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Rock and Roll Book Club: Touré and Duane Tudahl make important contributions to the Prince library

Toure's 'Nothing Compares 2 U: An Oral History of Prince.'
Toure's 'Nothing Compares 2 U: An Oral History of Prince.'Jay Gabler/MPR

by Jay Gabler

August 26, 2021

"I have to keep it real with you," longtime Prince collaborator Morris Hayes told Touré. "Prince was a day-walker vampire."

When I read that in the new oral history Nothing Compares 2 U, I believed that — in part because I'd just finished Duane Tudahl's new book Prince and the Parade and Sign O' The Times Era Studio Sessions: 1985 and 1986. That book is a thick daily chronicle of Prince's recording sessions in those two years, which means it's essentially a daily chronicle of Prince's life. As Tudahl documents here (and in his equally essential predecessor volume focusing on the Purple Rain era), days when Prince was in no way involved in a recording project were rare for his entire adult life. That's how he filled his legendary Vault with unreleased material, even after releasing material at a clip that caused tensions with his record label, which was understandably worried that Prince was competing with himself by flooding the market.

While Prince was famously self-contained, it's become increasingly clear since his 2016 death that he also maintained (then, inevitably, failed to maintain) relationships with a close circle of trusted collaborators. Their voices are, as they should be, front and center in both of these important books. Engineer Susan Rogers, Prince's Revolution bandmates, and his mid-1980s fiancée Susannah Melvoin shed crucial light on how Prince maintained such a brilliant creative run.

As Tudahl documents, in 1985 and 1986 Prince wasn't just recording the albums ultimately released as Parade and Sign O' the Times, he was also making albums with protegés like Sheila E., Jill Jones, and the Family. Plus, he was making Prince albums that we've only recently been able to hear in their original form with the deluxe reissues of Purple Rain and Sign O' the Times. The latter album evolved out of three unreleased albums, as Prince sought a final form that would both satisfy his artistic standards and the market's commercial needs.

On top of all this recording, Prince was also touring and making a movie (Under the Cherry Moon). How did he do it? Basically, wherever he was, he was recording. In L.A.? He was probably at Sunset Sound. In Minnesota? At his newly-built home studio on Galpin Boulevard. Out on the road? Prince recorded in a mobile studio, on stage (before and after shows), and at rented studios. He might have a collaborator like Sheila E. in the studio, or he might be completely self-contained. He was creative at every stage of the recording process, from the initial demo to the final master, so nothing happened on autopilot.

Tudahl's book is a sizable tome, but it's readable throughout: you're left thinking that there are few better ways to understand Prince than to see his life through the lens of the recording studio, which was always his temple. Based on Susannah Melvoin's accounts of her life with Prince in Chanhassen, the studio was essentially an extension of the bedroom. Whatever was happening in Prince's life, it found its way directly and immediately onto tape; he lived in a world of music where, it seems, what the rest of us consider "real life" was like a shadow on a cave wall.

Oral histories can be exhaustive — and exhausting — but Tourés book is concise at just 250 pages, and it's one of the rare oral histories I'd recommend as an introduction to its subject. The author's interview skills and his trusted status in the Prince orbit mean that his book — based on decades of interviews — is full of revealing insights into Prince's life and work. Although it's wider-ranging than Tudahl's very focused volume, Nothing Compares 2 U may be at its strongest in the same era: a complicated time when Prince was in an extended transition away from his close personal and professional relationships with the members of the Revolution, and balancing the demands of superstardom with the demands of his perpetually restless muse.

I learned a lot from both books. From Touré I learned more about what Prince was like in bed ("Let me put it this way," says one lover, "the foreplay was great") and about Prince's complicated relationship with his father, a gifted musician who ended up grinding it out with gigs that didn't always reward his experimental instincts. From Tudahl, I learned that on the day of Prince's infamous visit from Michael Jackson, the King of Pop took time to flirt with one of Prince's guests: Sherilyn Fenn. Audrey Horne watched Michael Jackson play ping-pong with Prince!

Ultimately, of course, the true nature of Prince's genius remains elusive. What was it that caused Prince to pick up an unreleased song from 1979 and soup it up into one of the standout tracks on what some consider to be his greatest album? We'll never know — we only know that he did. Thanks to the Sign O' the Times reissue we can now compare the final version to the 1979 original recording of "I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man"; as Tudahl notes, that version ended with Prince singing, "I could never take the place of your man...but I'll try." Several years later, he was less optimistic.

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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.

September 2: White Line Fever: The Autobiography (new edition) by Lemmy Kilmister

September 9: Skaboom! An American Ska & Reggae Oral History by Marc Wasserman

September 16: Roadrunner by Joshua Clover

September 23: Bessie Smith: A Poet's Biography of a Blues Legend by Jackie Kay