That title is not clickbait.
As mentioned in a previous post, since his untimely passing, Prince’s legendarily litigious legal team is taking time off, and thus, a deluge of video now floods the internet. Previously, Prince material posted online elicited hastily deployed cease and desist orders, and the clips vanished, often within hours. No more. (For now.)
This makes Prince’s passing unlike any other in modern times. For Bowie, Glenn Frey, and most other departed performers, footage was already out there; artists and lawyers were blasé about it. Prince was never blasé about his material being online. He reportedly hated the internet. If his spirit hovers somewhere, it’s probably mad.
But that notion won’t stop us from watching.
About these videos, more of which surface daily: the quotient of jaw-dropping shit is absurdly high. Musicianship, showmanship, sheer athleticism, eroticism, and fun… take your pick. It’s both sweet to see him at various stages of development (the hair alone), and painful to realize anew the magnitude of the loss. (Also, it must be said, painful to watch the circa 80s-90s splits and jumps – in heels – that essentially destroyed his hips, sending him to the medication that killed him.)
As a fan, I already knew he was a performer nonpareil. I saw the 1987 Lovesexy tour in Paris, with the New Power Generation, featuring Sheila E. on drums. I’ll never get over it. So while the newly posted videos touch my heart and entertain me, I can’t say I’ve learned anything new.
But then I saw the video below, which reveals more about Prince than any other.
Is he naked? No, it’s not a sex tape. Is he saying something inflammatory and/or batshit crazy? No. Is he punching someone in the face in a Minneapolis strip mall? No.
This 10 minute, black and white, unedited, one-shot video, filmed on VHS in a basement studio in 1984, shows how Prince became an amazing performer, an unparalleled band leader, and a musician’s musician. You see him with his early-mid 80s band the Revolution – drummer Bobby Z, guitarist Wendy Melvoin, keyboardist Dr. Fink, and bassist Brown Mark. They’re rehearsing and vamping on “When Doves Cry.” It’s a segment of an approximately hour-long rehearsal video.
Here’s the thing: it’s boring.
Granted, the first six minutes or so are great. This fleshed-out, live band version of the tune breathes and swings more than the single version, which is all Prince. (Sadly, no insane opening guitar solo here.) And it’s cool to see the bunker-like atmosphere. Ironically, the lack of flash is refreshing.
But it goes on. If you’re not a musician, you may wonder, what the hell? Why so repetitive? Clearly they’ve got it. Clearly, Wendy and Brown Mark have already nailed the dance steps, and everybody knows their parts, so why keep on and on and on?
But that’s the thing. That’s what great musicians do. When the audience isn’t there, they go on and on and on.
When my guitar and bass students ask how long they should practice, I tell them: when someone in your house demands you stop because the repetition is getting on their nerves, you’re just getting started. If you really want to get good, that’s hours of mind-numbing, crushingly boring, rote shit. If you want to get great, it adds up to many unglamorous months and years of your life, often spent in struggle, but even after mastery, we’re talking hours spent in that mastery space, pushing, exploring, even failing. And even then, even when you’re the best, it’s nothing anyone is going to want to watch and/or hear for longer than a few minutes, if that.
That’s where the Revolution is in this clip. They’re already masters, and they’re in the groove. Prince is in there with them. He is feeling it out, keeping his mind and body open to ideas, which flow differently when a group of musicians locks in and plays together, when everyone is adrenalized. The mind is less social, more receptive to oddball, often excellent, impulses. Even when all have nailed the tune, you go back in and explore the terrain anew after every count-off. You’re all part of an organic, breathing thing, and to be really great, you must get to know the song like the presence it is. Assuming you’ve learned all you can from a song because you can accurately navigate it is a mistake, and leads to wooden performance. No one ever accused Prince of that.
But to anyone not playing, that’s all excruciatingly boring. Yet, it’s essential, and every great artist of every stripe did it and, more importantly, does it. And yes, this clip is thirty-two years old, but Prince never stopped vigorously rehearsing, solo or with his bands.
In a wonderful recent Food & Wine piece, his former private chef, Margaret Wetzler, talks about working for him in 2008. One of her first tasks was to bring him a cappuccino while he was rehearsing alone downstairs. Granted, I’d love to see footage of a trembling chef bringing Prince a frothy caffeinated beverage, but would I want to stay and listen to him riff for very long? Probably not.
Perhaps videos of rehearsals with his last band endeavor 3rdEyeGirl will surface (I sure hope so), but if so, I will probably not look at them more than once. Because they’ll be boring.
Boring, however, isn’t always bad. The notion of boring = bad is a failing of our current culture, likely exacerbated by the very thing that brought you to this post: the internet, from which you can instantly click away when your attention wanders. (If you haven’t, thanks.) For most types of greatness, boring is essential. Again, when teaching guitar and bass, I spend significant time recasting boredom as a good thing. Kids in particular want to be great immediately. But they must be very, very bored first, and this often disappoints.
Of course, the final product, be it live show or edited video or finished recording or whatever, must not bore. But the well known secret, exemplified in this Prince rehearsal video, is this: from boring comes greatness.
Although greatness of this magnitude we shall not likely see again. So watch while you can. Be bored. Be amazed. Be boring. Be amazing.