Word of the prodigy Prince Rogers Nelson was already echoing throughout the Twin Cities when I was in high school in 1980. His music video for “Dirty Mind” was able to make it on a late-night syndicated music video show on local TV, yet no radio station in town played his music. So it was hard to hear his music. On the other hand, for those over 19, Prince concerts were pretty easy to come by in town early on. I remember KQRS playing cuts off of “Controversy”, but only on a Sunday night show called “Twin Cities Beat”. I dug the Moog and Oberheim synthesiser parts. I recognised their sound by visiting the Roger Dodger music shop about once a month. By then, the Minneapolis Sound was invading everywhere. KTCA, the local PBS affiliate, started it’s own TV program called “Music Twin Cities” (or something like that). It brought into the TV studio live bands including the Time.
For my part, I still preferred English pop music, which was exploding into the U.S. via MTV at the time. Synth pop reigned supreme back then, with Gary Numan and Human League leading the way. But in 1982, Prince released “1999”, and all that synthesiser pop esthetic was embedded into an album made by a guy from Minneapolis. That album was the first time Minneapolis came under the global spotlight. There was a charge of excitement in town now that the Golden Child had finally reached stardom. Perhaps like Seattle later became synonymous with the grunge sound, Minneapolis now was identified as being a funk pop mecca. As much as Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis were integral to this scene, it was the addictive energy that emanated from this little man, Prince, that caused this incredible buzz.
“1999” took off. All the talk in high school was about getting tickets to see him at the Met Center. Back then you went to the Dayton’s ticket office downtown. By midday all there was left were seats in the very back. For me, it was a chance to witness the phenomena of a rare period of time when a history-making personality was just starting to blaze a legendary career. At that concert, there was The Vanity 6, and the Time opening. Like I mentioned, the long funk jams, and other extravagant arrangements weren’t my favourite, as opposed the tightly arranged radio-friendly tracks like “Little Red Corvette” and the title track.
Most know of Prince and his connection to the music club First Avenue, in downtown Minneapolis. Even without Prince’s influence, First Avenue already was developing a national reputation for showcasing breakthrough bands. But now, First Avenue was the center of the musical world. After high school, I moved into a warehouse space downtown. I was a delivery driver for a pizza place called A Slice of New York, which was co-owned by Mark McClellan. The McClellan clan had a local reputation that is not something to go into right now. Let’s just say the McClellan brothers are larger-than-life characters. Mark’s brother Steve ran First Avenue. For that reason, staff from Slice of New York were pretty much allowed to go into the club anytime they wanted. Except perhaps for the more high brow events there, then it was better to get some comp tickets.
So for the majority of the 1980s, the same time Minneapolis and First Avenue were in the spotlight, I was living and hanging out there. My musical ambitions at the time were to have a pop band, one that was especially focused on heavy studio production. I shared a practice space with Chuck Zwicky, an accomplished sound technician and engineer. He became especially fixated on Prince’s studio sound. When “Purple Rain” came out, there were extended listening sessions, dissecting the type of drums sounds and reverb amongst other things. My natural inclination to all the hype was to make fun of it. I had heard “Let’s Go Crazy” a zillion times on the radio. My brain had started to concoct alternate lyrics, primarily to make the 100th airing of his songs more entertaining for me.
But also as enticing for me was to emulate the production style of “Purple Rain” in a completely lo-tech fashion. So I sent the Drumulator drum sounds through a speaker placed in a concrete hallway of the practice space. I had a microphone in the hall to pick up the reverb, and mixed it with the drums. To make the reverb sound bigger, I compressed it using one of Chuck’s home-made effects boxes. I asked Chuck, who was also a guitar prodigy, to lay the guitar tracks on my cassette demos. I created about 6 tracks from the Prince album that were both experiments in pop music production, but also to share my sense of humour. The lyrics exchanged the subject of sex for food. The project was called “Purple Grapes”.
For fun I made a copy of my music experiments for Jodi Itman, a friend I knew back from high school. She would send my music to her brother Joel, living in Paris at the time. He loved my quirky take on Prince and immediately wanted to come back to Minneapolis and film a parody. With so many people touched by Prince in town, the ability to replicate the look and sound of the movie and the album came very easy. Andre Cymone supplied the Linn Drum used to create the signature drum beats. Dave Comer, a studio technician, had cobbled together old studio equipment. No one had dared try to make a parody of Prince before. Joel and I really did this whole thing on a lark, hoping to put smiles on people’s faces.
We knew that Prince would hear of “Purple Grapes”, and we had no idea what the reaction would be. Bill Bruce, a friend of Joel, sent a copy to Prince. Chuck later confirmed that Prince at some point watched some of it. No legal warning was ever sent to us (even so, I pulled a prank calling Joel pretending to be a lawyer just because of our paranoia about it). On the other hand, no profit came from any sale of the film (of course no one was willing to buy it without legal permission). The film gained cult status, and played underground showings at First Avenue, the Uptown theatre, music and movie night in Loring Park, and Film in the Cities. All this time, I never met Prince myself. In my mind I was the Anti-Prince, the only person in town bold enough to make fun of him.
Although I was the star of the film short, I never acted much after that. I made plans to create parody songs off of Prince’s new album “Around the World In a Day”. It was also around that time that Dave Comer brought into his home studio Prince’s actual LM1 drum machine. Here was the generator of the immortal handclap sound that became part of his signature sound. The drum samples could be tuned up or down, and Prince was the first person to deliberately exaggerate the tuning, so the hand clap now sounded like a wicked noisy sound effect. But by the time the film “Under the Cherry Moon” was released, it seemed nobody could make Prince look more ridiculous than himself. Oddly enough, a French pop singer named Sapho, who Joel Itman knew, was offered a role in the film. She turned it down. My efforts to form a band never materialised, instead I became proficient in creating entire song arrangements in the studio on my own. By the 1990s, my own sound and music career had not taken off. It was only my humourous approach to the world around me that allowed me to be a soundtrack composer and video editor for a sketch comedy TV show, and later an 80s mashup band.
But Minneapolis, and everything about it, was charged with the energy of Prince. I once participated as an extra for a music video Prince was shooting at Paisley Park. What I felt was so terrific about Prince was that by this time (around 1991) he was like everybody’s friend. Nobody would crowd or rush him if he was seen in public around town. When I hung out between takes at Paisley Park, I enjoyed sitting on a purple couch, taking in the behind-the-scenes going on. The backup dancers were complaining that Prince kept changing the choreography. When the cameras were finally rolling, I made sure I was in the shot. Prince liked my dancing, asking the other extras to be more like me. He never recognised me as the guy from “Purple Grapes” (not that I expected him to).
The only other time I saw Prince was one of his First Avenue shows, this time to debut new material from “Sign o’ the Times”. I remember waiting on the main floor for 2 hours, and that my feet were sore by the time the concert started. Nevertheless there he was. Prince has performed incredibly long and legendary performances at First Avenue. This show was thankfully under 2 hours (for my feet’s sake). I continued to pay attention to music released by Prince throughout the 90s. My friend Chuck, who eventually worked at Paisley Park studios, told me that the man was constantly churning out material. He would do all-nighters in the studio, burning out sound engineers like him. I later recognised that Prince possessed almost a curse, where he always had music pouring out of his head, whether he wanted to or not. Paul McCartney also seems to be constantly producing material. In Prince’s case, there are whole albums recorded and stored away, because the common wisdom is to not dilute your music legacy by releasing so much music.
By the 2000s, I only occasionally would hear new stuff from Prince on the radio. Catching video of him jamming here and there (what a big moment he had at the Super Bowl), but otherwise not really keeping up with him. But again, when word would get out that he would hold a private concert at his studio, the same glow would return, relishing in the fact that this person who has become one of the biggest musical legends in history, still invites the people to join him. No other celebrities do that. I caught word of his hip surgery, and more recently of his plane being diverted because of medical reasons. But when I heard of his death it was a complete shock. Since there were no other signs of him being more gravely ill, I thought perhaps it was a car accident or something like that.
Nobody, especially in Minneapolis, understood Prince’s true influence upon the world immediately after his death. After all, Michael Jackson was given a large array of tributes once he passed away, and there were many who grieved outwardly around the world. More recently the passing of David Bowie was noted worldwide, but perhaps with less of an outpouring, mainly because of his legacy being such a long time ago. But it soon became something more personal when Prince died. One of the best examples of how many people he touched was the fact that the President made a statement about his passing. His child-like attitude about having the world treat him special was a both a gift and source of ridicule. For one, he certainly deserved to be treated special, because this man gave so much to everyone around him. Never once did he perform without going for 100% crowd pleasing expectations.
I am now finding that a Minneapolis without a Prince will probably be a little less exciting now. The legend is gone.