As stated on The Cocoa Diaries Facebook page, this site has been a space for myself and partner in prose Sam Bleazard to pen our fanatical thoughts about our favourite artist. Whether it’s writing about an impromptu trip to Paisley Park, a spiritual awakening at his headline-making performance at The Hop Farm Festival, reviews of his critically-acclaimed last commercial offerings – we’ve written it all here (we’ll publish a list of all our Prince posts in days to come). So of course it’s only right that we honour his memory with our personal tributes, a farewell letter of sorts. So get comfortable and read about Sam’s journey…
By Sam Bleazard
“Spring time was always my favourite time of year, a time 4 lovers holding hands in the rain…” Sometimes it Snows in April.
Prince Rogers Nelson passed away unexpectedly on 21 April 2016 in the same week he had been playing for sell out crowds in Atlanta, Georgia in the US. For many people around the world who loved his music, even though he produced so much and constantly toured with it throughout his life, it feels as though he left way too soon and had considerably more to give. His seminal ballad, Sometimes it Snows in April, ends with the line “But all good things they say, never last”. Some will be scratching their heads and wondering what all the fuss was about, while others will cite a career which never quite hit the highs of the 1980s – but then when you reach those highs…
It’s hard to be a Prince critic when you’re something bordering on a super fan, and people have often talked about the soundtrack of their lives, but I think the music of Prince is more significant, to me anyway. Here’s why.
“Hey look me over, tell me do u like what u c?” Baby I’m a Star
I was, and still am, a child of the 1980s. A vivid early memory is of being 11 years old in the upstairs bathroom of my family home, I lived in a small Scottish town south of Edinburgh, and hearing top forty radio (remember that?). I was probably something of a hyperactive child prone to excitement, but nothing prepared me for the sheer rush I felt hearing electric guitars meshed with drum machines, was it screaming, was the singer panting?….and frankly, who cared?. It was like a massive shot of adrenaline to my brain. I wanted to know what was producing that sound and where it was coming from…I mouthed phrases in the playground, probably incorrectly, and then saw strange sketchy clips of a musketeer looking character in a trench coat riding on a purple motorbike, but then arguing with other adults, what was going on? What did it all mean? When you’re eleven that scarcely matters, you just want to know more.
My next memory was of a television broadcast in which clips of the video for the song Little Red Corvette were being played and Prince was being compared to MJ e.g. Was he the next Michael Jackson? I remember saying to my Mum that there was no way he was or even could be, not in my world. Even in the streets of Scotland we were imagining the pavements lighting up as they did in the video for Billie Jean, and we hilariously would try to spin on sheets of cardboard while a distorted cassette of “White Lines” by Grandmaster Flash and Melle Mel was playing over and over again on a small flat tape recorder.
But then I had another sonic epiphany via the radio, big splashes of cymbal, drum machines and keyboards blasting out like horns, 1999 landed like a UFO from outer space, and it took over my whole being…for how long I don’t know, but it felt like a whole lifetime. Again what was the singer talking about, who were the girls in that video playing the keyboard suggestively and what planet were these people from? It was dangerous, I didn’t understand it but it made me feel excited and strange almost at the same time!
I also remember being in HMV or was it Virgin Megastore, in Edinburgh city centre’s west end, asking if I was allowed to buy the Purple Rain LP. I was told in no uncertain terms by my mother that it contained risqué adult content and that I’d have to wait until I was older! Although to be fair she more than made up for this by taking me and my sister to see the Sign O The Times concert film at Edinburgh’s Cameo cinema, it was so loud and vivid it felt like being there.
A lot of Prince’s music hit the UK in 1984/85 by a quirk of timing, as 1999 and Little Red Corvette failed to chart when they were originally released in 1982/83 which meant that the airwaves were filled with possibly the strongest double A side of all time, alongside the Purple Rain album and Raspberry Beret within a twelve month span. Raspberry Beret, amongst other things, will always remind me of the summer I knocked on doors asking for 50p to wash cars with my mate Dougie Marshall. He was daft as a brush but we both loved that song.
Does anyone remember the 1985 Brit Awards where Prince, sporting a pink faux fur on his shoulder, walked past a bemused bow-tied Noel Edmonds (with Giant Haystacks lookalike bodyguard Chick Huntsberry accompanying him) to collect an award? It was another marmite moment for some, but it built the mystery for many watching who up until that point had no idea who he was.
With clips such as the Thriller long play video and Madonna’s videos for songs such as Like a Virgin and Into the Groove grabbing the attention of teenagers across the world – including schoolboys- Prince looked to catch the wave with his Live in ’85 concert film (capturing the climactic end to the Purple Rain tour in Syracuse New York). It was, again, strange, surreal and otherworldly, very funky, highly choreographed and musically different to anything that was around. I can’t say I remember much about it, but the feeling was that someone special had arrived in the musical universe and we had to pay attention.
And then I hit 12 and somebody in the family, who knew I liked Prince, came home one night with the 7″ single of Girls and Boys. A big slice of dirty horn driven funk with baritone saxophones and a French girl crooning seductively in the outro (I wanted a translation). Prince by this stage was wearing crop tops and bryl creaming his hair…no longer the fragile and sensitive Hendrix acolyte, now he was Cassanova on the French Riviera. For a boy as I was who loved chasing girls round the school playground, and any nearby neighbourhoods for that matter, constantly drifting off into, some might say completely unrealistic romantic fantasies, this was manna from the musical and cultural Gods. My prayers had been answered.
Like a lot of us of a certain age am already slightly jaded by the Internet, endless mobile updates (and yes I’ve got a tablet and two phones, one for work and home), but I remember vividly writing poetry for girlfriends and making them mix tapes with funny writing on in different coloured felt pen. It was that and playing football in the park and across the street until it got dark.
Girls and Boys was a single from the album Parade, which my sister – much cooler than me in 1986 – had stashed away on vinyl gatefold in her room. How to get my hands on this treasure?? She also had a poster up of Prince, and his lyrics too (as well as pictures of Morten Harkett of A-Ha), she was further down the road of rebellion than I was, and by now singles weren’t enough as I needed to know what was on that record. As it turned out it was a box of chocolates with more variety than most artists manage in their entire careers.
My best friend Gavin then persuaded his sister Lorraine to let him take her copy of the double LP Sign O The Times out of their house, and we surveyed the peach and black sleeves before spinning it on my plastic Amstrad turntable. People have access to so much content, of all kinds across so many media, but in my own rose tinted way I feel like we were probably the last generation able to consume things in any kind of considered way, without a million distractions. Yes TV was big (but I don’t remember 24 hour news), and we had computer games for my ZX spectrum, but they weren’t on all the time (were they?).
Another early memory with Gavin was propping those Amstrad speakers on my bedroom windowsill one hot summer and playing the song Alphabet Street far too loud for all the neighbours. “Am going down 2 Alphabet St…put the right letters together, and make a better day!”.
Between 1985 and 1988 I moved from primary school to high school, my parents split up, and I just really wanted to fit in with other kids in the neighbourhood, but like all families we had our eccentricities and imperfections, so I looked for a home for all those conflicting thoughts and emotions.
“The Beautiful Ones”, “Darling Nikki”, “Baby I’m A Star”, “Purple Rain”, “Around The World In A Day”, Pop Life”, “Mountains”, “Anotherloverholenyohead”, “Kiss”, “Sign O The Times”, “Housequake”, “Starfish and Coffee”, “If I Was Your Girlfriend”, “The Cross”, “Adore”, “It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night”...this was a purple patch and I was all ears. To me what the Beatles had been to the 60s and Stevie Wonder was to the 70s, Prince was to the 80s, and if no-one at high school understood that was rebellion enough for me. While they were digging REM and U2 I was checking out the pop, funk and rock and roll blasting out from Minneapolis.
It wasn’t that there weren’t other great things going on in films and music, they just weren’t as other worldly as what Prince was doing, and when Michael Jackson appeared with Bad, it seemed the writing really was on the wall. The Way You Make Me Feel and Smooth Criminal were fantastic entertainment, but I wanted to feel challenged by every release, every twist and turn. Prince seemed to question male and female roles, and also had (at that time) a dangerous and subversive sexuality.
As well as staging some fairly amusing sing alongs to Raspberry Beret in my Prince adorned bedroom with some of the guys from school – they laughed at the American pronunciation of ‘lee-zur-lee’ (from the line “I wuz a bit 2 leisurely”) – there were also arguments with girlfriends about clothing and music e.g. why all the fuss and was he any good? There was also a final intervention from my sister, whose boyfriend from Aberdeen, also a keyboard player, decided to donate Prince’s early albums (Controversy, Dirty Mind etc) along with some of his best 12″ singles. Suffice to say Dirty Mind taught me a lot!
But this is another, almost forgotten, part of our musical youth – the extended remixes of singles on vinyl. Remember New Order’s Blue Monday? Fools Gold (gold vinyl version) by the Stone Roses? Prince was so prolific in the 80s (and 90s) that the sheer amount of space on long play singles allowed him to release firstly extended jams and then mini alternative albums. Listen to the 12″ version of Mountains or the various remixes of Gett Off and you’ll hear it. It wasn’t just that that the music was great, the artwork was also standout, the painting of the drug addict on the Pop Life record or dancer Cat on the Sign o the Times 12″ holding a peach coloured electric guitar. All sorts of weird and wonderful b-sides starting cropping up on those releases as well, “Girl” (like a horny version of the Beatles ‘Michelle’), “Another Lonely Christmas”, “Shockadelica” (a word I emblazoned across many a high school notebook – ‘the girl must be a witch! She got your mind body and soul hitched’), “La la la, Hee He He”, “Love or Money”, “Scarlet Pussy”, “Escape, free yo mind from this rat race”, “This is not music, this is a trip”. The list goes on and on.
Men as we know like to have hobbies and at this time I got into collecting things, so it was inevitable that my obsession with Star Wars toys in Primary School was replaced with Prince records, rare mixes, imports and then latterly bootleg studio and live recordings at both high school in Penicuik, and then college in West London. I would trawl record fairs looking for oddities, with names like “The Royal Jewels”, “Chocolate Box” and “The Black Album”. I found the latter, recorded at slightly the wrong speed in Vinyl Villains record shop at the top of Edinburgh’s Leith Walk, and it all added to the mystique and underground nature of someone who spanned the commercial and mainstream, but also the alternative and the cult.
My poor father had to endure me not only playing Purple Rain over and over again in my room at loud volumes (once I’d gotten hold of a copy), he also shook his head at the Lovesexy album cover featuring the naked artist posing by a giant flower. And then the Batman soundtrack and all those subsequent 12″ singles with the bat logo on them! As the eighties came to an end it’s slightly easier to draw the conclusion that Prince’s mojo, while not exactly running out, may have been flagging to some degree (even if the sheer level of output and releases hadn’t).
Even though Gavin and I (who was by now cribbing Purple Rain on the guitar from a VHS tape) had missed the jaw dropping Lovesexy tour in the round, we were very excited about being able to travel down to London on the train for Prince’s record breaking Nude tour run at Wembley Arena in 1990. Part hits medley, part James Brown and Aretha Franklin tribute it was a fantastic experience at the time, even though it wasn’t viewed as his strongest live show. Rosie Gaines, possibly the most underrated of Prince’s band members was a standout on the tour singing Aretha’s “Ain’t No Way” and “Chain of Fools” as if her life depended on it.
In the 90s I finished high school, went to College and joined the world of work, and because of all of the inspiration Prince provided in my childhood and teenage years, I decided I would keep tabs on his career. Although a real mixed bag, encapsulating the highs of Diamonds and Pearls with the lows of writing Slave on his face while arguing with record company Warner Bros, there were fantastic recordings that got lost in the ether during the decade. An acoustic album called The Truth being just one of them.
In 1993 I saw what I think was Prince’s only major concert in Scotland’s capital city of Edinburgh at Meadowbank’s Athletic stadium. Dancer (and then wife) Mayte descended on a wire from the ceiling in heavyweight boots, hot pants and a hat with chain mail across the face, waving a cane in the air before a curtain dropped to reveal Prince and his New Power Generation band. Family, friends and girlfriends all witnessed it with me, and it’s a night that lives long in the memory.
During that period some of my most surreal experiences of Prince fandom took place, an after show concert at London’s Hippodrome in Leicester Square which kicked off at 2.45am and ended at 5.30am was just one of them. So while he became a bit of a laughing stock in the mass media, behind the scenes he was continuing to record and play live almost round the clock for anyone who was interested. I was one, as music had always been the root for me, it kept Prince relevant but also connected me to so many branches of the musical family tree over the tracks of my years.
James Brown, Joni Mitchell, Sly and The Family Stone, Chaka Khan, The Rolling Stones, Marvin Gaye, Led Zeppelin, Parliament Funkadelic, Miles Davis, it all seemed connected to Prince so I kept listening even as his muse became ever more left field and obscure. At the turn of the millennium I was lucky enough to visit his Paisley Park studio complex for two summer music festivals, on one occasion playing seven different styles of music on seven different consecutive nights. It cost just 250 dollars to see him play for a week.
In the UK it didn’t feel as if he recaptured the big live audiences once more until late 2007 when he christened the recently opened O2 in London’s Greenwich with a record breaking run of 21 nights, dragging in several thousand fans from mainland Europe in the process.
Through all of these experiences, including 2014s Hit n Run 3rd Eye Girl rock shows, at every stage of his musical evolution I managed to introduce close friends and family to Prince as a live entity. Over the years his concerts became ritualistic in the sense that the excitement was always generated by the fact that no two shows were the same, no two bands were the same and the set list changed every night. I saw him play Camden’s Roundhouse twice on the same night a couple of years back and it was like seeing two separate acts, he was a very mercurial and versatile, some would say restless performer.
Throughout his career he united audiences, attracting black and white, straight and gay, male, female and latterly young and old across generations. And while his outlook became more conservative in some ways, his ability to move audiences with intense raw emotion, party funk and hard rock, but also tender ballads, was unparalleled. I met and was introduced to people from all over the world at his concerts. I saw him open a show with Purple Rain with my Dad in tow, took a close friend with a life threatening illness to Paisley Park to hang out and saw him play intimate gigs with artists such as Amy Winehouse, Norah Jones, Chaka Khan, Musiq Soulchild, Common, Q-Tip, Angie Stone, Sheila E, Beverley Knight, Mavis Staples, Larry Graham and Maceo Parker.
London was sadly denied the chance to see Prince’s recent intimate Piano and Microphone tour as the tickets were due to go on sale but were retracted – possibly because the artist was unhappy that tickets for those shows were already appearing at inflated prices on resale websites (before they were available). Later that week the Paris terrorist attackers struck, and it felt like a moment had passed, for European fans anyway.
It’s interesting now that with the passing of time a number of the things that Prince railed against, the unfairness of music industry contracts, the lack of royalties for artists in the internet age, and mobile phones killing off the live experience at concerts, all turned out to be fairly accurate predictions of where we’d end up.
“Dearly beloved” I’ve been through a lot, “in this thing called life”, I’ve lived and loved and been lucky enough to share a number of incredible experiences with like minded souls (some of these occurring at Prince’s best live shows).
I’ve joked on and off that I never had religion, I had Prince. It was his musical universe that was frequently inspirational to me over the years, not least because it encouraged me to learn to play more than one instrument and have a musical life of my own. His fearless, imaginative and unique approach to music and entertainment in all its many forms caused me to believe that I could be so much more than I thought I could be. It made me question who we are as people and why we love the way we do, but always helped me to enjoy life in the moment and party “like there ain’t gonna be another one.”
Futuristic and visionary, eccentric and whimsical, creative and idiosyncratic, raw and visceral, single-minded and unique.
In the words of his own hero Sly Stone, I want to thank him “for letting me be myself again”.
His name was Prince and he was funky.