PRINCE ROGERS NELSON
JUNE 7, 1958-APRIL 21, 2016
JUNE 7, 1958-APRIL 21, 2016
Sometimes it snows in April...sometimes I feel so sad...sometimes I wish that life was never ending...But all good things, they say, never last...
Dear readers and listeners, in a year that has been brutally unrepentant upon the music world, I find myself writing a tribute to an artist that I honestly felt that I would never have to write for many, many years to come, perhaps even another decade or even more. But here I am. In shock, disbelief and utter confusion that what has transpired is indeed real and not some internet hoax, or false report or even a bad dream. I have often expressed that within my life, I hold a personal "Holy Trinity" of cherished musicians. One third of that Trinity carries The Beatles, another third carries Todd Rundgren and the crucial final third of that Trinity, of course, His Royal Badness himself, the artist we will forever know as Prince. And now, he is gone.
Like all of you, I am blindsided and teary eyed, for his importance to me throughout my life is immeasurable, bottomless and endless. In fact, even as I begin to write, I am having serious difficulty finding words for I am so overwhelmed. But, for this figure, who was so deeply instrumental in helping me to shape my worldview, my growing sense of self and in addition to delivering me into a musical universe so complete, individualistic and unlike any other, I will try my very best to pay proper tribute and honor. And how could I not, for how much this man gave to me.
It was here that I began running through my brain all of the recent information that I knew, recounting everything to my co-worker just as much as it was being performed for myself as I could not even begin to process if this question could have possessed any sense of truth.
I knew that Prince had cancelled a couple of recent dates on his extremely well received solo "Piano And A Microphone" tour due to an illness, most likely the flu. I knew that his private plane made an emergency stop to a hospital in Moline, IL just six days prior to his passing, reportedly for dehydration, yet he was released and back in his home of Minnesota the same day. I knew that the following day, Prince had been spotted riding his bike around his Paisley Park compound and studio, he shopped at a local record store for Record Store Day and even held a party that night at Paisley Park where he even appeared, addressed the crowd and showed off his new purple piano and purple guitar, which he explained that he hadn't even played yet as he was solely focusing upon the piano for the tour. And as is (or now "was") his wont, yet obviously regarding the troubling news reports, he cryptically stated, "Wait a few days before you waste any prayers."
To me, it felt to be an ominous sounding statement to make and I couldn't help but wonder if there was a different, larger intent to his words. But seeing him in front of an audience and seemingly excited about the future, I waved any dark thoughts aside and breathed a sigh of relief that he was still with us.
And now, here I was receiving the news from a co-worker to the contrary and even then, I refused to believe it until I could see something for myself. I raced to one of the school's laptops and logged on-line and within moments, I read the news and saw that several friends on Facebook had already sent messages of solace and mourning to me, expressing their own sadness while also checking up on me as I read over and again variations of, "You were the first person I thought of."
I was just unable to process the news and since I had to return to the classroom, I knew that I had to keep it together. Yet, much later in the afternoon, as I took a few moments to myself up in the empty lounge and later still as I picked up my wife from her work and shared the news, my voice cracked and the tears began to flow. Prince was dead. Three words I never felt that I would have to say for quite a long time as he was the type of artist that I could have seen creating new music into his 80's. For me, Prince always represented someone or some entity that was just a little further ahead than the present. Someone or some entity that I always felt that I had to reach a little further to grasp and understand. And furthermore, Prince was always an individual that was constantly on the move, completely unable to pin down and so beautifully inventive, restless and forever searching, seeking and creating, seemingly never ending in tapping into the wellspring of inspiration.
And still, Prince was dead.
That night, I watched interviews and commentaries upon CNN, watching George Clinton and former associates and friends speak of Prince and to also witness their own confusion and shock over the devastating news. I later turned to MTV, which surprisingly (and rightfully!) returned to music, of all things, as they broadcasted archived concert footage and music videos that I had never seen before. With my cat Jada beside me upon the love seat, I soon fell asleep. When I awoke nearly two hours later, I heard the music before fully reconciling myself back to full consciousness. In those few moments, I had forgotten but when I saw the television, still showing Prince videos, I sadly realized that I hadn't dreamt it all.
Prince was dead. I didn't want to believe it but what I wanted didn't matter. He was gone. Truly, irreversibly gone.
The passing of David Bowie in January of this year upended me, and only very recently have I begun to feel some sense of acceptance with his death, as well as the ones that followed of my musical heroes from Kevin Junior to Glenn Frey and Sir George Martin among others. In comparison, Prince's death feels like the worst bodyslam imaginable and yet, still so unreal. Yes, there is a feeling of a dark echo when thinking of both Bowie and Prince's passings in regards to the shock and surprise of the news. Yet, the difference to me lies in the fact that David Bowie knew the status of his impending mortality while the public did not and therefore, he weaved it into his art, purposefully creating a final statement even if we did not realize it upon first listen. With Prince, the shock is even more profoundly shattering as he was a figure that felt to be miraculously untainted by time. This is not to suggest that I felt him to be immortal. I just felt him to be unfinished.
In the last 18 months alone, Prince released 4 new albums and was currently in the midst of his aforementioned tour. He even recently announced that he was writing his memoirs to be published in 2017. More music was undoubtedly on the way as well. With Prince, there was always the wonder and the possibilities of whatever could possibly arrive next for himself as well as for us, since we were joined together upon his ongoing artistic odyssey. Essentially, Prince just was not finished and it is unfathomable to me that he is gone...so truly, irreversibly gone.
It just makes no sense to me whatsoever just why it had to be Prince this time. Why him and why now? Perhaps it is something so simultaneously simple yet so sadly incomprehensible. That this is just a fact of that electric word "life," which is indeed a mighty long time but not long enough and as Prince often proclaimed, time is an illusion.
It is so very true. There was a time when I could not stand the sound of his voice or his music and most definitely, not the sight of him. In retrospect, I now know that I and all of my beliefs and perceptions were being repeatedly challenged, experiences that I would have with Prince to varying degrees for the remainder of his life. But back then, when I was 11, 12, 13, 14 years old, I wanted absolutely nothing to do with him.
I remember thinking of him as the weird guy who sang dirty songs, who sounded like a woman and wore high heels and bikini briefs. And yet, he sang of God and divinity as much as he sang of sex and hedonism. A challenge if there ever was one as I could not reconcile those two aspects of his subject matter whatsoever. But again, I was too young to even begin to realize what precisely was happening.
I remember often seeing his music videos for both "1999" and "Little Red Corvette" and writing both of them off as nonsensical fluff regardless of what the fans, music critics and my beloved cousin Adam had to say about them. I was so stupidly self-righteous in my opinions that were honestly not based in very much of anything as again, I was too young. But then, I also remember seeing the full and nearly 9 minute music video for the dark, pulsating "Automatic" and feeling chillingly uncomfortable and confused by the themes of sadomasochism on display and yet I also remember being unable to turn away from what I was seeing and hearing. I was indeed captivated but I didn't understand how or why and the confusion just made me mad, frustrated and even more determined to dig in my heels regarding my resistance.
Upon my blogsite Savage Cinema, I have previously and extensively detailed my experiences (which you can find in the April 2014 section) with seeing the movie on opening weekend out of sheer skepticism and urged on by the unbreakable trust I had in both Chicago film critics the late Gene Siskel and the late Roger Ebert, who each greeted the film with rave four star reviews and would later each proclaim the movie to being one of the Top Ten films of 1984. But in short, seeing the time that very first time was the point where lightning struck. Where I entered as the rigid skeptic and exited a passionate convert who had just seen the light.
After the movie, I walked from the movie theater and ventured straight into the Evergreen Plaza shopping mall and directly to the JR's Music Shop record store and bought the album, thus beginning my journey with Prince. While he never said so, I have a feeling that Adam felt rightfully vindicated as he was a most helpful guide since he was already a huge fan, quite possibly from the very start. I listened to the album "Purple Rain" (released June 25, 1984) constantly. I purchased the 12' single version of "Let's Go Crazy" (single released July 18, 1984) which featured not only the seven minute version of the song as featured in the film but also the non-album track "Erotic City," itself a jaw dropper of a song, one that forced me to hide it from my parents as well as one that slowly made me pay attention to the releases of his provocative b-side selections. Shortly afterwards, I borrowed and taped Adam's copy of the "1999" album (released October 27, 1982), and I have to say that I listened to that album even more, most often at night while doing homework or even later as I laid in bed for the night and to this day, it is one of the Prince albums I reach for the quickest.
In the earliest stages, I only have Adam to thank as he was the one always in the know as to what was in the purple pipeline and he ensured that I was up to date. It was Adam who informed me about The Family, the band who rose from the ashes of The Time yet only delivered one album before disbanding themselves. Yet, that one album, save for a track written by The Revolution's drummer Bobby Z., was entirely composed, produced, arranged and almost solely performed by Prince himself, including the first appearance of the now classic "Nothing Compares 2 U." It was Adam who informed me about Madhouse, Prince's secretive foray into instrumental jazz, on which the debut album featured no album credits whatsoever but was later revealed to be entirely composed, produced, arranged and almost entirely performed by Prince. It was Adam who informed me about "The Dream Factory," a long abandoned double album designed to follow "Parade" (released March 31, 1986), but eventually transformed itself into a triple album entitled "Crystal Ball" before becoming the masterpiece that is the double album "Sign O' The Times" (released March 30, 1987). And after a time, I kind of knew where to keep looking in order to keep up with this artist who moved so secretly and seemingly faster than the speed of light and sound, and I rapturously attempted to keep pace.
Just very recently on my weekly Savage Radio show after I had played the track "Strange Relationship" from "Sign O' The Times," I mentioned on-air that for those of us who were with Prince from the beginning or for those who joined right at "Purple Rain," if you were a teenager in the 1980's or of that specific generation, Prince was undeniably nothing less than OUR Beatles. His path from his first album "For You" (released April 7, 1978) all the way though to the victory lap of "Graffiti Bridge" (released August 20, 1990) is one of the most astonishing runs that any musical artist ever could have conceptualized and yet, Prince was the one artist to actually achieve that spectacular goal.
If you listen to the albums back to back, you can immediately hear the rapid progression from the very beginning to the operatic breakthrough of "Purple Rain." It is as if each album is standing upon the shoulders of the preceding one, reaching higher and higher. From that iconic breakthrough, Prince then essentially re-invented the musical wheel over and over and over again through a level of creativity that was as fearless as it was ferocious. As I look back and listen, I am stunned that he did it just as I wonder how did he do it. But, also, I am feeling so fortunate and even blessed that I was at the right age to experience these works just as they were being released to the world and that I dove into them just as my generation did.
Seeing how Prince largely crafted his albums entirely by himself was more than fascinating to me as well as awe inspiring. Being a drummer as well as one who likes to mess around on keyboards and is an extremely frustrated guitarist, I am further awed by Prince's instrumental virtuosity, to essentially have the best musicians on call 24/7 and they all live within yourself. I happen to have a fascination with those whom are able to perform on a variety of musical instruments with proficiency. Again, Prince seemed to function in a class all by himself in this regard as his dexterity and agility from piano and keyboards to bass guitars to drums and percussion to, of course, his guitar fireworks catapulted him to existing as the ultimate one-man-band. To have the capacity, skill and talent to create this kind of art, alone and at will, amazed me to no end, and being able to compose, arrange and produce himself with a sonic inventiveness and clarity that honestly could rival the late Sir George Martin only made Prince even more formidable.
His prolific nature, one that fully mirrored the prolific nature of filmmaker John Hughes during those same years also grabbed my attention and awe. It cannot be over-stated just how ahead of the curve Prince was during the 1980's and early 1990's. Remember, save for 1983, Prince released an album every single year of the decade plus those aforementioned side projects, b-sides and then, there's all of that unreleased material now housed in The Vault. Just think and wrap your head around this: once one album was finished and traveled through the corporate pipeline to the record shops and then, onto our record players, Prince was most likely completed with the next three albums--therefore, he was ALWAYS ahead of us. Just as I would purchase an album and spend copious amounts of time and energy trying to figure out the musical world he had given me a gaze into, the next one had arrived and all pre-conceived notions were tossed out of the proverbial window as I then had to try and understand his world all over again. Those years often found me scratching my head and I remained consistently enthralled.
To think, this figure went from the basement funk of both "Dirty Mind" (released October 8, 1980) and "Controversy" (released October 14, 1981) to the dark, electronic eroticism of "1999" to the rock opera heights and glory of "Purple Rain" to the psychedelic wonderland of "Around The World In A Day" (released April 22, 1985) to the skeletal and orchestral funk of "Parade" to the double album magnum opus of "Sign O' The Times" to the densely structured, labyrinthine tale of spiritual transformation in "Lovesexy" (released May 10, 1988) to the comic book psychosis of "Batman" (released June 20, 1989) to the Paisley Park church family picnic of "Graffiti Bridge"--and all with albums from Vanity 6, The Time, Madhouse, The Family and Shelia E. and four feature films, all serving as combined side projects and sign posts as to the full realization of Prince's vision.
Yes, Prince was indeed OUR Beatles. But he was also OUR David Bowie, OUR Led Zeppelin, OUR Jimi Hendrix, OUR Miles Davis, OUR Joni Mitchell, OUR James Brown, OUR Frank Zappa, OUR Duke Ellington and OUR Mozart all in one. You could find all of the familiar elements easily enough to be certain, but with each new release, Prince increasingly created a musical universe that encompassed all that came before him and emerged into a style that defied classification other than existing as "Prince music." It was, and remains, as expansive as it is extraordinary. Certainly, Prince's music was designed to be as inclusive and populist as it was wholly uncompromising and yes, his music transcended race, gender, class as well as age and generation. It is a body of work that will welcome any and all who choose to take a listen. That being said, I strongly feel that for myself and my generation, Prince was OURS!
And, he was a Black man.
Additionally, Prince was savvy enough to understand that image is EVERYTHING. Prince formulated integrated bands for the entirety of his career, vehemently announcing that when it comes to finding great musicians to play with, race and gender are meaningless. And even so, as a young African American male, it meant the world to me to see this Black man playing rock guitar, for in seeing this image, Prince made me feel less alone in the world and he even instilled a fair amount of pride in myself for loving and playing the music that I did.
Prince demonstrated and exuded his pure, unadulterated admiration, affection and appreciation of women through the songs and especially with his bandmates, always presenting them on equal footing with himself and giving them the freedom to fully display their fearsome musical chops. While this was an area in which I did not feel challenged, so to speak, again Prince understood that the image was EVERYTHING. Seeing women performing rock and roll was indeed a rarity and to witness these virtuoso musicians was powerful, to say the least.
Yet, as we all know, Prince was quite the Lothario utilizing a more "feminine" appearance through which a "masculine" sexual appetite traveled, and to considerable success, he challenged us with matters within the sexual arena regarding desires, attitudes, preferences, fetishes, dreams, fantasies and stark emotional realities. One thing to realize about Prince's massive output of material regarding sex and sexuality, is how he always injects an emotional universe within the songs so that the music exists as being much ore than risque material and occasional dirty words. Some songs may be more playfully lascivious than others ("Let's Pretend We're Married") or more openly graphic ("I Love U In Me") but most of the songs utilize sex to explore themes of isolation, hurt, pain, longing, connection/disconnection, jealousy ("If I Was Your Girlfriend" may be one of the finest songs he ever wrote regarding some of this subject matter) as well as pure romance, love and unabashed vulnerability. He challenged us to really think about what is sexy as well as what is sexuality and in doing so, Prince was really my first teacher in matters of adult relationships and the emotional landscape that is inherent within those relationships and connections.
Prince's uncompromising behavior regarding the creation of his art, the cultivation of his persona and artistic legacy is legendary. Often possessing a rebellious streak, Prince would always travel against the grain, marching to the beat of his (and ONLY his) spirit's drummer. To me, Prince achieved precisely what an artist is supposed to do. He did whatever he wanted whenever he wanted however he wanted and if he alienated even his biggest fans, then so be it. This was his art and no one else's. He often confounded me. Often. He frustrated me at times as well. But I realized that this was part of the deal if you wanted to follow Prince upon his artistic journey. Everything may not make sense to me or to us but for Prince, it was exactly what was needed to happen at the time...just as it is for all of us as we live our lives.
Much has been written about how figures like David Bowie and even Madonna have transformed and re-invented themselves over and again. Yet neither of them evolved to the point where they did not posses a name or eulogized themselves within their own albums. Yes, it was preposterous. It was confusing, maddening and even prone to ridicule. But Prince remained steadfast in his crusade, never admitting defeat but keeping up the good fight long enough where he was indeed the ultimate victor where he reclaimed his name and received ownership of all of his master recordings and the publishing rights as well.
For me, his uncompromising nature taught me so very much about integrity, success, failure, perseverance and how to keep pushing forwards even when it seems that nobody understands or believes in you. Prince taught me that in times during which I may feel it best to just give up and roll away because I am unable to face yet another obstacle or tribulation, I hear the following lyrics in my head from the song "Daddy Pop": "Whenever U say that U can't/That's when U need 2 be trying."
Prince taught me that genius arrives through diligence, determination and a demonstrative dedication to one's craft and work. He was known to be a Herculean bandleader and taskmaster but I cannot even begin to tell you how many times musicians over the years expressed the sentiment that while Prince could be unstoppably demanding, he never demanded anything of anyone else that he wouldn't demand of himself. He saw your talents and made you reach heights that you felt were unattainable. He illustrated the true nature of genius by being devoted to the work itself, always knowing that genius doesn't just arrive and that once achieved, that genius must be shared to continue the elevation of us all.
In Prince's home state of Minnesota, most certainly, Paisley Park and the First Avenue and 7th St. Entry nightclub have been the home of two massive memorial sites. Cities around the world have adorned their buildings and lakes with the color purple in tribute. Musicians from Bruce Springsteen to Pearl Jam to even David Gilmour have all paid tribute to our fallen, beloved artist in live settings. And in my city of Madison, WI., tribute events at local nightclubs are being scheduled and the marquee upon the city's legendary Orpheum Theater carried this message:
To see the outpouring of sorrow from heartbroken friends and fans has been deeply sobering, as we are all full witness as to how the life of one man can truly change the world for the better. Even if that person is "just" a rock and roll star. News of his boundless compassion and private philanthropy has been hitting the media and being shared throughout social media to our own enlightenment. He may have presented himself as an inscrutable otherworldly figure when in reality, he was acutely in tune with the ways of the world. Yes, he wrote songs of social consciousness, racial politics and spiritual deliverance but to now see how deeply he placed his own words into action has only illuminated our continuing understanding of this man who is now gone...so truly, irreversibly gone.
And that is why we now have the music to console us, to bring us together in the communion of mourning, tribute, celebration and dance and for an artist who created a veritable mountain of material (and with mountains more tucked away in The Vault). I feel that it is our duty to keep his legacy and his spirit alive by exploring and sharing all of it. I believe that it does Prince's legacy a disservice to uphold "Purple Rain" and not much else, despite its brilliance. It always frustrates me when the masses and the industry performs this very musical crime. For Prince, throughout his career, "Purple Rain" has been regarded as his peak, which is completely unfair to all that surrounded it. In many ways, "Purple Rain" served as Prince's albatross--the song, album and film that audiences and even critics would not allow him to move beyond. Granted, it was indeed a tricky position for an artist of Prince's caliber and creativity to be confronted with, For if he did just make "Purple Rain 2" I guarantee that we would not be speaking of him the way we are right now. So, in respect to his memory and the full breadth of his legacy, I emphatically urge those of you unfamiliar with his body of work to dive right in and try absolutely all of it.
Prince's entire life was contained within the music, therefore making the entire discography essential because when you listen to every note, you are indeed gathering his entire life story. From the kid in a candy store innocence and unending creativity of the 1980's to his full resurgence in his final years and all of the peaks and valleys in between, Prince was giving us every piece of himself. We can hear his joy quite certainly. But when you listen to albums and material released in the 1990's, during his battles with Warner Brothers, we can hear his confusion, his doubt, his anger and pain and even his insecurity--so powerful for an artist who exuded the highest confidence and belief in himself. We can hear when he is fully engaged and we can hear when he is seeking and sifting, we can hear how each song moves from one to the next, making his entire legacy function essentially as ONE song.
For me, I have been listening to album after album all over again, watching video footage and all the while being amazed and heartbroken, dazzled and saddened that this seemingly unstoppable force of nature has been ceased by time itself. Yet, as he once wrote, "Life is just a party and parties weren't meant to last."
There is no conceivable way for me to know, but I would gather that he would not want fr us to mourn terribly long. That he would want for us to join together, regardless of race, gender, age, class and generation and simply dance, sing and rejoice in the music at the party he has hosted for us since his debut album in 1978. To laugh and learn together. To play instruments and create together. As with David Bowie and Michael Jackson, I firmly believe that Prince was yet one more figure who inspired more people that we could ever fully realize from singers, songwriters, musicians, producers, arrangers, filmmakers, writers, poets, philosophers, choreographers, dancers, painters, clothing and costume designers and countless others. I think that he would wish for us, no matter what our station in life, to give to the fullest of our abilities, to become the very best of ourselves and share those gifts with the world, hopefully uniting all of humankind in the process of our ascension. All we can do is to try and we have the finest soundtrack to guide us along the way.
Even so, I have been crying quite a bit because as with all of my heroes, Prince was a friend to me. I know that he lives in me for the remainder of my life but even so, it hurts to say goodbye.
REST IN POWER