I’m not going to talk about what we’re hearing during the last week or so about Prince’s demise, except to say that, for such a singular and unique individual, it is incredibly disheartening. If he had to go at all, did it need to be in such a stereotypical way? That news becomes more upsetting by the day.
Maybe it shouldn’t be. I think we’re going to learn much more, and be disillusioned greatly, when they start putting out what was hidden in the vault.
For the benefit of David Parris of Schenectady, New York who hasn’t read a newspaper of heard radio or TV since 1976, the vault in question is the famed storehouse at Prince’s Paisley Park compound where, purportedly, he stashed away virtually a second lifetime’s worth of music. Some of his fans have been salivating about the prospect of such a treasure trove finally seeing the light of the Minnesota day. I have occasionally wondered what’s in there myself.
But over the past few days I’ve reconsidered these thoughts. This is what we do actually know about Prince Rogers Nelson: he was in many respects a creation of his own design. He told you what he wanted you to know, and not much more. His image was always a strategic construction. I suppose they’ll now add that it was a cover. Such is the case when the story ends this way. To my point, at the peak of his creative powers, Prince put out albums that were back to front examples of pop songcraft of the highest order. We wanted to believe these things rolled off effortlessly, like everything that he ever did was born brilliant.
But the greatest writers and artists are first superb editors. What did William Faulkner write? “Kill your darlings.” Even though you toiled for hours and days on a line in a paragraph, on a page in the story, if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. You have to be prepared to edit out that wonderful line if it is actually ruining the whole.
We knew Prince could play every instrument on his records. We didn’t know how many takes he had to do it in. We never heard the songs that were really, really bad because he didn’t send them out to the world. For all we know, 1999 or Purple Rain could have been 100 songs a piece if everything was included in. We heard what Prince wanted us to hear, and little was said about the stuff he didn’t want us to hear. A great editor stands behind the finished manuscript, not the thousands of drafts that came before.
But any musician — amateur or professional — will tell you it is hard to erase the duds. First, because they may not be duds. They just might not be right for now, or right for the individual. The creation of Jamie Starr, Prince’s alter ego, gave him a way of putting out the songs without them being “Prince songs.” By no stretch would that make the songs bad; just not right for the individual…not right for the carefully curated persona. Even then, these were songs which he felt deserved a shot. A musician keeps the songs that don’t deserve a shot either, because a lot of interesting stuff can be found in the floorboards of abandoned properties.
I recall an interview with Isaac Hayes pertaining to his creation of the Shaft soundtrack. He mentioned that a lot of the mood, the dynamics of the theme, the elements that helped form it, came out of saved jams and grooves from older sessions. And every frustrated home recording aficionado will tell you that if you spend seven hours in front of your home PC recording harmony vocal after harmony vocal, you’re not going to easily wipe most of them out at hour eight. I fear that Prince’s vault is going to serve as the repository for everything that got saved at hour eight.
In all of this, Prince had the capacity to carefully make those determinations. Whoever is the final recipient of those squirreled-away tapes and hard drives probably won’t. Like any art, good or bad, the value goes up when the artist drops dead. Everything now becomes a rare and limited artifact, and as such can command a price, even if said work would have been derided mercilessly if the artist was not deceased. We want to believe that if Prince had a bizarre fascination with kazoos in 2007, that his album with the kazoo orchestra would be brilliant anyway, but the smart money says it won’t be. If such a thing existed, he wouldn’t put that out there, no matter how many hours and overdubs he worked through. But someone with (probably) an asset management background — not a creative arts background — now has their hands on “Dead Musician’s Hidden Treasures” and that degree of fastidiousness just won’t be there.
Rather, if we were meant to hear those songs, we probably would have.
So I am a little concerned that we’re going to be incredibly disillusioned in the next few years. Part of Prince’s genius was the illusion itself, that the work and bloody-fingered craft of it all was just another day in the studio. It all rolled off. Will we be as generous when we get to sift through the demos? Will we accept the dreadful bits as what they actually are: the fragments that led to better things, or will we just just think this guy was occasionally lucky?
History tells us that we have a hard time accepting the nuts and bolts of the construction rather than the glass-adorned final product after the fact. Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman, while being a stab at a story thread that ultimately became To Kill A Mockingbird, the great American novel, stayed locked away almost all her life, and Mockingbird stayed pristine. When Watchman was published, Mockingbird was somehow altered. The context in which we viewed those characters was disrupted. We should be able to distance one from the other — especially since we know the circumstances — but we intrinsically can’t now. I guess you could say the same thing about George Lucas. When everyone thought he had the whole Star Wars saga mapped in his head, there was something untouchable about it. When that veneer cracked and the audience realized that there was so much more “making it up on the fly” than we expected, it felt diminished somehow. Anyone can make a Star Wars movie now and, probably, could do a better job of it.
I really don’t want that same scene playing out for the memory of Prince, but it seems we’re inexorably placed on that path. The Wizard of Paisley Park may be revealed from behind the curtain as just some guy that wrote a hell of a lot and only put out very, very little…less a genius than we thought. That’s a revelation that should have stayed in that vault. I truly hope that I’m worried over nothing here and that time will prove me 100% wrong. It’s just that there’s only one person qualified enough to determine what is great Prince music, deserving of release, and what isn’t…and he’s not here anymore.