Voices, Women & Thangs: On Prince’s Originals

When watching Prince in concert, I was always struck by how seemingly perfect his execution of the vocal characters and characteristics of his songs were. He would travel up in the highest part of his register with embellishments but always centred, and then on the one he might let out a blood curdling shriek or rhapsodic squeal to another number in which he might swoop down low and seamlessly into a full bodied baritone. He morphed spectacularly and with ease through difficult terrain for the mortal larynx and diaphragm. More than most performers, Prince understood the theatre of the human voice. And more unusually, the female voice. Many of the songs on this posthumous release were writen for or with women in mind, and on his originals he displayed an innate and learned knowledge of the nuances of timbre. The tonal wisdom is a characteristic of his body of work which has yet to receive the telescopic attention to detail it deserves. Prince, from his earliest adventures in sound, had a keen interest in vocal harmony and an unerring ear for the framing of the voice. His first two albums ‘For You’ and the self-titled follow up, released in the late 70s, attest to this fact. His singing was often ambiguous by default if not by intention, and that was part of its appeal. It was distinctively his. Having absorbed the great tradition of R&B vocal groups, he turned down the production assist of Earth, Wind & Fire’s founder and front man, Maurice White, and opted to travel through alley ways where Smokey Robinson’s soft crooning falsetto and poetry wouldn’t dare to venture. The risks Prince took was the risqué we were unaccustomed to. He wrote and sung for women as if he knew them intimately like the voice inside their collective head. As if he was the ear to their concerns, fears and desires. He pulled from Gospel as much as folk traditions. From Chaka Khan and Joni Mitchell. And much more. Every genre was within his grasp and assimilated like a Chameleon stuck in a jukebox that ease dropped on the heart and mind of an even more complex species.

It’s wasn’t all on the surface. Prince had more layers than an Onion. Imperceptibly he just seemed to know women better than most who have ever written songs and sung about them from different points of view. He learnt all the tricks of the trade whilst inventing some of his own. His Camille voice, circa 1987, is neither male or female but something entirely of its own Frankenstein curiosity. Bob George was at the other end of the gender and personality spectrum. A marriage of black humour and pitch changing technology during the infancy of an emerging Rap music scene with affliations to the street life, when it was still a dangerous notion that served notice of a threat to the established order and social norms. The voice of Prince the seductress shared living space with the voice of Prince the antagonist and a legion of others. Let’s not forget that he had a side gig on record with his conception and production of early albums by the Minneapolis New Wave Funk band, The Time, who were an alpha male, chauvinistic caricature of himself, fronted by his friend and Grand Central bandmate, Morris Day. But the list of women who were presented with songs from within the mysterious walls of his intuition, is long and wide in variety.

Is there a Prince type on record? Perhaps there is multiple. One type is Ingrid Chavez, who inspired some of the more overtly devoutional and esoteric songs. Martika would fit into that type by the inference of the songs he gave her. She was given the honour of introducing the world to his poignant and tender composition, ‘Love Thy Will Be Done’. This song is not gender specific but its vulnerability is best rendered by a woman, if not by Prince because it yearns in a way that is not commonly expressed by men in a public platform like a major label album release. It also defies a lazy stereotype about Prince’s cartoonish, two dimensional depiction of women during phases of his career, which do not stand up to three dimensional scrutiny when examined. But there was that side of him in his work, which may have been one of the characters on the grand stage of his imagination. In a lot of his songs, Prince is the victim of the wiley ways of women. Ensnared, betrayed and left broken hearted. It’s a fascinating pathology. Sinead O’Conner made a successful meal of a song he gave to The Family for their debut album, but neither she nor her celebrated rendition of ‘Nothing Compares To You’ received his official seal of performative approval. He took it back not long after her version became a chart smash and spiced it up with another Prince type of woman in the guise of the mighty voiced NPG Queen, Rosie Gaines. But it’s his original solo recording that is the most revealing for how naked he is in his vocal delivery. The song is a masterpiece of the songwriting craft. Great artistry sown in the soil of substance.

The songs on Originals are ones that hardcore fans like myself are familiar with thanks to the infamous bootlegging of his recordings in the 80s, long before the Internet was in our vocabulary of common words. This is only the feintist scratch on the surface of the several lifetime’s worth of studio, rehearsals, and live performance recordings and footage he left behind but we now have some sonic clarity in place of tape hiss, and suprisingly some of the mixes are different from the ones that have circulated in the purple underground for many frustrating and simultaneously exciting years of hunting for material which lay dormant in his fabled Paisley Park vault.

There’s quite a few fan favorites gathered for this fellowship of orphaned songs. Its nice to have the gorgeous ‘Noon Rendezvous’ in good sound quality. It is sheer beauty. Prince’s original recording of ‘Jungle Love’ is also great to have on this album because as I’ve alluded to, it’s long been established that Morris Day and The Time were at the very least an extension of Prince. One of several shape shifts of his enigmatic persona. Vanity/Apollonia 6 was another and is represented here in the opening track, Sex Shooter, which is a song that was featured in a transitional scene from Purple Rain. Just like the many sides in the room of our identity, Prince always had a voice and a suave style to match.

This collection of songs is playful and less cynical than one might expect for a project not helmed by its creator. It pays tribute to his range as a writer, composer, producer, musician in the strictist of definitions. And it celebrates the virility of his ideas and concepts across genres in a period when as popular as he was, he openly embraced the avant gard and pushed the cutting edge beyond the frontiers of the mainstream. There were no limits to his creativity. At the beginning of the 70s Miles Davis didn’t get to work with Hendrix as he had planned to before tragedy struck, but in the mid to late 80s he put the voice of his muted Trumpet to the service of Prince the composer, and recorded for posterity, tunes which will inevitably see the light of day in due time. Miles went beyond the border of expectations and left a lot of purists behind him, who couldn’the escape the 50s. He likened Prince to Hendrix, James Brown, Charlie Chaplin and Marvin Gaye and even the successor to Duke Ellington. I won’t dispute the opinion of Miles but even after all the years of listening to and watching Prince, I find no equal. Nobody past or present comes even remotely close to the totality of Prince the Artist on stage or on record.

 

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Film Score

I wrote a film score last year that I put away. One of several things I wrote in a prolific writing and recording period. Its just what I do in between my real life which is spiritually, physically, mentally and emotionally labour intensive. But I digress. I didn’t have a title for it till today. Often the music will take the lead in the naming ceremony. After listening for a concentrated period, it began to suggest its ideal and ideas. Sonically its as harsh and as blunt as its subject matter till it opens up with a bit of colour after four minutes. And as I started to think about the contrast of sharp and pounding intensity of monolithic rhythm like a plantation field that shadows the soul, the humming dabs of colour stained the picture like droplets of sweet water on the tongue. And like a drop of blood mixed with sweat, landing without a parachute on the soil of that tethered soul. On one level its about the slavery that masters the body, which is mastered by desire or beauty or something else. Everything is a slave to something. Everything is mastered by something. So Its called ‘The Slave Who Masters The Mistress’. The recording has not yet been mixed and mastered.

Chords

Its the year 2005. I’m in Hamburg, Germany. I’m staying with my uncle. He has a spare room in his apartment which is the epitome of simplicity. In this little room there is a bed and not much else. There is a modestly priced keyboard that most likely belongs to one of my cousins. Its crucial in that moment of my discovery of it that it is not a high end keyboard. Its functional. Thats gold enough. I am alone. I have played something and recorded it to tape. I am in a different environment but there is a feeling of comfort from two chords which find me through this instrument. And a third. Yes chords do the finding and hands make the leap of faith which ultimately funds belief. Hands are not much different than hearts when it comes to loss. To be found is the price and the prize. And chords know us better than we know us worse. Seeing chords in colour is a luxurious vantage point, and what one lacks in sophistication is not necessarily lost in translation. So it was to be that I would be found by the melody of ‘The Pulse Of Life’, which would travel with me, faithfully, through years of iterations. Its been a patient process of reclamation.

 

 

Curtis

Curtis’s hands were important. Not more than his heart. When he recorded his last album he had only the use of his neck and the head attached to it which housed his genius mind to do the work of breathing out hope into a world that had tasted too many losses to inhale the optimism extolled through music. His heart still functioned effectively and the evidence of soul and spirit was still audible. Lying on his back he recorded one short phrase at a time. Phrase by phrase, a word became a line of lyric. Phrase by phrase, a line of lyric became a verse. And then a chorus. And then a bridge. Curtis’s hands remained still and silent through this process. The eyes watched and waited for something that the hands knew would never happen again. Curtis could not find feeling in the physical form of hands that had mastered a style of guitar playing that was unique to himself. Hands that shaped sounds for Hendrix and Marley to study. Hands dramatically and unwillingly put to rest. And this is why those hands are a great teacher. In their absence of use he martialed the figurative hands that survived the destruction of his body, from the neck that shouldered the weight of his head, with a voice which expressed his deepest feelings in song. A lifetime’s worth of wisdom and openess to the mysteries of life. I remember listening to New World Order and being humbled by Curtis’s generosity of spirit, and in awe of what he accomplished in terms of sonic life affirmations in such desperate circumstances. The testament of the spirit when it intersects with the divine is all one can hope for when one puts in the work of exhalation. Curtis Mayfield’s musical soul holds the hands that raise up the weary hearted head of hurts. Unbowed.

 

Baldwin

Today is a wedding ceremony. A marriage of possibilities. My cousin has exchanged vows and time will study and tell what it has seen, heard and known under God. Black life like black bodies have long been a surrealistic feast for the voyeuristic eyes of fetishists and fantasists. Joseph Conrad could not open his eyes even behind the safety of his pen, to straddle his imaginative reconstructions of the monolithic burden bearers in the heart of darkness situated in the continent of his mind’s perception.

Baldwin generously invested the deformed and fragmented faces of exotica with the unusual idea that they were worthy of being depicted as fully human, even in a foreign land. The continent is not a country. And a country in this context is not a geographical destination. The poetry of Baldwin is not merely the words sentenced to a page but rather the lives affirmed by his words dancing to the tune past the margins of hate and redeemed by love. In his writings love is the great pacifier even when it sets fire to our expectations and challenges our notions of who is worthy of grace, and the horrors that transgress the invisible inhabitants who are generational custodians of a manifested multifaceted curse with wings.

Barry Jenkins painted the poetry of James Baldwin beautifully in ‘If Beale Street Cold Talk’. Next week lovers around the world will serenade each other with cards, gifts and kisses flavoured with wine and chocolates. Babies will be conceived. Lies will be ever more creative. Truths with be earnest and unsparing. Death will still be in business. Card or no card. Life will go on. Love in its bittersweetness covers the multitude and will endure the fall out. A torn page is the pity that a chapter can afford to lose.

“Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word “love” here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace – not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.”

– James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time

Not Yet

Black bodies. Gold plated hope behind second skin. Black holes for weeping bullets, scream behind screens, unheard trauma scares dreams into a silence so loud that it hurts to hear. No fears to trace, to find the trail of tears that triggers the trigger of cowards and all that we choose not to see. All the cows we milk as they moo. Not yet found like Mother’s love. Away from home. Cold meat on a warm climate. Touch it. Pull. Tear it apart. A human lives behind it. Gold for skin, not cuddled, so dark as to be unseen. So much of night lives in you. Lights up your days. A paradox of mourning. You have known all your life how bright invisibility is. So shiny you didn’t need virtue to polish the skin that hides your identity. When is a human a being? In the womb of contemplation is a seed travelling the possibilities of being alive in a world not yet born.

 

Seeing

When I was younger I used to spend a lot of time reading books in libraries. I think Art galleries are similar. One difference is that you can only read the words of a painting with the eyes behind your eyes if its the work of a true Artist. Such a pretentious thing to say but its half true. And the pages of some paintings are left unfinished with or without intention. Thats not as tolerable in books you would find in most books displayed alphabetically in a library. But the abstract ‘truth’ in unfinished paintings often seems much closer to my experience of the world and my perception of reality. The seeing and unseeing in paintings feel more accurate than the specificity of the language conveyed by written words on a page that bends. On the other hand, the written word is crucial. We write so that we might recite. And that is not all. Our malleable eyes are not only made for the glory of painterly visions but for redrafting what we see.

 

Michael

Picture a world uncaptured that doesn’t own you, but pays no more and no less than what it owes you. A world without music. A world without light. And picture a boy with a shyness that transforms before your eyes into the magic realism of a world of your own imagination. Paint it with tears. Paint it with the sweat of toil that labors feet that know the joy married to pain, in repetition. Paint it with the blood of experience which betrays our imagination. Paint it with the love of song and dance that flies on the light of a smile returning home from the miracle of being born in the weathered land that is ours to tear up and reimagine. Not a song. Just a chord that strikes once or twice in time.

Christopher

Boomed and baped with that machine gun funk fire, boppers wore saggy jeans in 94, baggy from the seams to the screams of black bodies dying. Head nodding, beat rocking beds and boats, blunt rollers toasted, cops and the killer East coasters, Mingus cool and the ugly beauty of colloquialisms, native to your borough, drop deep like the lyrics held captive in the flow. It’s unbelievable.

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This Is Us

I haven’t noticed these flowers before. Although I have known Yellow in the black on black of Black on Black.
The neon siren attracts the gaze of my ears, but I am the still life that is drawn even as I am drawing. Always drawing. My eyes are the lens that persecutes in silence. How loud it persecutes. I am drawn to the mellow Yellow. It is as if the Stars fell to Earth but could not shake off their Heavenly glory. And yet we are never glorious in our own eyes. If our shadows could speak they would surely tell the truth of us when we do not see ourselves. The nude glory. Not the vanity of our perception. Illiterate yet full blown with language. How merciful beauty can be even as our nature rages against us. Black on Yellow. Yellow on Black. Always drawing. Always drawn.