Rock and Roll Book Club: BrownMark's 'My Life in the Purple Kingdom'

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BrownMark's 'My Life in the Purple Kingdom.'
BrownMark's 'My Life in the Purple Kingdom.' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

How did Prince even know he was there? The call came into the Way, a community center in North Minneapolis where bassist Mark Brown was rehearsing with his sprawling pop-funk band Phantasy. "This is Prince, and I want you to audition for my band."

Somewhere, somehow, Prince had seen Brown play and come to appreciate his prowess. Brown had seen Prince, already a legend in the local scene due to his phenomenal self-produced early records: the bassist was working as a line cook at the Town Crier Seafood Cake and Steak House when "this kat came strolling in and sat down. He was really different looking, had a really weird hair style with this heavy punk rock look." Told it was Prince, Brown made a stack of pancakes "with a special touch of vanilla extract."

Half a decade later, Brown would be onstage at First Avenue as a musician and costar in the film that captured Prince at the dizzying height of his celebrity: Purple Rain. Rechristened "BrownMark," he was bassist in the Revolution, foundation of the sound of Prince's most iconic band. A few years after that, he'd be out of the "Purple Kingdom," as Brown calls it in the title of his new memoir.

While his history with Prince didn't span as long as that of bandmates Bobby Z (drums) and Dr. Fink (keys), nor was as creatively close as that of Wendy and Lisa, Brown helped define the Revolution's sound with a muscular rumble that made songs like "Little Red Corvette," "Let's Go Crazy," and "Raspberry Beret" leap out of car speakers. In My Life in the Purple Kingdom (buy now), Brown remembers Prince, at one of their first rehearsals together, literally screaming in his ear to play his bass: a cryptic instruction Brown finally understood to mean playing bigger, louder, and with more style. He delivered.

The tension between delivering for Prince yet not showing him up permeates the book, a frankly uneasy account of what Brown calls "the carrot and the hat trick." As his years in Prince's service extended, Brown yearned to work on his own projects, but Prince kept roping him back in by dangling carrots: more money, more credit, more ownership. The carrot just kept moving, though, and finally Brown had to go his own way as the Parade Tour ended and along with it, the Revolution.

Brown grew up in South Minneapolis, where his parents relocated from the Bronx "because it was considered a safe place to raise children," he writes. It wasn't safe enough to keep Brown from being attacked by skinheads on Chicago Avenue, but Minneapolis did prove to be an environment where Brown could thrive as a musician. Long drawn to music but frustrated by his guitar teacher, he found his calling when he picked up a bass in the Central High music room. (An underappreciated story behind the rise of the Minneapolis Sound is the extensive music education available in the city's public schools in the '70s.)

By the time Brown joined the Revolution, Prince's star had already risen. Prince was becoming nationally known, and his band had a sizzling reputation — as lovers as well as musicians, Brown learned when he repeatedly encountered ladies disappointed at the departure of suave André Cymone. Not long after Brown joined the band, he was onstage opening for the Rolling Stones in an infamous opening slot that would prove pivotal in Prince's career as he unleashed Controversy and began to develop 1999.

My Life is most vivid in its description of what it felt like to be drawn into Prince's universe: a strange, wonderful, disorienting place. From the night he stepped into Prince's unassuming but ornately decorated house on Lake Riley, Brown writes, he felt like he was "walking into a museum." Aptly, Brown eventually would be honored at a museum, in the form of a mural Prince added to Paisley Park featuring his heroes and collaborators.

Being the bass player for a hypersexual, famously eccentric, positively magnetic artist was a peculiar kind of stardom. The Revolution would fly first class and could afford snazzy wheels (Brown writes with great satisfaction about being able to deny a commission to a racist car salesman who assumed the Black man couldn't afford a fancy ride), but their status was always contingent on Prince's whims.

Brown writes about a show where fans unfurled a banner reading WE LOVE YOU, BROWNMARK. Prince bristled. "Do you think he's fine?" he asked the audience, then turned around. "But does he have an ass like mine?!!" Brown had been put in his place. While Prince respected him privately, publicly the bassist's job was to make the star look good.

Nor were the groupies always fun. While Brown didn't say no to his first unambiguous opportunity for a liaison, the bassist — whose first sexual encounter, he writes, was with an assertive woman who maneuvered him into intimacy before he was ready — was not aroused, and was in fact sometimes frightened, by aggressive women who would literally chase him through hotel lobbies. Then there were the possessive shopping-mall mobs and the regular racists (Brown started working out with Big Chick, Prince's massive bodyguard, for protection), plus the people who would show up at Brown's home.

Even when they were just well-meaning fans, Brown writes, it was genuinely unsettling. Without a Prince-level income, band members couldn't afford Prince-level protection. (As Brown alluded in a recent interview with The Current's Andrea Swensson, bandmates Wendy and Lisa had their own harrowing encounters.)

The book also speaks to the complicated, sometimes uneasy and sometimes enthusiastic, feelings band members had when pulled into the show of one of the era's several stars pushing gender boundaries. Brown writes that many of the people in his musical orbit assumed Prince was gay, and that a former bandmate warned him, offensively, to expect his new boss to expect a sexual "initiation."

Prince took Brown, who was used to having his Jheri curls freeze in the Minnesota winter, to a stylist to straighten his hair, then took him shopping with Morris Day to be properly outfitted for the Revolution. Ultimately Brown found a glamorous look, complete with makeup and fishnets, that suited him and that he felt comfortable with, but the book is frank (to a fault, in the artist's characterization of the gay stylist) in acknowledging Brown's initial discomfort.

The most protracted and painful thread in the relationship between Brown and Prince involved the former's protegé band Mazarati. Brown assembled the crack collection of local musicians (including both members of the Wild Pair, the duo who would ultimately provide the singing voice for MC Skat Kat while Derrick Stevens handled rapping duties) and had them playing sold-out shows at venues like the Cabooze. Prince took notice and convinced Brown to sign the band to Paisley Park Records, where they released the first album and had hits including the Prince-penned "100 MPH."

Brown was disappointed, though, that Prince didn't give Mazarati the same level of support he gave to the Time and Vanity 6; Brown himself ended up sinking piles of money into the band only to see them break up right around the time Brown was leaving the Revolution.

The ultimate pique, though, came when Prince gave Mazarati an acoustic demo of "Kiss." (If it's still in the vault, that track would be a crown jewel of a Parade deluxe reissue.) Brown, engineer David Z, and the band extensively reworked the song into the searing track we now know. Prince took the track back, added his own guitar and lead vocal, and had a huge hit...crediting Brown only for "hand claps."

My Life in the Purple Kingdom ends happily, though, with the author signing to Motown as an artist, writer, and producer. "Not too many people can say they sat in Berry Gordy's living room," Brown told Andrea. He said he plans a second volume, one that might touch on his eventual reconciliation with Prince and the reunion of the Revolution. "The next book," he said, "I'm telling you, is gonna be a good one."

Listen to the Local Show this Sunday, Sept. 27, as Andrea Swensson spotlights the music and career of BrownMark. The author is also celebrating the book release with a virtual book launch on Sept. 28.

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Upcoming Rock and Roll Book Club picks

Tune in to The Current at 8:30 a.m. (Central) every Thursday morning to hear Jay Gabler and Jill Riley talk about a new book. Also, find Jay's reviews online.

October 1: The Meaning of Mariah Carey by Mariah Carey (buy now)

October 8: See a Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody by Bob Mould (buy now)

October 15: How to Write One Song by Jeff Tweedy (buy now)

October 22: Mirror Sound: A Look Into the People and Processes Behind Self-Recorded Music by Spencer Tweedy and Lawrence Azerrad (buy now)


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