“Funk Machine” was the first song Prince wrote. He was seven years old, and he did it on his dad’s piano. I always think of him writing and producing music just like that, all on his own, driven to make it all up even when he wasn’t even aware of what a superstar he was going to be. He seemed to be able to access that part of himself for most of his life, with or without attention or approval.
The false trope of “outsider artist” is something I’m always thinking and writing about, that super-precious concept of super-precious “outsiders” or “savants” making super-precious art in seclusion or in places that have been created for them, and art collectors and academics staking claims on their “authenticity” and “strangeness.” As in: “Is the artist autistic or just crazy?” I heard that little gem at the NYC Outsider Art Fair a couple years back.
But here’s an outsider artist for the ages, without all that baggage and nonsense: look at him up there, comfortable in his lair, water-coloring his next “funk machine,” the world just a tug on his purple satin sheet. His face is saying, “You better just leave me the fuck alone right now.”
That photo comprised one of the record-sleeves of his magnum opus, 1999. The smoky furtive light, the neon pulsing heart-shaped heart, the bouffant hair, the seductive pose. Lord have mercy. And it’s a pose for sure, and yet the pose indicates creativity in a basement, solitude yielding something both super-secret and something to be super-shared. He wrote for the masses, made music that crossed every borderline (race, class, sexuality, gender, religion, and son), and yet he was the king of the outsiders in the best sense of the word: toiling away in his basement-kingdom (eventually enlarged and compounded into Paisley Park), configuring and refashioning what makes him want to be alive. Obviously it was the creation of music.
Now that he’s gone, I just want to remember him in that essence, that moment. He knew exactly what he was doing. I also want to remember myself buying 1999 in 1982, some freaky kid in a little town, poor white trash, drawn to Prince’s style and music since stumbling across Dirty Mind. I’d waited months for1999. And when I got home I played that thing over and over, getting in sync with his high-dungeon, punk-drenched super-funk, knowing this was his masterpiece. There are moments all over that record that turn into trances, that invite you into his purple bedroom to witness the techno-purple majesty of his purple genius. One of the best is “Automatic,” the almost ten-minute song that starts the second record on the album. It’s a Sodom and Gomorrah UFO full of synth-pop pleasures and vibes. It makes you both elated and a little scared, a product of some dark laboratory filled with S&M apparatus and lavender light.
“Baby,” Prince coos toward the end, right before a chorus of spastic/erotic screams and cries commences, “you’re the purple star in the night supreme.”
He had to be looking in a mirror when he sang that.