Dig if You Will the Picture
By Ben Greenman
The phrase is stuck in my head. It’s the great Greg Tate weighing in on Miles Davis’s passing. Talking about it, Tate wrote, “seems more sillyass than sad.” I think that’s what Tate wrote. I went looking for my copy of Flyboy in the Buttermilk, Tate’s 1992 essay collection, and I can’t find it. I’ve looked everywhere. Still, I have the sentence in my mind, and it’s not coming out. It’s a good way of explaining how the departures of some people from the world make it seem like the world is disappearing rather than those people. It throws the whole question of existence into flux: If they’re not here, how can we be sure that we are?
On the morning of April 21, 2016, I was at a sandwich shop, unwrapping lunch. First, I got an e-mail from my brother. Subject: “Prince.” Body of message: “Noooo!” The next message was a link from my mother, who was passing along news from KTLA in Los Angeles that authorities had been dispatched to Paisley Park to remove the body of an unidentified decedent. The dots connected themselves.
I was stunned into something more than silence: I was stunned into clamor. All at once, I heard Prince’s music, not snatches of a few songs in medley but all of them, brutally overlaid. I heard the volcanic guitar from “When Doves Cry.” I heard the scraping percussion from “Kiss.” I heard the keening synthesizers of songs like “Automatic” and the rubbed-raw passion of “The Beautiful Ones.” It was impossible to endure the music in that form, everything coming in at one time. It was a violence being done to some of the things that I loved the most.
The first Prince album I bought was 1999, which I picked up on cassette in a Peaches Records store in Miami. This was back in November of 1982, when it was new and I was new to Prince. I bought it for the cover art — his name and the record’s title sinuously lettered on a field of purple stars, the dozens of hidden icons and messages — and listened to the music obsessively for weeks. After that, I was hooked. I went back and bought all the earlier albums, and from then on I never missed a release. In high school, I went directly from school to the store. In college, I showed up before the store opened. I remember getting Around the World in a Day in April of 1985, in the rain in Miami, and Sign O’ the Times in March of 1987, in the midst of a surprise New Haven warm spell. I bought singles, too: the “Glam Slam” seven-inch, with “Escape” on the B side, came out in 1988, when I was back in Miami for the summer. The presidential election season was in full swing; the clerk at Peaches was a Gephardt guy and was saying so to the girl ahead of me in line. When I got to the cash register, I braced myself for more political talk. Instead, the clerk tapped the single, which was packaged in a transparent sleeve. “Wouldn’t have been my choice,” he said. “I would have picked ‘Dance On.’ ”
I agreed. “Glam Slam” was a little airy for my tastes. “Dance On” was tougher funk. “He’ll probably release that as the next single,” I said.
“You’re probably right,” the clerk said.
I wasn’t. He released the even airier “I Wish U Heaven.” I bought that one, too.
A great deal of my (my parents’) money went into Prince’s (his record label’s) pocket over the years. He released more than forty albums and almost a hundred singles and charted on the Billboard Hot 100 every year between 1978 and 1993. Nineteen of his songs made the top ten. Five went to number one: “When Doves Cry,” “Let’s Go Crazy,” “Kiss,” “Batdance,” and “Cream.” His signature song, “Purple Rain,” peaked at number two, kept from the top spot by Wham!’s “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go.”
Those are just statistics, though — and sales statistics at that, the worst kind. They set the lower bound for his significance. Prince was, as Eddie Murphy said of Stevie Wonder, a musical genius. He was also, as he said of himself, a star. But he was several other things as well: lickerish pup, doe-eyed Jeremiah, peace cowboy, jazz-age sweetie, sylvan sprite, slam-bang funk bricoleur, spiritual pilgrim, sexual puppeteer, husband (twice), father (once, too briefly), man. For me, for most of my youth, he was something to defend fiercely. Adults — and plenty of other kids, for that matter — didn’t seem to understand him. They didn’t like the way he dressed, or underdressed. They made fun of his creepy little mustache (the dad of a kid I knew said that it looked like “someone’s horribly wrong guess at something that someone else might find attractive”). They dismissed his music as pornographic, or hubristic, or melodramatic. They acted in error.
In the summer of 1989, I rented a small bungalow in Key Largo for a month. It was just after my junior year of college, and I was trying to write a novel. I wanted to be alone. That was how art got made, right? My girlfriend drove me down and dropped me off. About two days later, I called her: I had made a terrible mistake with this “alone” stuff. Could she visit me? And, oh, by the way, before she drove down to see me, could she pick up Prince’s new album, the soundtrack to that summer’s blockbuster, Batman? We could listen to it together. My motives were impure, in that they were oddly pure. I wasn’t motivated by sex or even really by loneliness. I wanted the record.
Batman started with “The Future,” a slice of simmering dystopian funk that sampled the movie’s dialogue, and then it was on to “Electric Chair,” an aggressive rock song noteworthy less for its sound (thudding bass, screeching guitar, verse-chorus-verse structure) than for its psychology. “If a man is considered guilty / for what goes on in his mind,” Prince sang, “then give me the electric chair / for all my future crimes.”
“That’s quite an idea,” my girlfriend said. And it was. Prince didn’t explicitly mention Matthew 5:28 (“everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart”) or Orwell’s notion of crimethink, but he was wrestling with the same ideas, wondering about the relationship between personal transgression and social control. That night, I turned on the TV for the first time that summer and we watched the video for “Batdance,” the lead single from the album. It was directed by Albert Magnoli, who had directed Purple Rain and who was, by the late eighties, also Prince’s manager. The “Batdance” video was staged like a Broadway musical — and not a good one, either — with a glut of colored lights and floor fog. Prince appeared as a character named Gemini. It was his actual astrological sign, but also an ontological model: half purple and half green, half hero and half villain, Gemini was the literal embodiment of something that had been in Prince’s work from the start, a deep and abiding commitment to exposing internal contradictions in the human experience. The “Batdance” video wasn’t good, but it was great.
It all was, for a while. When I started off with Prince — when anyone my age did — he was operating at a level that few other pop artists could even see, let alone reach. From Dirty Mind, in 1980, through to Batman, he rarely if ever put a foot wrong, and in the glorious middle of that period (from 1999, in 1982, to Sign O’ the Times, in 1987), 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. At some point, the seams began to show. He made wobbly records, like Graffiti Bridge, and wearying ones, like Diamonds and Pearls. The awe we all felt at his talent turned to something else — to estimation, to the realization that he could be dropsical at times, fussy at times, incoherent at times. Rather than see him as a factory of genius that never faltered, I came to understand that even Prince sometimes had to get up on the step stool and, sighing, reset the “Days Since Last Accident” sign. As it turns out, that intensified my interest in him rather than erasing it. Perfection in artwork turns the contents cold. Flaws are what make for beauty, the way a stray strand tumbling out of an impeccable hairstyle ignites the heart.
So what is this book? It’s an attempt to suture the laceration left by his death, to repair the rip in the world. It’s an investigation. It’s a celebration. In some ways, it’s a frustration as well. I wish I could transfuse the joy of hearing all Prince’s albums over all the years — the great ones, the mixed bags, the duds — onto the page. But that experience can’t be fully recaptured. It happened and then passed into the has-happened. So, this is not the gold itself, pulled up from the ocean floor as the treasure hunters wait breathlessly on the ship. Nor is it a detailed technical account of how the gold was located, extracted, and lifted. It’s the footage of that moment. It’s a visit to the museum where that gold is on display, a full-faith-and-credit description of the glow.
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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.
Copyright © 2017 by Ben Greenman. Excerpted from Dig If You Will the Picture: Funk, Sex, God and Genius in the Music of Prince