Dear March

We had a real Minnesota whip-saw this week, the aftermath of a 15-inch snowstorm as the week began and a day in the 50s as it ends.

Much digging out of cars, and wheels doing the whistle-spin on the ice beneath for three days. It’s been a long winter, but Sometimes It Snows in April  as Prince once sang.

Today, when it reached the lower 50s, people were out in shorts and T-shirts, with snow still covering yards, with the low rubble of white ruined walls still on the streets where cars had once been imprisoned. This is how Minnesotan’s celebrate unbelievable spring.

Now this Saturday brings the anniversary of Prince’s death, which was as unbelievable as Spring. I was looking for another poem to combine with music, and I reminded myself I hadn’t done an Emily Dickinson poem yet this April, and there can be no full celebration of U. S. National Poetry Month without Dickinson. As I looked, I came upon this poem, and it seemed right.

“Dear March”  has one of Dickinson’s bold apostrophes, but instead of death or some other imponderable, it’s Spring that gets to be portrayed as the caller, one who gets welcomed at the door with old-school manners. There’s delightful wit in this: the March winds portrayed as being out of breath, it must have walked the long way to get here! “I got your letter, and the birds.” But being Dickinson, she will add her slant. Just past halfway she bemoans the colorless landscape of winter that she’s been left with, as if it would be her job to color it in: “There was no purple suitable/you took it all with you.”

“There was no purple suitable, you took it all with you.”

I think again of Prince, and I think this is the poem to do.

The poem continues, and we can now understand that the wit has an undercurrent. Someone else is knocking. It’s April, more visitors—or are they both suitors? “I will not be pursued!” Dickinson is now ambivalent to more Spring, to more young man’s fancies. She’s not answering the door “He stayed away a year”—well so did March. The poem ends in ambivalence. She should doubt the constancy of these Spring suitors even with the flirting, the flattery and the gifts they bring, but then there’s joy in blaming them for their absence now that they have returned.

Prince in the studio

Prince: performer, songwriter, impresario, but I’ll think of him as the patron saint of studio rats

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I don’t want to stretch things too far here, but there are a couple of similarities in Dickinson and Prince. Both known for wearing one color (white and purple). Both enigmatic to the public (“The Myth” and “The Glyph”) and increasingly reclusive. And both were capable of being prolific and artistically self-sufficient, though this is not as rare for poets as it is for musicians and songwriters who could (as Prince did) write and record all the parts. In the end, they are both American originals, not copies of anyone before or since.

To hear my performance of Emily Dickinson’s “Dear March”  use the player below. And let folks know about what we’re doing here, combining various words (mostly poetry) with original music in different ways. It’s #NPM2018, and you can dance to it.

 

Mr Nelson

It often takes a while to know who has died.

When Prince died a year ago, the shock-wave for fans was breath-taking, the air went out of the room, and for each of them there was something that went missing when they got the word: the promise of new music, a memory of concert or a night of dancing, a period of their youth now seemingly past all reliving, and probably a dozen or more other private things.

If it seemed impossible that Prince had died, it was because it was impossible that he had lived. About him it could be said that he could dance like James Brown, sing like Marvin Gaye, play guitar like Jimi Hendrix, write a song like Curtis Mayfield—and arrange it all, and play it all, and record it all for himself or other artists. He was the most astonishingly broad musical artist of our time.

And he did this over and over, for decades, to the point that no one could ever really keep up with all he did. I suspect the longer time we now have will allow us to discover, in his work, things that are still overlooked, ideas that he had that somehow weren’t understood, things we skipped over because we thought Prince should be doing something else.

Tonight, as I write this, I’m struck by one other thing: has there been enough recognition that Prince was in the vanguard of bringing women instrumentalists into the context of the rock band? Let’s propose a rock band gender integration variation of the Bechdel Test: name a successful band with two prominent women instrumentalists before The Revolution that wasn’t a “all-girl band.1” Every example that comes to mind (and it’s not like there are hundreds of them) stops the count of women players at one. I can think of only two 2, and neither achieved a modicum of the cultural prominence of Prince’s band.

Prince and the Revolution

It’s a little known fact that Prince was about two feet taller than the rest of the Revolution.

 

And he did it again performing with his late career power trio, 3rdEyeGirl.

That’s just a part of his career of course—but please, this isn’t some kind of rote identity politics thing, or merely a piece of trivia like “Name a band with two left-handed Canadians?”. This is half the human race!

With the Parlando Project I get to audaciously tackle the work of a lot of great writers. I use their words unashamedly and try to find something I can relate to you about their work. For some reason, perhaps because Prince Rogers Nelson embarrasses me as musician, I’ve been hesitant to post this episode, and to share this modest musical piece The LYL Band wrote and performed about his leaving.

But I’m going to do it anyway. The best parts of this piece “Mr. Nelson”  are the work of Dave Moore: most of the words and the electronic piano part. Footnotes at the end of this post for the obsessives. The audio player for “Mr. Nelson” is right below this. You can dance if you want to.

 

 

 

County Joe MacDonald and his All Star BandJoy of Cooking

Guy in the middle isn’t Prince.                  Joy of Cooking, pioneers.

 
1 I exclude the “all-girl band” not to denigrate the talents of those who performed in them, or because a band somehow needs men to be valid, but because however intended, the result in the 20th Century cultural context was seen largely for its novelty value.

2 The two bands I can think of: Joy of Cooking and the Country Joe MacDonald led “Paris Sessions” era All-Star Band.