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For those who were teenagers during the 1980s, Prince Rogers Nelson was the closest equivalent to the baby boomers’ beloved Beatles this side of the whole hiphop cultural movement. Meeting Prince at Life in the late ’90s, I thanked him for structuring my adolescent conception of what a true artist is: Watching him buck moneymaking inclinations for creative growth (e.g. brilliantly quirky stopgap records like Parade) taught me—not to mention students like D’Angelo, Me’Shell NdegéOcello, ?uestlove, et al.—a lot about the path of the artiste.
Possessed: The Rise and Fall of Prince tracks one of the most captivating career arcs as yet unmined by the likes of Behind the Music—an up-to-the-minute biography superior to Dave Hill’s 1989 Prince: A Pop Life for its eyewitness accounts and inclusion of the musician’s highly publicized woes with his former record company, Warner Bros. Journalist Alex Hahn (also an attorney who successfully defended the Uptown Prince fanzine pro bono against the object of their affection in 1998) blends commentary from dozens of confidantes—including bandmates Bobby Z. and Dez Dickerson, tour manager Alan Leeds, and engineer Susan Rogers—into an often third-eye-opening view of Prince’s musical genius and control-freak issues.
Fanboys will find satisfaction in the minutiae here. A quick handful for the initiated: Revolution guitarist Wendy Melvoin and pianist Lisa Coleman were indeed once lovers; an alleged Ecstasy trip provoked Prince to shelve The Black Album in lieu of 1988’s Lovesexy; “The Beautiful Ones” and “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker” were written for ex-girlfriend Susannah Melvoin, “Vicki Waiting” about ex Anna Garcia, “When Doves Cry” about Vanity 6 singer and ex Susan Moonsie; titles like “When We’re Dancing Close and Slow” and protégé group the Time’s Ice Cream Castle were taken directly from Joni Mitchell, whom Prince has admired since taking in a concert at around age 10.
Hahn’s narrative reads like a soap opera. Prince was born in Minneapolis, the sheltered son of plastic molder John Nelson (nighttime pianist of his own Prince Rogers Trio) and local jazz singer Mattie Shaw. Following their divorce, young Prince consoled himself with his dad’s left-behind piano, quickly forming a high school band (originally Grand Central, then Champagne) influenced by James Brown and Sly & the Family Stone. Offered the opportunity to go solo, he ditched his friends for fame, signing to Warner Bros. as a one-man band at 19. Patenting a sex-and-salvation paradigm through songs ranging from “Head” to “God,” with a musical backdrop fusing New Wave with funk and rock, Prince led his own Revolution to the toppermost of the poppermost until 1984’s Purple Rain commercial summit.
“He was precocious and brilliant, but lacked focus in his apprehension of new influences,” Hahn says, relating the onset of Prince’s creative wane, which the author pegs as beginning with 1987’s heavily bootlegged Black Album. “After Prince decided to stop learning, the lack of continued stimulus, coupled with the absence of strong personalities like Wendy and Lisa from his band, quickly became apparent in his work.” Possessed pinpoints other factors in describing the freefall of Prince’s reputation and creativity: an inability to expose himself to new ways of seeing the world, an obsession with owning his master recordings (contrary to record industry practice), and the pursuit of his original black audience through the ill-fitting incorporation of wack rappers like Tony M. into his post-Revolution band, the New Power Generation. “We were his first black band, and our thing was to help him get his black audience back, because he had lost that,” admits ex-N.P.G. singer Rosie Gaines.
Race is the place where Midnight Lightning: Jimi Hendrix and the Black Experience resides. Written by Voice cultural critic Greg Tate, this skinny hardcover admits to being “a Jimi Hendrix book with A Racial Agenda . . . plantation baggage, darkskin biases and Black Power axes to grind.” Purposely no rival of Harry Shapiro and Caesar Glebbeek’s excellent Electric Gypsy for biographical completeness, Tate says his book could very well have been titled A Jimi Hendrix Primer for Blackfolk for its intentions.
Though Prince himself has cited Carlos Santana as a bigger influence on his guitar playing than the late James Marshall Hendrix, clearly there is no Prince without Hendrix, no “Purple Rain” without “Purple Haze.” What has never occurred to white critics who have never chad to think twice about it is that Hendrix is an icon of what might be called bohemian black America: those so-called cultural mulattos who color-blindly glean as much from the overriding white culture as from the black, filtering it all through a prism that makes our walk/talk/artistic output resolutely the latter. Despite overtures to the black experience (“House Burning Down”) and his use of drummer Buddy Miles and bassist Billy Cox—the all-black Band of Gypsys behind Live at the Fillmore East—Hendrix still fails to get a fair shake in the black community. Midnight Lightning‘s raison d’être is to remedy this, and Tate does so in his patented scatman-meets-academe prose. “No other Black artist was performing ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ right in front of Paul McCartney and John Lennon two days after the Sgt Pepper album had hit the street,” Tate mentions. “You got to do what you have to do and I have to do what I have to do,” Hendrix himself said in his defense to a black nationalist after a rare Harlem performance—a statement that, however simplistic, in many ways says it all.