Eric S. Townsend is author of the new paperback BlueCloudz from Go Booklets. His book reveals intimate details and paints a portrait of Prince unlike any other. Townsend is a lifelong admirer and scholar of the first ballot Rock and Roll Hall of Famer. He and Prince belong to an exclusive club. Both have produced, arranged, composed, and performed entire albums of music.
In a 2017 interview for Prince Podcast, former girlfriend and protégée Jill Jones shares that an early take of the movie Purple Rain includes something peculiar: Prince’s relationship with his mother is Oedipal. Not surprisingly, it doesn’t test well and is mostly wiped from the final product.
Over the years, evidence mounts that perhaps art imitates life. Prince is indeed a hot mess for the early stretch of his career. I’m speaking here to the man who writes the incestuous and perhaps even Oedipal “Sister” for his Dirty Mind record (1980). Despite denials in interviews, his feature film debut in Purple Rain (1984) is very much a spin on events in his early life.
When I first hear Jones’ revelation, I’m like WHAT? It’s the same reaction the interviewer has. But then I remember a scene that survives the revisions Of Purple Rain. Prince finds his mother crying on the curb outside their home. There isn’t anything weird about his tenderness in this moment — but in storming the house in search of his father (who had caused the duress), for me, it always feels more like a boyfriend going after the other guy. Perhaps it’s meant to recall the Greek myth. Oedipus kills his father.
Prince shares, on a number of occasions, that he’s first exposed to erotic literature at 10 years old. The source of this material is supposedly his mother. The story is present in the sparsely-worded picture book Prince, In His Own Words. But Mattie is a long-time social worker and married to a devout Seventh Day Adventist. It’s a confusing accusation, to say the least.
Mattie and John L. Nelson fight regularly. One of the things that drives her crazy about her husband is his persistence with music (long after his prime and the time when he could reasonably catch a break). When Prince takes to music, she lays some of the same concerns and guilt on her son. She simplifies her son to be like her husband on the subject of his deepest passion. Clearly, history proves their stories were nothing alike.
Then there’s the new track this week. It premieres on what would have been Prince’s 60th birthday. “Mary, Don’t You Weep” is an early 19th century spiritual that predates the U.S. Civil War. The artist records his version in his home studio in 1983 — as songs are being prepared for Purple Rain.
His includes a few telling departures.
Prince inserts “mother” in an unbecoming way: “Mary, don’t you weep … mother, don’t you moan.” Mother is not the subject of the original or subsequent recordings. Sexual undertones are missing from those versions. Where it was “mourn,” it’s now “moan.” But as Shakespeare teaches, dying isn’t reserved for death. It’s sometimes an orgasm.
Prince escalates “mother” to “mama” and “Martha.” These lyrical references are normally reserved for seducing his lovers (e.g., Martha‘s appearance in “Insatiable” from 1991).
He then pivots to “I got a bad, bad feeling … your man ain’t coming home.” It’s certainly odd. Why not go with “dad” or “my father” here? When Prince then segues into “Strange Relationship,” a song which explores an odd couple that doesn’t make much sense yet endures, the focus sharpens.
The cover art for the record puts Prince on trial — and he is the judge. That stare in the mirror is chilling.
I’m not a psychologist, but it’s no secret that Prince rises from a troubled childhood (and boy, does he eventually fly). For my book BlueCloudz, I walk the reader through the artist’s abandonment issues. I’m not alone in thinking it’s the Rosetta Stone to understanding his struggle. Alan Leeds, the icon’s former tour manager and former President of Paisley Park Records, often speaks of his boss’ mommy issues (check into the book Let’s Go Crazy by Alan Light). While the psychological damage poses a threat to his ascension, the resulting tension and authenticity also establishes the gravity that draws others to him.
For the first 24 months or so after Prince’s passing, many were reluctant to talk out of respect for their former employer, friend, or family member. Others spoke but asked that their identities be protected. The ones who came forward clearly wanted Prince to be understood for all he was. I’ve spoken with some of these people. I think Prince projected personas and storylines on those around him — some fit and others will fade away with time.
Like many with his calling, Prince is complicated. He’s also a survivor.
Townsend’s book BlueCloudz is in pre-release but available in both ebook and paperback exclusively to members of Prince Facebook groups and the author’s inner circle. The book will be formally launched to the public this fall.
Revision (December 2020): While Mattie may have been concerned that Prince could be homosexual, I’m not sure she would counter that as Prince recalls. In his 2020 book on Prince, author and childhood friend Neal Karlen flatly states that the story where Mattie disperses erotic literature throughout the home is fabricated. Perhaps I was too tough on Mattie in my first edition of BlueCloudz. In this moment in his story, I showed too much compassion for the subject of the biography. For the second edition, I present a more balanced portrait of Mattie. She isn’t perfect, but Prince shapes her to be someone she isn’t — due to regrets that she didn’t shield him from his father.