Book Review: My Life In The Purple Kingdom by BrownMark

It’s a time-honoured music-biz story: The Hometown Kid Makes It Big. Or to paraphrase Bill Bruford, first you get used to failure, then you get used to success.

But BrownMark’s new memoir ‘My Life In The Purple Kingdom’, outlining his five-year stint as bassist with Prince And The Revolution, has a few intriguing twists to the old story – firstly, it’s a very timely work, since there’s very little documentation about the Inner Workings of the Purple Rain circus (though this excellent new podcast lifts the lid a little more).

Then there’s the added intrigue of the book mainly taking place in the huge, often-underestimated Midwestern city of Minneapolis. The early sections are gripping, a vision of a young man flourishing as a musician, getting by in (racially and economically) difficult conditions, supported by a loving mother and extended family.

He documents the Minneapolis music scene of the 1970s very well, tracing his development from young Staple Singers/Ohio Players/Earth, Wind & Fire fan into the local ‘star’, with lots of talk about image creation in the era of Rick James and Controversy-era Prince (‘Only women had clothes that fit the vibe I was looking for, but I didn’t want to dress in drag’…).

Soon Prince has his number, and there’s a long, strange section on his recruitment for The Revolution (spoiler alert: hardcore Prince fans should approach the book with caution…), and a memorable account of the infamous October 1981 gig supporting The Stones in Los Angeles. There are some excellent photographs, many of which this writer had never seen, and a fine introduction by Questlove, Prince fanatic and esteemed Black Music documentarian.

But ‘My Life In The Purple Kingdom’ is also a cursory tale, a veritable How Not To Succeed In The Music Biz, and it has to be said that Mark sometimes comes across as incredibly naïve, even for a nineteen-year-old. This speaks to something very strange at the heart of the book.

There are missing details that put everything else into doubt – nothing about the status of the offer Mark received from Prince’s management upon joining The Revolution (whisked out of nowhere to join one of the most successful bands of all time, he never discusses terms and then is shocked when ‘cheated’ out of a bonus); nothing about his knowledge of Prince’s music before he joined The Revolution; barely a mention of any Prince songs or interesting musical moments during his time in the band (only Lisa Coleman and Matt Fink get cursory mentions).

The book has a ‘happy’ ending of sorts, ending with Mark’s late-‘80s solo deal with Motown Records, but bizarrely the recent (very successful) Revolution reunion isn’t even mentioned. It’s almost as if he wrote it back in 1990, at the height of his bitterness and brain fog. The closing, cursory thanks to Prince almost raises the first proper laugh.

But ‘My Life In The Purple Kingdom’ is an absolute must for 1999 and Purple Rain completists and those wanting to know more about the Minneapolis music scene. It’s an arresting piece of social history, often interesting and original, especially in its early sections.

‘My Life In The Purple Kingdom’ by BrownMark (with Cynthia Ulrich) is published by the University Of Minnesota Press.

Goin’ For The Duran Duran Money: Prince and The Family

the family

Paisley Park Records, released 19th August 1985

Bought: Sister Ray’s, Soho, 1991?

8/10

I’ve bought this album on almost every format since I first found a cassette copy in the early ’90s, back when it was a pretty rare groove. It came out during my favourite Prince period, 1985 to 1989.

He was embracing jazz, fusion, psychedelia, classic rock and even modern classical, mainly prompted by his collaboration with the very excellent Wendy and Lisa but also other associates Sheila E, saxists Eric Leeds and Eddie M and string arranger Clare Fischer.

The author with The Family in background, summer 1991

This was my soundtrack to teenage unrequited love in the summer of ’91. I instantly loved the retro Hollywood glamour of the cover artwork and the way it chimed with the whole Parade/Under The Cherry Moon concept.

The Family slipped out on Paisley Park Records in summer ’85 (just three months after Prince’s Around The World In A Day) to a very low-key critical and commercial reception. These days, the album is known mainly for including an early version of ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’.

But it’s full of far superior fare to that such as the killer opening funk medley, classic near-hit ‘The Screams of Passion’, charming pop of ‘Desire’ and especially instrumentals ‘Yes’ and ‘Susannah’s Pyjamas’ where Prince indulges in some fantastic Sly Stone-meets-Miles bass, guitar and drum grooves. This is the album that led Tutu producer Tommy LiPuma to recommend Prince to Miles as a possible collaborator and it’s easy to hear why.

The Family was put together by Prince when the first incarnation of his massively successful offshoot project The Time split up in the summer of 1984. The band’s keyboardist/vocalist Paul Peterson (renamed St Paul by Prince), drummer Jellybean Johnson and vocalist/dancer Jerome Benton were summoned to Prince’s house along with his then-fiancee (and sister of Wendy) Susannah Melvoin and Leeds.

A band concept was quickly ad-libbed by Prince, who, according to engineer David Rivkin (reported by Per Nilsen in his superb Prince: The First Decade book), issued them with the directive: ‘We gotta go after some of that Duran Duran money!’

the family

But what they ended up with was far from Duran Duran music. Prince wrote all the songs (except ‘River Run Dry’), played all instruments on the basic tracks and sang all the guide vocals.

Peterson and Melvoin painstakingly replaced Prince’s scratch vocals (and apparently took dance and acting lessons!), Leeds added his trademark baritone, tenor and flute and Fischer provided deliciously non-linear string arrangements.

Prince’s ‘no bass’ philosophy (as famously heard on ‘When Doves Cry’ and ‘Kiss’) seems well to the fore on The Family. I still have in my possession a cassette of demos from the album featuring Prince’s phenomenal bass playing on ‘High Fashion’ and ‘Mutiny’, presumably deleted at the last minute.

The Family was released without much fanfare or marketing. After just one gig at First Avenue in Minneapolis (rare footage of which was recently removed from Youtube), the project was put on hold when Prince recruited Melvoin, Benton and Leeds for his Under The Cherry Moon movie.

Peterson was put on a retainer, but, tired of waiting around for Prince to get back from filming in the south of France, served his notice by phone call. According to Per Nilsen, Prince was flabbergasted, believing that The Family’s time wasn’t far away and that St Paul was jumping ship too soon.

And, in a way, he was right – The Family album just won’t go away. At the request of Roots/D’Angelo/Erykah Badu drummer Amir ?uestlove Thomson, a long-time fan, the four-piece minus Prince delivered a mesmerising comeback performance at a pre-Grammys bash in 2007.

And then in 2012 a full-length album Gaslight was released under the new name fDeluxe (with considerable contributions from Wendy and Lisa) and a successful world tour followed (including a great Jazz Cafe gig in London). It proves that this band was much more than a Prince side project and are a pretty formidable funk/soul act in their own right.