NOTES ON THE SIGN O’ THE TIMES BOXSET, PT. 1. It took me a while to listen to all of the Sign O’ the Times outtakes from the boxset released in 2020. Maybe you’ve had this experience: you know a work of art is going to be so good that you want to hold off and savor the anticipation. It’s not that you think the actual listening will disappoint. You know it won’t, and maybe, just maybe, you’re not ready to deal with the emotional ride, the abundance of emotions, the ectastic moments and the cannot-get-lower-than-this blues.
The soul-jazz-pop cosmopolitanism of this era in Prince’s lifework, in its vertical and horizontal environments, is overflowing and vigorously alive. “Adonis and Bathsheba” is one example, a song that three-dimensionally arranges strings-on-keys, horns, a flute, stacked vocals, and Prince’s electric guitar. And this at a time when Prince was drifting from the Revolution, trying to make his relationship with Susannah Melvoin work. On the one hand, I don’t find it heartbreaking that he was moving on. That’s what we do. And where he was headed would be brilliant. But during the moments I hear this transition happening, or imagine that I hear it happening–the grief behind dragged along, the desire stretching forward, the solidarity waning–the history can be overwhelming. Prince wasn’t even thirty years old yet.
We express this rapturous state of being overwhelmed with the phrase “all the feels,” but it’s not just emotion. It often deepens with the knowledge of the story, the history, by which I mean here the entire history of Prince’s life and work. When you’re a fan, and especially a knowledgeable fan, you may have in the back of your mind the story of Prince circa 1986-1987, but you’ll also likely have his entire body of work in mind, too. For instance, in “Adonis and Bathsheba” I hear figures reminiscent of “The Question of U,” a song that Prince first recorded in 1985 but didn’t appear until 1990’s Graffiti Bridge. There’s a kind of pleasure in hearing this, something joyful, even, but also, for reasons I can’t entirely explain, a kind of grief.
Side Note 1: As I’ve been working on my various projects, I’ve asked myself what grief and joy and change matter to cultural studies, sociology, and hegemony/ideological formations. By definition these fields and theories flow toward the communal and various degrees of social normativity–for ill, sometimes, in the way Albert Murray meant when he talked about “social science fiction”–and so of course they focus on the shared emotions of audiences. But what this focus does to our encounters, interpretations, and criticism of performances as historical moments–which is to say, moments of suspense, indeterminacy, and seeking-in-the-moment, the moment we hear occuring…well, it’s complicated. Every person has a personal history lodged within the social history, personal theories–thinking–intertwining within cultural theory, and they do not always match. In fact, they never perfectly match. Is it accurate to say I am looking for the gaps of the individual in the networks of the social?
Anyway, for a few weeks after the boxset came out, I would listen to a couple songs here and there. “Adonis and Bathsheba” was one, since I’d heard so much about it. The alternate take of “Crucial” was another, because I could never understand why it wasn’t the closer on Sign O’ the Times. Nothing against “Adore.” The boxset version doesn’t solve that riddle at all. “Crucial” draws you into a conflict, a dramatized moment that might as well be your memory, something you, not Prince, lived. It feels complete and lives up to its name. And that was why I could only approach the boxset a couple songs at a time. Each song was a reckoning.
So imagine that your most incredible success has happened with the band you are thinking about leaving. That you are leaving. It’s just a matter of when and how. The Sign O’ the Times boxset seems to document Prince looking to get his feet under him, knowing what lay ahead but unsure of how to get there, and as an artist, wanting the reassurance of something more than intuition. (This story is more interesting in the boxset than in the official public discourse about the boxset, which I’ll get to.)
The story might begin with “Can I Play With U?” Prince recorded the track for Miles Davis on December 26, 1985, and in this collection it is, chronologically, the earliest song that I cannot imagine the Revolution pulling off. Maybe there’s not a strong musicological case to be made for that opinion. It has more to do with the feel of the song, the way it veers from one idea to the next with a jazz attitude: what if this happened, what if this happened? What the Revolution did extremely well was hammer a groove through the stage, but the turnarounds they mastered with Prince don’t compare, I think, to the anarchic freestyle happening in “Can I Play With U?” Sure they could have played it; you can compare it to “And That Says What?” but I think the latter performance actually proves my point, and Prince is playing drums on that performance. The feeling of freedom is very different.
I wonder if Prince heard “Can I Play With U?” as a departure, too. A ticket. Two years later, Davis sat in on the New Year’s Eve show at the very new Paisley Park.
“Can I Play With U?” foreshadows songs like “Crystal Ball,” “Good Love,” and a song he recorded a month later, “Wonderful Day.” Which brings me to the drumming. While I enjoyed hearing engineer Susan Rogers talk in the SOTT podcast about how Prince sped up when tracking the drums in “The Cross,” that’s not the kind of thing to be paying attention to on this album. The foundational beat of “Wonderful Day” is syncopated with jazz inflections and a funk assertiveness, and to play it that tight, solo, i.e., without any other tracking aside from (maybe) those hand claps in the left channel keeping time, well, this is what we mean when we say Prince was a musical genius. Then consider that the overdubs, from the keys to the vocals, play off that beat in polyrhythmic delirium…and it’s all tight, tight, tight. I’ll always respect Bobby Z, but damn.
Let me put it this way. When I was young, I played the drums. I was decent. I could play the beat in “Tamborine” from Around The World In A Day including most of the breaks. “Wonderful Day” is on a different level.
The changes that you hear happening in the Sign O’ the Times boxset had their precedents, but Prince’s approach to the drumming shouldn’t be overlooked as a signifier of what was going on. The only drummer in his camp at the time who was capable of playing those beats with his nimbleness–a lightness of touch that was still strong; a kind of rolling, jazzy freneticism–was Sheila E.
During a panel at the Prince: 78-88 conference in 2021, I had the chance to ask folks when they thought Prince knew a change was coming, and the consensus, if I recall, from Zaheer Ali and Kamilah Cummings, was Sheila E.’s increasing presence in 1985. Sheila and her band had opened for Prince and the Revolution throughout the entire Purple Rain Tour, but perhaps it was the June 7, 1985 birthday show that signaled the coming changes. It can’t be a coincidence that two days after Prince recorded “Can I Play With U?” he assembled the first session of The Flesh, which featured Prince, Sheila E., Levi Seacer Jr., and Eric Leeds jamming out in Sunset Sound. The second session, in January 1986, brought Wendy and Lisa plus Wendy’s brother Jonathan Melvoin into the fold, an indication, perhaps, that Prince was looking to see who could fit together. And though they’d already appeared on stage together, the lineup also foreshadowed the Revolution-Plus lineup of the Parade tour–Prince’s last with the Revolution.
Two months after that second Flesh session, Prince records “Power Fantastic” at Galpin Blvd. with Wendy, Lisa, Bobby Z., Eric Leeds, and Atlanta Bliss. “And just trip,” Prince says. “There are no mistakes this time.” What I hear is a composer, a bandleader, who respects his band and is willing to see where they will go, even if he suspects some of them cannot go where he ultimately wants to be.
My mother has dementia. Her world has been shrinking over the past few years, and that may be one reason why I avoided listening to all of the SOTT boxset–it is so wide, and so vibrant, that its vitality bears in my unique circumstance an irrational imprint of cruelty.
I think you can hear Prince’s world, as an artist, opening up, getting bigger, and though to some extent this is heresy–we like to think Prince was always Prince was from the word go–perhaps Prince becomes Prince in these recordings.
It is beautiful to hear so many boundaries being crossed, so much new territory opening up, but what I am saying is that, for me, this beauty runs counter to the painful lessening of my mother’s life. I couldn’t really help but hear the two speaking to each other–which was weird. Mom was not a Prince fan. She was a Beatles fan from the beginning. When they came to Cleveland Public Auditorium in 1964, she stood on a folding chair and screamed her ass off. Mom has never been outgoing, flashy; she’s always been shy and quiet. The burden of single-mothering the little dude who was me took its toll. By all accounts, she ought to be enjoying retirement. When her mother was suffering from Alzheimer’s, Mom moved into the house in which she was raised, negotiating my grandfather’s stubbornness and the needs of my grandmother. She ought to have more now, not less.
It’s petty to hear so much life and to envy it, as if there is only so much to go around. But listening is not a rational act, or more precisely, an action defined by rationality. It can be quite slippery.
Side Note 2: Maybe what I’m looking for in cultural studies is a slower reckoning with the “encounter with music” before we leap to interpretation, historicization, and contextualization. And it’s often not much of a leap, not when the template of media, hegemony, “the text,” and social power dynamics is ready and waiting. To use a Stuart Hall concept, I’m focusing on the “decoding” process. Maybe what I want to see has less to do, after all, with the individual than the encounter as indeterminacy over time, a suspension of judgment but not thought, a reluctance to slide into what I’ve clumsily called socio-empirical aesthetics, where all value of art–including its complexity–is defined by social science and political power and the very limiting limitation of what can be observed, i.e., what already is. Audience studies, reception studies, etc., rarely dive into not-knowing, though Hall and others would be quick to point out that since audiences make meaning, and since the “encoding” is never transparent, some degree of indeterminacy is inevitable. Nonetheless, over the past decade or so, I’ve noticed that critical and popular discourse rushes to decode or mark off what Hall defined as “dominant, negotiated, or oppositional” readings of a work of art. Or, to apply this differently, I’ve never seen affect theory deal with emotion as anything other than an Aristotelian system of categories. Sarah Amed says affect is “sticky.” I’m interested in affect that is so slippery it resists categorization, and certainly quick categorization.
The slipperiness is undoubtedly magnified by the immensity of the Sign O’ the Times boxset. The overwhelming number of tracks corresponds with the deep sense of being overwhelmed that I’ve felt over the past couple years, the result being, until very recently, a functional numbness. Like that commerical where the depressed woman holds up a smiley face on a stick. The boxset asked of me something I couldn’t give, at first, but wanted to, whereas with my mom, I’ve had a million things to do for her, none of which will stop what’s happening from continuing to happen.
What I’m also looking for is a way to distinguish a music crit reading of what was going on circa 1985-1987 in Prince World from the painful pandemic-determined anxiety of calling my mother every day to make sure she had not set her condo on fire…but to do so without separating these two very different things, because for me, they couldn’t be separated. Even now, with my mother safely in a memory care facility nearby, they can’t be separated. That initial hesitancy or incapability on my part still informs the way I think about the Sign O’ The Times boxset. That’s the headline. And as someone who loves Prince’s music, I find that to be weird.
One issue, I think, is obligation. Over the past year, aside from the many, many, many reasons to be sad, the declining health of my mother’s mind and the narrowing of her daily life have made me feel that any joy of my own is a betrayal of her situation. It’s as if, in my duty to care for her, not only will I naturally feel sadness–the waves of major depressive disorder I’m accustomed to, but with a fresh twist, like a horrible new flavor of Sprite–but also that I should feel it, that I’m obligated to feel sadness all the time. It’s a way of honoring her, of being with her on this journey she’s taking, but it’s also destructive, and it does nothing to help her, either.
What I’m hearing in the boxset, all of it, is a long goodbye. Someone–Prince–is going to come out of this stronger and even freer than before. For all of its thunk-thunk funk, to hear the Revolution pounding away at “Soul Psychodelicide” with Prince’s cue of “Ice cream!”, completely unaware that the title phrase would become their epitaph immortalized in “Joy In Repetition,” is poignant. Nothing in the moment gives this away. “Soul psychodelicide / it’s a helluva thing,” Wally Safford and Greg Brooks are chanting, pitched against Prince’s fiancee Susannah Melvoin. But we know that not everyone in this group is going to make it, Prince-wise, to 1987. It’s fitting, then, that the song drags on for more than twelve minutes. It’s basically a tour rehearsal, and parts of it would be used in “It’s Gonna Be A Beautiful Night,” the song performed live at Le Zenith in Paris a month later, which itself would become the farewell to the Revolution on the original version of Sign O’ The Times.
In every goodbye there’s a turning to what’s next. The official Prince podcast and most of the paratexts that accompany the Sign O’ The Times boxset sell “what’s next” short. Instead they focus on the role of The Revolution and Susannah Melvoin in the making of the album. If I were not flailing around trying to write something to stave off grief, or to manage it, I would not risk dabbling in this nostalgia. And let’s call it what it is: a nostalgia for a certain kind of whiteness, a role whiteness has to play in this story, which from song to song, from Dream Factory to Dream Factory to Dream Factory on through Camille and Crystal Ball, you can hear dissolving. This is not to say the influences of The Revolution would never again grace Prince’s music, and neither does it mean that Prince suddenly, in 1986, discovered himself as a Black man and musician. His blackness was there from the beginning. In this next chapter of his journey, though, it took on a new form and became a new center of gravity, wild, cosmopolitan, and sharp, blackness center stage, and across the stage, in all its multitudinousness.
If this highly personal reading of the box set has any value, maybe it’s being attuned to this question of obligation. If personal obligations kept me from encountering and then feeling the entirety of the set’s music in a way I normally do with Prince’s music, I have been alert to the subtle ways in which the discourse around Prince imagines or claims his obligations to others. And to again call it what it is: There are a handful of white people whose version of the Sign O’ The Times story revolves around his supposed duty to The Revolution. It’s one thing to say Prince struggled with moving on from his bandmates; they were his friends, their music was successful, and while they were certainly not the only sound Prince knew or had played, there had to be at least some degree of comfortability with them–more precisely, the comfort of knowing what he had with them. But he didn’t owe them anything. (Except better pay.) So it’s misleading and at the very least incomplete to frame the story of Sign O’ the Times through the lens of the disappointment and betrayal those folks felt at the time.
The first five of the eight episodes of the official podcast about Sign O’ The Times are largely devoted to the narrative of this tragic breakup, but it’s only tragic if Prince was obligated to keep the band together. He wasn’t. When I listen to the box set, I can hear him working out a new direction, trying different styles, and yes, testing to see if the Revolution can still work, or if certain members can, but there is never a single moment when I hear Prince believing himself to be beholden to the band. The moment when I do hear that belief made manifest isn’t on the box set. It happened in Yokohama, Japan on September 9, 1986, the night Prince broke not one but two Cloud guitars onstage, the last night he ever played with the Revolution. And yet, when that event is discussed in the podcast, it’s with bewilderment, even innocence. No one asks why Prince was so fucking angry. Or why he had any obligation not to be angry. Or if it was the sense of obligation that made him angry.
And yet, for a while I found myself in a position mentally–emotionally–akin to the Revolution and to those voices which have recently dominated the discourse about this period in Prince’s life. When I first tried listening to the boxset, all I could hear was the long goodbye. Full stop. Accompanied by betrayal and sorrow. To coerce my mother out of her condo and into a nursing home felt like a betrayal. She will never live in that condo again. There will be no return.
After time, and when I finally listened to the Sign O’ The Times podcast and picked up on the adjacent conversations, I heard and recognized my own inability to acknowledge life going on. My mother will be gone too soon, but life should continue to be beautiful. She would want that for me. She would want that for you, whoever you may be. Her life has moments of joy, and I work to provide her with those moments at the memory care facility. I sing Beatles songs, Elvis songs for her. Once, I even found myself singing a little of “Raspberry Beret.”
And why should Prince have been denied a beautiful, splendid, and richly funky musical life post-Revolution? He wasn’t, but in some fans’ minds, an originary rightness was lost when he broke up the band, as if 1984 was Eden and Prince ate the apple. Is that perspective worthy of the prominent place in the story it’s been given? It may be unconscious, but the insistence of that Edenic fall from grace in the historicizing of an album in which Prince seems utterly and newly free is troublesome.
Having listened through the box set more than a few times now, I’m still in awe of its aesthetic vastness. It seems impossible that in little more than a year one artist should explore so much ground so lovingly, with so much excitement and expertise, with so much soulful commitment. When Prince said he disliked the term “experiment,” I think he meant that it implies a lack of commitment. In every performance, in every moment, Prince was committed to the dramatic situation he was inhabiting. This is what he means when he tells the band to “just trip” before they record “Power Fantastic.” Commit to the right-here-right-now and nothing else. That he did this over and over again is incredible.
Sometimes, when we listen, this kind of commitment is too much for us to bear. The emotions, history, quality and the commitment? There were days during the pandemic when I could barely make sure I was wearing clean socks. It was difficult for me to go from “Rebirth of the Flesh” to “Cosmic Day” to “Walkin’ in Glory” to “Wally” and not be immobilized. What I was hearing was not a representation of life (to rag on that old fart Plato and his teacher) but life itself. If I believed in the Socratic/Platonic universal Forms, I might even say that this music can make you believe it is those Forms. Beauty. Justice. Some immaculate perfection out of the reach of mortals.
Over and over and over again.
In the past several months there have been plenty of occasions when I’ve been able to sink into the aesthetic vastness of Sign O’ The Times‘ sessions without so much unwilling resistance, to understand the new story Prince was chasing. The music critic in me wants that new story to be the one we emphasize, the one we spill ink over, because Prince was moving ahead, as always. Lovesexy, its epic live show, was a year away. So much fine music, so many hits, and all of it impossible if he had stayed where he was.
But I would be lying if I said, much as I’d like to, that the box set has at any point offered anything like the clarity or the catharsis we often seek in music. Life itself, on tape, has not made life more understandable. There is nothing that can clarify for me the fate my mother is experiencing, slowly, or explain away the horror of watching it unfold day by day. That is not a fair thing, or simply a realistic thing, to expect from any work of art. When I was younger, I might have thought differently.
When the Sign O’ The Times boxset is comforting, it’s in the space of a single song. The way a keyboard digs in the dirt. Prince’s falsetto: how it rises from his body’s breath into a stream of air, curling like a ribbon. Isn’t this incredible, I ask myself. These are moments of grief and joy and change, but what gets me through is less a specific emotion than the sheer presence of the life committed to tape in those moments.
In the need for a cultural history, those moments will find their places–placed, if not by me, then by other folks, into the ever-present discourse. They will not mean what I have said here that they mean to me. They will be aligned with Prince’s story, with his co-creators’ stories, with the story of society and culture, and of course there is much value in that. But in this lessening life when I am always sad and angry and exhausted, what I cling to are the moments in Prince’s performances which remind me that life is more than sadness, anger, and exhaustion, and it is more than saying a long goodbye, and it is more than the discourse and the lines we draw in history. Life is simply more, and more, and more, and if not today, in the gloom of today, then another day to come.