Interview by: John Wisniewski
Can we discuss your book about Prince recording “Purple Rain” called “Let’s Go Crazy?” Has Prince commented on your book, and why did you choose to document the making of “Purple Rain”?
I have not heard anything from Prince about the book, nor do I expect to. His whole life has really been focused on moving forward rather than looking back, which is why I didn’t approach him about participating in the book – he told me, ten years ago, when “Purple Rain” was 20 years old, that he didn’t think about those anniversaries, that he knows what it took to create these projects and he feels no need to revisit them.
I wanted to look at the making of “Purple Rain” for several reasons. I don’t think that there’s any album that had a bigger effect on me in real time – as opposed to favorite Beatles, Dylan, Motown records or whatever, this one I remember as it happened. I was already a huge Prince fan, and vividly recall waiting to hear the first single (“When Doves Cry”) when the local R&B station in Cincinnati premiered it at midnight; going to see the movie opening weekend; sleeping on the sidewalk in the snow to line up for tickets to the tour. So it was meaningful to me in that most immediate way. People had been asking me for a long time about writing a Prince book, since I’ve done some lengthy interviews with him over the years, but that’s really an impossible task – but I realized that I could address most of the things that fascinate me about him, and have a much better chance of getting his associates to co-operate, if I focused on this one historic project. Finally, I think that something incredible was happening with music in the summer of 1984 (within a few months, “Purple Rain,” “Born in the USA,” and “Like a Virgin” were all released, the Jacksons’ “Victory” tour was on the road) and also in black culture (from Jesse Jackson running for President to the debut of “The Cosby Show” to Michael Jordan joining the NBA to the first Run-DMC album)…I had been kicking around the idea of a book about that year – which is also the year I graduated from high school, so it’s particularly memorable for me, but then thought that looking at “Purple Rain” would really be a way into most of these themes and developments. And, of course, I was able to sprint through the process and get the book out during the project’s 30th anniversary year…
I guess I started by reaching out to as many of the principal figures – musicians, actors, movie people, members of the Prince team – as I could locate, and seeing who was interested in talking. In a social media universe, it’s gotten a lot easier to do that (I was already Facebook friends with most of the Revolution!) and fortunately, most of them were happy to be involved and very generous with their time. There were obviously a few key figures without whom the book just wouldn’t have been possible; I needed to hear from the director and the producer, needed to speak to at least some of the band, and then started to fill in around that. Eventually, I went to Minneapolis to do some of the interviews and to see some of the sites, and then to Los Angeles to get to some more sources out there.
Also, of course, I tried to go back and start reading all of the coverage/reporting of the time. I went to the Rolling Stone library and went through their archives, pulled up all the reviews of the movie, tried to get as much of that background as I could. Incredibly, Prince did not do one single interview during the entire cycle of “Purple Rain” – he did not speak to anyone in the media between the release of “1999” and well after the release of “Around the World in a Day.” So at least I didn’t have to worry about that! And I began the process of watching the movie, going through all the DVD commentary, and trying to absorb different elements of the project based on where I was in the research.
Is Prince very secretive about his life and how he writes and records? Was there any difficulty in gathering your information to write the book?
Well, yes – Prince is notoriously private and media-shy. The cover story that I did with him for Vibe was the longest and most complicated negotiation for an interview I’ve ever had to deal with. So, of course, it was a certain kind of challenge to report the book. (I was maybe less freaked out about it because my last book, about the song “Hallelujah,” centered on Leonard Cohen, who does no interviews, and Jeff Buckley, who died in 1997…) There were a few key subjects without whom I really couldn’t have pulled off this book, but fortunately, folks like Wendy and Lisa or director Albert Magnoli were very generous, very forthcoming, and I was able to build enough of the story without new input from Prince himself. As always, researching a project like this also means finding information wherever you can – old film clips, alternate recordings, visits to scenes in the film, whatever I could come up with – but really, that’s the fun part.
Lets turn to the song “Hallelujah”. What attracts musicians such as Jeff Buckley and John Cale to this song? Why did you write about the history of “Hallelujah”?
Hmm – having spent two years trying to address these very questions, let’s try to keep it short…
I think there are a lot of factors that have contributed to the ever-expanding popularity of “Hallelujah.” I think the very strong melody and irresistible hook are really the starting point, as they are with any pop song. It’s a magnificent lyric, emotionally powerful and suggestively imagistic, but it’s ambiguous in ways that have worked to its great advantage. Depending how you deliver it, which lines you emphasize, it can be melancholy or triumphant, joyful or romantic or mournful. Since it grew and extended over time, there is no one single definitive version that new interpretations have to compete with (unlike other, comparable modern standards like “Bridge Over Troubled Water”). And once it became clear that the songwriter was OK with the notion of other artists editing and reconfiguring the lyrics (unlike, say, “Imagine”), it become uniquely malleable, able to fit into church services or weddings or funerals or public ceremonies without feeling compromised. And the fact that not only was it not an immediate hit, but that it languished for so many years before being discovered, has kept an aura of cool around it, more of an insider song that you learn about rather than a big pop anthem you can’t avoid.
I was fascinated by the incomparable trajectory of “Hallelujah.” When I first started thinking about it, it felt like there has never been another song that has had this same journey from utter obscurity – the album it’s on was actually turned down by CBS Records when Leonard turned it in – to global standard. I wanted to try to figure out how that happened, what were the steps and stages and reasons that such a transformation could happen.
5) Any feedback about “Hallelujah” from John Cale, or Leonard Cohen about your book?
I didn’t hear anything from Leonard for a long time, though his manager was very happy with the book and they promoted it on their website/facebook/etc. But then last year, which Leonard’s album “Popular Problems” was coming out, he did a series of small playbacks and brief public conversations for the press. His label asked if I would conduct the New York event, a Q&A at Joe’s Pub, and after playing the record, he and I had about a ten-minute interview in front of the invited guests. After the second question, Leonard paused and said that he wanted to thank me for the book – that he really appreciated and enjoyed it. I was totally gobsmacked – I honestly had no idea whether he had read it, or in fact whether he reads anything written about him. Fortunately my wife was there to witness the look of shock on my face…
I had long been an Allmans fan – not to an obsessive degree (they have plenty of those!), but just a regular listener. I wrote a few things about them over the years, like a story about their 200th show at the Beacon, and then I did a feature for the Sunday Times tied to Gregg’s last solo album. I remember that we met for the interview in Stamford prior to a show up there, which went pretty well – doing press is definitely not his favorite thing, but we hit it off well enough, talking about blues records and such. A few months later, I read that he had signed to write his memoir and I asked my agent to see if a writer had been attached yet. Gregg’s manager got back to me saying that they were actually trying to get in touch with me to find out if I might be interested in the project.
I knew that Gregg’s life was endlessly fascinating, particularly the theme of tragedy that has followed him forever, from his father being murdered to the deaths of his brother and other ABB bandmates, up through his own recent health struggles. Also of course the sheer scale of their success, the creation of an entirely new subset of music, and the Cher escapades, etc. My concern was that this was something that Gregg really wanted to do, that he would give the kind of time and focus needed to really tell such a story. Again, he’s not exactly a “life of the party” raconteur type. But whatever the book represented to him, he was just great throughout – very open, very honest, with nothing that was taboo or off the table, the kind of approach needed to make such a book successful and satisfying, and the whole process really was a pleasure.