A Review of Jim Walsh’s
Originally published in the Minneapolis StarTribune
on January 22nd, 2016
By Jim Walsh
University of Minnesota Press, 200 pages, $16.95
Minneapolis native Prince was perhaps the last American pop musician who could legitimately be compared to such prime movers as Elvis Presley or James Brown or Jimi Hendrix. Arriving almost fully formed as a teenage recording artist in the late 1970s, he drew upon a particularly vibrant circle of musical scenes, absorbing the exuberance of disco, the edginess of punk rock and new wave, the fervor of Michael Jackson, and the pyrotechnic thrills of Van Halen and heavy metal, transforming it all into a body of work that was as accomplished as it was ambitious. He flashed through the 1980s in a delirious purple dream, besting himself so often and so brilliantly that he quickly became his only competition, thrusting himself into the 1990s as virtually the only musician left standing, which is the position Jim Walsh’s new book Gold Experience: Following Prince in the ’90s finds him in.
Walsh covered Prince for the St. Paul Pioneer Press between 1994 and 2002, and this book collects all of his articles about the little purple guy as he attempts to continue surging forward. Adding very few editorial comments to this collection of clips—and presumably making no revisions, capturing both writer and subject, who were the same age, in journalistic amber—Walsh eschews hindsight perspective and delivers the reader right into the drama of each moment, making it possible to experience Prince’s development during these years with a sense of urgent suspense. His maniacal energy and challenging diversity suddenly beginning to lose traction in a cultural landscape that would rather be sedated by Seattle’s stultifying borecore or L.A.’s mellow stoner rap, Prince struggled to maintain purpose and relevance in the 1990s, and Walsh documents his wavering trajectory in observant and sometimes painful detail. At the book’s outset Prince had recently changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol, and it’s telling that for almost the whole era that this book documents Walsh refers to him as “the former Prince.” Nearly every new step seems to herald a return to Prince’s golden age, with Walsh cheering him on (and occasionally lecturing him), but as the decade slacks toward millennium it gradually becomes clear that Prince won’t be reinstating his purple reign in time to celebrate 1999.
Following Prince as he tries to recapture his astonishing prime, Walsh’s Gold Experience is in fact a chronicle of the artist’s silver age, and as such it serves more as a record of the journalist’s emotional journey than as a vital document of a crucial time. With his hero going astray again and again, Walsh struggles with acceptance as he’s forced to compare this fluctuating luminary to the dimmest bulbs of the era. It’s astonishing to see Walsh refer to the monochromatic Beck as “state of the art” in comparison to anything that Prince could do, but that’s just how far pop musicianship had descended into dreary incompetence, leaving little room for a true polymath to shine. Vividly capturing the hope and heartbreak of this waning musical epoch, Walsh’s Gold Experience paints a poignant portrait of the artist formerly known as Prince.