“My Life in the Purple Kingdom” (University of Minnesota Press, $22.99) makes it clear anyone who thinks BrownMark was handed phenomenal success at a young age on a platter can think again.
Sure, Prince handpicked him at 19 years old to back the Purple One up on bass in the Revolution. However, the teenager, going by his given name Mark Brown, caught the superstar’s eye and ear despite serious competition on a scene where there was no shortage of seasoned veterans.
He lived a long way from easy street, living with his mom in racist South Minneapolis circa the 1970s, working at a 7-11 convenience store after school. His first musical instruments were homemade—a shoebox and some rubber bands he somehow turned into a guitar and a drum set he devised by vandalizing his mother’s trash cans. For drumsticks, he took the cardboard rolls off of clothes hangers.
He’d eventually get a paper route, which with the S&H Green Stamps his mom never used, he bought an actual guitar from the catalog. From such meager beginnings, the exceptionally gifted young man rose on his merits—and pretty-boy looks—to a lifestyle of being comparatively rich and nationally famous. He also achieved the unenviable distinction of replacing the wildly popular AndréCymone.
“Purple Kingdom” begins with the infamous 1981 Rolling Stones concert at the Los Angeles Coliseum, the only show at which Prince was not just poorly received but booed off the stage, complete with bottles and, of all things, fruit, being thrown at the band. As luck would have it, this was BrownMark’s debut in the Revolution.
Despite getting off to an abysmal start with this introduction to the big time, after that, performing was a breeze, and there certainly was no risk of a repeat failure because Prince would never again open anyone’s show, and went on to become a huge headliner and legend.
In short order, after that point, BrownMark is living a musician’s dream. Prince and the Revolution have a new album to promote with a concert tour, “Controversy.” Between gigs, when the band isn’t rehearsing, they’re jamming. Just about around the clock.
With this particular outfit, time and energy are also taken up with wardrobe, makeup, and hair concerns, but music is always the priority. Everything else in life, including sitting down to a decent meal, getting a good night’s sleep, is secondary.
Still, it’s not completely smooth sailing for him. Ignorant White folk, it turns out, aren’t quite a thing of the past. Flush with newfound success, it escapes him that not everyone is up on Prince. So, it takes him aback when he walks into a Bloomington luxury car dealership and, on the basis of his birthday suit, is given short shrift.
“I had been there a while…and not one of the salespeople had approached me yet. Usually, they’re so desperate to make a sale, they come running out to help, right? [They] are ignoring me.” Soon as he offers to pay cash on the line, the manager can’t get him served fast enough.
He goes in roughly a year from being just another Central High School kid to stardom, which is where the autobiography transitions to, for the most part, the stuff of entertainment zines.
There are accounts of Prince’s storied mercurial temperament and quirky eccentricities. For instance, as soon as BrownMark found solid footing in the operation, he just as quickly began falling out of favor for no perceptible reason. To the extent that, at one point, he’s demoted from playing and singing alongside Prince to literally being shoved into the shadows, his space onstage unlit.
There is the silliness of hundreds of shrieking girls chasing BrownMark and guitarist Jesse Johnson down the street in Detroit. He and guitarist Dez Dickerson are similarly set upon in Boston. It is, for some reason of special note the day that BrownMark began wearing a headscarf.
We get an interesting look at machinations of the business when he moves toward life outside the kingdom—which begins well but doesn’t work out. Indeed, he is disastrously sabotaged. The band Mazarati is a highly promising side project he finances and produces, charting straight off with the hit “100 MPH.”
From there, things gradually go downhill through no fault of his except trusting the one who’d been his benefactor. Prince professed to not mind Mazarati’s auspicious start. But then he set in motion a series of events, thanks to which it went bust, all but bankrupting BrownMark.
Down, out and on his own, the dejected BrownMark’s saving grace was having made such a heavy rep that Motown came looking for him with a sweet deal. He made out just fine after all.
“My Life in the Purple Kingdom” by BrownMark with Cynthia M. Uhrich, foreword by Questlove is a serviceable, not especially engaging—but not boring—chronicle of note that fans will want to have around the house.