About a decade or so back, give or take, I wrote and recorded a song for a woman I particularly liked at the time. She was not what you would call music-savvy, but when I explained that I played all of the instruments on the song myself she promptly responded with, “Like Prince does.”
“Yes,” I replied. “I’m pretty much just like Prince.” Here’s the funny part, though: I am just like Prince. Not in the sense of being an inhumanly talented and accomplished musical prodigy, of course. Rather, we have both demonstrated an ability to make enemies and foul our own nest for reasons ranging from a manic belief in our artistic integrity to simple mean-spiritedness.
A few weeks ago, for example, I was sent the final PDF of something I’d written for a major print publication — not R&T, I hasten to add. The article had been given to an editor who proceeded to shit all over the thing, introducing borderline obscenity and broken-glass sentence structure even as he tirelessly removed anything that looked like literature from the text. As fate would have it, the writer’s fee for that piece almost perfectly matched up with the overall cost for my Honda Challenge race weekend last month. So I took the money, because I’d be a fool not to, and because there was a certain satisfaction in having my trophies paid for even if I didn’t like the work. Yet you won’t be hearing about this piece on this site, and when I get my copy of the magazine I’ll be throwing it in the trash. It’s not difficult for me to understand why Prince effectively destroyed his career so he could have control of his own music. He didn’t want to see his own name on something that he despised.
Yet just like Prince, there have been times when I would be better off with a little bit of oversight.
I’ve written about how the arrival of the Cloud guitar signified an era where Prince would let his own musical curiosity overwhelm his instinct for writing a decent pop song. The original draft for my Malaysia story included about 2,000 words that could not possibly appear in the magazine under any circumstances, including an explicit description of some time I spent in a shower with a four-foot-eleven Thai girl approximately the same age as my old set of New Balance 991s. When it all got cut, I had a little Prince-esque fit even though I knew perfectly well that there could not be any other outcome. Let’s not even get into the squabble that I’ve had on and off with the owners of a certain automotive website, which in the long run has cost me probably north of $150,000 in lost income and has stuck the readers with a lot of dreck about sea ships and butter knives and five-star press trips.
One of the oddest consequences from Prince’s squabble with Warner Bros. was the scarcity of his concert film, “Sign O’ The Times.” There’s a Blu-Ray out there but in general the movie has been tough to find and tougher to buy ever since the VHS era. Which is a real shame, because it’s an absolute killer. Recorded over a few nights of concerts in Minnesota (which makes sense) and Rotterdam (which, in a way, also makes sense) and then painstakingly re-dubbed at Paisley Park Studios, “Sign O’ The Times” represents Prince at the absolute peak of his powers.
It’s all present and accounted for: the astounding physicality, made more so because Prince was already thirty-nine years old at the time and rendered tragic in retrospect because the pain of performing those moves night after night would eventually lead to the drug regimen that killed him. The setlist is beyond reproach. A few of the tunes that drag a bit on the album of the same name are revealed in semi-live performance to be absolutely thrilling. There’s the choreography, created by and featuring the headline dancing of Catherine Glover.
Last but not least, you have the force of nature known as “Sheila E” who drums the shit out of the whole thing in a variety of unashamedly provocative outfits. Her own multi-talented nature leads to a charming interlude where Prince runs up the stage and takes over for her on the drums so she can rap and sing for a little bit. To see her and “Cat” Glover side by side is to genuinely appreciate just how well Prince arranged his own life during the Eighties.
Not all of the film holds up thirty years later. The interjection of the separately-filmed music video for “U Got The Look” fails to maintain the momentum of the live concert. There’s also a bit of “plot” scattered throughout the film, in which Prince is supposedly engaged in a rivalry with his bodyguard/hype-man, the now-deceased Greg Brooks, for Cat’s affection. The “role” required Brooks to wear a Russian fur hat for the duration of the film, which must have been utterly miserable.
I could go on about the various tracks and vignettes and whatnot, but why take my word for it when you can see it yourself? “Sign O’ The Times” is now available both on Showtime and Amazon Prime Video. It’s unlikely to be there for long, so check it out when you can. I watched it in its entirety over the course of three nights on the elliptical machine. It ends, as many Prince albums and movies do, with the sentence “May U Live 2 See The Dawn.” A fine sentiment, and one that I wish Prince himself had taken more seriously. It’s also a reminder to me that in the end you are judged by what you leave behind, and the fewer impediments I can force on myself in the course of creating my own posterity, the better.