Prince Creates a Funky Tabloid Tale on ‘Illusion, Coma, Pimp & Circumstance’
William Shakespeare coined the phrase “Pomp and Circumstance” in Othello, Edward Elgar wrote a series of military marches under the title beginning in 1901 and Yale University helped popularize a portion of the first march as processional music for graduation events in 1905. In the ensuing century, the tune became one of the most recognizable orchestral pieces to American ears, familiar to anyone who ever attended a high school graduation ceremony.
That included Prince (Central High School class of 1976), who would play with the famous phrase by sexualizing the term on Musicology’s “Illusion, Coma, Pimp & Circumstance” – a track with a long, but instantly memorable title. Where Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance” graduation march is regal, full or (in the wrong hands) even droning, Prince’s “Pimp & Circumstance” is sharp, sparse and crackles with nervy energy.
While 2004’s Musicology was seen as a comeback (or a throwback, in terms of the title tune), the album’s second track was a mix of classic Prince and contemporary music. This was a sleek funk exercise paired with virtuoso guitar solos and a hip-hop beat, perhaps inspired by the likes of Timbaland or the Neptunes – producers who, in turn, considered Prince one of their musical heroes.
Hear Prince Perform "Illusion, Coma, Pimp & Circumstance"
When he recorded the song in 2003 at his Paisley Park Studios, Prince played all of the instruments (guitar, bass, keyboards, drums). He also played all of the characters in the song, including a commentary-prone narrator (“that ain’t right”), a young gigolo (“a dirty dog in expensive fur”) and an aging, unattractive woman of the upper class (“she knew which fork 2 use, but she couldn’t dance”). It’s an electric vocal performance from the singer, whose wicked grin is practically audible as he revels in the salacious details of a rich, old biddy and her kept man – although he also steps back to ask, “Who’s pimping who?”
The guy’s name is never mention in the lyrics, but the sugar mama is named Doris, which led some listeners to believe that the character was inspired by Doris Duke, an American heiress who lived a lavish lifestyle until she died in the '90s at age 80. The inheritor of a tobacco fortune (Duke University is named after her father), Duke was twice married and had numerous famous boyfriends, including actor Errol Flynn, General George S. Patton and Hawaiian Olympic swimming champion and surfing pioneer Duke Kahanomoku.
But the relationship that might be suggested by “Illusion, Coma, Pimp & Circumstance” could be Doris’s long-term affair with jazz pianist Joe Castro in the '60s. The heiress was a jazz fan who co-founded a record label with her beau and installed a recording studio in her Beverly Hills mansion. The couple claimed an age disparity (Castro was 15 years younger) as well as a racial one (he was Mexican-American), both of which are referenced in Prince’s song. Embodying the young character, he sings about wishing his benefactor had darker skin, “instead of so lily white.” In Prince’s version, the two live happily ever after, following the arrangement of a pre-nuptial agreement, but in real life Duke and Castro broke up and their jazz label failed.
“Illusion, Coma, Pimp & Circumstance” was only occasionally performed by Prince in concert, just before and after the release of Musicology. But the song became central to the music press’ hype over the album, with many critics singling out the track as a highlight. Although the glowing reception to the record died down in the following years, the song has remained a favorite of the Prince faithful.