At first glance, it looks unlikely that this slim volume could do justice to the life and music of His Purpleness; it seems more like one of those quickie clip jobs. But Morton, co-author ofThe Penguin Book of Jazz
, has written a scholarly but highly readable bio, filled with rich analysis and insight He says more in his limited space than many others could do with three times the page count.
And he couldn't find a subject with more aspects to his story. Of the other visages on the Mount Rushmore of '80s music (Bruce, Madonna, Michael) it's Prince who, pushing 50 today, has changed the least, looking, sounding and behaving almost exactly like his Reagan-era self. He's also managed to release probably twice as much music as the other three combined, and still has near-bursting vaults of unreleased material.
But Morton's theme is how an artist who is arguably the most multi-talented of his peers is still primarily known and regarded for an amazing string of records from his first decade (Dirty Mind, Purple Rain, Sign "O" the Times) and precious little from the next two. He also explores how the funky Prince of "Little Red Corvette" and "When Doves Cry" morphed into the seemingly otherwordly performer of bizarre quirks (changing his name to an unpronounceable symbol, the overwrought "SLAVE" cheek writings) and weirder music with an outer-space/mystical/Egyptian bent.
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Morton also spends many pages looking into Prince's very self-aware toying with gender roles and his litany of female surrogates and protégés (Wendy & Lisa, Sheila E., Apollonia and Sheena Easton, to name a few). He also reveals the true story behind the strange saga of Prince and former wife Mayte's son Gregory, who had a rare skull disfigurement and was taken off life support shortly after birth. Yet in interviews three weeks afterward, Prince mentioned he was "enjoying fatherhood," adding a level of confusion to an already mysterious and secretive story.
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Oddly, the book ends with little mention of Prince's "comeback" record Musicology or his well-received Super Bowl performance wherein, even after the Janet Jackson controversy, he managed to turn his guitar into a doppelganger for his dick. Which took balls.
As a musician, Prince has certainly followed his own muse, critics and fans alike be damned. For that, he deserves respect for not simply remaking his hits over and over again. But at the same time, Morton notes that his sonic self-masturbation and the sheer volume of his output (which could benefit from some judicious paring) has kept him more of a past tense artist in people's minds.
"Prince is arguably the most important popular musician of his time," Morton writes, adding he is not responsible for any single, identifiable, stylistic development. And while his private life, height, sexual orientation, religion, and bizarre behavior often detract attention from what he's doing in the studio, the legacy of the Twin Cities' Tiny Terror will ultimately be about his music. And Tipper Gore. - Bob Ruggiero
Prince: A Thief in the Temple, by Brian Morton, 224 pp., $24, Canongate