Inside the Purple Vault of Prince

“I think over 70% of the music we’ve worked on for Prince is yet to be released.”

-Brent Fischer, Grammy winning composer and collaborator with Prince

And that’s a LOT, seeing how Prince put out nearly 40 studio albums released during his career of as many years.

Now, I’m not going to eulogize him – others more capable have done it already since his death last week. I prefer to focus on the music, and the hope that there still may be more to come.

Recording engineer Susan Rogers was hired Prince in 1983 to work in Paisley Park, his personal recording studio in Minneapolis, MN. She explained “I want us to have everything he’s ever recorded right here,” for convenience as well as for the sake of preservation. “When I left in ’87 it was nearly full…it was just row after row after row after row of everything we did.” And that was nearly three decades ago. By her estimate, of Prince’s best “30% (of recorded music), I’ll bet the public has heard about 20% of it.”

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Hans Martin-Buff, another studio engineer, helped Prince record in the 90’s and confirms the prodigious output of the man: “In the same way that most people have a conversation about their day, Prince creates music. It’s effortless for him.”

Evidence of Prince’s willingness to shelve quality material is found in the story of his legendary Black Album, his 16th studio record. Officially it has no title and is credited to no artist, as the LP and CD covers were simply black with no text. He decided it should be pulled prior to the scheduled release date in 1987. The story goes that he felt it was too dark and negative, and out of step with his spiritual feelings at the time. (Note: The Black Album was eventually released in 1994 in limited numbers and without a single or a marketing push from the label. Due to these circumstances, it is regarded as one of the most heavily bootlegged albums of all time, only adding to the artist’s aura of intrigue.)

Not to be excluded from the discussion are Princes electrifying live performances, which were also heavily documented. Alan Leeds, former head of Paisley Park Records says “[Prince] recorded every concert he ever did…so the wealth of material goes way beyond just studio recordings.” If you just know the studio hits, please try and check out some videos of Prince to see what an amazing performer he was, ripping out Hendrix-like guitar runs in between soulful vocals and tightly choreographed dance breaks, and making it look as easy as getting out of bed.

Michael Bland, who was a drummer for Prince goes on to say “There’s all sorts of music in the vault, there’s two other movies that nobody ever saw….I can’t even tell you how many songs were recorded because it happened so frequently.”

Though we can all keep our fingers crossed on the release of some amazing new music, Bland points out that there may be a benefit to keeping it under wraps: “It keeps the mystique only because the door is shut.”

A Blues Man In Therapy

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“Can you remember the first time you felt you were ‘born under a bad sign’, as you put it?”

Ramblin’ Hambone stroked his chin, grizzled and covered with grey stubble, and stared unblinking at the community college certificates on Debbie’s wall. The room was furnished like a living room, with three chairs in the center facing together, and multi-cultural artwork, seemingly picked out without any attempt at cohesion, decorated the walls and bookcases.

“Yuhh….I’ve been down since I began to crawl,” he croaked, and began to turn up the volume knob on the battered Gibson Firebird electric guitar on his knee.

“Mr. Hambone? Maybe no guitar during the sessions, so we concentrate on just talking please?” Debbie patiently asked, her long, straight, salt and pepper hair pulled back. She wore a Sanskrit “Om” pendant around her skinny neck. “Thank you. Now, tell me more about your childhood please.”

“I ain’t nothin’ but a country boy, driftin’ from town to town. Said I ain’t nothin’ but a country boy, driftin’ from town to town, have mercy.”

“Now, do you often repeat yourself? Do you feel that people are not listening to you?” she asked in response.

“Now when I was a young boy, at the age of five. My mother said I was gonna be the greatest man alive. But now I’m a man, way past 21. Want you to believe me baby, I had lots of fun.”

Debbie jotted down a note on the notepad on her knee with a pencil. “The expectations of others can be a trigger for depression, and it’s not uncommon for people to cope by self-medicating with drugs, alcohol, and sexual promiscuity,” she confirmed. “Oh, and please call me Deborah or Debbie. ‘Baby’ is not appropriate for a therapeutic relationship.”

“I got a little red rooster, too lazy to crow for day. Oh, I got a little red rooster too lazy to crow for day. Keep everything in the barnyard upset in every way.”

“Ok, so sometimes you have difficulty getting out of bed? Depression can have a serious impact on our productivity. And do you ever have any feelings of hopelessness?”

“The thrill is gone away. The thrill is gone away for good” Ramblin’ stated bleakly.

“Well you woke up one morning to learn that your girlfriend left you, you have no money or job, and it’s flooding where you live. Those are some major life events,” said Debbie with genuine empathy, nodding her head gently and grimacing at RH. “Why, it’s no wonder you have ‘the blues’!” She added air quotes to that last phrase.

“Next week we can pick up where we left off and maybe go over some coping strategies that don’t involve whiskey, cigarettes, or shooting your woman down? Ooh I almost forgot! There’s the matter of the copay. Who is your insurance provider?”

“Yaw…mmm…lessee what I got down heauh,” muttered Ramblin’ Hambone as he slowly fished through the pockets of his worn-out trousers, finding a flask, a few guitar picks, loose change, and a hound’s tooth in a small flannel bag– apparently a hoodoo talisman – before coming upon a bent plastic card.

He squinted at the card for a moment. “It’s Blues Cross of Alabama.”

“BLUE Cross,” she corrected him, “but that’s fine. I take that.”

Listening Party

I think most people have pretty eclectic taste in music. I rarely come across somebody these days who only align themselves with one or two genres. That’s a good thing. It’s funny because we tend to lump other people into categories like “hip hop fan” or “country fan,” which might not be fair after all.

To my ear, Ween and John Coltrane are both fantastic. I think there’s room for Sonic Youth as well as Eddie Van Halen in the rock guitar pantheon. An aside, if Sonic Youth didn’t have the noise-rock/art school image they could have been one of the biggest psychedelic bands. I recall friend of mine once pointed out a similar thing about the German group Can.

But having a broad taste comes at a price. When my iWhatever shuffle went from Jay-Z to Yes I must have passed out from the shock. Because when I woke up, there was 11:37 left on the Yes song, so I calculate that there was over eight minutes of unaccounted for time. I don’t think I was abducted by aliens, but you never really know.