April 11, 2013
Celebrated journalist, TV personality, and award-winning author Touré investigates one of the most enigmatic and fascinating figures in contemporary American culture: PRINCE
Drawing on new research and enlivened by Touré’s unique pop-cultural fluency, “I Would Die 4 U” relies on surprising and in-depth interviews with Prince’s band members, former girlfriends, musicologists, and even Bible scholars to deconstruct the artist’s life and work.
Prince’s baby boomer status allowed him to play a wise older brother to the latchkey kids of generation X. Defying traditional categories of race, gender, and sexuality, he nonetheless presents a very traditional conception of religion and God in his music. He was an MTV megastar and a religious evangelist, using images of sex and profanity to invite us into a musical conversation about the healing power of God. By demystifying the man and his music, “I Would Die 4 U” shows us how Prince defined a generation.
Prince deconstruction? Musicologists and Bible scholars? I’ve been waiting to talk to Touré all my life…
JMB: Can I read you a bit of a paper I wrote in Abnormal Psych about Prince?
Touré: Oh yeah.
“Chesterton said that when a man knocks on a harlot’s door he is really looking for the heart of God and that is Prince’s essential conflict, the contrast that makes his art compelling, heaven and hell, love and lust, ego and insecurity, brokenness and hope, searching for salvation through sex, happiness through hedonism — yet discovering, same as King Solomon — that its end is emptiness…”
I think you nailed the duality of the spiritual and the profane in one life. Prince wants both. He doesn’t want Saturday night and hardline Sunday morning. He wants it all wrapped up in one. Plus, he wants black/white, male/female, rock/soul – and I think that’s part of why so many people fell in love with him.
Here’s one I used to ponder: If “Little Red Corvette” is just a song about casual sex with some whore, why is it so powerful?
I don’t think she’s a whore…
She’s got a pocket full of Trojans! Some of them used!
I know, I know. But that’s one of the things you see in Prince’s music and his perspective towards women. Prince doesn’t judge a woman for being sexual and adventurous. Listen to “Darling Nikki” or “Lady Cab Driver”. He doesn’t think negatively of women for being hypersexual. Which is why I think a lot of women respond positively to Prince whereas others can have a similar song and come off vulgar. Because the message in other lyrics is: “If you are a sexual woman, you are a whore.” “Little Red Corvette” is a sweet story. He’s young, naïve, sort of a neer-do-well – we all remember being that person. And then this girl comes in and blows his mind. Prince is wondering if he can live up to the performance because she’s older, more experienced, more sexual… am I gonna be able to rise to the occasion and please her?
I can see that. It sexually empowers women not as whores but someone who is confident. But what’s really interesting is you have Prince – the coolest of the cool – and he’s nervous and shy and…
… I wondered if I had enough class!
Exactly. It’s not your average rock and roll boast. He’s kinda frightened, not sure of himself. That’s endearing. People can identify with that.
It’s a theme. Again, songs like “Darling Nikki” or even “Raspberry Beret”. This really experienced, sexual woman picks up on him but he never laughs at her, never looks down on her. But it’s not one or the other – he wants to worship God via sex. He sees it all as one, sex as part of the worship mode.
You call Prince “The most important religious artist ever.” Explain how you could assert this over artists such as Little Richard, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Bono…
I think Prince is bringing a serious discussion about God and Jesus into the public square – where people maybe don’t want to talk about these things. So like Christ, he’s taking the conversation to the people who aren’t looking for it. Traditional religious artists are preaching to the choir. Literally. Going outside of the traditional church crowd makes Prince a more powerful evangelist. Also, I think the amount of conversation Prince is having about God and Jesus is much higher than most of those other artists. And he’s taking it to a larger audience.
INT. CLUB — NIGHT
TRILL of a church organ fills the room. CLOSE-UP on various faces. Black, white. Male, female. Straight, gay. Freaks and misfits, angels of the night.
On stage, a figure EMERGES from the blinding light.
Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life…
What do you think happened to Prince?
What do you mean?
He strolls on stage late at the 2004 Hall of Fame performance and slays the legends — even the great Tom Petty – then, as Eric Leeds says in your book, after he reminds us how incredible he is, the guy throws down his guitar, shoots the audience a dismissive look and walks off the stage like a jerk. Why hasn’t Prince found a way to ease into legend status like a Tom Petty or Bono or AC/DC — or even a funky Roger Waters 1, you know?
I’m not sure I agree that hasn’t entirely happened. In my mind you’re overestimating Tom Petty, maybe? But you’re not overestimating Bono. Bono is in an extraordinary position.
But if anybody’s capable, right? I guess I’m talking more as a fan now. Prince spoke to a lot of us, telling us we didn’t have to fit in some certain place, that we could make our own place and God was big enough to be there with us. He doesn’t have to make “Purple Rain Jr. Part II”2.
Well, okay. The guy loses his child and obviously, that changes him. He gets older. I think when you get past forty-five it becomes extremely hard to make music that is popular and relevant and competing with the cultural register. Part of the difference in his later career and some of the musicians you’ve named is that Prince has rejected the traditional industry model. So that’s gonna put a crimp in your ability to sell lots of records.
I was listening to “She’s Always In My Hair” just before this and thinking, Man, this was just a B-side! Give us something this powerful and relevant today… I just wonder sometimes – is it insulation? Unopposed narcissism? Because there seems to be a sense of Prince as primarily an 80s artist and that’s really heart breaking.
I believe it was John Mayer who talked about how the ability to write pop songs after the age of forty – songs that impact people – plummets. We can look to performers who have beat the odds like U2 — although they seem to be trending downwards, Radiohead — even though they appear to be running out of steam. People like Madonna and Jay-Z are trying to hang on. But between forty and forty-five it gets really difficult to make relevant pop music. Your life is so different, you are just not in that world anymore. This is youth culture. Very difficult even for people who are extraordinary songwriters and performers like Prince. To be able to make statements that resonate throughout a generation. I mean, you know, you and I were kids when we were getting into “She’s Always in my Hair”, playing it a million times… What does a 45 year old have to say to a 20 year old that the 20 year old would find meaningful and important?
Talk about time and aging and how hard it is to lose a child? About spirituality as life moves on and how you stay real? (laughs) Sorry man, I’m rambling. Maybe I want Prince to become like Neil Young or something. Maybe I’m hoping for something that just isn’t going to happen. I don’t think I’m the only one though.
You know, if Prince were willing to deal with the music industry that would be much more likely.
Prince made more great albums than any other artist in the last thirty years. Dirty Mind. 1999. Purple Rain. Sign of the Times. There are eight or nine classic albums in there.
Who else did that? Over a ten year period? So I guess the question is how many times can you do it? How many times can you rock the culture?
And so much great unreleased music from that era too. Sounds like you were as big a fan as I was – what was your favorite unauthorized recording?
Oh man, I worked at a record store in Atlanta and there was this four-sided live vinyl release. It had a recording of “Nothing Compares to You” that was just… unreal. At that point we only knew it as the Sinead O’Connor song – but his version just blew me away.
I got my first bootleg in Atlanta too, at that shop right out of Buckhead. The First Avenue show. It had the 10 minute version of “Purple Rain” with the extra verse and the song they cut from the movie, “Electric Intercourse”. Just incredible stuff. What song still does it for you every time3?
So many. The great ones never get old. “Adore”, “International Lover”, “Pop Life”, “Take Me With U”… I could go on.
How about the more recent stuff?
I loved “Illusion, Coma, Pimp & Circumstance”. It has this great funky beginning.
For me it would be “P Control” or “Shhh” from The Gold Experience.
I haven’t totally gotten into the new stuff yet but this guy is always working, always coming up with something new. A lot of artists go to the studio when they’re inspired. He’s just there. Always. Now people are talking about that performance of “Bambi”4 on Fallon like, Whoa! Here we go again….
We’re all pulling for him. Like, please, blow our minds again. Hey, I wanted to throw one more thing out there.
My favorite part of the book is where you go to Paisley Park and play basketball. How surreal is it to be playing one-on-one with Prince? So many questions were going through my mind — did he seem really short in sneakers, what did you think when you saw the Charlie Murphy bit…
Charlie stole my story! That’s the first thing I thought! I had to keep reminding myself that Prince has probably played basketball with many, many people. That’s how he relates 5. I’ve heard stories of him taking girls home from the club to play basketball.
But what was your gist of him as a person? Did he seem sad or lonely or just eccentric? Did you get the feeling he was at peace?
You know, when we were playing basketball he seemed like a normal dude. Like, he wasn’t performing or anything he was just… chilling. It was like playing ball with the guys from my childhood. Just talkin’ shit and trying to beat each other. Having a good time. It was the most normal moment with him I’ve encountered. When we were done he took off the sneakers and went back to the persona, the performance of the personality. Back to being Prince.
That’s why the story connects. We want to see a little normality at this point in his life. There was a time when I needed him to be The Kid with the mirror shades and the motorcycle. I don’t need that anymore. Just be okay being you. At least you got to see that, for a little while, and you showed it to the rest of us. Thanks, brother.
Oh, man, thank you.
Postscript: Saw this recent live clip just after the interview. You know, if you’re this head-&-shoulders-above-the-rest kind of awesome, I guess you can be as eccentric as you need to be. Ride on, Prince.
Touré is a co-host of MSNBC’s The Cycle and a columnist for Time.com. He is the author of four books, including Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness?, a New York Times and Washington Post notable book. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two kids. Follow @Toure on Twitter.