Dearly beloved

sign cover

I grew up in a Liverpool dormitory town, 10 km or so outside the city, on the other side of the River Mersey on The Wirral. I was a plump, awkward teenager. Bright, but geeky. Prone to melancholy. Easily forming crushes on the pretty girls in class, but then too tongue-tied and shy to say a word to them, let alone express any of those powerful feelings I was experiencing. By the time I was 15 I was also pretty much at war with my parents. I was a sulking mess of hormones, anxiety and desperate sensitivity. That is to say I was both a pretty regular teenager and a complete monster. Mum, if you ever read this, I am truly so sorry…

Against this backdrop, I went into the annual family holiday in August 1986 with some reluctance. To me, this was two weeks of green-grey, sleety purgatory in Bude on the north coast of Cornwall. By this time I had outgrown the traditional British seaside holiday I had so loved as a kid, but was not yet able to stay at home by myself. I don’t remember what we did. Most of what I can recall is just driving around the Devon-Cornwall border in the family car with the rain lashing down and the wipers squeaking.

But one of those car journeys lives with me still, as clear as if I am still sitting in that burgundy VW Polo, as we trundle along some godforsaken Devonian bypass. We had the radio on. A particular song was broadcast and a few minutes later, some new neural circuitry was wired, my mind was blown and a bright, glowing spark was lit within me.

Fast forward nearly thirty years to today and I have become a plump and awkward middle-aged man, father of two. At least now I don’t get nervous when I talk to girls. Which is lucky, as I have the day off work to look after my four year old daughter whose daycare is closed for teacher training. I am standing next to a paddock in Helsinki’s central park, while my half-Finnish kid looks at the horses and ponies, telling me which one is the cutest, which one is her favourite. But I am elsewhere. I am back in that car in Cornwall. There are tears streaming down my face and I weep silently as I think of that moment and of the spark that was lit, because the man who lit it has just died. It’s OK, darling. Don’t worry my little mate. Daddy just has allergies.

I’m talking about Prince, of course. The song that played on the radio was Girls and Boys. From the album Parade, soundtrack to his second film, Under The Cherry Moon. The song is sparse and intense. In the 1980s, when every other thing was drenched in reverb and underlaid with pseudo-orchestral pads, this song took its groove from a dry saxophone, staccato cellos, a crisp drum machine and something that sounds like a bicycle bell. It was dark, powerful and funky as hell. There’s a hypnotic blues guitar motif and solo throughout — but played on an analogue synth that sounds like a psychedelic duck. The lyrics are about passion, sex and tragedy. Oblique, dark and unfathomable. A french girl moans and gasps. He did too, they were meant to be. Looks like rain.

Of course I had heard of and heard Prince before this moment. I had started listening to music years before. Even in primary school, at the age of nine or ten I had gone through a denim jacket and patches phase. AC / DC, Status Quo, Deep Purple. Even though I liked it, it didn’t stick. In those last couple of years before adolescence, at 12 or 13 my preferences had shifted towards music I thought girls might like. Duran Duran, Phil Collins and Frankie. I used to tape the Top 40 show on a Sunday night, then listen to it during the following week as I put together Airfix kits of world-war two fighters and modern jets, or painted little lead figures for Dungeons & Dragons games. I remember When Doves Cry, Let’s Go Crazy and Little Red Corvette from this time, even though I discovered them anew a couple of years later.

But by 15, as I neared adulthood and all its complexities I was primed and ready to hear something like Girls and Boys and have my world rocked, my mind blown.

After returning home from Bude, I bought Parade and it became the first important record of my life. This was music that meant more, that grooved harder, that was just better all round.

The spark that was lit, was not just about listening though, it was about doing and making. I realised that I wanted to write songs, to create music. That spark is within me to this day. I knew from then on, that it wouldn’t be enough just to love and cherish good music, it also meant I had to make it. I knew at that moment that I wanted to write songs, to craft sounds, to layer meaning. I had to create.

Millions of words have been written about how great Prince was as an artist, a songwriter and musician. But I think one of the special things about him was that even though he was a virtuoso guitarist and had mastered almost everything else, he always did what was right for the song. It was about expression, not indulgence. The technique never overpowered the feel and groove and when he wanted to, he was a master of economy. One example of this is also from Parade, the stripped-down pulse that is Kiss. Apparently it was originally a full-band number, but mid-mix, Prince entered the control room and pulled down half the faders. What we are left with is naked and skittering. A falsetto, a drum machine, a gated synth and a guitar.

Another example is the title track from his next album, Sign O’ The Times. A sequenced blip, a drum machine and a desolate lyric that sums up all the ills of the mid-1980s in about three minutes. The concluding guitar solo might be my favourite ever. Not the flashiest or most expressive, but full of controlled, melancholy violence and sorrow. If Miles Davis had wielded a Telecaster it might have sounded like this.

That whole album is encrusted with jewels. If I Was Your Girlfriend might be my favourite Prince song, which might make it my favourite song full stop. It’s the tragedy that gets you. Prince was often trivialised and misunderstood in the popular press as a horny, comical, Rick James style lothario. But as usual the popular press were fucking idiots. He was wondering if she would tell him all the things she forgot when he was her man. This was complex music from a complex man. Of course sex was there, but coupled to meaning, to love, to obsession, insecurity and a yearning for genuine connection.

Prince was also a gateway drug for me. From him, I discovered other things. I borrowed a tape of Axis: Bold As Love from a friend and listened to it on my Walkman at night as I fell asleep— for about 6 months. I learned about George Clinton, Sly Stone. This was the gateway to soul and funk. Then on to jazz, blues and gospel. The music of black America. The most important music in the world. Music that nourishes me to this day.

Following on from my discovery of Prince, other music also became just as important. A friend introduced me to the second half of The Beatles’ career. Even though the order is all wrong, I always think of Purple Rain as Prince’s Sergeant Pepper, Parade as his Revolver and Sign O’ The Times as his White Album.

The same friend introduced me to the Stones and U2 (I don’t care if you don’t like U2, I am past caring what you think is cool). From another I got The Cure. From another Miles Davis. From another Bowie. There was an infinite trail of breadcrumbs to follow and I am still following them.

But from the age of 15 until about 19 or 20, Prince remained paramount for me, the number one. Maybe because I discovered him for myself. Nobody loaned me a tape. Nobody tipped me off. In our circle of friends, I was even the source of this music.

Rewind 18 years. It is summer 1998 and somehow I am at a wedding in Copenhagen. My new friend is the bass player in the covers band that is just preparing for their second set and their singer is trying to remember the lyrics to Kiss. I begin dictating. The singer tells me I have it all wrong, that I don’t know the words by heart. Trust me. Yes it is Dynasty he is talking about. Act your age momma, not your shoe size. Trust me. I fucking know.

It was immediately after the Bude holiday that I began writing music too. The spark became a flame. With some friends I started a band, we played gigs, wrote tunes, got drunk together and confessed our secrets.

I thought I would be doing this for the rest of my life.

Unfortunately life had other ideas. So many things get in the way. Great wonderful things such as lovers, a wife, a family, children, friends, education, a career, travel and more. They are all to be cherished, but they have meant the spark that was lit has been somewhat neglected and dimmed. There have also been many horrible things that have threatened to extinguish the spark altogether. Bereavement, loss, heartbreak, depression, betrayal, humiliation. All of life’s twisted, thorny knots and chasms.

I am sure the spark nearly went out several times, but it’s still there. Flickering away. Hanging in there, if not burning bright. It’s the spark that drives me to pick up a guitar when I can, to hum and whistle ideas into my phone when I am out walking the dog. To email lyric ideas to myself when I am in meetings with clients. To publish things on Soundcloud occasionally. To not give a fuck if people like them or not. To please myself while just trying to be as good as I can. To want to do more, to get better, to express more, to let more out.

But there is something I kind of regret. I fell out of love with Prince a bit, gradually, over a period of a couple of years after Lovesexy and then the Batman soundtrack. For me part of his music’s richness and flavour came from its complexity. He was always fighting between two sides. Angel and devil. He could be overtly religious, but then profane. All on the same album. Sometimes the same song. That’s what gave his music its friction. The grit that made the pearls. His unparalleled period of creativity from 1999 to Sign (just five years from 1983 to 1987) was at least partly fuelled by this dichotomy.

But in 1987-88, just after Sign and just before Lovesexy he recorded an album of violent, dark funk called The Black Album. Then shortly before release he pulled it. In the video to Lovesexy’s first single, Alphabet Street, there was a small, almost invisible easter egg for fans. Some small text that appeared on screen only for a frame or two, reading “I’m sorry, don’t buy the Black Album”. He had swung starkly towards the dark, but then the light had won. The battle was over. The tension that had perhaps inspired his greatest music had gone.

So by the time I was 19 or so, and at university, my passion for Prince had waned. If you’d have asked me I would probably still nominated Sign as my favourite album of all time (and probably still would), but other things interested me more. I still bought the albums throughout the 1990s and spun them a couple of times. I could hear there was still some good tunes, but somehow they didn’t stick. I was more into exploring the ancient history of Marvin, Curtis, Sly and Al, as well as Jimi, The Stones, Mingus, Trane, Miles and Aretha.

So when I initially learned of the great man’s death, via social media of course, I participated in the now customary “Oh dear, how sad, what a loss” messages that seem to always happen. So far, so Facebook. But then the next day, it began to wash over me. That 15 year old boy awoke inside me, I remembered  the spark that was lit and the intervening years vanished.

The spark of course is the important thing in all this. It means understanding and being true to yourself. To working out what it is that you want to do and giving it to the world. This is the spark that creates art, that makes us human. It almost doesn’t matter if the results are crap, it is the giving that counts. The trying is everything. I also think it doesn’t have to be art. It is about living with integrity. Living your best life. Or at least getting up every day and trying to do so. This ultimately is the only thing we have to give to the world. And nobody has ever given more than Prince.

And it is this thought that poleaxes me as I stand next to the paddock. I am glad the light won out, that the tension was lifted, Spooky Electric and the dark forces of the Black Album defeated. Even though I prefer the pre-Lovesexy artist, I hope the lack of tension in his later music was a reflection of his later life.  I hope he was at peace, I hope he was happy and loved. I hope he was held and comforted as he slipped away. I hope he buried his demons, overcame his tragedies, including that most harrowing of experiences, the loss of a child. As I write, the results of the autopsy are not yet public and the internet is full of rumours of overdose. I hope they are wrong, but regardless, I hope Prince had found happiness. It’s this thought that overwhelms me as I cry in the park, with my kid and the horses.

Of course after this hammer blow I know what I have to do. I have to nourish the spark that was lit within me. I have to be true to what happened in that shitty little car on that shitty rainy road, in that transcendent moment when I just knew. I have to nourish that spark, fan that flame. Do what I can. Give what I can. Doesn’t matter if it is shit, it just has to be true. I just have to give in order to truly be me. For my family, for my friends, for myself.

And I really couldn’t put it any better than an old and formative friend of mine did on Facebook on the night of Prince’s death, just over 24 hours ago:

I’m asking everyone – just tell the man to fuck off. Go and join a band. Write that book. Sell your shit and live off your means. The world as we know it is full of bullshit and it is your duty to stick two fingers to it. Get everyone out of your life that doesn’t make you feel good about yourself and your world. Life’s way too short and you’ve only got the best part of 40000 days to achieve anything. Say yes. 2016 has most definitely been the year of the spooky electric. But it has to stop. So welcome to the new power generation. The reason why my voice is so clear is there’s no smack in my brain…”

You have to give. I have to give. We have to give. Prince was 57 when he left us. I will be 45 this year and of course there is a big disease with a little name headed my way at some point. I don’t know when that is. But I know it is coming, sooner or later.

There is no time to waste.

Peace, love and great great sorrow

Prince Rogers Nelson 1958–2016

NS

22/4/2015

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