by Jochen Markhorst
II A Song Of Ice And Fire
At the end of July 2021 is finally the release of Welcome 2 America, the album that Prince recorded in 2010 but then put on the shelf. The deluxe edition has a bonus concert recording from 2011, wherein the ladies from his band are given the spotlight to sing a beautiful, hushed and soulful “Make You Feel My Love”. Prince has them perform the song a few more times, in 2011 and 2012, and then leaves the stage himself each time. This is different for “All Along The Watchtower”; in a mash-up with Foo Fighter’s “Best Of You”, this Dylan song becomes a showcase for his stage, singing and guitar skills (half-time Super Bowl show, 2007).
The other way round, there are just as few points of contact. Dylan does comment on Prince a few times, usually with reserved respect (in the 1987 Rolling Stone interview he calls him a boy wonder and “he certainly don’t lack talent, that’s for sure”), and in Theme Time Radio Hour the DJ says, ironically, “Prince is from the same area of the country that I’m from so we have plenty in common.”
That is what radio broadcaster Dylan says when announcing “Little Red Corvette” (episode 12, Cars), and he may have noticed a subtle similarity:
A body like yours Oughta be in jail 'Cause it's on the verge of bein' obscene
… a presumably unintended paraphrase of his own There ought to be a law against you comin’ around from “Ballad Of A Thin Man”.
The other great little man from Minnesota had neither the ambition to be, nor the reputation of being a great song poet, but the wild, surreal, hallucinatory part of his oeuvre most certainly does have a poetic quality. “When Doves Cry” is one such song that surprises with a verse like
Dream, if you can, a courtyard An ocean of violets in bloom Animals strike curious poses They feel the heat The heat between me and you
… a classic, tried and tested stylistic device that Prince often uses; quite literally colourful, expressionistic sets. Like every day is a yellow day (“Condition Of The Heart”), the sky was all purple (“1999”), the crystal blue stream of desire (“Adonis And Bathsheba”) and of course I only wanted to see you laughing in the purple rain.
And in the more ambitious lyrics, he does come close to a literary quality that Dylan wouldn’t be ashamed of either. On several fronts, even; the evocative power, the enjoyment of language, the orientation towards sound and the suggestion of epic… all quality features of Dylan’s better lyrics that Prince equals in his best moments. “The Ballad Of Dorothy Parker”, for example, unites a freewheelin’ Dylan with the syllables-juggling Dylan of “Highlands” and with the kaleidoscopic poet of “Absolutely Sweet Marie”;
Oh, I said, “Cool, but I'm leavin' my pants on (what you say?) 'Cause I'm kinda goin' with someone” She said, “Sound like a real man to me Mind if I turn on the radio?” “Oh, my favorite song,” she said And it was Joni singing: "Help me, I think I'm falling" (Drring) The phone rang and she said “Whoever's calling can't be as cute as you” Right then and there I knew I was through (Dorothy Parker was cool)
… and around it glitters like I needed someone with a quicker wit than mine / Dorothy was fast, mercurial asides like I’d been talkin’ stuff in a violent room and Dylanesque, dryly comic extras like Well, I ordered: “Yeah, let me get a fruit cocktail, I ain’t too hungry”.
The other classical figure of speech is even more frequent, and Prince’s predilection for it links him to Dylan in his mid-60s: the antithesis. With Prince, the preference is quite persistent – he hardly writes a lyric without an antithesis. Often enough, simple, straightforward antitheses such as Between white and black, night and day or
You're just a sinner I am told Be your fire when you're cold Make you happy when you're sad Make you good when you are bad
(from “I Would Die 4 U”, lyrics that are more layered and complex than this simple quatrain would suggest).
But every now and then, Prince manages to spice up his lyrics with more subtle antitheses. Like the brilliant opening line of “Sign O’ The Times”: In France, a skinny man died of a big disease with a little name. In strong one-liners like used to have the party on New Years Eve / first one intoxicated last one to leave, and a robin sings a masterpiece that lives and dies unheard. And in one of his most successful lyrics, in “Raspberry Beret”. Stylistically, the opening couplet is poetic craftsmanship, with a powerful epic, almost cinematic quality:
I was working part time in a five-and-dime My boss was Mr. McGee He told me several times that he didn't like my kind 'Cause I was a bit too leisurely
“Leisurely” is a masterly find. The word is rather highbrow, clashes tellingly with the blue-collar content of the first three lines, it rhymes originally with Mr. McGee and immediately gives depth to the character of the first-person narrator. The continuation is just as strong:
Seems that I was busy doing something close to nothing But different than the day before That's when I saw her, ooh, I saw her She walked in through the outdoor,
“Busy doing something close to nothing” is a witty, original antithesis, made all the funnier by the introduction “seems that I was busy”. The concluding antithesis in through the outdoor is not necessarily original (it is also the title of Led Zeppelin’s last LP, for example), but here it has a literary shine through its added value: for the third time, Prince succeeds in giving depth to the actor’s character with a minimum of words. We already know what type “Mr. McGee” is after one line, eleven words, the I-person gets a profile with just that one word “leisurely”, and the introduction of the picturesque co-star is already coloured by just “in through the outdoor”: unconventional and carefree character, apparently an attractive girl who doesn’t need to care much about rules.
The irresistible chorus immediately confirms this impression:
She wore a Raspberry beret The kind you find in a secondhand store Raspberry beret And if it was warm she wouldn't wear much more Raspberry beret I think I love her
Prince – Raspberry Beret:
The fondness for the antithesis, in Prince as well as Dylan, and in all classical poets in general, can probably ultimately be traced back to the Bible, and more specifically to the Gospel of Matthew. The Sermon on the Mount, for example, from which Dylan draws more than once, is full of this stylistic device. Love your enemies, do not let your left hand know what the right hand is doing, the broad and the narrow way, the strait and the wide gate, light and darkness, and so on. The public’s receptiveness is not so mysterious either – opposites attract, after all. And the popularity with the poets themselves may have a more prosaic reason as well: lines with antitheses are simply easier to remember;
My love she speaks like silence Without ideals or violence She doesn’t have to say she’s faithful Yet she’s true, like ice, like fire
… indeed – you only need to hear that once.
To be continued. Next up: Love Minus Zero/No Limit part III: I love you, but you’re strange
Jochen is a regular reviewer of Dylan’s work on Untold. His books, in English, Dutch and German, are available via Amazon both in paperback and on Kindle:
- Blood on the Tracks: Dylan’s Masterpiece in Blue
- Blonde On Blonde: Bob Dylan’s mercurial masterpiece
- Where Are You Tonight? Bob Dylan’s hushed-up classic from 1978
- Desolation Row: Bob Dylan’s poetic letter from 1965
- Basement Tapes: Bob Dylan’s Summer of 1967
- Mississippi: Bob Dylan’s midlife masterpiece
- Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits
- John Wesley Harding: Bob Dylan meets Kafka in Nashville
- Tombstone Blues b/w Jet Pilot: Dylan’s lookin’ for the fuse
There is more information about Untold-Dylan on our home page.