For the second year in a row, I was lucky enough to get an invitation to the Prince Celebration at Paisley Park on the third anniversary of his death. I’m a fan, but not a super fan. I recognize his genius. He was one of the best live performers I have ever seen. He absolutely secured Minneapolis’ place on the musical map. Most of the people at Paisley Park this weekend were super fans. And kind of like having a chemistry teacher who really loves chemistry makes the class 100 times better, it doesn’t always mean I understand it.
This year had a different vibe than last year. Last year I remember hearing from a number of ingénue types who Prince seemed to take under his wing and supported them to succeed. This year felt like things got real – starting with Jesse Johnson. Johnson played with The Time. He was tight with Prince but left once Purple Rain (the movie) was released. He said he waited until the release so that Prince wouldn’t edit him out of the movie. He told Prince he was leaving and things didn’t go well.
It was an interesting interview. Well, it was an interesting monologue. I’m not sure Andrea Swensson asked one question before the stories came pouring out. It was clearly cathartic for Johnson, who it seems has a lot of respect and love for Prince but love through the lens of divorce. When Johnson left, Prince apparently shut many doors on him. For example, he told others in the industry that if they worked with Johnson, Prince would not work with them. As Johnson said, Prince took money out of his pocket.
It wasn’t a flattering picture of Prince and of course Prince wasn’t there to defend himself but it shows his focus on the music. I don’t know if that opened the door to others being more open about the many sides of Prince but there were more sessions where I think people talked more about the difficulty of working with Prince.
There was a panel with the members of The Revolution (Matt Fink, Bobby Z., Lisa Coleman, Brown Mark and Wendy Melvoin). Again everyone seemed to respect and love Prince but they admitted to being run through the ringer working for him. The expectation was that you were always available. The band came first, your family could come second. An interesting comment (by Wendy I think) was that the band was lucky because they played well together. That none of them were the best musician available but together they were just what Prince needed. It’s a theme that was reiterated during a session with the Funk Soldiers where Chance Howard also mentioned that Prince didn’t pick the super musicians, he found people who would play the part as it was written.
Both panels talked about Prince’s song writing – that songs seemed to come straight from the brain to his fingertips. That he has an exact idea of what he wanted a song to sound like. He just needed to get enough of it out there and then find the musicians to make it happen. And he wanted it to happen as he wanted it to happen. He didn’t want you to diverge, riff or improvise. Someone mentioned that he could start recording a song with the drum track and build up from there. That’s someone who knows what the finished product should be. That’s a special kind of genius. It was very interested in to hear more this year about what it was like to work and live with that kind of genius.
Howard talked about getting caught improvising on a song. Prince asked what Howard would do if Prince smacked Howard’s kid upside the head – because when Howard changed Prince’s song Prince felt that Howard was smacking his kid upside the head. The songs were his children.
That being said, it sounds hard but that no one regrets it and everyone was thankful to have known and worked with Prince – even Jesse Johnson. And after hearing from the others, I can see that Johnson had to choose between being a part of the best band but only a part (and not the lead) or going off on his own to do his own thing.
One line that struck me came from Lisa Coleman. As The Revolution spoke about their grief, she noted that music doesn’t really exist (Or you might say isn’t tangible.) but that we all feel and experience it. And now Prince doesn’t exist but we can still feel and experience him through the music. That was demonstrated at The Armory on Friday night when Prince played (via video) on the big screen while accompanied by live performers, such as the Funk Soldiers. (It doesn’t hurt one little bit that we were in row two!!)
The highlight of the weekend was The Revolution playing Sunday night. They played all of the old favorites. Then the show slowed way down and Wendy and Lisa played Sometimes It Snows in April from Under The Cherry Moon about the death of the main character, Christopher Tracy. It is a heartbreaking song. Nearly everyone was crying. Wendy got choked up on stage. It a nice tribute. It was nice to see Prince’s brother Omarr come out to give Wendy a kiss after the song. Several people on stage throughout the weekend made a point of emphasizing that Paisley Park is a family – but in that moment it really felt like it. Omarr supporting Wendy, giving the gift of the song to the audience.