaborating with others or writing by yourself?
MW: It's 50/50. I like it all.
KK: Last time I saw you perform, you played Loufest with She & Him. Is there any anticipation to coming back to our part of the world?
MW: I'm really excited. I met a guy there at LouFest who knew I was a huge Chuck Berry fan and he took me just to go see his venue and it was really inspiring. So this is the first time really playing a show in St. Louis and to be able to do that at Chuck Berry's venue is too good to be true. He's possibly the most influential guitarist of mine.
KK: More than someone like Django Reinhardt, for example?
MW: I listen to chuck more than Django but it's hard to compare those guys, they're both geniuses. Chuck's music will never grow old. I'll be listening to him when I can't walk.
KK: Just like Louis Armstrong, yeah?
MW: Yeah. It's gonna be OK getting old because I have all these great songs to grow old with.