Some thoughts on 5 of my favorite Prince songs

Confession: I was never that big of a Prince fan at his peak of popularity in the ‘80s. I watched MTV incessantly, so I had plenty of exposure to most of his big hits. But I was a repressed small-town midwestern Protestant white kid. I thought it was cool when I learned he was from Minneapolis, but I didn’t see that connection as an opportunity to liberate myself from my fear of everything; I was still freaked out by his uninhibited, guiltless sexuality. That’s probably the biggest reason I didn’t pay very much attention to him, if I’m honest with myself about who I was as a 10-year-old.

But even though I didn’t consider myself a fan, and never owned any of his music until I was much (much) older, I still heard his music all the time. Because once MTV realized it was not only OK but necessary for them to play black artists, Prince was on there a lot. Videos like “1999” and “When Doves Cry” are burned into my memory. And honestly, even if I was a little sheepish about it, I liked them. As time went on, my appreciation grew. And so, as my small tribute to the Artist whose music touched so many people, here’s my list of 5 Prince songs. Not necessarily my “top 5” Prince songs, but 5 that have made a big impression on me, in the order that they did.

“1999” from 1999 (1982)

This song was my introduction to Prince. It was probably 1983 when I first saw it, so I would have been 9. I was fascinated by this song and the video. As a kid, I was always interested in the future. I wanted to get there, fast, whether it was a paradise or (as this song suggested) something more ominous. I’ve never paid as much attention to lyrics as to music, but the lyrics of this song definitely got my attention even back then. It was my first exposure to the idea of an apocalypse. And it made a huge impression on me that Prince would sing about confidently, defiantly celebrating in the face of doom. The other thing that impressed me about the video was that it showed Prince’s band performing, and he had women in the band. The music industry is still far too male-dominated today, but back then I didn’t even think to question things like that. So to see a band with both men and women, playing music together, struck me as something unique.

“When Doves Cry” from Purple Rain (1984)

Whoa. This video. The Rorschach-like mirror image effect had me transfixed from the first moment I saw it, but what really struck me was the sound of this song. It was sparse and futuristic and weird. I’d never heard anything like it, and probably still haven’t. As a kid, this was definitely my favorite Prince song. And it was made even better for me as a nerdy college student in the early ‘90s when it was referenced in a Simpsons episode where Milhouse meets his Shelbyville doppelganger.

[Much time passes…]

“Let’s Work” from Controversy (1981)

I spent most of my adult life not really thinking all that much about Prince. As I became more of an accomplished musician myself, my appreciation of his immense skills grew considerably, but I still was not really that engaged with his music. Then, one day in 2010 I was listening to The Current on the radio, and this incredibly funky song came on. I wasn’t really familiar with any of Prince’s pre-1999 work, so I had no idea what it was but I thought, “Oh, that sounds like Prince. I wonder if this is something new.” (Yeah, I’m not proud of that… but I do think it shows how we’ve come full circle that the dry, immediate sound of Prince’s early ‘80s recordings sounds contemporary again today.) I fired up Soundhound on my iPhone to identify the track, and before the song had even finished playing, I’d purchased and downloaded the entire Controversy album. Thus began my exploration of Prince’s early work. I bought all of his first four albums and listened to them — especially Dirty Mind and Controversy — incessantly for the next several weeks. Finally, at the age of 36, I really “got it”. Prince was a visionary genius, virtuoso multi-instrumentalist, and all-around legend. And he was from Minneapolis and stayed here.

“Uptown” from Dirty Mind (1980)

As I delved into the early work of Prince following my “Let’s Work” epiphany, I realized that Dirty Mind was really the album that defined Prince, the Minneapolis sound, 1980s pop music, everything. “Uptown” quickly became one of my favorite tracks on the album. I loved the upbeat funk groove, and the fact that it was a song about a neighborhood I used to live in. In 2011 I decided to record an album as a tribute to Minneapolis, the city where I was born and have spent most of my adult life. I had to include a song about Uptown, and I took inspiration from this Prince track.

“When You Were Mine” from Dirty Mind (1980)

The more I’ve listened to Dirty Mind (which has become my favorite Prince album), the more I’ve grown to love this song. It’s really kind of a weird song. It’s very poppy, with catchy hooks, but it is driven by strummed chords on an electric bass. And the lyrics seem, at first, like a typical pop song about a lost love, but as you listen closely you realize there’s a bizarre undercurrent to the story they tell that can only come from Prince.

I never was the kind to make a fuss
When he was there
Sleeping in between the two of us

Wait, what?

I figured my appreciation of this song was a bit unusual; it wasn’t a single, it was from before he really hit big. But in the days following his death, I discovered on Twitter that a lot of his fans cite it as their favorite Prince song. To me, it kind of symbolizes what Prince was all about: showing us that we’re all a little weird, that’s OK, and we’re not alone.

A few thoughts on David Letterman’s final show

Last night was the end of an era, David Letterman’s final Late Show.

Late Night with David Letterman premiered on NBC when I was 9 years old. I remember quietly staying up well past my bedtime on many school nights in the 1980s to catch Letterman’s crazy antics. It turns out I had a penchant for absurdist humor of a kind that I may never have known existed until I saw David Letterman. Growing up in a rather socially conservative small town in the midwest, Letterman was one of a few key figures in opening my growing mind to the possibilities in a larger world. That sounds a bit overblown, but really, it isn’t. Letterman’s show on CBS has become such an institution over two decades — something that I’ve taken for granted, really, and not watched much in years — that it’s easy for me to forget just how huge David Letterman was to me in my formative years.

All of that came into sharp relief for me last night as I just barely managed to catch Dave’s final show. I knew he was retiring, and I had been reading enough about him lately to know that his final show was coming up sometime soon, but I didn’t know it was going to be last night until about 20 minutes before the show came on the air.

I found out about it because my college jazz band director mentioned it on Facebook.

I was lying in bed a little after 10 PM, idly checking Facebook on my iPhone, intending to set the phone down and settle into a crossword puzzle before going to sleep. Seeing that Letterman’s finale was imminent, however, I quickly changed my plans and turned on the TV. This was probably only the third time our bedroom TV has been turned on since we moved into the house last November.

There’s a lot packed into that last paragraph. The futurism of constant communication and instant access to the world of information via the ubiquitous pocket computers we call smartphones. How old I sound when I think of myself sitting in bed doing a friggin’ crossword puzzle. The shifting (and diminishing) cultural significance of broadcast television.

When Carson retired, it was a momentous event. It seems like from the ’60s to the ’80s, everyone watched — or at least had on the TV — The Tonight Show, on a nightly basis. As much as David Letterman revolutionized late night television and shepherded in a new era, he also came at a time of change he couldn’t control, and was both a victim and agent of a cultural shift that ensured his legacy would never be as great as that of his hero and mentor.

And yet, Letterman is the Carson of his generation, at least as much as anyone could have been. (Leno? Give me a break!)

Without a doubt my most vivid memory of Letterman, and honestly one of the most vivid memories of my youth, altogether, was Crispin Glover’s notorious, possibly drug-fueled, appearance in 1987 when he tried to kick Dave in the face.

I was delighted to see that moment in the rapid-fire montage of stills from 33 years of Dave’s show at the end of last night’s finale. It just wouldn’t have been complete without it.

That montage was a nearly perfect conclusion to a lifetime of late night TV. According to some reviews I’ve read this morning, it was the main portion of the show that Letterman had direct involvement in producing. And it was apparently Dave’s personal wish to have the Foo Fighters perform “Everlong” behind the slideshow, because that song touched him personally in his recovery from open heart surgery 15 years ago. (Fifteen years ago!) It occurred to me that this conclusion was almost like Dave’s life — his television life — flashing before his eyes. But not just Dave’s life, our lives, as his audience. Even though I haven’t watched his show regularly since I was in college in the mid-’90s, there were so many familiar sights in these final few moments that I realized that in a way, this was all of our lives. For 33 years millions of Americans have invited this weird guy into their homes on a nightly basis, and he has shared moments of absurd delight with all of us.

Thanks, Dave.

Private Eyes are watching you!

I don’t normally post links to music videos on this blog… that’s typically reserved for one of my other blogs. But… well… any way you slice it, Hall and Oates are not prog rock, so it just didn’t fit.

But I got this video in my head (yes, I can get a video in my head) and I felt compelled to share it. It’s a cool song, and a humorously low-budget video, but the main reason I remember this video so well and love it so much is that it’s intricately woven into the fabric of my early childhood memories. This song was huge right when we first got MTV in 1982, and it was on heavy rotation. I was at a critical age—8 years old—where a lot of things seem to start to gel in your mind. You understand the world in new ways… your horizons expand… and those things you enjoy most at that time seem to leave a permanent impression on who you are.

For me, in 1982, it was MTV and Atari. So hearing this song—and, even more, seeing its video—triggers a flood of memories. Maybe it does for you too. Maybe not. Anyway, enjoy…

There are so many things I remember vividly about this video. Daryl Hall’s green jacket. The trench coats. John Oates and his bug eyes. The white flashes when the hand claps come in. The list of minute details permanently stored in my brain goes on.

But there is no way I can let this pass without commenting on the one thing that drives me mad: that the video of the drummer’s hands at the beginning is “off.” He’s shown hitting the snare drum when you hear the bass drum. I’m not sure if that was a deliberate joke or if the director of the video was just too clueless and/or lazy and/or in a big damn hurry to get the video finished before they burned through the $200 budget.

Anyway, this was something I was acutely aware of and bothered by as an 8 year old, watching this video. At the time I had a tendency to point out any minuscule error anyone around me made, as if the universe assigned me the job of trying to fix all of the small faults within it. So, yes… oh yes.. I noticed this.

What would you have needed to carry with you in 1986 to match the utility of an iPhone today?

I’ve always been into electronic gadgets. I’ve also always been into carrying a bunch of crap that I “need” (or perceive that I need) around with me. My dream since I was a kid was always to be able to carry “everything” with me at once, in a convenient way.

It’s hard to get more convenient than a thin piece of glass, metal and plastic that fits easily into a jeans pocket. That’s the iPhone, and that’s today. My iPhone is almost unquestionably my most prized possession. Probably not just now, but of all time. It seems like it can do almost everything, which got me thinking.

25 years ago, I was a 12-year-old burgeoning tech nerd. I loved the Atari 2600 (yes, still) and was just a year away from getting my first computer. I had hundreds of cassette tapes and was already on my third or fourth Walkman. If you’d given me something like an iPhone back then, I probably would have died of ecstasy on the spot. But what 1980s stuff would I have had to lug around in my satchel back then to (roughly) approximate the functional capabilities I now (almost) take for granted in this one little device? I decided to compile a list.

1986 device: Sony Walkman portable cassette radio

In the mid-’80s, the Sony Walkman was the symbol of portable technology. As CDs overtook the popularity of cassettes in the ’90s, and Sony finally figured out how to make a portable CD player that didn’t skip if you so much as breathed on it, the Walkman was gradually replaced by the Discman.

And then along came the iPod, which itself has, ten years later, essentially become an iPhone minus the phone.

2011 app: iPod

1986 device: Microcassette recorder

As cool as the Walkman was, you couldn’t actually record with it (at least with most models). You could always lug a full-sized cassette recorder around, but if you were going for the latest and greatest in portability, that would be a microcassette recorder. Microcassettes never could match the audio fidelity of their full-sized siblings though, and were eventually replaced by digital devices that stored audio on a small hard disk and later on flash ROM. But why bother with one of those today?

2011 app: Voice Memo

1986 device: Nintendo Game & Watch LCD handheld

When I went into writing this post, I really hoped to at least give 1986 the original Game Boy, but my research says it wasn’t actually released until 1989. I never had one, so I didn’t remember. Yes, it’s true… if you wanted a handheld video game device in 1986, the best you could do was one of Nintendo’s single-game “Game & Watch” devices. As rudimentary as they seem today, their design was a clear inspiration for Nintendo’s current line of DS portable game devices.

I’ve owned two Game Boy Advance systems and three DSes over the past decade, but these days my DSi gathers dust in a cabinet while I carry over 50 video games in my pocket everywhere I go… thanks to my iPhone. iPhone gaming is still young, and in many ways the control schemes have yet to be perfected, but considering the significant price difference ($10 or less for almost all iOS games, vs. $30 or so for most DS games), the lack of a need for physical media, and the iPhone’s superior technical specs, it’s hard to see much of a future for the DS. (We’ll see what impact the soon-to-be-released 3DS has.)

2011 app: Angry Birds… or any of the 100,000 or so other iOS games

1986 device: Casio calculator watch

Calculator watches were so cool (at least, if you weren’t) in the ’80s, it’s hard to believe they would ever fade into laughable irrelevance. They were pretty impressive technology for the time though, and were irresistibly futuristic. It’s no wonder Marty McFly conspicuously sported one on his journey back to 1955… it bolstered his “future boy” cred in a way no nylon vest ever could.

2011 apps: Clock and Calculator

1986 device: Portable alarm clock

If you were too cool for a nerdy calculator watch back in the ’80s, your only option when traveling was to purchase a dedicated travel alarm clock. Some of these were pretty well-designed, but such a single-purpose device is anathema today. Besides, I’m sure the sight of one of these in a carry-on would raise a TSA eyebrow or two.

2011 app: Alarm Clock

1986 device: Pocket calendar/datebook

Pocket calendars have come in countless variations for almost as long as printing has existed, some more useful than others. Wallet card calendars like the one shown here are about as useless as they get, but that didn’t stop me from having at least one of them in my wallet at all times as a 12-year-old… especially since I didn’t have any money to put in it.

Now, not only does the iPhone’s calendar provide all of the capabilities of even the most overstuffed datebook, it can update automatically and even beep to remind you that you’re running late for that important business meeting.

2011 apps: Calendar and Contacts

1986 device: Pocket compass

I admit, I’ve never really had much use for a compass. I don’t spend a lot of time out in the wilderness, and I think a compass would only confuse my natural sense of direction in the city. But I recognize the importance of these devices, and thanks to the iPhone’s various internal sensors, all of the capabilities of a real magnetic compass can now live in software.

2011 app: Compass

1986 device: Mead memo book

Ah, the trusty Mead memo book. My dad wrote a thousand grocery lists in these while I was growing up, and the little bits of paper that tore off the spiral binding over repeated openings and closings were everywhere. These days there are more sophisticated alternatives if you still like to put pen to paper and then stuff it all in your pocket, but I prefer not to have to try to decipher my own handwriting.

2011 app: Notes

1986 device: Minolta Talker point-and-shoot 35mm camera

Sure, there were plenty of pocketable point-and-shoot cameras back in the ’80s, and of course the venerable Polaroid instant camera was still going strong. But no camera — truly, no device of any kind — epitomizes pointless ’80s novelty technology better than the Minolta Talker. I wasn’t able to verify that the Talker existed in 1986 — I think more likely it dates to 1987 or 1988 — but we had one, and I’ll never forget such helpful photographic advice as “Load film” or the classic “Too dark… use flash.”

Even at that credulous age, I wondered, if it can tell you need the flash, why can’t it just turn the flash on automatically?

2011 apps: Camera, Hipstamatic, Instagram, etc.

1986 device: JVC camcorder

Ah yes, the JVC VideoMovie. That distinctive red and black camcorder, immortalized by my hero Marty McFly. We owned one of these. It was the stuff of legend. It also, despite its considerable size, used the bizarre VHS-C format tapes. These were about 1/3 the physical size of a regular VHS cassette, but the tape itself was the same width and was compatible with regular VHS VCRs… with the help of a VHS tape-sized adapter that the VHS-C tapes would snap into. Unfortunately, since the cassettes were so small, they only had enough room to hold 20 minutes’ worth of tape. I hope Doc packed a couple of cases of blanks along with his plutonium.

(And, yes, übergeeks, I know Doc forgot to pack the plutonium. What, you think you’re the only ones who’ve watched the movie 500 times?)

2011 app: Camera

1986 device: Motorola DynaTAC mobile phone

When you look at early cell phones, it’s a wonder the devices ever caught on. Of course, they didn’t really catch on when they were the size of a small refrigerator and emitted enough radiation to make your head glow in the dark. But the fact is, you could own a cell phone back in 1986 and, well, that’s saying a lot right there, isn’t it?

OK… I really can’t come up with anything to justify the existence of this monstrosity. Incidentally, the guy in the picture is Martin Cooper, inventor of the modern cell phone. Depending on your definition of “modern.” Note his seeming reluctance to get it too close to his head.

2011 app: Phone

1986 device: Rand McNally pocket road atlas

I recently watched the classic 1964 James Bond movie Goldfinger, and was amused by the GPS-like device Bond had in his car. (GPS was just becoming available to civilians in the ’80s, and it looked like this.) As far as I know, not even Her Majesty’s Secret Service had anything approaching this kind of technology in the ’60s. In many ways it seemed as futuristic (or more so) as some of the stuff that would appear on Star Trek a couple years later. And yet, it’s now something that is not only common in a lot of ordinary cars, but we even carry it in our pockets.

Back in the ’80s, though, the only way to carry road maps in your pocket was with a little book like this, which was only useful if you were willing to limit yourself to freeways and a lot of guessing.

2011 app: Maps

1986 device: Newspapers, magazines, books

No industry is reeling from the iPhone (and the iPad) the way publishing is. Newspapers, magazines, books… publishers of all kinds are trying to discover viable business models in the world of paperless publishing. (And here I thought we’d already worked all of this stuff out with the web over the past 15 years.)

One thing is certain, though: however you like to get your news, information and entertainment, with an iPhone it’s already in your pocket.

2011 apps: Reeder, Instapaper, newspaper/magazine apps, iBooks, Kindle, etc.

1986 device: Citizen portable LCD TV with 2-inch B&W screen

Yes… a portable LCD TV in the mid-’80s. Don’t believe it? I had one of these, exactly as shown. It had a 2-inch black-and-white screen. And, strangely, the screen was in the top of that flip-up lid. The bottom part had a mirror, which was what you looked at to view your program. Why? Well… backlight technology was feeble and battery-sucking. The lid was translucent, and if you were in a bright enough environment, the ambient light would shine through, illuminating the screen. There was also a bulky snap-on backlight attachment for use in dimmer surroundings, but if this was in one of your pockets, the rest of them better be filled with AAA batteries or you wouldn’t be watching much.

True, TV tuner technology doesn’t exist in the iPhone. But what the iPhone has is better… with iTunes, Netflix, PBS and more, you’ve got on demand TV… in full color, backlit, no snap-ons or AAA batteries required.

2011 apps: iPod, Netflix, PBS, etc.

1986 device: Flashlight

OK, OK. This flashlight is from the 1960s. But my grandparents had one exactly like this when I was a kid in the ’80s. The big black thing on the side had magnets in it, allowing it to stick to the side of the refrigerator, which is where they always kept it.

If you don’t have an iPhone 4 (which I don’t, but which has an LED flash for the camera), the only source of light is the screen itself. Pretty dim for a flashlight, but it works in a pinch. There are flashlight apps out there, but unless it’s one that powers on the camera LED, I think just turning the thing on so the screen lights up is as good as any of the dedicated apps.

2011 app: Any one of the countless flashlight apps

1986 device: TRS-80 Model 100 portable computer

It’s a bit of a stretch to call the iPhone a portable computer, at least when compared to modern portable computers. But considering the capabilities (and perhaps I’m using that term ironically) of the portable computers that existed in 1986, the iPhone is like having a Cray supercomputer in your pocket. A 3.5-inch touchscreen is never going to replace a full-fledged computer for serious work, but still, if you really have to, you can get some work done. I’ve managed to do some emergency sysadmin work from my iPhone sitting in a gas station parking lot while traveling.

2011 apps: Documents To Go, AirSharing, iSSH, etc.

All of this just barely scratches the surface, of course. But I think it demonstrates the huge impact the iPhone has had on me as a manifestation of all of my childhood fantasies about futuristic technology. You can keep your flying cars. Just let me keep my iPhone.

Image sources:
Marty McFly with JVC VideoMovie camcorder and calculator watch
Sony Walkman portable cassette player
Aiwa microcassette recorder
Nintendo Game & Watch handheld LCD video game
Casio calculator watch
Braun travel alarm clock
Coca-Cola pocket calendar
Pocket compass
Mead memo book
Minolta Talker camera
JVC VideoMovie camcorder
Cell phone inventor Martin Cooper with a Motorola DynaTAC
Rand McNally Pocket Road Atlas
Time magazine cover featuring Space Shuttle Challenger explosion
Citizen portable LCD TV
Rayovac 1960s flashlight
TRS-80 Model 100 portable computer
1980s GPS equipment

Addendum, April 2, 2011: If you’re hoping to truly recreate that 1986 experience on your iPhone, check out this Game and Watch-inspired iOS game, Monkey Labour!

Panic’s “Atari” game art, framed and hung at Room 34 HQ

The other day I mentioned the super-cool watercolor-and-pencil game art Panic recently commissioned as part of a reimagining of their Mac software as early ’80s Atari 2600 games.

I ordered both the reproduction game boxes and the art prints, and they arrived just four days later (i.e. yesterday). They look amazing. As recommended by Panic, I headed out to IKEA this morning and picked up a couple of Ribba frames. The art prints were specifically designed to fit perfectly into these frames. I contemplated getting frames for all four of them, but at $20 a pop it seemed a bit much. So I went with two, for the two Panic programs I actually use (Coda and Transmit). It was just as well, anyway. Since they’re so big, two is all that fit on the wall above my desk!

The photo below shows Room 34 HQ, now graced with these fantastic looking prints. This wall was blank for months, and I had just been thinking I really needed to hang something up there, when these prints became available. The timing was perfect and I couldn’t be happier with the results! (Unfortunately the photo probably reveals, more than anything else, the limitations of the iPhone camera, especially indoors at night. I had every light in the place turned on but this was the best I could manage.)