Eli Diamond was seven years old when he bought his first Prince and the Revolution album.
It was Purple Rain.
“And then I bought every single subsequent Prince album on the day it came out. So I’m a bit of a Prince geek,” Diamond, an associate professor of ancient philosophy in Dalhousie University’s Classics Department, told more than 100 students Wednesday night at the University of King’s College.
Dressed in purple academic robes, Diamond schooled the King’s Foundation Year Program audience — many of whom were still in diapers when Prince was partying like it was 1999 — on the musician, songwriter, lyricist, and cultural icon.
“Prince is a totally American phenomenon,” Diamond said. “I don’t think Prince could have happened anywhere else except for Reagan era United States.”
Prince was “completely rooted in the rich history of African-American music,” with influences including James Brown, George Clinton, Stevie Wonder, and Marvin Gaye, Diamond said.
There was also a “duality in his music between this totally hedonistic carnality and this extremely intense and intensifying Christian spirituality,” he said.
“This doesn’t really exist anywhere else in the world, I don’t think. So he was really a quintessentially American performer.”
For most of his life, Prince didn’t give interviews. “And he lied constantly about his life.”
Diamond said he’s interested in thinking of Prince as a Dionysian Christian.
“Dionysus is the God of the transgression of boundaries. And you see in Prince, embodied in his lyrics and his music and his person, the transgression of every single boundary imaginable. Between the sacred and the secular, and the body and the spirit, man, woman, racial divides and especially every single musical genre.”
Prince is an “amazing distillation of the history of all the 20th Century pop music that’s happened up to that point, and he does it in a non-derivative way because he’s got such an idiosyncratic musical vision,” Diamond said.
Prince was “the master of the soul ballad.” He had several jazz albums. Prince played, “of course, funk,” acoustic folk, piano torch ballads, “the genre I think he, basically, invents, electro-rockabilly,” techno, lounge music and Jimi Hendrix style hard rock, Diamond said.
“He also released a classical suite of orchestral music called, what else, Kama Sutra.”
On his first album, For You, made when he was 17, Prince played all 27 instruments, Diamond said. “What were you guys doing when you were 17?”
Diamond peppered his lecture with videos of Prince snapping out spine-rattling drum solos and “absent-mindedly playing George Gershwin’s Summertime” on the piano.
“But, of course, Prince was mainly known as a guitarist,” the professor said, treating the crowd to a clip of the man christened Prince Rogers Nelson playing While My Guitar Gently Weeps at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Diamond played what he dubbed “Prince’s greatest guitar solo ever” during a cover of Just My Imagination by The Temptations.
“You can hear about 10 different songs in the course of this solo,” he said. “To me this is a serious moment in Prince history and it’s very revered among Prince fanatics.”
While he was a masterful player, Prince recorded albums in the early 80s that employed synthesizers and drum machines, Diamond said.
“This is a deliberate decision. He’s striving for a new kind of aesthetic with his drum programming. He’s the inventor of what is called the Minneapolis sound.”
Prince was “so on top of the beat, he’s almost ahead of the beat,” he said, noting his sound is characterized by a frenetic pace and replacing horn stabs with synthesizers.
Prince was born “in very white Minneapolis,” Diamond said.
But he didn’t really live anywhere, the professor argued. “In a very serious sense it’s not living in the world.”
Prince’s career arc can be described as “the journey of the body into God,” Diamond said.
“Prince, from the beginning, is intensely spiritual. But there’s a sense with him that you’re blocked from God if you’re living in the political, if you’re living in the social according to conventions, according to all these repressive binaries, and that it’s really by entering into and listening to our corporeal bodily nature that you actually have a feeling of self-transcendence through sexuality into the divine.”
At the cusp of the 1980s, black and white radio were totally segregated, Diamond said.
“So Prince actually tells a lie about himself to overcome this. He presents himself as bi-racial, that he comes from a white Italian mother and a black father. Both his parents are African-American. It’s just made up.”
There’s an interesting development through Prince’s career “that he is synthesizing white music and black music because that’s who he is, white and black. He comes to take a much more Afro-centric view of music explicitly as time moves on. And … in a beautiful song called Black Muse on his last album he point out there is no synthesis of white or black music. This is all black music. This is Chuck Berry. This is Jimi Hendrix. There is no sense that the rocking part of popular music is white and the funky part is black. He is thoroughly ensconced and increasingly conscious of being an African-American musician without losing his cosmopolitanism.”
The lecture took the crowd through what Diamond called Prince’s eight masterpieces.
“There is a run from 1980 to 1988 that rivals The Beatles, Stevie Wonder, (Bob) Dylan, and we have to say (David) Bowie in the ‘70s, in terms of just consecutive masterpieces, starting with Dirty Mind, Controversy, his first double album, 1999, of course the height of his popularity, his psychedelic rock album, Around the World in a Day, his art rock album, my favourite album, Parade, the amazing double album, Sign of the Times, and this is the best album cover of all time, folks, Lovesexy.”
Diamond was 12 years old when that last one came out.
“It took me, like, two hours to have the courage to bring this up to the counter,” he said of the album that shows a nude Prince reclined in a giant flower.
Over 40 years of recording, Prince released 39 albums, he said.
“On top of that, his record company was forcing him to hold back music that was pouring out of him because they didn’t want it to flood the market,” Diamond said.
“From 1982 to about 1986 he took it as a discipline to write and record a song a day. So we’ve only seen a fraction of this,” he said.
“Well, I’ve seen more of a fraction. I have a gigantic bootleg collection. But I’ll tell you something: if you take Prince’s 20 best songs, this is what we have to look forward to, 10 of those songs would be songs that aren’t released yet … There is some garbage. But there are some absolute masterpieces that will hopefully be released by the estate.”
An interviewer once asked Prince why he played a four-hour show, a four-hour after-show, then went on to record a few hours later. “He said, ‘You don’t know what it’s like to hear music in your head all day and all night and to be able to play every single note of that music exactly as you hear it.’ He had an urgency here. During this period, music was just pouring out of him. The record company wouldn’t let him release that music. So he invented five or six bands that he started writing music for as his competition in Minneapolis. He was playing all of the instruments by himself, forcing them to sing their vocal track exactly over him and then subtracting his vocals. It’s preposterous.”