Out of all the rock star deaths that I’ve written about this year (and there have been too many in only four months), Prince’s passing has presented the greatest challenge for me.
Full confession: I’ve never been a big Prince fan. Neither his music nor his persona appealed to me much when he showed up in all his purple musical majesty in the early ’80s. Sure, I enjoyed the occasional tune (“Little Red Corvette,” “Raspberry Beret,” “Money Don’t Matter 2 Night”), and in retrospect, I certainly acknowledge the extraordinary impact his career has made on pop culture, and how deeply he influenced dozens of artists who have followed in his wake. But I didn’t even own a Prince album until I finally picked up a copy of 2001’s greatest hits collection in 2007 or so.
His millions of fans would find this admission outrageous and label me hopelessly out of touch. After all, the man sold 100 million albums. The “Purple Rain” soundtrack LP alone rode the #1 spot on the charts for an astonishing 24 weeks in 1984-85. Between 1978 and 2016, he charted 22 Top Ten singles and and 17 Top Ten albums. He starred in four films. He was remarkably prolific, writing and recording hundreds of songs, some of which haven’t yet been released (but no doubt will be soon enough). He toured relentlessly. He played a spectacularly memorable halftime show in the rain at the 2007 Super Bowl. Prince is one of a handful of true superstars in rock history.
Still, I can’t lie. I’m at best lukewarm on his music, and ambivalent about him as a public figure. Does this disqualify me from writing an essay about him on my blog? I don’t think so. Ever since I heard the news of his death a week ago, I have immersed myself in his music, scoured his biographical information, absorbed a couple dozen in-depth feature articles about him, and digested reviews (both favorable and not) of his recorded music and concert performances from throughout his career.
I have come to appreciate, much more than I had previously, his accomplishments, his innovations, his evolving musical ouevre, his defiant individuality, even his quiet philanthropy which has only recently been revealed. It’s clear that Prince Rogers Nelson was a legend. He may not have been my legend, but to many of those who came of age in the ’80s when he owned the airwaves, he was IT.
He was an unparalleled genre-bender. He merged the vibrant funk of George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic and the luscious R&B of Kool and the Gang with the guitar-based hard rock of Van Halen and the commercial soul groove of Stevie Wonder. No less than the late jazz titan Miles Davis had this to say about Prince in 1987: “He’s James Brown, and Jimi Hendrix, and Marvin Gaye. On stage, he combines all of that, all the time. That’s what he is.”
He was a provocative gender-bender as well. When he arrived on the scene as the Seventies became the Eighties, people weren’t quite sure what to make of this 5-foot-2 bundle of swagger, decked out in ruffled blouses, regal waistcoats, high heels, makeup and pompadour who called himself not a prince, but Prince. Much of his music featured a high falsetto voice and blatantly sexual lyrics. Was he gay or straight? Did it matter? He was his generation’s Little Richard — outrageous, bold, brash, pansexual, a naughty breath of fresh air, with music in 1983 you could party to “like it’s 1999.”
He probably expected, and secretly reveled in, the controversy his early lyrics generated, with song titles like “Head,” “Soft and Wet” and “Jack U Off.” “Darling Nikki,” his celebration of self-pleasuring, was at the vortex of the mid-’80s uproar regarding Congressional moves to slap parental warning labels on albums with explicit subject matter.
Across the pond, European music lovers were slow to warm to him, but certain musicians of stature started to take notice. Eric Clapton recalls, “In the Eighties, I was out on the road in a massive downward spiral with drink and drugs. I saw ‘Purple Rain’ in a cinema in Canada. I had no idea who he was. It was like a bolt of lightning! In the middle of my depression, and the dreadful state of the music culture at that time, it gave me hope. He was like a light in the darkness.”
Prince was always a moving target, full of “left-field, magical musical surprises,” as one musician recently put it. His chameleon-like career moves recalled those of David Bowie, in that they often eschewed commercial slam-dunks in favor of trying new things that sometimes didn’t work. Following the multi-platinum success of the “Purple Rain” album and semi-autobiographical movie, he chose to not only star in but direct his next film, the critical and box office flop “Under the Cherry Moon.” Still, his albums from that period all went Top Five, including “Sign O’ the Times,” the 1987 double album of reflective and fascinating psychedelic-tinged tunes, regarded by many critics as his finest work.
In addition to his own releases, he worked on and composed major hits for a dozen other artists of the period, including Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” (#1, 1990), Chaka Khan’s “I Feel for You” (#3, 1984), Sheila E’s “Glamorous Life” (#7, 1984), Tevin Campbell’s “Round and Round” (#11, 1986), and The Bangles’ “Manic Monday” (#2, 1986). He enjoyed working mostly with female artists, collaborating with Madonna, Stevie Nicks, Sheena Easton and Alicia Keys as well.
In 1991, having already disbanded his ’80s group The Revolution, Prince came roaring back with “Diamonds and Pearls,” which sported three huge singles and a new lineup called The New Power Generation. He had a notoriously prickly relationship with his label, Warner Brothers, who resisted his attempts to release some of the more experimental music he was attempting. He made their life difficult by officially changing his name to an unrecognizable symbol that combined the male and female gender symbols, and demanded to be referred to as “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince.” From 1993-2003, as hip-hop dominated, the privately reclusive artist retreated publicly as well.
By 2004, his star rose again with the “Musicology” LP and tour, the highest grossing in the nation that year. He was also inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and his incendiary guitar solo during an all-star performance of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” at the induction ceremony has been hailed far and wide as one of the best three minutes in rock history.
But all was not well. In 2001, Prince became a Jehovah’s Witness, which he described as “more of a realization than a conversion — like Morpheus and Neo in ‘The Matrix.'” The faith’s prohibition on blood transfusions stood in the way of him undergoing what several doctors said was “a desperately needed double hip replacement surgery,” brought on by years of vigorous touring while wearing platformed high-heeled shoes. In lieu of the surgery, Prince chose to ease his suffering through a regimen of prescribed pain killers, which seemed strange in light of his public stance against recreational drugs, and he struggled mightily to keep it a secret from the press. Now reports are emerging that he had the HIV virus, which went untreated for the same faith-based reasons.
This gifted, enigmatic man was born in Minneapolis in 1958 to musically inclined parents; wrote his first song at age seven; mastered piano, guitar, drums and a dozen other instruments; signed his first recording contract at 18; released his debut album at 20; toured as support act for Rick James at 22; and appeared on Saturday Night Live at 23.
Thirty-four years later, at age 57, his health visibly failing over the past six-plus months, Prince was found dead at his Paisley Park studio/residence in the outskirts of his home town. A regrettable ending to an otherwise fabulous success story.
Sir Elton John, certainly one of the premier musical figures of the past 50 years, tweeted this shortly after Prince’s death: “The greatest performer I have ever seen. Musically way ahead of any of us. R.I.P., you purple warrior.”
His legacy can be found in the audio and video recordings he left behind for us to absorb or avoid, whatever the case may be. Me? I’m going to sit back and finally watch “Purple Rain” to see what all the fuss was about.