Boston-based saxophonist and composer Russ Gershon founded the ten-piece Either/Orchestra and Accurate Records, as well as playing in rock, funk, Latin, and jazz bands and studio projects. With the Either/Orchestra, he has been deeply involved with Ethiopian music for over a decade, working with legends like Mahmoud Ahmed and Mulatu Astatke. Recently he has been playing, singing and arranging in the Latin Bugalú revival band Lookie Lookie. Gershon has taught instruments and music history at levels from grade school to college and worked as a jazz DJ. Despite 35 years in the biz, he still loves music.
image: MICHAEL JACKSON is a writer, photographer, printmaker, and saxophone player based in Chicago.
If credible reports emerged that Prince had died a virgin, I would not be surprised. His imagination was so vivid and powerful that it seems almost plausible he could have been singing about sex for forty years without ever having engaged in it. Prince was a paradox, an explosive bundle of opposites, a man exposed yet mysterious. Florid fusion chops yoked to sure pop instincts. Elementally simple grooves draped with layers of complexity. A tiny man with a huge imagination. A painfully shy exhibitionist. A monastic hedonist.
And just maybe these contradictions explain my emotions at his passing. I never knew him or played music with him, alas, so I respond only to his public self. Unlike the death of—oh, there have been too many—I do not find myself crying tears of loss or catharsis or rage. I am jolted that a man my own age, still in his artistic prime, died so unexpectedly. My sense of awe at his otherworldly abilities grows as I revisit the familiar and catch up with what I missed. I am exhausted by the mortality of our idols, and he was one. He played his ass off and addressed the most important topics, high and low. But my heart feels less wounded than I would have expected when I heard the news, and I've been wondering why.
Around the time of his third album, Dirty Mind (1980), I and most everyone I knew caught on to the fact that Prince was extraordinarily talented. I started calling him “Mozart” for his apparently effortless musicality. As a musician making my way in the pop scene at that time, I admired everything about him, from his songs to his success to his sheer chutzpah. He got me up and shaking my booty while simultaneously asking myself the musician's ultimate questions: “How did he DO that, and, how can I ever do something half as good?” Yet he didn't touch my soul, not yet. As sweaty and naked and rhythmic and inspiring as he was, there was always a layer of glass between him and the world, a bit of distance. Was it me? Could I not allow myself to be turned all the way on by a miniature, moustachioed man sporting mascara? Or maybe it was him—what could he be holding back while projecting a persona that seemed to be about giving it all up, all the time?
There are clues in plain sight within his most iconic songs. In “1999” he repeatedly tells us “I was dreamin' when I wrote this...”; “When Doves Cry” frames the story he tells as a representation: “Dig if you will the picture...”; even some of his biggest turn-ons happen inside his head: “Whenever I'm around you, baby/I get a dirty mind.” His strongest emotions exist in the act of remembering: “I love you more than I did/when you were mine.” Despite his public physical abandon, we see over and over that Prince's most profound and engaging place was deep inside his thoughts—and in his studio.
Sybaritic persona notwithstanding, it's now clear that Prince was the ultimate music wonk, living and breathing it daily for pretty much his entire life. He knew his music history and theory, his predecessors, and the inner workings of the genres that interested him. Like Jimi, Stevie and Sly (and Shuggie Otis, the man who might have been Prince), he was a human crossroads of blues, gospel, soul, funk, jazz, rock. We marvel at how he assayed so many genres within his oeuvre; at least as striking is how well he understood and respected the elements that defined each style, the way he was able to keep his colors clear and distinct. There is a great moment in his second album, Prince, where the silky, deliberate soul ballad “With You” segues into the outrageously snarly guitar of “Bambi.” A contrast so intentionally extreme makes its own statement: “I am in control; I am the master of both these unlike things.” (As an aside, “Bambi” mines the fusion-hard rock vein that David Sancious worked for a moment—yet another African-American virtuoso who had infiltrated the world of 70's rock.) There are dozens of brilliant musical allusions; is not “Paisley Park” a perfect evocation of the Kinks while sounding like nobody but Prince? Yet genre hopping can also be a form of detachment.
Control. Craftsmanship. Skill. Insanely long hours of obsessive work. Multi-instrumentalism. Studio perfectionism. Control. More time in the studio. Another dozen songs that will never be heard. Drafts and mixes. Experiments that fail, and ones that succeed. Calls from the lawyers. Dreaming. Days alone with only a recording engineer deep within the severe cement blockhouse that is Paisley Park, a place whose outside and inside—like its owner's—were so different. Control. Control. Control. It is that desire for control, and the sheer ability to control so much and so well, that sets Prince apart from the pack—and at a remove from us.
The film Purple Rain is at least as much personal mythmaking as professional filmmaking and tells us a lot about who Prince is. As “the Kid” he romances “Apollonia,” played by Patricia Kotero, a singer who was actually renamed “Apollonia” for the her subsequent career. Prince projects himself as Dionysus, the god of wine, madness and ecstasy, the opposite of the orderly and controlling Apollo. He enacts Dionysian disinhibition on the stage of First Avenue throughout, yet in truth he's more Apollonian than Apollonia. It is she who is buffeted by emotion, foolishly jumping in a cold lake on an implied dare, gravitating back to the Kid even when his rival offers her career opportunity, forgiving him though he hits her and humiliates her via his stage performance. The Kid, on the other hand, calculates and watches Apollonia take the bait over and over. Concurrently, he refuses to share artistic control and consider a song written by band members Wendy and Lisa, despite its allure.
The Kid controls his band, love life, and music with an intensity that matches the force of his repressed fear and rage. When his father attempts suicide, the Kid loses control, ironically leading him to a hidden stash of the father's musical compositions, his hidden emotional core. As a result of this catharsis, the Kid opens himself to Wendy and Lisa's song, predictably enough providing the climactic moments of the film. But real life contradicts the message-to-self embedded in the film: the song “Purple Rain,” was not written by (the real) Wendy and Lisa, an actual songwriting team, but by Prince. He didn't cede songwriting control—wisely, as his own song is indeed a great one and became his biggest hit. As enacted in this manifesto of a film and throughout his career, we see Prince playing Dionysus but being Apollo, draping abandon and sensuality on a scaffolding of discipline and order.
Prince is well known for a monumental legal battle with Warner Brothers over control of his music catalog, and for the treasure trove of music he created but never released. The music that he did allow out of his secret place onto recordings, or when he himself emerged from the workshop and onto a stage, projects anything but the image of an obsessive, a scholar, a craftsman. Has there ever been another performer as devoted to sensuality, to the stimulation of the nervous system in all the right ways, and blessed with the artistry to take us along? With his trim, androgynous body, beautiful big brown eyes, amazing hairdos and outfits, and an array of dance moves that somehow encompassed James Brown and Charlie Chaplin (as Miles Davis pointed out), he was made to be touched, felt, beheld.
His very petiteness was a provocation and an invitation, making his outrageous affect a bit more approachable, and casting everyone around him larger and more monumental on stage. (The ability to make their sidemen seem bigger than life is a quality many charismatic star bandleaders seem to share.) The chipmunk falsetto and slightly constricted chest voice gave him license to sing increasingly scurrilous things but made them somehow slightly less dangerous than if they had been sung with a conventionally masculine approach. The sheer variety of his voices kept us guessing as to who exactly was singing to us, and each vocal personae stimulated a different response. His sensation-creating arsenal was second to none and always seemed spontaneous and organic.
It is fascinating to watch video of Prince in ostensibly loose settings. One clip making the rounds is the rendition of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” from George Harrison's posthumous 2004 Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame induction. Prince stands all the way to the side, as incognito as one can be in a bright red fedora and matching shirt, while Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne work their way through the song and Marc Mann takes a professional guitar solo. When they arrive at the long ending section, Prince plays a brilliant solo in disjunct episodes, each one masterful, different and more striking than the last. His solo renders the rest of the performance wooden. We are thrilled but not surprised: he's been laying in the weeds like many a jam session master, and, after all, he's Prince.
What cracks me up the most happens at about 4:45, when he falls backwards off the stage—and is caught by his roadie, who pushes him back up—much to the amazement of young Dhani Harrison and everybody else. Obviously Prince has arranged this bit of staging with his body man in advance, an ancient R&B trick, something he has done in his own shows, perhaps a tad tasteless for this particular event but perfectly calibrated. The performance is pure Prince, and he visualized the whole thing with such clarity: his restraint through the body of the song, the structure of the fabulous guitar solo, the stage fall, the ramped up guitar pyrotechnics, and finally a guitar toss (to the same roadie) at the end of the song—and possessed the skills to execute it to perfection. Know that this is just one of thousands of moments in a career where he demonstrated that the workshop of his imagination was always bigger and brighter than the real world. We, the audience, intuitively understand that we are privileged to be briefly allowed inside his inner world.
But our access is granted for only for a moment or two, or even three, or maybe for thirty nine authorized albums, three films, a bunch of videos, and a murderer's row of big time TV appearances… and always under Prince's authority. We see his body, his face, his talent—but only as much as he allows and at the time and manner of his choosing. When he is enacting ecstasy he is not himself experiencing it—no, he has planned it out in advance, visualized the moment, calculated the response he wants us to have and then executed. To perfection.
Finally, now, Prince has lost control. Hell, he didn't even leave a will. We are now learning more than ever that he was a generous, good, thoughtful, alert, playful human. The cloak of silence he lowered over his good works, demanded by his Jehovah's Witness faith and his own inclinations, is lifting. His inner circle of collaborators and friends are releasing a flood of admirable stories, even folded within the tales of how difficult he could be.
Now I am crying, listening to his music, “A Million Days,” a song I didn't know till now. Prince was a miracle, a gift to us. Yet the same qualities that enabled him to do amazing things also keep him remote. In our relationship with Prince, he is always in charge, because he wants to be, because he has to be.
It's only been a hour since you left me
But it feels like a million days
If eye had a magic wand eye could turn back time
Eye'd never let you go away
Eye didn't have the heart to say eye'm sorry
Now eye haven't got a heart at all
Eye could tolerate the pain if eye could talk to my best friend
But you won't even call, won't even call
© 1995 Prince