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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On Jacob Collier’s Moon River

Thank God for music and messengers of good will. Its in the light of melody that I often retreat when confronted by the indifferent and desensitised world of polar extremes. Like many, I discovered Jacob when he first started posting videos on youtube. How time has flown. He is now rightly acclaimed for his limitless musicality. I knew from the jump that he was a different level of musical possibilites than I had encountered in this young century. Its not like there hasn’t been virtuosos on the scene, but I don’t know if there are many or any with the depth and breadth of Jacob’s savant like gift. And where harmony is concerned, his innate ability is uniquely bewildering.

Today was a heavy one for a myriad of reasons. The load management of pain that is expressed in the phyche of the community can be overwhelming. I was giving moments of thoughtful reflection on lives lost and the present suffering. I was remembering dear Zainab and little Jeremiah. And I tried to stretch my mind and heart to things that I lack in understanding. All of life is seemingly politicised within constructs that are layered. Peeling the skin to get at the wounds within, it takes more than the bridge of well meaning words. Perhaps making sense of some things is beyond the relm of reason and so I find in music a gifting of discernment and sage wisdom in melodies. One such melody is Henri Mancini’s Moon River. The words and music of this composition are very special to me. The chords are so in tune with my heart. I remember how Audrey Hepburn’s plaintive rendition blanketed my heart when I watched Breakfast At Tiffanys for the first time. Its still a favourite. Then I experienced Terence Trent D’Arby’s spellbinding a capella rendition at a gig about 17 or 18 years ago. That was unforgettable. From time to time I go on YouTube and watch the late crooner, Andy Williams, wrap his velvet tone around the lyrics. And then we come to Jacob’s arrangement which I have listened to today. In his own way he has reached into his heart to pour out the wisdom and medicine of Mancini’s humanitarian aid to the broken hearted of the world. Its a blessing. A small mercy for the walking wounding, stunted and immobile.

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.

 

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.

Lady Of Mystery

Some years ago, I spent a considerable amount of pounds to get my hands on a first pressing of this record. It wasn’t the first nor the last time I would splash out for Aretha rarities. I spent beyond my means on many occasions for Aretha records, and I didn’t regret it because I loved her. Its a perculiar thing to say, because my relationship with her was strictly through her music. But I know why I loved her and always will. It goes without saying that she was set apart when she emerged into mainstream consciousness. She was of a tribe and community but yet she was different. Unique. Singular in her genius. She was the Mount Olympus of popular music singers in what is sometimes referred to as the Rock era. Her sound was and is both ancient and future, so the era which she is associated with, could not hold her captive.

I have been reading two books about Aretha in recent months. One is about her album, Amazing Grace, and the other is about the warts and all of her life. I put down one of them and stuck a pile of books on top. I’m slowly advancing through the other. I recognise people in Aretha. People that I love but who will forever remain something of a mystery. There is no book that can be written that will quell the intrigue or reveal her more precisely than her voice and rendering of songs. Lady Soul and her voice belong to the mystery and the wonder of faith in the divine. God gifted we often say. Death is a mystery as is life. And so is love. And so is God. When Job cried out in indignation, he was confronted by that mystery. So it is love and God, the mystery of mysteries that I hear when I listen beyond the pain and pleasure of death and life in her voice. Life affirmed. Resurrected from death. The pleasure coiled around the pain. The sensuality of life. The fragility. The indomitability of the spirit that hollers. The soul that bleeds. Loud. She resembles my mother in a lot of those late 60s to mid 70s images captured by publicity departments and press. Old photographs are things of wonder. And my mother’s face in her youth is as beautiful, vibrant and full of possibilities as Aretha’s voice. All that history is interwoven with all that future, which we can only live to know. Aretha Now. That was not just an album title. Taking heed of a moment on a journey that is still ahead. With hope in God.

 

Sunday

Sunday prayer, a confession of tears that painted the tracks, long enough for three sides of a story, cut time rhythm, my word is gospel when i’m silent I sing the loudest, laughter can’t find where I hid the jokes. Its on you. A pity party only needs a jester for intermission. The crown of clowns is to sweeten the pain of truths told for cheers and jeers, and fears freshly laid out, the city crawls behind you now. A short prayer, longer than we lasted, music makers of myths and heart breakers breaking out of old skin, dead as last night.

 

They Say Love Never Fails

Spring departs like the kisses that dressed you down to play grown up games with fisted fears. The visceral image collapses as your heart attacks the mirage we were. I had to write this twice. Say something sweet and spit on it. Then put a foot on it and twist. Fast and hard. That’s how words work. Quick as the sinking sanded song we wobble on in chordination. I had to tie my hands behind my back so that it wouldn’t cheat the eyes that nourished our hopes. Living the lie was almost too good to be true. Work the hips, grind the wrist into action, wreck the moment, burst the balloon, and pop the lock of your bubble headed majesty. Oh we play hard ball with twisted tongues, daring the heart to watch the flight of our shooting Star as it explodes inside our cocoon. I almost caught her watching me lose her to my fantasies. The kink in my armour, comes undone. I almost found me watching her lose us in her astonishment that I could love all the things that made her loathsome in her own eyes. I only loved her soul because I couldn’t afford the possibility of everything wrapped around it. So I lusted after her flesh to make a man out of me. I bit into the fruit of her neck, carefully so as not to tear open her sacred honey coloured skin which illuminated the Temple of her Spirit, to mark her as mine. And I watched her marvel at the pleasure it induced which became ointment for the pain. She dared me into the whirlwind of wreckless abandoned and I surrendered to my nature’s intent. I watched her watch herself knowing it couldn’t last the storm to come. Those secrets between the high fiveing thighs were not the children we had hoped for, but they were ours to burn on the altar of love, for better or worse.20170407_162814.jpg

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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