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Exclusive Extract From Book Studying Work Of Prince
Christian Eede , May 22nd, 2017 15:12

The extract is taken from Dig If U Will The Picture, published this month by Faber

Dig If U Will The Picture: Funk, Sex and God in the Music of Prince is the new book from Ben Greenman just published by the good folk at Faber.

The book comes a year after Prince's death at the age of 57 and looks at his life and career in thematically structured chapters, looking over more than 40 studio albums, 2,000+ live shows and an extensive vault of unreleased work by the late musician to offer a detailed insight into what made him so exceptional.

Greenman, the author of the book, has previously collaborated with Questlove on his book Something To Food About, and has also written memoirs with George Clinton and Brian Wilson. If you keep reading, you can check out an exclusive extract lifted from this new book just below. The extract looks at how Prince used his music to investigate the divided self.

"In trading scatology for eschatology, Prince made his agenda clear—he was a spiritual pilgrim, aware of his own dark side and afraid of it, not just for what it might mean for his soul but for what it might mean for those who followed him. Questlove, writing after Prince’s death, remembered visiting Paisley Park in the nineties and being made aware of Prince’s swear jar—if visitors used profanity, they had to contribute a dollar. Questlove slipped up and swore, and after calling for a dollar, Prince thought better of it. “You’re rich,” he said. “Give me twenty.” Questlove protested: “You’re the one who taught me to swear when I was little.” Prince laughed, but with a little hitch. Questlove wondered to what degree Prince remained preoccupied by the idea that he had corrupted a generation of young fans with his lewdness.

"In the late eighties, he seemed to be spending much of his energy apologizing for that aspect of his art. Prince didn’t plan on an 'Alphabet St.' video. But then it was a snowy day in March, and every one was bored. He called for a video crew, and Alan Leeds, his tour manager, found one at a local cable station. The production values were modest and the concept was rudimentary: Prince sang the song against a computer-generated background swimming with random letters, and in front of a Thunderbird (owned by his father, as the lyrics say, but a 1964, not a 1967). At the moment when Prince sang “She’ll want me from my head to my feet,” the letters arranged into a vertical message: “Don’t buy The Black Album — I’m sorry.” From a distance of almost thirty years, Prince’s disavowal of The Black Album in favor of Lovesexy seems like a calculation that incorporated both financial and creative motives. He sacrificed a record that had limited commercial prospects to placate his record company and assuage his own sense of unease. But in some ways, it was the whole game. In matters of gender, Prince had addressed the contraries of male and female by acknowledging that each contained the other, and he had designed complex, creative strategies to illustrate that interdependence. When it came to good and evil, though, he took a different approach. Here, he went to great lengths to separate them—and, moreover, to ensure that he was firmly on the side of good. There was even a Satanic figure, Spooky Electric, who appeared on both 'Eye No' and 'Positivity' but failed to lead Prince into error.

"Again, the poetic precedent is relevant. William Blake had criticized Milton for a certain disingenuousness: Milton wrote about paradise, but his attempt to portray (let alone achieve) spiritual innocence was doomed to fray at the edges as a result of his own fallen state. Blake, writing in Milton’s wake (and in his debt), wove those contradictions into the fabric of his work. His Songs of Innocence and Experience complemented each other, between them they offered a complete account of humanity’s equivocal relationship to sin and divinity. Prince, in Lovesexy, opted for a more Miltonian approach. He proposed himself as a messenger of paradise, as a privileged observer capable of leading others out of error. The attitude is clearest in 'Positivity', the closing track of Lovesexy, on which he describes a world of “plus signs” presided over by “new kings of the world” and urges his listeners to steer clear of evil: “Don’t kiss the beast / Be superior at least.” This, the culmination of Lovesexy, is undone by the same falsely elevated notion of self that, in Blake’s view, tripped up Milton.

"The idea of staging the tension between contraries overtook the idea of resolving that tension on Prince’s next album, the Batman soundtrack. The original comic - book series trafficked in explicit moral duality. Batman was at war not only with a cast of villains but with himself: on the one hand, he was the wealthy and philanthropic Bruce Wayne; on the other, he was a tortured vigilante driven by revenge for the murder of his parents. He tried, often vainly, to reconcile these two parts of his personality. Prince not only wrote a set of songs for Batman but inserted himself into its universe. He created Gemini, a divided being whose face was painted half green and half purple (the colors evoked Prince but also the Joker, Batman’s most dangerous nemesis and a character who regularly explored the possibilities of evil). Gemini juxtaposed those two sides without integrating them; in Blakean terms, he was more hermaphrodite than androgyne. And yet, that coexistence was also a kind of symbiosis: so long as one lived, the other would live, too. At the end of the 'Batdance' video, he triggered a detonator, in an echo of the album’s strongest song, 'Electric Chair', and that was that for Gemini (though he would return briefly in an early-nineties comic book series titled Alter Ego, which revolved around a disturbance in the moral fabric of the universe and ended with a fight between Prince and Gemini). The split between good and evil was dealt with most directly in an outtake from the Batman sessions, 'Dance with the Devil', where Prince leaned on the low notes of the piano: “Dance with the devil in the pale moonlight / Put your arms around him and hold him tight.” Glacially paced, “Dance with the Devil” dragged along for eight grim minutes, disappearing deeper and deeper into its own vortex before a synth-horn blared and the whole thing just shut off, doubling the darkness."

Dig If You Will the Picture: Funk, Sex and God In The Music of Prince by Ben Greenman is published by Faber and out now

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