Rock critic, magazine editor and author Alan Light’s résumé reads like a music lover’s dream.
He interned at Rolling Stone, where he later became a senior writer. He’s a former editor at Vibe and Spin. He was co-founder and editor of short-lived Tracks magazine and is author of “Let’s Go Crazy: Prince and the Making of ‘Purple Rain.’ ” The book chronicles the illogical odyssey of an overconfident unknown Minnesota musician.
“Purple Rain” was a triumph of logic and the Hollywood system, according to Light. “When you go back and look at meetings,” said Light, “why would a studio take seriously the idea that they were going to make this star vehicle for somebody who wasn’t a star yet?”
His mother, Janet Light, a former dancer, was dance critic for the Cincinnati Enquirer. “So the idea that you would go to a performance and then try to figure out what happened — if you liked it and why, how to describe that — thinking about the power of that kind of writing was just dinner-table conversation for us,” he said.
“People act like people who write about movies or pop music have all this power. People who write about that stuff don’t have any power. Bad reviews, maybe they can hurt a little bit; a good review can help. If you are writing about the Cincinnati Ballet Company and the review in the paper says, ‘This was terrible,’ nobody goes and the company closes. There isn’t just this sort of popular groundswell — it’s going to be fine if it has enough stars in it — that popular entertainment gets. I learned about the power of that kind of critical language. I grew up in the newsroom having those conversations. Music was the one thing I always ever believed in.”
The host of “Debatable” on SiriusXM 106 radio, Light was in Minneapolis at Salt Studios doing interviews for a Tidal streaming service video series. He interviewed Morris Hayes and other members of New Power Generation, plus Dr. Fink of the Revolution.
This is part one of two.
Q: Twin Cities writer and author Neal Karlen lauds “Let’s Go Crazy” as one of the best books about Prince.
A: Neal has been very kind about this book. What’s funny is that I think when I was at Rolling Stone, Neal Karlen wrote sort of the last big print interview with Prince until the interview that I did for Vibe. There are five years in between. Some of that coverage Neal had done was really obviously very important and crucial. We have been in contact, and I am thrilled that he had nice things to say about the book.
Q: You write in the book that the native genius of Prince was not obvious to some studio bosses because they wanted John Travolta to play Prince’s “The Kid” role.
A: I think it’s Albert Magnoli, who directed “Purple Rain,” who described going out on the pitch calls to the different studios. One of the studios came back and said, “Maybe the story makes sense, but maybe we have John Travolta in that part.” [Laughs] But, the thing that points out it really is absolutely insane in retrospect is that that movie got made.
The fans always feel like it was inevitable. It was going to be this vehicle that introduced him to the world; it was going to catapult him to superstardom. And maybe that was inevitable, but the idea that it was going to be a feature Hollywood film from a guy who had one and a half pop hits [was a stretch].
Prince was not that kind of a household name. Many bigger rock stars have crashed and burned trying to make Hollywood films. Bob Dylan could never pull it off, Mick Jagger could never pull it off. Paul Simon had just had a disaster with “One-Trick Pony” at the time Prince was going out and pitching “Purple Rain.” Everybody around him thought: “This is nuts. What’s he talking about he’s going to make a movie?” And it is such a testament to his vision, to this insane confidence. He just said, “I’m going to make this happen.”
Q: It would have been a flop with Travolta.
A: Would have been a music movie, but you know ...
Q: Is there something about Prince that is still underappreciated?
A: I think there’s a lot. Now he has just become mythic. Now it’s “he was this otherworldly genius, touched by this inexplicable gift.” Which is certainly true, but along with that is this incredible work ethic, discipline, commitment and devotion to his craft. It was not just a question of he was lucky enough that he had this bestowed on him. It is also what he did with it, his laser focus and this singular vision that he had to go and be the absolute best and demand that of everybody around him.
I think it’s easy to lose sight of that side when you are just so overwhelmed by the magnitude of what he was capable of. I’m a baseball fan. Baseball scouts look for “five-tool players” — somebody who can hit for power, hit for average, run, field and throw. Prince had more tools than anybody as a songwriter, a producer, a bandleader, a singer and instrumentalist, performer, dancer, arranger.
He could just do more things better than anybody else. I still don’t think there’s anybody comparable to the range of talents that he had. But it was his absolute faith in delivering on all cylinders, all of the time at all of those things that separates him. I don’t know what sufficient appreciation for that would look like.