People way more qualified to write about Prince are writing about Prince right now. But I’m going to write about him anyway because I want to remember, years from now, how this made me feel when it all went down.
I have five brothers and sisters. The best stereo in the house was in the basement….and one of us was always down there with our albums, rocking and rolling. We’d sit in the large chair against the wall and groove. No distractions. No TV. Just the music. Singing, air-guitar-ing. There was no sharing though. If one was down there, the others weren’t allowed. Unwritten rule. If somebody invaded, they were summarily ejected. If one wanted the space, we’d flick the light off and on at the top of the steps. “How much longer?” “Get lost!” Rock and roll was serious business in our house.
My twin brother was and remains an unassuming dude. But there were times when he’d be spinning something down there that I’d never heard before. He was a Cheap Trick fan before the Budokan record broke them. I was seeing these oddballs on album covers….some lunatic with a cap who looked like one of the Bowery Boys, writing songs like “He’s a Whore” and “Elo Kiddies”. My brother didn’t give a fiddlers fart that nobody knew who Cheap Trick was. He knew them and the rest of us could piss off as far as he was concerned.
He felt the same way about Prince. For You. Dirty Mind. Controversy. He had ‘em all down there, and I remember thinking, “what the hell is this?” Prince was some strange looking dude in his underwear…singing songs that were positively filthy. I scoured the album jacket, because in those days we did things like that, and saw that this kid was playing all the instruments himself. He was singing like James Brown and funking like George Clinton and then, out of the blue, he’d rip out a guitar line that would melt Hendrix’s afro. This was cosmic shit, and when the coast was clear I’d spin the records, thinking I was listening to some strange alien. Then just as quickly I put them back so I didn’t get caught. It almost felt like listening to Prince would bring on repercussions.
And then Prince became American Royalty.
The “1999” record blew minds, and “Purple Rain” followed and changed the fucking world. In retrospect we all should have seen it coming. Because this wasn’t just your run of the mill multi-instrumentalist. This was a total freak…..a talent not so much touched by the gods as one who overwhelmed the gods and forced them to question their own divinity. He could write better songs than you. He was a better guitar player than you. And a better bass player and drummer and keyboard player too. He was a better producer. He could dance you into the grave and had a voice that sounded like he swallowed Motown and Stax whole. He didn’t share the spotlight. Prince brought his own spotlight with him.
Remember in 1984 how Springsteen was everywhere? “Born in the USA” mania was upon us and “Dancing in the Dark” was being played every 7 seconds on the radio, propelled even more by MTV, who played that ridiculous Courtney Cox video every 8 seconds. “Dancing in the Dark” reached number 2 on the charts. It couldn’t dislodge “When Doves Cry”, a song that crystallized what every artist in the 80s was trying to do, and doing it all in 4 minutes. Prince was a badass. “Purple Rain” the record made him a celebrity. “Purple Rain” the film made him a star.
He was also a colossal fucking weirdo of course, but that’s allowed in rock and roll. Encouraged actually. Nobody normal changes the world.
“Sign ‘O the Times” might be my favorite Prince record. A sprawling double album that was impossible to pin down….normal people do not make music like this. He was inventing stuff on the fly and then moving on, sometimes in the same track. This music inspired my favorite record review of all time, when Robert Christgau of the Village Voice called it “Merely the most gifted pop musician of his generation proving what a motherfucker he is for two discs start to finish…”
And thinking on it….if ever anybody ever topped the Beatles in pop song-craft, it was Prince with “Raspberry Beret”. Argue this with me at your own peril.
Last night 6 of us formed an impromptu “Revolution” and got up on a stage in a bar and sang “Purple Rain”. The song is devastating and deserves better than was gave it, but I make no apologies because that’s exactly 6 musicians in a bar should have been doing last night.
Prince could always fascinate us. Even as he fell off the cultural radar….fighting the good fight against thieves and record labels (but I repeat myself), he’d pop up like a whack-a-mole with some one-off gig or Saturday Night Live appearance wearing 3-eyed sunglasses, or with some strangely distributed music in his pocket, following his muse wherever it took him. He made music constantly, and probably only released half of it. Rumors of thousands of unreleased tracks behind bank-vault thick doors at Paisley Park abound. So expect some unseemly money grabs in the future. A few nights back Prince performed a solo piano show in Atlanta. By all accounts it was absolutely transcendent. The man needed music like the rest of us need air. But music didn’t kill him, so don’t think that way. Music kept him alive.
But for now….I just feel gutted. Because Prince isn’t supposed to die. Our nation is diminished. But we were stone lucky the have him. And now he belongs to the ages.
I like to think of “the ages” as being a place similar to my childhood basement, with a killer stereo and an unlimited collection of our favorite records. And people rocking back and forth saying, “you ever heard of this guy?”
“Everybody shut up / and listen to the band
shut up already / damn”
In a bit..
I just got home and my head is spinning. I wanted to share this with somebody but it was late and I didn’t think anybody would understand. So I decided to share it with myself.
My daughter Kiera is 13 years old. She’s in 8th grade. Her grade school has a father/daughter dance every year. Tonight was our last. High school beckons. Growing up beckons. Life beckons. But she’s my baby. She’ll always be my baby. Nights like tonight are pretty special. I love her in ways that make love scary.
As a father watching my girls grow (I have two, ages 13 and 17) up has been both intensely satisfying and intensely sad. They were easier to protect as children. I still hover of course, but at a distance. They’ve begun to chart their own course, and have become extraordinary young women. I have to trust their navigational skill, and hope that me being slightly fucked up hasn’t rubbed off on them. Thus far they seem untainted.
Fathers don’t dance of course….so the night is comically misnamed. The DJ plays a handful of slow songs and the girls dutifully wander off to find Dad and drag our sorry asses onto the dance floor. It’s charming really. Watching the fathers…..I saw 100 other guys worn down like a used pencil….just like me. But with a light in our eyes when our girls were close. We stood around in pairs and and threesomes and talked about how our wives would say “no” and we’d always melt and whisper and say “yes”. Show me a man with a daughter and I’ll show you a man who can be rolled like a drunk in an alley.
It was getting late. The dance was nearly over. And then the DJ fired up Adele’s song “Hello”. That’s when the magic started.
It’s a great song, so that helps.But you’ve never heard or seen it like this. Perhaps 100 girls. Ages 6 to 13. Grouped together in a bunch….like a rugby scrum. Singing every word. Dancing to every word. Jumping and swaying and holding onto each other for dear life. Their inhibitions were gone. For 4 minutes they became a single entity. I was a wallflower for all of it, which is what I was born to be. I kept thinking…”I should video this”…..but I never did because I would have had to take my eyes off them for a few moments to do so. I wish I could show it to you but I can’t. All that’s left is my fumbling around late at night trying to describe what it was like. When I say that I can’t remember the last time music has affected me this way, I’m telling you the truth and kinda wishing that I wasn’t. Because it seems crazy. It sounds crazy. These were just kids. Singing a pop song.
But during these 4 minutes they were thinking about what they’d been through. And what was upcoming. They were thinking that things weren’t always going to be like this. Friends were going to fall in and fall out of their lives, seemingly on a whim, and moments such as these needed to be savored…..to be put in a choke hold….to be lubricated in tears born from laughter and from sadness.
Jesus H Christ. Calm down Pops!
I’ll be the first to admit that most of my fellow Dads are probably in bed now, giving no more thought to Adele’s song than they are to the fact that the dance ran out of ice for the 2 liter Pepsi bottles. Who the hell runs out of ice?
But that’s ok. Since my early 20s I’ve attacked life with not much more than a handful of chords, a beat up Gibson jumbo, and a yellow legal pad. I feel eminently qualified to wax poetic on situations that others find no poetry in.
So it’s left to me to describe how the earth tilted on its axis this evening…and how yet again music proved to me that it has more power than anything I know of. And that includes prayer. It’s the only thing I know of that is incapable of being divisive. It’s the only magic that doesn’t require an explanation. Because there isn’t one. Music pulls rabbits out of hats and everybody says…”yea…ok….makes sense.”
It’s the only thing left that leads me to believe that maybe…..just maybe….there is a higher power. And that being….whatever he or she or it may be….sits at a piano or stands with a low-strung Strat, and beckons us together.
The better angels of our nature. They are the ones who sing.
In a bit..
We each wrote liner notes for the record. I posted mine here. Below are Bret’s thoughts..
Bret’s NOTES – You learn a lot about someone when you make a record with them. Some guys seem laid back and mild mannered in real life but become insane micro managers in the studio. Some are prima donnas….. you gotta light a lot of candles and dim a lot of lights for those folks. And others are like Tom Flannery, they just don’t give a shit.
Now there is a difference between not giving a shit and not caring. People that don’t care anymore are so tired of fighting that they have given up. But people who don’t give a shit, well, they have already won.
If there is anything good about getting old, that is it. You have seen enough living to know what is real and what is a waste of damn time. I used to have a file folder in my studio that I would pull out in certain situations. When a band was worrying about something they shouldn’t be I would say, “Let me check my file of things I give a shit about.” I would open the folder and it would be empty. “Nope, it’s not in here. Let’s move on.”
There’s a line in one of the tunes on “Dupont Back Porches”:
“If you see right through me/I’ll see right through you too.”
I think that was the mantra for this collection. The record was done before we had time to analyze whether or not it sounded finished. It was like a bunch of candid photos. Both of us caught in the act of being ourselves. It was like having a jam session where only one of the players sort of knows the song. I was watching his hands and reading lyrics and interpreting it all in real time. Most of the time, I got it right. Sometimes not so much. But that’s ok. It’s part of the vibe.
When you open up a magazine or a newspaper, there aren’t only pictures of airbrushed super models. There is raw, ugly shit in there. But for some reason people think all records have to be perfect. It doesn’t make sense.
Even with some live albums, a lot of the stuff is redone after the show. Stuff gets tuned and tweaked and replaced. The singer comes in and stares at the video while re-singing the show. God forbid someone would actually witness them making a mistake. Pussies.
We cut 11 tracks. I didn’t want it to be pretty and bright and hi fi. Most singer/songwriters (and their engineers and producers) want everything pretty and bright and beautiful. Fuck that. We went for dark and raw. Like an early Dylan record or Springsteen’s “Nebraska”.
“Orphan Train”, “Four Winds, “Forever Again”……..most all of the tunes were first takes. If we added anything, we went with our first impression and that was it. It was the same with the mixing. “Slap echo would be cool here.” Ok, done.
Tom and I had never worked together before. I had met him a few times and jammed with him even fewer times. He is also a playwright. He sent me a play he had written based on the The Gin Blossoms’ guitarist Doug Hopkins, who had written all the band’s hits but committed suicide before the band broke. I knew Tom was a great writer, but I didn’t know he could write like THAT. It was a treat to work with him. There will be more.
The Edge is known to work on a guitar sound for a week then spend 5 minutes actually playing it on the recording. Neil Young and Crazy Horse get in a room and record live then spend weeks deciding just which flavor of shitty, loose, and sloppy they want to use. I suspect Tom worked hard on his lyrics and ideas before bringing them into my underground bunker of a studio. But once we got started, I had to make sure everything was working…… because you don’t get a second chance at a first take.
Like I said, there is a difference between not giving a shit and not caring.
Making “Dupont Back Porches” was a real experience. I like to think that we were having a bitch session and a record broke out. That’s how it feels to me.
I think there is plenty of room in the world for records like this one…..
–Bret Alexander 4/5/2016
Get your copy of Dupont Back Porches here…
We knew each other. We’d played a few shows together. I was a huge fan of his band “The Badlees” since the early 90s. (“Riversongs” was the second CD I ever bought). I think he’s a brilliant songwriter. After a recent show I said…..”hey man….we should make a record together”. Bret, ever the gentleman, said “yea man, that’d be cool.” Probably figured I was just making small talk. I wasn’t. I suck at small talk.
So I called him a few weeks later and reminded him that he said “yea man…that’d be cool”. In case he forgot. Then I said….”ok, when can we start?” He said something like…”um….er….well Monday is free…” I said…..”see you then” and then hung up before he could say “um…who is this again?”
So that Monday night saw me almost killing myself on that ridiculous roundabout off route 81 on my way to his studio in Dupont (I’ll never get used to that roundabout….ever, and I still have no idea how to get to the airport…it tells you “turn here” and then says “do not enter”….I still think somebody is fucking with us for a TV show or something). I had my guitar and case crammed with half completed lyric sheets and less than half completed melodies. I felt totally prepared because this is how I make all my records. It’s not normal but then neither am I.
The studio is small and dark and narrow and walled off from the world by a door thicker than a bank vault. It felt like I was walking into an Edgar Allan Poe short story down there. Bret, as usual, dressed head to toe in black, including the frames of his glasses. Deep voiced and elegantly mannered. We sat down and talked for 2 hours. About the world. About our kids (we both have 2 daughters around the same age). About music. About film. He had war stories. I had some too. We’re the same age. We’ve covered a lot of the same ground over the years. We were becoming friends.
It was getting late. I hadn’t even taken my guitar out of its case. Finally I said….”well…let’s try one.” He said….”ok, what do you wanna do?” I said…”I have no idea.” His look said….”well this is gonna be interesting…”
That first night we eventually cut 2 tracks I think. I needed a bridge for “If I Could See Right Through You” and Bret came up with something that I added some lyrics to. And we were off. Cut it live with 2 guitars in one take (the problem with multiple takes is that it never sounds like it’s the first take again, because it isn’t. Profound? Maybe not but it is so…). I asked Bret to sing every other verse even though he didn’t know the melody, nor had any time to digest how the hell I could cram all those lyrics into a I-IV-V progression. He was learning that I liked to work fast….and that the word “rehearsal” to me meant tuning the guitar and counting 1-2-3. I think we did “Got To Be the Change” too. I heard the playback and said “we sound like a demented Simon and Garfunkel”. He said…”well…that’s kinda cool”. It was. Done.
And so we were off. First takes almost exclusively, unless one of Bret’s dogs invaded the studio or something equally catastrophic happened. If the bum note sounded like it fit, we let it go. If the chair squeaked, I’d say “that sounds cool…turn that part up.” Bret would layer on mandolin tracks or add what he called “singer-songwriter piano”. I wanted some harp but forgot mine…and didn’t want to slobber into his harmonicas, so Bret did the duty. Neither one of us gave a shit who did what. We were just looking for a certain sound. I gave him completed lyrics to “Orphan Train” and “Music in the Mud” and he cut what he assumed were just demos one night after I left. I heard them the next session and said…”perfect”. He said…”what?” I said…”in “Orphan Train” can you just add a harp solo that sounds like Springsteen’s “The River” and he said….”um…sure” and 30 seconds later he’d done so. I heard him sing the bridge in “Music In the Mud” and we both smiled at the same time. I said “you ever gonna do it better?” and he said “nope”. So. Done. Making music is easy when you work with Bret Alexander.
I can’t say the same thing about making music with me, because….well….there’s the phrasing thing.
I’m used to playing solo acoustic. So if I’m singing a song with a repeated chorus, I might sing it with different phrasing each time. Just because I can and because I get bored easy. That’s all well and good when you’re singing by yourself, but when you ask somebody to add a harmony vocal to the inconsistent warbling you just recorded, well, let’s just say that Bret’s hair was jet black when we started and now it contains stray gray.
His efforts on “Oh Mary” and “That Ring It Don’t Fit Your Finger Anymore” were herculean. By the final track we cut…”Dupont Back Porches”, he simply threw up his hands and said “singing harmony with you is like trying to catch a greased pig”. I pondered this and replied…”can’t argue with that.” And so by mutual consent there’s no doubled voices on that chorus.
So the record is done. It’s not perfect. I hear all sorts of things that aren’t supposed to be there. Or at least…..things that weren’t intended to be there. Deep breaths. My bracelet jangling against the guitar sound hole. I can hear myself searching for ways to end songs. Flubbed chords. Late arrivals. Dropped picks. Ragged timing. In short, all of the things that make live music live. If we tried to record the songs again, they might sound better, but they wouldn’t be better. Musical eggheads will know what I’m talking about.
I was talking with Bret last night and he mentioned something he’s always wanted to try. Writing AND recording an entire record (10 songs at least) in a single day. Now, let me remind you that I once wrote and recorded a song every week for 5 years running. Over 250 songs. So it’s not like I’m not fucking crazy too. But this? An entire record in a DAY? Absolute creative lunacy.
My response? Ain’t it obvious?
“When do we start?”
Get your copy of “Dupont Back Porches” here.