By John Toren
On April 21, 2016, Minneapolis-born musician Prince was found dead at age 56 from an accidental opioid overdose in the elevator of Paisley Park, his state-of-the art recording studio/home in the Twin Cities suburb of Chanhassen. Fans around the world mourned, but those in Minnesota were especially hard hit, and spontaneous gatherings—part grieving, part celebration—took place for days at Paisley Park and the rock venue First Avenue in downtown Minneapolis, where much of Prince’s film Purple Rain was filmed in the early 1980s.
From the start, Prince’s music career has always been described as both brilliant and controversial. In the ’90s, things grew increasingly intense: Prince clashed with his record label, Warner Bros., over rights; changed his name to a symbol (left); and wrote some of his most enduring music. Covering it all was Minneapolis music writer Jim Walsh (B.A. ’90), who followed Prince and reported extensively on everything from his performances and the goings-on at after-parties and clubs to his veganism and wedding to bandmate Mayte. The best of those writings make up Walsh’s new book Gold Experience: Following Prince in the ’90s.
In the introduction, Walsh writes that whenever he was following Prince, he felt he was writing a history book and that Gold Experience is that book. But while it’s true that this book is historical in some ways, it is more than that too. Named for Prince’s 1995 album, The Gold Experience, Walsh’s writing is passionate and personal, spirited but also discriminating. At times an extended fan letter to an artist who meant a great deal to him, his words often offer insight into the mind and life of a complicated musician who is now gone.
While descriptions of concerts are full of superlatives such as “jaw-dropping,” “exhilarating,” and “dazzling,” Walsh many times discards the hype, both positive and negative, attuning himself to what Prince, at any particular moment, was trying to do musically. On the 1994 album, Come, he writes: “Throughout his career, Prince has been cast as a musical prodigy, love nymph, quasi-religious icon and out-of-touch space cadet—and has made some truly terrible records. But while the damage to his public image may have led many to write him off as old news, Come is a breakthrough. It reveals a guise of the guy that has been all but forgotten: human being.”
Among the highlights of the early part of the book are descriptions of a series of concerts Prince gave in the summer of 1994 in an annex of Glam Slam, the Minneapolis nightclub that Prince himself opened in 1990. Listening to Prince at that moment in his career, when the furor of Purple Rain was a distant memory, Walsh felt he’d discovered an underground band that “nobody had ever heard of before.”
Walsh’s interviews with Prince are also interesting to read. During one lengthy interview, he asked Prince where he found inspiration. “Everything goes by very quickly,” Prince tells him. “You can see time. I’m hearing the sound of a future time, and I’m listening to it in a car. You have to get that out of your head and onto the planet.”
Walsh offers an interesting and human take on the challenges Prince faced at that difficult point in his career, describing him as someone who, “like you and me, struggles day in and day out, but unlike you and me, does so in a very public forum. And that public flailing makes the music somehow resonate even deeper, and transcend the confines of good beats and hit-making. It is the sound of an artist at odds with himself, his world, his past, present, and future. Who would’ve guessed that such a sound could be this big, bad, and joyful?”