Dig If You Will the Picture: Funk, Sex, God and Genius in the Music of Princeby Ben Greenman
A unique and kaleidoscopic look into the life, legacy, and electricity of the pop legend Prince and his wideranging impact on our culture
Ben Greenman, New York Times bestselling author, contributing writer to the New Yorker, and owner of thousands of recordings of Prince and Prince-related songs, knows intimately that there has never been a/i>/i>/b>
A unique and kaleidoscopic look into the life, legacy, and electricity of the pop legend Prince and his wideranging impact on our culture
Ben Greenman, New York Times bestselling author, contributing writer to the New Yorker, and owner of thousands of recordings of Prince and Prince-related songs, knows intimately that there has never been a rock star as vibrant, mercurial, willfully contrary, experimental, or prolific as Prince. Uniting a diverse audience while remaining singularly himself, Prince was a tireless artist, a musical virtuoso and chameleon, and a pop-culture prophet who shattered traditional ideas of race and gender, rewrote the rules of identity, and redefined the role of sex in pop music.
A polymath in his own right who collaborated with George Clinton and Questlove on their celebrated memoirs, Greenman has been listening to and writing about Prince since the mid-eighties. Here, with the passion of an obsessive fan and the skills of a critic, journalist, and novelist, he mines his encyclopedic knowledge of Prince’s music to tell both his story and the story of the paradigm-shifting ideas that he communicated to his millions of fans around the world. Greenman's take on Prince is the autobiography of a generation and its ideas. Asking a series of questionsnot only “Who was Prince?” but “Who wasn’t he?” and “Who are we?”Dig if You Will the Picture is a fitting tribute to an extraordinary talent.
Part fan’s notes and part cultural criticism, music journalist Greenman’s absorbing and entertaining study of Prince and his music compellingly underscores the Purple One’s enduring contributions to pop music. After he buys his first Prince album—1999—in 1982, Greenman becomes obsessed with the music, waiting anxiously at the local record store for every new album and discovering that Prince is, among other things, a “jazz-age sweetie, spiritual pilgrim, sexual puppeteer.” Greenman chronicles Prince’s life from his childhood up through the earliest moments of his career, but and he peers into the sources of Prince’s inspiration as well as the many themes that appear constantly in his music, such as sex, virtue and sin, and race and politics. Greenman also considers the reasons that Prince changed his name in 1993—in part as a ploy to retrieve his masters from Warner Brothers—and his frustration with the Internet as a method for delivering his music. Prince’s genius is on full display here as Greenman remarks on his prolific music virtuosity, putting out an album once a year, and his obsessive dedication to saving every little scrap of his writing and recording to use again. Greenman’s brilliant book celebrates a musician who crammed substance into every corner of his music. (Apr.)
“When it comes to funk and words, lyrics and language, there couldn’t be a better pairing than Ben Greenman and Prince. From my experience with both of them, this is the perfect match, like ham hocks and cornflakes.”
?"?Prince’s genius is on full display here as Greenman remarks on his prolific music virtuosity, putting out an album once a year, and his obsessive dedication to saving every little scrap of his writing and recording to use again. Greenman’s brilliant book celebrates a musician who crammed substance into every corner of his music.?"?
Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Praise for Ben Greenman
“Greenman understands the power of music all too well.” Newsday
"Incapable of writing anything dry or familiar or expected. He is one of the most versatile, consistently surprising writers at work today.” Dave Eggers
“Brilliant and wry” Karen Russell
“Greenman rarely plays a wrong chord.” New York Times
“He writes sentences so sharp they hurt.” Jess Walter
“What a fine and unique writer Ben Greenman is. I love his sentences, his precision. I feel like he’s absorbed and digested so much great literature, distilling it all to create his own fantastic universe of stories and ideas.” –Jonathan Ames
“Seriously brilliant and lyrical” Simon Van Booy
"Ben Greenman's mind contains, among other things, a literary critic, a cultural commentator, a cowboy, a satirist, a scientist, a surrealist, a nut, a genius, a child prodigy, and a poet." -Susan Minot
“Like Bruno Schulz, George Saunders, Donald Barthelme, and no one else I can think of, Greenman has the power to be whimsical without resorting to whimsy.” Darin Strauss
“Light-stepping and hard-hitting Greenman gets it right” Walter Mosley
A satisfying portrait, warts included, of the Purple One, one-time heir to the thrones of James Brown and Jimi Hendrix alike.Readers approaching a biography of Prince Rogers Nelson (1958-2016) are likely to take as a given that the subject was one of the great musical geniuses of history. If they are not, then New Yorker contributor Greenman—the as-told-to author of Questlove's well-received memoir Mo' Meta Blues (2013), among other nonfiction and fiction—is prepared to recite the artist's bona fides: from his breakthrough album of 1980, "Dirty Mind," to the 1989 soundtrack to Batman, Prince "rarely if ever put a foot wrong," and from "1999" to "Sign O' the Times," a period including the definitive "Purple Rain," he was "perfect, the equivalent of Bob Dylan from 1965 to 1969, the Rolling Stones from 1968 to 1972, Talking Heads from 1980 to 1985, or Public Enemy from 1988 to 1991." Big shoes, all those, for the diminutive, sometimes-litigious, and decidedly eccentric artist to fill, but Greenman makes his case at leisure—and convincingly. Moreover, he notes, Prince remained an experimenter throughout, one of the great masters of the recording studio who had an archivist's talent for tucking away even the tiniest of musical scraps, for which reason we're likely to have Prince albums well into the future. Sometimes Greenman's enthusiasm melts into diffusiveness, as when he invokes the psychological theory of flow to discuss Prince's creative processes; sometimes it gets a little silly, as when, writing of Prince's household staff, he notes, "a pixie did his laundry and the universe, his will." Still, the author avoids most of the worst clichés of music writing, and it's clear that he knows and appreciates music at large as well as his immediate topic. Likely not the definitive book on Prince, but certainly one that merits attention by fans and students of pop culture alike.
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Read an Excerpt
Dig If You Will The Picture
Funk, Sex, God, and Genius in the Music of Prince
By Ben Greenman
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2017 Ben Greenman
All rights reserved.
LIFE CAN BE SO NICE
His Life and Its Beginnings
Beginnings consume us. Or rather, we consume them. WE gobble them up hungrily, certain that they will explain all that follows. We break time into segments so that it can be apprehended and, if not overtaken, at least undertaken.
And, so, we start with the start of one particular segment: Prince was born on June 7, 1958. Prince was born. That's important to remember. In a life filled with so many achievements — lyrics written, songs sung, instruments played, concerts performed — that they seem to require an army, or a mystical being, we should begin with a reminder that they belong to exactly one person, who arrived on the earth via normal channels rather than descending into our realm from some distant empyrean.
Prince lived in music from the first. His mother, Mattie Della Shaw, was a singer. His father, John Nelson, was a piano player and composer. The two of them, African-Americans in mostly white Minneapolis, floated around the city's jazz scene in the fifties, and for a time Mattie sang with John's band, the Prince Rogers Trio. It's unclear how or why John thought of his stage name, though royalty was a common theme in jazz nicknames. Buddy Bolden was known as "King Bolden," and there were others: King Oliver, King Watzke, King Kolax. Princes were rarer.
When he met Mattie, John Nelson had a long-term girlfriend named Vivian. Though they never married, he had five children with her, beginning in the late forties and continuing through the late fifties. Somewhere in there, John's relationship with Vivian wilted, and his relationship with Mattie bloomed. Mattie got pregnant. Their baby entered the world, and John transferred the name of his act to that baby: Prince Rogers Nelson.
The world that Prince entered was a fragile one, at least as far as American identity was concerned. Sputnik had launched the previous October, kicking off the space race with the Soviets. The United States was just emerging from the Eisenhower recession, the first major economic downturn since the Great Depression — unemployment had soared; steel and auto production had dropped. Minneapolis was at the tail end of a decade of transformation. In 1950, the city reached the half-million mark in population — still an all-time peak — but federal efforts like the Housing Act of 1949 and the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 were pushing population toward the near-ring suburbs and beyond. General Mills, one of the city's industrial anchors, moved out to Golden Valley.
Faced with a new family to feed, John took work as a plastic molder at Honeywell, the industrial conglomerate that was the city's largest employer. A daughter, Tyka, was born in 1960. Though the life of a plastic molder was more stable than that of a jazz musician, the marriage was not a happy one. John and Mattie fought frequently, separated more than once, and eventually split; over that period, Prince moved several times, always adjusting to new neighborhoods and new schools, making new friends while trying to keep in contact with the old ones.
Prince was smart and sensitive and a good athlete, but he was also shy and small. Early on, he took solace in music; it had been a source of joy for both his parents and it was a source of joy for him as well. When his mother brought him along him to Dayton's department store, in the early sixties, he would sneak away to the musical instruments section. His mother would find him there, a four-year-old, plinking out melodies. In the early sixties, he saw his father perform. "It was great," he said. "I couldn't believe it. People were screaming. From then on, I think, I wanted to be a musician." But if his father was inspiring onstage, at home he could be demanding and discouraging. "He was so hard on me," Prince told Tavis Smiley in 2009. "I was never good enough. It was almost like the army when it came to music ... I wasn't allowed to play the piano when he was there because I wasn't as good as him. So when he left, I was determined to get as good as him, and I taught myself how to play music. And I just stuck with it, and I did it all the time. And sooner or later, people in the neighborhood heard about me and they started to talk."
Success has many fathers. In April of 1968, a few months before his tenth birthday, Prince went with his stepfather, Hayward Baker — his mother had remarried quickly, to stabilize a shaky situation — to see James Brown at the Minneapolis Auditorium. "Yeah," James told the crowd, "I was just a shoeshine boy and I'm still one of you; I haven't changed. Can you feel it?" Prince could.
* * *
There are conflicting stories about what caused Prince to leave home. Some cite general instability, the wear and tear of too many moves. Others suggest that he was driven away by his mother's sternness, which kept him from hanging out with his friends and bandmates. The most salacious rumor holds that Prince's stepfather, a devout Christian, found him in bed with a girl and promptly kicked him out of the house. What is certain is that Prince left his parents' home in his early teens and went to live with the family of his best friend, André Anderson, in the 1200 block of Russell Avenue. At first, he and André shared a room, but André was messier, to the point where Prince had to move to the basement.
In that north-side neighborhood, kids streamed from their houses on Saturday morning to play football in the street. Walter Banks, who lived nearby and later became a local radio personality, remembered those games. "Prince was that athletic guy. He was unbelievable," Banks said. "He had an afro so big, it was more like his afro wore the uniform because his body was so small. He was a little giant within his own right." Prince also played basketball, and played well, a fact that would gain wide currency later on through the release of junior-high-school team photos and (more importantly, and more hilariously) a Chappelle's Show sketch. He was quick and funny, though he tended to work out his jokes in advance, in notebooks: he was highly produced even then.
At the end of junior high, Prince and André — who was now calling himself André Cymone — formed a band, Grand Central, with Chazz Smith (Prince's second cousin) on drums and André's sister Linda on keyboards. Within a year, Chazz Smith was out and a new drummer, Morris Day, was in. Grand Central practiced in Andre's basement, which was still Prince's bedroom. Morris Day's mother started managing the band, securing them gigs in local high school gyms, community centers, and hotels. Some were even paying gigs, after a fashion. In a late-nineties interview with Mel B. of the Spice Girls, Prince said that the band was compensated with Snickers bars: "That's how we exchanged money back then. It was currency." Grand Central's main competition was Flyte Tyme, another group made up of Minneapolis teens. Flyte Tyme's repertoire leaned toward soul artists like Al Green and James Brown; Grand Central also incorporated the work of rock and funk acts like Mandrill, Jimi Hendrix, and Santana, and even the songs of pop singers like Carole King. The two bands were on each other's radar, and then some; Flyte Tyme would later take on Morris Day as a front man and morph into The Time, Prince's greatest side project and one of his worthiest competitors. Jimmy Jam, who was then in a band called Cohesion but would later serve as Flyte Tyme's keyboardist, remembered playing in the small combo that backed the junior-high choir. Prince showed up, too, casually wandering over to a guitar and magically reproducing the fuzzed-out solo from Chicago's 1970 hit "Make Me Smile." The guitar stunt was impressive, but it was only the start. Jimmy was sitting at the drums, and when he stood up, Prince took his spot. "He sat there," Jimmy said, "and he killed 'em."
* * *
Prince must have seemed like a perfect subject for a profile in the high school newspaper, and that's exactly what he became, on February 16, 1976. His high school, Central High, was the oldest in Minneapolis, founded in 1860; since 1913, it had occupied a four-story Collegiate Gothic building at Fourth Avenue South and East Thirty-Fourth Street. The school colors were red and blue, which Prince would later combine to great effect. (The lyrics of the school song, not written by Prince, began, "Oh, red and blue, dear red and blue, our hearts are true to you.")
In the school paper, Prince — identified as "Prince Nelson, senior at Central"— was pictured in the music room, his wide collar flared beneath his even wider afro. The piece didn't explore his personality, which was shy but playful (André Cymone would later say that "everybody who really knew him [knew] that he was a funny dude"). It didn't mention his participation in a student film, in which he played a shy but playful musician competing with a muscle-bound jock for the affections of a pretty cheerleader — the musician failed repeatedly until he learned a secret kung fu move and got the girl. Rather, the piece focused mainly on Prince's accomplishments as a musician: he had started playing piano at age seven, guitar "when he got out of eighth grade"; at the time of the article, he was also proficient on bass and drums, and he regretted having given up the saxophone, which he had played in seventh grade. He played by ear, though most budding musicians, he advised, should invest in lessons. "One should learn all their scales too," he said. "That is very important." He did not, the article noted, play in the school band. "I really don't have time to make the concerts," he said. After a brief mention of Prince's "more enthusiastically athletic" brother Duane, a member of both the football and basketball teams, the article returned to musical matters. Prince liked the school's music teachers — Mrs. Doepke and Mr. Bickham were especially supportive — but he felt stranded in Minneapolis. "I was born here, unfortunately," he says. "I think it is very hard for a band to make it in this state, even if they're good. Mainly because there aren't any big record companies or studios in this state. I really feel that if we would have lived in Los Angeles or New York or some other big city, we would have gotten over by now." Still, he was determined not to be marooned. Grand Central, the article concluded, was "in the process of recording an album containing songs they have composed. It should be released during the early part of the summer."
It wasn't, though there is evidence that Prince, André, and Morris visited ASI Studios on West Broadway in early 1976 to cut a set of tracks that included "39th St. Party," "Lady Pleasure," "You're Such a Fox," "Machine," "Whenever," and "Grand Central." Tom Waits, touring behind Nighthawks at the Diner, his first live album, played a show at ASI for FM broadcast about a month before Grand Central's session. There's no evidence he knew anything about Prince at the time, but a decade later, he would name him as one of the few popular artists who consistently impressed him: "Prince is rare, a rare exotic bird ... To be that popular and that uncompromising, it's like Superman walking through a wall." Waits also said, "Writing songs is like capturing birds without killing them." Triangulate accordingly.
* * *
In early 1976, a studio owner named Chris Moon hired Prince and André to record background music for an educational slide presentation. Bespectacled and bearded, Moon was also an aspiring songwriter — or rather, a poet in search of songs. He had notebooks filled with lyrics, and he noticed that Prince had a head filled with melodies. He gave Prince a key to his Moonsound studio, and Prince started to record there at night.
At around the same time, Prince struck up a relationship with a veteran R&B musician named Pepé Willie. Pepé Willie came from Brooklyn, but he had spent time in Minneapolis since the early seventies as a result of his on-again, off-again relationship with Prince's cousin, Shauntel Manderville. He had first met Prince in 1970 and over the years served as a kind of informal mentor to him. In 1974, back in Minneapolis and now married to Shauntel, he attended a ski party for which Grand Central had been hired as entertainment. He was impressed with Prince's progress:
He would take off his guitar and go over to Linda and play the chords on the keyboard he wanted her to play. And I'm like, 'Wait a minute, this guy plays keyboards too?' Then he would take André's bass and play like he had been doing it for twenty years, playing the funkiest lines.
By the end of Prince's time in high school, Grand Central was at a crossroads. For starters, their name had become a liability — they were too often confused with Graham Central Station, the popular Bay Area funk band led by Larry Graham, the former bassist with Sly and the Family Stone (and a distant-future collaborator of Prince's). As the band rebranded itself as Champagne, Prince began to distance himself from the group, first to work with a local musician named Sonny Thompson and then, with André, to support Pepé Willie and his group 94 East. Some of Prince's earliest recordings date from this period, songs like "Lovin' Cup," "Dance to the Music of the World," and "One Man Jam." Prince didn't sing on the tracks and cowrote only one of them, "Just Another Sucker." Still, he was instrumental in the sessions, contributing on guitar, bass, keyboards, and drums.
In the meantime, his partnership with Chris Moon had started to bear fruit: one of their songs, "Soft and Wet," became a new favorite in Prince's set. It wasn't the crowning jewel of his catalog, though. That honor was reserved for "Just as Long as We're Together," a sparkling demonstration of his singing, playing, and songwriting. Prince put together a demo and briefly went to New York to shop it, without much luck. At the same time, Moon sent the songs to a local music impresario named Owen Husney. Husney had been the lead guitarist of the mid-sixties Minneapolis garage-blues band the High Spirits — a forerunner to Twin Cities groups like Husker Du and the Replacements — and he had gone on to work in various aspects of the music business, everything from catering to advertising. Husney liked what he heard of Prince's music, though he thought the songs were too long; most were extended soul-funk workouts designed to showcase all of Prince's instrumental skills. Husney felt that they weren't going to attract veteran A&R men, and he called Prince with a pitch: he would help shepherd Prince through the process if Prince would come back to Minneapolis and work on the songs. Prince agreed. Husney was instantly impressed by Prince's intensity and intelligence, as he told Kim Taylor Bennett of Noisey:
I've seen pictures of Little Richard when he was in a band before he was Little Richard. They're all sitting around, one of them is looking off right, one's looking off left, one's looking down, and then there's a very young Little Richard, and his eyes are laser focused on that camera. You can see the burning; you can see there's something else. That was the feeling I had about Prince. There was a focus, there was a brilliance of intelligence.
Husney also took note of Prince's massive afro, which he dubbed a J7, because it dwarfed the afros of the Jackson 5. Husney wanted to get Prince his own apartment and some recording equipment, so he sought out local professionals whom he knew — a doctor, a lawyer — and signed them up as investors. While Prince set about shortening and sharpening his songs, Husney set about packaging him for major labels. He created press kits in which he lowered Prince's age by a year: whatever he was worth as an eighteen-year-old wunderkind, Husney figured, he was worth that much more as a seventeen-year-old. He outfitted Prince in a three-piece suit to distinguish him against the prevailing fashions, which tended toward casual dress, jeans and open shirts. He sent out demos not on cassettes but on reel-to-reel tapes, coloring them silver for maximum impact. Finally, he played labels off each other: He called Warner Bros., where he knew people through his advertising work, and told them that he had already secured a meeting with Columbia, which was flying him to California, and would be interested in stopping by Warner's offices while he was out west. He then did the same thing in reverse, calling Columbia and telling them that Warner was flying him out but that he'd love to stop by and give Columbia a look at his client as well. He ran the game a third time, on A&M Records, and called two other labels for good measure, RSO and ABC/ Dunhill.
Excerpted from Dig If You Will The Picture by Ben Greenman. Copyright © 2017 Ben Greenman. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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Meet the Author
Ben Greenman is a New York Times bestselling author and New Yorker contributor who has written both fiction and nonfiction. His novels and short-story collections include The Slippage and Superbad, he was Questlove's collaborator on Mo’ Meta Blues and Something to Food About, and he has written memoirs with George Clinton and Brian Wilson. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Mother Jones, McSweeney's, Rolling Stone, and elsewhere.
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