I’m not a woman, I’m not a man
I am something that you’ll never understand
It still seems surreal. Like the passing of Michael Jackson before him, it’s the unexpectedness of Prince’s death that still feels so gutting. With his magical and mysterious aura, Prince actually seemed immortal. He was 57 years old at the time of his death, yet looked like he’d barely aged a day from the cover of his debut album For You (especially having come full circle with the same full, soulful Afro). Tons has already been written, said, and speculated about this regal genius and with a life shrouded in privacy much more will follow, but I just wanted to share some of my own favorite memories of Prince and what he’s meant to me throughout my life. I’ll leave the canonization and gossip to others.
Prince is definitely one of those rare entertainers you grew with. He wasn’t just an artifact of your teenage fandom. His was a talent of such depth that he easily stood up to more sophisticated scrutiny as you got older. There was a lot behind the curtain. There still is. But none of that mattered in 1983 when I was first exposed to Prince via this new cable channel called MTV. This was the beginning of the golden age of music videos and MTV, a 24-hour music channel, was a godsend to teenage music fans like me. While waiting for my fix of Police videos, I was exposed to this funky alien from another dimension in the form of the video for “1999” (the title track from his 1982 album). The song was undeniably catchy, using then-modern synth and drum machine sounds in a kind of minimalist-funk approach, but the video itself challenged my limited 14-year-old perspective. Contradiction ran rampant in Prince World. He had both a hyper-macho African-American swagger as well as a feminine sensuality in his face and stage movements. He had a showman’s aim-to-please extroversion as well as a dark, slightly menacing energy. As a performer, you could not take your eyes off of him.
Basically, the “1999” video exposed me to modern soul music. As a teen, I loved rock and pop, but this had an unmistakably urban edge. Even the Jackson 5, who I loved as a kid and were grounded in many of the same influences as Prince, were more of a pop phenomenon. Prince’s back-up band (a stage necessity, though he was known to play all instruments on his records) was mixed both racially and gender-wise. The two females stationed at the keyboards swayed together VERY closely and suggestively, feeding right into newly discovered teenage fantasies. And the lyrics, while seemingly a straight-up party anthem, also had a doomsday aspect that did not fly over my head. All of my sensibilities and biases were shaken for life and I don’t think I ever turned the dial whenever “1999” was re-played, which was countless times back in ’83.
This was soon followed by the equally popular “Little Red Corvette,” another performance-based video that showcased Prince the kick-ass dancer who could do the splits even better than James Brown. In an age of colorful New Wave performers on the air like A Flock of Seagulls and The Eurythmics, Prince still stood out from the pack. He already had great critical buzz and was on the cusp of something big. That came in the summer of 1984 with the release of the Purple Rain film and soundtrack. The lead single “When Doves Cry” was all over the radio and was so different from anything else at the time. The opening guitar line was sexy and serpentine, and revealed more of the Hendrix influence, while the rest of the song was stripped bare: again, minimal synth and drum patterns, with multi-layered vocals carrying the rest. No bass anywhere to be found, which was said to be the mark of death on an urban record. Prince knew better. It was everywhere that year and the movie was a genuine pop culture touchstone for a generation. I didn’t get to see it in theaters, but I did on home video soon after and all of my initial impressions of Prince were only amplified.
In my opinion, Purple Rain is still one of only three movies built around a musical act that completely works (the other two being A Hard Day’s Night and 8 Mile). And the soundtrack! This was the first Prince record I owned on vinyl. From start-to-finish, Purple Rain was pop perfection. Not one weak track to be found anywhere. Just look at a partial list: “Let’s Go Crazy,” “Take Me with U,” “When Doves Cry,” “I Would Die 4 U,” “Purple Rain” etc. Even the deeper album cuts are legendary, such as the haunting “The Beautiful Ones” (one of Prince’s greatest vocal performances on record) and “Darling Nikki” which caught the attention of Tipper Gore and eventually led to the use of “Parental Advisory” stickers on album covers, a marketing gift to all hip-hop artists to follow. There were five official singles, though every song is well-known thanks to the quality of the music as well as the accompanying visuals in the movie. The project as a whole remains his defining moment – it’s the Prince we all remember.
Considering what a successful and long run Purple Rain had on the charts, the next album came out quickly after in the spring of 1985. As with anyone trying to follow-up a world-beating smash (the Beatles with Sgt. Pepper or Nirvana with Nevermind), reaction was mixed. I remember being a bit nonplussed with the “Raspberry Beret” single and video (everything was a musical and visual event in the ‘80s). Though a big and enduring hit song, it seemed slight to me then and it looked like he was paying homage to the psychedelia of Pepper with the visuals and his slightly mop-toppish new hairdo. Around the World in a Day did have some quality songs like “Pop Life” and “America,” but none with the same potency as anything on Purple Rain for me. I skipped it.
I did buy 1986’s Parade, the soundtrack to his next film Under the Cherry Moon. The first single “Kiss” again had the spark of simplicity and the lush second single “Mountains” hooked me in. But it was 1987’s Sign ‘O’ the Times that became his artistic high-water mark. His first double-album since “1999,” it was Prince as all-out musical mad scientist, using every trick up his sleeve and somehow digging even deeper. Sprawling, ambitious, avant-garde and strange, it remains the Prince album of choice for the hipper fan. Conventional wisdom would’ve said to wait a while before following up this masterpiece, but Prince’s musical output has been a constant torrent throughout his life and he would pretty much release an album a year for the rest of his career.
The cover for 1988’s LoveSexy was asking a lot of a young, straight male fan to accept much less buy, featuring a strategically nude Prince posing as Michelangelo subject or something. The first single “Alphabet St.” was also an odd first listen, though I now think it’s one of his better ones with another minimal, but super-funky arrangement. The video was also minimalist pop-art and stood out from the increasingly high-budget and high-concept videos circulating at the time.
In 1989, he got the nod from parent company Warner Bros. to do the soundtrack for Tim Burton’s Batman. Both the soundtrack and movie were very odd and experimental for being such mainstream releases. Prince got to channel more alter-egos, and there were still cool new songs like “Electric Chair” and one of his best ballads in “Scandalous!”. This would end his ‘80s run of music, an incredible output by any standard. It would also spell the end of the great vinyl era, with CD’s becoming the more dominant (but much less fun) format for music releases. Music-listening would never again be the immersive, all-consuming experience it had once been for me, though I would remain a Prince fan for life.
I bought the Diamonds and Pearls album in 1991 (one of the cooler covers of the CD age), as I enjoyed Prince’s return to accessible pop songcraft. The title track, “Cream,” “Thunder,” “Gett Off,” “Money Don’t Matter 2 Night” and “Live 4 Love” all worked for me. He made some great TV appearances, including a memorable turn on the Arsenio Hall Show. But it was with 1992’s concept-heavy Love Symbol Album and accompanying ’93 tour, 10 years after I first caught him on MTV, where I finally got to see Prince live. Thankfully it was during a brief window of his career in between playing large arenas where he was performing in more intimate venues. So it was at the Chicago Theatre where I experienced Prince live and it was ridiculous how good he was. There’s just something about our best musicians and artists – they are actually even better than you think and you don’t fully realize this until you see them play live. Without fail, all the best are even more impressive in a concert setting. Prince was even more so. It was everything he did best, rolled up into one overwhelming (and humbling if you are an aspiring musician) experience: the vocal acrobatics of Little Richard, the moves and band leadership of James Brown, the psychedelic guitar-playing of Jimi Hendrix, all filtered through his own unique genius. I sat up front and center on the first balcony with a clear view of all the proceedings and it was unparalleled. I happened to bring my younger brother along who was around the same age that year as I was when I first discovered Prince in 1983 and he loved it just as much as I did.
The rest of the ‘90s and early 2000’s spelled a slight decline from the artistic and commercial apex of the ‘80s, but that’s a natural trajectory for any commercial artist. If you’re lucky, you hit a genius peak, but it’s never sustainable no matter who you are. Talent is, but not optimum genius. Part of his weakened output seemed due to his increasingly bitter battle with Warner Bros., apparently over royalties and publishing. It split his focus. Another part could have been the tragic death of his only child Boy Gregory, lost to Pfeiffer Syndrome a mere week after birth. There seemed to be a dark cloud hovering over his work and it wasn’t until 2004 when the magic finally returned. First was his killer Grammy Award appearance with Beyoncé which is still part of his highlight reel. This was followed by his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame where he participated in a tribute to deceased fellow inductee George Harrison. Led by Tom Petty on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” Prince took center stage three-and-a-half minutes in and owned the entire night. Once a gifted young prodigy, he now had the aura of a master as he took the lead on a guitar solo originally made famous by Eric Clapton, making both the solo and song his very own. With his profile the highest it had been since his Purple Rain heyday, he returned to playing large-scale arenas once again. Unfortunately I missed him on this tour, something I still deeply regret, but I do have a video bootleg of his Staples Center appearance in Los Angeles and he was as dynamic and versatile as he’d ever been. The musicianship was still off the charts, as the world-at-large would see in 2007 when he headlined the Super Bowl halftime show.
Prince’s Super Bowl appearance has now become one of his defining moments as a live performer. If you’ve ever watched any footage of Prince live, you know this was someone who never faltered or hit a bum note, something that used to amaze even the super-demanding jazz legend Miles Davis. He always delivered in a live setting and this would be no exception. Benefiting greatly from the NFL’s production budget (the show was beautifully shot and staged), Prince came up with a set that delivered signature hits, but also unexpected musical surprises. He threw in Dylan via Hendrix with a short cover of “All Along the Watchtower,” Creedence via Ike and Tina with “Proud Mary,” and a reciprocal cover of the Foo Fighters’ “Best of You” (they had covered his own “Darling Nikki,” apparently to significant approval), all while showcasing his greatly underrated guitar-playing. The theatricality of the performance was only heightened by the heavy downpour of rain throughout his set. By the time he got to “Purple Rain,” all of the elements came together to create one of those magical TV moments like Michael Jackson on Motown 25 or the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. I watched the show in amazement, proud to still be a Prince fan.
For the rest of his career, Prince would remain as hardworking and prolific as ever. He’d drop out of the spotlight for a bit, but always knew how to make his presence known whenever he had something new to promote. While newer albums continued to be patchy, there were always cool little surprises like “Black Sweat,” a great throwback to his early-‘80s work (the video was stylish and hot too) or “Guitar” from 2007. He made many great live appearances on TV, notably on SNL and his concerts remained the best way to experience his inexhaustible talent right up to his final Piano & a Microphone tour this year. While reportedly struggling with some yet-unknown demons, the final live footage we have of Prince floating around the internet shows him alone at the piano playing an intimate and poignant version of “Purple Rain,” the fortunate audience in attendance blissfully singing along, totally unaware that this would be his final performance ever. It serves as a heartbreaking memorial.
Later this evening, my dearly beloved and I will gather here today to celebrate this still-enigmatic superstar and legend by doing something I didn’t get the chance to as a teen: catching a theatrical screening of Purple Rain. It will be a very bittersweet, full-circle moment for me. While Prince the human being was not immortal after all, his creative output certainly is. He has left us a treasure trove of material to sift through, cherish, and pass along to successive generations. There is also a more private legacy of great philanthropic work that will improve the quality of life for many underprivileged children. He cared greatly throughout his life about equality, spirituality, and love. Music just happened to be the most natural vehicle to express his ideas with. Regardless of what emerges as the cause of his sudden departure from this earth, his personal and creative journey here showed us endless new possibilities and elevated all of humanity a notch in our slow upward climb towards nirvana. He only wanted to see us laughing in the purple rain.