Prince, an appreciation for novices

The musician Prince died recently. As he would have put it, “Life is just a party, and parties weren’t meant to last.” A guide for the curious on how to appreciate this guy’s music:

1. Ignore the overhype. The first thing to watch out for, if you’re new to Prince’s music, is the effect of his hard-core fans, the worshipers. I once had a friend compare the Purple One to Mozart. In a word: No. The problem with these people – I love your enthusiasm, guys, it’s charming, but – is that they’re setting you up for disappointment. When you check out Prince’s music and find it’s not Mozart-level, you might become disgusted and think, “It’s all BS.” Actually it’s not all BS, but the problem is that no one could live up to the expectations his hard-cores will set up in your mind, and the disappointment will annoy you.
What Prince actually was, mainly, was a guy who wrote a lot of good pop music. Pop music is its own area of the musical universe, with clear and reasonable standards, and hooray for it. For example, one of its standards is that a person with no formal musical training should be able to enjoy it. I.e., it should be accessible. Hence “pop,” short for “popular.” (I’ve had some musical training and enjoy certain kinds of esoteric music, but that’s not pop’s bailiwick.) Pop music is not, and is not designed to be, artistically brilliant. It is unfair to a pop artist to judge him by the standards of artistic genius.
In this sense, Prince is like a less extreme case of the Beatles. The Beatles were a solid band who wrote some good pop tunes, and good for them. But due to some weird combination of circumstances which I’ve never figured out, they became feted as the best thing to happen to humanity since the taming of fire. Because this assessment is moronic – in fact, a significant chunk of their oeuvre is downright boring – one’s instinctive reaction is, “The Beatles suck!” Well, they don’t totally suck; they did have some good stuff in with the boring stuff. They just fail to live up to the ridiculous hype with which the Baby Boomers surrounded them. No one could live up to that hype. If you’re not acquainted with their music and you give it a listen, after hearing the hype, I guarantee you’ll be underwhelmed. But that’s the hardcore fans’ fault, not the Beatles’. It’s the same with Prince.

2. Guitar skill. While the alleged Eric Clapton quote about Prince being the world’s greatest guitarist is a fabrication, he was pretty good on the axe. For readers who are knowledgeable about the guitar, this will be the pleasant surprise about Prince. Remember how above I said the guy is overhyped? Well, given that, the freakin’ bizarre thing about him is how underhyped his guitar playing was. How do his hard-core fans miss this? Well, maybe they don’t miss it, and I’ve just missed their ranting about it. But seriously, listen to When Doves Cry, the opening measures and a passage from around 3:45 for several measures afterward. (You have to have the full-length version for this; the radio version and the Greatest Hits version are truncated.) I think his image as a pop god caused everyone to overlook his instrumental skill.

3. Eclecticism. E.g., the random Ravi Shankar-like sitar inserted into “7” at random moments. The combination of pure light-pop dance-y numbers like Raspberry Beret and more thematically serious material like Sign O the Times (warning: crack gangs, machine guns).

4. Humor. “‘…’cause if you don’t I’m gonna explode, and girl, I got a lot.” LOL. My understanding of Prince’s music expanded when I realized there was a lot of humor. Once you listen for it, you hear it all the time.

5. Recommended entry points:
Albums: 1999, Purple Rain.
● 1999 (from 1999)
● Little Red Corvette (from 1999. Warning: One line of the lyrics is really gross)
● When Doves Cry (from Purple Rain. Why does When Doves Cry sound, in some undefinable way, different from most other pop songs you’ve ever heard? I’ll put the answer at the end of this post so as to avoid giving it away.)
● The title track from Purple Rain isn’t bad either. What’s that? Did I hear some hardcore in the back shout, “It’s genius, man! It’s genius!” Sit down, fanboy, and catch your breath.
● Thieves in the Temple (from Graffiti Bridge)
● 7 (from the Love Symbol Album)
● Thunder (from Diamonds and Pearls)
● Sign O the Times (from Sign O the Times).
● He also wrote Nothing Compares 2 U, and there are two (at least) performances of it, one by Sinead O’Connor and one by His Purple Majesty himself. Weirdly, O’Connor’s performance is the better, IMHO.
– – – – – – – – – – –
Why does When Doves Cry have a unique sound? The song has no bass line(!), which is very unusual for this kind of song, i.e., an up-tempo Top-40 pop tune from the 1980s. In fact, within that set of songs, it’s probably not just unusual, but unique. Apparently Prince let his bass player add a bass line was when the song was played live, but why? The song hit #1 without any bass! Give the people what they want! And let the bassist go grab a beer!

Review of The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett

The plot is unpredictable and satisfying, and a good reason to read this novel. But it’s not the main reason. The main reason is…

The people! God, the people! It’s not a nice group portrait, but it’s an amazing one.

Cynical, manipulative, ruthlessly, remorselessly dishonest.

Brigid O’Shaughnessy (if that’s her real name), who when one of her lies is uncovered, apologizes… and tells another one. When that one’s exposed, she apologizes and tells another. You never actually know if you get the truth from her.

Caspar Gutman, who considers letting Wilbur – “He’s like a son to me!” – hang for a murder because, well, I can get another son. WTF? I don’t think you’re clear on the concept of a son, dude.

The main character, Sam Spade, who sleeps with his partner’s wife (stay classy, Sam) and thinks of his partner as a sap. But when his partner is murdered, hunts down the killer, because

When a man’s partner is killed, he’s supposed to do something about it. … we were in the detective business. Well, when one of your organization gets killed, it’s bad business to let the killer get away with it.

The way people commit murder and arson, etc., just to get their hands on a valuable bauble. It’s just money, people. Sheesh.

The endless, endless layers of lies, from everyone, not just O’Shaughnessy, such that you never hear the truth at all, or if you do, you’re never sure because it might just be another lie. It ineluctably calls to mind the classic metaphor “hall of mirrors.”

The fact that (SPOILER) we never see the real Maltese Falcon, or even know if such a thing actually exists, or is just a myth, a mirage that this collection of liars, killers, and thieves is chasing.

An answer to the question “Is there honor among thieves?” Answer: No.

Another SPOILER warning. In the final scene the major (surviving) participants are sitting around in a room coldly discussing which of them the others will accuse of the unresolved murder, so the rest of them can walk free. Our “hero” is in on this; and though he’s not the killer, he obviously doesn’t care much whether the true killer is the one who goes up for murder. In the end, it’s the true killer who gets accused to satisfy the cops, but this is only because it’s the most convenient solution for everyone else, not because it’s true.

It’s a pit of vipers, among whom our hero is merely the least objectionable viper. Although he makes this intriguing statement: “Don’t be too sure I’m as crooked as I’m supposed to be. That kind of reputation might be good business – bringing in high-priced jobs and making it easier to deal with the enemy.” But of course we don’t know if we can trust this, either.

All this sounds like I’m coming away from the novel with a main reaction of moral disapproval. But that’s not the case. Hammett himself plainly doesn’t approve of most of this – except for the hero’s admirable ability to avoid being conned by professional con men and women – he merely shows it to us. And so the main reaction this reader has is not “That’s appalling!” – though it is appalling – but, “Wow, what an astounding portrait of a certain set of people!” They’re horrible people, yes, but they’re horridly fascinating horrible people.

Author Interview: Em Lehrer

UPDATE: I think I have finally figured out how to make the “Like” button work consistently, so if any of Em’s reader’s find their way here, you can now “Like” this post.

Em Lehrer is the author of a novel, a movie script, and several short stories. She is working on her novel Candy Wrappers, the first book in The Gravestone Chronicles. She has also has a fun blog that’s oriented toward writing. In particular, check out her fascinating author interviews section, but watch out for the addiction factor; I almost got sucked into archive-gorging there for hours. I recently had a chance to throw some interview questions at Em.


1. What writing habits are most effective for you?

Writing habits are tricky. When I get into it, I find myself writing for an hour or two every day, usually at the same time every day. Then, if I skip a day, I’m thrown off and I need to force myself back into the habit.

I always find that having a word count goal per day helps me keep on track. If I know how many words I want to get down in the document, then I have something to work towards, and I’m able to stay more focused in my hour or two of writing per day.

2. Do you have any advice about the craft of writing for writers or aspiring writers?

I think the most important advice is to remember your own voice. Every writer has a slightly different writing style, and that’s what makes them special. It’s okay if your writing doesn’t read like your favorite authors, that’s what makes it unique.

Another thing to remember is that no writing is perfect on the first try. Don’t get discouraged because your first draft isn’t perfect. Edit and rewrite and work on your manuscript until you think it is perfect. Then get an outside opinion or two. You learn through your mistakes, and every attempt at writing is another lessoned learned.

3. What’s a fact about you that your readers might be surprised to know?

This is a tricky question… I don’t think there is much about me that is surprising. The most interesting thing about me at the moment is where I live; which is in Dominica, a small island in the Caribbean. I’ve been here for four years and am moving back to the USA this fall for school.

4. Tell me about your current working novel, Candy Wrappers, the first book in The Gravestone Chronicles. What was the original idea behind it?

Candy Wrappers has been a work in progress for a long time. I originally had the idea back in sixth grade, when I drew a picture of a monster creeping out from under a cabinet and grabbing a candy wrapper from under a rug. The idea has much evolved since then and I started writing the actual manuscript in March.


The running idea is a girl (currently named Malia, but that may change) goes to her summer home after the murder of her parents to say her final goodbyes. While she is there she discovers that demons may actually exist, and they may be the real reason behind the death of her parents.


5. What do you primarily care about in your writing? E.g., story, good prose, characters…

Most of my stories start with a plot, which more often than not comes to me at some random time for no apparent reason. I do my best to develop the plot first, and the characters and setting etc. fall into place.

When I’m actually writing, I do my best to watch my writing. I tend to get very ‘heavy’ and do my best to keep my writing ‘light’ (if that makes any sense at all). Other than that I just let the words flow and fix up anything I don’t like in the editing.

6. What’s the best thing about writing/being a writer?

Probably the fact that I can create anything I want and bring it to life through words. I think that writing is like magic; absolutely anything is possible. That, to me, is amazing.

7. What reaction(s) do you hope your work inspires in your readers?

There is nothing in particular I try to instill in my readers. My main hope is that readers enjoy my writing, and are able to get lost in the world that I have created (in a good way of course).

Thanks for the interview, Em!

You can find Em at these other sites:

Her blog, Keystroke

On Twitter

On Facebook

Her podcast