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Remembering Prince: Our 'shining Prince' in 1981

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As originally printed in the January 21, 1981 issue of City Pages. Read "Remembering Prince" here. 

I wanna be your lover

I wanna be the only one you come for.

Black, white, Puerto Rican

Everybody’s Just a-freakin’

Uptown! -PRINCE

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Clad only in matching zebra striped vest and briefs, high-heeled boots and thigh-high stockings, Prince prances about the Orpheum stage like a stripped down version of Gene Simmons in a drag show. He drops to his knees.

He’s down, but he’s hurt only by a would-be lover who hasn’t yet heard his message. He coos like Smokey Robinson, telling them in the front rows, “I’m still waiting…” Swoons and then shrieks flood the hall.

In a minute, the young black singer is back on his feet. He straps on his axe and begins knocking out the heavy-metal lead line form “Bambi,” a song sung to a lesbian to convince her that it “is better with a man.” The audience is mighty puzzled now, they didn't expect Soap. But some have gone from being aghast to thinking, “this is a gas,” as the young man everyone knows simply as Prince finishes off “Bambi” and starts in with his big soul hit, “I Wanna Be Your Lover.”

Is Prince gay wondered one east coast rock crit last year? Naw. The guy just doesn’t like to wear clothes; he told me so two years ago, a few days after his debut performance with his current working band at the tiny Capri Theater on Minneapolis’ north side.

Besides, anyone with half an ear can pick out the lyrics in his newest hit “Uptown” and discover Prince himself aligning his sexual identity.

A hot girl stops him on the street and asks him, “Are you gay?/This took me by surprise/I didn’t know what to do,” Prince sings. “So I just looked her in the eyes and said/No, are you?” And the two go off together in one of the bounciest and most novel songs ever written about getting picked-up.

What we’ve got here, I note at the Orpheum show as Prince and the band work out a naughty new tune called “Head,” is a phenom in the making, a hometown kid brewing a delicious batch of rock and soul music. And he can play 25 instruments!

Before that night of February 9, 1980 is over — the same night as the Picasso Opening — he’ll have covered all the major bases in pop music from new wave to George Clinton funk, from Michael Jackson’s falsetto love cries to Jimi Hendrix’s stone-free guitar licks, and have sung ballads about broken hearts, punky rave-ups about incest, rockin’ jams about back-seat intimacies, and disco vamps about blow jobs in the boudoir.

Call it sex rock. Or maybe funk erotica. Prince’s lyric approach to sexual taboo is as bold as his fleshy Frederick’s of Hollywood-meets-Rocky Horror wardrobe. His explicit songs mix rock ‘n’ roll’s basic teenager-in-heat tension with black music’s more comfortable sensuality and grace.

The resulting effect is like the reverberations of an earthquake. Tell the Bus Boys to get back on the bus with their cute schtik; Prince is the real thing: A black knight on a white rocking horse, packing his mighty soul lance. “Not only does he rock,” writes Pablo Guzman in the Village Voice of December 17, “he does so with a style, a wit, and a sound that places him at the cutting edge of whatever wave is now new.”

If Johnny “Guitar” Watson is the Gangster of Love, and Jimi Hendrix a Voodoo Chile, Prince is easily the Masters & Johnson witch doctor of rock. With his hand-picked band of local players who are white, black, male and female, Prince commands the aggressive five-piece, leading them through disco changes, R&B grooves, rock ‘n’ roll shakes, power-pop speeds and flash.

The band adds their own musical and visual splash to Prince’s crimson court; it includes Andre Cymone on bass, guitarist Dez Dickerson, drummer Bobby Z., (producer/musician David Rivkin’s brother) Lisa Coleman and Matt Fink on keyboards. Fink plays dressed in an surgeon’s costume while moving with robotic spasms reminiscent of early Devo. Andre shares Prince’s sexual kinesis and Dez sports a well-groomed new wave look. Coleman, who last year replaced Gayle Chapman, is similarly dressed, and contrasts Bobby’s dapper conservative touch.

The total look is very L.A. But at the heart of the action is Prince’s sound, one that cuts across racial barriers all over the country, and across the rugged borders that separate white rock from black funk.

The songs are his, the arrangements are his, and the playing and production on each of his three albums are all his. The band is dispatched only for live situations. In the studio Prince is King. There is always the temptation to call such talent genius. With his last two LPs headed to platinum, with three singles that have topped the R&B charts and with his latest LP Dirty Mind making many 1980 Best Of lists here and in England, the temptation becomes greater. Considering Prince is only 21, sales numbers and critics’ lists matter even less when analyzing his work. His musical prowess, his ear for what is good from each genre of pop, plus his proven ability to synthesize and realize his ideas all perhaps do point to the term “genius.”

The self-described favorite freak of his mother, Prince is one of nine children reared in north and south Minneapolis. His father, Prince Rogers, a jazz musician, gave Prince a guitar when he was 13. He’s had no formal training, unless learning to play TV themes like The Man From Uncle on dad’s piano at age seven can be considered “training.”

When his parents’ marriage broke-up, Prince went to live with an aunt, and started singing and playing his own material with a band called Champagne. One story has Prince running away from auntie’s, and moving in with Andre Cymone’s family in their basement and being left pretty much alone to do whatever he wanted. There’s a good chance that basement hovel sparked what comes across today on the Dirty Mind LP as a freewheelin’ attitude toward life.

“Where I come from, we don’t give a damn/We do whatever we please,” he sings in “Uptown,” “It’s all ‘bout being free.” Living in that basement, too, Prince told one press member, “I didn’t have anything to worry about, and that’s when I realized that music could express what you were feeling and it came out in my songs—loneliness, poverty, and sex.”

Prince played with Champagne until he was 15. He later befriended Chris Moon who owns Moonsound, Inc. in south Minneapolis and Moon showed him the facility and how it worked. Eventually Prince started staying in the studio for weekends by himself. He took his first demo to New York, but kept meeting record company mugs who wanted to produce him, who wouldn’t let him play, and so on.

Returning to Minneapolis, he cut another demo, hooked up with Owen Husney and with attorney Gary Levinson. This time record label shopping yielded a jackpot.

Not only was Prince given complete control of the album-making process, but, according to Levinson, Prince’s contract was a precedent-setting one in terms of money and commitment to a new artist. Husney called the negotiation “the biggest record deal of 1977.” Warner Brothers did the buying, but most of the major labels went along in the bidding process.

For You was released in 1978. IT sold between 150,000-2000,000 copies while “Soft and Wet,” the single from the LP, sold around 350,000. In January 1979, a little publicized local event at the Capri Theater took place, mostly for the benefit of California-based Warner Brothers executives who wanted to see what their new star could do live.

Prince had put together the band weeks in advance and in their debut they sounded tight. Prince, however, lacked the stage presence he has today, but there were still the proverbial rock ‘n’ roll screams from the girls. With a small batch of local press on hand, Prince drew good reviews in spite of the rough repartee between performer and audience.

There was no tour to promote the first LP. Prince went back into the studio and began work on number two, Prince. When I interviewed him in pre-Sweet Potato days in 1979, he was guarded, shy, and a bit calculating. He spoke in a low tenor voice which made his falsetto singing style even more interesting. Before Christmas Prince’s management in L.A.—Cavallo, Ruffalo, and Fargnoli—granted me another interview with him. His New York press agent at the Howard Bloom Organization confirmed it.

After the holidays, the interview was off with no reasons given, just a lot of run-around excuses: Prince is in Los Angeles; Prince is in New York doing an interview with Newsweek; Prince is in the studio; he can’t talk, he has just given his girlfriend a diamond ring the size of a golfball; Prince is here in Minneapolis, but he’s sick.

When you become famous the machinations of the music business become cumbersomely mammoth and magical—you can even achieve the saintly powers of omnipresence. It fools some of the people some of the time. At the time of the first interview, he shunned local radio (as they have almost all shunned him by not playing his hits that didn’t fit their white bread only formats).

When asked to name musicians and songwriters whose work he admires he came with Joni Mitchell, Janis Ian, and then randomly listed names off the top of his head, like he was dialing a car radio in search of a sound. Nobody he mentioned was black.

Steve Bloom writing in the Soho News last year expounded on Prince’s unique blend of black grooves and white rock: “Though Prince fiddles with disco thump and rhythmic funk, his primary concern is hard-core, almost heavy metal, mainstream rock. Growing up in the heartland (Lord save me if there are ghettos in Minnesota) will do it everytime.” Pablo Guzman in the Voice piece took an even greater provincial look at Prince with a succinct two word wrap up of the talent’s native roost: “From Minnefuckinsota.”

With the release of his second LP, Prince’s career took off like the Concorde. The album went platinum, Prince went on tour, the national press started paying attention. His first two LPs were heavily influenced by disco rhythms and occasional heavy-layered guitar licks (like the stolen Mike Oldfield lead line he tossed into “I’m Yours” from the first record).

But on Dirty Mind Prince achieves the almost perfect pop record of 1980; it transcends the many genres from which it draws. There’s more bounce to the ounce here, branding-iron guitar work, synthesizer hooks form a well-tampered pipe organ, and a burst of kinky sexual politics.

There’s even a ‘60s styled anti-draft chant at the end of one of Prince’s best jams, “Party Up,” just the right thing for a band of rockers who are all of draft age as Reagan takes the reins. With his multi-racial appeal, his marble-cake combo, and a head still full of jams, Prince may be the best thing to come out of Minnesota since Dylan.

“No one,” Guzman observed about Prince, “has straddled rock apartheid like Sly and Santana at the peak; if (white) rock radio lets its listeners have an honest, uh, listen, Prince can be the one.” Prince may soon rise to rock’s royal throne as his music tumbles the walls between black and white, rock and funk.

Read "Remembering Prince" here.