Prince: Stories from the Purple Underground
Tuesday, September 13, 2016
In a few weeks it’ll be five months since Prince died.
It’s still not believable, still inconceivable, still a complete and utter shock to his fans worldwide. I haven't been able to write about him, but so many have, and so well. A great many people have started disclosing their personal stories about him - or so they claim, since some of these seem to be of the People magazine variety.
But the real ones, the authentic Prince stories are always, always a treat to hear. Even when he was alive, hearing a Prince story from someone - Matt Thorne, who wrote the seminal book on Prince music a few years ago and was flown in to Paisley Park only to have the great man listen to thanks but not talk, Kevin Smith’s long winded story about being hired to make music videos for Prince that never saw the light of day, the husband of a man I met at a Frankenstein symposium in Hermance telling me Ingrid Chavez left him for Prince… no matter what, or told by whom, stories about Prince have always, always made my day.
And so I can’t help but immediately fall in love with journalist Mobeen Azhar’s new book, Prince: Stories From the Purple Underground.
Azhar is a lifelong Prince fan, a devotee even. In his quest to unearth what lay in Prince’s Paisley Park vault, Azhar produced a Radio 4 documentary a year ago and in doing so, talked with some of Prince’s closet collaborators, colleagues and band members. This book picks up where the documentary left off - it is a charming, lovingly curated collection of words from those who knew Prince best… or as well as he’d let them.
From Sonny Thomson, the bass payer who was first impressed by a 13 year old prince, to Cat Glover, the rapper and dancer who is called out in Alphabet Street by name (‘Cat! We need you to rap!’), to Martika, the singer made famous by the theme song to Martika’s Kitchen that Prince wrote for her, Larry Graham, Prince’s spiritual brother & religious guide... they’re all here, they’ve all got a little Prince story to tell.
I can only imagine how many stories they each must have - especially Larry Graham - but here, in this collection, all these stories come together to offer insight into a man very few fans will every truly feel like they knew, or could understand. There was just too much to Prince to be understood by his fans. From Azhar’s collection of stories, it often seems like there was just too much to Prince to be understood fully by those often around him, as well.
But in term of insight, this is a rare collection indeed. Where else will Prince’s fans be able to read, in one sitting, about how and he and Larry Graham came to be talking about God? About how Prince refused to let Marge Simpson sing his songs? Or how he felt the pressure to be a certain way, look a certain way? Or that he understood what a responsibility it was that so many people depended on him for his livelihood? There’s a wealth of information here, possibly not which would interest someone who wasn’t as devoted to Prince, but then that hardly matters. I do wish his closest collaborators and friends had been more accessible, or more willing to talk about him but they never have and I can’t imagine they would not, after this death. So there are no stories from Wendy or Lisa, none from Mayte or Manuela, his ex wives, and none from Sheila E. Some things, I think, will always remain a mystery.
There are also some wonderful images collected here - this book will be a very good looking item. Some of the rare images include a contact sheet from Prince recording at age 18 in 1977, his afro so high you can not see his giant studio headphones, his face smiling and bright and still somehow clearly so, so precocious; Prince on stage in 1978, performing to promote his first album For You, full of high aggression and attitude; so many images of Prince performing over the years, with various collaborators. It’s a great chronology of not just the people he made music with, but also of his personal aesthetic and style.
If I have one complaint about this book it is that we don’t hear enough of Mobeen Azhar’s own voice, we don't read enough of his own words about Prince. The introduction, prologue and epilogue are just lush with rhythmic prose, written in just the sort of language you’d want to read about Prince. The epilogue is particularly heartbreaking, with Azhar reminding us of how much Prince had left to create, so much ‘unfinished business’, as he was told repeatedly by each of his collaborators. It reminds some of us again that there was so much more in this one man than one human mind, soul, body could possibly contain. How to explain why he mattered so much? Azhar is more eloquent in his prologue than I:
There is the pop Prince, the multi-million-selling-superstar. There is the ethereal Prince, who sings about making love through the apocalypse, rivers of menstrual blood and psychedelic masturbation. There is the film star, the outsider, the pervert, the ghost writer, the live powerhouse, but more than anything there is the musician: a vessel in which Jimi Hendrix, Little Richard, Joni Mitchell and James Brown pollinated each other’s sounds to create something we’d never heard before.
His name is Prince. He is music.