Thursday, April 21, 2016

My Prince Stories

1. In The Studio

I never met him, but I got very, very close.

In the early 90s, I had a job working at a big-deal top-flight recording studio in Los Angeles. It was a terrible job that amounted to being a glorifed go-fer taking a lot of abuse. Clean the studios and the bathrooms. Move cars. Fetch lunch. Coil cables. Get yelled at.

The benefits? You got to stand next to and occasionally touch some (then) incredibly expensive and rare gear, and if you stuck around long enough, you might get promoted to be a 2nd engineer assisting on a session, and eventually "engineer". (Dear reader, this did not happen for me.)

The other benefit? You were close to some very talented and creative people while they were working. During my relatively short tenure there, that list of talented and creative people included Seal (with Steve Lillywhite!), Guns N'Roses...and Prince.

Prince worked all the time. When he'd show up, he'd lock himself in the studio and work like crazy. A typical day, I'd get a phone call at the front desk and it would be his handler, who would say "Prince is coming in at 10 am." So we'd start hustling, organizing, getting flowers in place, getting the candles and lighting ready, all dialed in with the tape on the reels by 9.

10 passes. No Prince. Then 11. Then 12. Into the afternoon. No Prince. No lunch either, because he might show up. Finally, around 4 or 5, handler calls again. "Prince isn't coming in today." OK. Back in the room, snuff out the candles, clean up, take the tape down, get everything re-set for tomorrow.

I go home. Phone rings at like 10 PM. "Prince is on his way to the studio, he'll be there by 11 pm." Hop in the car, hustle back over, get everything set up again.

11 pm passes. No prince. Midnight. 1 am. Shortly after 2 am, Prince's custom-painted and -designed BMW rolls up to the coned-off area in front. His bodyguard comes in, checks that everything is clear between the front door and the studio door. Prince whooshes in, beelining for the studio. He's wearing a very typical Prince outfit. He stops at the studio door, and says "Everybody get out, I'm working alone tonight."

So then everyone leaves, me included. He literally works alone in the studio all night. We carted out more tapes of final mixes than I can count. Some of it has been released. Some of it hasn't.

2. The Guitar

As one of the new people on the team, I got assigned the graveyard shift. I was there, largely cleaning, tidying up, making sure everything was ready for the next day and that nobody breaks in.

Most of the time, Prince was not there. Nobody was there. It was boring, exhausting, and tedious, the hardest part of the job being staying up until dawn (and then hoping you didn't get double-shifted because the other runners partied too hard the night before while I was working).

So one night I'm sitting there, at like 3 am, and I realize that Prince's guitar -- you know the one, the "Cloud guitar" from Purple Rain -- is sitting in his studio, plugged in to his rig. I could go play it.

I walk into his studio, through the control room, and I see it is there, on a stand, lit in the recording room. His guitar. The peach one.

It's 3 AM. There's nobody else in this enormous building.

I reach out for the guitar, and I stop.

I am convinced that no matter how carefully I treat this instrument, no matter how I return it to the stand, Prince will just KNOW.

Like a fairy tale, he will walk in. His back will stiffen. He will say "Someone played my guitar last night."

And then, like the Terminator, he will sense it is me. And he will point his finger at me and say "it was him. He played my guitar." And that will be the end.

So I don't play it. I just stand there for a moment, as close to Prince as I'll ever get. And then I turn around and walk out, hoping that The Purple One doesn't sense it.

3. Seal

Prince happens to be working in one studio at the same time that Seal is working on his follow-up to his first album in another room.

Seal is a huge Prince fan. I mean that in every sense. Seal is a tall guy (6' 4"), and Prince relatively compact (5' 2"). Seal wanted to meet Prince, and I was tasked with finding out if this was "OK".

Of course, it was NOT OK. I was told that Prince was not going to meet Seal.

Seal was not to be deterred. The door to Seal's studio was right by the front door of the facility, and Prince had to walk right by it to leave. So Seal hides behind his studio door, peeking out, waiting.

Sure enough, at around 6 pm, Prince is getting ready to leave. Prince's bodyguard clears the hallway, and gives Prince the "all clear" sign. Prince starts walking briskly down the hallway, his bodyguard following close behind.

It's maybe 20' of walking. Right before he is able to exit, Seal bursts out of his studio, blocks the way, and says to Prince "I'm a huge fan, I just wanted to say hello and that I love your music."

Prince freezes, stares up at Seal, and says a clipped "thanks", as he tries to fumble past through the door while the bodyguard rapidly closes the distance and gives Seal a look between "I'll kill you" and "not cool, bro, not cool at all".

After Prince leaves, Seal is smiling and laughing.


Prince

Prince

Prince Rogers Nelson was an incredible musician by any standard.

He could play guitar, bass, drums, and keyboards with great proficiency. He was a restless and creative composer who quickly pushed himself out of one genre into another and eventually moved into his own genre altogether. He was a challenging bandleader who forged strong links between his players and made sure that his band could play all the parts he wrote perfectly, and dance while doing it.

Prince wrote hits, and not just for himself. His songs provided number 1 or top 10 hits for countless artists in his 80s heyday, including Sheena Easton, The Bangles, The Time, Sinead O'Connor, Chaka Khan (!) and of course, Sheila E.

Prince's songs were smart. He might be rude, he might be naughty, he might even be dirty, but never, ever dumb musically or lyrically.

Like many of the other musicians that influenced me, Prince was an "I do it all myself in the studio" person, who wrote, played, produced, and recorded. His use of technology became a signature, not a gimmick. Prince pulled distinctive sounds out of otherwise banal instruments -- his pitch-shifted Linn drum beats and squealing guitar tones are unmistakable. And then there's that fantastic voice, capable of moving from a whisper to a scream, from a cartoonish low register to an angelic high.

Prince had a very particular personal muse he was chasing. Prince sang about love and sex, god and earthly matters, and he did it his way: frank, obtuse, weird, and beautiful. His albums weren't overtly concept-y, for the most part, and still they had themes and palettes and vibes.

His run of classic albums, starting with "Dirty Mind" and running up through "Lovesexy", is hard to top. The depth and range of songs is remarkable, and his best albums take you from hopped-up dance-along hooky pop songs to steamy slow-jams, always with a few bizarre detours. It never feels artificial or stagey.

Prince was an artist that all of my friends could appreciate, whether new waver or punk rocker or mainstream person or whatever, everyone knew Prince was amazing. His music could start a party, and his albums were always good for listening in intimate situations.

Prince was "the real deal", a musician's musician who could talk about and appreciate artists ranging from Gary Numan (whom Prince said was "a genius") to Joni Mitchell (who Prince often cited as his favorite musician of all time).

In some ways, Prince was the opposite of Bowie. Prince was always PRINCE -- there was no other mask, no other costume -- but who Prince was kept changing, as he aged and the world moved around him. Unlike, say, Madonna, Prince managed to get older while retaining some dignity, and was comfortable being an amazing musician  without having to constantly be in the spotlight or on magazine covers.

I kept listening to albums after 1989's disappointing "Batman", wishing he would make something else I liked. He would occasionally bust out an incredible hit, just to prove he could whenever he wanted. But his music in the 90s and beyond, while competent, lacked the weird fire that his earlier stuff had.

I doubt it is because he got "worse" at music. I think instead he simply decided he didn't care about pleasing anyone but himself, and what pleased him was different than what pleased me. Nothing wrong with that, and even when I didn't like the records, I could always appreciate the skill and craft.

Goodnight, sweet Prince. We shall not look upon your like again. Thank you for the music.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Bowie

I am deeply saddened to hear of David Bowie's death. He was a tremendous influence on my life as a musician and as a person.

I had little familiarity with his music before "Let's Dance" came out -- I was a freshman in high school -- and that was when I first really heard and appreciated him. I dug into his back catalog, discovering how inventive, great, and different his music was. Not just different from what else was out there (though that was always the case), but how different his records were from each other. Most artists struggle to break through and then spin variations on that successful theme for the majority of their career. Not Bowie.

While David Bowie's work does have recurring themes and favorite tropes, he never really repeated himself the way most musicians do. ("Ziggy"/"Aladdin" and "Low"/"Heroes" are about as close as he gets to repeating himself, and I'll give him a pass because those were rich veins to mine, and he still managed to evolve.)

Bowie made total artistic statements with his records, changing his image to reflect the music and vice versa. It was a potent combination and made me think about "albums" and "songs" as more than just sound. He was both original and more than willing to reference many other artists and works.


After the huge success of "Let's Dance" faded ("Tonight" is underrated, by the way), Bowie got weird. With hindsight, the "commercial failures" of his late 80s/early 90s output seem more like initial explorations or warm-ups for the increasingly adventurous records he'd make for the rest of his career.

In this respect -- achieving mainstream acceptance, then turning around and walking off into the arty wilderness --  Bowie was very much like Scott Walker (who he greatly admired) and David Sylvian (who owes a great debt to Bowie). This, too, became something for me to learn, understand, and emulate.

He was financially successful as an artist, and again an innovator here, with "Bowie bonds". But his true success is in the tremendous cultural impact he had. Many artists (if not entire musical genres), including some of my favorites, owe their entire careers to bits of things Bowie did once and put aside. That's not a slight to these artists and their music, but rather an indication of how much territory Bowie covered.

He also had great impact in my peer group. His music and different guises spoke to many of my friends, with different messages for each of us. Which Bowie did you like? We shared our favorite albums, turned each other on to his different phases, and anticipated his future releases. I think of periods in my life and remember which Bowie albums I was into at the time.

I find myself surprised at how deeply I feel the loss of his death, fighting back tears all day long. Perhaps it is the suddenness. Like his recent work, his passing was unexpected, seemed ahead of its time, and most people don't like it.

This time, not liking it is the correct response.

Thank you for the music, David. I miss you more than I thought possible.


***

For those who have never heard David Bowie at all, or heard him beyond the hits, or are curious, I compiled a list of my favorite tracks from nearly all of his major albums. Even when David Bowie is singing someone else's song, it becomes his.