Saturday, February 3, 2018

"All Good Things, They Say, Never Last" - Interview with Jerome Benton

"Spiritually, I think we had an unspoken, common denominator."

Photo courtesy of Tonya Giddens

Ten minutes before Jerome Benton called me, he got an alert on his phone from Pinterest, which prompted him to look through a collection of pictures of Prince.

"I'm like, 'Wow, he's really gone,'" Benton later told me. "And I go through that. Because we talked and we didn't talk. So I'm still in that mode. ... But when I see the pictures, I'm like, 'Aw, he's not here.'"

Throughout our conversation, Benton shared fond memories of Prince, whom he called a friend, mentor and brother. Among all the people I've interviewed for my book, I think Benton has known Prince the longest. They grew up on the North Side of Minneapolis, and Prince recruited Benton for The Time and The Family bands. Benton also appeared in Prince's films Purple Rain, Under the Cherry Moon and Graffiti Bridge.

I was especially interested in Benton's take on the latter movie, in which Prince explores the conflict between good and evil, as well as the sacred and profane. In my opinion, it is one of the artist's most important spiritual statements.

"I wasn't thinking about the message [of the film]," Benton said. "I was thinking about working with my fellas and trying to do the best job that we could do."

That makes sense. One of the things I've learned talking to people who worked with Prince is that, often times, they weren't thinking about the greater meaning behind Prince's creative choices; they were just trying to do their jobs. For example, I also like to ask about Prince's conversations with God onstage during the Purple Rain tour. People like Karen Krattinger, who worked as the production coordinator for the tour, were too busy "tied to a telephone ... advancing for the next project, advancing for what he wanted to happen after the show" to analyze Prince's performance.

But of course there were some people who engaged Prince spiritually during that time--Craig Rice, for example--and others who are interested in thinking through Prince's spiritual journey with me in hindsight. So I've just had to learn that I can't always predict which category my subject will fall into ahead of our interview.

Benton did have a perspective on Prince's spirituality, and I will share that in my book. I also asked him about Prince's decision to change the ending of Under the Cherry Moon, which may or may not have been a moral or spiritual decision. I also asked him what he thought about Prince's beliefs as a Jehovah's Witness, and whether or not he was surprised by Prince's conversion to the religion.

What I'm happy to share here is Benton's touching thoughts on the Under the Cherry Moon era and a song from the soundtrack that has great meaning for him: "Venus de Milo."

"That was a very special time in my life that I shared with Prince when we spent almost a year of production and filming," Benton said. "The thing that gets me ... is what I feel, what I go through when I hear ['Venus de Milo']. ... It's just emotional to me. I tear up immediately."

Benton also expressed gratitude for Prince's hand in shaping his professional life.

"Who would've thought, 38 years later, that somebody made a career out of holding a mirror up in front of somebody and talking shit to them," he said of his classic role in The Time.

A highlight for me during our chat was Benton's mention of The Funk Music Hall of Fame and Exhibition Center in Dayton, Ohio (an hour away from me), which will have its grand opening on Feb. 16. My hope is that he will visit soon.

Benton's hope is that he and his dear friend will reunite one day. "Maybe we'll do Under the Cherry Moon 2 in Heaven," he said. "And get a second [Raspberry Award]."

Thursday, November 2, 2017

"Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic" - Interview with Cheryl Sonny Thompson

"I think people grasping for religion are afraid of hell and I think he'd been through enough hell to where he was grasping for spirituality." 

In 2013, I interviewed Cheryl Sonny Thompson, who worked as a production assistant for Prince's Rave Un2 the Year 2000 concert, which was broadcast on cable on New Year's Eve in 1999 and later made available on video.

I think I had to stay up until about midnight two days in a row to catch Thompson on the phone, but I didn't mind, of course. And like many of my interviews for this project, there were coincidences or twists of fate; besides sharing the same last name, Thompson and I are both from Cincinnati, Ohio.

But there's something else. I hadn't listened to this interview in years, but returning to it this week, I discovered it validates something I've been looking into recently: Prince's possible spiritual transformation in the last years of his life, and 2013, in particular, as a significant turning point. So revisiting this interview now--and hearing Thompson's perspective on Prince's spirituality in 2013--was perfect timing.

That really assures me that things (including the completion of this book) happen when they are supposed to, which, oddly enough, was a topic a Prince fan and I were discussing just before I transcribed this interview.

Of course Thompson also shared her opinion of Prince's spirituality when she worked with him at the turn of the century, just before his conversion to the Jehovah's Witness faith. In fact, the impact of the religion on Prince's was on display during the Rave show, where he memorably (at least to me) changed the lyrics of "Gett Off," rapping "23 scriptures in a one-night stand" instead of "23 positions in a one-night stand." He also changed the the title and lyrics of "The Cross" to "The Christ" because Jehovah's Witnesses don't believe Jesus was crucified on a cross.

I asked Thompson if Prince's performance of "The Christ," alongside his spiritual mentor Larry Graham, was moving.

"It must not have been moving because I don't remember that performance," she said. "My most memorable performance of the night was when he and Lenny Kravitz did 'American Woman.'" For what it's worth, that is a great performance, especially with Prince doubling Kravitz' vocal line on the guitar near the end. Re-watching it inspired me to learn more about their friendship, which Kravitz described in a beautiful tribute in Rolling Stone.

I'm actually looking forward to watching the whole DVD again. From what I remember, I enjoyed seeing Prince playing the drums, and the return of former NPG member Rosie Gaines. I recall not caring for the backup dancer. But I digress...

Thompson also had some experience working, not directly for Prince, but in his "sphere" in the 1980s. She did, however, walk right up to him and ask him a question: "Do you think that you've reached the Dionysus syndrome?"

During our interview, Thompson compared Prince to Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and--wait for it--religious ecstasy, among a slew of other things. How perfect! Someone far more knowledgeable than I am needs to write a paper on that topic.

Thompson and I also talked a little bit about Prince's sister Tyka, his ex-wife Mayte Garcia, his battle with fear, and some of his other personality traits. I found Thompson to be extremely spiritual (not "religious"), which is not suprising, given the amount of people around Prince who were either already spiritual/religious or later became spiritual/religious. Thompson also cited a couple people (not Graham) whom she believes kept Prince spiritually grounded.

I would say most people, if not everyone, I've talked to when Prince was alive said they would work with him again, despite any previous conflicts. Thompson was an exception. No, she didn't bash him, but she offered an honest, understandable reason, and said:

"I wish him love. I wish him well."

What is your favorite performance from the Rave Un2 the Year 2000 concert?

Thursday, October 12, 2017

"Everything You Think is True" - Interview with Sam Jennings

"I never felt like he was trying to force me or giving me any ultimatums or anything like that. I think he genuinely thought it would help my life and help everyone’s life if they believed in this religion." 

"Microsoft Type Cover 2 - IMG_4252" by N i c o l a, licensed under CC BY 2.0

Earlier this year, I interviewed Sam Jennings, who worked as Prince's webmaster--and later took on an art director position--from 1998 to 2007. Together they created the groundbreaking NPG Music Club, which won a Webby Award in 2006. Jennings also put together the amazing "Prince Online Museum," a comprehensive archive of Prince's websites.

Interviewing band members, engineers, friends and ex-girlfriends is obviously important for getting a sense of the influence of spirituality in Prince's music and life. Additionally, people like Jennings, or lighting and set designer Roy Bennett, bring valuable insight into the influence of spirituality in Prince's visual art.

I also wanted to talk to Jennings because he started working with Prince right as the superstar was studying the Jehovah's Witness faith, and stayed well after Prince's conversion. So it's nice to see this period through the eyes of someone who--unlike Prince's spiritual adviser, Larry Graham, or ex-wife, Mayte Garcia--had a less personal investment in Prince's faith.

Jennings did attend Kingdom Hall services dozens of times, but never converted himself. "I respect it and I was open to it, but it didn't take, I guess," he said.

On the overall influence of spirituality in Prince's work, Jennings explained: "I think that guided him for most of his career, actually--his belief in God and just doing what he feels is right."

Jennings was at Paisley Park for the first "Celebration" festival, where Prince previewed his Jehovah's Witness concept album, Rainbow Children, and lead spiritually based discussions with fans. I appreciated getting Jennings' take on the audience's reaction both at the "Celebration" and on the One Nite Alone tour, where Prince avoided playing his explicit hits and preached from the stage. I also asked Jennings for his take on director Kevin Smith's famous bit on filming the "Celebration" events.

We also talked about that persistent rumor that Prince's mother asked him to become a Jehovah's Witness before she died. Of course I'll elaborate more on these topics in the book.

Besides discussing spirituality, it was fascinating to hear how Jennings engaged Prince when the musician's name was the love symbol.

"It's funny because our biggest form of communication was instant messenger, so we would be typing a lot of times and he would have a screen name that he would use, which wasn't Prince or [the] symbol," Jennings said. "And so his screen name just became what I would call him if I had to call him anything." (Prince fans, can you guess the screen name if you don't already know it?)

But even after Prince went back to his birth name, Jennings found that he didn't have to call Prince anything when they were in the same room. (Who else hums that line from Prince's song "Ripopgodazippa"--"If you're always with me, you'll never have to call me"--when this topic comes up?)

I think Prince's name change is so compelling, and I hope someone at the next Prince-based academic conference tackles the subject.

I also enjoyed talking to Jennings about Prince's websites and online dealings. Even though I became a serious fan around 2002, I never joined the NPG Music Club. I'm not even sure I knew it existed right away. I was focused on reading Prince's biographies and listening to his music on physical CDs. I did spend time on the frustrating, though.

One of my fondest memories as a fan was when popped up online out of nowhere in 2013. I remember giddily accessing the site from my laptop in my bed, and rocking out to the super-funky "Same Page, Different Book" (a spiritual song, of course) on the 3rdEyeGirl YouTube channel.

Jennings also shared insight into Prince's motivation for suing his fan sites. That's another great memory; I remember sitting at the computer in my college library when Prince dropped his "diss" track, "PFUnk," in 2007 in response to fans' criticism. I lost my mind with excitement but had no other Prince fans to talk to (I wasn't part of a community back then).

Jennings and I discussed many other topics in our nearly one-hour interview, and I'm so grateful for the opportunity to talk to him. (I'd love to get Prince's other art director, Steve Parke, next.) For now, I'll leave you with another quote from Jennings because I don't want to cry alone:

"Last time I spoke to him was in an e-mail exchange about a year after I left. ... I told him, 'Hey, I miss our friendship,'" Jennings said. "He e-mailed me back right away and said, 'We'll always be friends.' ... I always thought I'd run into him again. ... I think that was the biggest surprise when he did die is that, 'Oh, that's not going to happen.'"

What is your most memorable interaction with one of Prince's websites?

Thursday, October 5, 2017

"Preach the Good News" - Extended Interview with Larry Graham

"It was never me pushing him or telling him what to do. ... I’m simply just teaching him what I know and then he could decide what he wanted to do with that information."

"Larry Graham" by JouWatch, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Back in 2013 when I was living the hectic life of a freelance writer (I'm blessed to have a full-time journalism gig now), I interviewed Larry Graham with an intention to place the article somewhere, anywhere. My communication with his manager had actually gone as far back as Prince's Welcome 2 America show at Madison Square Garden in 2010; I was hoping to talk to Graham then because he was an opening act.

So after two years of perseverance, I finally spoke to Graham about his career, and was unable to place the piece anywhere other than my website. After the fact, I had an editor tell me I should have played up the Drake connection a bit more (the rapper is his nephew). Oh well, you live and learn.

So I held onto Graham's cell phone number for three years, knowing I'd eventually have to call him back to talk about Prince's spirituality for my book. That day came earlier this year, and I've finally transcribed the interview.

Graham was Prince's spiritual adviser before and after Prince's conversion to the Jehovah's Witness faith (Prince was batpized in March 2003, according to Graham). Graham was very pleasant and patient during our conversation, and I am honored he took the time to speak with me. And he's a legend, for goodness sakes (I made my mom proud by getting this interview).

Some of the most valuable information I found out was the true start of their spiritual study, which I don't think many people know about; the titles of three religious publications Prince studied; and Graham's perspective on Prince's faith at the time of Prince's death (I think I startled him when I asked if he thought Prince died at peace with God). Graham also offered his opinion on reports of Prince's drug use.

Additionally, we touched on Prince's heavily religious Rainbow Children album (Graham likened it to his Ain't No 'Bout-A-Doubt It and Mirror albums with Graham Central Station in the '70s, following his own religious conversion), and the changes Prince made in his life and art in the 2000s.

This was such an important interview for me, and with both Graham's description of Prince's conversion and Prince's ex-wife Mayte Garcia's description in her book, I think I'm approaching a somewhat balanced picture of that time period.

Overall, I think some fans are too critical of Graham; we have to remember that Prince was an adult and ultimately made his own decision about his religion.

Check back each Thursday for a new blog entry!

Thursday, September 28, 2017

"Thunder When I'm on the Mike" - Diamonds and Pearls Tour

While watching footage of one of Prince's tours, I always ask myself two questions to determine where he is spiritually: What necklace is he wearing? And how has he changed the lyrics to "Purple Rain?" Of course there are many other factors to consider, but those two questions have proven relevant time and time again.


Prince performs onstage on his Diamonds & Pearls tour, Ahoy, Rotterdam, Netherlands, 27th May 1992.

The Diamonds and Pearls tour fits right in here. I am currently studying that era, and I finally found a video online: the June 24, 1992 show in London. My analysis of the spiritual symbolism in that concert (which opens with "Take My Hand, Precious Lord") will be in the book. But I thought I'd share some of my general reactions.

I thoroughly enjoyed this high-energy show. As always, Prince demonstrates he is a dynamic singer, dancer and musician. I must say I was expecting dancers "Diamond" and "Pearl" to be more prominent; the TDK (Tony M., Damon Dickson and Kirk Johnson) dance troupe appears to get more stage time. And Prince's future wife, Mayte Garcia, is featured and, honestly, kept my attention more than Diamond and Pearl. 

I was also suprised "Damn U" and "Sexy MF," two singles from Prince's subsequent Love Symbol album, are included in the concert, but it makes sense given the project would be released a few months after the tour wrapped. And "Sexy MF" was released during the tour. Still, it's always fascinating to see how quickly Prince wrote and recorded new material. 

My favorite songs on the Diamonds and Pearls album are "Thunder" and "Live 4 Love," and the live performances of those tracks do not disappoint. I also love Prince's acoustic guitar playing on "Thieves in the Temple." You could definitely see that his interest in Middle Eastern music was growing; for example, Garcia wrote in her book:

"Prince was working hard to prepare the Diamonds and Pearls show, trying not to be distracted by the Arabic vibe and Egyptian imagery that seemed to be speaking to him. 'My heart's already there,' he told me, 'but my head has to do this thing right now.'" 

Prince is committed throughout the Diamonds and Pearls concert, and his focus is matched by his band, the NPG, which sounds fantastic. Rosie Gaines is especially impressive; I love Prince's reaction to her vocals.

Among Prince's tours up to 1992, I'd rank Diamonds and Pearls behind Sign 'O' the Times, Lovesexy and Purple Rain, but above the others--purely in terms of my personal enjoyment.

What do you think of the Diamonds and Pearls tour? 

Thursday, September 21, 2017

"I Know That the Lord is Coming Soon" - Podcast Appearance

I recently taped a podcast with Zach Hoskins of dance/music/sex/romance. We spoke briefly about my experience at the Purple Reign academic conference at the University of Salford, but we spent most of the time talking about spirituality in Prince's music and life.

I talked about the outline of my book and some of the interviews I've done so far. And I really enjoyed hearing Hoskins' perspective on the topic. 

Click here to listen, and scroll through the rest of Hoskins' blog, where he is analyzing each song in Prince's discography. 

Thursday, September 14, 2017

"A Promise 2 See Jesus" - Thoughts on "Diamonds and Pearls"

"C'mon save your soul 2 night."

My serious introduction to Prince is unique, and it definitely informed my fascination with his spiritual journey. In high school, after watching "Purple Rain," I bought the soundtrack and then immediately picked up Rainbow Children because it was his latest album. So you can imagine how jarring it was to digest risque songs like "Darling Nikki" alongside Jehovah's Witness anthems.

The third album I listened to was Diamonds and Pearls, only because a friend of mine found the CD in her mother's music collection and burned a copy for me. The first track, "Thunder," opens with the lyrics:

"'Twas like Thunder--all thru the night/And a promise 2 see Jesus in the morning light."

Prince was talking about Jesus back in 1991? That was one of my first thoughts. But I would soon find out that, despite his fluctuating doctrines, Prince always expressed a belief in God and even adopted a spiritual mission to make others aware of God’s existence--which is the central argument of my book.

Despite that reference to Jesus, Diamonds and Pearls is not overtly religious; in fact, it's arguably a return to push-the-envelope form for Prince after the spiritually dense Lovesexy and Graffiti Bridge projects. My spirituality focused analysis will be in the book.

Diamonds and Pearls is the official debut of the New Power Generation (NPG), which is my favorite Prince band. As I analyze the album, I can't help but think about the narrative that has been repeated in the media: the Revolution was the only band that pushed Prince creatively, and the heralding of the NPG coincided with a loss of magic in Prince's music. I don't mind people taking that stance, but it would be nice to hear other narratives, and I didn't even think about the role that race might play in those arguments (the early NPG was mostly African-American, while the Revolution was more diverse) until recently, but that's not my study.

Back in high school, I immediately gravitated toward the Diamonds and Pearls track "Willing and Able," which is an infectious blend of gospel and country. I still love the song but I like the fact that I've been honing in on others like "Live 4 Love." I just love Prince's vocals and Michael Bland's drumming on that track.

In the past, I'd always skip "Walk Don't Walk," but I find myself listening to the song now if only because Prince is singing in his low register.

I'm excited to dive deeper into the 1990s NPG era. "A family is born," Prince wrote in the liner notes. "And God bless us cuz we fonky."

What's your favorite track on Diamonds and Pearls?