Well, I wasn't planning to write about Prince this month - this is not the way it is supposed to work. But I have to. I have to find words to wrap my head around this news - it is beyond unexpected. And horrible.
He is, was (how awful to write that - "was"), like Bowie and Dylan (who I was planning to write about this month, and will get to), an artist I revere, but - find very hard to get my head around. He was in the air in the 80s - the dominant musician of the decade - others might have sold more, gotten more attention (Michael Jackson or Madonna, say); I might have listened to the indie punks I've written about here over the last couple years more... But Prince was the one who got on both lists. The biggest acts of the decade - the best acts of the decade - and my favorite acts of the decade. He defined the 80s. He redeemed the 80s (though I can't deny being pretty fond of a lot of the music of that decade, not just indie and punk, but it's best pop acts - Madonna at her best; Michael Jackson especially early; George Michael - new wave stuff, like The english Beat or ABC or Talk Talk - rap, obviously - etc.) Still: Prince redeemed it, transcended it, he was better than all of it. He did everything. He did everything as well or better than anyone else. Maybe more pop/soul/funk than anything else - but everything you could do in rock is in there. He claimed all of music history for himself, and bettered it. (Look at his Superbowl Halftime Show - playing a couple of his greatest hits, and running through a quick history of American rock music - Dylan and CCR to Foo Fighters and back to himself - making it all his.) The - what do you call them? middle early records? - Dirty Mind, Controversy, 1999 - are pop/soul/funk to be sure, but they are also New Wave - clean and spare and tight - put them on headphones, and they sound as minimalist and precise as Young Marble Giants - and funkier than funk. Never mind something like Sister, which, spare as it is, is basically a punk song... Then comes Purple Rain, and he takes on and betters arena rock. And you get indie rock songs like The Cross, you get hiphop, you get Zep impersonations - everything.
And in the 80s, along with the music, there was more. There was always something explicitly Utopian about Prince - getting beyond race, beyond gender, beyond sexual preference, beyond the duality of spirit and body - though without ever losing any of it. He didn't transcend race or gender, he embraced all of race and gender. Am I black or white? Am I straight or gay? - well - sure - why not? It's all good. And on a practical level, he played it out: he appealed to anyone who would listen. The rock kids, the dance kids, the pop kids - bringing all of those things with him to your favorite genre, which he played as well as anyone at home there. And always sexy and funny.
I'll tell a couple stories - this one is kind of sketchy, but the basics are this: I remember having an argument, sort of, with a girl in college. She was a Bowie fan. She was defending him - I don't remember the details, but I compared him to Prince, two chameleons, two brilliant musicians and writers who deliberately tried to be everything it was possible to be.But she didn't like Prince - or - maybe she liked the music, but she found him disturbing. The sex! the religion! the - something. I remember asking her how she could like Bowie for the very same things, and not like Prince. I wish I remembered the details - did we even finish the conversation? I remember thinking about it - thinking it came down to the fact that she was religious herself, but Bowie's polymorphous perversity was safe because he never pretended to involve god or religion. He could be cool without being religious. But Prince didn't let her break things apart like that. He was everything Bowie was, and he was steeped in the church. He claimed everything, and claimed it was all continuous - black and white, male and female, straight and gay, spiritual and physical, sex and love and ecstasy - it's all a game; we're all the same; do you wanna play? I think that's what bothered her - he didn't let people keep their distinctions, he could recite the lord's prayer and then wish we all were nude in the same song. (And I think she was complaining, specifically, about Controversy.) He really did break down barriers - and the barrier between sex and the spirit is a pretty big one - and Prince wasn't going to let anyone out of it. "I am something that you'll never comprehend." Sex and god are the same thing. Worrisome, maybe....
The other story is clearer. This happened in 1989 - the opening of Batman, with its Prince soundtrack. I saw it twice the weekend it opened. First time at a sneak preview at the old Cherie theater in Boston, the backbay - sellout crowd that looked like a Prince audience: white, black, Hispanic, Asian, all mixed up together, and everyone absolutely stoked. They cheered everything - they cheered the previews, they cheered the credits, they cheered all the stars, and they cheered Prince maybe louder than anyone. They cheered all the way through, every joke, every fight, every song. It was, easily, the best movie showing I have ever been to. The next night, I went to see it again, with a different bunch of friends (a couple black kids and 3 or 4 white guys, a fact worth noting.) This was at a suburban mall, and though the crowd might have been almost as diverse as it was the night before, the vibe was completely different. The white people and black people came in in separate groups, sat in mutually exclusive blocks, and (after a brawl before the movie started, when some white kids mouthed off to some black kids over holding seats for their friends), when the film started, cheered and booed in separate blocks. The white kids cheered Batman; the black kids cheered the joker; the black kids cheered Prince - the white kids booed Prince.
Who boos Prince? How do you boo Prince? That night was pretty decisive, I think, in making a city boy out of me - took a couple years to have the resources to afford to move to the city, but I got there... but after that second night - I never much cared about the suburbs again. I figured I'd take my chances in the city, with the city people, with the Prince fans...
And then, in the world, the 90s came - Prince got weird, changed his name, stopped sounding quite as vital. I stopped listening to the radio, MTV stopped playing music. And when Prince got weird, I let him go, and didn't really come back to him until the last couple records. Which have been pretty good in themselves - and of course, completely unlike each other. I have been hoping to dig through the last 20 years of his music before writing about him - I guess that's off, though the digging will still be on... But it gives this essay more of an 80s feel than it should have - and makes it sound as if Prince has been in hiding the last 25 years, and that's not true either. Sometimes weird, yes; probably not as immediately compelling as he was in the 80s; but still at it, and still a force.
Still, quite possibly, American's greatest rock and roll star. Which probably means, the world's greatest. Quite possibly.
Songs - a top 10? because that's the format, right? Hey, I did a Beatles top 10 - I can take a shot...
1. When Doves Cry - this is, maybe, the best single ever; I suppose you have the usual suspects - Hey Jude, say - but damn... Certainly when I was listening to the radio - seriously: was there ever a song that, the first time you heard it on the radio, came out and grabbed you by the neck like this?
3. Kiss - this is a pretty damned good single too; and another example of what a light touch he had - the stripped down sound, full of space, all the sounds clean and precise, and always funky.
5. Sign of the Times
6. When You Were Mine
7. Dirty Mind
8. I Would Die for U
9. I Wanna Be Your Lover - though I remember the first time I heard this, too, on American top 40, Casey Kasem - I think i remember old Casey saying something about Prince playing all the instruments... I thought, ooh - listen to that dirty pun! and - cool song. Also - speaking of Casey Kasem, Richard Lyons, from Nagativland, also died today... these guys are from England and who gives a shit?
10. The Cross - yeah, I'm a sucker for tuneful guitar rock...
(Sorry, then, to many many songs - Head and Uptown, Sexuality, Let's Pretend We're Married, Delirious and Little Red Corvette, Purple Rain and Let's Go Crazy, Raspberry Beret - oh well...)
As for video - this is more trouble than it is worth, since old Prince made life hard for video posters. He had his reasons, and he had the right, but - maybe - youtube is kind of the radio of the 21st century, maybe - for some of us... It's all right. I will find what I can:
Like this full concert in 1982:
And Dirty Mind, from the same show:
Here's a live version of When Dove's Cry - I wish I could find the actual video, which is almost as much a kick in the ass as the song, but Prince's copyright lawyers have done their work - but this will do. From the period - Wendy on guitar...
Purple Rain live on TV (I had a different video here yesterday; it was gone overnight - but this one works):
Can't really ignore this video:
And here's Partyman, from the Batman soundtrack - playing Harvey Dent for the video. I remember thinking, they should cast Prince as Robin in the sequel. (Since Harvey Dent was already Billy Dee Williams). Oh well; no one listens to me. (And they even recast two-face when he got his star turn. Jesus.)
And a couple videos showing his mad skills on the guitar, on other people's songs: here he is doing Creep, with an epic solo at the end...
And here he is playing with various Traveling Wilbury's at a tribute for George Harrison - he comes in halfway through and - everything else disappears.... top this, mere Beatles!