Rock and Roll Book Club: In 'I Would Die 4 U,' Toure explores 'why Prince became an icon'

Toure's book 'I Would Die 4 U.'
Toure's book 'I Would Die 4 U.' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

I Would Die 4 U isn't exactly an authorized Prince book, but its author Touré has hung out with Prince. In fact, they've even played ball together. When Prince responded to a faxed query by saying he'd take the author on "any time," Touré jumped on a plane.

He and Prince were going two-on-two against Touré’s photographer and Prince's keyboardist when the writer saw that Prince was open by the hoop. He started to call Prince's name...but wait! It was 1998, and Prince's name was technically an unpronounceable symbol! He stopped after "Pri..." and missed the pass.

In Touré’s memory, Prince was amused. "He loved the confusion, loved that I didn't know how to connect with him, that I was off balance and couldn't even call him by a name much less really know him."

Few have really known Prince, but those who have met him, worked with him, dedicated years to studying his work — people like Questlove and The Current's Andrea Swensson — say Touré’s 2013 book I Would Die 4 U is the place to start when you want to read about Prince. Why?

Certainly not because it's comprehensive; it doesn't have any pretense to be. At 150 pages, it's a slim volume that's essentially a series of essays about why Prince resonated for his generation.

What generation? Part of Touré’s mission is to claim Prince for gen X. While Prince was technically a baby boomer, Touré argues it was gen X who really felt his impact. Prince was ruling the charts while other boomer icons (Paul McCartney, the Beach Boys, Bob Dylan) were relaxing into elder-statesman status, and Touré argues at length that Prince spoke squarely to the gen X zeitgeist.

For one thing, his life was shaped by his parents' divorce, which Touré refers to as Prince's "Rosebud." He had very separate, and very complicated, relationships with both of his parents. He learned from an early age to be independent, which Touré argues freed him to pursue his singular gifts.

The author cites the experience of Susan Rogers, who in the '80s went straight from working with Prince to working with the Jacksons. "It was so interesting and moving," she said. "Prince was a totally self-made man and the Jacksons, especially Michael, were born, bred, groomed, prepared, honed, shaped, and molded to become what they became."

Touré gets right to the question many people would love to know the answer to: what was this guy like? His sources, including Prince collaborator Eric Leeds, say that Prince was at once warm and distant. Leeds says the definitive example of this is Prince's performance at George Harrison's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame introduction. He sizzled on lead guitar, but then walked off stage rather than take a bow with the rest of the group in tribute to Harrison. It was an incredible gift, but it was on his own terms.

Intimacy with Prince was the same way, says an unnamed ex who provides Touré with one of the very few on-record descriptions of what it was like to actually make love with Prince. This woman cites his exciting fluidity: giving, but also demanding of a certain restraint. "He's still performing," she says. "His expressions are overt." It's complicated. It's good.

That description comes in a chapter called "The King of Porn Chic." That doesn't sound very complimentary, but Touré means it to be. In a decade that embraced outré depictions of sexuality, Prince used the freedom while rejecting the tawdriness. That's the irony of Tipper Gore seizing on "Darling Nikki" as a flashpoint: it's certainly explicit, but it also centers a woman and her pleasure in a way that "safer" songs by artists like Robert Palmer and ZZ Top didn't. Ditto with "Little Red Corvette" and "Raspberry Beret."

Touré contrasts Prince with another sexually revolutionary '80s star, but in the realm of spirituality. Madonna was iconoclastic, either protesting religion ("Papa Don't Preach") or winking at it ("Like a Prayer"). Prince, on the other hand, found a way to simultaneously embrace both sex and religion. In the song that gave the book its title, notes the Revolution's Dez Dickerson, "It's not a very cloaked lyric. It says what it says. He's saying he is Jesus." You've probably never thought of it as a sacrilegious song, though, because Prince's fusion of love and faith is so organic.

The song that I Would Die 4 U is most revelatory on, though, is one of Prince's best-known jams: "Let's Go Crazy." Of course the intro famously takes us to church, but Touré points out that the whole song is full of gospel inspirations, right down to the squealing solo, which builds to its ecstatic climax from a call-and-response with the choir-like band. (Plus, he told Chris Rock, "de-elevator" was Satan.)

The most defining line in all of Prince, thinks Touré, is, "We are gathered here today to get through this thing called life." Prince brought the gospel of freedom and acceptance to millions, writes the author, regardless of race or creed. In that respect, he may have been "the most important religious artist ever."

The Current's Rock and Roll Book Club will be part of the Lit Crawl MN on May 11, in association with the Loft Literary Center's Wordplay festival. Rock star author Steven Hyden will read from his book Twilight of the Gods: A Journey to the End of Classic Rock, and then spin a few of his favorite classic rock LPs, sharing stories about the albums' origins in conversation with host Jay Gabler. This free event will take place at the Bryant-Lake Bowl.

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