21 Nights, By Prince and Randee St Nicholas
Prince's first book gives a weird insight into the world of this workaholic and cryptic pop star
Sunday 05 October 2008
Luton airport has never looked as glamorous as it does in the glossy pages of Prince's first book, a collection of "photography, poetry, lyrics and music" (a CD is included), celebrating his extraordinary series of 21 shows (and 14 aftershow performances) at the O2 venue during August and September last year.
The book is a collaboration with the photographer Randee St Nicholas, who followed Prince throughout his stay, and is clearly intended as something more substantial than a mere concert souvenir. It's evident that the photo shoots were as much of an artistic project as the concerts themselves.
If any more proof is needed of Prince's workaholism, after playing gigs that would start at 8.30pm and aftershows that ran as late as 4.15am, he would follow this with a photo shoot, or on one occasion recorded here (Night 18), even flew to Prague to film a music video at dawn. St Nicholas suggests in an introduction that this idiosyncratic behaviour is "a conduit to achieve creative exhaustion" and "a gift".
Nonetheless, in spite of the high glamour and gorgeous quality of the staged photos here (the "style source directory" in the back of the book credits big-name designers such as Vivienne Westwood, Matthew Williamson and Alexander McQueen), there is an occasional disconnection between Prince's glamorous life and the reality of late-night urban London. The O2 is a wonderful new venue and the only place in the city which could meet Prince's needs for a run of this length, but there's still something slightly dispiriting about the photos of Prince in a yellow hooded jacket round the back of the O2 in the early hours of the morning.
One of the stranger photo shoots in the collection has a maid in a fetishistic pink uniform and laddered stockings making Prince's bed at the Dorchester. The woman is so beautiful she's clearly a model; the laddered stockings are there to add a touch of social realism, and the end result feels like a peculiar intrusion of male fantasy into Prince's largely feminine world. Those wondering whether Prince is still (as rumoured) a Jehovah's Witness will be intrigued to see the maid adjusting Prince's copy of the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures. This peculiar narrative ends with the maid putting on one of Prince's shirts and hiding in his wardrobe just as he's about to enter his room.
Prince's text is at times amusing (the first shot of him with an umbrella is accompanied by a complaint about being misled about the weather), at others deliberately cryptic, coded games for the diehards. There are lyrics from songs from his underrated last album, Planet Earth, which gained headlines worldwide when Prince gave it away free with The Mail on Sunday, and what may be poems or lyrics for as yet unreleased songs. ("The Guilty Ones" appears to be a lyric about the fans who came to the shows, commenting on the "single moms & drunk fellas" in the audience. The inebriation of British fans at the O2, who were perhaps not used to such long nights of entertainment, was a frequent complaint of European visitors.)
Ultimately, though, whether you attended the shows or not, the most compelling reason to spend £30 on this book is the accompanying CD, Indigo Nights, a collection of recordings from the aftershows. Oddly, this set most resembles Lou Reed's 1978 scabrous live talkathon Take No Prisoners, showcasing Prince the comedian as he cracks jokes about how dumb photographers beg for pictures of him with Michael Jackson, and reminisces about how his mother used to send him out to buy her tampons. It's significant that Prince has chosen to release recordings from the aftershows instead of the main run. While the main shows were largely run-throughs of the hits, the aftershows were endlessly anarchic and inventive, with everything from psychedelic heavy rock shows to guest appearances from Amy Winehouse to a cover of the Benny Hill theme.
Fans will inevitably be disappointed at the songs and shows not represented here, but it's clear that the songs have been selected to showcase a particular side of Prince's talent, and as this is only the second official Prince live release (apart from odd tracks on his now-defunct website), it makes 21 Nights an essential purchase for anyone interested in the artist.
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